The Blind Leading the Blind

Yet let no one contend,
    and let none accuse,
    for with you is my contention, O priest.
You shall stumble by day;
    the prophet also shall stumble with you by night;
    and I will destroy your mother.
My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge;
    because you have rejected knowledge,
    I reject you from being a priest to me.
And since you have forgotten the law of your God,
    I also will forget your children.

The more they increased,
    the more they sinned against me;
    I will change their glory into shame.
They feed on the sin of my people;
    they are greedy for their iniquity.
And it shall be like people, like priest;
    I will punish them for their ways
    and repay them for their deeds.
10 They shall eat, but not be satisfied;
    they shall play the whore, but not multiply,
because they have forsaken the Lord
    to cherish 11 whoredom, wine, and new wine,
    which take away the understanding. Hosea 4:4-11 ESV

When the northern kingdom of Israel was formed, shortly after God had split Solomon’s kingdom in two, Jeroboam, the newly appointed king of Israel, made the fateful decision to create his own religion. He ordered the creation of two idols made to resemble a calf and set up shrines and temples dedicated to their worship in the towns of Dan and Bethel. And to assist his people in their worship of their new gods, Jeroboam created his own priesthood, sacrificial system, and calendar of annual religious festivals. All of this was intended to keep the people of Israel from returning to Jerusalem and worshiping Yahweh.

Now, God focuses His anger on these false priests, charging them for their complicity in the spiritual decline of the nation. While everyone else would be casting blame and pointing the finger of accusation against one another, God made it clear that He was holding these pseudo-spiritual leaders responsible for the sorry state of affairs in Israel.

Don’t point your finger at someone else
    and try to pass the blame!
My complaint, you priests,
    is with you. – Hosea 4:4 NLT

None of these were qualified to be priests in Israel, because they did not meet the requirements established by God.

Jeroboam … ordained priests from the common people—those who were not from the priestly tribe of Levi. – 1 Kings 12:31 NLT

God had ordained that every man who served as a priest over Israel was to be from the tribe of Levi. God had established the Levitical priesthood with His appointment of Aaron, the older brother of Moses, as the first high priest (Exodus 28:1–3). Aaron’s sons served alongside him as the priests in Israel during the 40 years they were in the wilderness. But their priestly role was carried on by their descendants, long after the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. After Solomon completed the construction of the temple in Jerusalem, he relocated the Ark of the Covenant from the tabernacle to the new holy of holies. And with it came the entire sacrificial system established by God, overseen by the Levitical priesthood.

But the priests Jeroboam had set up in Israel were not Levites. Not only that, they did not worship and offer sacrifices to Yahweh. In God’s eyes, they were nothing more than fake priests worshiping false gods and leading the people of Israel to commit spiritual adultery. God warns these men that they will regret the role they have played in Israel’s downfall.

“So you will stumble in broad daylight,
    and your false prophets will fall with you in the night.” – Hosea 4:5 NLT

They, along with the equally guilty false prophets, would pay dearly for their sins. They would become like blind men stumbling around in the daylight. Once revered for their spiritual insight, they would find themselves living in a world of spiritual darkness, incapable of seeing or understanding anything. Their companions, the false prophets, who had set themselves up as the spokesmen for their false gods, would be equally inept and incapacitated. Rather than their nights being filled with dreams and visions from their false gods, these men would simply stumble around in spiritual blindness. And Jesus leveled a similarly stinging rebuke to the religious leaders of His day.

“They are blind guides leading the blind, and if one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.” – Matthew 15:14 NLT

The priests and prophets of Israel did not represent God because they had not been sent by God. And these men were guilty of placing more emphasis and importance on the nation of Israel than they did on the God of Israel. Hosea refers to Israel as “your mother,” a direct reference to a statement by God in chapter 2.

“But now bring charges against Israel—your mother—
    for she is no longer my wife,
    and I am no longer her husband. – Hosea 2:2 NLT

The religious leaders of Israel had led the people to believe that the nation (their mother) was all that was important. The significance of their identity was to be found in their existence as a nation. But they failed to recognize and remember that they been created by God for His glory. It was God who had made of them a great nation, in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham (Genesis 12:1-3). Yet, these false priests had promoted a form of nationalism that replaced the sovereignty of God with the sanctity of the state. Yet, God told them, “I will destroy Israel, your mother” (Hosea 4:5 NLT). 

The bottom line was that the entire nation had forgotten and, as a result, had forsaken God. They no longer recognized Him as their God. In fact, they had no knowledge of God because the priests and prophets of Israel were too busy promoting the worship of false gods. True priests were supposed to acts as mediators between God and the people. They were to offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the people and administer His atonement and forgiveness in exchange. But these men had been too busy offering sacrifices to non-existent gods that were powerless to provide forgiveness for sin or protection from God’s pending judgment.

