The Painful Price of Pride

1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.

10 When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. 11 And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. 12 Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” 13 And Moses cried to the Lord, “O God, please heal her—please.” 14 But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.” 15 So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again. 16 After that the people set out from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran. Numbers 12:1-16 ESV

Moses was the God-appointed leader of the nation Israel and Aaron, his brother, had been set apart by God to serve as the high priest. And even when God had agreed to provide His chosen leader with administrative assistance, God poured out His Spirit on 70 men who would serve directly under Moses. They were not to replace him or to assume they served on an equal standing with him. These men were supposed to assist Moses in his oversight of the nation, wisely administering justice and handling disputes among the people so that Moses would not become overwhelmed.

Yet, this chapter introduces a new form of leadership struggle that rose among the people and it started with those who were closest to Moses – his own family. It seems that his brother and sister took issue with a marriage arrangement he had agreed to with a Cushite woman. There is some debate as to the identity of this woman, but it would appear that she was of a foreigner of Ethiopian descent. It could be that Moses’ first wife, Zipporah, had died some time during the last year, and he then married this Ethiopian woman. But whatever the circumstances, Miriam and Aaron took issue with the marriage and used it as an excuse to question Moses’ qualifications to lead the nation.

They saw the marriage as evidence of Moses’ lack of discernment and questioned whether he was really hearing from God. In fact, they claimed to be on an equal standing with Moses when it came to divine insight.

“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Hasn’t he spoken through us, too?” – Numbers 12:2 NLT

Miriam was older than Moses and had been the one who helped secure his safety when Pharaoh had ordered the murder all the male babies born among the Israelites living in Egypt (Exodus 1:15-16). Miriam had arranged with the daughter of Pharaoh to have the infant, Moses, nursed by one of the Hebrew women, who just happened to be her own mother (Exodus 2:7-9). Exodus 15:20 refers to Miriam as a prophetess of God, and Micah 6:4 lists her as one of the three individuals whom God appointed to lead the nation of Israel from Egypt to the land of Canaan.

“For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
    Aaron, and Miriam.” – Micah 6:4 ESV

But in Numbers 12, Miriam attempted to convince her brother, Aaron, to join her in staging a coup against Moses. It seems rather odd that she would target Aaron for participation in this little insurrection because he was already second-in-command and served as the high priest of the people. Even before Moses had successfully led the people of Israel out of Egypt, Aaron had served as his second-hand man. God had appointed him as Moses’ mouthpiece.

“What about your brother, Aaron the Levite? I know he speaks well. And look! He is on his way to meet you now. He will be delighted to see you. Talk to him, and put the words in his mouth. I will be with both of you as you speak, and I will instruct you both in what to do. Aaron will be your spokesman to the people. He will be your mouthpiece, and you will stand in the place of God for him, telling him what to say.” – Exodus 4:14-16 NLT

But Miriam and Aaron had decided that they were just as qualified as their brother to serve as the de facto leaders of Israel. After all, they too had been born into the tribe of Levi and had every right to serve in a leadership capacity. And it didn’t help that Moses was a very humble individual who had no desire for the limelight. Of his own admission, he was far from charismatic or overly eloquent.

“O Lord, I’m not very good with words. I never have been, and I’m not now, even though you have spoken to me. I get tongue-tied, and my words get tangled.” – Exodus 4:10 NLT

His lack of self-esteem made him an easy target for Miriam’s attacks. She believed that Moses had been a poor choice by God and the Cushite marriage agreement had proven Moses’ lack of discernment. But God disagreed with their assessment and ordered the three siblings to meet Him at the tent of meeting, located just outside the camp.

And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words…” – Numbers 12:5-6 ESV

God wanted a word with these dissatisfied siblings and, when He was done, they were going to wish they had never opened their mouths against Moses. The first thing God cleared up was His divine right to choose whomever He wanted as His leader. Miriam may have been a prophetess of God, but that did not put her on equal footing with Moses. In fact, God seems to be taking a dig at Miriam’s prophetess status when He states, “If there were prophets among you, I, the Lord, would reveal myself in visions. I would speak to them in dreams” (Numbers 12:6 NLT).

Miriam had experienced no dreams or visions from God. Her demand for equal status was a figment of her own overactive imagination and over-inflated sense of self-worth. And to make sure she understood the vast difference between His relationship with her and the one He shared with Moses, God declared:

“Of all my house, he is the one I trust. I speak to him face to face, clearly, and not in riddles! He sees the Lord as he is.” – Numbers 12:7-8 NLT

That had to have hit Miriam like a brick to the forehead. God’s words stung and burst the bubble of her own sense of self-importance. And, to make matters worse, God demanded to know why she had shown no fear to criticize Moses. Who did she think she was?

Having stated His case against Miriam and Aaron, God departed from them. But He left an unsettling reminder of His displeasure. When Aaron turned to look at Miriam, he was shocked to discover that her entire body was covered with leprosy. And fearing that he was next, he called out to Moses to intervene on their behalf.

“Oh, my master! Please don’t punish us for this sin we have so foolishly committed.” – Numbers 12:11 NLT

The sudden and unexpected sight of his sister covered with leprosy must have reminded Aaron of another day when something similar had happened to Moses. Back when God had called Moses to be the chosen deliverer of the people of Israel, He had given him a series of signs that were intended to prove to the people of Israel that Yahweh had sent him.

“Put your hand inside your cloak.” And he put his hand inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, his hand was leprous like snow. Then God said, “Put your hand back inside your cloak.” So he put his hand back inside his cloak, and when he took it out, behold, it was restored like the rest of his flesh. – Exodus 4:6-7 ESV

Now, more than a year later, Moses and Aaron were staring at their sister, Miriam, whose entire body was covered with this hideous disease. But this time, there was no quick fix. Moses desperately pleaded for her immediate healing.

O God, please heal her—please.” – Numbers 12:13 ESV

But God refused to grant his request. Instead, He graciously announced that her punishment would not match the gravity of her crime.

“If her father had done nothing more than spit in her face, wouldn’t she be defiled for seven days? So keep her outside the camp for seven days, and after that she may be accepted back.” – Numbers 12:14 NLT

In essence, God is declaring that Miriam had defiled herself through her actions. And while God could have left her to suffer from the hideous effects of leprosy for a lifetime, He mercifully restricted her period of suffering to only seven days. But she would be required to spend the entire time on the outskirts of the camp, suffering the indignity of the disease and the social stigmatization of ceremonial impurity. She was to be treated as unclean and unwelcome among the people of God – until God had healed her. And during the seven days of her punishment, the entire nation of Israel was forced to delay their journey to the land of promise. Everything came to a halt because Miriam had decided to question the will of God and the authority of His chosen leader. And this painful punishment from God should have served as a powerful reminder to the entire nation that no one was immune to God’s discipline against disobedience. Even the sister of Moses.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Law, Love, and Justice

1 The wicked flee when no one pursues,
    but the righteous are bold as a lion.
When a land transgresses, it has many rulers,
    but with a man of understanding and knowledge,
    its stability will long continue.
A poor man who oppresses the poor
    is a beating rain that leaves no food.
Those who forsake the law praise the wicked,
    but those who keep the law strive against them.
Evil men do not understand justice,
    but those who seek the Lord understand it completely.
Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity
    than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.
The one who keeps the law is a son with understanding,
    but a companion of gluttons shames his father.
Whoever multiplies his wealth by interest and profit
    gathers it for him who is generous to the poor.
If one turns away his ear from hearing the law,
    even his prayer is an abomination.
10 Whoever misleads the upright into an evil way
    will fall into his own pit,
    but the blameless will have a goodly inheritance.
11 A rich man is wise in his own eyes,
    but a poor man who has understanding will find him out.
12 When the righteous triumph, there is great glory,
    but when the wicked rise, people hide themselves.
13 Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper,
    but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy.
14 Blessed is the one who fears the Lord always,
    but whoever hardens his heart will fall into calamity.
– Proverbs 28:1-14 ESV

This Proverb, while a collection of independent wise sayings, does have somewhat of a theme. Most of the verses can be tied right back to the Ten Commandments, the original Law of God given on Mount Sinai to Moses during the days of the Exodus. Here they are:

  1. You must not have any other god but me.
  2. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens of on the earth or in the sea.
  3. You must not misuse the name of the Lord your God.
  4. Remember to observe the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.
  5. Honor your father and mother.
  6. You must not murder.
  7. You must not commit adultery.
  8. You must not steal.
  9. You must not testify falsely against your neighbor.
  10. You must not covet.

If you notice, the first four regulate our relationship with God, while the last six deal with our human relationships. Now if you go back to Proverbs 28, you will see that most, if not all, of these verses have to do with our outlook on the law of God and its impact on our relationships with others.

Throughout this Proverb, virtually every verse contrasts the wicked and the righteous. One group rejects the law of God while the other embraces and obeys it. But verse nine contains a sobering warning.

God detests the prayers of a person who ignores the law. – Proverbs 28:9 NLT

This wisdom saying should grab our attention and make us question what it means to ignore the law. But what law is he talking about, and what does it mean to ignore it? You and I certainly don’t want to find ourselves in the position where God detests our prayers. We don’t want to find ourselves crying out to God only to have Him refuse to hear or answer our prayers because of the fact that we have ignored His law.

