A Method to His Seeming Madness

11 Then the word of the Lord came to me: 12 “Say now to the rebellious house, Do you not know what these things mean? Tell them, behold, the king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, and took her king and her princes and brought them to him to Babylon. 13 And he took one of the royal offspring and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath (the chief men of the land he had taken away), 14 that the kingdom might be humble and not lift itself up, and keep his covenant that it might stand. 15 But he rebelled against him by sending his ambassadors to Egypt, that they might give him horses and a large army. Will he thrive? Can one escape who does such things? Can he break the covenant and yet escape?

16 “As I live, declares the Lord God, surely in the place where the king dwells who made him king, whose oath he despised, and whose covenant with him he broke, in Babylon he shall die. 17 Pharaoh with his mighty army and great company will not help him in war, when mounds are cast up and siege walls built to cut off many lives. 18 He despised the oath in breaking the covenant, and behold, he gave his hand and did all these things; he shall not escape. 19 Therefore thus says the Lord God: As I live, surely it is my oath that he despised, and my covenant that he broke. I will return it upon his head. 20 I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare, and I will bring him to Babylon and enter into judgment with him there for the treachery he has committed against me. 21 And all the pick of his troops shall fall by the sword, and the survivors shall be scattered to every wind, and you shall know that I am the Lord; I have spoken.”

22 Thus says the Lord God: “I myself will take a sprig from the lofty top of the cedar and will set it out. I will break off from the topmost of its young twigs a tender one, and I myself will plant it on a high and lofty mountain. 23 On the mountain height of Israel will I plant it, that it may bear branches and produce fruit and become a noble cedar. And under it will dwell every kind of bird; in the shade of its branches birds of every sort will nest. 24 And all the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord; I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it.”  Ezekiel 17:11-24 ESV

I’m not particularly fond of riddles. I don’t like puzzles either, and guessing games drive me crazy. I prefer answers over questions and clarity over confusion. So, when God speaks in riddles and parables, I find myself getting a bit uncomfortable and, when this chapter started off with a riddle, I was less than excited. But fortunately, this is one of those cases where God doesn’t leave us guessing as to the meaning. He graciously provides an explanation so there’s absolutely no confusion as to what He is trying to say.

Yet God insinuates that the people of Judah should have been able to pick up on the meaning of the riddle. Why? Because they were living it out in real-time. As they listened to the words of the prophet, they were standing somewhere along the banks of the Kebar River deep in the heart of Babylon. They had actually experienced something very similar to what the prophet was describing.

In the first part of his message, God describes a giant eagle swooping down and plucking off the top of a cedar tree, which he carries to a distant city. The eagle also took a seedling and planted it by a river where it grew into a vine with deep roots and strong branches. Then this healthy, growing vine, turned its attention to another eagle. Despite its prosperous and fruitful condition, it looked to the second eagle as a source of sustenance. It had plenty of good soil and water right where it was, but was dissatisfied. So, God indicated this vine would be uprooted, its fruit cut off, and left it to wither and die in the very soil where it had experienced fruitfulness.

But Ezekiel’s audience must have missed the message. They were struggling with the meaning behind this bizarre-sounding story of the eagle and the vine. So, God carefully explains the point He is trying to make.

“The king of Babylon came to Jerusalem, took away her king and princes, and brought them to Babylon.” – Ezekiel 17:11 NLT

At this point, the light should have gone on. They would have immediately made the connection that their very presence in Babylon was the immediate result of that fateful historical event. They could recall the moment when the Babylonian forces invaded the city of Jerusalem and took their king captive.

Then King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and captured it, and he bound Jehoiakim in bronze chains and led him away to Babylon. – 2 Chronicles 36:6 NLT

The memory of the temple being ransacked by foreign soldiers was still fresh in their minds.

Nebuchadnezzar also took some of the treasures from the Temple of the Lord, and he placed them in his palace in Babylon. – 2 Chronicles 36:7 NLT

The Babylonians had allowed the people of Judah to keep their monarchy in place, but the kings served as pawns of King Nebuchadnezzar, paying him large annual fees as a form of tribute and a sign of Judah’s subservience to Babylon. Eventually, Jehoiakim was replaced by his son, Jehoiachin, but his reign lasted only three months before he too was deported to Babylon.

Many treasures from the Temple of the Lord were also taken to Babylon at that time. And Nebuchadnezzar installed Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah, as the next king in Judah and Jerusalem. – 2 Chronicles 36:10 NLT

The first eagle represents Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. He “swooped” down with his troops, invaded Jerusalem, and took Jehoiachin, king of Judah as his prisoner back to Babylon. He then set up another puppet king named Zedekiah (the seedling) on the throne of Jerusalem.

This is where the story begins to take on a whole different meaning. Zedekiah was still on the throne when God delivered this riddle to the people of Judah living in Babylon. From their perspective, Zedekiah was firmly entrenched as the sovereign king over their homeland. He had actually made a covenant agreement with Nebuchadnezzar – an oath of loyalty. As long as he kept that oath, the nation prospered. But what the people didn’t know was that their king was wicked and rebellious. He never intended to keep his agreement with Nebuchadnezzar.

But Zedekiah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord his God, and he refused to humble himself when the prophet Jeremiah spoke to him directly from the Lord. He also rebelled against King Nebuchadnezzar, even though he had taken an oath of loyalty in God’s name. Zedekiah was a hard and stubborn man, refusing to turn to the Lord, the God of Israel. – 2 Chronicles 36:12-13 NLT

God was revealing the next phase of His judgment upon His unfaithful people. The day was fast approaching when Zedekiah would decide to rebel against the Babylonians by turning to Egypt for assistance.

What is interesting to note is that the prophet, Jeremiah, who was ministering to the people still living in Jerusalem, had been led by God to send a letter to the exiles living in Babylon. In it, he provided them with a word of encouragement regarding their less-than-appealing conditions.

“This is what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, the God of Israel, says to all the captives he has exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem: “Build homes, and plan to stay. Plant gardens, and eat the food they produce. Marry and have children. Then find spouses for them so that you may have many grandchildren. Multiply! Do not dwindle away! And work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” – Jeremiah 29:4-7 NLT

And Jeremiah had also provided Zedekiah and the people living in Judah with a word of warning concerning their response to the Babylonian occupation of their land.

“So you must submit to Babylon’s king and serve him; put your neck under Babylon’s yoke! I will punish any nation that refuses to be his slave, says the Lord. I will send war, famine, and disease upon that nation until Babylon has conquered it. Do not listen to your false prophets, fortune-tellers, interpreters of dreams, mediums, and sorcerers who say, ‘The king of Babylon will not conquer you.’ They are all liars, and their lies will lead to your being driven out of your land. I will drive you out and send you far away to die. But the people of any nation that submits to the king of Babylon will be allowed to stay in their own country to farm the land as usual. I, the Lord, have spoken!’”– Jeremiah 27:8-11 NLT

But Zedekiah would end up violating his contract with Nebuchadnezzar. As a result, Jerusalem would be invaded again, the city would be leveled, and the temple destroyed. Zedekiah would be forced to witness the execution of all his sons, then have his eyes gouged out and be taken captive to Babylon. God made it painfully clear that “the king of Israel disregarded his treaty and broke it after swearing to obey; therefore, he will not escape” (Ezekiel 17:18 NLT). The entire Babylonian occupation had been God’s will and He expected His people to submit to it. They would not escape His divine judgment.