God makes it clear that He is holding these false priests and prophets responsible. They will be held accountable for the destruction of the nation.

“My people are being destroyed
    because they don’t know me.
Since you priests refuse to know me,
    I refuse to recognize you as my priests.” – Hosea 4:6 NLT

The reason the people were ignorant of God was that the priests and prophets had no relationship with Him. Of all people, they should have recognized that their idols were nothing more than figments of their own feeble imaginations. They knew their gods were lifeless and powerless. They were fully aware that their prayers and religious rituals produced no tangible results because the gods to whom they prayed and offered sacrifices were statues made by human hands. But they willingly kept up the charade because they enjoyed the power and prestige that came with their roles as priests and prophets.

When King Jeroboam had established his false religion and set up his counterfeit priesthood, it had all been intended to mirror the system originally ordained by God. There were temples, altars, sacrifices, festivals, feasts, and priests. But what was missing was God Almighty. They had all the trappings of a religious system but had neglected to include the one thing that could set them apart from all the other pagan religions in the world: The worship of Yahweh.

God cannot be replicated or replaced. And yet, that was exactly what they had tried to do.

“They have exchanged the glory of God
    for the shame of idols.” – Hosea 4:7 NLT

When you take God out of religion, all you are left with is a man-centered set of rituals that end up benefiting no one but those in charge. And that is exactly the accusation God levels against the priests of Israel.

“When the people bring their sin offerings, the priests get fed.
    So the priests are glad when the people sin! – Hosea 4:8 NLT

Guilty people need forgiveness. Forgiveness requires sacrifice. Sacrifice involves the offering of lambs and bulls. And the priests get to eat was leftover. But because the sacrifices were being offered to false gods, the only ones benefiting from the entire process were the priests. They got fat and happy while they allowed the people to live under the false delusion that their sins had been forgiven.

And these men who should have been setting an example of righteous living were actually encouraging a lifestyle of immorality and spiritual infidelity. They used the sacrificial system like a get-out-of-jail-free card. Any sin could be atoned for by offering sacrifices. And this cavalier attitude toward sin fostered a sense of complacency among the people that led to an increase in transgressions and an intensification of God’s condemnation. And the priests led the way.

“…what the priests do, the people also do.” – Hosea 4:9 NLT

And God lets them know that everyone will end up paying for their sins.

“So now I will punish both priests and people
    for their wicked deeds.” – Hosea 4:9 NLT

All their sacrifices and prayers will do them no good because “they have deserted the Lord to worship other gods” (Hosea 4:11 NLT). Priests, prophets, princes, and paupers will all pay the same price. Each will suffer the consequences for their abandonment of God. But God will hold the religious leaders to a higher standard and place on them a greater burden of guilt because they should have known better. 

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

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

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

Fleecing the Flock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because of You…

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

Micah continues his merciless indictment of the religious and civil leaders of Israel. He holds them personally responsible for the judgment of God that is about to fall upon the nation. Their actions, which he outlines in detail, have played a significant role in the spiritual demise of the people under their care.

What they had failed to understand was the high view God held of their positions. He had placed upon them the mantle of leadership and it came with a divine expectation that they provide His flock with loving care and compassion. But they had dropped the ball. They had abused their authority and abandoned those over whom God had made them shepherds.

“…though you were my shepherds, you didn’t search for my sheep when they were lost. You took care of yourselves and left the sheep to starve. Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: I now consider these shepherds my enemies, and I will hold them responsible for what has happened to my flock. I will take away their right to feed the flock, and I will stop them from feeding themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.” – Ezekiel 34:8-10 NLT

And Micah pulls no punches when leveling his charges against these men.  He accuses them of hating justice and twisting all that is right. And it’s likely that they wholeheartedly denied Micah’s charges. But their actions betrayed them. They were hypocrites who claimed to be serving on behalf of God, but were busy serving their own interests. The prophet Isaiah was equally harsh in his assessment of these self-ascribed leaders of Israel.

What sorrow for those who drag their sins behind them
    with ropes made of lies,
    who drag wickedness behind them like a cart!
They even mock God and say,
    “Hurry up and do something!
    We want to see what you can do.
Let the Holy One of Israel carry out his plan,
    for we want to know what it is.”

What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:18-21 NLT

Evil is good and good is evil. Not exactly the kind of conclusions one would expect from the leaders of God’s people. But as Micah said, their actions betrayed that they hated God’s brand of justice and twisted the truth of God into a lie. And as a result, they had built “Jerusalem on a foundation of murder and corruption” (Micah 3:10 NLT). They had led the way in modeling deceit, disobedience, and immoral behavior. As the leadership went, so did the people.

There’s an old adage that says, “What parents do in moderation, children do to excess.” That timeless truism applies to civic and spiritual leadership as well. What leaders do in moderation, citizens do to excess. And Micah makes it clear that Israel’s leaders had been far less than moderate in their sinful behavior.