To reject the law is to praise the wicked;
    to obey the law is to fight them. – Proverbs 28:4 NLT

God’s law is the standard for all life on this planet. The rules that govern how we are relate to Him and how we should treat one another are contained in the law. It gives us the basis for all our interactions. Without a standard, everyone does what is in their own best interests and according to their own set of self-centered rules. It leads to corruption, graft, greed, abuse, neglect of the poor, and justification of all kinds of harmful actions.

We are warned, “Those who trust their own insight are foolish, but anyone who walks in wisdom is safe” (Proverbs 28:26 NLT). To walk in wisdom is to live your life according to God’s terms, in obedience to His law or standards for life. God cares deeply about our human relationships. He wants us to treat one another with care, concern, respect, dignity, love, and honor – because all mankind is made in His image. But when we reject God’s law and disrespect our parents, murder out of hatred or for personal gain, take another man’s wife, steal what belongs to someone else, discredit another human being, or desire what they have more than we desire a relationship with them, we are fools. We lack wisdom because we are rejecting the conditions for life given to us by God Himself. It results in “moral rot” as described in verse 2. It leads to abuse and oppression. It becomes contagious, leading even good people to do bad things. It causes men to justify their actions and reject accountability for the wrongs they commit.

The Ten Commandments begin with four statements about honoring God. We are to treat Him with respect, dignity, and honor at all times. As Proverbs 1:7 says, “Start with God – the first step in learning is bowing down to God; only fools thumb their noses at such wisdom and learning” (Proverbs 1:7 MSG).

Our relationships with men are all based on and dependent upon our relationship with God. Wise rulers are those who know God and honor Him with their lives. They live according to His law and don’t rule based on their own set of subjective standards. Wise parents are those whose households are God-honoring, where He is lifted up and held as the standard for life. Wise young people obey the law because they love God. Wise vendors don’t try to take advantage of their customers in order to make a buck, because they love God and know that dishonesty is dishonoring to Him.

The wise commit sins, but immediately confess them to God because they know He sees all and they value their relationship with Him more than any pleasure their sin may provide.

Loving the law is simply loving God. It is obeying His Word because you trust Him. It is doing what He says because You recognize that He knows best. And when you love God and keep His law, you end up doing what is just and right.

Evil people don’t understand justice,
    but those who follow the Lord understand completely.
Proverbs 28:5 NLT

The opening line of the United State’s pledge of allegiance contains the four simple words: “And justice for all.” Many of us remember reciting them each day in the classroom. But what do they mean? What would justice for all look like and does it ever really happen? Verse give tells us that justice is understood only by those who follow the Lord. Those who are wicked or simply choose to reject the way of the Lord have no concept of godly justice. They tend to see it from their own perspective and define it for their own good. But according to the NET Study Bible, the Hebrew word for justice used in this verse (mishpat) refers to the legal rights of people, to decisions that are equitable in the community. It has a communal aspect to it.

Justice is not just about MY rights, but the rights of all. And those who follow the Lord will understand justice from that perspective because God is concerned about justice for all. He is concerned for the rights and welfare of the poor, needy, disenfranchised, neglected, abused, and all those who lack representation and protection. God cares about the alien and foreigner, the widow and the orphan, the slave and the servant, the falsely accused, and the unfairly treated.

When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus simply said, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind,’ This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NLT).

Love God. Love others. There it is. We are just as obligated to love others as we are to love God because to fail to express love to those made in the likeness and image of God is a slap to the face of their creator.

One of the most effective ways of expressing love to others is by assuring that they receive justice. It is making sure that their rights are protected and their status as one of God’s creatures is maintained. Justice is not just an arbitrary requirement placed on man by God. It is part of His very nature, His character. God is just and righteous and always does what is right – every time, all the time. So, God expects His people to love justice just as much as He does. He requires them, as His representatives, to make sure that all men receive justice. One way we do this is by ensuring that just and righteous men and women are elected to high offices in our nation. Otherwise, we will experience exactly what Proverbs 28 warns us about.

A wicked ruler is as dangerous to the poor
    as a roaring lion or an attacking bear. – Proverbs 28:15 NLT

A ruler with no understanding will oppress his people,
    but one who hates corruption will have a long life. – Proverbs 28:16 NLT

When the wicked take charge, people go into hiding. – Proverbs 28:12 NLT

Justice is an expression of God’s character, while injustice is anti-God. Ignoring the needs, rights, and concerns of others is selfish and, ultimately, sinful. It is ungodly, unrighteous, unloving, un-Christlike, and unacceptable in the life of a believer. To love others as we love ourselves is to do whatever we can to protect them, provide for them, and speak up for them when necessary.

Injustice is all around us because sin and Satan thrive on it. The enemy preys on the weak, pitting the strong against them. His objective is to divide and conquer. He strives to create disunity rather than community. He breeds selfishness and self-centeredness. He thrives in an atmosphere filled with narcissism and self-gratification. He lulls mankind into a self-centered stupor that becomes insensitive and, eventually, oblivious to the injustice taking place all around us.

But God calls for justice. He demands love expressed in actions. He calls us to love others as much as we love Him, as an expression of our love for Him. That’s quite a calling. And it’s one we have ignored for far too long.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

How Many Righteous Does it Take to Save the World?

22 So the men turned from there and went toward Sodom, but Abraham still stood before the Lord. 23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”

27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place. Genesis 18:22-33 ESV

As Abraham prepared to say goodbye to his divine visitors, two of them made their way to the city of Sodom, while one stayed behind. And Moses indicates that the one guest who stayed behind was actually Yahweh Himself, in human form. Abraham found himself standing face to face with God Almighty, and he decided to take full advantage of this unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

The two angels who had left were headed to Sodom, and Abraham knew the purpose of their mission. God had make it perfectly clear.

So the Lord told Abraham, “I have heard a great outcry from Sodom and Gomorrah, because their sin is so flagrant. I am going down to see if their actions are as wicked as I have heard. If not, I want to know.” – Genesis 18:20-21 NLT

It seems highly likely that Abraham was well aware of the goings on in Sodom and Gomorrah. These two cities had a well-deserved reputation for being “dens of iniquity.” So, he was had little doubt that the two angels were going to find ample evidence of wickedness and full justification for God’s judgment. But Abraham had a problem. His nephew Lot was a resident of Sodom.

This passage reveals a lot about Abraham’s concept of God. He understood God to be holy, just, and righteous. He viewed Him as a just judge who sits in judgment over the affairs of men.

“Should not the Judge of all the earth do what is right?” – Genesis 18:25 NLT

And Abraham also knew that mankind was made of two basic groups of people: The godly and the ungodly. Or, as he put it, the righteous and the wicked.

Abraham approached him and said, “Will you sweep away both the righteous and the wicked?” – Genesis 18:23 NLT

Though by this time, the world consisted of a variety of diverse ethnic-based cultures and people groups, there were really only two categories of humanity: Those who believed in God and those who did not. The righteous (צַדִּיקṣadîq) were the just and lawful, the ones who lived in keeping with the will of God. They were considered Yahweh worshipers. We first learn of them in Genesis 3, when Eve gave birth to a son who would serve as a replacement for Abel, who had been murdered by his brother, Cain. Moses records, “When Seth grew up, he had a son and named him Enosh. At that time people first began to worship the Lord by name” (Genesis 3:26 NLT). Through the line of Seth came a group of people who would call upon the name of the Lord. The apostle Paul explains that ,because God’s “eternal power and divine nature” had been made visible through His creation (Romans 1:20 NLT), mankind had no excuse for failing to recognize and reverence their Creator. But Paul goes on to state that, despite their recognition of God presence, they chose to withhold their worship of Him. 

…they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

So, by the time this event takes place in the life of Abraham, there were those who considered themselves Yahweh worshipers, and there were those who had chosen to turn their back on Him. They were the righteous because they were aligned with the “right God.” This does not mean that their behavior was pure and sinless. The apostle Paul would later state that “No one is righteous— not even one” (Romans 3:10 NLT). And his less-from-flattering evaluation was based on the Old Testament Scriptures.

Only fools say in their hearts,
    “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
    not one of them does good!

The Lord looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one! – Psalm 14:1-3 NLT

So, when Abraham differentiates between the righteous and the wicked (רָשָׁעrāšāʿ), he is really acknowledging that there are two kinds of people: The innocent and the guilty. And he is concerned that, in His determination to punish the guilty living in Sodom and Gomorrah, God is going to inadvertently take the life of Lot.

Of course, it is easy to question Abraham’s assessment of his prodigal nephew. After all, Lot is the one who made the fateful decision to trade in his tent in the Jordan Valley for the comforts and conveniences of Sodom. And, in doing so, he exposed his entire family to the wickedness that marked this godless community. Shouldn’t he be held responsible for his poor judgment and the unwise stewardship of his family?

And yet, the apostle Peter provides a rather surprising revelation concerning Lot.

God condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah and turned them into heaps of ashes. He made them an example of what will happen to ungodly people. But God also rescued Lot out of Sodom because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him. Yes, Lot was a righteous man who was tormented in his soul by the wickedness he saw and heard day after day. – 2 Peter 2:6-8 NLT

Peter is not suggesting that God saved Lot because he was a sinless and perfectly blameless man. No, he is differentiating between the “ungodly people” of Sodom and the “godly” or Yahweh-worshiping Lot. It was Lot’s relationship with Yahweh that formed the basis of his salvation.

Abraham wants to know if God is going to spare the innocent or allow them to die along with the wicked in Sodom and Gomorrah. In doing what was just – punish the wicked – will God end up doing what was unjust – destroy the innocent? And to drive home his point, Abraham puts a number to his question.

Suppose you find fifty righteous people living there in the city—will you still sweep it away and not spare it for their sakes? – Genesis 18:24 NLT

There is no way to determine how many people lived in the two cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, but it is safe to say that 50 people would have made up a small percentage of their overall populations. Abraham wanted to know if there were as few as 50 innocent people in Sodom, would God spare the city? Notice that Abraham doesn’t ask whether God would save the 50. For some reason, he expected God to spare the guilty for the sake of the innocent. In his mind, the presence of even as few as 50 innocent people would justify the preservation of town’s entire population.  He is not denying the fact that the wicked deserve what’s coming to them, but he is questioning the potential destruction of those who are undeserving.

This passage has always fascinated me. I have wrestled with the motivation behind Abraham’s repeated requests, and I have wondered why God was willing to play this ridiculous game of “What if…?” But there is something very significant going on here, and the key to understanding it begins in verse 19. Consider what the Lord said to the two angels.

“I have singled him [Abraham] out so that he will direct his sons and their families to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just.” – Genesis 18:19 NLT

God had set apart Abraham and his descendants for a special purpose. They were to be His chosen people, and were expected to live distinctively different lives than all the other nations on earth. But at this point in the story, Abraham’s family was small in number. He had one son, Ishmael, born to him through his wife’s handmaid, Hagar. He had male and female servants. But compared to all the other people groups on earth, Abraham’s clan was quite small and insignificant.

Now, consider what must have been going through Abraham’s mind. As he thought about Sodom and the pending judgment of God, he couldn’t help but think about the insignificant, yet innocent family of Lot. And it seems highly likely that Abraham began to ponder his own family’s status as the innocent few living among the guilty masses. If God was willing to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, what would keep Him from wiping out the rest of Canaan and its godless inhabitants? Abraham wanted to know if God was going to spare the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah so that a righteous remnant might be spared.

Abraham would have been well aware of the flood story. And while he would have known about God’s promise to never destroy the earth by flood again, he would have understood that this left God a lot of other options for bringing judgment against the wicked. So, this led Abraham to question just how few of the “righteous” it would take to prevent God from wiping out humanity again. And he used Sodom as a case study.

But notice how Abraham keeps moving the goal post. He starts out with a quantity of 50 and then slowly works his way down. And notice that each time, as Abraham lowers the number, God continues to assure Abraham that He will spare the city.

“If I find fifty righteous people in Sodom, I will spare the entire city for their sake.” – Genesis 18:26 NLT

He will spare the city, including all the wicked within it – all for the sake of 50 righteous people. But, hedging his bets, Abraham reduces the number from 50 to 45, from 45 to 40, from 40 to 30, and then, ultimately, all the way down to 10. And, once again, God confirms His commitment.

I will not destroy it for the sake of the ten.” – Genesis 18:32 NLT

Again, Abraham’s emphasis is on the city itself. He wants to know how many righteous it will take to save the city. And what appears to be driving his line of thinking is his awareness that the world in which he was living was growing increasingly wicked while the size of his family remained remarkably small. Abraham knew the story of Noah and would have recalled that he too had been a righteous man.

Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God. – Genesis 6:9 ESV

And yet, despite that fact, God had ended up destroying the entire earth, sparing only Noah and his family. It seems that Abraham feared this happening again. Would he, like Noah, be forced to begin again? Or would the presence of a faithful few spare the earth from judgment?

As this story unfolds, it will become clear that there were far fewer innocents in the city of Sodom than Abraham could have known. Things were far worse than he thought possible.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

Giving God What Is Rightfully His

19 The scribes and the chief priests sought to lay hands on him at that very hour, for they perceived that he had told this parable against them, but they feared the people. 20 So they watched him and sent spies, who pretended to be sincere, that they might catch him in something he said, so as to deliver him up to the authority and jurisdiction of the governor. 21 So they asked him, “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach rightly, and show no partiality, but truly teach the way of God. 22 Is it lawful for us to give tribute to Caesar, or not?” 23 But he perceived their craftiness, and said to them, 24 “Show me a denarius. Whose likeness and inscription does it have?” They said, “Caesar’s.” 25 He said to them, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” 26 And they were not able in the presence of the people to catch him in what he said, but marveling at his answer they became silent. Luke 20:19-26 ESV

While some of Jesus’ parables left the crowds scratching their heads in confusion, this was not one of them. Its meaning was far from hidden or obscured. And Luke indicates that the scribes and the chief priests understood that they had been portrayed as the villains in His story. The only thing that kept them from arresting Jesus right on the spot was their fear of the people. They knew they would have a riot on their hands if they so much as touched Jesus. So, they decided to bide their time, waiting for a better opportunity to catch Jesus saying or doing something that would justify His arrest.

As they had done on so many other occasions, the religious leaders sent some of their own to spy on Jesus. These men were instructed to blend in with the crowds by pretending to be sincere followers of Jesus. Luke doesn’t reveal whether they ditched their clerical robes in order to disguise their identities, but it seems likely that they did what they could to fit in with the rest of the people who flocked around Jesus. Of course, it could be that they hired individuals to act as spies. The Greek word for “spies” is egkathetos and it means “one who is bribed by others to entrap a man by crafty words” (“G1455 – egkathetosStrong’s Greek Lexicon (kjv).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 2 Oct, 2021.).

But whoever these people were, their mission was simple: “get Jesus to say something that could be reported to the Roman governor so he would arrest Jesus” (Luke 20:20 NLT). They were tasked with shadowing Jesus and looking for some kind of proof that He was a threat to the Roman government. By this time, the religious leaders had already decided that Jesus needed to die (Luke 19:47), but the Romans prohibited the Jews from carrying out capital punishment. So, it was important that they find evidence that would incriminate Jesus and force the Roman authorities to put Him to death. In chapter 23, where Luke records Jesus trial before Pilate, the Roman governor of Judea, the Sanhedrin level a charge against Jesus that they knew would seal His fate:.

“This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.” – Luke 23:2 NLT

This accusation had not come out of thin air, but it was a blatant misrepresentation of Jesus’ answer to a question the spies had directed to Him. Not long after telling His parable about the wicked tenants, the spies sent by the Sanhedrin asked Jesus one of their cleverly worded questions.

“Teacher,” they said, “we know that you speak and teach what is right and are not influenced by what others think. You teach the way of God truthfully. Now tell us—is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” – Luke 20:21-22

This question had been carefully crafted and was designed to put Jesus in an awkward and untenable predicament. It was a simple question, but because it involved the Roman government and the hot-button topic of taxation, it was politically charged and a potential landmine.

In keeping with their charge to feign sincerity, these men prefaced their question with statements of false flattery designed to disguise their real intent. But Jesus saw through their little charade and knew exactly what they were attempting to do. So, He asked someone in the crowd for a denarius, a Roman coin that bore the image of the emperor. Holding up the coin for all to see, Jesus asked, “Whose picture and title are stamped on it?,” and the crowd answered, “Caesar’s” (Luke 20:24 NLT).

Jesus had not been stumped by their trick question. The spies had thought it would put Jesus in a no-win situation. If He declared that the Mosaic law required the Jews to pay taxes or tribute, the people would turn on Him because they despised the oppressive and excessive burden place on them by the Romans. But if Jesus stated that the Jews owed no taxes to Rome because it was a godless and immoral government, He could be accused of undermining the authority of Caesar. This would give the Sanhedrin what they were looking for – evidence that Jesus was fomenting political unrest.

But Jesus avoided controversy by stating, “Well then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God” (Luke 20:25 NLT). In other words, if the coin bears Caesar’s image and name, then it is rightfully his and must be returned. But the spies took this very clear statement from Jesus and twisted it into a declaration of rebellion and anarchy. They misrepresented Jesus’ words and told the Sanhedrin that Jesus had promoted tax evasion, and that is exactly what the religious leaders later reported to Pilate.

“This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king.” – Luke 23:2 NLT

These men were willing to do anything to get rid of Jesus, including lie. And Jesus had already confronted them about their propensity for falsehood.

“For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” – John 8:44 NLT

Because they were unable to trick or trap Jesus, they resorted to lies. They fabricated their own version of the truth, propagating a false narrative that would protect and preserve their domain.

But Jesus had not promoted social unrest or some kind of affirmative action. He had clearly told them to give Caesar what rightfully belonged to him. But He had also stated that the Jews were obligated to do the same with God.