But God was not finished with His explanation. At the very end, He provides a glimmer of hope in the midst of all the gloom and doom. He reveals yet another “eagle” that will take another branch from the top of the cedar tree and plant it on Israel’s highest mountain.

“It will become a majestic cedar, sending forth its branches and producing seed. Birds of every sort will nest in it, finding shelter in the shade of its branches.” – Ezekiel 17:33 NLT

God is predicting the future renewal and restoration of His chosen people. But the branch to which He refers is not just another human king who will help to reestablish the fortunes of Israel. This branch will be someone of great importance and renown. He will be a king like no other.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” – Jeremiah 23:5-6 ESV

This branch is Jesus, the Messiah. God is predicting the day when He will send His Son back to earth to set up His kingdom in Jerusalem, where He will reign for 1,000 years. Israel will be restored to greatness. The throne of David, long-vacant because of the nation’s rebellion, will once again be occupied by a descendant of the great king. And God assures that all the other nations of the earth will recognize the greatness and glory of God when this happens.

“And all the trees will know that it is I, the Lord, who cuts the tall tree down and makes the short tree grow tall. It is I who makes the green tree wither and gives the dead tree new life. I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do what I said!” – Ezekiel 17:24 NLT

Babylon, Egypt, the United States, Russia, China, Great Britain, and all the other nations of the earth are no match for the plan of God. Babylon was a tool in the hands of God to accomplish His divine will, and He had a greater plan in place. He was out to accomplish His will in His way and according to His divine timetable. When God completes His plan all people will know that He has been in control all along, cutting down the tall trees and making the short tree grow, withering the green tree, and giving new life to the dead one.

God is sovereign and in complete control. In fact, that point is how He began the  chapter.

“Son of man, give this riddle, and tell this story to the people of Israel. Give them this message from the Sovereign Lord. – Ezekiel 17:2 NLT

He knows what He is doing and there is a method to His seeming madness. We may understand or even like His ways, but we can rest assured that He always does what is just and right. His plan is perfect and His timing is impeccable.

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.

No More Delay

21 And the word of the Lord came to me: 22 “Son of man, what is this proverb that you have about the land of Israel, saying, ‘The days grow long, and every vision comes to nothing’? 23 Tell them therefore, ‘Thus says the Lord God: I will put an end to this proverb, and they shall no more use it as a proverb in Israel.’ But say to them, The days are near, and the fulfillment of every vision. 24 For there shall be no more any false vision or flattering divination within the house of Israel. 25 For I am the Lord; I will speak the word that I will speak, and it will be performed. It will no longer be delayed, but in your days, O rebellious house, I will speak the word and perform it, declares the Lord God.”

26 And the word of the Lord came to me: 27 “Son of man, behold, they of the house of Israel say, ‘The vision that he sees is for many days from now, and he prophesies of times far off.’ 28 Therefore say to them, Thus says the Lord God: None of my words will be delayed any longer, but the word that I speak will be performed, declares the Lord God.  Ezekiel 12:21-28 ESV

Ezekiel was just one more prophet among many who were each tasked with warning the people of Israel about God’s pending judgment. There had been a number of prophets whom God had sent to the northern kingdom of Judah before it fell to the Assyrians. And there were prophets like Isaiah and Jeremiah whom God had sent to warn the southern kingdom of Judah that they faced a similar fate if they did abandon their idolatrous ways and return to Him in repentance.

For hundreds of years, God had been calling His rebellious people to repent or face certain judgment. The Jews living as exiles in Babylon knew from firsthand experience just how real God’s judgment could be. They had been deported after Nebuchadnezzar had made his first incursion into Judah and ransacked the city of Jerusalem. It was Ezekiel’s responsibility to carry God’s message to these displaced Jews and warn them that their compatriots back home were about to experience more of the same.

But God points out that, back in Judah, there were two prevalent attitudes concerning His judgment. First, there were those who believed that the prophets of God were all talk, not action. In other words, they talked a good game but nothing they prophesied ever came to fruition. Their dire warnings never amounted to much. This perspective had even become a popular proverb.

“Time passes, and prophecies come to nothing.” – Ezekiel 12:21 NLT

For centuries, God had been warning about the fall of Jerusalem, but the city still stood. Nothing had changed. So, people began to view the prophets as overreactive naysayers whose pessimistic pronouncements never materialized. It was like the story of the boy who cried wolf.

As the story goes, a young shepherd boy found himself bored with his job, so to add a little excitement to his day, he ran into town crying, “Wolf! Wolf! The Wolf is chasing the sheep!” The townspeople ran to his aid, only to find the flock grazing peacefully. Irritated with the boy’s antics, they warned him, “Don’t cry ‘wolf’, shepherd boy when there’s no wolf!”

As they made their way back to town, grumbling as they went, they once again heard the excited cries of the boy. “Wolf! Wolf! The wolf is chasing the sheep!” To his delight, the shepherd boy watched as the villagers ran back up the hill to confront the wolf that threatened their flocks. But, as before, there was no wolf.

Then one day, the unexpected happened. A real wolf showed up. But when the villagers heard the boy’s excited cries for help, they assumed it was just another trick, so they remained in the village. The next morning they found the shepherd boy weeping in the fields where his flocks once grazed. When they asked him what happened, he said, “There really was a wolf here! The flock has scattered! I cried out, “Wolf!” Why didn’t you come?”

The people of Judah, like the villagers in the story, had begun to believe that the prophets’ cries of danger were not to be believed. They had been listening to these doomsayers for generations and nothing they predicted ever came true. So, they began to write off everything these men said.

From their perspective, not much had changed in Jerusalem. Even the arrival of the Babylonians had done little to change their way of life. Sure, there had been some adjustments to make after the first siege and the initial deportation of some of their friends and neighbors. But, for the most part, life went on as before. And those who remained behind in Jerusalem became increasingly complacent and callous to the message of the prophets. They wrongly assumed that God was not going to act. Nothing was going to happen. In their estimation, the prophets were all bark and no bite. Or were they?

God had a different perspective and commanded Ezekiel to replace their proverb with a new one.