You rulers make decisions based on bribes;
    you priests teach God’s laws only for a price;
you prophets won’t prophesy unless you are paid. – Micah 3:11 NLT

They were all in it for what they could get out of it. Leadership had become nothing more than a means to an end and the end was personal gain. Even the prophets were profiteering from their positions. And, once again, Micah was not alone in his less-than-flattering assessment of these men. Isaiah was equally as harsh and unsparing in his indictment of these men.

Your leaders are rebels, the companions of thieves. All of them love bribes and demand payoffs, but they refuse to defend the cause of orphans or fight for the rights of widows. – Isaiah 1:23 NLT

They take bribes to let the wicked go free, and they punish the innocent. – Isaiah 5:23 NLT

For the leaders of my people—
    the Lord’s watchmen, his shepherds—
    are blind and ignorant.
They are like silent watchdogs
    that give no warning when danger comes.
They love to lie around, sleeping and dreaming.
   Like greedy dogs, they are never satisfied.
They are ignorant shepherds,
    all following their own path
    and intent on personal gain. – Isaiah 56:10-11 NLT

Not a pretty picture. But sadly, it was an accurate one. Both Micah and Isaiah provide an irrefutable assessment of the state of affairs in Israel. And it all started at the top. The nation of Israel had a long track record of lousy leadership. And it had taken its toll on the population.

And the worst part was that these men feigned allegiance to God. They claimed to be dependent upon God. And they were quick to claim that they held their positions of leadership because of God. Yet Micah exposed them for the hypocrites they were.

yet they lean on the Lord and say,
    “Is not the Lord in the midst of us?
    No disaster shall come upon us.” – Micah 3:11 ESV

The word translated as “lean” is the Hebrew word sha`an, and it can mean “to trust in” or “to lean upon.” But these men were not really trusting in or relying upon God. They were simply giving Him lip service. Their words were little more than spiritual rhetoric, pious-sounding platitudes intended to give the appearance of godliness. But God was not fooled. He knew their hearts. And in the book of Isaiah, we have God’s no-holds-barred assessment of their true spiritual condition.

And so the Lord says,
    “These people say they are mine.
They honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
And their worship of me
    is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.
Because of this, I will once again astound these hypocrites
    with amazing wonders.
The wisdom of the wise will pass away,
    and the intelligence of the intelligent will disappear.” – Isaiah 29:13-14 NLT

They were quick to claim God’s presence and provision. They were depending upon the Almighty to place His force-field of divine protection over them. Which had led them to falsely claim, “No harm can come to us for the Lord is here among us” (Micah 3:11 NLT). But they had failed to consider God’s commands concerning faithfulness, obedience, justice, mercy, and compassion.

Back in Isaiah 1, we find God’s clear communication of His divine will concerning His disobedient people.

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

But from the top down, the people of Israel had been guilty of doing just the opposite. And, as a result, God was going to bring His judgment against the nation.

Because of you, Mount Zion will be plowed like an open field;
    Jerusalem will be reduced to ruins!
A thicket will grow on the heights
    where the Temple now stands. – Micah 3:12 NLT

They had no excuse for their behavior. They couldn’t claim ignorance or blame their actions on a lack of information. God had faithfully, persistently, and lovingly called them to change their ways. He had sent prophet after prophet, each declaring His message of pending judgment. These men had begged the people of Israel to repent and return to the Lord. But their messages had fallen on deaf ears.

Now, time was running out. God would not tolerate their stubborn rejection of His gracious offer of redemption forever. But as we will see in the very next chapter, God was not done with Israel. Despite the actions of their lousy leaders and the lemming-like behavior of the people, God was going to act on their behalf. He had a plan in place that included their judgment as well as their future redemption.

And chapter four opens up with words of hope that shine like a bright light in the midst of the darkness of Israel’s despair.

It shall come to pass in the latter days
    that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
    and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it… – Micah 4:1 ESV

 

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

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

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

Denial Won’t Stop the Inevitable

1 How the gold has grown dim,
    how the pure gold is changed!
The holy stones lie scattered
    at the head of every street.

The precious sons of Zion,
    worth their weight in fine gold,
how they are regarded as earthen pots,
    the work of a potter’s hands!

Even jackals offer the breast;
    they nurse their young;
but the daughter of my people has become cruel,
    like the ostriches in the wilderness.

The tongue of the nursing infant sticks
    to the roof of its mouth for thirst;
the children beg for food,
    but no one gives to them.

Those who once feasted on delicacies
    perish in the streets;
those who were brought up in purple
    embrace ash heaps.

For the chastisement of the daughter of my people has been greater
    than the punishment of Sodom,
which was overthrown in a moment,
    and no hands were wrung for her.

Her princes were purer than snow,
    whiter than milk;
their bodies were more ruddy than coral,
    the beauty of their form was like sapphire.

