Polluted Prophets, Priests, and Princes

17 And the word of the Lord came to me: 18 “Son of man, the house of Israel has become dross to me; all of them are bronze and tin and iron and lead in the furnace; they are dross of silver. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: Because you have all become dross, therefore, behold, I will gather you into the midst of Jerusalem. 20 As one gathers silver and bronze and iron and lead and tin into a furnace, to blow the fire on it in order to melt it, so I will gather you in my anger and in my wrath, and I will put you in and melt you. 21 I will gather you and blow on you with the fire of my wrath, and you shall be melted in the midst of it. 22 As silver is melted in a furnace, so you shall be melted in the midst of it, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I have poured out my wrath upon you.”

23 And the word of the Lord came to me: 24 “Son of man, say to her, You are a land that is not cleansed or rained upon in the day of indignation. 25 The conspiracy of her prophets in her midst is like a roaring lion tearing the prey; they have devoured human lives; they have taken treasure and precious things; they have made many widows in her midst. 26 Her priests have done violence to my law and have profaned my holy things. They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean, and they have disregarded my Sabbaths, so that I am profaned among them. 27 Her princes in her midst are like wolves tearing the prey, shedding blood, destroying lives to get dishonest gain. 28 And her prophets have smeared whitewash for them, seeing false visions and divining lies for them, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’ when the Lord has not spoken. 29 The people of the land have practiced extortion and committed robbery. They have oppressed the poor and needy, and have extorted from the sojourner without justice. 30 And I sought for a man among them who should build up the wall and stand in the breach before me for the land, that I should not destroy it, but I found none. 31 Therefore I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 22:17-31 ESV

God pulled no punches in His indictment of His disobedient people. There were no bright spots for Him to point out and very few reasons for Him to offer compliments or commendations. His assessment of the Israelites was dark and far from flattering, and it left no one unscathed.

“…the people of Israel are the worthless slag that remains after silver is smelted. They are the dross that is left over—a useless mixture of copper, tin, iron, and lead.” – Ezekiel 22:18 NLT

The entire nation had become contaminated by centuries of sinful behavior, produced by their penchant for idolatry and immorality. Israel, once the prized possession of God Almighty, had allowed itself to become defiled and corrupted through its ongoing love affair with the world. They had lived out the stark reality of 1 John 2:15-17.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave.

And God informs Ezekiel that He would use His coming judgment as a refining fire to purify His contaminated people.

“Just as silver, copper, iron, lead, and tin are melted down in a furnace, I will melt you down in the heat of my fury. I will gather you together and blow the fire of my anger upon you, and you will melt like silver in fierce heat. – Ezekiel 22:20-22 NLT

God’s judgment was far from just punitive in nature. It had a positive aspect to it. God was going to use it to purify and cleanse His people; an act they had failed to carry out on their own. All throughout the book of Deuteronomy, Moses provides the Israelites with repeated instructions to “purge the evil” in their midst. These admonitions to practice corporate cleansing were written before the Israelites ever set foot in the land of Canaan. Moses was warning them that God expected His chosen people to pursue holiness at all costs.

Moses listed a variety of instances in which corporate cleansing would be necessary, including when any individual violated God’s covenant by practicing idolatry.

“…they might serve other gods or worship the sun, the moon, or any of the stars—the forces of heaven—which I have strictly forbidden…” – Deuteronomy 17:3 NLT

When that happened, an investigation was to be launched, guilt determined, and punishment served.

“…then the man or woman who has committed such an evil act must be taken to the gates of the town and stoned to death…” – Deuteronomy 17:5 NLT

And Moses states the desired outcome of this display of corporal punishment: “In this way, you will purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 17:7 NLT). And he would apply this same exacting standard to false prophets (Deuteronomy 13), false witnesses (Deuteronomy 19), rebellious sons (Deuteronomy 21), and those guilty of adultery (Deuteronomy 22). In each case, Moses affirmed that the goal was to “purge such evil from among you.”

But the Israelites had failed to heed Moses’ warnings. Over the centuries, they had developed a bad habit of excusing sin and turning a blind eye to its damaging effects on their corporate purity. As a result, by the time God was delivering His message of coming judgment to Ezekiel, He had determined that Israel was “a polluted land” (Ezekiel 22:24 NLT). They were damaged goods. And the cancer was widespread and went all the way to the top of the Israelite leadership structure.

In the closing verses of this chapter, Ezekiel includes God’s indictments against the prophets, priests, and princes who had played a role in the nation’s moral collapse. He accused the princes of devouring innocent people, seizing treasures, and extorting wealth (Deuteronomy 17:25). The priests were guilty of violating His instructions and defiling His holy things. They made no distinction between what is holy and what is not (Deuteronomy 17:26). The princes and priests were in it for the money, and the prophets were complicit in their sin by covering up for them by announcing false visions and making lying predictions (Deuteronomy 17:28). This unholy trinity of civic and religious leaders had done irreparable damage to the nation.

These men were in positions of responsibility. They should have been in the vanguard of those seeking to restore the holiness of God’s people. But sadly, God states that when He sought to find someone who would stand in the gap and restore the purity of His people, He came up empty-handed.

“I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn’t have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” – Ezekiel 22:30 NLT

It’s difficult to read this verse and not be reminded of the famous WWII recruitment poster of Uncle Sam pointing his finger and saying, “I want you!” Here in Ezekiel 22, God is pointing His finger and saying that He looked for a few good men, but found none. There was no one who might help rebuild the spiritual walls of the nation of Judah. Not a single man could be found who was willing or able to stand in the gaping holes of the nation’s proverbial spiritual wall. There was no one willing to protect the people and preserve the integrity of God’s name.

God said, “I searched…but I found no one!” He could find plenty of murderers, unethical leaders, immoral husbands and wives, extortioners, swindlers, unrighteous priests, and false prophets, but He couldn’t a single, solitary man to “stand in the gap.”

From God’s perspective, the land was polluted. The people were like worthless slag, the leftovers of the refining process. The chosen people of God had become valueless because they were no longer holy and set apart. Rather than live their lives as God’s special possession, set apart for His use and His glory, they had chosen to defile themselves and dishonor God by serving other gods. After all that God had done for them, there was not a single individual whom God could point at and say, “I want you!” Yes, He had Ezekiel, Daniel, Jeremiah, Nehemiah, and a handful of other prophets, but there was a glaring absence of faithful men and women who could be trusted to help rebuild the spiritual legacy of the nation of Israel. Things were so bad that even God’s faithful prophets would prove unsuccessful in stemming the tide of sin and rebellion. The moral condition of the nation had reached an all-time low.

But this chapter reminds us that God is always looking for men and women who will rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. Today, we face similar conditions to that of Ezekiel’s day, including immorality, unethical leadership, graft, greed, corruption, and a growing sense of spiritual apathy. And God is looking for a few good men and women who will stand in the gap and help preserve righteousness.

It’s not that they don’t exist, but that they seem to be few in number. The righteous seem to be overwhelmed by the unrighteous and the spiritually indifferent. But God has always worked with a remnant. He is looking for the faithful few through whom He can restore the spiritual walls that have been damaged by constant exposure to sin and unrighteousness.

God is still looking for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. He continues to search for someone to stand in the gap in the wall. Has He found you? Are you willing, ready, and able to do your part?

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.

From Rags to Riches and Back Again

1 Again the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, make known to Jerusalem her abominations, and say, Thus says the Lord God to Jerusalem: Your origin and your birth are of the land of the Canaanites; your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite. And as for your birth, on the day you were born your cord was not cut, nor were you washed with water to cleanse you, nor rubbed with salt, nor wrapped in swaddling cloths. No eye pitied you, to do any of these things to you out of compassion for you, but you were cast out on the open field, for you were abhorred, on the day that you were born.

“And when I passed by you and saw you wallowing in your blood, I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I said to you in your blood, ‘Live!’ I made you flourish like a plant of the field. And you grew up and became tall and arrived at full adornment. Your breasts were formed, and your hair had grown; yet you were naked and bare.

“When I passed by you again and saw you, behold, you were at the age for love, and I spread the corner of my garment over you and covered your nakedness; I made my vow to you and entered into a covenant with you, declares the Lord God, and you became mine. Then I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil. 10 I clothed you also with embroidered cloth and shod you with fine leather. I wrapped you in fine linen and covered you with silk. 11 And I adorned you with ornaments and put bracelets on your wrists and a chain on your neck. 12 And I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head. 13 Thus you were adorned with gold and silver, and your clothing was of fine linen and silk and embroidered cloth. You ate fine flour and honey and oil. You grew exceedingly beautiful and advanced to royalty. 14 And your renown went forth among the nations because of your beauty, for it was perfect through the splendor that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.  Ezekiel 16:1-14 ESV

Chapter 16 contains the remarkable rags-to-riches story of the nation of Israel. In it, God uses the city of Jerusalem as a symbol of His chosen people, describing how it rose to a place of prominence and privilege from its humble and rather sordid beginnings. And this unprecedented transformation had been the result of God’s unmerited mercy and love.

God begins with a depiction of Jerusalem’s less-than-flattering origins.