“…give to God what belongs to God.” – Luke 20:25 NLT

The denarius bore the image of Caesar, but mankind bears the image of God. Genesis 1:27 records that God made the first man and woman in His own image.

God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Just as the Roman coin was stamped with the image of Caesar, every man and woman is stamped with the image of their Creator. And even in their fallen state, they still reflect the ownership of the one who made them. So, in effect, Jesus was encouraging His audience to honor Caesar by returning his property to him. But at the same time, Jesus was insisting that they honor God by returning to God what was rightfully His: Their lives. The apostle Paul would later expand on this idea in his letter to the Romans. In chapter13 of that letter, he gave a series of admonitions to honor and submit to governing authorities because “all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God” (Romans 13:1 NLT).

Paul went on to address the topic of paying taxes.

So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience. Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. – Romans 13:5-6 NLT

The same Roman government was in charge during Paul’s day. Nothing had really changed. Rome was no less authoritarian and abusive, yet Paul continued to promote the very same mindset that Jesus had recommended.

Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. – Romans 13:7 ESV

The last part of this verse reflects what Jesus had been trying to convey. If Caesar wanted his coins back, then return them to him. But it is God alone who deserves man’s respect and honor. Because we bear His image, we belong to Him. And Jesus was demanding that the people of Israel give God what was rightfully His: Their lives and their unwavering devotion.

At the heart of this entire exchange is man’s love affair with money and materialism. All the way back in His sermon on the mount, Jesus had warned about the dangers of a divided love.

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

He knew that the people were inordinately tied to the treasures of this world and, as a result, they had a divided allegiance. So, He warned them:

“No one can serve two masters. For you will hate one and love the other; you will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and be enslaved to money. – Matthew 6:24 NLT

The religious leaders of Israel were enslaved to money, materialism, power, and prestige. They may have faithfully worshiped at the altar of Yahweh but the real focus of their devotion and desire was earthly treasures. And while they had no love for the Roman government, they were willing to do business with the enemy because they benefited greatly from the relationship. Their greatest fear was that Jesus would disrupt their symbiotic and self-serving relationship with the Romans. They had a bird’s nest on the ground and this upstart Rabbi from Nazareth was threatening to destroy it all. That’s why Caiaphas the high priest would later tell his fellow members of the Sanhedrin that Jesus’ death was preferable to the nation’s demise at the hands of the Romans.

“You don’t realize that it’s better for you that one man should die for the people than for the whole nation to be destroyed.” – John 11:50 NLT

Caiaphas was out to preserve the status quo, and if it required the death of one man, then it would be well worth it. But what Caiaphas failed to realize was that his words were really prophetic.

He did not say this on his own; as high priest at that time he was led to prophesy that Jesus would die for the entire nation. And not only for that nation, but to bring together and unite all the children of God scattered around the world. – John 11:51-52 NLT

Jesus, as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), would eventually give back to God what was rightfully His. He would sacrifice His own life on behalf of sinful mankind and satisfy the just demands of a holy God by offering His body as the ultimate tribute. Through the willing sacrifice of His life, Jesus would render unto God what was rightfully His.

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. – Colossians 1:19-20 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Let [God’s] Justice Roll

18 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord!
    Why would you have the day of the Lord?
It is darkness, and not light,
19     as if a man fled from a lion,
    and a bear met him,
or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall,
    and a serpent bit him.
20 Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light,
    and gloom with no brightness in it?

21 “I hate, I despise your feasts,
    and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them;
and the peace offerings of your fattened animals,
    I will not look upon them.
23 Take away from me the noise of your songs;
    to the melody of your harps I will not listen.
24 But let justice roll down like waters,
    and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

25 “Did you bring to me sacrifices and offerings during the forty years in the wilderness, O house of Israel? 26 You shall take up Sikkuth your king, and Kiyyun your star-god—your images that you made for yourselves, 27 and I will send you into exile beyond Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of hosts. Amos 5:18-27 ESV

Let justice roll down.

When considered alongside our current cultural milieu, those four simple words carry more weight than they usually might. But before we put them on a banner or add them as a tagline to our next social media post, we need to understand their context. With all the current emphasis on social justice and equality, it would be easy to use this section of Amos as a proof text for promoting radical reform – especially among the people of God. And there is little doubt that God had serious problems with the injustice being practiced by the Israelites. He accused them of turning “justice to wormwood” (Amos 5:7 ESV). The laws that God had given them were meant to improve their relationships with one another, but their refusal to obey those laws had resulted in bitterness, not joy.

God pulled no punches when He addressed their unrighteous and unjust behavior toward one another. But He made it clear that it all began with their lack of love for His ways.

“How you hate honest judges!
    How you despise people who tell the truth!
You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.” – Amos 5:10-11 NLT

They had long ago stopped hearing from God. They refused to listen to His prophets and rejected His calls to repentance. Their horizontal behavior was a byproduct of their vertical relationship with Him. Without a proper love and reverence for God, they were ill-equipped to show love to one another. And that is the real point of this passage.

The reason they regularly turned aside the needy in the gate (Amos 5:12) was because they had turned away from the worship of Yahweh. And the answer to their problem was not that they do a better job of justice-keeping. It was that they begin to make the worship of God a high priority in their lives. That’s why He told them to “Seek the Lord and live…” (Amos 5:6 ESV).

It all began with a return to Him. Their ability to do what was just and right was directly tied to a faithful relationship with Him. That is why God repeatedly states, “Seek me and live” (Amos 5:4 ESV), and then adds, “Seek good, and not evil, that you may live” (Amos 5:14 ESV). They couldn’t do one without the other. It all had to begin with a sincere seeking of God. Attempting to do good without a healthy and vibrant relationship with God would prove ineffective and non-productive.

God’s command that they “Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate” (Amos 5:15 ESV), would be impossible if they failed to seek and serve Him alone.  The only way they could know the difference between good and evil was through a knowledge of God’s holy law. They weren’t free to establish their own definition of righteousness or to determine what they believed to be just and right behavior. God had already done that through the giving of the law.

When God had given the law to Moses on Mount Sinai, He had laid out in black and white terms exactly what He expected of His people. The law was meant to define and regulate every area of their behavior. It provided non-negotiable requirements for their conduct, not suggested guidelines that could be accepted or ignored.

And, according to Jesus, the entire Mosaic law could be summed up in two very specific and interrelated laws:

“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” – Matthew 22:37-40 NLT

Jesus makes it perfectly clear that a love for God and a love for others went hand in hand. They were inseparable. In fact, the apostle John would expand on this thought when he wrote, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT). And John didn’t stop there. He went on to add a further clarification that reveals that God’s love for us was never intended to dead-end on us. It was meant to shared.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? And he has given us this command: Those who love God must also love their fellow believers. – 1 John 4:19-21 NLT

So, let’s go back to our verses for today. Amos warns the people of Israel about the danger of longing for “the day of the Lord”  (Amos 5:18 ESV). That phrase was a popular one among the people of God because it was thought to refer to a future period of time when God’s blessings would fall on Israel. It was believed to be a time when God would mete out His well-deserved judgment upon the nations of the earth, while fulfilling every promise of blessing upon His chosen people: the nation of Israel. And they had plenty of Old Testament passages to support their view.

For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
    your deeds shall return on your own head. – Obadiah 15 ESV

Then the Lord will pity his people
    and jealously guard the honor of his land.
The Lord will reply,
“Look! I am sending you grain and new wine and olive oil,
    enough to satisfy your needs.
You will no longer be an object of mockery
    among the surrounding nations.” – Joel 2:18-19 NLT

The truth is, the people of Israel tended to hear what they wanted to hear. As a result, their view of the coming day of the Lord was a bit skewed. It was going to be all good news for them and bad news for their enemies. Yet, Amos reveals that there mighty be cause for them to rethink their rather rosy perspective.

What sorrow awaits you who say,
    “If only the day of the Lord were here!”
You have no idea what you are wishing for.
    That day will bring darkness, not light. – Amos 5:18 NLT

When that day finally arrived, it was going to deliver an outcome that was dramatically different than the one they were expecting.

Yes, the day of the Lord will be dark and hopeless,
    without a ray of joy or hope. – Amost 5:20 NLT

While they were expecting deliverance, they would end up experiencing nothing but  disaster and harsh discipline from the hand of God. And just so they understood why the day of the Lord would fail to deliver what they were expecting, God explained the root cause of His dissatisfaction with them.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies. – Amos 5:21 NLT

Everything they did was a sham, a highly orchestrated religious show meant to impress their friends and neighbors. It was nothing more than fake piety and religious play-acting. But God had not been fooled. And not only that, He was sick of the whole thing and no longer willing to put up with their little charade. And He told them so.

“I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.” – Amos 5:22-23 NLT

God was going to put an end to their hypocrisy. He would no longer allow them to go through the motions, pretending to be something they were not. Which brings us back to the topic of justice. God was looking for proof that they really did love Him and knew what He expected from them. And just to make sure they understood what kind of proof He was looking for, He told them.