Now their face is blacker than soot;
    they are not recognized in the streets;
their skin has shriveled on their bones;
    it has become as dry as wood.

Happier were the victims of the sword
    than the victims of hunger,
who wasted away, pierced
    by lack of the fruits of the field.

10 The hands of compassionate women
    have boiled their own children;
they became their food
    during the destruction of the daughter of my people.

11 The Lord gave full vent to his wrath;
    he poured out his hot anger,
and he kindled a fire in Zion
    that consumed its foundations.

12 The kings of the earth did not believe,
    nor any of the inhabitants of the world,
that foe or enemy could enter
    the gates of Jerusalem.

13 This was for the sins of her prophets
    and the iniquities of her priests,
who shed in the midst of her
    the blood of the righteous.

14 They wandered, blind, through the streets;
    they were so defiled with blood
that no one was able to touch
    their garments.

15 “Away! Unclean!” people cried at them.
    “Away! Away! Do not touch!”
So they became fugitives and wanderers;
    people said among the nations,
    “They shall stay with us no longer.”

16 The Lord himself has scattered them;
    he will regard them no more;
no honor was shown to the priests,
    no favor to the elders. Lamentations 4:1-16 ESV

Chapter four begins another dirge or poem in which Jeremiah recounts the devastating nature of the destruction brought upon the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. He begins by describing the gold that used to adorn the temple of God now lying in the streets. What used to be of great value is now worthless. Precious metals and expensive gems have become as common as rocks. The economy of the city is completely shot, making it impossible to purchase food and leaving countless people suffering from starvation.

The parched tongues of their little ones
    stick to the roofs of their mouths in thirst.
The children cry for bread,
    but no one has any to give them. – Lamentations 4:4 NLT

The entire atmosphere of the city has been turned upside down, leaving those who used to be considered princes and worthy of great honor, living as if their lives are worth nothing. They “are now treated like pots of clay made by a common potter” (Lamentations 4:3 NLT). The social hierarchy of Jerusalem has been completely eliminated, with everyone sharing the same abysmal fate. The rich have lost their social standing. The once-powerful suffer alongside the poor and destitute. Everyone is on equal terms, experiencing the same unpleasant outcome for their rebellion against God.

During the siege, food had become so scarce that mothers were refusing to feed their own children, choosing instead to feed themselves while their infants died. And it got so bad that some resorted to cannibalism, eating the bodies of their own children.

Tenderhearted women
    have cooked their own children.
They have eaten them
    to survive the siege. – Lamentations 4:10 NLT

The callousness displayed by these actions is difficult for us to comprehend. But the people had lost all hope. Their despair had become so great that it had become every man for himself. All sense of community was gone. It was now a matter of the survival of the fittest.

And again, Jeremiah paints a stark picture of just how grim things had become. Those who used to enjoy rich foods prepared for them by servants were now relegated to begging in the streets. Their fine clothes had been replaced by rags scavenged from the local dump. There was no longer anyone in Jerusalem who suffered from pride or had any reason to think of themselves as better than anyone else. This event had been the great equalizer, reducing the entire population of the city to a state of abject poverty and brokenness.

And Jeremiah compares the fall of Jerusalem to that of Sodom, the city that had been destroyed by God for its rampant wickedness. But Sodom had been a pagan city with no relationship to God Almighty. Their gross immorality had become a stench in the nostrils of God, forcing Him to bring down judgment upon them. But sadly, Jeremiah makes the wickedness of Jerusalem even more egregious than Sodom. It was the capital of Judah and the home of the temple that Solomon had built for God. And yet, Jeremiah declares that “The guilt of my people is greater than that of Sodom” (Lamentations 4:6 NLT). The chosen people of God stood condemned before Him and their guilt was greater than that of one of the most wicked cities that ever existed.

Like the citizens of Sodom, the people of Jerusalem had received the justice they deserved for their sins against God. And Jeremiah juxtaposes the former state of the people of Judah with their current conditions. At one time they had been rich, fat, and happy. They were used to having whatever their hearts desired. Food had been in abundance. Their clothes had been rich and sumptuous. Their houses had been filled with the latest pleasures, and their every need had been met by a host of servants. But now they were poor, disheveled, needy, and hungry.

And it had all been the result of God’s discipline and judgment.

But now the anger of the Lord is satisfied.
    His fierce anger has been poured out.
He started a fire in Jerusalem
    that burned the city to its foundations. – Lamentations 4:11 NLT

God had warned them repeatedly and had given them ample opportunity to repent and return to Him. But they had refused. Their pride had gotten the best of them. They never dreamed that this could happen to them. After all, they were the chosen people of God, the descendants of Abraham and heirs to the promises God had made to him. Jerusalem could never fall. The temple of God could never be destroyed. Their fate was secure – or so they thought.

Not a king in all the earth—
    no one in all the world—
would have believed that an enemy
    could march through the gates of Jerusalem.