“You are nothing but a Canaanite! Your father was an Amorite and your mother a Hittite.” – Ezekiel 16:2 NLT

The city of Jerusalem had begun its rather sordid history as a Canaanite city, having been founded by Amorites and Hittites. At one time, it had been occupied by Jebusites and received its original name of Jebus. But during the lifetime of Abraham, it had been ruled over by a king named Melchizedek and bore the name of Salem (Genesis 14:18). At some point, its name was changed to Jerusalem and this was the city that King David attacked, conquered, and established as his royal capital.

David then led his men to Jerusalem to fight against the Jebusites, the original inhabitants of the land who were living there. The Jebusites taunted David, saying, “You’ll never get in here! Even the blind and lame could keep you out!” For the Jebusites thought they were safe. But David captured the fortress of Zion, which is now called the City of David. – 2 Samuel 5:6-7 NLT

So David made the fortress his home, and he called it the City of David. He extended the city, starting at the supporting terraces and working inward. And David became more and more powerful, because the Lord God of Heaven’s Armies was with him. – 2 Samuel 5:9-10 NLT

But God describes Jerusalem’s origins as far from impressive.

On the day you were born, no one cared about you. – Ezekiel 16:4 NLT

On the day you were born, you were unwanted, dumped in a field and left to die. – Ezekiel 16:5 NLT

Jerusalem had never been an impressive place. It was not located along any trade routes and it had no natural resources from which to profit. It was located a significant distance from the Mediterranean Sea and the nearest body of water was the salt-infused and, therefore, lifeless Dead Sea. Though it was located on the lower slope of Mount Moriah, Jerusalem was not blessed with natural defensive qualities. To secure his city, David was required to build large walls and this effort was completed by Solomon, his son and heir to his throne.

But long before Jerusalem’s glory days as the capital city of Israel, it had been nothing but an insignificant and unimpressive dot on the proverbial map. In its original state, Jerusalem had nothing to offer. As cities go, it wasn’t much to look at and there weren’t a lot of people beating down the door to live within its walls. Yet, God had shown pity on this pitiful place.

“But I came by and saw you there, helplessly kicking about in your own blood. As you lay there, I said, ‘Live!’ And I helped you to thrive like a plant in the field. You grew up and became a beautiful jewel. Your breasts became full, and your body hair grew, but you were still naked.” – Ezekiel 16:6-7 NLT

Through the efforts of David and Solomon, God slowly transformed Jerusalem into a magnificent city. And He describes the city’s metamorphosis in terms of a lover bestowing expensive gifts on his bride.

“I gave you expensive clothing of fine linen and silk, beautifully embroidered, and sandals made of fine goatskin leather. I gave you lovely jewelry, bracelets, beautiful necklaces, a ring for your nose, earrings for your ears, and a lovely crown for your head. And so you were adorned with gold and silver. Your clothes were made of fine linen and costly fabric and were beautifully embroidered. You ate the finest foods—choice flour, honey, and olive oil—and became more beautiful than ever. You looked like a queen, and so you were!” – Ezekiel 16:10-13 NLT

God knew that the people of Judah, even those living in exile in Babylon, had placed a great deal of hope in the existence of the former hometown. At one time, they had all enjoyed the amenities and perks that came with living in this beautiful incredible city. They had personally benefited from the many blessings God had bestowed upon Jerusalem. For centuries, the people of Israel had walked within its walls and taken in the grandeur of the king’s palace and the splendor of the magnificent temple that Solomon had built and dedicated to Yahweh. On their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the people of Israel would sing songs celebrating the greatness of their God and the city that contained His house.

I was glad when they said to me,
    “Let us go to the house of the Lord.”
And now here we are,
    standing inside your gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is a well-built city;
    its seamless walls cannot be breached. – Psalm 122:1-3 NLT

Those who trust in the Lord are as secure as Mount Zion;
    they will not be defeated but will endure forever.
Just as the mountains surround Jerusalem,
    so the Lord surrounds his people, both now and forever. – Psalm 125:1-2 NLT

God knew that the exiles were still counting on the fact that He would continue to protect their former home. They couldn’t imagine their God allowing the city of David to fall into enemy hands. Any thought of the Babylonians breaking through the impregnable walls of the city was beyond their imaginations. It was impossible, inconceivable, and highly improbable. Or so they thought.

What they failed to understand was that the city was nothing more than a symbol of their spiritual state as a nation. It had once been an insignificant and unimpressive backwater town, but God had transformed it into a city of great beauty and power. The same was true of Israel as a nation. There had been a time when they were few in number and far from impressive and yet God had chosen them as His own. Moses records their transformation from relative obscurity to prominence in the book of Deuteronomy.

“The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:7-8 NLT

Long before the people of Israel conquered the land of Canaan and occupied the city of Jerusalem, God had demanded that they live in faithful obedience to His commands.

“He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands. But he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him. Therefore, you must obey all these commands, decrees, and regulations I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 7:9-11 NLT

Centuries later, when Solomon had completed the construction of the temple and dedicated it to the Lord, he received a sobering warning from God.

“…if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey the commands and decrees I have given you, and if you serve and worship other gods, then I will uproot Israel from this land that I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have made holy to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations. And though this Temple is impressive now, all who pass by will be appalled and will gasp in horror. They will ask, ‘Why did the Lord do such terrible things to this land and to this Temple?’” – 1 Kings 9:6-8 NLT

The temple and the city of Jerusalem were nothing more than symbols of God’s glory and goodness. They existed to demonstrate His blessings upon the obedient people of Israel. But should the people who lived within the city’s walls and worshiped within the temple’s courtyard fail to honor and obey Him as God, they would see their circumstances drastically altered and their city dramatically destroyed.

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.

We Can Do This the Hard Way

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face toward the mountains of Israel, and prophesy against them, and say, You mountains of Israel, hear the word of the Lord God! Thus says the Lord God to the mountains and the hills, to the ravines and the valleys: Behold, I, even I, will bring a sword upon you, and I will destroy your high places. Your altars shall become desolate, and your incense altars shall be broken, and I will cast down your slain before your idols. And I will lay the dead bodies of the people of Israel before their idols, and I will scatter your bones around your altars. Wherever you dwell, the cities shall be waste and the high places ruined, so that your altars will be waste and ruined, your idols broken and destroyed, your incense altars cut down, and your works wiped out. And the slain shall fall in your midst, and you shall know that I am the Lord.

“Yet I will leave some of you alive. When you have among the nations some who escape the sword, and when you are scattered through the countries, then those of you who escape will remember me among the nations where they are carried captive, how I have been broken over their whoring heart that has departed from me and over their eyes that go whoring after their idols. And they will be loathsome in their own sight for the evils that they have committed, for all their abominations. 10 And they shall know that I am the Lord. I have not said in vain that I would do this evil to them.”

11 Thus says the Lord God: “Clap your hands and stamp your foot and say, Alas, because of all the evil abominations of the house of Israel, for they shall fall by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. 12 He who is far off shall die of pestilence, and he who is near shall fall by the sword, and he who is left and is preserved shall die of famine. Thus I will spend my fury upon them. 13 And you shall know that I am the Lord, when their slain lie among their idols around their altars, on every high hill, on all the mountaintops, under every green tree, and under every leafy oak, wherever they offered pleasing aroma to all their idols. 14 And I will stretch out my hand against them and make the land desolate and waste, in all their dwelling places, from the wilderness to Riblah. Then they will know that I am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 6:1-14 ESV

Four separate times in 14 verses, God insists that when He is done, the rebellious people of Israel “will know that I am the Lord.” God is a relational being and He had chosen the nation of Israel to enjoy a unique relationship with Him. He had set them apart as His own prized possession with the intent of revealing to them His glory and goodness. Even all the way back in Egypt, long before Moses had delivered them from their captivity, God had promised to reveal Himself to them in powerful and highly tangible ways.

I am the Lord, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from slavery to them, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment. I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God, who has brought you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob. I will give it to you for a possession. I am the Lord.” – Exodus 6:6-8 ESV

Their miraculous deliverance was intended to demonstrate the power, majesty, and sovereignty of God. He was greater than the Egyptians and their plethora of false gods. He was the covenant-keeping God who could be trusted to keep every promise He had made to Abraham, whose descendants would eventually escape captivity in Egypt and find themselves safely ensconced in the promised land of Canaan.

All along their journey from captivity to Canaan, God revealed Himself to His people. After miraculously delivering them across the Red Sea on dry ground and defeating the forces of Egypt, He had led them by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He had sustained them with manna from heaven and water from a rock. And during their four-decade-long journey through the wilderness of Sinai, He had even kept their clothes from wearing out. He had given them His law to reveal His holy expectations of them and regulate their behavior. And knowing that they would fail to keep His law perfectly, He provided them with the sacrificial system to atone for the sins they would commit so that they might be able to restore their broken relationship with Him.

God had repeatedly proven His greatness, and they should have known that He alone was the one true God. He had no equals. In His deliverance of the Israelites, He had exposed the gods of the Egyptians as frauds and nothing more than the figments of the imaginations of men. And when they began their conquest of the land of Canaan, God was with them, providing them with victories over much larger armies. The Canaanites and their gods proved to be powerless before Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

And even before their conquest of the land had begun, God had warned them about adopting the religious practices of the Canaanites. They were not to emulate their pagan ways or worship their gods.