“I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
    an endless river of righteous living.” – Amos 5:24 NLT

Now, here’s what we need to understand about this passage. God knew full well that His people would never deliver that for which He was looking. In other words, they would never produce a mighty flood of justice. They would never create an endless river of righteous living. But He would. God Almighty was going to make sure that His brand of justice was meted out, regardless of whether the recipient was a member of the chosen people of God or an idol-worshiping pagan. God would deliver His brand of justice to any and all. And through the gift of His Son, He would make possible “an endless river of righteous living” for all those who place their faith in Him.

And the apostle Paul would later tell the Gentile believers living in Ephesus some great news:

Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts. In those days you were living apart from Christ. You were excluded from citizenship among the people of Israel, and you did not know the covenant promises God had made to them. You lived in this world without God and without hope. But now you have been united with Christ Jesus. Once you were far away from God, but now you have been brought near to him through the blood of Christ. – Ephesians 2:11-13 NLT

The people of Israel were without excuse. They had been chosen by God. They had been given the holy and righteous law of God to guide their lives. He had graciously and miraculously delivered them from their captivity in Egypt. And they had repaid the favor by worship false gods, even as He led them to the land of Promise.

So, God delivers some very bad but well-deserved news.

“So I will send you into exile, to a land east of Damascus,” says the Lord, whose name is the God of Heaven’s Armies. – Amos 5:27 NLT

God would deliver justice. But, as a result of His decision to mete out divine judgment upon His chosen people, the long-term consequences would produce an endless river of righteous living. God would punish His people for their sin and rebellion. But the day would come when He would rescue them and restore them to the land of Canaan. And centuries later, He would send His Son into the world, the seed of Abraham, the son of David, and the Savior of the world.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

God Cleans House

14 Thus Jehu the son of Jehoshaphat the son of Nimshi conspired against Joram. (Now Joram with all Israel had been on guard at Ramoth-gilead against Hazael king of Syria, 15 but King Joram had returned to be healed in Jezreel of the wounds that the Syrians had given him, when he fought with Hazael king of Syria.) So Jehu said, “If this is your decision, then let no one slip out of the city to go and tell the news in Jezreel.” 16 Then Jehu mounted his chariot and went to Jezreel, for Joram lay there. And Ahaziah king of Judah had come down to visit Joram.

17 Now the watchman was standing on the tower in Jezreel, and he saw the company of Jehu as he came and said, “I see a company.” And Joram said, “Take a horseman and send to meet them, and let him say, ‘Is it peace?’” 18 So a man on horseback went to meet him and said, “Thus says the king, ‘Is it peace?’” And Jehu said, “What do you have to do with peace? Turn around and ride behind me.” And the watchman reported, saying, “The messenger reached them, but he is not coming back.” 19 Then he sent out a second horseman, who came to them and said, “Thus the king has said, ‘Is it peace?’” And Jehu answered, “What do you have to do with peace? Turn around and ride behind me.” 20 Again the watchman reported, “He reached them, but he is not coming back. And the driving is like the driving of Jehu the son of Nimshi, for he drives furiously.”

21 Joram said, “Make ready.” And they made ready his chariot. Then Joram king of Israel and Ahaziah king of Judah set out, each in his chariot, and went to meet Jehu, and met him at the property of Naboth the Jezreelite. 22 And when Joram saw Jehu, he said, “Is it peace, Jehu?” He answered, “What peace can there be, so long as the whorings and the sorceries of your mother Jezebel are so many?” 23 Then Joram reined about and fled, saying to Ahaziah, “Treachery, O Ahaziah!” 24 And Jehu drew his bow with his full strength, and shot Joram between the shoulders, so that the arrow pierced his heart, and he sank in his chariot. 25 Jehu said to Bidkar his aide, “Take him up and throw him on the plot of ground belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. For remember, when you and I rode side by side behind Ahab his father, how the Lord made this pronouncement against him: 26 ‘As surely as I saw yesterday the blood of Naboth and the blood of his sons—declares the Lord—I will repay you on this plot of ground.’ Now therefore take him up and throw him on the plot of ground, in accordance with the word of the Lord.”

27 When Ahaziah the king of Judah saw this, he fled in the direction of Beth-haggan. And Jehu pursued him and said, “Shoot him also.” And they shot him in the chariot at the ascent of Gur, which is by Ibleam. And he fled to Megiddo and died there. 28 His servants carried him in a chariot to Jerusalem, and buried him in his tomb with his fathers in the city of David.

29 In the eleventh year of Joram the son of Ahab, Ahaziah began to reign over Judah. 2 Kings 9:14-29 ESV

Once Jehu had received the news that he was to be the next king of Israel, he wasted no time. Immediately after his anointing by the prophet of God, he departed Ramoth-gilead and headed straight to the winter palace in Jezreel, where King Jehoram was recovering from the injuries he had suffered in his battle against the Syrians.

Jehu had the full support of his fellow generals, so he ordered them to secure the city of Ramoth-gilead and prevent anyone from escaping and leaking his plans to King Jehoram. Jehu mounted his chariot and, accompanied by a contingent of loyal troops, he made his way to Jezreel. Guards posted on the watchtower of the city spotted them from a distance and gave notice to King Jehoram. Assuming it was his own troops returning from the battle against the Syrians, he sent out a messenger to meet them, anxious to know the outcome of the conflict. When the messenger road out to greet the returning soldiers, he asked them, “Is it peace?”, but Jehu gave him a rather cryptic, non-answer, and commanded him to ride along with them to the city.

After sending out a second messenger who failed to return, Jehoram became more anxious than ever to know what had happened. So, despite his wounds, he ordered his chariot and rode out to meet the returning troops. He was accompanied by King Ahaziah of Judah, who had come to visit him as he recuperated in Jezreel. When the two kings intercepted Jehu, Jehoram asked him, “Is it peace?” But Jehu’s response was not what he had been expecting.

“How can there be peace as long as the idolatry and witchcraft of your mother, Jezebel, are all around us?” – 2 Kings 9:22 NLT

Jehu called out King Jehoram, accusing him of allowing his mother, Jezebel, to lead the nation of Israel into apostasy with her idolatry and witchcraft. Though Ahab was long gone, Jezebel still continued to wield a powerful and deadly influence over the nation. Not only had she promoted the worship of false gods, but she had introduced occult practices that included the use of sorcery and incantations. And God had declared these things to be off-limits for the people of Israel.

There shall not be found among you anyone who burns his son or his daughter as an offering, anyone who practices divination or tells fortunes or interprets omens, or a sorcerer or a charmer or a medium or a necromancer or one who inquires of the dead, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord. – Deuteronomy 18:10-12 ESV

Jehu’s mention of Jezebel indicates that he understood just how decisive her role had been in leading the nation away from Yahweh. Any attempt he made to eradicate the evil influence of Ahab and his descendants would have to include her. As long as Jezebel remained alive, the nation would never recover from its state of spiritual apathy and apostasy.

Suddenly aware that his life was in danger, King Jehoram ordered his chariot driver to make a hasty retreat to the safety of the city. But they never made it. Jehu killed the escaping king with a well-placed arrow to the back. And then he ordered that Jehoram’s body be dumped on the land that used to belong to Naboth. This brings the story full-circle, linking the sins of Ahab with those of his son, Jehoram. Back in 1 Kings 21, Jezebel had arranged to illegally confiscate a vineyard that belonged to Naboth so that she could give the property to Ahab. She had Naboth falsely accused and convicted of cursing God and the king. The result was that the innocent man was stoned to death on his very own land. And God had warned King Ahab, “In the place where dogs licked up the blood of Naboth shall dogs lick your own blood” (1 Kings 21:20 ESV). And he had pronounced a similar fate for Jezebel because of her role in the affair.

“The dogs shall eat Jezebel within the walls of Jezreel.” – 1 Kings 21:23 ESV

But Ahab had eventually repented of his role in Naboth’s death and, as a result, God had chosen to spare him.

“Because he has humbled himself before me, I will not bring the disaster in his days; but in his son’s days I will bring the disaster upon his house.” – 1 Kings 21:29 ESV

Now, years later, God was fulfilling His promise to bring disaster upon the house of Ahab. The blood of Jehoram, the son of Ahab and Jezebel, would be poured out on the very same spot where Naboth had been stoned to death. Jehu, who had served as one of King Ahab’s generals, was familiar with the whole sordid affair concerning Naboth. He had even been present when God issued His divine judgment against Ahab through the prophet Elijah.

“Take him up and throw him on the plot of ground belonging to Naboth the Jezreelite. For remember, when you and I rode side by side behind Ahab his father, how the Lord made this pronouncement against him: ‘As surely as I saw yesterday the blood of Naboth and the blood of his sons—declares the Lord—I will repay you on this plot of ground.’ Now therefore take him up and throw him on the plot of ground, in accordance with the word of the Lord.” – 2 Kings 9:25-26 ESV

In all of this, Jehu was acting as God’s hand of judgment against the house of Ahab. He had been anointed by God to deliver divine justice and cleanse the nation of Israel from the pervasive and pernicious influence of Ahab and Jezebel. God had had enough. The time had come to fulfill His pronouncement of judgment against the house of Ahab.