Yet it happened because of the sins of her prophets
    and the sins of her priests,
who defiled the city
    by shedding innocent blood. – Lamentations 4:12-13 NLT

The inconceivable had happened. And it was all because the spiritual leaders of Judah had failed to live up to their God-ordained responsibilities. The priests had proved to be wicked and immoral. Prophets claimed to be speaking for God, but their words were nothing but lies intended to tell the people what they wanted to hear. And these men gave ungodly advice to Judah’s governmental leaders, resulting in kings who failed to shepherd the people of Judah as God had commanded them to do. Idolatry and immorality became commonplace. Unfaithfulness was widespread, from the top to the bottom of the society. And God had had enough.

Many of these priests and prophets were killed by the Babylonians or deported. They were removed from positions of power and their disobedience was dealt with severely and permanently.

The Lord himself has scattered them,
    and he no longer helps them.
People show no respect for the priests
    and no longer honor the leaders. – Lamentations 4:16 NLT

These men had forfeited their right to act as God’s spokesmen. They had failed to honor Him with their lives, choosing instead to enrich themselves by taking advantage of their position for personal gain. They had made a habit of telling the people what they wanted to hear, denying the prophecies of Jeremiah and ridiculing any thought that God was going to bring about the fall of Jerusalem. But they had proven to be painfully wrong. Their messages of good news had failed to bring about good outcomes. The city lay in ruins, the population was mired in poverty, and these men had all been killed or deported. The will of God had been accomplished.

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

Read It and Keep It

Then Moses wrote this law and gave it to the priests, the sons of Levi, who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, and to all the elders of Israel. 10 And Moses commanded them, “At the end of every seven years, at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths, 11 when all Israel comes to appear before the Lord your God at the place that he will choose, you shall read this law before all Israel in their hearing. 12 Assemble the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law, 13 and that their children, who have not known it, may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, as long as you live in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 31:9-13 ESV

Moses is about to commission Joshua as his official replacement. But before he conducts that auspicious ceremony where he will turn over the leadership of the people of Israel to his successor, Moses called together two other groups of God-appointed leaders. One was the priests, who were all members of the tribe of Levi. God’s appointment them as priests is recorded in the book of Numbers.

And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” – Numbers 3:5-10 ESV

The tribe of Levi had been set apart by God as substitutes for the firstborn sons of Israel. As a result of His sparing of all the firstborn male Israelites during the final plague in Egypt, God had claimed them as His own. They were to be dedicated to Him. But He later appointed the Levites to serve in this role. They would be the tribe from which the priestly order would come – the men who would serve in the tabernacle and offer sacrifices to God on behalf of the people. So, these men played an important role in the lives of the Israelites.

The second group of leaders Moses called upon was comprised of the elders of Israel. Back during the days when Israel was making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had become overwhelmed by the weight of his leadership responsibilities. So, God had provided him with a solution.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Gather for me seventy men of the elders of Israel, whom you know to be the elders of the people and officers over them, and bring them to the tent of meeting, and let them take their stand there with you. And I will come down and talk with you there. And I will take some of the Spirit that is on you and put it on them, and they shall bear the burden of the people with you, so that you may not bear it yourself alone. – Numbers 11:16-17 ESV

The nation of Israel had grown too large for one man to lead them effectively. So, God provided Moses with a system for delegating authority among a group of well-qualified men. Their job was to come alongside Moses and to help him bear the burden of the people. And as Moses, prepared to turn over leadership to Joshua, he wanted the sons of Levi who served as priests and the elders of Israel to understand that they would play an important role in the future of the nation.

Moses provided them with a copy of the law and with instructions to guard and protect it. This document was going to be vital to the nation’s spiritual well-being. It would be the key to Israel experiencing the blessings of God. And Moses instructed these men to set aside a day every seventh (sabbatical) year on which they would call for a national assembly and read the law in the hearing of the people.

“At the end of every seventh year, the Year of Release, during the Festival of Shelters, you must read this Book of Instruction to all the people of Israel when they assemble before the Lord your God at the place he chooses. – Deuteronomy 31:10-11 ESV

It was essential that the people remain well-educated concerning the content of God’s law. Not long after Moses had received the law from God, he had told the people of Israel:

“…you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today. Repeat them again and again to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:6-9 NLT

And God had given a command concerning the kings who would eventually reign over the nation.

“…when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statutes, and doing them, that his heart may not be lifted up above his brothers, and that he may not turn aside from the commandment, either to the right hand or to the left, so that he may continue long in his kingdom, he and his children, in Israel.” – Deuteronomy 17:18-20 ESV

By commanding the audible recitation of the law every seventh year by the priests and elders of Israel, Moses was ensuring that the people would have a regular reminder of their commitment to the law. Not only that, he tied it to the annual Feast of Booths, which was a commemoration of Israel’s release from captivity. As part of the feast, they constructed temporary “booths” or “tabernacles” meant to remind them of the years their ancestor spent wandering in the wilderness of their way to the land of promise.