“When the Lord your God goes ahead of you and destroys the nations and you drive them out and live in their land, do not fall into the trap of following their customs and worshiping their gods. Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations worship their gods? I want to follow their example.’ You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates. They even burn their sons and daughters as sacrifices to their gods.” – Deuteronomy 12:29-31 NLT

But the people of Israel would fail to keep God’s commands. Over the centuries, they developed an unhealthy love affair with the false gods of the Canaanites. The kings of Israel had a track record of adopting the false gods of their enemies and adulterating their worship of Yahweh with unacceptable practices that He found deplorable.

And all along the way, God had warned His people about the dangers of their rebellious ways. He was a jealous God who would not tolerate their unfaithfulness and spiritual infidelity. By this time, they should have known that He alone was God. But they were still prone to seek the help and favor of any pagan god who might be able to give them a leg up on their enemies. They had become equal-opportunity idolators, willing to cozy up to any god who might provide them with an advantage or satisfy their insatiable lust for power, possessions, and pleasure. For them, Yahweh was not enough. They wanted more. And they were willing to prostitute themselves before the false gods of the Canaanites in order to satisfy what the apostle John described as “a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions” (1 John 2:16 NLT).

Their blatant unfaithfulness had resulted in the Babylonian invasion of Judah. God informed the prophet, Jeremiah, that King Nebuchadnezzar had been handpicked by God to serve as His agent of judgment against His rebellious people.

“I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the Lord, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.” – Jeremiah 25:9 ESV

And by the time Ezekiel penned his book, King Nebuchadnezzar had already defeated Judah and taken thousands of its citizens captive. But God was not done. The people of Judah remained unrepentant and unwilling to give up their love affair with false gods. That is why God gave Ezekiel a message for the people living back in Judah. He was to declare God’s pending judgment against the “mountains of Israel” (Ezekiel 6:3). This reference most certainly included the most prominent and important mountain range in all of Israel: Mount Moriah. This mountain range included Mount Zion on which Jerusalem sat and within whose walls the temple of God was located.

But God made it clear that His holy mountain was surrounded by altars and shrines to false gods. The land of Judah was literally filled with sacred worship sights dedicated to the gods of the Canaanites, and God was not pleased.

“I am about to bring war upon you, and I will smash your pagan shrines. All your altars will be demolished, and your places of worship will be destroyed. I will kill your people in front of your idols. I will lay your corpses in front of your idols and scatter your bones around your altars. Wherever you live there will be desolation, and I will destroy your pagan shrines. Your altars will be demolished, your idols will be smashed, your places of worship will be torn down, and all the religious objects you have made will be destroyed. The place will be littered with corpses, and you will know that I alone am the Lord.” – Ezekiel 6:3-7 NLT

It’s as if God is saying, “We can do this the hard way or we can do this the easy way.” God is a relational God. He chose the people of Israel to have a relationship with Him and to get to know Him – intimately and personally. He chose to dwell among them. He gave them His law to follow. He led them, directed them, protected them, and even spoke to them. He revealed Himself to them through miracles and divine intervention. He won battles for them. He rescued and rewarded them. All so that they might know Him. But the people of Israel decided to reject this personal God for a litany of impersonal, impotent, man-made gods.

Instead of recognizing and appreciating the power and presence of Yahweh, they turned their attention and affections elsewhere. So, God decided to reveal Himself differently. They were going to get to know Him the hard way. They would experience the power of God moving in their midst, but it would bring destruction, not blessing. He was going to smash their pagan shrines, demolish their altars, and destroy the places of worship where they pursued other gods.

When all the dust had settled, they were going to know that God had been in their midst. They were going to know that He had spoken and He always does what he says He will do. They were going to know that God was powerful and deadly serious about His people living lives that were set apart and distinctive from those of the other nations.

“You people have behaved worse than your neighbors and have refused to obey my decrees and regulations. You have not even lived up to the standards of the nations around you.” – Ezekiel 5:7 NLT

One way or the other, the people of God were going to get to know their God. But they were choosing the hard way. They were making it difficult on themselves. God had wanted to reveal Himself through blessing and abundance. He had wanted to have an intimate relationship with them that was characterized by care and compassion. In His grace and mercy, He had chosen them from among all the nations, not because they deserved it, but because He wanted to reveal Himself in a special way to a very specific people. He had intended to use them to showcase His love. They were to be His living illustration to the world.

But they refused to accept His love and obey His commands. He pursued them, but they rejected Him. So now they were going to get to know God the hard way.

But this chapter provides a powerful lesson for every child of God. Why do we make it so hard on ourselves? Why do we force God to reveal Himself through discipline and prove Himself to us by rebuking us? God has given us His Son. He has chosen us for a personal, intimate relationship with Him. He wants us to know Him closely and deeply. But far too often, we choose the hard way over the easy way.

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 Performance of a Lifetime

1 “And you, son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. And put siegeworks against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a mound against it. Set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all around. And you, take an iron griddle, and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; and set your face toward it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel.

“Then lie on your left side, and place the punishment of the house of Israel upon it. For the number of the days that you lie on it, you shall bear their punishment. For I assign to you a number of days, 390 days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment. So long shall you bear the punishment of the house of Israel. And when you have completed these, you shall lie down a second time, but on your right side, and bear the punishment of the house of Judah. Forty days I assign you, a day for each year. And you shall set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city. And behold, I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege. – Ezekiel 4:1-8 ESV

Ezekiel was a priest who had been commissioned by God to be His prophet, but then God made him a prisoner in his own home. And with the opening verses of chapter four, Ezekiel receives yet one more role – that of a performance artist. Not only would he be required to speak on God’s behalf, delivering His messages of judgment to the people, but he was going to have to act out those messages in a series of strange one-man plays.

Evidently, Ezekiel was given a reprieve from his God-ordained house arrest, long enough to carry out the first of God’s bizarre parables in 3-D. These performances were intended to visually demonstrate God’s pending judgment upon the nation of Judah. Without speaking a word, Ezekiel was to stage a one-act, outdoor theater production complete with props and a plot line.

“…son of man, take a brick and lay it before you, and engrave on it a city, even Jerusalem. And put siegeworks against it, and build a siege wall against it, and cast up a mound against it. Set camps also against it, and plant battering rams against it all around. And you, take an iron griddle, and place it as an iron wall between you and the city; and set your face toward it, and let it be in a state of siege, and press the siege against it. This is a sign for the house of Israel. – Ezekiel 4:1-3 NLT

One can only imagine the look on Ezekiel’s face when he received this command from the Almighty. There is no way of knowing whether Ezekiel was an introvert or an extrovert, but it is safe to say that neither temperament would have made this command easy to obey. After all, God was asking His prophet to make a fool of himself – in public. Ezekiel was going to have to put on a performance as “a sign for the house of Israel.” He couldn’t do it in the privacy of his own home but would be forced to take his show on the road, acting it out in the streets for all to see.

The thought must have run through Ezekiel’s head that this little parable in a play was going to get less-than-stellar reviews. He must have considered the stinging ridicule he would have to endure as he carried out God’s command. But the text contains no record of Ezekiel’s thoughts. We are provided with no insights into his state of mind as he received the divine script for his first performance. Like a mime, Ezekiel was to act out this drama without any words. God provided him with a detailed list of the props he was to use along with the state directions he was to follow.

God commanded him to take a common clay brick and draw on it the image of the city of Jerusalem. He was to place the brick outside his house, in full view of the people, then build siege walls, ramps, and an enemy camp around it. Like a little boy playing with toy soldiers, Ezekiel was to construct a model of the siege of Jerusalem. But that’s not all. It gets worse. God commanded Ezekiel to erect an iron plate, then to lie down on his left side for a period of 390 days with the iron plate between himself and the “city” of Jerusalem. When the 390 days were up, he was to turn over and lie on his right side for another 40 days.

There has been much debate over the years as to what all this was intended to mean. It seems obvious that God was commanding Ezekiel to act out the siege and eventual fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians. But why would God have Ezekiel act out an event that had already occurred? After all, the people of Judah to whom Ezekiel was prophesying were in Babylon because of the fall of Jerusalem. They have lived through these events. But there is some speculation that Ezekiel was acting out two different sieges of Jerusalem. The first took place in 597 BC and is recorded in 2 Kings 24:10-17. At that time, Nebuchadnezzar’s troops entered Jerusalem and “carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold” (2 Kings 24:13 ESV). The Babylonians took 10,000 people captive and it is likely that Ezekiel was among them.

But 11 years later, the Babylonians would return and lay siege to the city again. This time, they bring about its complete destruction.

Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem. – 2 Kings 25:8-10 ESV

It seems likely that Ezekiel was acting out the second siege of Jerusalem which had not yet taken place. While his audience would have experienced the terrors associated with the first siege of 597 BC, God was letting them know that there was more judgment to come.

There were those among the exiles who were declaring that their stay in Babylon was coming to an end and God was going to return them to Judah. The rumors had been circulating that their predicament was temporary in nature. God was going to spare them and allow them to return home. But they were not living in obedience to God’s law and had never repented of the sins that had led to their captivity in the first place.

Hundreds of years earlier, God had warned the people of Israel what would happen if they failed to remain faithful to Him. Through His prophet, Moses, God had conveyed the curses that would come upon them if they refused to keep His commands.

“They will attack your cities until all the fortified walls in your land—the walls you trusted to protect you—are knocked down. They will attack all the towns in the land the Lord your God has given you.

“The siege and terrible distress of the enemy’s attack will be so severe that you will eat the flesh of your own sons and daughters, whom the Lord your God has given you.” – Deuteronomy 28:52-53 NLT

Now, centuries later, God was having Ezekiel act out the ramifications of their continued rebellion. Even though they had personally endured the first siege and ended up as captives in the land of Babylon, they had never repented of their sins. Some commentators believe the iron plate was represent the barrier between God and His chosen people. Because of their ongoing stubbornness and continuing unfaithfulness, the remaining inhabitants of Jerusalem would find their prayers unanswered and God’s help unavailable. He would not rescue them from their coming trial.

And the exiles watching Ezekiel’s performance would discover that any hopes they had of returning to Jerusalem were nothing but wishful thinking. God gave Ezekiel firm instructions that were to communicate a clear message.

“…set your face toward the siege of Jerusalem, with your arm bared, and you shall prophesy against the city.” – Ezekiel 4:7 ESV

Ezekiel was to play that part of God in this divine drama. His bare arm was a symbol of God’s all-powerful and inescapable judgment. The Almighty would be behind the second siege of Jerusalem and would bring about its utter destruction.

There has been much debate regarding the meaning behind the length of days that Ezekiel was required to lie on his side. God makes it clear that the days represent years.

“I assign to you a number of days, 390 days, equal to the number of the years of their punishment. So long shall you bear the punishment of the house of Israel.” – Ezekiel 4:5 ESV

And if you add the 40 days to the 390, you get 430 total days or years. But what do they represent? It is interesting to note that this was the same number of years the Israelites were captives in the land of Egypt before God delivered them through Moses. Perhaps there was a not-so-subtle message concerning God’s future deliverance of His rebellious people when He eventually allowed a remnant of them to return to the land of Judah under Nehemiah.

But while we cannot ascertain the exact meaning behind the 430 years, God wanted Ezekiel to spend more than a year of his life acting out this drama. And to help him do so, God divinely restrained him with ropes.

“I will place cords upon you, so that you cannot turn from one side to the other, till you have completed the days of your siege.” – Ezekiel 4:8 ESV

God knew this was going to be a difficult assignment and, along the way, Ezekiel would face plenty of temptations to quit. God had already told him his audience would prove disinterested and unwilling to hear what he had to say. So, day after day, month after month, Ezekiel would act out his drama to an unresponsive and unappreciative audience. But he was to complete the task assigned to him, and God made sure that he did so.

Yet, as distasteful as this assignment was, God was going to make it even more difficult, all in order to dramatize the devastation awaiting His rebellious and unrepentant people.

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.

Living With the Future In Mind

1 The heads of the fathers’ houses of the clan of the people of Gilead the son of Machir, son of Manasseh, from the clans of the people of Joseph, came near and spoke before Moses and before the chiefs, the heads of the fathers’ houses of the people of Israel. They said, “The Lord commanded my lord to give the land for inheritance by lot to the people of Israel, and my lord was commanded by the Lord to give the inheritance of Zelophehad our brother to his daughters. But if they are married to any of the sons of the other tribes of the people of Israel, then their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of our fathers and added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry. So it will be taken away from the lot of our inheritance. And when the jubilee of the people of Israel comes, then their inheritance will be added to the inheritance of the tribe into which they marry, and their inheritance will be taken from the inheritance of the tribe of our fathers.”

And Moses commanded the people of Israel according to the word of the Lord, saying, “The tribe of the people of Joseph is right. This is what the Lord commands concerning the daughters of Zelophehad: ‘Let them marry whom they think best, only they shall marry within the clan of the tribe of their father. The inheritance of the people of Israel shall not be transferred from one tribe to another, for every one of the people of Israel shall hold on to the inheritance of the tribe of his fathers. And every daughter who possesses an inheritance in any tribe of the people of Israel shall be wife to one of the clan of the tribe of her father, so that every one of the people of Israel may possess the inheritance of his fathers. So no inheritance shall be transferred from one tribe to another, for each of the tribes of the people of Israel shall hold on to its own inheritance.’”

10 The daughters of Zelophehad did as the Lord commanded Moses, 11 for Mahlah, Tirzah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Noah, the daughters of Zelophehad, were married to sons of their father’s brothers. 12 They were married into the clans of the people of Manasseh the son of Joseph, and their inheritance remained in the tribe of their father’s clan.

13 These are the commandments and the rules that the Lord commanded through Moses to the people of Israel in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho. Numbers 36:1-13 ESV

The book of Numbers ends on a rather strange and anticlimactic note. As the people prepare to enter Canaan and begin their long-awaited conquest of the land and its inhabitants, Moses is forced to reconsider a problem he has already addressed. Back in chapter 27, Moses recounted the story of the three daughters of Zelophehad, a member of the tribe of Manasseh. These three unmarried women approached Moses with a dilemma; their father had died without any sons to inherit his portion of the land. As unmarried women, they were prohibited from serving as heirs to their father’s estate, which meant that they would receive no land allotment in Canaan. So, they had taken their problem to Moses for recourse.

Why should the name of our father disappear from his clan just because he had no sons? Give us property along with the rest of our relatives.” – Numbers 27:4 NLT

Moses had determined their request to be legitimate and decided in their favor.

“The claim of the daughters of Zelophehad is legitimate. You must give them a grant of land along with their father’s relatives. Assign them the property that would have been given to their father.” – Numbers 27:7 NLT

But the problem was not over. As the day fast approached when Israel would enter the land and begin its conquest, the rest of the members of the tribe of Manasseh raised a concern about Moses’ previous decision.

“Sir, the Lord instructed you to divide the land by sacred lot among the people of Israel. You were told by the Lord to give the grant of land owned by our brother Zelophehad to his daughters. But if they marry men from another tribe, their grants of land will go with them to the tribe into which they marry. In this way, the total area of our tribal land will be reduced.” – Numbers 36:2-3 NLT

They had spotted a flaw in Moses’ plan. According to custom, if any of these women were to end up marrying a man outside the tribe of Manasseh, their land allotment would automatically become the possession of her new husband. Married women were not allowed to retain land ownership rights. And to make matters worse, in the year of Jubilee, the land would become the permanent possession of the husband’s tribe.

“…when the Year of Jubilee comes, their portion of land will be added to that of the new tribe, causing it to be lost forever to our ancestral tribe.” – Numbers 36:4 NLT

God had already given the people of Israel His commands concerning the Year of Jubilee.

“…you must count off seven Sabbath years, seven sets of seven years, adding up to forty-nine years in all. Then on the Day of Atonement in the fiftieth year, blow the ram’s horn loud and long throughout the land. Set this year apart as holy, a time to proclaim freedom throughout the land for all who live there. It will be a jubilee year for you, when each of you may return to the land that belonged to your ancestors and return to your own clan. – Leviticus 25:8-10 NLT

Every 50 years, the Israelites were commanded to conduct a year-long celebration of redemption. All prisoners and captives were to be set free, all slaves released, all debts forgiven, and all property returned to its original owners.

“In the jubilee year, the land must be returned to the original owners so they can return to their family land.” – Leviticus 25:28 NLT

But the tribe of Manasseh brought up a potential problem to Moses. Since these women were going to inherit the land of their father upon his death, what would prevent them from marrying a man from another tribe and then the land transferring ownership from one tribe to another? In other words, what would happen if the heiress to her father’s property married someone from a different tribe? In that case, the land of their father would become the property of another tribe, and the tribal allotments would become intermixed and confused. Not only that, one tribe’s land allotment would decrease while another tribe’s property expanded. This would set dangerous precedence, leading tribes to marry outside their clans in order to gain additional land rights.

God had a solution to this problem. But this chapter raises another interesting question: Why did God have Moses end the book of Numbers with this story? Why does the entire book conclude with a story about the daughters of Zelophehad? I think it has to do with a couple of things. First of all, the book of Numbers is about the future. From its very outset, it has been a history of the people of Israel and their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land, but the real focus was not on the past or the present. The theme of the book is Israel’s future.

As the book closes, the concern behind the question raised by the tribe of Manasseh is about the future. They seem to understand that this problem has long-term implications. The land they are all inheriting is not just for those who are living at that time, but for future generations. There is a future aspect to this matter that causes them to be concerned and speak up.

The other issue is that this is not about the individual. While it was wonderful news that the daughters of Zelophehad would be able to inherit the land of their father, ultimately, it wasn’t about them. It wasn’t even about their tribe. It was about the people of God. And God’s concern was for the corporate well-being of His people. If these women had been allowed to marry whomever they wanted to, the divinely ordained land allotment could have been permanently altered with dramatic consequences for the future. One tribe could have ended up with a greater share of the land, resulting in bitter jealousy and fighting between the tribes. So God came up with a plan by which the daughters were free to marry but within certain constraints. They had to marry someone from within their own tribe. And this held true for all cases.