“Behold, I will bring disaster upon you. I will utterly burn you up, and will cut off from Ahab every male, bond or free, in Israel. And I will make your house like the house of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, and like the house of Baasha the son of Ahijah, for the anger to which you have provoked me, and because you have made Israel to sin.” – 1 Kings 21:21-22 ESV

The purge had begun. God was cleaning house. And even King Ahaziah of Judah would not escape the purifying judgment of the Almighty. As he attempted to escape, he was struck by an arrow and only made it as far as Megiddo before he died from his wound. Ahaziah had close familial ties to the house of Ahab. His mother, Athaliah, was the granddaughter of King Omri of Israel. And it appears that he may also have married one of Ahab’s daughters.

He also walked in the way of the house of Ahab and did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as the house of Ahab had done, for he was son-in-law to the house of Ahab. – 2 Kings 8:27 ESV

He was an unwise and wicked king who had aligned himself with one of the most infamous royal families in Israel’s sordid history. And he paid for his mistake with his life.

Because of the disobedience of Solomon, God had divided Israel into two kingdoms. This had been His punishment for Solomon’s foray into idolatry during the latter years of his life and reign. But the kings of Israel and Judah had decided to take matters into their own hands, attempting to realign the two nations through treaties and marital alliances. But they had neglected to fix the primary problem that had caused God to divide them in the first place: Idolatry. But God was not interested in a reunited nation that remained spiritually rebellious. So, He sent Jehu to bring an abrupt end to the man-made alliance between Israel and Judah by killing their two kings. It was time to start over. But as we will see, Jehu had one last piece of unfinished business.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Wisdom to Spare

16 Then two prostitutes came to the king and stood before him. 17 The one woman said, “Oh, my lord, this woman and I live in the same house, and I gave birth to a child while she was in the house. 18 Then on the third day after I gave birth, this woman also gave birth. And we were alone. There was no one else with us in the house; only we two were in the house. 19 And this woman’s son died in the night, because she lay on him. 20 And she arose at midnight and took my son from beside me, while your servant slept, and laid him at her breast, and laid her dead son at my breast. 21 When I rose in the morning to nurse my child, behold, he was dead. But when I looked at him closely in the morning, behold, he was not the child that I had borne.” 22 But the other woman said, “No, the living child is mine, and the dead child is yours.” The first said, “No, the dead child is yours, and the living child is mine.” Thus they spoke before the king.

23 Then the king said, “The one says, ‘This is my son that is alive, and your son is dead’; and the other says, ‘No; but your son is dead, and my son is the living one.’” 24 And the king said, “Bring me a sword.” So a sword was brought before the king. 25 And the king said, “Divide the living child in two, and give half to the one and half to the other.” 26 Then the woman whose son was alive said to the king, because her heart yearned for her son, “Oh, my lord, give her the living child, and by no means put him to death.” But the other said, “He shall be neither mine nor yours; divide him.” 27 Then the king answered and said, “Give the living child to the first woman, and by no means put him to death; she is his mother.” 28 And all Israel heard of the judgment that the king had rendered, and they stood in awe of the king, because they perceived that the wisdom of God was in him to do justice. 1 Kings 3:16-28 ESV

In Solomon’s vision, he had requested that God would give him “an understanding mind” so that he might be able to “discern between good and evil” (1 Kings 3:9 ESV). And God had agreed to Solomon’s request, bestowing upon him the ability “to discern what is right” (1 Kings 3:11 ESV). All of this occurred while Solomon slept, and when he awoke there was probably little evidence that anything had changed. It is doubtful that he felt any different of could sense that he was wiser and more discerning. But, in time, he was given tangible proof that God had kept His word.

As the king, he was expected to act as the preeminent judge over his people. One of his duties was to ensure that the citizens of his kingdom were governed with order and justice. He was to see that there was a fair and equitable system for hearing and settling all civil disputes. And this responsibility was not to be taken lightly. When David was king, it seems that he failed to make this aspect of his kingly duties a high priority, and his son, Absalom, used this oversight to his advantage.

He got up early every morning and went out to the gate of the city. When people brought a case to the king for judgment, Absalom would ask where in Israel they were from, and they would tell him their tribe. Then Absalom would say, “You’ve really got a strong case here! It’s too bad the king doesn’t have anyone to hear it. I wish I were the judge. Then everyone could bring their cases to me for judgment, and I would give them justice!” – 2 Samuel 15:2-4 NLT

Absalom knew that the people wanted a king who showed care and concern for them. His daily appearances at the gate were intended to win them over the convince them that he was a more reliable advocate for them than David. And his actions paid off.

Absalom did this with everyone who came to the king for judgment, and so he stole the hearts of all the people of Israel. – 2 Samuel 15:6 NLT

But unlike his father, Solomon didn’t shirk his kingly responsibilities. He was willing to do the dirty work that came with his new role, which included presiding over disputes between the citizens of his kingdom. And, as this passage makes clear, Solomon didn’t practice a form of judicial snobbery. He could have limited his cases to those of the wealthy and influential and relegated the disputes among the common people to a subordinate on his administration. But here we find the king presiding over a case involving two prostitutes. These women would have been considered the scum of the earth. The Hebrew word used to describe them carries a strong pejorative meaning, most often being translated as “whores.” They were guilty of adultery and sexual immorality, and their reputations were well known within the community. Yet, Solomon graciously admitted them into his royal court and took the time to hear their dispute.

It’s interesting to note that Jesus Himself was accused of being “a friend of tax collectors and other sinners” (Matthew 11:19 NLT). He had a reputation for associating with the despised and disreputable of society. But, when faced with these accusations, Jesus didn’t deny them, he simply stated, “wisdom is shown to be right by its results” (Matthew 11:19 NLT). Jesus was emphasizing that, in time, His choice of friends would prove to be right and just. After all, Jesus had come into the world to save sinners (1 Timothy 1:15). When Jesus was condemned by the Jewish religious leaders for eating with tax collectors and sinners, He had responded, ““Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do” (Matthew 9:12 NLT). And then He added, “For I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” ( Matthew 9:13 NLT).

Solomon understood that he was the God-appointed king over all the people. He didn’t have the right to pick and choose whom he governed. And these two women, while clearly sinners, were still citizens of his kingdom and no less deserving of his time.

So, Solomon patiently listened to their story, and it proved to be a convoluted and complicated tale. These two women not only shared a common occupation, but they also lived in the same house. And as a result of their chosen form of livelihood, both women eventually became pregnant. Within a few days of each other, both gave birth to healthy baby boys. But one of the infants died in his sleep, accidentally smothered by his own mother as he slept by her side in the bed. During the night, the woman woke to find her son dead, so driven by grief and jealousy, she took the body of her deceased baby and switched it with the living child. There is little doubt that this ploy would fail, but she was driven by grief, not logic.

And when the other woman awoke and discovered the lifeless baby by her side, she quickly discerned that it was not her child. The babies had been switched in the night. But the other mother vehemently denied any wrongdoing and vociferously declared that the living baby was her own. Unable to settle their dispute, the women brought the matter to the king. And now, it was up to Solomon to deliver a wise and discerning resolution to their conflict.

After hearing these two emotionally charged mothers state their cases, Solomon simply stated, “Bring me a sword” (1 Kings 3:24 ESV). His words must have come as a shock to the women. Why was he asking for a sword? What was he intending to do? Was he going to enact judgment and personally execute one of them on the spot? What they didn’t realize was that Solomon was utilizing the wisdom and discernment promised to him by God. Without even knowing it, Solomon was putting into practice his newfound ability to discern what was right. Having heard the details of the case and the conflicting claims of the women, Solomon somehow knew exactly what to do. 

Sword in hand, Solomon declared his shocking “solution” to the problem.

“Cut the living child in two, and give half to one woman and half to the other!” – 1 Kings 3:25 NLT

In essence, Solomon was declaring that since there was no way of knowing which woman was telling the truth, the only alternative was to kill the remaining child, so that neither had an advantage. This judgment sounds preposterous and totally unfair. One of the women was clearly lying, and this solution would have produced an inequitable and unrighteous outcome. But Solomon was operating under the divine influence of God Almighty. He had no intention of killing the baby. His “judgment” was a carefully crafted ploy, designed to expose which woman was the liar. And the disparate responses of the two women quickly revealed the identity of the real mother. She was the one who begged for the life of the child to be spared. She was willing to lose custody of the child in exchange for his life. Yet, the other woman was more than willing to see the living child killed so that the other mother might be deprived of joy.

This entire episode is intended as a demonstration or proof that God had kept His promise to Solomon. The vision given to Solomon had been far more than just a dream. It had been a prophetic word from God and now Solomon knew that he had received the very gift he had requested: An understanding mind that could discern between good and evil. Even Solomon must have been surprised by his own actions. But as Jesus had said, “wisdom is shown to be right by its results.” The positive outcome of this dispute revealed that the wisdom of God had been at work. It had not been the result of human intelligence or Solomon’s inherent cleverness. He had been given the ability “to discern what is right” (1 Kings 3:11 ESV), and he had put it to good use. The result was the joyful reunion of the mother and her child. There is no indication that Solomon condemned the other woman for her lies and subterfuge. She had already suffered the loss of her child and that was punishment enough.

