A Dreaded and Difficult Conversation

15 When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Feed my lambs.” 16 He said to him a second time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” He said to him, “Yes, Lord; you know that I love you.” He said to him, “Tend my sheep.” 17 He said to him the third time, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” Peter was grieved because he said to him the third time, “Do you love me?” and he said to him, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.” Jesus said to him, “Feed my sheep. 18 Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” 19 (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” John 21:15-19 ESV

The moment Peter had been dreading finally arrived. Ever since he had peered into the empty tomb, he must have experienced a growing sense of irrepressible joy at the thought that Jesus was alive and he might get see Him again. But his excitement was tempered by a nagging sense of guilt over his public denials of Jesus. On that night in the upper room, when Jesus had announced that one of the 12 would betray Him, Peter had boldly proclaimed, “I will lay down my life for you!” (John 13:37 ESV). But Jesus had responded with an equally bold statement of His own:

“Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times. – John 13:38 ESV

And that very same night, as Jesus was being interrogated by the high priest and the members of Sanhedrin, Peter fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy.

The servant girl at the door said to Peter, “You also are not one of this man’s disciples, are you?” He said, “I am not.”  – John 18:17 ESV

Now Simon Peter was standing and warming himself. So they said to him, “You also are not one of his disciples, are you?” He denied it and said, “I am not.” – John 18:25 ESV

One of the servants of the high priest, a relative of the man whose ear Peter had cut off, asked, “Did I not see you in the garden with him?” Peter again denied it, and at once a rooster crowed.  – John 18:26-27 ESV

Three separate times, Peter had been asked about his personal relationship with Jesus. Three different individuals asked him to confirm his identity as a disciple or follower of Jesus, and three times he vehemently denied any knowledge of or relationship with Jesus.

Now, standing on the shore of the sea of Galilee, Peter’s worst fear was realized. He found himself alone with Jesus. Peter had been avoiding the inevitable. The weight of his guilty conscience must have become unbearable, preventing him from fully experiencing the joy of being with Jesus. Every time Peter looked at Jesus’ face or caught a fleeting glimpse of the nail prints in His hands and feet, a sense of shame and self-loathing must have welled up within him. It is difficult to imagine just how tortured Peter must have felt each time he looked on his resurrected Master and friend.

And now, Jesus approached him one on one. There is no way of knowing what was going through Peter’s mind at that moment, but one would expect that Peter had been rehearsing the apology he would need for just such a moment. Yet, mercifully, Jesus broke the awkward silence by speaking first. And what Jesus had to say to Peter speaks volumes. One might have expected Jesus to say something like, “I told you so” or “Well, what have you got to say for yourself?” But instead, Jesus asked Peter a series of three questions.

“Simon, son of John, do you love me more than these?” – John 21:15 ESV

“Simon, son of John, do you love me? – John 21:16 ESV

“Simon, son of John, do you love me? – John 21:17 ESV

Actually, it was one question asked three different times. That night in the garden, Peter’s inquisitors wanted him to confirm his relationship with Jesus, and three times he had denied having one. But now, Peter is being asked to publicly confess and confirm his love for Jesus. And this time, the one asking the questions is the very one Peter had denied.

Peter’s brash and impulsive nature had finally caught up with him. Over the years he had been with Jesus, he had made a habit of speaking his mind and trying to set himself apart from the rest of the disciples. He was naturally competitive and driven to do whatever it took to stand out from the crowd. All three of the Synoptic gospels record his pride-filled response when Jesus had declared, “You will all fall away because of me this night” (Matthew 26:31 ESV). Peter had boldly proclaimed, “Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away” (John 26:33 ESV). He was declaring himself to be better than the rest. He was made of better stuff. But little did Peter know that his bold claim was going to be put to the test and he would end up failing miserably.

But at the heart of Jesus’ questions is the issue of love. The very first iteration of Jesus’ question compared Peter’s love with that of the other disciples. When Jesus asked, “do you love me more than these?,” He was not asking if Peter’s love for the other disciples was greater than his love for Him. This was a question designed to expose whether Peter still harbored feelings of superiority, and considered himself to be more committed to Jesus than his fellow disciples.

Remember, Peter had accused the rest of the disciples of a lack of commitment. He had predicted that they would all fall away at the first hint of trouble. But he was different. He would stay the course and remain by Jesus’ side through thick or thin. Or so he had thought.

But standing face to face with Jesus, all Peter could say was “Lord; you know that I love you” (John 21:15 ESV). No comparison. No competition. He was not willing to speak for or compare himself with the other disciples. All he could do was confirm his own love for his friend.

Over the years, much emphasis has been placed on the two Greek words for “love” that appear in this passage. One is the word agapaō and the other is phileō. The first is said to be a description of divine love – a selfless, sacrificial love expressed by God to men. While the latter was more commonly used to refer to a lower, earthly form of love – the love between two human beings. And while there is some truth to this distinction, it is also true that these two words were often used interchangeably in the Greek language. Yet, John seems to establish a clear pattern in this passage. He records that Jesus repeatedly used the word agapaō, while Peter responded by using the word phileō. There is a subtle, yet important, point of clarification being made as Jesus discusses the nature of Peter’s love. Does Peter love Jesus in the same way that Jesus loved him?

Jesus had laid down His life for Peter. He had personally demonstrated the very definition of love He had given to the disciples.

“Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” – John 15:13 ESV

Jesus had faithfully fulfilled His role as the Good Shepherd.

“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.” – John 10:11-12 ESV

By his actions that night in the courtyard, Peter had proven himself to be a hired hand. The wolf had come and he had fled. But now, Jesus was offering Peter an opportunity to prove his love. With each successive query, Jesus responded to Peter’s answer with a directive.

“Feed my lambs.” – John 21:15 ESV

“Tend my sheep.” – John 21:16 ESV

“Feed my sheep. – John 21:17 ESV

In essence, Jesus is demanding that Peter prove his love for Him by loving those for whom He died. Jesus had told the disciples, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd” (John 10:16 ESV). And now, Jesus was turning the care and feeding of the flock over to Peter and his companions. If Peter wanted to prove his love for Jesus, he was going to love and care for those whom Jesus gave His life.

In His teaching on the Good Shepherd, Jesus had stated, “he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. To him the gatekeeper opens. The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes before them, and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice” (John 10:4 ESV). In a sense, Jesus was turning over to Peter the responsibility for shepherding and leading His flock. Peter and the other disciples would become under-shepherds, commissioned by the Good Shepherd to feed and tend His sheep. These men could express no greater love for Jesus than to care for His sheep. Jesus was leaving and He was going to turn over the care and protection of His flock to His disciples.

And then Jesus reveals to Peter that his shepherding of the sheep will be costly. Peter too will end up laying down his life for the sheep. This impulsive, self-assertive man will one day find himself being led by others. But as a sheep to the slaughter. This somewhat poetic-sounding prophecy by Jesus was meant to reveal to Peter “by what kind of death he was to glorify God” (John 21:19 ESV).

“I tell you the truth, when you were young, you were able to do as you liked; you dressed yourself and went wherever you wanted to go. But when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and others will dress you and take you where you don’t want to go.” – John 21:18 NLT

Peter’s life was going to be dramatically different from this point forward. No longer would he live the self-willed, ego-driven life he had known up until that day. He will live a long life, but one that will be dedicated the the flock of Jesus Christ and end in him laying down his own life for the sheep – just as Jesus did. And according to the early church father, Eusubius, Peter was crucified in the midsixties A.D. during the purges of the Roman emperor, Nero.

But when Jesus had completed His one-on-one conversation with Peter, He ended it the same words He had used when they first met: “Follow me.” But this time, Jesus wasn’t asking Peter to become His disciples. He was inviting Peter to follow His example of selfless, sacrificial love for the sheep. And one day, when Peter had fully followed Jesus’ example, he would follow Jesus to heaven.