The feast was timed to occur immediately after the fall harvest, and it was accompanied by sacrifices, offered in thanksgiving to God for His gracious provision. It was at this joyous occasion that the law was to be read aloud to the entire population of Israel “at the set time in the year of release, at the Feast of Booths” (Deuteronomy 31:10 ESV).

And Moses commanded that this solemn convocation was to include “the people, men, women, and little ones, and the sojourner within your towns, that they may hear and learn to fear the Lord your God, and be careful to do all the words of this law” (Deuteronomy 31:12 ESV). No one was to be left out. And an important byproduct of this event was the instruction of their children regarding the law of God. 

“Do this so that your children who have not known these instructions will hear them and will learn to fear the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 31:13 NLT

And this reading of the law was to take place every seventh year for as long as the people of Israel lived in the land of Canaan. And since God had promised the land to them as a permanent possession, that means Moses expected the priests and elders to see their commitment to holding this solemn assembly as perpetual and never-ending in nature.

It’s interesting to note that, by spacing this reading of the law at seven-year intervals, there would have been thousands of 7-year-old children attending the festival who had born into the Jewish community during the gap years. These children would have been mature enough to hear the law and understand it. So, if they had not had parents who taught it to them, they would at least hear it for themselves on their 7th birthday and every seventh year after that.

To say that the law was important to God would be a vast understatement. He cared greatly about His law and was adamant that His people know it and obey it. He wanted them to live their lives by it. He demanded that they be committed to it. He wanted the leaders of His people to be the protectors and disseminators of it – for generations to come. And this law was not just a list of rules to keep. It was written documentation of the commitment the people of Israel had made. They had promised to keep all the commandments of God, and He was not going to allow them to forget the nature of that commitment.

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 Thirst For God

13 Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
    wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
    O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
    are withheld from the house of your God.

14 Consecrate a fast;
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord.

15 Alas for the day!
For the day of the Lord is near,
    and as destruction from the Almighty[c] it comes.
16 Is not the food cut off
    before our eyes,
joy and gladness
    from the house of our God?

The seed shrivels under the clods;
    the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are torn down
    because the grain has dried up.
18 How the beasts groan!
    The herds of cattle are perplexed
because there is no pasture for them;
    even the flocks of sheep suffer.

19 To you, O Lord, I call.
For fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness,
and flame has burned
    all the trees of the field.
20 Even the beasts of the field pant for you
    because the water brooks are dried up,
and fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness. – Joel 1:13-20 ESV

The consequences of sin are not always self-evident. They don’t always show up at the point the sin is being committed. But in due time, the sinner always reaps what he sows. We can attempt to hide our sin or act like it never happened, but it will eventually get exposed. As God warned the tribes of Reuben and Gad, “be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23 ESV).

And the people of Judah were experiencing the painful consequences of their sin against God, in the form of the devastating aftermath of the locust infestation that had left their land devoid of fruit and grain. For generations, they had thought they had gotten away with their repeated rebellion against God, but their sin had found them out. He had been watching and waiting. Now, judgment had come and they had no grain to make bread and no grapes with which to produce wine. And, on top of that, they had no way of offering the grain and drink offerings required as part of the sacrificial system established by Yahweh.

So, Joel calls on the priests of God to put on sackcloth, lament, and wail. Rather than wearing their priestly robes and offering sacrifices on behalf of the people, they were to spend their nights in sorrow, “Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God” (Joel 1:13 ESV). Joel addresses them as “ministers of the altar” and “ministers of my God,” clearly pointing out how they had abdicated their responsibility as the spiritual leaders of Judah. They were to have led the nation in the worship of God, bringing the sins of the people before the altar and helping to restore them to a right relationship with God.

When God had set apart the tribe of Levi to assist Aaron with the duties associated with the tabernacle, He had told them, “They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle” (Numbers 3:8 ESV). The priests in Joel’s day had failed to keep guard over the people. They had stood back and watched as the people disobeyed and dishonored God by their sinful behavior. Yes, they continued to offer their grain and drink offerings. They kept bringing their sacrifices and fulfilling all the feast days and festivals. But their hearts were not in it. God’s feelings regarding the outward obedience of His people were made quite clear in His words recorded by the prophet Isaiah.

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”says the LORD.

“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the bloodof bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony. Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath and your special days for fasting—they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings.” – Isaiah 1:11-13 NLT

God was fed up. He had had enough. So, He demands that the priests assemble all the people at the temple and declare a nationwide fast and period of mourning.

Announce a time of fasting;
    call the people together for a solemn meeting.
Bring the leaders
    and all the people of the land
into the Temple of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to him there. – Joel 1:14 NLT

The Hebrew word used for this kind of gathering is `atsarah, and it was typically used to refer to an assembly of the people for the keeping of a feast or festival. But there would be no feasting at this assembly. It was a fast, a willing abstaining from food on order to focus all their attention on God. And they were already experiencing a forced fast because there was no bread to eat or wine to drink. As is self-evident, this was not going to be a joyous occasion. They were expected to cry out to God in confession and repentance, placing themselves at His mercy and hoping that He will show them grace.

And Joel doesn’t want them to miss the seriousness of this occasion. He describes the time in which they live as “the day of the Lord.” And he points out that “Our food disappears before our very eyes. No joyful celebrations are held in the house of our God” (Joel 1:16 ESV). They are under divine judgment and its effects are all around them.

The seeds die in the parched ground,
    and the grain crops fail.
The barns stand empty,
    and granaries are abandoned. – Joel 1:17 NLT

Even the animals in the fields are experiencing the consequences of Judah’s sin and God’s judgment. The pastures are barren and the flocks are starving. In all of this, Joel seems to be pointing out how Judah’s sin was impacting not only the economy, but the sacrificial system. Not only was there no grain or wine for use in the offerings, the herds and flocks that would have been the source of sacrifices were suffering from starvation. The entire sacrificial system, designed to provide forgiveness from sin and a restored relationship with God, was struggling for its existence. Joel describes the flock of sheep as suffering, but the Hebrew word he uses is ‘asham, which means “to suffer punishment due to guilt.” Even the sheep, which were the primary means of substitutionary atonement for the sins of the people, were suffering as if guilty. Their lack of adequate food had made them unfit for sacrifice.

These were dark days. And it wasn’t because of the locusts. It was because of sin. And the judgment against Judah’s sin had not stopped with the devouring by the locusts. Joel describes fire as having scorched the fields, leaving any remnant of grain completely wiped out. And, on top of that, the brooks had dried up, leaving the animals in the fields searching for anything to slack their thirst.

The imagery of animals desperately seeking for something to slack their thirst is meant to picture the spiritual state of the people of Judah. They are dying spiritually, and in need of someone to quench their unbearable thirst for satisfaction. And, through the prophet Isaiah, God offers them an invitation.

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food. – Isaiah 55:1-12 ESV

The situation is desperate, but are the people of Judah? Are they ready to give up their wicked ways and turn to God? Has the devastation of the locusts left them ready to seek God and serve Him faithfully? Time will tell. But Joel warns them that things are going to get worse before they get better. If they don’t repent, the day of the Lord will come. He is offering to quench their spiritual thirst and alleviate their suffering, but they must confess their sin and return to Him in humility and contrition.

Again, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, reminding the people of Judah what it was He wanted from them. And His words reveal the choice that the people of Judah had to make.

“But this is the one to whom I will look:
    he who is humble and contrite in spirit
    and trembles at my word.

“He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man;
    he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood;
    he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
    and their soul delights in their abominations.” – Isaiah 66:2-3 ESV

 

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

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

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

 

A Priestly Presence.

Then the heads of the fathers’ houses of the Levites came to Eleazar the priest and to Joshua the son of Nun and to the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel. And they said to them at Shiloh in the land of Canaan, “The Lord commanded through Moses that we be given cities to dwell in, along with their pasturelands for our livestock.” So by command of the Lord the people of Israel gave to the Levites the following cities and pasturelands out of their inheritance.

The lot came out for the clans of the Kohathites. So those Levites who were descendants of Aaron the priest received by lot from the tribes of Judah, Simeon, and Benjamin, thirteen cities.

And the rest of the Kohathites received by lot from the clans of the tribe of Ephraim, from the tribe of Dan and the half-tribe of Manasseh, ten cities.

The Gershonites received by lot from the clans of the tribe of Issachar, from the tribe of Asher, from the tribe of Naphtali, and from the half-tribe of Manasseh in Bashan, thirteen cities.

The Merarites according to their clans received from the tribe of Reuben, the tribe of Gad, and the tribe of Zebulun, twelve cities.

These cities and their pasturelands the people of Israel gave by lot to the Levites, as the Lord had commanded through Moses.

Out of the tribe of the people of Judah and the tribe of the people of Simeon they gave the following cities mentioned by name, 10 which went to the descendants of Aaron, one of the clans of the Kohathites who belonged to the people of Levi; since the lot fell to them first. 11 They gave them Kiriath-arba (Arba being the father of Anak), that is Hebron, in the hill country of Judah, along with the pasturelands around it. 12 But the fields of the city and its villages had been given to Caleb the son of Jephunneh as his possession.