And, in time, news of Solomon’s novel approach to justice began to spread throughout the kingdom, and the people recognized it for what it was: The wisdom of God.

When all Israel heard the king’s decision, the people were in awe of the king, for they saw the wisdom God had given him for rendering justice. – 1 Kings 3:28 NLT

They found comfort in knowing that their king was governed by the wisdom of God. They could expect to receive justice because their king operated according to divine wisdom.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

What Does God Require?

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:6-8 ESV

In verse 3, Micah records God confronting the people of Israel with a series of questions:

“O my people, what have I done to you?
    How have I wearied you? Answer me! – Micah 6:3 ESV

God is demanding to know the reason for their disobedience and disrespectful treatment of Him. Was it something He did or said? Was He to blame? But before the Israelites would answer, God reminded them of His faithfulness by recalling His actions on their behalf. He had delivered them out slavery in Egypt. He had provided them with qualified leaders. He had protected them from their enemies. And He had miraculously aided their crossing of the Jordan River so they could enter the land of promise.

And then God explains why He had done all these things for them:

that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” – Micah 6:5 ESV

They had experienced the righteous acts of God, firsthand. He had displayed His righteousness in tangible ways that they could see and appreciate. But it is important that we understand what God means by “righteous acts.” His deeds, done on behalf of the people of Israel, were righteous and just. All that He had done for them had been accomplished in a just manner, without pretense and unstained by sin. Moses was able to say of God:

“his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

Every single action of God, done on behalf of His chosen people, was fully just and right. He had made no mistakes. He had done nothing with impure motives or in violation of His own righteous standards. So, the people of Israel could not point their fingers at him and accuse Him of wrong-doing. They could excuse their behavior by blaming God.

God describes His actions as “righteous.” The Hebrew word is tsedaqah, and it means “justice, righteousness, things done justly.” As Moses stated, all of God’s ways are perfect, right, and just. He sets the standard for righteousness and justice. And that seems to be the point of this passage. God had given the people of Israel tangible evidence of what justice and righteousness look like. They had seen them lived out in their own lives through His acts of deliverance, protection, mercy, grace, and undeserved kindness.

But God had not stopped there. He had also provided them with His law as a concrete example of what acts of righteousness were to look like in their own lives.

“And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. And it will be righteousness [tsedaqah] for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.” – Deuteronomy 6:24-25 ESV

God was just and right in all His ways, and He expected His chosen people to emulate His behavior. That is why He had told them, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2 ESV). God had expected them to live distinctively different lives than the pagan nations which occupied the land of Canaan. So, He had given them a standard for their conduct that clearly differentiated between right and wrong. And God had warned them against following the ways of the world.

“You shall therefore keep all my statutes and all my rules and do them, that the land where I am bringing you to live may not vomit you out. And you shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them.” – Leviticus 20:22-23 ESV

They were not to emulate the ways of the world. They were not to use human reasoning or secular solutions to guide their lives or to determine their conduct.

“I am the Lord your God, who has separated you from the peoples.You shall be holy to me, for I the Lord am holy and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine.” – Leviticus 20:24, 26 ESV

This idea of separation is essential to understanding what Micah is trying to communicate in these verses. The people of Israel had been “set apart” by God. But their separateness was to manifest itself in tangible ways, not so much in physical segregation from the rest of the world, as through their daily behavior. And Micah clarifies that God was not interested in external displays of piety or religious zeal. He was not swayed by outward acts of obedience that were only righteous in appearance.

The people of Israel had a reputation for going through the motions, performing their God-appointed rituals and observing the feasts and festivals with a certain degree of religious zeal, but God accused them of hypocrisy.

“…this people draw near with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 ESV

And Micah picks up on that theme by asking a series of probing questions designed to illustrate how the people of Israel had missed the point of what it means to do acts of justice or righteousness.

What can we bring to the Lord?
    Should we bring him burnt offerings?
Should we bow before God Most High
    with offerings of yearling calves?
Should we offer him thousands of rams
    and ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Should we sacrifice our firstborn children
    to pay for our sins? – Micah 6:6-7 NLT

God was not interested in outward displays of obedience that were nothing more than unrighteous people going through the motions. The people of Israel had been doing all the “right” things, but their hearts had been in the wrong place. And it was King David who had pointed out what God really desired from His people.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
    you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV

The peoples’ hearts were far from God. Their hearts were anything but contrite. Their spirits remained unbroken. And their actions, no matter how righteous in appearance, were anything but pleasing to God.

Jesus pointed out the danger of turning our acts of righteousness into nothing more than performance art, done for the praise and admiration of others.

“Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” – Matthew 6:1 ESV

In today’s nomenclature, we might call this “virtue signaling.”

virtue signaling: the sharing of one’s point of view on a social or political issue, often on social media, in order to garner praise or acknowledgment of one’s righteousness from others who share that point of view, or to passively rebuke those who do not.  – dictionary.com

We post and repost. We display images on our Facebook pages that convey our convictions and confirm our stand on particular issues and social concerns. We affirm our positions on various hot-button topics with the click of a button. And, in doing so, we practice our righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them.

But Micah provides us with some sobering food for thought. Yet, these verses are often lifted out of their context and used to justify the very behavior condemned by Jesus and described in the dictionary.com definition above.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

Micah makes it quite clear that God has already communicated what He deems to be “good” or acceptable behavior. And he sums it up in three simple statements:

…to do justice

…to love kindness

…to walk humbly with your God

But what do these phrases mean? And who gets to determine their definitions? Here is where this verse gets abused and misused, even by well-meaning Christians. We take those three imperatives and define them according to our cultural context. We allow the world to dictate what justice means. We let others determine what true kindness looks like in everyday life. But the context of Micah 6:8 is the rest of chapter 6 and the entirety of the book of Micah. God is speaking to the people of Israel. He is addressing the sins of those whom He has chosen as His own. And the justice He has in mind is not some form of outward behavior mandated by the prevailing culture. He is speaking of acts of righteousness that emulate His own. He is demanding that His people do what he has deemed to be right. They are to live according to His standards, not those of the world. They are to use His definitions, not those of a secular society that are nothing more than commandments taught by men (Isaiah 29:13).

The people of God are to do what God would have them do. They are to do what is right and just, but according to His definitions, not their own. The world will always be quick to tell us what is the right thing to do. The prevailing society will always attempt to influence our actions by dictating the rules for acceptable behavior. And our desire to fit into this world will constantly tempt us to mimic the world’s ways.

To do justice is to do what God would have us do. It is to live according to His will and not our own. And it will require a separateness and set-apartness that puts pleasing Him ahead of any desire to please the world.

These three attributes found in Micah 6:8 are focused on God, not man. They are not meant to be an outline for enacting social justice in the world. They are a reminder to the people of God that the standards for right living are determined by our righteous God. They are a call to love the mercy and kindness of God more than we love this world. When we fail to do so, we find ourselves seeking to be loved and accepted by the world. We do what the world would have us do. We live up to its standards of righteousness and justice. We virtue signal. We post. We blog. We posture. We give in to the world’s demands. And when we do, we fail to walk humbly with our God.

Self-righteousness is the greatest danger we face. Pride in our achievements and the desire for the praise of men are constant threats to our effectiveness as God’s people. Micah wanted the Israelites to know that good deeds done with good intentions were not what God was looking for. He was looking for people who lived according to His standards of holiness, fully appreciated His acts of kindness, and were willing to walk humbly before Him.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Fleecing the Flock

Hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob
    and rulers of the house of Israel,
who detest justice
    and make crooked all that is straight,
10 who build Zion with blood
    and Jerusalem with iniquity.
11 Its heads give judgment for a bribe;
    its priests teach for a price;
    its prophets practice divination for money;
yet they lean on the Lord and say,
    “Is not the Lord in the midst of us?
    No disaster shall come upon us.”
12 Therefore because of you
    Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
    and the mountain of the house a wooded height. – Micah 3:9-12 ESV

Micah’s indictment is aimed at all the leaders of Israel, including those in both the northern and southern kingdoms. The problem he was addressing was not an isolated or recent one. Poor leadership had been an issue for the nation of Israel all the way back to the days of King Solomon.

So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. – 1 Kings 11:6-8 ESV

It was Solomon’s failure to remain faithful to God that had led to the split of the kingdom. And the kings who eventually reigned over Israel and Judah proved to be, for the most part, just as unfaithful as Solomon had been. But the nation of Israel had always been governed by a triumvirate that included prophets, priests, and the king. So, Micah’s words are directed at all three.

But since Jerusalem had been the original capital of the united kingdom under David and Solomon, he gives it special emphasis. From the palace to the courtroom, the leaders of God’s people were guilty of ruling unjustly and unethically. The prophets, who were supposed to be speaking for God, were busy telling the people what they wanted to hear and charging them for it. The judges, the God-appointed arbiters of justice, were guilty of settling cases based on bribery and extortion. The priests, who were supposed to be serving as God’s undershepherds, were guilty of fleecing the flock, using their position to line their own pockets.

Micah accuses them all of hating justice. Their actions gave evidence of their disdain for God’s ways. Even David, the man after God’s own heart, recognized the presence of unjust leaders in his own day.