“When everything is ready, I will come and get you, so that you will always be with me where I am.” – John 14:3 NLT

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

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

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

Are We Also Blind?

24 So for the second time they called the man who had been blind and said to him, “Give glory to God. We know that this man is a sinner.” 25 He answered, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.” 26 They said to him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?” 27 He answered them, “I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?” 28 And they reviled him, saying, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. 29 We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” 30 The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. 31 We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. 32 Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. 33 If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” 34 They answered him, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” And they cast him out.

35 Jesus heard that they had cast him out, and having found him he said, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” 36 He answered, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” 37 Jesus said to him, “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.” 38 He said, “Lord, I believe,” and he worshiped him. 39 Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” 40 Some of the Pharisees near him heard these things, and said to him, “Are we also blind?” 41 Jesus said to them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt; but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your guilt remains. John 9:24-41 ESV

The Pharisees were beside themselves in frustration and anger. Standing before them was a common street beggar, claiming to have had his congenital blindness miraculously healed by Jesus, their arch-nemesis. They had already threatened to excommunicate from the synagogue anyone who claimed Jesus to be the Messiah. And while this man had only proclaimed Jesus to be a prophet, they essentially accused him of blasphemy for having given glory to Jesus rather than God. They seriously doubted the veracity of this man’s story, but they still found him guilty of attributing to Jesus what only God could have done.

The formerly blind man was perplexed by their reasoning and their declaration that Jesus was nothing more than a sinner. Their logic made no sense to him. But in his simple way of thinking, it didn’t even matter. He responded, “Whether he is a sinner I do not know. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see” (John 9:25 ESV).  All he knew for certain was that he used to blind, but now he could see. And it was all because of this man named Jesus.

Unable to coerce a confession out of the man, they resorted to further questioning, hoping to expose a hole in his story. But the man responded with a hint of exasperation mixed with sarcasm, “Look!…I told you once. Didn’t you listen? Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?” (John 9:27 NLT). The content of his statement and the tone with which he said it produced an immediate and intense reaction from the Pharisees.

Then they cursed him and said, “You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses! We know God spoke to Moses, but we don’t even know where this man comes from.” – John 9:28-29 NLT

Their response revealed their complete disdain for Jesus and His followers. In their estimation, Jesus was a rogue Rabbi whose teachings contradicted those of Moses. In their minds, Jesus was nothing more than a Sabbath-breaker who associated with sinners. His miracles were the work of Satan, not Yahweh. And all His talk of being the Son of God was nothing less than blasphemy, a crime punishable by death.

But once again, this passage juxtaposes the light with the darkness. It contrasts those who are blind with those who have eyes to see. The Pharisees, so proud of their discipleship to Moses, had failed to understand that Moses wrote of Jesus’ coming. The great emancipator and law-giver had received a promise directly from God.

“I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NLT

And Jesus was the fulfillment of that prophecy. But the Pharisees were too blind to see. They “loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV). But the lowly beggar, who had received his sight from Jesus, saw the absurdity of their position.

“Why, that’s very strange!” the man replied. “He healed my eyes, and yet you don’t know where he comes from? We know that God doesn’t listen to sinners, but he is ready to hear those who worship him and do his will. Ever since the world began, no one has been able to open the eyes of someone born blind. If this man were not from God, he couldn’t have done it.” – John 9:30-33 NLT

It was as clear as day to him. There was no way that Jesus was a sinner. And it was idiotic to think that Jesus was able to do what He did without the full support and authority of God. You didn’t have to be a religious scholar to know that the giving of sight was an act of God. And because this man could now see, he knew that Jesus had the ear of God. But sadly, his message fell on the dear ears and sin-darkened hearts of the Pharisees, who angrily responded, “You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?” (John 9:34 ESV). Who was he to lecture them? He was nothing more than a man who had been cursed to blindness because of sin. And with that, they banned him from the synagogue.

This was to become a common occurrence among those Jews who aligned themselves with Jesus. In fact, Jesus would later warn His disciples, “They will put you out of the synagogues. Indeed, the hour is coming when whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God. And they will do these things because they have not known the Father, nor me. But I have said these things to you, that when their hour comes you may remember that I told them to you” (John 16:2-4 ESV). The Jews, in their religious zeal, would end up persecuting all those who became followers of Jesus. The Book of Acts reveals that the apostle Paul, prior to his conversion, had been a Pharisee whose job it was to hunt down Christians. 

Meanwhile, Saul was uttering threats with every breath and was eager to kill the Lord’s followers. So he went to the high priest. He requested letters addressed to the synagogues in Damascus, asking for their cooperation in the arrest of any followers of the Way he found there. He wanted to bring them—both men and women—back to Jerusalem in chains. – Acts 9:1-2 NLT

It was going to become increasingly more dangerous to be a follower of Jesus. And His death and resurrection would not make it any easier. But this lowly beggar was about to have a second “chance” encounter with Jesus. The one who had healed him sought him out and asked, “Do you believe in the Son of Man?” (John 9:35 ESV).

From the overall context of the passage, it seems that this was the first time the man had actually seen Jesus with his own, newly restored, eyes. So, when Jesus spoke to him, he had no way of knowing that this was the same man who had healed him. He also had no idea that Jesus was referring to Himself as the Son of Man. Which is what led him to ask, “And who is he, sir, that I may believe in him?” Even with his restored sight, he was still spiritually blind to the reality of who Jesus was. He most likely understood that this stranger was referring to the man who had healed him, and he desired to know more about him. “You have seen him, and it is he who is speaking to you.”

And John states that, with this revelation from Jesus, the man expressed his belief and worshiped Him. It is at this point that Jesus reintroduces the metaphor of darkness and light.

“For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.” – John 9:39 ESV

As the light of the world, Jesus judged the world by His very presence. He illuminated the darkness, but there were those who chose to remain in the darkness. They rejected the light and, in doing so, they judged themselves. They already stood condemned for their sins, and God had graciously sent His Son to provide them with atonement. But because they refused to “see” Jesus as the Son of God, they remained in their darkness. But those who “saw” and believed received forgiveness and freedom from condemnation.

The Pharisees, overhearing Jesus’ words, were offended by what He said, and objected to His inference that they were blind. But Jesus said their real problem was their belief that they had spiritual insight. They believed themselves to be enlightened and informed. But Jesus informed them, “If you were blind, you would have no guilt” (John 9:41 ESV). In other words, if they would only see and confess their blindness, they would receive sight. Jesus would later accuse these very same men of viewing themselves as in need of nothing He had to offer. They did not believe they were sinners, so they had no need for a Savior.

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do.” – Matthew 9:12 NLT

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

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

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

Not What They Expected

40 When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” 41 Others said, “This is the Christ.” But some said, “Is the Christ to come from Galilee? 42 Has not the Scripture said that the Christ comes from the offspring of David, and comes from Bethlehem, the village where David was?” 43 So there was a division among the people over him. 44 Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him.

45 The officers then came to the chief priests and Pharisees, who said to them, “Why did you not bring him?” 46 The officers answered, “No one ever spoke like this man!” 47 The Pharisees answered them, “Have you also been deceived? 48 Have any of the authorities or the Pharisees believed in him? 49 But this crowd that does not know the law is accursed.” 50 Nicodemus, who had gone to him before, and who was one of them, said to them, 51 “Does our law judge a man without first giving him a hearing and learning what he does?” 52 They replied, “Are you from Galilee too? Search and see that no prophet arises from Galilee.” John 7:40-52 ESV

When Jesus spoke, people listened. That doesn’t mean they always understood or liked what He had to say. In fact, His messages often left His audiences intrigued and incensed at the same time. And when Jesus taught in the temple courtyard, on the last day of the Feast of Booths, He made His usual impact on those who had gathered to hear Him. He had chosen His words carefully, taking advantage of the circumstances surrounding the water rite that was practiced each morning of the festival.