“I will put an end to this proverb, and you will soon stop quoting it. Now give them this new proverb to replace the old one: ‘The time has come for every prophecy to be fulfilled!’” – Ezekiel 12:23 NLT

Time was running out. The lack of measurable activity on God’s part was not to be mistaken for inaction or indifference. Time may have passed but God’s wrath had not abated. He had not forgotten their past sins and was not oblivious to their current moral condition. He had simply been waiting for the perfect moment to unleash His divinely timed plan for Jerusalem’s destruction.

How easy it is to discount the warnings of God because they don’t ever seem to come true. These Old Testament stories become little more than moral fairy tales that portray God as short-tempered and lacking in love. He comes across as overly judgmental and harsh and we discount this image of God as incompatible with the one portrayed in the New Testament. We prefer the God of grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love. But we fail to recognize that God is unchanging. He still hates sin. He still warns His people about the dangers of unfaithfulness and idolatry. He constantly reminds us that there are consequences for our sins. But when we sin and nothing happens, we wrongly assume that we can get away with our indiscretions and infidelity. As a result, we stop listening to His calls to confess our sins.

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:8-10 NLT

But there was a second problem in Judah. While some were claiming that the warnings of the prophets would never come true, there were others who admitted that the warnings were true but would not take place in their lifetimes. They claimed, “He’s talking about the distant future. His visions won’t come true for a long, long time” (Ezekiel 12:27 NLT). While the words of the prophets were true and the judgments of God were inevitable, they had nothing to worry about because they would fall upon a future generation. For the time being, they were safe and sound.

But God wanted them to know that their assumption was deadly wrong. The long delay was over and it was their generation that would have to live through the final destruction of Jerusalem.

“No more delay! I will now do everything I have threatened. I, the Sovereign Lord, have spoken!’” – Ezekiel 12:28 NLT

They could go on denying the veracity of the prophecies and live as if God’s judgment was never coming. They could even convince themselves the prophecies were true but did not pose an immediate threat. But they would soon discover just how wrong they were. And this tendency to doubt, deny, or delay God’s warnings of judgment is still a problem. Even after the incarnation, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, the apostle Peter warned of the danger of denying or ignoring the reality of His ultimate return. In his second letter, he provided the first-century believers with a sobering reminder.

I want you to remember what the holy prophets said long ago and what our Lord and Savior commanded through your apostles. – 2 Peter 3:2 NLT

The Old Testament Scriptures are filled with prophecies concerning Christ’s first coming, but they also predict His return at the end of the age. But more than 2,000 years have passed since Peter penned his letter, and we still await the second coming of Christ. In his day, there were those who had already begun to doubt whether Christ was ever coming back.

I want to remind you that in the last days scoffers will come, mocking the truth and following their own desires. They will say, “What happened to the promise that Jesus is coming again? From before the times of our ancestors, everything has remained the same since the world was first created.” – 2 Peter 3:3-4 NLT

Delay had caused doubt. Christ’s apparent failure to return had led the first-century Christians to have second thoughts. But Peter reminded them that God, who made the universe in eternity past, stands outside of time. To Him, “a day is like a thousand years…and a thousand years is like a day” (2 Peter 3:8 NLT). God does not grow impatient. What appears to be a delay to us is actually the perfectly timed plan of God.

Peter didn’t want his readers to mistake God’s delay as inaction or indifference. It was actually evidence of His patience and love.

The Lord isn’t really being slow about his promise, as some people think. No, he is being patient for your sake. He does not want anyone to be destroyed, but wants everyone to repent. – 2 Peter 3:9 NLT

But that doesn’t mean we should abuse God’s loving patience by living as if we have all the time in the world. Peter assures his readers that God’s judgment will come.

But the day of the Lord will come as unexpectedly as a thief. Then the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment. – 2 Peter 3:10 NLT

And that judgment will come with the return of the Lord. When He comes the second time, it will not be as Savior but as judge of all the earth. And, “on that day, he will set the heavens on fire, and the elements will melt away in the flames” (2 Peter 3:12 NLT). And Peter reminds his readers to live with that thought in mind.

Since everything around us is going to be destroyed like this, what holy and godly lives you should live, looking forward to the day of God and hurrying it along. – 2 Peter 3:11-12 NLT

The inevitable judgment of God should cause His people to live soberly and circumspectly. We should pursue godly and holy lives that reflect our status as His children and our citizenship in His Kingdom. We should avoid the perspective that plagued the people of Judah. Rather than live in keeping with God’s will and in fear of His judgment, they lived in a state of denial or simply viewed God’s judgment as so distant that it posed no threat to their way of life.

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.

Trust and Obey

“And you, take wheat and barley, beans and lentils, millet and emmer, and put them into a single vessel and make your bread from them. During the number of days that you lie on your side, 390 days, you shall eat it. 10 And your food that you eat shall be by weight, twenty shekels a day; from day to day you shall eat it. 11 And water you shall drink by measure, the sixth part of a hin; from day to day you shall drink. 12 And you shall eat it as a barley cake, baking it in their sight on human dung.” 13 And the Lord said, “Thus shall the people of Israel eat their bread unclean, among the nations where I will drive them.” 14 Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I have never defiled myself. From my youth up till now I have never eaten what died of itself or was torn by beasts, nor has tainted meat come into my mouth.” 15 Then he said to me, “See, I assign to you cow’s dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread.” 16 Moreover, he said to me, “Son of man, behold, I will break the supply of bread in Jerusalem. They shall eat bread by weight and with anxiety, and they shall drink water by measure and in dismay. 17 I will do this that they may lack bread and water, and look at one another in dismay, and rot away because of their punishment. – Ezekiel 4:9-17 ESV

During the first 390 days of Ezekiel’s one-man theater production, he was limited to a diet of water and bread made from a strange blend of wheat, barley, beans, lentils, millet, and emmer. This unappealing and nutritionally insufficient food regimen was intended to illustrate the conditions the people would suffer in the actual siege of Jerusalem. It would be long in duration and result in the inhabitants of the city living off a subsistence diet made from whatever grains they could find. God restricted Ezekiel’s food intake to a meager eight ounces of bread and just over a liter of water per day. Subsisting for more than a year on this nutritionally deficient diet would have left Ezekiel emaciated and weak. And because he was commanded to act out this parabolic lesson in full display of the people, they would have witnessed the startling and discomfiting transformation in Ezekiel’s physical state.

All of this was intended to provide a vivid illustration of the horrific conditions within the walls of the city of Jerusalem when the Babylonians conducted their final siege of the city. And Moses had warned of this day centuries before.

“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. The most tenderhearted man among you will have no compassion for his own brother, his beloved wife, and his surviving children. He will refuse to share with them the flesh he is devouring—the flesh of one of his own children—because he has nothing else to eat during the siege and terrible distress that your enemy will inflict on all your towns. The most tender and delicate woman among you—so delicate she would not so much as touch the ground with her foot—will be selfish toward the husband she loves and toward her own son or daughter. She will hide from them the afterbirth and the new baby she has borne, so that she herself can secretly eat them. She will have nothing else to eat during the siege and terrible distress that your enemy will inflict on all your towns.” – Deuteronomy 28:53-57 NLT

But for Ezekiel, the most startling part of God’s command was the requirement to bake his bread over a fire made with dried human dung. Of all the strange things God had asked him to do, this was the part that got Ezekiel’s attention. He was appalled at the thought of doing such a thing because he knew it would render him ceremonially impure. God had intended this unsavory action to remind the exiles of the spiritually impure state of their current conditions.