Justice—do you rulers know the meaning of the word?
    Do you judge the people fairly?
No! You plot injustice in your hearts.
    You spread violence throughout the land.
These wicked people are born sinners;
    even from birth they have lied and gone their own way. – Psalm 58:1-3 NLT

As far as Micah was concerned, the actions of these men were antithetical to the ways of God. The prophets, priests, and kings were actually working against God, rather than for Him. Micah flatly accuses them of detesting justice and making crooked all that is straight. It wasn’t that they practiced injustice, it was that they actually hated the justice of God. And they were going out of their way to pervert and twist the ways of God, making that which was straight or right, crooked. Their efforts were not inadvertent or innocent. They were deliberately working against God, and the prophet Isaiah points out that, one day, God will step in and straighten the mess they have made.

Clear the way through the wilderness
    for the Lord!
Make a straight highway through the wasteland
    for our God!
Fill in the valleys,
    and level the mountains and hills.
Straighten the curves,
    and smooth out the rough places.
Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
    and all people will see it together.
    The Lord has spoken!” – Isaiah 40:3-5 NLT

The problem Micah is addressing in this passage would persist for a long time. In fact, more than a century later, the prophet, Jeremiah, would reference these verses when warning the people of Judah that God’s judgment, while delayed, was still inevitable. He quoted the words of Micah, attributing them to God.

“Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah, and said to all the people of Judah: ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts,

“‘Zion shall be plowed as a field;
    Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
    and the mountain of the house a wooded height.’ – Jeremiah 26:18 ESV

God would not put up with this problem forever. These men could continue to abuse their God-given authority, but the day was coming when He would deal with them once and for all. Sadly, these very same men were guilty of claiming to have God on their side. While they were busy misleading and abusing the people of God, they were claiming to have the full power and protection of God.

“No harm can come to us,” you say,
    “for the Lord is here among us.” – Micah 3:11 NLT

One of the reasons Micah emphasizes Zion or Jerusalem was because of the misguided perception the leaders held regarding the sacred city that was home to God’s temple. They viewed the temple as the dwelling place of God and as long as the temple stood, they believed the presence and protection of God were guaranteed. And as long as they continued to offer the requisite sacrifices and keep all the sacred feasts and festivals, they would be immune to disaster and defeat.

And their leaders were guilty of perpetuating this false narrative. In fact, the prophet Jeremiah would attack this dangerous misperception, delivering a stinging indictment from God Himself.

“‘Even now, if you quit your evil ways, I will let you stay in your own land. But don’t be fooled by those who promise you safety simply because the Lord’s Temple is here. They chant, “The Lord’s Temple is here! The Lord’s Temple is here!” But I will be merciful only if you stop your evil thoughts and deeds and start treating each other with justice; only if you stop exploiting foreigners, orphans, and widows; only if you stop your murdering; and only if you stop harming yourselves by worshiping idols. Then I will let you stay in this land that I gave to your ancestors to keep forever.

“‘Don’t be fooled into thinking that you will never suffer because the Temple is here. It’s a lie! Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, “We are safe!”—only to go right back to all those evils again?’” – Jeremiah 7:3-10 NLT

And the prophet, Isaiah, a contemporary of Micah’s, would level a similar charge from God against the people of Judah.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

They were guilty of going through the motions. They were doing all the right things, keeping all the prescribed feasts and festivals and offering the sacrifices just as God had commanded, but their hearts were not in it. They were not doing any of it out of a love for God. They had become nothing more than religious rule-keepers, adhering to a perfunctory list of regulations but without any heart for the Rule-Giver.

And Micah points out that there will be consequences for their actions.

Therefore because of you
    Zion shall be plowed as a field;
Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,
    and the mountain of the house a wooded height. – Micah 3:12 ESV

Lousy leaders produce flawed followers. And the nation of Israel had experienced a long line of poor-quality prophets, priests, and kings, who had spawned generations of disobedient, unfaithful sheep who were no longer capable of hearing the voice of their Shepherd. Faithless leaders produce faithless followers. Leading the flock of God is a high calling that comes with grave responsibilities and serious consequences for those who use their authority selfishly or unjustly. God cares for His own and He holds His shepherds to a high standard when it comes to the care of His flock.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Shameless Shepherds

1 And I said:
Hear, you heads of Jacob
    and rulers of the house of Israel!
Is it not for you to know justice?—
    you who hate the good and love the evil,
who tear the skin from off my people
    and their flesh from off their bones,
who eat the flesh of my people,
    and flay their skin from off them,
and break their bones in pieces
    and chop them up like meat in a pot,
    like flesh in a cauldron.

Then they will cry to the Lord,
    but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
    because they have made their deeds evil. Micah 3:1-4 ESV

The last two verses of the preceding chapter provided a glimmer of hope concerning the future for the people of Judah.

“Someday, O Israel, I will gather you;
    I will gather the remnant who are left.
I will bring you together again like sheep in a pen,
    like a flock in its pasture.
Yes, your land will again
    be filled with noisy crowds!
Your leader will break out
    and lead you out of exile,
out through the gates of the enemy cities,
    back to your own land.
Your king will lead you;
    the Lord himself will guide you.” – Micah 2:12-13 NLT

But now, the prophet returns to the more immediate and pressing problem facing Judah: Their condemnation and guilt and the judgment God is bringing upon them because of it. In this instance, Micah turns his attention to the leaders of Israel, those whom God was holding particularly accountable for their failure to protect and guide His flock.

This is not the only time when God expressed His unhappiness with the religious and civic leaders of Israel and Judah. The prophet Ezekiel was given a message from God to deliver to “the shepherds, the leaders of Israel.”

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign LORD: What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty. So my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal.” – Ezekiel 34:2-5 NLT

He went on to accuse these men of abandonment and abuse, fueled by selfishness and self-preservation. And then He condemned their actions by guaranteeing His judgment of them.

“I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.” – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT

God asks the leaders of Judah a rhetorical question designed to accentuate the egregious nature of their sin: “Is it not for you to know justice?” (Micah 3:1 ESV). The Hebrew word translated as “justice” is mishpat, and it carries the idea of “judgment” or “the act of judging.” As the leaders of God’s people, these individuals should have known what He expected in terms of proper conduct. God had given His law to Moses, and it contained an extremely detailed list of rules and regulations designed to govern virtually every area of Hebrew life. God had left nothing to chance or up to their imaginations.

And yet, the leaders of Israel seemed to behave as if they were ignorant of God’s commands. In fact, God flatly states, “you who hate the good and love the evil” (Micah 3:2 ESV). They were completely out of touch with God’s expectations concerning “justice.” And, once again, this was not a new problem. God had pointed it out before. The prophet Isaiah also called the people of Judah to repentance, demanding that they begin obeying God’s holy law once again.

Wash yourselves and be clean!
    Get your sins out of my sight.
    Give up your evil ways.
Learn to do good.
    Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
    Defend the cause of orphans.
    Fight for the rights of widows. – Isaiah 1:16-17 NLT

Isaiah even compared Judah to the infamous cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, which God had destroyed for their wickedness.

Listen to the Lord, you leaders of “Sodom.”
    Listen to the law of our God, people of “Gomorrah.” – Isaiah 1:10 NLT

Notice Isaiah’s mention of the law of God. The people of Judah were ignoring God’s decrees and living according to their own brand of justice and righteousness, with the end result being that they celebrated evil as good and good as evil. Just a few chapters later, Isaiah pronounces a woe upon all those who choose to replace God’s justice with their own perverted version of reality.

What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

God compares these men to hunters who mercilessly kill their prey, stripping off the skin and tearing the meat from the bone. And the imagery is meant to be graphic and alarming. Notice that God doesn’t refer to the people of Judah as sheep, but as “my people.” The description of the slaughter and subsequent “devouring” of God’s people was meant to conjure up images of cannibalism, something that would have shocked even the most insensitive and sin-saturated among them.

The prophet Zephaniah records another stinging condemnation from God against the leaders of Jerusalem.

Her officials within her
    are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
    that leave nothing till the morning.
Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men;
her priests profane what is holy;
    they do violence to the law. – Zephaniah 3:3-4 ESV

Rather than providing compassionate care, they consume. Their judgment, rather than being guided by justice and righteousness, is driven by their uncontrolled animal desires. They profane God’s holy law by replacing it with their own set of man-made standards designed to feed their sinful appetites.

But Micah warns that these very same individuals will one day find themselves on the receiving end of all the pain and suffering. The predators will become prey. The hunters will become the hunted. And when the tables are turned and these leaders cry out to God for help, He will ignore them.

Then they will cry to the Lord,
    but he will not answer them;
he will hide his face from them at that time,
    because they have made their deeds evil. – Micah 3:4 ESV

These men had been given the honor of leading God’s people. But that role came with heavy responsibilities. God considered them to be shepherds of His sheep. Their primary role was that of caregivers, tasked with protecting and providing for those over whom God had made them stewards. Their first and foremost responsibility was to ensure that God’s people knew God’s laws and lived according to them. But these men had failed at their task. They had used their positions of power and influence to feed their own egos and line their own pockets. And God was going to hold them accountable.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson