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

The Subtle Snare of Self-Glorification

I have written something to the church, but Diotrephes, who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our authority. 10 So if I come, I will bring up what he is doing, talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church. – 3 John 1:9-10 ESV

After praising Gaius for his generosity and the hospitality he extended to the visiting evangelists, John points out the actions of another individual within the local fellowship. In this case, John has nothing good to say about this man, whose name is Diotrephes. In fact, John describes Diotrephes as someone “who likes to put himself first” and “does not acknowledge our authority” (3 John 1:9 ESV). This member of the church was resisting John’s authority as an elder and apostle. He saw himself as a leader within the local congregation and had stood opposed to the ministry of the visiting evangelists. John accused him of refusing to “welcome the brothers” (3 John 1:10 ESV). Not only that, but Diotrephes had also tried to prevent anyone in the church from meeting the needs of these men, even punishing those who did by throwing them out of the church.

This man was the antithesis of Gaius. We have no other details regarding his life other than what John describes here, but it is not difficult to assess that this man was selfish and self-centered, motivated by a need for control, and unwilling to love others in the same way that God had shown love to him. Diotrephes saw John and these visiting evangelists as a threat to his authority.

Notice that John does not accuse Diotrephes of propagating false doctrine. This man was not preaching another Gospel or denying the deity of Jesus. He was simply refusing to acknowledge the authority of John as an apostle of Christ and rejecting the ministry of those who had been divinely gifted to minister to the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11).

Diotrephes was not teaching falsehood, but he was modeling an attitude of pride and arrogance that had no place in the church. And his actions were just as dangerous and destructive as those of the false teachers and prophets who were wreaking havoc on congregations throughout Asia Minor.

In a way, Diotrephes was preaching a different Jesus because his actions were in direct violation of the teachings of Jesus. During His earthly ministry, Jesus had used the Pharisees and religious leaders of the Jews as examples to be avoided, not followed. According to Jesus, these men, who had set themselves up as religious and civic authorities over the Jews, were actually deceptive and destructive. They were looked up to as leaders, but Jesus had warned His disciples, “don’t follow their example” (Matthew 23:3 NLT). And He provided ample evidence for emulating their behavior.

“Everything they do is for show. On their arms they wear extra wide prayer boxes with Scripture verses inside, and they wear robes with extra long tassels. And they love to sit at the head table at banquets and in the seats of honor in the synagogues. They love to receive respectful greetings as they walk in the marketplaces, and to be called ‘Rabbi.’” – Matthew 23:5-7 NLT

For these men, leadership was all about authority and power. They flaunted their positions and gloried in their prominence. But Jesus went on to warn his followers:

“The greatest among you must be a servant. But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 NLT

And with that statement, we see the difference between Gaius and Diotrephes. One was humble and willing to serve, while the other was marked by pride and an overwhelming need to be the center of attention.

This kind of attitude was particularly repulsive to John because he knew from first-hand experience how it stood in stark contrast to the teachings of Jesus. He would have well-remembered the occasion when Jesus had confronted him and the other disciples over a conversation they had one day while walking along the road. When they had arrived at their destination in Capernaum, Jesus had asked them, “What were you discussing out on the road?” (Mark 9:33 NLT). But they were too embarrassed to answer Jesus “because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest” (Mark 9:34 NLT).

So, Jesus had sat the disciples down and delivered them the sobering news that “Whoever wants to be first must take last place and be the servant of everyone else” (Mark 9:35 NLT).

Now, you would think that this message from Jesus would have left the disciples not only embarrassed but reticent to ever bring up this topic again. Yet, in the very next chapter, Mark records another moment when Jesus had to confront the worldly outlook of His own followers, and this time it involved John and his brother James. These two men approached Jesus and asked Him if He would do them a favor.

“When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.” – Mark 10:37 NLT

The audacity of these two brothers shocks us. How in the world could they make such a request after having heard Jesus say, “Whoever wants to be first must take last place?” Yet, here they were requesting that Jesus award them with the two most prominent positions available in a royal administration: The two seats on either side of the king. Make no mistake about it, they were asking for the right to rule and reign alongside Jesus when He set up His earthly kingdom.

And the answer Jesus gave these two brash brothers echoed what He had told the disciples earlier.

“You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be the slave of everyone else. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many.” – Mark 10:43-45 NLT

Their request had been completely off-base and uncalled for. First of all, Jesus informed them that kind of decision was up to God alone.

“I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. God has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.” – Mark 10:40 NLT

And the right to rule alongside Jesus would have to be preceded by a willingness to suffer as He would.

“You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?” – Mark 10:38 NLT

John and James had no clue what they were asking. They didn’t understand that the authority for which they longed was only available to those who were willing to suffer and serve. And Jesus used Himself as the model for godly leadership, stating, “even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT).

John and James were in it for what they could get out of it. So was Diotrephes. But Jesus had come to earth, not to gain, but to give His life away. He had willingly taken on the nature of a man so that He could die on behalf of sinful humanity. And yet, His humiliation was followed by His glorification.

When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. – Hebrews 3:3 NLT

John was appalled by the actions of Diotrephes. Watching this arrogant man revel in his self-exalted state of authority must have reminded John of his own moment of shame when he and his brother had asked Jesus for the right to reign at His side. John had come a long way. He had learned a great deal since watching His friend and teacher die on the cross. His encounters with the resurrected Messiah had left him a changed man. And his understanding of what it means to be a true leader had been radically altered by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the Son of God.

For Diotrephes, glory was all about power and position in this life. But the apostle Paul would beg to differ. His words to the church in Colossae would provide a powerful reminder to the tendency within all of us to follow the example of Diotrephes. We are not to seek glory in this life. Instead, we are to keep our eyes fixed on heaven, where the hope of true glorification can be found.

Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand. Think about the things of heaven, not the things of earth. For you died to this life, and your real life is hidden with Christ in God. And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. – Colossians 3:1-4 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

He Will Stretch Out His Hand

12 You also, O Cushites,
    shall be slain by my sword.

13 And he will stretch out his hand against the north
    and destroy Assyria,
and he will make Nineveh a desolation,
    a dry waste like the desert.
14 Herds shall lie down in her midst,
    all kinds of beasts;
even the owl and the hedgehog
    shall lodge in her capitals;
a voice shall hoot in the window;
    devastation will be on the threshold;
    for her cedar work will be laid bare.
15 This is the exultant city
    that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
    “I am, and there is no one else.”
What a desolation she has become,
    a lair for wild beasts!
Everyone who passes by her
    hisses and shakes his fist. Zephaniah 2:12-15 ESV

Verse 12 contains a very brief word of warning from God concerning the Cushites. The land of Cush is most commonly associated with the modern-day nation of Ethiopia. But even the ancient Jewish historian made this connection.

“For of the four sons of Ham, time has not at all hurt the name of Cush; for the Ethiopians, over whom he reigned, are even at this day, both by themselves and by all men in Asia, called Cushites” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews).

As Josephus points out, Cush was the oldest son of Ham and, therefore, a grandson of Noah. But the original land of Cush most likely encompassed a much larger region than that of modern-day Ethiopia. It is believed that ancient Cush encompassed land on both sides of the Red Sea, including Upper and Lower Nubia, as well as Sudan. The prophet Isaiah provides a colorful description of the land of Cush.

Ah, land of whirring wings
    that is beyond the rivers of Cush,
which sends ambassadors by the sea,
    in vessels of papyrus on the waters!
Go, you swift messengers,
    to a nation tall and smooth,
to a people feared near and far,
    a nation mighty and conquering,
    whose land the rivers divide. – Isaiah 18:1-2 ESV

And Jeremiah includes the nation of Cush in his prophetic warning against Egypt.

“Who is this, rising like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge?
Egypt rises like the Nile,
    like rivers whose waters surge.
He said, ‘I will rise, I will cover the earth,
    I will destroy cities and their inhabitants.’
Advance, O horses,
    and rage, O chariots!
Let the warriors go out:
    men of Cush and Put who handle the shield,
    men of Lud, skilled in handling the bow. – Jeremiah 46:7-9 ESV

At the point in time in which Zephaniah penned his book, the nations that occupied the northeastern tip of Africa were closely associated, having formed alliances that allowed them to survive the chaos and turbulence of those ancient days. The prophet Ezekiel also included Cush in his

Thus says the Lord God:

“Wail, ‘Alas for the day!’
   For the day is near,
    the day of the Lord is near;
it will be a day of clouds,
    a time of doom for the nations.
A sword shall come upon Egypt,
    and anguish shall be in Cush,
when the slain fall in Egypt,
    and her wealth is carried away,
    and her foundations are torn down.

“Cush, and Put, and Lud, and all Arabia, and Libya, and the people of the land that is in league, shall fall with them by the sword.” – Ezekiel 30:1-5 ESV

It seems that Zephaniah is including Cush in order to represent the far reaches of God’s coming judgment. Representing the southernmost nation known to the people of Israel, Cush would also experience the wrath of God, and it would likely be due to their close association with Egypt.

Those who support Egypt shall fall,
    and her proud might shall come down… – Ezekiel 30:6 ESV

Suddenly, Zephaniah shifts the focus from the far south to the polar opposite region in the north. The extent of God’s righteous judgment will be vast and all-encompassing. No nation will be able to escape His coming judgment.

And he will stretch out his hand against the north
    and destroy Assyria – Zephaniah 2:13 ESV

Assyria and its capital city of Nineveh had figured prominently in the political and military turmoil that marked this region of the world. The Assyrians had been major power brokers for quite some time. It was the Assyrians whom God used to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel, beginning in 740 BC.

So the God of Israel stirred up the spirit of Pul king of Assyria, the spirit of Tiglath-pileser king of Assyria, and he took them into exile, namely, the Reubenites, the Gadites, and the half-tribe of Manasseh, and brought them to Halah, Habor, Hara, and the river Gozan, to this day. – 1 Chronicles 5:26 ESV

In Zephaniah’s day, Nineveh would have been one of the most beautiful and impressive cities in the ancient world. Yet, he is given a vision of this magnificent city being turned into a wasteland by God.

he will make Nineveh a desolation,
    a dry waste like the desert Zephaniah 2:13 ESV

These mighty nations, with all their power, wealth, opulence, and pride, would find themselves humbled under the mighty hand of God. From the far south to the distant north, the nations had all be vying for dominance and the people of God had found themselves situated at the epicenter of this ongoing quest for dominion.

Throughout this section of his book, Zephaniah is pointing out God’s sovereignty over all the earth. The Almighty God is in control of all things, including the nations of the earth. It is God who puts kings on their thrones. And it is He who has the sole authority to remove them as He sees fit. In fact, Daniel spoke the following words to Nebuchadnezzar, the king of the all-powerful Babylonians.

You, O king, the king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory, and into whose hand he has given, wherever they dwell, the children of man, the beasts of the field, and the birds of the heavens, making you rule over them all – Daniel 2:37-38 ESV

And since God is the one who establishes the rule and the reach of kings, He has a distinct dislike for pride in any form or fashion. Kings who dare to boast of their greatness or who arrogantly take credit for their accomplishments will face the wrath of the omnipotent King of the universe. Nebuchadnezzar would learn this lesson the hard way. At one point during his reign, he stood on the roof of his royal palace and took in the impressive sight that spread out below him.

“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV

And no sooner had the words left his lips, than this pride-filled king found himself relegated to acting and living like a wild animal. The man who had just gloried in his self-achievements lost his mind. And Daniel warned him that his insanity would last until he recognized “that the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (Daniel 4:32 ESV).

These declarations of coming destruction against Cush and Assyria are meant to convey God’s dominance and dominion over the affairs of men. There is no kingdom that exists without His divine permission. There is no ruler who reigns without God’s sovereign sanction. These mighty nations thought they could do as they wished, declaring themselves the rulers of the known world. But each of them was nothing more than an instrument in the hand of God. Their very existence was due to the will of God. They ruled at the whim of God. And they would all eventually fall under the just and righteous judgment of God.

Mankind is pride-filled and self-exalting. And the mighty city of Nineveh expresses the autonomous, self-righteous attitude of humanity.

This is the exultant city
    that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
    “I am, and there is no one else.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV

David, the great king of Israel, would later pen the words that chronicle the foolishness of man’s egocentric outlook on life.

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

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

Will those who do evil never learn?
    They eat up my people like bread
    and wouldn’t think of praying to the Lord.
Terror will grip them,
    for God is with those who obey him.
The wicked frustrate the plans of the oppressed,
    but the Lord will protect his people. – Psalm 14:1-6 NLT

North, south, east, and west – the people of God were surrounded by enemies who were more powerful, greater in number, and intent on their destruction. But, as David pointed out, the Lord will protect His people.  While the wicked frustrate the plans of the oppressed, God will one day put an end to the plans of the wicked. He will stretch out His hand and the mighty will fall.

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

   

 

A New Role Model

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers. And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven. 10 Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ. 11 The greatest among you shall be your servant. 12 Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:1-12 ESV

Christ-and-the-pharisees_by-Ernst-Zimmerman.jpegJesus had left the Pharisees speechless. Matthew records that, “no one was able to answer him a word, nor from that day did anyone dare to ask him any more questions” (Matthew 22:46 ESV). They had come with their questions, designed to trip Jesus up and expose Him to. the people as a fraud and a fake. But Jesus had turned the tables on them, asking them a question of His own and exposing their ignorance of the Scriptures they revered and their blindness to the reality of His position as their Messiah.

These men were part of the spiritual leadership of Israel. They were revered and looked up to by the people. They, along with the Sadducees and scribes, were experts in the law of Moses. And yet, Jesus revealed that their knowledge of the Scriptures was insufficient and incomplete. In fact, in John’s gospel, we have recorded these powerful words of Jesus, pointing out their obsession with the written word of God, but their stubborn refusal to accept the incarnate Word of God who came that they might have life.

“You pore over the Scriptures because you presume that by them you possess eternal life. These are the very words that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life.” – John 5:39-40 BSB

Immediately after His latest and last confrontation with the Pharisees, Jesus turned to those around Him and delivered a blistering attack on these very same men. Chapter 23 of Matthew contains some of the harshest words found in the Scriptures. In it, we find Jesus unloading on the Pharisees in a rather uncharacteristic way. But this was NOT a personal attack. He was dealing with those who had become roadblocks to the Kingdom. By rejecting Him, they were rejecting the rule and reign of God Himself. These men were supposed to be pointing people to God but were actually doing just the opposite.

Earlier in His earthly ministry, the Pharisees had accused Jesus of working for and by the power of Satan. But He had responded to their accusation by saying, “Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me. So I tell you, every sin and blasphemy can be forgiven – except blasphemy against the Holy Spirit, which will never be forgiven.” (Matthew 12:30-31 NLT).

The religious leaders had positioned themselves against Jesus and therefore, against God. They were denying the work of God as manifested by the power of God (the Holy Spirit), and attributing it all to Satan. So, in this particular teaching moment, Jesus pronounced a series of warnings or “woes” against the religious leaders of Israel. But rather than direct His attack at the source of the problem, Jesus chose to speak to those who were the unsuspecting victims of the Pharisees’ influence.

All of the warnings found in this passage would have come as a shock to the average Jew because they looked up to and admired the religious leaders as icons of virtue and the keepers of religious law. But Jesus gives His audience a few pieces of advice regarding these men.

 1. Don’t follow their lead

The Pharisees had set themselves up as the official interpreters of the Law of Moses. They were the “experts.” But God had not appointed them as such. They were a man-made organization, and their name was derived from an Aramaic word that means “separated.” They were separatists and saw themselves as the true keepers of the law of Moses. And they certainly knew the law, which is why Jesus told the people to listen to and obey what the Pharisees said concerning the law.

“So practice and obey whatever they tell you…” – Matthew 23:3a NLT

But notice what Jesus said next:

“…but don’t follow their example. For they don’t practice what they teach.” – Matthew 23:3b NLT

In other words, don’t do as they do. As long as they are talking about the content of the Law, listen. But when it came to behavior based on the Law, the people were not to use them as a model.

2. Don’t do what they do

Jesus made it painfully clear. These men were nothing but hypocrites. The Greek word Jesus used was a term commonly used to refer to actors in the popular Greek plays of the day. The actors would commonly play multiple roles and simply don a different mask to assume a new character. Since most of the performers were male, they would even be required to play any female roles written into the play. So, the word hypocrite made its way into the common vernacular to refer to anyone who was a “mask-wearer.” They were performing a role and were not what they appeared to be.

And Jesus pointed out that the Pharisees were nothing but play-actors, for whom everything was about appearances. They had perfected the art of performance. This is why Jesus warned, “Everything they do is for show” (Matthew 23:5 NLT).

3. Don’t love what they love

These men loved recognition and being noticed for their “spirituality.” In fact, they were addicted to being the center of attention. It showed up in their obsession with titles. They enjoyed being called “rabbi” or “teacher.” They took great pride in being recognized for their knowledge and expertise. Not only that, they saw their superior intellect and spiritual elitism as deserving of the peoples’ praise. They expected to be served and had no desire or inclination to serve others. They loved themselves more than they loved God and viewed others as inferiors. In essence, these men were religious exhibitionists! They were little more than performance artists who had perfected the art of impressing others. But they failed to impress God and His Son.

4. Have a higher standard

Jesus seems to have focused His attention directly on His disciples when He said, “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers” (Matthew 23:8 ESV). He didn’t want His followers to be obsessed with titles. He didn’t want them seeking the praise of men. They were to be brothers. Their role in the Kingdom of God was not to be about rank and privilege or power and position. In fact, their whole perspective was to change, as they recognized the heavenly nature of their new relationship with God.

“…call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven…” – Matthew 23:9 ESV

And they were not to seek the title of “teacher” or “instructor.” In other words, they were not to covet the role of the expert as the Pharisees had.

“Neither be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Christ…” – Matthew 23:10 ESV

Contrary to what the Pharisees believed, Jesus was to be the disciples’ sole instructor in the things of God. The word Jesus used is kathēgētēs and it means, “master, guide, or instructor.” The Messiah was to be their source of all wisdom. Even the written word of God points to the incarnate Word of God. To become an expert in the Scriptures, but fail to obey the One of whom the Scriptures speak, would be futile and, ultimately, folly.

Finally, Jesus reminded His disciples of their need to live lives of servitude, not significance.

“The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” – Matthew 23:11-12 ESV

Their lives were to mirror His own, not those of the Pharisees. This was not new information to the disciples. Jesus had already told them, “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28 ESV). They were to model their lives after His. And in just a matter of days, they would stand by and watch as their rabbi, teacher, friend, and Messiah practiced what He preached. They would see Him betrayed, unjustly tried, brutally beaten, wrongly accused, and violently crucified. All so that they might have eternal life. Jesus was anything but a play-actor. He was far from a hypocrite. He would prove to be the way, the truth, and the life. And the role model for every Christ-follower.

And the apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus is to be our example, setting for us a higher and more holy standard for life and godliness.

You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
    he did not think of equality with God
    as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
    he took the humble position of a slave
    and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form,
    he humbled himself in obedience to God
      and died a criminal’s death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8 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.

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

Sight For the Blind

29 And as they went out of Jericho, a great crowd followed him. 30 And behold, there were two blind men sitting by the roadside, and when they heard that Jesus was passing by, they cried out, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 31 The crowd rebuked them, telling them to be silent, but they cried out all the more, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!” 32 And stopping, Jesus called them and said, “What do you want me to do for you?” 33 They said to him, “Lord, let our eyes be opened.” 34 And Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him. –  Matthew 20:29-34 ESV

JerichoEarlyMtNebo.jpgJesus was on His way to Jerusalem where, as He has told His disciples, He would be betrayed, tried, and put to death by crucifixion. And yet, as Matthew records, the crowds continued to follow Him. They had no idea what was awaiting Jesus in Jerusalem. And even the disciples were having a difficult time accepting the truth of what Jesus had told them. The idea of Jesus being put on trial by the Jewish religious leaders sounded too far-fetched to consider. And the thought of Jesus being put to death was something they simply refused to believe.

But what’s important to notice in this short passage is that Jesus remained committed to meeting the needs of the people who crowded around him. He was not self-absorbed or throwing a pity party for himself. He was fully aware of all that awaited Him in Jerusalem and committed to carrying out the will of His heavenly Father. But that does not mean He had lost any of His compassion for the people.

On His way out of the city of Jericho, just to the east of Jerusalem, Jesus had an encounter with two blind men. Hearing the excited shouts of the crowd, these two men called out to Jesus, “Lord, have mercy on us, Son of David!”

There would have been many people on the road from Jericho to Jerusalem, as they made their way to the capital city for the celebration of Passover. In his gospel account, Mark provides us with the name of one of the men.

…as he was leaving Jericho with his disciples and a great crowd, Bartimaeus, a blind beggar, the son of Timaeus, was sitting by the roadside. – Mark 10:46 ESV

So, it is likely that both men were begging at the gate, taking advantage of the large number of pilgrims headed to Jerusalem, and hoping to benefit from their generosity. But upon hearing that Jesus was there, they cried out for mercy. Matthew records that the crowds rebuked the two men, demanding that they remain silent. It is likely that this somewhat rude response by the people was based on their belief that physical infirmities like blindness were the result of sin. Even the disciples shared this commonly held view. On one occasion, upon seeing a man who had been born since birth, they had asked Jesus, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” (John 9:2 NLT). Poverty and illness were seen as curses from God, poured out as a result of the individual’s sin. So, apparently, the crowds saw these men as deserving of their lot in life and with no right to beg Jesus for mercy or healing.

It should not escape our attention that these two men, while physically blind, were spiritually perceptive. They could see what so many others could not. Their spiritual vision was 20/20, allowing them to perceive Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of David. Sometime earlier, Jesus had spoken of the spiritual blindness of the people of Israel, quoting from the prophet Isaiah.

“You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.”
For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them. – Matthew 13:14-15 NLT

Out of the huge crowd of people making their way to Jerusalem, only these two sightless men were able to recognize the Messiah standing in their midst, and they appealed to Him for mercy. They were unashamed to admit their need for healing. And they were unapologetic and unwavering in their cry for mercy. They would not be silenced or denied a touch from the Messiah. And when Jesus asked them what He could do for them, they were very clear. “Lord, let our eyes be opened.”

They desired to have their physical sight restored. They were tired of being treated as second-class citizens, relegated to begging for their daily sustenance. They were fed up with the rumors and innuendos regarding their apparent spiritual poverty. They wanted to be healed. They desired to be whole. And “Jesus in pity touched their eyes, and immediately they recovered their sight and followed him” (Matthew 20:34 ESV).

While others looked down on them, Jesus showed them compassion. While His disciples probably considered themselves better than the two blind men, Jesus was willing to expend His time, attention, and power on behalf of these two undeserving men. He did for them what they could have never done for themselves. Their cry for mercy was heard and answered. They longed for healing and took their need to the only one who could do anything about it.

It’s significant that this healing took place as Jesus made His way to Jerusalem, where He would end up dying on a cross for the sins of man. On another occasion, Jesus had an encounter with a Pharisee named Nicodemus. One of the things Jesus told this religious leader was, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life” (John 3:14 NLT). Jesus was referring to a scene recorded in the Old Testament book of Numbers. During the days of the Israelites’ wandering in the wilderness, they became disenchanted with God and Moses, particularly as it concerned their diet. They were sick of the manna God had been providing. So, they complained to Moses.

“There is nothing to eat here and nothing to drink. And we hate this horrible manna!” – Numbers 21:5 NLT

In response to their need for sustenance, God had provided them with manna, a wafer-like substance that miraculously appeared on the ground each morning. But the people had grown tired of manna. And they showed disdain for His gracious provision by complaining about the monotony of their diet.  As a result, God “sent poisonous snakes among the people, and many were bitten and died” (Numbers 21:6 NLT). That got their attention. This time, rather than complaining, they begged Moses to intercede with God on their behalf.

“We have sinned by speaking against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take away the snakes.” – Numbers 21:7 NLT

They had a problem. And it was nothing they could fix on their own. They couldn’t stop the snakes from biting them. Their sin was resulting in their deaths. And they knew that only God could do something about the situation. So, God instructed Moses to make a bronze serpent and mount it on a pole.

“Make a replica of a poisonous snake and attach it to a pole. All who are bitten will live if they simply look at it!” – Numbers 21:8 NLT

And that’s exactly what Moses did. But notice God’s instructions to the people. Those who were bitten had to look at the image of the serpent, the very thing that was bringing God’s judgment upon them. They had to trust the word of God and do exactly as He said. Any hope they had for healing was based on their willingness to look and believe.

And Jesus had told Nicodemus, “as Moses lifted up the bronze snake on a pole in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him will have eternal life.”

When Jesus was nailed to the cross, His naked, beaten, and bloody body represented the punishment for the sins of mankind. He took on Himself what we deserved. He hung in our place. And when anyone looks to Him in faith, recognizing Him as their God-given sin substitute, they are healed from the deadly consequences of their sins. Peter expressed the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death this way:

He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 ESV

But what does any of this have to do with the two blind men? Everything. When these two men heard that Jesus was nearby, they cried out to Him for help. They couldn’t see Jesus, but they could turn to Him for what they desired: The restoration of their sight.

These two sightless men received healing because they “looked” to Jesus. They placed their faith in who He was and what He could do, and as a result, they had their sight restored. But notice what Matthew says. He states that Jesus had pity on these men. While the crowds had tried to silence them, Jesus felt compassion for them and healed them. He did for them as they asked. He gave them the gift of sight.

Just days after this encounter, Jesus would hang on a cross, giving His life as a ransom for many. And, like the serpent on the staff in the wilderness, Jesus’ death would provide spiritual healing to all those who, in faith, look on Him and believe. Those who recognize their own spiritual blindness and helplessness and look to Him will find healing. But more than physical sight, they will receive eternal life.

Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, where He would give His life as a ransom for many. And His death would be a litmus test, differentiating between those who recognized their sin and their need for a Savior, and those who stubbornly clung to their own self-righteousness and self-sufficiency. Jesus’ death would become a source of justification for some and judgment for others.

“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

The blind will look, believe, and see. But those who see will find themselves blinded to the reality of their sin and their need for a Savior.

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