For six days, the people had watched the daily processional as the priests brought a golden bowl filled with water from the Pool of Siloam up to the temple courtyard. Once there, they would pour out the water, along with another bowl filled with wine, on the brazen altar, as the people recited Isaiah 55:1 and Isaiah 12:3: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters…With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”

But on the seventh day of the feast, or what John refers to as “the great day,” this ritual required the priests to circle the brazen altar seven times before they poured out the water and wine. This ceremony was known as the Hoshana Rabbah, the great “HOSHIANA” (which translated is “save now”).

So, on that final day, when Jesus stood in the temple courtyard and proclaimed, “Anyone who is thirsty may come to me! Anyone who believes in me may come and drink! For the Scriptures declare, ‘Rivers of living water will flow from his heart’” (John 7:37-38 NLT), His words did not go unnoticed. John records:

When they heard these words, some of the people said, “This really is the Prophet.” Others said, “This is the Christ.” – John 7:40-41 ESV

They didn’t know what to make of Jesus. His miracles and messages intrigued them, causing them to wonder if He might be someone special. Of course, their natural tendency was to equate Him with one of the Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah or “the prophet” promised by Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). They knew Jesus was special, but they weren’t exactly sure what to make of Him. So much of what He did and said seemed to contradict their preconceived ideas regarding the coming Messiah. He didn’t seem to fit the image of the one they were expecting. Jesus didn’t look like a conquering king or a powerful military figure who was going to lead the people of Israel in a victorious rebellion against the Roman. Some had a difficult time believing this itinerant Rabbi was actually their Messiah. After all, the prophets had made it clear that the Messiah would be a descendant of King David, even sharing his birthplace of Bethlehem. But, as far as they could tell, Jesus was from Galilee.

There was much about Jesus they didn’t know or understand. They were unaware of the details concerning His birth in Bethlehem. They knew nothing of His lineage as outlined in the other gospels, where He is listed as “the son of David” (Matthew 1:1; Luke 3:31). So, they ended up debating about who He was and what they were to do with Him.

…there was a division among the people over him. Some of them wanted to arrest him, but no one laid hands on him. – John 7:43-44 ESV

John continues to stress the divine nature of the timeline surrounding Jesus’ last days on earth. While John makes it clear that the circumstances surrounding Jesus are intensifying, he gives no indication that Jesus was worried or concerned. The religious leaders are growing increasingly more desperate to eliminate Jesus as a threat, but they are powerless to do anything. John even describes the frustration of the Sanhedrin when their guards return empty-handed, having failed to arrest Jesus as they had been ordered.

When the Temple guards returned without having arrested Jesus, the leading priests and Pharisees demanded, “Why didn’t you bring him in?” – John 7:45 NLT

And even the response of these men reveals the powerful impact Jesus had on all those who were exposed to His teaching.

“We have never heard anyone speak like this!” the guards responded. – John 7:46 NLT

They had been blown away by what they heard. But the religious leaders were appalled at their gullibility and failure to do their jobs. They ridicule these guards for being so easily deceived while bragging about their own refusal to be taken in by His lies. It was their superior knowledge of the law that kept them from falling prey to this blasphemous pretender. And they pronounce a curse on the people for their ignorance of and disregard for God’s law.

But it is at that point that John reintroduces Nicodemus. This Pharisee and member of the ruling council of Israel shows up a second time in John’s narrative. He first appeared in the middle of the night, seeking an impromptu and secret meeting with Jesus. His encounter with Jesus had left him confused and asking, “How can these things be?” (John 3:3:9 ESV). All Jesus’ talk about being born again and the Son of Man being lifted up had left Nicodemus perplexed. But it had given him plenty to think about. So, when his colleagues reacted so vehemently against Jesus, Nicodemus spoke up.

“Is it legal to convict a man before he is given a hearing?” – John 7:51 NLT

It seems clear that Nicodemus was more than curious about Jesus, and he couldn’t understand why his associates were so unwilling to give this man a proper hearing. What harm could it do to investigate Jesus’ claims more fully? But Nicodemus’ question was met with scorn and ridicule. His fellow members of the Sanhedrin, driven by blind hate for Jesus, turned their anger against him, demeaning him as no better than a lowly and ignorant Galilean.

“Are you from Galilee, too? Search the Scriptures and see for yourself—no prophet ever comes from Galilee!” – John 7:52 NLT

For all their supposed knowledge of the Scriptures, they were incredibly misinformed. Their pride in their ow Judean heritage and their hatred for Galileans blinded them to the truth of God’s Word. Both Jonah and Nahum had been prophets who hailed from Galilee. And now, they were faced with yet another messenger sent from God who was not what they were expecting. Jesus did not fit their preconceived notions regarding the Messiah, so they deemed Him a liar and a lunatic. They allowed their pride to get in the way. Their egos prevented them from recognizing the very one for whom they had been waiting. It was just as Jesus had said:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” – John 5:39-40 ESV

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

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

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

The Disbelief of Family and Foes

1 After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” For not even his brothers believed in him. Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” After saying this, he remained in Galilee.

10 But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private.John 7:1-10 ESV

In John’s gospel, Jerusalem appears to be ground-zero. While he dedicates a good portion of his narrative to events that took place outside of Judea, he repeatedly refocuses the reader’s attention back to the capital city. Jerusalem was the home of God’s house, the temple that had been reconstructed by Herod. It was where the annual feasts and festivals, prescribed by God to Moses, were celebrated. This celebrated city, while just a shadow of its former glory under the reigns of David and his son, Solomon, was still the epicenter of the Hebrew nation. It was home to the revered and feared Jewish religious council, the Sanhedrin. And it had become the focal point of the conflict between these well-established religious leaders and Jesus, whom they viewed as nothing more than a charlatan and a troublesome threat to their power and authority.

With the opening of chapter seven, John establishes the inherent danger the city of Jerusalem posed for Jesus. This was the very place where, in the early days of His ministry, Jesus had caused an uproar in the temple courtyard.

In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. – John 2:14-15 ESV

This emotional display had won Jesus no friends among the religious elite of Israel. They questioned His authority to do what He had done, and they began to view Him as nothing more than a showboating, attention-grabbing troublemaker from Galilee. This unknown Rabbi from Galilee had been drawing larger and larger crowds with His so-called miracles and ridiculous claims to be the Son of God. To the Pharisees and Sadducees, Jesus was a lunatic and possibly even demon-possessed. And He had clearly committed the sin of blasphemy by claiming equality with God.

This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. – John 5:18 ESV

As John continues to chronicle the life and ministry of Jesus, he purposely builds the sense of tension between the Messiah of Israel and those who had set themselves up as the religious gatekeepers of the nation. And Jerusalem becomes center-stage for what will be the ultimate showdown between Jesus and these men. But as will be revealed, this conflict will prove to be a spiritual battle between Almighty God and Satan, the prince of this world.

As chapter seven opens, John reveals just how dangerous things had become for Jesus. Due to the growing animosity of the Sanhedrin, Jesus had determined to spend most of His time in Galilee, rather than in Judea because He knew they were out to kill Him. Jesus did not fear death, but He was simply sticking to the divine timeline given to Him by His Heavenly Father. It was just as He had told His mother at the wedding in Cana, “My hour has not yet come” (John 2:4 ESV).

John reveals that the “Feast of Booths was at hand” (John 7:2 ESV). This was one of three annual feasts that required the mandatory attendance of all Jewish males.

“Three times a year all your males shall appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose: at the Feast of Unleavened Bread, at the Feast of Weeks, and at the Feast of Booths. They shall not appear before the Lord empty-handed. – Deuteronomy 16:16 ESV

But these festivals became annual pilgrimages for the Jews, drawing large crowds to Jerusalem. The Feast of Booths was to be a commemoration of God’s deliverance of the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and a joyous celebration of His provision and protection of them during their 40 years in the wilderness. And when they gathered in Jerusalem, they were not to come “empty-handed,” but they were to bring tithes and offerings to present to God.

The key theme of these opening verses is that of disbelief. It seems quite clear that the Jewish religious leaders did not believe in Jesus. They had even discounted His miracles by describing them as the work of Satan, not God (Matthew 12:24). But John adds another interesting group to the list of the unbelieving: The half-brothers of Jesus. These were men who had grown up in the same household with Jesus. They were intimately familiar with Him. And yet, they were not quite convinced that Jesus was who He claimed to be. In fact, at one point, they described His actions as those of a madman (Mark 3:21). Yet, in this case, they seem to be goading Jesus to use the Feast of Tabernacles as the opportunity to make a name for Himself.

“Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” – John 7:3-4 ESV

It’s impossible to know the motivation behind their words. Were they sincere or merely being sarcastic? John doesn’t tell us. But he does make it clear that “not even his brothers believed in him” (John 7:5 ESV). It would appear that they were prompting Jesus to use the Feast of Booths as a platform for displaying His miraculous powers. He was wasting His time doing miracles in Galilee. If He wanted to be famous, He was going to have to go prime-time, and what better venue than Jerusalem during one of the most popular feasts of the year?

But Jesus responded to their goading by saying, “My time has not yet come…” (John 7:6 ESV). There is probably a double-meaning to His response. First of all, it was not yet time for Jesus to be “glorified.” They were wanting Him to put on a display of His glory by performing miracles in Jerusalem. But that time had not yet come. Jesus was on God’s schedule, not man’s. Their counsel was eerily similar to that of Satan when he had tempted Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-10) He had attempted to get Jesus to display His glory ahead of schedule and out of keeping with God’s will.

But the second meaning behind His response was that it was not yet time for Him to attend the feast. Jesus told His brothers, “your time is always here. The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. You go up to the feast…” (John 7:6-8 ESV). They had nothing to fear. Because they did not believe Jesus to be the Messiah, they were not at risk. They could walk into Jerusalem unafraid and unmolested. But Jesus knew that He would receive a dramatically different welcome. So, He delayed His entry into Jerusalem. John makes that point clear in verse 10.

But after his brothers had gone up to the feast, then he also went up, not publicly but in private. – John 7:10 ESV

Jesus would be obedient and obey the law requiring all Jewish males to attend the feast. But He would not do so in a way that might jeopardize His mission. His half-brothers were wanting Jesus to make a “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, to show up in a blaze of attention-getting miracles. But it was not yet time. Everything Jesus did was in keeping with His Father’s will and in fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. And it all had to be done according to plan.

But central to these opening verses is the theme of disbelief. The Jewish leadership refused to believe in Jesus. But so did His own family members. And jealousy and pride were probably determining factors for both groups. The Pharisees and Sadducees were envious of Jesus’ popularity. They felt threatened by His growing fame and frustrated by their inability to discredit His claims. But there was likely a bit of jealousy and pride motivating Jesus’ own family members. Here was their older brother becoming a celebrity and they were left in the background, wondering just how famous their sibling would become and whether they would benefit from His meteoric rise to fame and fortune. But they did not believe in Him. They refused to accept Him as the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. To both groups, Jesus was just a man. To the religious leaders, He was a man who posed a threat to their power and authority. To His half-brothers, Jesus was a man who offered them an opportunity to enjoy fame and possible fortune. But both groups failed to recognize who He was and what He had come to do.

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

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

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

What Does God Require?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

…to do justice

…to love kindness

…to walk humbly with your God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure to Bless

1 Woe to those who devise wickedness
    and work evil on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
    because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and seize them,
    and houses, and take them away;
they oppress a man and his house,
    a man and his inheritance.
Therefore thus says the Lord:
behold, against this family I am devising disaster,
    from which you cannot remove your necks,
and you shall not walk haughtily,
    for it will be a time of disaster.
In that day they shall take up a taunt song against you
    and moan bitterly,
and say, “We are utterly ruined;
    he changes the portion of my people;
how he removes it from me!
    To an apostate he allots our fields.”
Therefore you will have none to cast the line by lot
    in the assembly of the Lord.
Micah 2:1-5 ESV

The judgment of God was coming against Israel and Judah. But why? The answer to that question is found in chapter one: “All this is for the transgression of Jacob and for the sins of the house of Israel” (Micah 1:5 ESV). And both Israel and Judah stood as guilty and condemned by God. But just in case anyone was thinking about arguing their case, Micah provides a detailed list of crimes worthy of conviction.

While chapter one included God’s indictments against Israel and Judah, in chapter two the focus shifts to the southern kingdom of Judah. After all, as one of its residents, Micah had been appointed by God to deliver his message of judgment and call to repentance to his own people. And God wanted Micah to make it painfully clear that when the nation fell, it would not be the result of blind fate or because of the imperialistic ambitions of a foreign power. No, it would be because of their many sins against God. The grounds for their future fall would be their own wickedness. The source of their ultimate demise would be their sovereign, holy, and righteous God.

Micah proceeds to itemize the many sins of the people of Judah through a series of woes. The term “woe” was often used to express sorrow or lament but in this case, Micah is using it as a threat or announcement of pending judgment because of guilt.

Unrighteousness had become so prolific in Judah that there were those who spend their nights concocting plans to commit acts of wickedness the next day. They literally dreamed of sinning. And, because they had the financial resources and power to put those plans into action, “When the morning dawns, they perform it” (Micah 2:1 ESV).

This first woe seems to be directed at the rich and powerful in Judah, who were using their influence to take advantage of the less fortunate among them. They were growing richer by means of extortion and graft. They were motivated by greed and devoid of compassion, using their formidable resources and connections to satisfy their insatiable lust for more.

When you want a piece of land,
    you find a way to seize it.
When you want someone’s house,
    you take it by fraud and violence.
You cheat a man of his property,
    stealing his family’s inheritance. – Micah 2:2 NLT

The actions of these individuals were driven by a love of self. They exhibited the characteristics outlined by James centuries later.

You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure. – James 4:2-3 NLT

These people were guilty of violating the tenth commandment.

“You must not covet your neighbor’s house. You must not covet your neighbor’s wife, male or female servant, ox or donkey, or anything else that belongs to your neighbor.”
 – Exodus 21:17 NLT

And because they were using their power and influence to turn their thoughts of covetousness into reality, they were also guilty of breaking the eighth commandment, which prohibited stealing. And to top it all off, they were guilty of violating what Jesus said was the second greatest commandment of God. “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18 NLT).

James accused these kinds of people of spiritual adultery. They were guilty of making a god out of money and material possessions.

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:4 NLT

They were worshiping the gifts rather than the Giver. And they took great pride in their affluence and in their ability to increase their wealth through cunning and deceit. But Micah warns them that there will be serious consequences for their actions.

But this is what the Lord says:
“I will reward your evil with evil;
    you won’t be able to pull your neck out of the noose.
You will no longer walk around proudly,
    for it will be a terrible time.” – Micah 2:3 NLT

Notice his emphasis on pride. That is exactly what James points out in his letter when addressing the spiritual adulterers of his day.

As the Scriptures say,

“God opposes the proud
    but gives grace to the humble.”

So humble yourselves before God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come close to God, and God will come close to you. Wash your hands, you sinners; purify your hearts, for your loyalty is divided between God and the world. Let there be tears for what you have done. Let there be sorrow and deep grief. Let there be sadness instead of laughter, and gloom instead of joy. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up in honor. – James 4:6-10 NLT

Pride and arrogance have no place in the life of a child of God. Everything we have comes from the gracious hand of God, as James makes clear in his letter.

Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights… – James 1:17 ESV

And what we have been given by God is intended for the good of all. His blessings are meant to be shared. There is no place for selfishness and self-centeredness among God’s people. Greed, lust, and covetousness are antithetical to the life of righteousness to which we have been called. And the same thing was true of the people of Judah in Micah’s day. Long before they had ever entered the land of Canaan, God had promised that He would bless them and that He expected them to use those blessings to care for one another. His gracious gifts were to be lovingly shared, not greedily hoarded.

“There should be no poor among you, for the LORD your God will greatly bless you in the land he is giving you as a special possession. You will receive this blessing if you are careful to obey all the commands of the LORD your God that I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 15:4-5 NLT

But generations later, the people of God had proven their inability and unwillingness to follow God’s commands. So, Micah warns them that the very evil they had committed was about to come upon them. These greedy, covetous people would find themselves the victims of someone else’s dreams of conquest and acquisition. The Babylonians would show up one day and use their great power, wealth, and influence to relieve the proud people of Judah of their homes, lands, and dignity. Micah warns that the once-prideful people of God will sing a doleful dirge, lamenting their fall from grace.

“We are finished,
        completely ruined!
    God has confiscated our land,
        taking it from us.
    He has given our fields
        to those who betrayed us.” – Micah 2:4 NLT

God was going to take away the very land He had given to them as their inheritance. He would deprive them of the source of their abundance and fruitfulness. The fields and houses they had stolen from others would be taken from them. They would be left with nothing. No inheritance, no land, no homes, no flocks, no herds, no grains, no fruit, and no hope. And all because they had chosen to disobey the will of God.

Give generously to the poor, not grudgingly, for the LORD your God will bless you in everything you do. There will always be some in the land who are poor. That is why I am commanding you to share freely with the poor and with other Israelites in need. – Deuteronomy 15:10-11 NLT

Because of their disobedience, the entire land of Judah would become inhabited by the poor. Those who had been graciously blessed by God, but had become dissatisfied with His gifts, would one day find themselves mourning their losses. Both Israel and Judah had been blessed by God so that they might be a blessing to others. But they had failed to use God’s gifts wisely and selflessly. They had become plagued by pride, arrogance, greed, and covetousness. And they were going to learn the invaluable lesson that Jesus would later share.

“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 12:48 NLT

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

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

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

Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Hear, you peoples, all of you;
    pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it,
and let the Lord God be a witness against you,
    the Lord from his holy temple.
For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place,
    and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
And the mountains will melt under him,
    and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
    like waters poured down a steep place.
All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem?
Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country,
    a place for planting vineyards,
and I will pour down her stones into the valley
    and uncover her foundations.
All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces,
    all her wages shall be burned with fire,
    and all her idols I will lay waste,
for from the fee of a prostitute she gathered them,
    and to the fee of a prostitute they shall return. Micah 1:2-7 ESV

Like a prosecutor in a court case, Micah is going to present damning evidence against the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. These two nations came into existence after God divided Israel as punishment for the idolatry of King Solomon.

Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten of these pieces, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and I will give ten of the tribes to you! But I will leave him one tribe for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel. For Solomon has abandoned me and worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians; Chemosh, the god of Moab; and Molech, the god of the Ammonites. He has not followed my ways and done what is pleasing in my sight. He has not obeyed my decrees and regulations as David his father did.”’ – 1 Kings 11:31-33 NLT

Jeroboam was one of Solomon’s officials and he would be used by God to lead a rebellion against the king, convincing 10 of the 12 tribes to align with him and form the northern kingdom of Israel. Solomon would maintain control over his own tribe, Judah, as well as the tribe of Benjamin. Both Solomon and Jeroboam would be followed by a succession of different kings who would rule over the two kingdoms. And the majority of these men would continue to lead the chosen people of God to serve the false gods of the Canaanite nations. This idolatry and apostasy is the basis of Micah’s message.

So, he calls all the nations of the earth to act as jurors in the trial of God’s people.

Let all the people of the world listen!
    Let the earth and everything in it hear. – Micah 1:2 NLT

And the star witness in this divine courtroom drama will be God Himself.

The Sovereign Lord is making accusations against you;
    the Lord speaks from his holy Temple. – Micah 1:2 NLT

Interestingly enough, God had predicted this moment in time. Even before the people of Israel had ever set foot in the land of promise, God had warned that they would be unfaithful to Him and worship other gods. So, He dictated the words of a song to Moses and instructed him to teach it to the people of Israel in order that they might never forget what would happen if they disobeyed and deserted Him.

“So write down the words of this song, and teach it to the people of Israel. Help them learn it, so it may serve as a witness for me against them. For I will bring them into the land I swore to give their ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey. There they will become prosperous, eat all the food they want, and become fat. But they will begin to worship other gods; they will despise me and break my covenant. And when great disasters come down on them, this song will stand as evidence against them, for it will never be forgotten by their descendants. I know the intentions of these people, even now before they have entered the land I swore to give them.” – Deuteronomy 31:19-21 NLT

Since Moses had been warned by God that his time on earth was drawing to a close, He took this lengthy “song” and gave it to Joshua, with instructions to keep it in a safe place.

“Take this Book of Instruction and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, so it may remain there as a witness against the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 31:26 NLT

And the “Book of Instruction” had remained beside the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies of God’s temple all during the reigns of David and Solomon. Even as Micah penned the words of this book, the “song” God had given to Moses was safely ensconced in the inner sanctum of the temple, its words acting as a witness against both Israel and Judah.

Micah describes God leaving His heavenly throne room and making His way to earth, where He will provide personal testimony against His ungrateful and unfaithful people. Isaiah used similar imagery to describe God’s divine judgment of His people.

The Lord takes his place in court
    and presents his case against his people.
The Lord comes forward to pronounce judgment
    on the elders and rulers of his people… – Isaiah 3:13-14 NLT

And Micah warns that God’s arrival will be anything but ordinary.

…the mountains will melt under him,
    and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
    like waters poured down a steep place. – Micah 1:4 ESV

This imagery is intended to get the attention of the residents of Judah and Israel. Their all-powerful God, the one they had abandoned for false gods, was about to make Himself known in ways that would prove His power and guarantee their destruction. For generations, they had acted as if God did not exist or as if He was unconcerned with their behavior. They had flagrantly flaunted their idolatry in His face and gotten away with it. They had repeatedly committed spiritual adultery with no ill effects. But Micah wanted them to know that their God had run out of patience. He was leaving His throne room in heaven and descending to earth to pronounce judgment against them.

And just in case the people might wonder why God would bother to leave heaven and come all the way to earth, Micah provides them with the answer.

All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem?
– Micah 1:5 ESV

Micah’s reference to Israel as “Jacob” was intended as a not-so-subtle reminder of the rebellious background of the patriarch for whom they were named. The book of Genesis records the early years of Jacob, portraying him as a manipulative, scheming individual who spent years trying to do things his way, rather than trust in God’s will for his life. And it was only when Jacob came to an end of himself and decided to submit his life to God, that he received a new name and a divine promise of fruitfulness.

“Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.” – Genesis 35:10-11 ESV

By referring to the northern kingdom of Israel as “Jacob,” Micah is linking them to the rebellious years of their patriarch’s life. They had more in common with the earlier version of Jacob than they did with his post-name-change behavior.

And Samaria, the capital city of Israel, had become the epicenter of idolatry and unfaithfulness for the entire nation. The same thing was true for Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. In spite of the presence of the temple of God, the city of Jerusalem had become home to shrines and high places for a pantheon of false gods. Both of these cities had become icons for the wickedness of their respective nations.

For the people of Judah and Israel, these capital cities were representative of their wealth, power, and prestige. They were filled with gold, precious gems, beautiful buildings, and the trappings of their own success. But God was about to turn these man-made symbols of self-importance into piles of rubble and ashes.