“This is how Israel will eat defiled bread in the Gentile lands to which I will banish them!” – Ezekiel 4:13 NLT

Without the sacrificial system, the people of God living in Babylon had no way of receiving atonement and cleansing for their sins. As a result, they remained in a perpetual state of spiritual impurity and separation from God. Their very presence in a foreign land living among pagans left them defiled and unworthy of coming into God’s presence.

But while Ezekiel was willing to do everything God had commanded him to do, this part was too much for him, so he appealed to God.

“O Sovereign Lord, must I be defiled by using human dung? For I have never been defiled before. From the time I was a child until now I have never eaten any animal that died of sickness or was killed by other animals. I have never eaten any meat forbidden by the law.” – Ezekiel 4:14 NLT

Even while in exile, Ezekiel had labored to remain faithful to the Mosaic Law. The thought of defiling himself in such a way was unacceptable to him. So, God graciously allowed him to use cow dung instead. Amazingly, this was the only part of God’s plan at which Ezekiel balked. He was willing to do everything God had commanded him to do – without question – even though it all appeared strange and senseless, and would probably result in his own humiliation in the eyes of the people.

The remarkable thing about this story is not the mysterious symbolism of the brick, the number of days involved, or the content of Ezekiel’s diet. It is the faithful obedience of Ezekiel in the face of a very strange request from God. None of this made sense. Ezekiel was being asked to do something patently absurd that would result in him making a fool of himself. And he knew that nothing he did or said was going to make an impact on the people. God had already told him that they would not listen or repent.

But Ezekiel obeyed anyway. He did what God asked him to do. And this will be the pattern portrayed throughout the pages of this book. Over and over again, Ezekiel will respond obediently to the commands of God. He will do what he is told to do, regardless of its difficulty or credibility. He will consistently and persistently obey – time and time again.

But what about us? How do we respond to the Word of God in our lives? Do we obey or do we rationalize, argue, debate, or simply disobey? Does it all have to make sense before we do what God is asking us to do? If it requires us to humble ourselves or get out of our comfort zone, do we balk and bail?

God is looking for men and women who will faithfully obey and do what He is calling them to do – no questions asked. It may not make sense, but it will make a difference because God is behind it all. He has a plan. He knows what is best. There is always a method to His seeming madness. We just need to trust and obey.

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 Difficult Calling

And he said to me, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with my words to them. For you are not sent to a people of foreign speech and a hard language, but to the house of Israel— not to many peoples of foreign speech and a hard language, whose words you cannot understand. Surely, if I sent you to such, they would listen to you. But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart. Behold, I have made your face as hard as their faces, and your forehead as hard as their foreheads. Like emery harder than flint have I made your forehead. Fear them not, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house.” 10 Moreover, he said to me, “Son of man, all my words that I shall speak to you receive in your heart, and hear with your ears. 11 And go to the exiles, to your people, and speak to them and say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God,’ whether they hear or refuse to hear.”

12 Then the Spirit lifted me up, and I heard behind me the voice of a great earthquake: “Blessed be the glory of the Lord from its place!” 13 It was the sound of the wings of the living creatures as they touched one another, and the sound of the wheels beside them, and the sound of a great earthquake. 14 The Spirit lifted me up and took me away, and I went in bitterness in the heat of my spirit, the hand of the Lord being strong upon me. 15 And I came to the exiles at Tel-abib, who were dwelling by the Chebar canal, and I sat where they were dwelling. And I sat there overwhelmed among them seven days. – Ezekiel 3:4-15 ESV

After consuming the scroll that God had given him, Ezekiel was commanded to regurgitate its content to his fellow captives living in the land of Babylon. While the message contained in the scroll was filled with words of “lamentation and mourning and woe” (Ezekiel 2:10 ESV), Ezekiel found it to taste “as sweet as honey” (Ezekiel 3:3 ESV). Ezekiel had discovered the truth behind the psalm.

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! – Psalm 119:103 ESV).

And the prophet Jeremiah also learned to develop a hunger and delight for the word of the Lord.

Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. – Jeremiah 15:16 ESV

God’s Word may be difficult to hear but, when obeyed, it always proves to be a delight to the soul because it is filled with wisdom and truth. Ezekiel had feasted on the Word of God and found it to be both pleasant and filling. But the difficulty would come when he tried to share that message with his fellow exiles. This young priest-turned-prophet was going to have to share what he had learned with the rest of the Jews living along the Kebar River in Babylon, and God warned him that they would not be a receptive audience.

“…the people of Israel won’t listen to you any more than they listen to me! For the whole lot of them are hard-hearted and stubborn.” – Ezekiel 3:7 NLT

The Almighty God had chosen to reveal Himself to Ezekiel in the middle of a Judaen refuge camp in the land of Babylon, and He had delivered to Ezekiel a message that was intended solely for the people of God. The words contained on the scroll had been directed at His chosen people and not the Babylonians. God was not above delivering words of warning to foreign countries. He had used Isaiah to pronounce a powerful message of future destruction to the Babylonians.

Babylon, the most glorious of kingdoms,
    the flower of Chaldean pride,
will be devastated like Sodom and Gomorrah
    when God destroyed them.
Babylon will never be inhabited again.
    It will remain empty for generation after generation.
Nomads will refuse to camp there,
    and shepherds will not bed down their sheep. – Isaiah 13:19-20 NLT

But the message God had given Ezekiel was for the people of Judah alone. And God seems to infer that Ezekiel’s task would have been much easier if his audience was made up of foreigners who spoke a completely different language.

I am not sending you to a foreign people whose language you cannot understand. No, I am not sending you to people with strange and difficult speech. If I did, they would listen! – Ezekiel 3:5 NLT

The problem Ezekiel was going to encounter would not be that of a language barrier. No, his audience would hear and understand every word he said, but their stubborn and sin-hardened hearts would prevent them from responding in repentance. The same words that Ezekiel found to be as sweet as honey would be bitter and distasteful to the rebellious people of God.

But Ezekiel was not to be afraid or disheartened. In fact, God declared that he would be divinely equipped for the task. The people of Israel would meet their match in Ezekiel.

“I have made you as obstinate and hard-hearted as they are. I have made your forehead as hard as the hardest rock! So don’t be afraid of them or fear their angry looks, even though they are rebels.” – Ezekiel 3:8-9 NLT

God was going to equip Ezekiel with a supernatural source of stamina and determination that would allow him to stay strong even in the face of repeated rejection and the evident failure of his mission. God knew that there would be days when Ezekiel felt as if his task was ill-fated and his ministry was doomed to defeat. He would be tempted to throw in the towel and abandon his mission. That’s why God encouraged him to take time and meditate on the words he was about to deliver. He was to think long and hard about the content of God’s message long before he began to deliver it.

“Son of man, let all my words sink deep into your own heart first. Listen to them carefully for yourself. Then go to your people in exile and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’ Do this whether they listen to you or not.” – Ezekiel 3:10-11 NLT

Ezekiel was to be more than just a conduit through which the words of God flowed. He had been commanded to ingest the words of God so that they might flow from his heart and not just his lips. It was essential that the messenger believe the words of the message and trust the One who had delivered it. God wanted Ezekiel to learn the truth found in Psalm 119.

I will meditate on your precepts
    and fix my eyes on your ways.
I will delight in your statutes;
    I will not forget your word. – Psalm 119:15-16 ESV

The Lord knew that Ezekiel would need endurance in the days ahead. The ministry to which he was being called would prove difficult and disheartening. His message would fall on deaf ears. His calls to repentance would be rejected. And the psalmist seemed to have presaged Ezekiel’s pending predicament.

My soul longs for your salvation;
    I hope in your word.
My eyes long for your promise;
    I ask, “When will you comfort me?”
For I have become like a wineskin in the smoke,
    yet I have not forgotten your statutes.
How long must your servant endure?
    When will you judge those who persecute me?
The insolent have dug pitfalls for me;
    they do not live according to your law.
All your commandments are sure;
    they persecute me with falsehood; help me!
They have almost made an end of me on earth,
    but I have not forsaken your precepts.
In your steadfast love give me life,
    that I may keep the testimonies of your mouth. – Psalm 119:81-88 ESV

And, as if to provide Ezekiel with one more tangible form of encouragement, God allowed him to hear a thunderous proclamation from heaven.

“Blessed be the glory of the Lord from its place!” – Ezekiel 3:12 ESV

The entire vision Ezekiel had been given the privilege of seeing had been a dramatic display of God’s glory, and now a voice from heaven confirmed it. And Ezekiel saw and heard the wings of the four living creatures flapping in unison and the wheels within wheels turning as the glory of God began to move. This was not a static scene in which Ezekiel could remain and worship the glory of God forever. He had a job to do. And the Spirit of God lifted Ezekiel up and took him away. The vision had ended but his mission had just begun, and Ezekiel expressed his dismay by stating, “I went in bitterness and turmoil” (Ezekiel 3:14a NLT). He was struggling with doubt and fear. The mission before him was overwhelming and he felt underqualified for the task. And yet, he declared, “the Lord’s hold on me was strong” (Ezekiel 3:14b NLT).

Ezekiel had received a commission from God Almighty, and while he wrestled with doubt and feelings of inadequacy, he could not resist the calling. He must obey. So, with the vision completed, Ezekiel returned to his mission field among the exiles from Judah. And for seven days, he continued to struggle with an overwhelming sense of fear and foreboding as he contemplated his new assignment. His life had been radically altered by God and he would no longer be able to enjoy the same relationship he had once had with his friends and neighbors. He had been set apart by God and his life would never be the same.

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 Bitter-Sweet Assignment

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak with you.” And as he spoke to me, the Spirit entered into me and set me on my feet, and I heard him speaking to me. And he said to me, “Son of man, I send you to the people of Israel, to nations of rebels, who have rebelled against me. They and their fathers have transgressed against me to this very day. The descendants also are impudent and stubborn: I send you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God.’ And whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house) they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, be not afraid of them, nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you sit on scorpions. Be not afraid of their words, nor be dismayed at their looks, for they are a rebellious house. And you shall speak my words to them, whether they hear or refuse to hear, for they are a rebellious house.

“But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Be not rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you.” And when I looked, behold, a hand was stretched out to me, and behold, a scroll of a book was in it. 10 And he spread it before me. And it had writing on the front and on the back, and there were written on it words of lamentation and mourning and woe.

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey. – Ezekiel 2:1-3:3 ESV

Ezekiel had been given a vision of God’s glory, and it left him face down on the ground in reverential fear and wonder. As this exiled young priest stood by the banks of the Kebar River in Babylon, the God of the universe made an unexpected and highly spectacular appearance.

Above this surface was something that looked like a throne made of blue lapis lazuli. And on this throne high above was a figure whose appearance resembled a man. From what appeared to be his waist up, he looked like gleaming amber, flickering like a fire. And from his waist down, he looked like a burning flame, shining with splendor. All around him was a glowing halo, like a rainbow shining in the clouds on a rainy day. This is what the glory of the Lord looked like to me. – Ezekiel 1:26-28 NLT

It is safe to assume that this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Ezekiel. He had never seen anything like this before, and to have the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob appear to him in the remote recesses of the land of Babylon must have been a shock to his system. He was just a lowly priest who had been taken captive just like all the other residents of Jerusalem when the city had fallen to King Nebuchadnezzar’s forces.  Jehoiachin was the king of Judah at the time and, according to 2 Kings 12:9, “He did evil in the sight of the Lord as his ancestors had done.” Like most of his predecessors, Jehoiachin chose to use his royal power to promote idolatry that fostered unfaithfulness to God, and he suffered greatly for his refusal to honor the Almighty.

At that time the generals of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon marched to Jerusalem and besieged the city. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to the city while his generals were besieging it. King Jehoiachin of Judah, along with his mother, his servants, his officials, and his eunuchs surrendered to the king of Babylon. The king of Babylon, in the eighth year of his reign, took Jehoiachin prisoner. Nebuchadnezzar took from there all the riches in the treasuries of the Lord’s temple and of the royal palace. He removed all the gold items that King Solomon of Israel had made for the Lord’s temple, just as the Lord had warned. He deported all the residents of Jerusalem, including all the officials and all the soldiers (10,000 people in all). This included all the craftsmen and those who worked with metal. No one was left except for the poorest among the people of the land. – 2 Kings 12:10-14 NLT

Living amongst the exiled people of God, Ezekiel had firsthand experience with the apathy and complacency that had taken hold of them. A long way from home and no longer able to avail themselves of the temple and the sacrificial system, they had begun to lose interest in the things of God. Their circumstances had left them feeling abandoned by God and distraught over the far-from-ideal conditions of their captivity. With the passage of time, God had become out of sight, out of mind. They simply assumed He had turned His back on them and so, in time, they gave up hope and determined to make the most of their situation in Babylon.

But God had other plans that included appointing Ezekiel as the one who would deliver His message to the exiles. He had not forgotten about them. They had not been abandoned. Their exile had been intended to get their attention and to bring them to a point of repentance. Now, Ezekiel was going to be commissioned to serve as God’s spokesperson, delivering His call to repentance.

Having gotten Ezekiel’s full attention through the grand display of His glory, God delivered the details of his new assignment.

“I am sending you to the nation of Israel, a rebellious nation that has rebelled against me. They and their ancestors have been rebelling against me to this very day. They are a stubborn and hard-hearted people. But I am sending you to say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says!’” – Ezekiel 2:3-4 NLT

God makes it painfully clear that Ezekiel’s new task would not be easy. He would have to deliver a message from God to a people who had a track record of stubbornness and insubordination. And God warns Ezekiel that his audience may not receive his message with open arms.

“And whether they listen or refuse to listen—for remember, they are rebels—at least they will know they have had a prophet among them.” – Ezekiel 2:5 NLT

There was no guarantee that Ezekiel would experience success. Despite the fact that he would be speaking the words of God, he had no way of knowing how the people would respond. In fact, God made it sound like his mission was doomed to certain failure.

What would you do if God called you to a task that He knew you were going to fail at? What if He even told you your efforts would be fruitless and non-productive? Most of us would bail. We would give up long before we got going. Because we’re wired with one thing in mind – success – and failure is not an acceptable alternative. But when Ezekiel got his marching orders from God, he was also given the not-so-great news that his ministry would be unsuccessful because his audience was going to be unresponsive.  God even told Ezekiel to expect threats and animosity. This was going to be one difficult job assignment.

In a sense, God was foreshadowing failure, but demanding obedience. Ezekiel’s success would not be measured by the number of callous, carnal Israelites he converted, but on his willingness to carry out God’s assignment faithfully, even in the face of rejection, ridicule, and poor results.

Even the message God gave Ezekiel to share was anything but good news. In his vision, Ezekiel was given a scroll that was covered with writing front and back, from edge to edge. It’s content?

“Funeral songs, words of sorrows, and pronouncements of doom.” – Ezekiel 2:9b NLT

It was a veritable compendium of bad news. So, not only would Ezekiel have a non-responsive audience, he was given an unappealing message. But God fully understood the foreboding nature of Ezekiel’s assignment, and he knew that Ezekiel was already wrestling with whether to follow through with His command. The young priest was afraid of how he and his message might be received by the people, but God encouraged him to have faith.

“Do not fear them or their words. Don’t be afraid even though their threats surround you like nettles and briars and stinging scorpions. Do not be dismayed by their dark scowls, even though they are rebels.” – Ezekiel 2:6 NLT

God was telling Ezekiel not to be frightened by the things they would threaten to do to him, the harsh words they might say about him, or the negative reaction they would inevitably have to him.

“Son of man, do not fear them or their words. Don’t be afraid even though their threats surround you like nettles and briers and stinging scorpions. Do not be dismayed by their dark scowls, even though they are rebels. You must give them my messages whether they listen or not. But they won’t listen, for they are completely rebellious!” – Ezekiel 2:6-7 NLT

Ezekiel was going to experience resistance. His message would not be well-received and the people would hold him responsible for its content. It was only a matter of time before they sought to kill the messenger. That’s why God warned Ezekiel to refrain from emulating the rebellious nature of his audience. He was not to reject God’s assignment just because it sounded difficult and more than a bit dangerous. God was open and above board as to the difficulty of the mission. He didn’t attempt to sugarcoat the assignment or paint a rosy picture of its outcome. Instead, God gave His newly appointed prophet all he would need to succeed.

“Son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not join them in their rebellion. Open your mouth, and eat what I give you.” – Ezekiel 2:8 NLT

God held out a scroll, upon which were written lamentations, mourning, and woes. In other words, it was filled with bad news. The sheer volume of disheartening content was so great that it covered both sides of the scroll. God’s indictment against His people was great and He commanded Ezekiel to consume every last bit of it. He was to take it all in so that he might regurgitate it, word for word, to the disobedient people of God.

“Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” – Ezekiel 3:1 ESV

But much to his surprise, Ezekiel found the less-than-appealing content of the scroll to be “sweet as honey.” (Ezekiel 3:3 ESV). There is a similar scene described in the book of Revelation. In it, the apostle John is given a vision of an angel who descends from heaven with a scroll in his hand. He presents the scroll to John and commands him to eat it.

“Yes, take it and eat it,” he said. “It will be sweet as honey in your mouth, but it will turn sour in your stomach!” So I took the small scroll from the hand of the angel, and I ate it! It was sweet in my mouth, but when I swallowed it, it turned sour in my stomach.

Then I was told, “You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages, and kings.” – Revelation 10:9-11 NLT

Both John and Ezekiel would find the words of God to be both sweet and bitter. When the truth of God is consumed, it is pleasant and life-giving, but it can also result in conviction and condemnation.

For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires. – Hebrews 4:12 NLT

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. – 2 Timothy 3:16 NLT

For Ezekiel, consuming God’s word was sweet to the taste, but declaring it to the people would be a bitter experience. They would find it distasteful and difficult to swallow. But God was calling Ezekiel to be faithful and fearless in declaring its truth regardless of the outcome.

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.

Don’t Let Your Mouth Make You Sin

1 Moses spoke to the heads of the tribes of the people of Israel, saying, “This is what the Lord has commanded. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind himself by a pledge, he shall not break his word. He shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.

“If a woman vows a vow to the Lord and binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house in her youth, and her father hears of her vow and of her pledge by which she has bound herself and says nothing to her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father opposes her on the day that he hears of it, no vow of hers, no pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. And the Lord will forgive her, because her father opposed her.

“If she marries a husband, while under her vows or any thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she has bound herself, and her husband hears of it and says nothing to her on the day that he hears, then her vows shall stand, and her pledges by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if, on the day that her husband comes to hear of it, he opposes her, then he makes void her vow that was on her, and the thoughtless utterance of her lips by which she bound herself. And the Lord will forgive her. (But any vow of a widow or of a divorced woman, anything by which she has bound herself, shall stand against her.) 10 And if she vowed in her husband’s house or bound herself by a pledge with an oath, 11 and her husband heard of it and said nothing to her and did not oppose her, then all her vows shall stand, and every pledge by which she bound herself shall stand. 12 But if her husband makes them null and void on the day that he hears them, then whatever proceeds out of her lips concerning her vows or concerning her pledge of herself shall not stand. Her husband has made them void, and the Lord will forgive her. 13 Any vow and any binding oath to afflict herself, her husband may establish, or her husband may make void. 14 But if her husband says nothing to her from day to day, then he establishes all her vows or all her pledges that are upon her. He has established them, because he said nothing to her on the day that he heard of them. 15 But if he makes them null and void after he has heard of them, then he shall bear her iniquity.”

16 These are the statutes that the Lord commanded Moses about a man and his wife and about a father and his daughter while she is in her youth within her father’s house. Numbers 30:1-16 ESV

The people of Israel find themselves encamped near the border of the land of Canaan, and Moses is attempting to prepare them for the fast-approaching day when they will have to cross over that border and begin their conquest and capture of the land promised to them by God. Much of what Moses has communicated to them has been practical advice concerning matters of worship and sacrifice. When they finally enter the land, their lives will be consumed by fighting and trying to create new lives for themselves. Their old way of life will be over. They will go from being wanderers to conquerors. Rather than living in tents as nomads, they will find enjoy the comforts of home in houses and cities they didn’t build.

But with all the changes they will face, Moses stressed the need that they continue to maintain the religious rites and rituals that God had given them at Sinai. They were to keep all the commands regarding sacrifices and offerings. Just because they were entering a time marked by military conquest, they were not to abandon their relationship with and commitment to God.

Now, in chapter 30, Moses addresses a rather strange topic that is unfamiliar to the modern western mindset. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, Moses brings up the issue of making vows. This is not a reference to wedding vows, but to the making of verbal commitments and, in most cases, commitments made to God. They are sometimes referred to as oaths.

Now, why would Moses be bringing up this topic at this particular point? It sounds a bit out of place, but it makes sense when one considers that the Israelites were preparing to enter a strange new land and would be facing a host of unknowns. As they found themselves going into battles against much larger and more skilled armies, it would be tempting to make vows to God in an effort to secure success. A vow could be a promise made to God in exchange for His blessing or guarantee of safety. It might go something like this: “God, if you will bring me back safely from this battle, I will dedicate my firstborn child to Your service.”

We see just such a conversation in the book of Judges. Jephthah, one of the judges of Israel found himself facing a battle against the Ammonites. In an attempt to garner God’s assistance in defeating his enemy, Jephthah made a vow.

And Jephthah made a vow to the Lord. He said, “If you give me victory over the Ammonites, I will give to the Lord whatever comes out of my house to meet me when I return in triumph. I will sacrifice it as a burnt offering.” – Judges 1130-31 NLT

Jephthah meant well, but his vow would come back to haunt him. The text goes on to indicate that “Jephthah led his army against the Ammonites, and the Lord gave him victory” (Judges 11:32 NLT). But then it adds this unexpected note:

When Jephthah returned home to Mizpah, his daughter came out to meet him, playing on a tambourine and dancing for joy. She was his one and only child; he had no other sons or daughters. When he saw her, he tore his clothes in anguish. “Oh, my daughter!” he cried out. “You have completely destroyed me! You’ve brought disaster on me! For I have made a vow to the Lord, and I cannot take it back.” – Judges 11:34-35 NLT

According to the book of Judges, Jephthah kept the vow that he had made. But the whole point of the story is the danger of making rash or hasty vows. God takes the swearing of oaths and the making of vows seriously.

When you make a promise to God, don’t delay in following through, for God takes no pleasure in fools. Keep all the promises you make to him. It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it. Don’t let your mouth make you sin. And don’t defend yourself by telling the Temple messenger that the promise you made was a mistake. That would make God angry, and he might wipe out everything you have achieved. – Ecclesiastes 4:4-6 NLT

“When you make a vow to the Lord your God, be prompt in fulfilling whatever you promised him. For the Lord your God demands that you promptly fulfill all your vows, or you will be guilty of sin. However, it is not a sin to refrain from making a vow. But once you have voluntarily made a vow, be careful to fulfill your promise to the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 23:21-23 NLT

Notice the last part of that Deuteronomy passage. “It is not a sin to refrain from making a vow.” In other words, vows should be made circumspectly and cautiously. As the Ecclesiastes passage puts it: “It is better to say nothing than to make a promise and not keep it.”

And in chapter 30 of Numbers, Moses addresses this potentially dangerous issue of oath-making because he knows the people will soon find themselves in difficult situations that will tempt them to make unwise bargains with God. So, he reminds them to do so with caution.

A man who makes a vow to the Lord or makes a pledge under oath must never break it. He must do exactly what he said he would do. – Numbers 30:2 NLT

But then, Moses adds a few important exceptions or exclusions to this rule. He addresses the vows made by women, particularly married women and single young women who are still living under their father’s authority. He begins with those who are unmarried. If one of these young ladies made a vow to God, it would be binding, unless her father overheard it and determined to disavow or dismiss it. As the head of the household, he had that right and authority.

“Vows were voluntary promises to do or not do specified things if God would or would not do something else. They also expressed thanks when God had done something special. They usually involved fasting or abstaining from other lawful things or giving God some special gift or offering. Moses explained the basic principles governing vows first (v. 2). The Israelites were to take their promises to God seriously and not brake them (cf. Eccles, 5:4-5).” – Dr. Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers

If a father became aware of his daughter’s vow and deemed it as unacceptable, he could annul it, and she would be bound to her father’s wishes. And the father’s decision would release the young lady from her commitment to God.

The same thing would be true for a married woman. If she made a vow to God and her husband determined it to be unacceptable, she would be obligated to submit to his decision. His disavowal would free her from any obligation to God.

if her husband refuses to accept her vow or impulsive pledge on the day he hears of it, he nullifies her commitments, and the Lord will forgive her. – Numbers 30:8 NLT

This all hinges on the issue of headship. A young woman, while unmarried, remained under his father’s protection and authority. As soon as she married, she came under the headship of her husband. And both the father and the husband answered to God. The test does not address whether God would hold the father or husband responsible for the breaking of the vow. There could be a case in which a father forced his daughter to break her vow but, in doing so, he violated the will of God. This authority given to the father and husband was not to be taken lightly. And Moses makes it clear that if the father or husband did not reject the woman’s vow, she remained obligated to God.

In the case of widows or divorcees, they were directly answerable to God. With no husband to watch over them, God acted as their protector and provider. So, if they made a vow to God, they would be held responsible to keep it.

If, however, a woman is a widow or is divorced, she must fulfill all her vows and pledges. – Numbers 30:9 NLT

This admonition was intended to make these women think twice before making vows to God. But it also suggests that God would be watching over them and protecting them from doing anything rash or thoughtless.

As the psalmist later attested, vows were to be taken seriously and made soberly.

Make vows to the Lord your God, and keep them.
    Let everyone bring tribute to the Awesome One. – Psalm 76:11 NLT

Once the Israelites entered the land, they were to refrain from making bargains with God. Because if they attempted to buy God off by making vows they never intended to keep, they would pay dearly for it.

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.

No More Sacrifices Required

12 “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month you shall have a holy convocation. You shall not do any ordinary work, and you shall keep a feast to the Lord seven days. 13 And you shall offer a burnt offering, a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord, thirteen bulls from the herd, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old; they shall be without blemish; 14 and their grain offering of fine flour mixed with oil, three tenths of an ephah for each of the thirteen bulls, two tenths for each of the two rams, 15 and a tenth for each of the fourteen lambs; 16 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering and its drink offering.

17 “On the second day twelve bulls from the herd, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 18 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 19 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering, and their drink offerings.