In our world of independence and self-centered philosophy, this concern for the corporate good is foreign to us. We tend to make it all about ourselves. We are wired to do what is best for the individual. The thought of sacrificing for the team is unheard of these days. Everyone is out for their own good. Even famous athletes model a lifestyle of self-promotion and self-preservation. Business owners display little concern for the needs of their employees or customers. Marriages tend to be contractual agreements between two parties that are driven by self-interest and a what’s-in-it-for-me attitude.

But in the story found in chapter 36 of Numbers, God reminds us that it isn’t all about us. It’s about the family of God. And while we are to live in the moment, we are to keep our eyes focused on the future. If not, we will develop a live-for-the-moment mentality that sacrifices the future for the pleasures of today. The daughters of Zelophehad weren’t willing to do that. They did just as Moses directed them. They obeyed. They understood that God had their best interests and the interests of the people of God in mind. And they lived with their eyes on the future. Which is what each of us is called to do as children of God. It isn’t all about me and my happiness. It’s all about the people of God and the future God has prepared for us. Any sacrifice God calls me to make is for the good of the team.

The book of Numbers ends with the statement: “These are the commands and regulations that the Lord gave to the people of Israel through Moses while they were camped on the plains of Moab beside the Jordan River, across from Jericho” (Numbers 36:13 NLT).

The emphasis is on the future. The people of God are on the wrong side of the river and their inheritance lies on the other side. But before they crossed over and began their conquest of the land, God had given them all the instructions they would need to guarantee success and assure them of a bright and blessed future.

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.

A Place of Refuge and Atonement

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 10 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 11 then you shall select cities to be cities of refuge for you, that the manslayer who kills any person without intent may flee there. 12 The cities shall be for you a refuge from the avenger, that the manslayer may not die until he stands before the congregation for judgment. 13 And the cities that you give shall be your six cities of refuge. 14 You shall give three cities beyond the Jordan, and three cities in the land of Canaan, to be cities of refuge. 15 These six cities shall be for refuge for the people of Israel, and for the stranger and for the sojourner among them, that anyone who kills any person without intent may flee there.

16 “But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. 17 And if he struck him down with a stone tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. 18 Or if he struck him down with a wooden tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. 19 The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. 20 And if he pushed him out of hatred or hurled something at him, lying in wait, so that he died, 21 or in enmity struck him down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him.

22 “But if he pushed him suddenly without enmity, or hurled anything on him without lying in wait 23 or used a stone that could cause death, and without seeing him dropped it on him, so that he died, though he was not his enemy and did not seek his harm, 24 then the congregation shall judge between the manslayer and the avenger of blood, in accordance with these rules. 25 And the congregation shall rescue the manslayer from the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge to which he had fled, and he shall live in it until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the holy oil. 26 But if the manslayer shall at any time go beyond the boundaries of his city of refuge to which he fled, 27 and the avenger of blood finds him outside the boundaries of his city of refuge, and the avenger of blood kills the manslayer, he shall not be guilty of blood. 28 For he must remain in his city of refuge until the death of the high priest, but after the death of the high priest the manslayer may return to the land of his possession. 29 And these things shall be for a statute and rule for you throughout your generations in all your dwelling places.

30 “If anyone kills a person, the murderer shall be put to death on the evidence of witnesses. But no person shall be put to death on the testimony of one witness. 31 Moreover, you shall accept no ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, but he shall be put to death. 32 And you shall accept no ransom for him who has fled to his city of refuge, that he may return to dwell in the land before the death of the high priest. 33 You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. 34 You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.”  Numbers 35:9-34 ESV

The cities of refuge. God instructed Moses to set aside six different cities, located throughout the land of Canaan, and designate them as cities of refuge. Occupied by Levites, these cities were strategically placed and easily accessible from all parts of the land. Their purpose was to provide a safe haven to anyone who had committed unpremeditated murder.  If an Israelite inadvertently and unintentionally caused the death of a fellow Israelite, he could flee to one of these cities and seek refuge from the avenger.

In that cultural context, It was up to the relatives of a murder victim to seek vengeance. This “blood avenger” (Numbers 35:19) was not just free to kill the murdered, he was obligated to do so (Numbers 35:19, 21). It was his duty. He was called the “avenger of blood.”

But in order to prevent the blood avenger from taking the life of an innocent individual, the cities of refuge were established. If an Israelite accidentally killed someone else, he could run to one of these cities and seek refuge. As long as he remained there, he would be protected from the blood avenger. It was up to the residents of the city (Levites) to help determine the guilt of innocence of the accused. If it was determined that his actions were premeditated and intentional, he was to be handed over to the blood avenger for retribution. But if he was deemed innocent of having committed voluntary manslaughter, he would be allowed to remain in the city of refuge until the high priest died. In essence, the city became his prison. If he ever left, he would be guilty of violating his sentence and the blood avenger could seek his death.

All of this sounds very barbaric to us, but you have to remember that Israel had no police force for enforcing laws or dispensing justice. According to the Mosaic Law, murder was a crime worthy of death. The guilty must be punished. But involuntary manslaughter was to be dealt with in a different manner. That is why the cities were established. God was protecting the innocent.

God dwelt among His people, and His very presence demanded that they live set-apart lives. His holiness and righteousness required that they live differently and distinctively, abiding by a stringent set of rules and regulations that governed their behavior and interactions with one another. And yet God knew their weaknesses and fully understood their incapacity to live up to His exacting standards. The entire sacrificial system was designed to deal with their ongoing struggle with sin.

To unjustly execute the innocent would have been as evil in God’s sight as to excuse the guilty. So He provided those who had committed involuntary manslaughter a means for finding justice. They could live in the city of refuge and enjoy permanent protection from the “blood avenger.” They were still guilty of murder, but their lives were spared. The city of refuge became their prison until the day that the high priest died. Then his death would serve as an atonement for their sin, providing them with release from their guilt and the right to live among their kinsmen again – innocent and free.

The ongoing presence of God was constantly in jeopardy due to the sinfulness of men. Yet He provided them with countless means by which they could receive restoration and assure His continued existence among them. It was God who set them apart. Without them, they would have been nothing. His presence provided them their distinctiveness. And it was their sin that threatened their uniqueness as His chosen people.

From the day that Adam and Eve sinned in the garden, God has been actively and aggressively seeking to restore order to the chaos created by their actions. Their sin brought disorder, disobedience, and, ultimately, death into the world. It wasn’t long after Eve listened to the lies of the enemy and convinced her husband to join her in rejecting God’s word, that murder showed up on the scene. One of Eve’s own sons killed his brother. Death entered the scene. And disease would not be far behind it. Their bodies would undergo the inevitable effects of aging. Sin would increase. Rebellion against God would run rampant. And yet God continued to reach out to mankind, offering a form of refuge from the consequences of sin.

In a real sense, God’s choosing of Abraham made him and his descendants a “city of refuge” for mankind. The people of Israel would become a single source of God’s abiding presence and divine protection from the guilt and condemnation of sin. It was among the children of God that men could find access to their Creator. It was through the law of God that men could learn of the divine requirements and expectations of a holy God. It was through the sacrificial system instituted by God that men could find atonement for their sins and freedom from the penalty of death they so justly deserved. God had provided a city of refuge among the sons of men. And eventually, God would send His own Son as the ultimate and final means of refuge and escape from sin’s destructive power and God’s righteous judgment.

The Scriptures make it painfully clear that all men are guilty of sin.

For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.– Romans 3:23 ESV

Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins. – Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV

Who can say, “I have made my heart pure; I am clean from my sin?” – Proverbs 20:9 ESV

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

The law of God was given to reveal to men the reality and gravity of their sins. Like a speed limit sign on the side of the freeway, the law provided a constant reminder of man’s proclivity for disobedience and rebellion. Our guilt is unquestionable and undeniable. Sinful humanity stands condemned before a holy and righteous God due to the sinful nature passed down to them from Adam and Eve. All are guilty and all stand condemned. And the very presence of disease and death in our world is an outward reminder of the reality of sin’s devastating consequences.

In the case of someone seeking refuge in one of these cities, if they remained there until the high priest died, their sin was forgiven. They walked away free and clear. The death of the high priest had atoning value just as Jesus’ death for us atones for our sins. No one could accuse this person once the high priest had died. And we stand as unaccused and uncondemned because of what Christ has done for us.

Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? Will God? No! He is the one who has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? Will Christ Jesus? No, for he is the one who died for us and was raised to life for us and is sitting at the place of highest honor next to God, pleading for us. – Romans 8:33-34 NLT

We can take refuge in Christ. He is our high priest and He has died for us. His death has set us free once and for all.

God also bound himself with an oath, so that those who received the promise could be perfectly sure that he would never change his mind. So God has given us both his promise and his oath. These two things are unchangeable because it is impossible for God to lie. Therefore, we who have fled to him for refuge can take new courage, for we can hold on to his promise with confidence. This confidence is like a strong and trustworthy anchor for our souls. It leads us through the curtain of heaven into God’s inner sanctuary. Jesus has already gone in there for us. He has become our eternal High Priest in the line of Melchizedek. – Hebrews 6:17-20 NLT

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.

Our Proactive and Protective God

16 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 17 “These are the names of the men who shall divide the land to you for inheritance: Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun. 18 You shall take one chief from every tribe to divide the land for inheritance. 19 These are the names of the men: Of the tribe of Judah, Caleb the son of Jephunneh. 20 Of the tribe of the people of Simeon, Shemuel the son of Ammihud. 21 Of the tribe of Benjamin, Elidad the son of Chislon. 22 Of the tribe of the people of Dan a chief, Bukki the son of Jogli. 23 Of the people of Joseph: of the tribe of the people of Manasseh a chief, Hanniel the son of Ephod. 24 And of the tribe of the people of Ephraim a chief, Kemuel the son of Shiphtan. 25 Of the tribe of the people of Zebulun a chief, Elizaphan the son of Parnach. 26 Of the tribe of the people of Issachar a chief, Paltiel the son of Azzan. 27 And of the tribe of the people of Asher a chief, Ahihud the son of Shelomi. 28 Of the tribe of the people of Naphtali a chief, Pedahel the son of Ammihud.” 29 These are the men whom the Lord commanded to divide the inheritance for the people of Israel in the land of Canaan. 

1 The Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, “Command the people of Israel to give to the Levites some of the inheritance of their possession as cities for them to dwell in. And you shall give to the Levites pasturelands around the cities. The cities shall be theirs to dwell in, and their pasturelands shall be for their cattle and for their livestock and for all their beasts. The pasturelands of the cities, which you shall give to the Levites, shall reach from the wall of the city outward a thousand cubits all around. And you shall measure, outside the city, on the east side two thousand cubits, and on the south side two thousand cubits, and on the west side two thousand cubits, and on the north side two thousand cubits, the city being in the middle. This shall belong to them as pastureland for their cities.

“The cities that you give to the Levites shall be the six cities of refuge, where you shall permit the manslayer to flee, and in addition to them you shall give forty-two cities. All the cities that you give to the Levites shall be forty-eight, with their pasturelands. And as for the cities that you shall give from the possession of the people of Israel, from the larger tribes you shall take many, and from the smaller tribes you shall take few; each, in proportion to the inheritance that it inherits, shall give of its cities to the Levites.” Numbers 34:16-35:8 ESV

God provided Moses with the name of one man from each of the ten tribes of Israel. These men, hand-picked by God, would assist Eleazar, the high priest, and Joshua in the distribution of the land. The tribes of Gad and Reuben were not included because they had chosen to settle outside the boundaries of Canaan. These men were well-respected leaders among their respective tribes and would help to guarantee that the land was fairly apportioned and that each tribe, regardless of its size, was treated equitably and fairly. There was to be no favoritism or any form of nepotism. The larger tribes, whose numbers would be based on the recent census taken by Moses, would be allotted more extensive land allotments. But that did not mean they would get the best land. God was giving these ten men the weighty responsibility of dividing up the Israelites’ inheritance in a way that would satisfy all the parties involved, and that would not be an easy task.

The next thing on God’s agenda was to arrange for the needs of the tribe of Levi. He had already informed Moses that the Levites would inherit no land in Canaan. He had set apart the tribe of Levi as His special possession and had dedicated them to the care and maintenance of the tabernacle. As a result, God promised to be their inheritance.

“Remember that the Levitical priests—that is, the whole of the tribe of Levi—will receive no allotment of land among the other tribes in Israel. Instead, the priests and Levites will eat from the special gifts given to the Lord, for that is their share. They will have no land of their own among the Israelites. The Lord himself is their special possession, just as he promised them.” – Deuteronomy 18:1-2 NLT

But while the Levites would be allotted no land in Canaan, they would be awarded the deeds to 48 cities located within the territories of each of the other 11 tribes (Joshua 21). Even the tribes of Gad, Reuben, and the half-tribe of Manasseh were required to provide the Levites with towns and pastureland for their flocks. God had made accommodations for the Levites.

These Levitical cities were to be strategically located throughout the nation of Israel so that every Israelite was no more than ten miles from one of them. This helped to ensure that the people of God were never far away from a member of the Levitical priesthood, whose job was to provide instruction in the ways of God. The Levitical priests served as judges (Deuteronomy 17:8-13) and teachers of God’s law (Deuteronomy 33:10). So, it was essential that every Israelite had ready access to a Levitical town and a priest of God.

Of the 48 towns awarded to the Levites, six were to be designated as cities of refuge. These were specially sanctioned zones within the boundaries of Israel where anyone guilty of committing a non-premediated murder could seek asylum. God had already declared His ruling concerning murder (Exodus 20:13), but He had Moses present a special provision for cases involving accidental homicide.

“If someone kills another person unintentionally, without previous hostility, the slayer may flee to any of these cities to live in safety. – Deuteronomy 19:4 NLT

He even had Moses provide a potential scenario in which a city of refuge would become necessary.

“For example, suppose someone goes into the forest with a neighbor to cut wood. And suppose one of them swings an ax to chop down a tree, and the ax head flies off the handle, killing the other person. In such cases, the slayer may flee to one of the cities of refuge to live in safety.” – Deuteronomy 19:5 NLT

God knew that life would happen and that deadly accidents would be a part of the Israelites’ existence in the land. Men would be killed and justice would need to be pursued. But what He didn’t want was some form of vigilante justice running rampant through the nation. Yet God knew that the relatives of a murder victim would tend to seek revenge against the guilty party and ask questions later. The cities of refuge were intended to protect the innocent while justice was being served.

Since Israel had no professional police force, these kinds of accidents could easily turn into bloodbaths where the relatives of the victim sought to avenge their loved one’s death. So, these cities, occupied by the Levites, would provide a place where the guilty party could find solace and seek a fair judgment concerning his guilt or innocence. In His plans for the land of promise, God was leaving nothing to chance. He was creating a well-designed system for dealing with the inevitable problem of sin among His chosen people. He was going to distribute the Levitical priesthood among them to provide spiritual enlightenment and He was going to create safe havens for those who unwittingly committed even the gravest of sins. God was providing for and protecting His people.

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.

Less Is More

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Command the people of Israel, and say to them, When you enter the land of Canaan (this is the land that shall fall to you for an inheritance, the land of Canaan as defined by its borders), your south side shall be from the wilderness of Zin alongside Edom, and your southern border shall run from the end of the Salt Sea on the east. And your border shall turn south of the ascent of Akrabbim, and cross to Zin, and its limit shall be south of Kadesh-barnea. Then it shall go on to Hazar-addar, and pass along to Azmon. And the border shall turn from Azmon to the Brook of Egypt, and its limit shall be at the sea.

“For the western border, you shall have the Great Sea and its coast. This shall be your western border.

“This shall be your northern border: from the Great Sea you shall draw a line to Mount Hor. From Mount Hor you shall draw a line to Lebo-hamath, and the limit of the border shall be at Zedad. Then the border shall extend to Ziphron, and its limit shall be at Hazar-enan. This shall be your northern border.

10 “You shall draw a line for your eastern border from Hazar-enan to Shepham. 11 And the border shall go down from Shepham to Riblah on the east side of Ain. And the border shall go down and reach to the shoulder of the Sea of Chinnereth on the east. 12 And the border shall go down to the Jordan, and its limit shall be at the Salt Sea. This shall be your land as defined by its borders all around.”

13 Moses commanded the people of Israel, saying, “This is the land that you shall inherit by lot, which the Lord has commanded to give to the nine tribes and to the half-tribe. 14 For the tribe of the people of Reuben by fathers’ houses and the tribe of the people of Gad by their fathers’ houses have received their inheritance, and also the half-tribe of Manasseh. 15 The two tribes and the half-tribe have received their inheritance beyond the Jordan east of Jericho, toward the sunrise.” Numbers 34:1-15 ESV

As the people prepared to enter the land of promise, Moses provided them with the boundary markers that would establish their future territory. But it is important to note that the description given by Moses is distinctly different than the one God had originally given to Abram at the point of his calling. The borders that Moses outlines in this passage are far more restrictive than the ones God proposed to Abram.  At that point in time, God had designated a far larger area as the future homeland for Abram’s descendants.

“To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates…” – Genesis 15:18 ESV

The two primary boundary markers that God gave Abram were “the river of Egypt,” which most likely refers to the Nile, to “the river Euphrates,” which extends from the southern border of modern-day Turkey all the way to the Persian Gulf.

God had a much larger geographic region in mind when He made His original promise to Abram. But centuries later, by the time the descendants of Abram were ready to cross over the Jordan and occupy the land, the boundaries had shrunk significantly.

Moses provided a detailed description of the eastern, western, southern, and northern boundaries of the Israelite’s future homeland. At this point in their history, there were not ready or equipped to conquer and occupy the much larger region promised by God to Abram. Their army was far too small to attempt a conquest of the original promised land. Even though the nation was comprised of 12 tribes, there were not enough soldiers to take on the armies of “the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites” (Genesis 15:19-21 NLT).

In a sense, God was starting small, but He had every intention of sticking to His original promise if the people of Israel proved obedient and successful at accomplishing His will. The reduced boundaries were not a sign of God reneging on His promise. He was not going back on His word. He was simply asking the people of Israel to prove their willingness to be faithful and obedient.

The borders of the land, while greatly reduced, would prove more than enough territory for the 12 tribes of Israel. In fact, as Moses points out, two and a half of the tribes would end up locating outside those boundaries.

“This territory is the homeland you are to divide among yourselves by sacred lot. The Lord has commanded that the land be divided among the nine and a half remaining tribes. The families of the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh have already received their grants of land  on the east side of the Jordan River, across from Jericho toward the sunrise.” – Numbers 34:13-15 NLT

Technically, according to the original description given by God to Abram, the land occupied by the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh was in the land of promise. But their land allotments would be considered separate from the rest of the tribes. Yet, one day, God would extend Israel’s borders under the leadership of King David. Then, when his son, Solomon came to power, the kingdom would expand even further. God would slowly extend the borders of Israel but because of the nation’s disobedience, He would one day spit the kingdom in half and dramatically reduce their land holdings and influence in the region.

But at the point at which Moses was preparing the send the people into the land for the very first time, they were faced with the formidable and seemingly insurmountable task of conquering a vast expanse of enemy-occupied territory. Yet Moses reminded them that the land was as good as theirs.

“This shall be your land as defined by its borders all around.” – Numbers 34:15 ESV

It was theirs but they would have to do their part. According to God, it belonged to them but it wouldn’t come without a fight. It was Jesus who declared the need for follow-through in the life of God’s people.

“…a servant who knows what the master wants, but isn’t prepared and doesn’t carry out those instructions, will be severely punished. But someone who does not know, and then does something wrong, will be punished only lightly. When someone has been given much, much will be required in return; and when someone has been entrusted with much, even more will be required.” – Luke 12:47-48 NLT

The Israelites had their marching orders and a detailed map of their battle zone. Now it was time to exhibit faith and fight for what was rightfully theirs.

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.

Potential Trouble in Paradise

1 These are the stages of the people of Israel, when they went out of the land of Egypt by their companies under the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Moses wrote down their starting places, stage by stage, by command of the Lord, and these are their stages according to their starting places. They set out from Rameses in the first month, on the fifteenth day of the first month. On the day after the Passover, the people of Israel went out triumphantly in the sight of all the Egyptians, while the Egyptians were burying all their firstborn, whom the Lord had struck down among them. On their gods also the Lord executed judgments.

So the people of Israel set out from Rameses and camped at Succoth. And they set out from Succoth and camped at Etham, which is on the edge of the wilderness. And they set out from Etham and turned back to Pi-hahiroth, which is east of Baal-zephon, and they camped before Migdol. And they set out from before Hahiroth and passed through the midst of the sea into the wilderness, and they went a three days’ journey in the wilderness of Etham and camped at Marah. And they set out from Marah and came to Elim; at Elim there were twelve springs of water and seventy palm trees, and they camped there. 10 And they set out from Elim and camped by the Red Sea. 11 And they set out from the Red Sea and camped in the wilderness of Sin. 12 And they set out from the wilderness of Sin and camped at Dophkah. 13 And they set out from Dophkah and camped at Alush. 14 And they set out from Alush and camped at Rephidim, where there was no water for the people to drink. 15 And they set out from Rephidim and camped in the wilderness of Sinai. 16 And they set out from the wilderness of Sinai and camped at Kibroth-hattaavah. 17 And they set out from Kibroth-hattaavah and camped at Hazeroth. 18 And they set out from Hazeroth and camped at Rithmah. 19 And they set out from Rithmah and camped at Rimmon-perez. 20 And they set out from Rimmon-perez and camped at Libnah. 21 And they set out from Libnah and camped at Rissah. 22 And they set out from Rissah and camped at Kehelathah. 23 And they set out from Kehelathah and camped at Mount Shepher. 24 And they set out from Mount Shepher and camped at Haradah. 25 And they set out from Haradah and camped at Makheloth. 26 And they set out from Makheloth and camped at Tahath. 27 And they set out from Tahath and camped at Terah. 28 And they set out from Terah and camped at Mithkah. 29 And they set out from Mithkah and camped at Hashmonah. 30 And they set out from Hashmonah and camped at Moseroth. 31 And they set out from Moseroth and camped at Bene-jaakan. 32 And they set out from Bene-jaakan and camped at Hor-haggidgad. 33 And they set out from Hor-haggidgad and camped at Jotbathah. 34 And they set out from Jotbathah and camped at Abronah. 35 And they set out from Abronah and camped at Ezion-geber. 36 And they set out from Ezion-geber and camped in the wilderness of Zin (that is, Kadesh). 37 And they set out from Kadesh and camped at Mount Hor, on the edge of the land of Edom.

38 And Aaron the priest went up Mount Hor at the command of the Lord and died there, in the fortieth year after the people of Israel had come out of the land of Egypt, on the first day of the fifth month. 39 And Aaron was 123 years old when he died on Mount Hor.

40 And the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negeb in the land of Canaan, heard of the coming of the people of Israel.

41 And they set out from Mount Hor and camped at Zalmonah. 42 And they set out from Zalmonah and camped at Punon. 43 And they set out from Punon and camped at Oboth. 44 And they set out from Oboth and camped at Iye-abarim, in the territory of Moab. 45 And they set out from Iyim and camped at Dibon-gad. 46 And they set out from Dibon-gad and camped at Almon-diblathaim. 47 And they set out from Almon-diblathaim and camped in the mountains of Abarim, before Nebo. 48 And they set out from the mountains of Abarim and camped in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho; 49 they camped by the Jordan from Beth-jeshimoth as far as Abel-shittim in the plains of Moab.

50 And the Lord spoke to Moses in the plains of Moab by the Jordan at Jericho, saying, 51 “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, When you pass over the Jordan into the land of Canaan, 52 then you shall drive out all the inhabitants of the land from before you and destroy all their figured stones and destroy all their metal images and demolish all their high places. 53 And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it. 54 You shall inherit the land by lot according to your clans. To a large tribe you shall give a large inheritance, and to a small tribe you shall give a small inheritance. Wherever the lot falls for anyone, that shall be his. According to the tribes of your fathers you shall inherit. 55 But if you do not drive out the inhabitants of the land from before you, then those of them whom you let remain shall be as barbs in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall trouble you in the land where you dwell. 56 And I will do to you as I thought to do to them.” Numbers 33:1-56 ESV

The people of Israel are almost home. After more than 40 years in the wilderness, they stand on the eastern bank of Jordan River waiting for God’s command to cross over and begin their conquest and occupation of the land of promise. The day they had long been waiting for had finally arrived. There had been a lengthy delay, but now it was time to enjoy what God had promised so long ago.

But as with most things associated with God, the blessing was tied to a requirement. He had one last instruction to give them before they took possession of the land, and it was a fairly significant one. They must drive out all the people who were living there. On top of that, they had to destroy all the idols and pagan shrines erected to the gods of the land. They were to smash every vestige of idol worship they found. In other words, God expected them to clean house before they set up house.

Sounds simple enough doesn’t it? But if you’re the least bit familiar with the story of the Israelites, they didn’t exactly follow God’s instructions to the letter. They took a few liberties. It’s almost as if the enemy (Satan) was standing there just as he had been in the garden of Eden, asking the question, “Surely, God has not said…”

I can just hear Satan whispering in their ears, “You don’t have to get rid of ALL the idols, just most of them.” Or maybe he worded his temptation this way: “You might want to leave one of the pagan shrines intact, just in case Yahweh doesn’t come through for you.”

And as far as ridding the land of all its occupants, Satan probably did his best to convince the people of God just how politically incorrect and insensitive this might appear to the rest of the people in the region. They probably thought to themselves, “We don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with our new neighbors, do we?”

And God seemed to know that the people would have second thoughts about His command, so He warned them what would happen if they failed to obey.

“But if you fail to drive out the people who live in the land, those who remain will be like splinters in your eyes and thorns in your sides. They will harass you in the land where you live. And I will do to you what I had planned to do to them.” – Numbers 33:55-56 NLT

“Disobey me,” God says, “and you will live to regret it.” This was not a suggestion, but a command. God expected them to follow His requirements without delay or deviation. He had a good reason for what He was asking them to do, and He knew exactly what would happen if they chose to disobey Him. If the Israelites failed to remove the land’s occupants, their enemies would become a constant threat and a thorn in their side. They would never learn to live amicably together. So, cleansing was critical for spiritual survival.

In his commentary on the book of Numbers, Dr. Thomas Constable writes, “The repetition of ‘all’ (Numbers 33:52) stresses the importance of completely clearing the land of its inhabitants and their religious paraphernalia. God wanted to clean up the land spiritually and to make it a ‘holy land.’ The land was a gift from God to His first-born son, Israel (Numbers 33:53). God warned the Israelites what would happen to them if they were not completely obedient (Numbers 333:55-56). The Canaanites would be a constant source of irritation to them, and God would deal with His people as He planned to deal with the Canaanites.”

God wanted to purify the land spiritually and make it holy. That reminds me of what God wants to do with my life. He wants to clean it up spiritually and set it apart for His use. He is about removing anything in my life that might defile or defeat me. He wants to clean house.

But I tend to hang on to certain remnants of my past. I want to give the enemy some footholds in my life where he can live at peace. I want to keep some of the idols that were there before God came to occupy the land. I find the idols comforting. They bring me a little bit of peace and assurance. But God wants to purge my life of any vestiges of the past. He wants to make all things new. To receive all the blessings the Promised Land had to offer, the people had to obey God fully. The same thing is true for us today. To enjoy all the blessings our new life in Christ offers, we must obey God fully. God makes this clear in His Word.

…throw off your old evil nature and your former way of life, which is rotten through and through, full of lust and deception. – Ephesians 4:22 NLT

Don’t lie to one another. You’re done with that old life. It’s like a filthy set of ill-fitting clothes you’ve stripped off and put in the fire. – Colossians 3:9 MSG

The night is almost gone; the day of salvation will soon be here. So don’t live in darkness. Get rid of your evil deeds. Shed them like dirty clothes. Clothe yourselves with the armor of right living, as those who live in the light. We should be decent and true in everything we do, so that everyone can approve of our behavior. Don’t participate in wild parties and getting drunk, or in adultery and immoral living, or in fighting and jealousy. But let the Lord Jesus Christ take control of you, and don’t think of ways to indulge your evil desires. – Romans 13:12-14 NLT

God was looking for change in the lives of the Israelites. He wanted to purge and purify them, and that process began with a thorough cleansing of the land. His desire was to rid the landscape of their lives of any and all vestiges of the past.

Like the Israelites, we must take our set-apart status seriously.  We must remove all the idols and false gods that might draw us away from full reliance upon Him. If we do, we will be blessed. If we don’t, we will always find ourselves doing battle with past enemies and tempted to worship the false gods of our former life. Cleansing is always the key to blessing.

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.

Your Sin Will Find You Out

1 Now the people of Reuben and the people of Gad had a very great number of livestock. And they saw the land of Jazer and the land of Gilead, and behold, the place was a place for livestock. So the people of Gad and the people of Reuben came and said to Moses and to Eleazar the priest and to the chiefs of the congregation, “Ataroth, Dibon, Jazer, Nimrah, Heshbon, Elealeh, Sebam, Nebo, and Beon, the land that the Lord struck down before the congregation of Israel, is a land for livestock, and your servants have livestock.” And they said, “If we have found favor in your sight, let this land be given to your servants for a possession. Do not take us across the Jordan.”

But Moses said to the people of Gad and to the people of Reuben, “Shall your brothers go to the war while you sit here? Why will you discourage the heart of the people of Israel from going over into the land that the Lord has given them? Your fathers did this, when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to see the land. For when they went up to the Valley of Eshcol and saw the land, they discouraged the heart of the people of Israel from going into the land that the Lord had given them. 10 And the Lord‘s anger was kindled on that day, and he swore, saying, 11 ‘Surely none of the men who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not wholly followed me, 12 none except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed the Lord.’ 13 And the Lord‘s anger was kindled against Israel, and he made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation that had done evil in the sight of the Lord was gone. 14 And behold, you have risen in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to increase still more the fierce anger of the Lord against Israel! 15 For if you turn away from following him, he will again abandon them in the wilderness, and you will destroy all this people.”

16 Then they came near to him and said, “We will build sheepfolds here for our livestock, and cities for our little ones, 17 but we will take up arms, ready to go before the people of Israel, until we have brought them to their place. And our little ones shall live in the fortified cities because of the inhabitants of the land. 18 We will not return to our homes until each of the people of Israel has gained his inheritance. 19 For we will not inherit with them on the other side of the Jordan and beyond, because our inheritance has come to us on this side of the Jordan to the east.” 20 So Moses said to them, “If you will do this, if you will take up arms to go before the Lord for the war, 21 and every armed man of you will pass over the Jordan before the Lord, until he has driven out his enemies from before him 22 and the land is subdued before the Lord; then after that you shall return and be free of obligation to the Lord and to Israel, and this land shall be your possession before the Lord. 23 But if you will not do so, behold, you have sinned against the Lord, and be sure your sin will find you out. 24 Build cities for your little ones and folds for your sheep, and do what you have promised.” 25 And the people of Gad and the people of Reuben said to Moses, “Your servants will do as my lord commands. 26 Our little ones, our wives, our livestock, and all our cattle shall remain there in the cities of Gilead, 27 but your servants will pass over, every man who is armed for war, before the Lord to battle, as my lord orders.” Numbers 32:1-27 ESV

This chapter contains one of those familiar and oft-quoted verses that are often taken out of context and applied to all kinds of situations.

But if you fail to keep your word, then you will have sinned against the Lord, and you may be sure that your sin will find you out. – Numbers 32:23 NLT

That last line has been used as both a threat and a word of encouragement over the centuries, but few who quote it realize its original context or meaning. We’ve all heard before, but probably never knew where it came from.

“Be sure your sins will find you out!” are words that have flowed from the lips of many a parent and usually in the direction of a disobedient child. But it may surprise you to see these familiar words in their original context. Many of us have forgotten or never known just why Moses spoke these words in the first place.

As the people of God prepared to enter the promised land, the land of Canaan, Moses was approached by the tribes of Reuben and Gad. They possessed a lot of flocks and had taken note that the land east of the Jordan had some great pastureland. So they asked Moses for permission to settle their tribes on the east side of the river instead of crossing over with everyone else into Canaan.

Moses was flabbergasted by their request. He viewed it as a form of insurrection and compared it to the time 40 years earlier when the people of Israel had refused to enter the land. That event was a sore spot for Moses because it had resulted in the deaths of an entire generation of Israelites because they had chosen to disobey the command of God. Moses reminded the Reubenites and Gadites what had happened.

“Why do you want to discourage the rest of the people of Israel from going across to the land the Lord has given them? Your ancestors did the same thing when I sent them from Kadesh-barnea to explore the land. After they went up to the valley of Eshcol and explored the land, they discouraged the people of Israel from entering the land the Lord was giving them. Then the Lord was very angry with them…” – Numbers 32:7-10 NLT

Moses had sent spies into the land of Canaan to bring back news of its fruitfulness and the military strength of its occupants. But ten of the 12 spies had convinced the people that while the land was rich and plentiful, its occupants were undefeatable. So, the people decided to disobey God and return to Egypt. But that decision resulted in God’s wrath and punishment. Now 40 years later, that generation had died off and their descendants stood on the edge of Canaan, preparing to enter the land.

When Moses heard the request of the tribes of Reuben and Gad to settle outside the land of promise, he was incensed.

“Are you trying to discourage the rest of the people of Israel from going across to the land the LORD has given them? This is what your ancestors did when I sent them from Kadesh–barnea to explore the land.” – Numbers 32:7-8 NLT

For Moses, this was déjà vu all over again. He saw their request as selfish and short-sighted, and another instance of rebellion against God. But the Reubenites and Gadites assured Moses that they were not abandoning the people of God or attempting to persuade them from entering the land. They simply wanted to take advantage of the better pastureland on the east side of the river. They were willing to fight alongside their brothers and assist them in conquering the land of Canaan until every tribe had gained their portion of the inheritance promised to Abraham.

They made a vow not to settle east of the Jordan until that happened. This assurance calmed Moses’ fears, but he still issued a stern warning.

“But if you don’t do what you say, you will be sinning against GOD; you can be sure that your sin will track you down.” – Numbers 32:23 MSG

Moses expected them to keep their word and reminded them that if they failed to do so, their sin would be against God, not the people, and God would remember their sin. He would deal with them severely if they broke their commitment.

In the end, these tribes held up their end of the bargain.

The armed warriors from the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and the half-tribe of Manasseh led the Israelites across the Jordan, just as Moses had directed. 13 These armed men—about 40,000 strong—were ready for battle, and the Lord was with them as they crossed over to the plains of Jericho. – Joshua 4:12-13

But their plan was not necessarily God’s plan. They were motivated by greed and self-interest and their decision to settle east of the Jordan overshadowed the promise that God had made to provide them with abundant land on the west side of the Jordan.  They were attracted to what looked good physically and materially. Rather than wait for what God had promised, they chose what they could see with their own eyes.

There seems to be an assumption on their part that there might not be any land on the west side of the Jordan useful for raising flocks. So they chose to settle outside the land of “promise.” And their decision, while approved by Moses, would prove to be a problem in the years to come. Distance from the other tribes would end up producing misunderstanding and disunity (Joshua 22). It also created a hole in the defensive lines of the Israelites. This area was often the first to experience invasion, and Israel would lose control of it several times in its later history (2 Kings 15:29).

So what’s the point? First, there is truth to the adage that my sins will find me out. They will track me down and come back to haunt me. So, I need to take my commitments and my sins seriously because God does. Also, I need to look closely at the motivation behind my decisions. Why am I doing what I am about to do? Am I being motivated by selfishness and greed? What will be the long-term ramifications of my decision if it is wrongly motivated? My sins will find me out. So will my selfish decisions. And both can have a tremendous impact on the lives of others.

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.