“So I, the Lord, will make the city of Samaria
a heap of ruins.
Her streets will be plowed up
for planting vineyards.
I will roll the stones of her walls into the valley below,
exposing her foundations.
All her carved images will be smashed.
All her sacred treasures will be burned.
These things were bought with the money
earned by her prostitution,
and they will now be carried away
to pay prostitutes elsewhere.” –
Micah 1:6-7 NLT

God wasn’t just coming down from heaven to offer testimony against Judah and Israel, He was showing up as their judge, jury, and executioner. Their fate was already sealed. God had already told them what would happen if they failed to worship Him alone. He had dictated the words of the song to Moses and they cried out from the Holy of Holies, condemning the people of God for their unfaithfulness. The Israelites may have forgotten the lyrics, but God had not.

All the symbols of Samaria’s success were about to be destroyed. The walls of the city would be toppled. Its streets would be plowed up and turned into fields. All the statues and idols erected to her many false gods would be smashed and burned. And the wealth amassed through their use of temple prostitutes cleverly disguised as “priestesses,” would become loot for the invading forces of the Assyrians.

Judgment was coming. And the Judge of the universe was leaving His judgment seat in heaven to ensure that their crimes receive the condemnation they deserve.

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

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

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

Not What You Expected

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told.
For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
    to seize dwellings not their own.
They are dreaded and fearsome;
    their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
Their horses are swifter than leopards,
    more fierce than the evening wolves;
    their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
    they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
They all come for violence,
    all their faces forward.
    They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
    and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
    for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
    guilty men, whose own might is their god!” Habakkuk 1:5-11 ESV

Habakkuk had two questions for God: How long and why? But from Habakkuk’s earth-bound perspective, it appeared that God was unresponsive uncaring. The prophet found himself surrounded by destruction, violence, injustice, and iniquity. The law of God was treated with total disregard and the wicked among the people of Judah seemed to outnumber the righteous. In essence, Habakkuk was demanding to know what God was going to do about it all.

And in verses 5-11, he records the long-awaited response from God. Yet, the answer he received from the Almighty must have left him a bit surprised and disappointed. It’s safe to say that what Habakkuk heard God say was not what he had been expecting. When Habakkuk had uttered his opening prayer to God, it had been in the form of a lament, a desperate cry of help to God asking that He intervene and provide salvation.

But instead, God delivers a promise of coming judgment. While Habakkuk had been under the impression that God had not heard his cries or heeded his pleas for help, the truth was that God already had a plan in place. But God warned Habakkuk that the nature of His plan would be inconceivable and implausible to Habakkuk.

“Look among the nations, and see;
    wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
    that you would not believe if told.” – Habakkuk 1:5 ESV

While Habakkuk’s opening prayer had focused on the state of affairs in Judah, God revealed that He had a much bigger agenda in mind that would include foreign powers and pagan nations as His instruments of judgment.

“For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
    that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
    to seize dwellings not their own.” – Habakkuk 1:6 ESV

The term, “Chaldean” was a reference to the Babylonian Empire. God was telling Habakkuk that the solution to Judah’s problem was going to come in the form of a pagan nation that would rise to power and dominate the Middle East. And don’t miss God’s declaration that He would be the one who raised up this new superpower. Their ascension to world dominance would be the work of God, not men. And yet, God describes them as bitter, hasty, dreaded, and fearsome. They are violent and fierce, devouring everything in their path and “are notorious for their cruelty and do whatever they like” (Habakkuk 1:7 NLT).

This alarming news must have left Habakkuk in a state of shock. How could this be the answer to Judah’s problem? What possible good could come from God raising up a godless and bloodthirsty nation to set their greedy sights on the land of promise? None of this would have made sense to Habakkuk. And yet, God warned that He was “doing a work” in their day that would be unprecedented and unparalleled. The entire region was going to feel the wrath of God as He brought judgment upon them for their pride, arrogance, and failure to recognize Him as the one true God. He had warned the King of Tyre that judgment was coming.

“Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
Because you think you are as wise as a god,
   I will now bring against you a foreign army,
    the terror of the nations.
They will draw their swords against your marvelous wisdom
    and defile your splendor!” – Ezekiel 28:6-7 NLT

Even the great nation of Egypt would suffer the judgment of God in the form of Babylonian aggression.

“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says:
By the power of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon,
    I will destroy the hordes of Egypt.
He and his armies—the most ruthless of all—
    will be sent to demolish the land.
They will make war against Egypt
    until slaughtered Egyptians cover the ground.” – Ezekiel 30:10-11 NLT

God was letting Habakkuk know that He was sovereign over all the nations. All kings and countries answered to Him. They were at His beck and call, serving at His whim and completely subservient to His sovereign will. Years later, the prophet Daniel, living in captivity in Babylon and serving in the court of King Nebuchadnezzar himself, would pray a prayer of thanksgiving to God. Faced with a possible death sentence if he failed to interpret the king’s dream, Daniel had received its meaning directly from God in a dream. And he expressed his gratitude to God for His sovereign power and protection.

“Praise the name of God forever and ever,
    for he has all wisdom and power.
He controls the course of world events;
    he removes kings and sets up other kings.
He gives wisdom to the wise
    and knowledge to the scholars.
He reveals deep and mysterious things
    and knows what lies hidden in darkness,
    though he is surrounded by light.
– Daniel 2:20-22 NLT

The thought that God would use a Gentile nation to punish His own people was inconceivable to Habakkuk and the people of Judah. To the prophets’ warning that God was bringing judgment against them, the people of Judah had responded with scorn and ridicule.

“He won’t bother us!
No disasters will come upon us.
    There will be no war or famine.
God’s prophets are all windbags
    who don’t really speak for him.
    Let their predictions of disaster fall on themselves!” – Jeremiah 5:12-13 NLT

The leaders of Judah vehemently denied the prophetic warnings, declaring them to be lies. False prophets countered the message of God’s spokesmen, promising peace rather than judgment.

“From prophets to priests,
    they are all frauds.
They offer superficial treatments
    for my people’s mortal wound.
They give assurances of peace
    when there is no peace.” – Jeremiah 6:13-14 NLT

The people of Judah were convinced that their status as God’s chosen people and the presence of the temple of God were protections against any pending judgment. As long as they kept offering sacrifices as God had commanded, they would be safe. Or so they thought.

“Do you really think you can steal, murder, commit adultery, lie, and burn incense to Baal and all those other new gods of yours, and then come here and stand before me in my Temple and chant, ‘We are safe!’—only to go right back to all those evils again?” – Jeremiah 7:9-10 NLT

God had warned the people of Israel that there would be consequences for their failure to keep their covenant agreement with Him. Long before they ever set foot in the land of promise, Moses had delivered to them God’s ultimatum regarding blessings and curses. If they chose to be unfaithful, they would suffer the consequences.

“You will watch as your sons and daughters are taken away as slaves…A foreign nation you have never heard about will eat the crops you worked so hard to grow…The Lord will exile you and your king to a nation unknown to you and your ancestors. There in exile you will worship gods of wood and stone! You will become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the Lord sends you.” – Deuteronomy 28:32, 33, 36- 37 NLT

Now, after centuries marked by disobedience and disregard for the laws of God, the nation of Judah was facing the same fate as their brothers and sisters to the north. The ten tribes that formed the northern kingdom of Israel had fallen to the Assyrians years earlier. They had been taken captive and their cities and towns had been left destroyed and their land, devastated. But the southern kingdom of Judah had learned nothing from watching the demise of their northern neighbors. They still thought they were immune and under divine protection.

But God warns that the Babylonians would destroy everything in their path. There would be no walls high enough and no armies strong enough to halt their advance or prevent their God-ordained destruction of the land of Judah.