20 “On the third day eleven bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 21 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 22 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.

23 “On the fourth day ten bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 24 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 25 also one male goat for a sin offering, besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering and its drink offering.

26 “On the fifth day nine bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 27 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 28 also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.

29 “On the sixth day eight bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 30 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 31 also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering, and its drink offerings.

32 “On the seventh day seven bulls, two rams, fourteen male lambs a year old without blemish, 33 with the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bulls, for the rams, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 34 also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering, its grain offering, and its drink offering.

35 “On the eighth day you shall have a solemn assembly. You shall not do any ordinary work, 36 but you shall offer a burnt offering, a food offering, with a pleasing aroma to the Lord: one bull, one ram, seven male lambs a year old without blemish, 37 and the grain offering and the drink offerings for the bull, for the ram, and for the lambs, in the prescribed quantities; 38 also one male goat for a sin offering; besides the regular burnt offering and its grain offering and its drink offering.

39 “These you shall offer to the Lord at your appointed feasts, in addition to your vow offerings and your freewill offerings, for your burnt offerings, and for your grain offerings, and for your drink offerings, and for your peace offerings.”

40  So Moses told the people of Israel everything just as the Lord had commanded Moses.  Numbers 29:12-40 ESV

Reading through chapter 29, it’s impossible not to be staggered by the sheer number of offerings God required the people of Israel to make. This chapter only covers the seventh month of the ecclesiastical year, which was the first month of the civil year. When the people came into the land this would be the time of year when they had the most leisure time, because it would fall between the harvest and the next planting. So, God seemed to fill it with a wider array of sacrifices and solemn occasions.

But in this one chapter alone you have outlined the observances for the Feast of Trumpets on the first day of the month, the Day of Atonement on the tenth day, and the Feast of Booths on the fifteenth day. In that one month alone the people would sacrifice 73 bulls, 17 rams, 120 male lambs, and 10 male goats.

That doesn’t include all the other sacrifices that were to be made on various days of the month on an annual basis. In fact, if you look at chapters 28 and 29, it would appear that the yearly offerings, made at the peoples’ expense, without taking into account a vast number of voluntary vow and trespass offerings, would have added up to 15 goats, 21 kids, 72 rams, 132 bulls, and 1,101 lambs. So, the total of animals sacrificed at public cost would have been an incredible 1,241. Then if you take into account the huge quantity of lambs slain at Passover each year, the number goes out the roof. According to Josephus, the Jewish historian, in the time of Christ, the number of lambs sacrificed at Passover in a single year would have been in the vicinity of 255,600. That is an incredible amount of animals.

Think of the cost to the people. These were not the runts of the litter they were sacrificing, but the very best they had to offer. They were sacrificing their breeding stock, all those animals who were free from disease or disfigurement. Any animal they offered to God had to be completely free from blemish. They were required to provide only the very best. In an agriculturally based society, this was an expensive proposition. And it was mandatory. No options. No excuses. So what’s the point? What does all this blood and sacrifice have to do with us? In The Expositors Bible Commentary, Ronald Allen says this:

“As we, the modern readers of Numbers, think scripturally, this overwhelming emphasis on sacrificial worship has one intent: to cause each reader to think of the enormity of the offense of our sin against the holiness of God, thus driving the repentant sinner to the foot of the Cross. All sacrifices—whether of the morning or evening, of Sabbath or New Moon—have their ultimate meaning in the death the Savior died. Apart from his death, these sacrifices were just the killing of animals and the burning of their flesh with attendant ceremonies. After his death, sacrifices such as these are redundant—indeed, offensive—for they would suggest that something was needed in addition to the Savior’s death. But before his death, these sacrifices were the very means God gave his people in love to help them face the enormity of their sin, the reality of their need for his grace, and—in some mysterious way—to point them to the coming cross of Savior Jesus.”

Thousands of lambs could never add up to the one sacrifice that Jesus Christ made for us. But they can reveal the incredible cost of sin, and that sin required a payment. The shedding of blood.

In fact, we can say that according to the law of Moses, nearly everything was purified by sprinkling with blood. Without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22 NLT

Every one of the sacrifices God required the Israelites to make was meant to foreshadow and point to the final sacrifice of the unblemished Lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world (John 1:20). They were intended to be a temporary solution to mankind’s ongoing problem with sin and the penalty of death that accompanied it. And the author of Hebrews points out the temporary and imperfect nature of the sacrificial system.

The old system under the law of Moses was only a shadow, a dim preview of the good things to come, not the good things themselves. The sacrifices under that system were repeated again and again, year after year, but they were never able to provide perfect cleansing for those who came to worship. – Hebrews 10:1 NLT

He went on to reveal the built-in limitations of animal sacrifices. While they could offer a temporary means of atonement, all they could really do was remind people of their ongoing struggle with sin. And he pointed out the reason for their ineffectiveness.

For it is not possible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. – Hebrews 10:4 NLT

The sacrificial system was never intended to be a permanent solution to the problem of sin. The very fact that the offerings were required on a repetitive and perpetual basis reveals that they were like treating a terminal disease with a bandaid.

The whole reason Jesus Christ came to earth was to bring about a permanent solution to the death sentence hanging over the heads of a sinful humanity.

Christ said, “You did not want animal sacrifices or sin offerings or burnt offerings or other offerings for sin, nor were you pleased with them” (though they are required by the law of Moses). – Hebrews 10:8 NLT

Yes, God had been the one to institute the whole sacrificial system, but it was never meant to be the final solution. Jesus was always intended to be the one true sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.

God’s will was for us to be made holy by the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ, once for all time. – Hebrews 10:10 NLT

That holy sacrifice was presented by God Himself, and it cost Him dearly.

For you know that God paid a ransom to save you from the empty life you inherited from your ancestors. And it was not paid with mere gold or silver, which lose their value. It was the precious blood of Christ, the sinless, spotless Lamb of God. – 1 Peter 1:18-19 NLT

He sacrificed His precious Son on mankind’s behalf. He gave the best He had to atone for the sins of humanity. And, as a result, those of us who have placed our faith in Jesus’ sacrificial and substitutionary death, have forgiveness of sin. And we do not need to offer any more sacrifices. Jesus Christ accomplished it all with the sacrifice of His life in our place. No more blood needs to be shed. No more lives need to be sacrificed. And the author of Hebrews points out the remarkable nature of this once-for-all-time gift.

Under the old covenant, the priest stands and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. – Hebrews 10:11-12 NLT

No more sacrifices are needed. Why? Because Jesus’ death paid the death we owed and now God has forgiven and forgotten our sins.

“I will never again remember
    their sins and lawless deeds.” – Hebrews 10:17 NLT

The Israelites, who were destined to keep on sinning, were also required to keep on sacrificing so that they might receive a temporary reprieve from their well-deserved judgment. But for all those who are in Christ, “when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices” (Hebrews 10:18 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.