“They scoff at kings and princes
    and scorn all their fortresses.
They simply pile ramps of earth
    against their walls and capture them!” – Habakkuk 1:10 NLT

Yet, in spite of their apparent success, God would hold the Babylonians accountable for their actions. Yes, He would use them to accomplish His divine will, but that would not absolve them from their guilt. They would be operating under the impression that they were in full control of their actions, answerable to no one but themselves.

“They sweep past like the wind
    and are gone.
But they are deeply guilty,
    for their own strength is their god.” – Habakkuk 1:11 NLT

Oblivious to the sovereign hand of God, Nebuchadnezzar and his forces would view their victories as having been man-made, not God-ordained. But after having successfully fulfilled the will of God concerning the people of Judah, God would judge Babylon for its role in their demise.

When Habakkuk had asked God, “How long?” and “Why?” this was not the answer he expected or wanted. But God’s ways are not our ways. His plans rarely line up with our preconceived ideas. But He is always faithful, right, and just in all that He does. His ways are righteous. His plans are perfect. As King David expressed in his psalm: “The LORD is righteous in everything he does” (Psalm 145:17 NLT). We may not understand or even like His ways. We may have a difficult time believing His will for us is best for us. But in time, we will see that God’s ways, while hard to understand, are motivated by His love, mercy, and grace.

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

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

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

Blessed In Order To Bless

1 Woe to those who devise wickedness
    and work evil on their beds!
When the morning dawns, they perform it,
    because it is in the power of their hand.
They covet fields and seize them,
    and houses, and take them away;
they oppress a man and his house,
    a man and his inheritance.
Therefore thus says the Lord:
behold, against this family I am devising disaster,
    from which you cannot remove your necks,
and you shall not walk haughtily,
    for it will be a time of disaster.
In that day they shall take up a taunt song against you
    and moan bitterly,
and say, “We are utterly ruined;
    he changes the portion of my people;
how he removes it from me!
    To an apostate he allots our fields.”
Therefore you will have none to cast the line by lot
    in the assembly of the Lord.
Micah 2:1-5 ESV

Micah has already made it clear that the fate of Israel and Judah rests on their wicked behavior. Their destruction is coming upon them from the hand of God but because of their rebellion against Him. They were living in direct violation of the covenant agreement they had made with God and had repeatedly disobeyed the Mosaic Law.

And why is this happening?
    Because of the rebellion of Israel—
    yes, the sins of the whole nation.
Who is to blame for Israel’s rebellion?
    Samaria, its capital city!
Where is the center of idolatry in Judah?
    In Jerusalem, its capital! – Micah 1:5 NLT

Now, in chapter two, Micah gets more specific regarding the exact nature of the sins of the southern kingdom of Judah, where he served as a prophet. He specifically calls out those who have made a habit of scheming against the less fortunate among them.

What sorrow awaits you who lie awake at night,
    thinking up evil plans.
You rise at dawn and hurry to carry them out,
    simply because you have the power to do so. – Micah 2:1 NLT

There is a premeditated nature to their sin. Their desire to take advantage of others has kept them awake at night, dreaming up ways to use their power and influence to increase their wealth through unjust means.

When you want a piece of land,
    you find a way to seize it.
When you want someone’s house,
    you take it by fraud and violence.
You cheat a man of his property,
    stealing his family’s inheritance. – Micah 2:2 NLT

These people were never satisfied. Enough was never enough. They lived their lives motivated by greed and driven by a love of self. And this kind of behavior was an afront to God, who had blessed the people of Israel by redeeming them out of slavery and graciously giving them the land of Canaan as their inheritance. They had been the undeserving recipients of God’s love and He expected them to extend the same kind of treatment to one another. And to make sure they understood just how different their behavior was to be, God had given them very specific regulations concerning their interactions with one another. Leviticus 19 provides a partial list:

“Do not steal.” – Vs. 11

“Do not deceive or cheat one another.” – Vs. 11

“Do not defraud or rob your neighbor.” – Vs. 13

“Do not make your hired workers wait until the next day to receive their pay.” – Vs. 13

“Do not insult the deaf or cause the blind to stumble. You must fear your God; I am the Lord.” – Vs. 14

“Do not twist justice in legal matters by favoring the poor or being partial to the rich and powerful. Always judge people fairly.” – Vs 15

“Do not spread slanderous gossip among your people.” – Vs. 16

“Do not stand idly by when your neighbor’s life is threatened. I am the Lord.” – Vs. 16

“Do not nurse hatred in your heart for any of your relatives. Confront people directly so you will not be held guilty for their sin.” – Vs. 17

“Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” – Vs. 18

Notice that each of these laws govern human relationships. They are intended to reflect God’s desires concerning the interactions of those who bear His name. How the people of God treated one another would have a direct bearing on the character of God Himself. They were not free to treat one another according to worldly standards. They were not to be motivated by greed, jealousy, self-interest, and personal gain. And three different times God provided the only reason they needed to hear for obeying His commands: “I am the Lord.”

None of this was left up to negotiation or presented as an optional choice. These were the commands of God. And God expected His people to fear Him and obey Him. To reject His commands was to reject His authority over their lives. And God had repeatedly articulated His commands to His people, ensuring that they were without excuse when it came to what He expected of them.

“And the Levite, because he has no portion or inheritance with you, and the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, who are within your towns, shall come and eat and be filled, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands that you do.” – Deuteronomy 14-29 ESV

“But there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess— if only you will strictly obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all this commandment that I command you today.” – Deuteronomy 15:4-5 ESV

“If among you, one of your brothers should become poor, in any of your towns within your land that the Lord your God is giving you, you shall not harden your heart or shut your hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him and lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be. – Deuteronomy 15:7-8 ESV

“For there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land.’” – Deuteronomy 15:11 ESV

God had a passion for the helpless and the downtrodden. He was a friend of the needy and the neglected. And He expected His people to share His love for the less fortunate among them. He was blessing them so that they might be a blessing to one another. In verse 4 of Deuteronomy 15, God says “there will be no poor among you.” But then, in verse 11 of the same chapter, He states, “For there will never cease to be poor in the land.” Well, which is it? Will there be poor in the land or not? What God seems to be saying is that the category of the poor will be an ever-present reality among God’s people. But they will not remain poor because the rest of the nation will see to it that their needs are met. God will bless the people so that they can be a blessing to others.

And all of this makes Micah’s indictment of the people of Judah that much more egregious. They are living in direct violation of God’s commands concerning the poor and needy. In fact, they are taking advantage of the less fortunate in order to line their own pockets. And Micah delivers a somber warning from God.

“I will reward your evil with evil;
    you won’t be able to pull your neck out of the noose.
You will no longer walk around proudly,
    for it will be a terrible time.” – Micah 2:3 NLT

God is going to pay them back for what they have done. They may have chosen to neglect the needy, but God will not allow the innocent and the helpless to go undefended. He will defend their cause or bring judgment against those who have violated their rights.

God will turn the tables on those who have taken advantage of the needy. Those who stayed awake at night scheming ways to cheat and defraud the less fortunate will suffer a similar fate. They will become the laughing stock of their enemies, having to listen to songs being sung that mock their untimely reversal of fortunes.

“We are finished,
        completely ruined!
God has confiscated our land,
        taking it from us.
He has given our fields
        to those who betrayed us. – Micah 2:4 NLT

These wicked people who had used their power, influence and financial strength to serve themselves will become the needy and neglected. The dreams of more land will turn into a living nightmare of financial loss and ruin. Everything God had given them to enjoy and to share with those around them would be taken away from them.

Others will set your boundaries then,
    and the Lord’s people will have no say
    in how the land is divided. – Micah 2:5 NLT

They had used the gracious and undeserved blessings of God for selfish purposes. They had taken the gifts of His goodness and turned them into self-centered tools to profit themselves. And in doing so, they revealed that they loved self more than they loved others. And their love of self was really a reflection of their lack of love for God. He had become little more than a means to an end. They had taken His gifts and used them to satisfy their own selfish desires, all the while neglecting and abusing the helpless and hopeless among them. And God would not tolerate such behavior among His people.

The actions of the people of Judah stood in direct opposition to the will of God. Their behavior failed to reflect His desires for them. They had fallen in love with the world and the things it could offer. Power, possessions, prominence, and pleasure had taken precedence over the will of God. And James describes a similar problem among the people of God in his day.

You want what you don’t have, so you scheme and kill to get it. You are jealous of what others have, but you can’t get it, so you fight and wage war to take it away from them. Yet you don’t have what you want because you don’t ask God for it. And even when you ask, you don’t get it because your motives are all wrong—you want only what will give you pleasure.

You adulterers! Don’t you realize that friendship with the world makes you an enemy of God? I say it again: If you want to be a friend of the world, you make yourself an enemy of God. – James 4:2-4 NLT

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

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

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

Free to Choose

1 How lonely sits the city
    that was full of people!
How like a widow has she become,
    she who was great among the nations!
She who was a princess among the provinces
    has become a slave.

She weeps bitterly in the night,
    with tears on her cheeks;
among all her lovers
    she has none to comfort her;
all her friends have dealt treacherously with her;
    they have become her enemies.

Judah has gone into exile because of affliction
    and hard servitude;
she dwells now among the nations,
    but finds no resting place;
her pursuers have all overtaken her
    in the midst of her distress. – Lamentations 1:1-3 ESV

Like the book of Job, Lamentations deals with the theology of suffering, but from a national, rather than a personal perspective. Written as poetry, Lamentations is a dirge, a song of mourning commemorating the fall of the city of Jerusalem and the desolation of Judah. But the book is far more than a reciting of the sad state of affairs in Judah. It is a theological treatise on God’s justice, love, and sovereignty.

The seeming contradiction between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are on display throughout the pages of Lamentations, and they are never fully resolved. Even at the close of the book, the unavoidable and inexplicable tension between these two truths remains.

The people of Israel had been given a choice by God. He had made a bilateral covenant with them that spelled out His expectations regarding their behavior. If they obeyed, they would be blessed. If they chose to disobey, the would experience the consequences, in the form of curses. The blessings and the curses had been covered in detail in the book of Deuteronomy.

“And if you faithfully obey the voice of the Lord your God, being careful to do all his commandments that I command you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the earth. And all these blessings shall come upon you and overtake you, if you obey the voice of the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 ESV

“But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. – Deuteronomy 28:15 ESV

The choice had been theirs. But God had made sure that the logical choice would be a clear and compelling one. There should have been no confusion or debate. God had promised that obedience to His commands would be accompanied by the benefit of His blessings on their cities, fields, flocks, agriculture, families, military exploits, business ventures, physical health, and financial prospects. They would enjoy status as “a people holy to himself” (Deuteronomy 28:9 ESV). And God assured them that this unique distinction would be accompanied by some significant implications:

all the peoples of the earth will see that you belong to the Lord, and they will respect you.” – Deuteronomy 28:10 NLT

But what if they chose to disobey God? What would happen then? God had made that outcome painfully clear. Everything He had promised to bless would be cursed.

“The Lord will send on you curses, confusion, and frustration in all that you undertake to do, until you are destroyed and perish quickly on account of the evil of your deeds, because you have forsaken me. – Deuteronomy 28:20 ESV

Their crops, cities, families, flocks, and fortunes would be cursed because God would remove His hand of protection and provision. If they chose to live in ways that were contrary and contradictory to God’s plans for His chosen people, they would experience the dire consequences. But again, the choice had been theirs to make. And we know from the history of Israel as recorded in the Old Testament Scriptures, that they ultimately chose to live in disobedience to God. They proved unfaithful to Him, regularly rejecting His will for their own. And while God had warned them repeatedly that destruction was coming unless they repented and returned to Him, they rejected the words of the prophets and followed the desires of their hearts.

A pattern of disobedience and unfaithfulness marked the history of God’s people. And it eventually resulted in the split of the kingdom, resulting in the nation of Israel in the north, and the nation of Judah in the south. And in 722 B.C., the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated and destroyed by the Assyrians just as God had warned. And while the southern kingdom of Judah had watched the fall of its northern neighbor, they learned nothing from the experience. Because in 586 B.C., they would experience a similar fate, conquered by the forces of King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

And here, in the opening verses of Lamentations, we read the somber words describing the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem, the once flourishing capital of Judah. Jeremiah describes the city as a veritable ghost town. Its once-bustling streets are empty, its houses and buildings destroyed. The former glory of the temple has been reduced to rubble and the gates and walls of the city have been demolished. The book of 2 Kings describes the extent of the devastation.

In the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan, the captain of the bodyguard, a servant of the king of Babylon, came to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down the walls around Jerusalem.  And the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the multitude, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried into exile. But the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen. – 2 Kings 25:8-12 ESV

Jeremiah describes the fallen city of Jerusalem as a princess who has fallen on hard times. Formerly married and accustomed to great wealth and privilege, she finds herself widowed and reduced to a state of abject poverty. Her fortunes have been drastically and dramatically altered. Having formerly enjoyed the benefits of royal sovereignty, she is now reduced to a state of slavery.

But while her fate may leave us feeling sorry for her, it is not undeserved. Jeremiah goes on to describe Jerusalem as an unfaithful wife. She cries but finds no one to comfort her, in spite of her long list of lovers. Those whom she once considered her friends have ended up abandoning and turning against her. And in the book that bears his name, Jeremiah had warned Judah that all of this was going to happen, long before it did.

And you, Zion, city doomed to destruction,
you accomplish nothing by wearing a beautiful dress,
decking yourself out in jewels of gold,
and putting on eye shadow!
You are making yourself beautiful for nothing.
Your lovers spurn you.
They want to kill you. – Jeremiah 4:30 NET

Judah had made a habit of making alliances with other nations, seeking safety and security through treaties and military pacts, rather than trusting in God. When God had warned that the Babylonians were coming, the leaders of Judah had sought to stay off destruction through partnerships with pagan nations that were in direct violation of God’s will. But these “friends” would prove unfaithful and incapable of delivering Judah from the hands of the Babylonians.

Verse three paints a stark contrast between God’s preferred future for Judah and the reality of their current circumstances. As God’s chosen people, they had been given the land of Canaan as their inheritance. It was a rich and abundant land, filled with tangible expressions of God’s love in the form of orchards, vineyards, fields of grain, and abundant sources of water. They had lived in homes they had not built located in cities they had not constructed. They had enjoyed safety and security from their enemies provided by the hand of God. But now, Judah had “been led away into captivity, oppressed with cruel slavery” (Lamentations 1:3 NLT).

Instead of enjoying the peace and rest of the promised land, the people of God were experiencing the pain and suffering of exile in the land of Babylon. God had promised them that if they would only remain faithful to Him, He would ensure that they remained at the top of the food chain.

“…the Lord will make you the head and not the tail, and you will always be on top and never at the bottom.“ – Deuteronomy 28:13 NLT

But Jeremiah reveals that their choice to disobey God had produced a far different outcome.

She lives among foreign nations
    and has no place of rest.
Her enemies have chased her down,
    and she has nowhere to turn. – Lamentations 1:3 NLT

The people of Judah had made a choice, and now there were reaping the consequences of that choice. God had warned them, but they had refused to listen. He had pleaded with them repeatedly to repent, but they had rejected those calls. They had not acted out of ignorance, but out of pride and stubbornness. They had chosen to live according to their own ways, living in keeping with their own selfish agendas. And now, they were experiencing the error of their ways.

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

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

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