13 And to the descendants of Aaron the priest they gave Hebron, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasturelands, Libnah with its pasturelands, 14 Jattir with its pasturelands, Eshtemoa with its pasturelands, 15 Holon with its pasturelands, Debir with its pasturelands, 16 Ain with its pasturelands, Juttah with its pasturelands, Beth-shemesh with its pasturelands—nine cities out of these two tribes; 17 then out of the tribe of Benjamin, Gibeon with its pasturelands, Geba with its pasturelands, 18 Anathoth with its pasturelands, and Almon with its pasturelands—four cities. 19 The cities of the descendants of Aaron, the priests, were in all thirteen cities with their pasturelands.

20 As to the rest of the Kohathites belonging to the Kohathite clans of the Levites, the cities allotted to them were out of the tribe of Ephraim. 21 To them were given Shechem, the city of refuge for the manslayer, with its pasturelands in the hill country of Ephraim, Gezer with its pasturelands, 22 Kibzaim with its pasturelands, Beth-horon with its pasturelands—four cities; 23 and out of the tribe of Dan, Elteke with its pasturelands, Gibbethon with its pasturelands, 24 Aijalon with its pasturelands, Gath-rimmon with its pasturelands—four cities; 25 and out of the half-tribe of Manasseh, Taanach with its pasturelands, and Gath-rimmon with its pasturelands—two cities. 26 The cities of the clans of the rest of the Kohathites were ten in all with their pasturelands.

27 And to the Gershonites, one of the clans of the Levites, were given out of the half-tribe of Manasseh, Golan in Bashan with its pasturelands, the city of refuge for the manslayer, and Beeshterah with its pasturelands—two cities; 28 and out of the tribe of Issachar, Kishion with its pasturelands, Daberath with its pasturelands, 29 Jarmuth with its pasturelands, En-gannim with its pasturelands—four cities; 30 and out of the tribe of Asher, Mishal with its pasturelands, Abdon with its pasturelands, 31 Helkath with its pasturelands, and Rehob with its pasturelands—four cities; 32 and out of the tribe of Naphtali, Kedesh in Galilee with its pasturelands, the city of refuge for the manslayer, Hammoth-dor with its pasturelands, and Kartan with its pasturelands—three cities. 33 The cities of the several clans of the Gershonites were in all thirteen cities with their pasturelands.

34 And to the rest of the Levites, the Merarite clans, were given out of the tribe of Zebulun, Jokneam with its pasturelands, Kartah with its pasturelands, 35 Dimnah with its pasturelands, Nahalal with its pasturelands—four cities; 36 and out of the tribe of Reuben, Bezer with its pasturelands, Jahaz with its pasturelands, 37 Kedemoth with its pasturelands, and Mephaath with its pasturelands—four cities; 38 and out of the tribe of Gad, Ramoth in Gilead with its pasturelands, the city of refuge for the manslayer, Mahanaim with its pasturelands, 39 Heshbon with its pasturelands, Jazer with its pasturelands—four cities in all. 40 As for the cities of the several Merarite clans, that is, the remainder of the clans of the Levites, those allotted to them were in all twelve cities.

41 The cities of the Levites in the midst of the possession of the people of Israel were in all forty-eight cities with their pasturelands. 42 These cities each had its pasturelands around it. So it was with all these cities. Joshua 21:1-42 ESV

levitical-cities-map.png

During the days of Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, God had given the tribe of Levi the responsibility of caring for the tabernacle and everything associated with it. They were declared by God to be a priestly order, with their descendants holding the distinct honor of serving the rest of the tribes of Israel in a spiritual capacity.They were to be unique among all the other tribes, not only because of their  special God-ordained role, but because of God’s declaration that they not be allotted their own portion of land as an inheritance. In the book of Numbers, we have recorded God’s words to Moses that outlined His plans for the Levites.

“Bring the tribe of Levi near, and set them before Aaron the priest, that they may minister to him. They shall keep guard over him and over the whole congregation before the tent of meeting, as they minister at the tabernacle. They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle. And you shall give the Levites to Aaron and his sons; they are wholly given to him from among the people of Israel. 10 And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, and they shall guard their priesthood. But if any outsider comes near, he shall be put to death.” – Numbers 3:6-10 ESV

And God gave Moses the reasoning behind His decision.

12 “Behold, I have taken the Levites from among the people of Israel instead of every firstborn who opens the womb among the people of Israel. The Levites shall be mine, 13 for all the firstborn are mine. On the day that I struck down all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, I consecrated for my own all the firstborn in Israel, both of man and of beast. They shall be mine: I am the Lord.” – Numbers 3:11-13 ESV

And later on, when God had given the law to Moses, He provided further details concerning the distinctive role of this particular tribe.

At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.) – Deuteronomy 10:8-9 ESV

But who were the Levites and what led God to choose them for this very special honor? To understand what is going on here, we have to go back to Exodus chapter 2, where we have recorded the birth of Moses.

1 Now a man from the house of Levi went and took as his wife a Levite woman. 2 The woman conceived and bore a son, and when she saw that he was a fine child, she hid him three months. – Exodus 2:1-2 ESV

Moses was a pure-blooded Levite. His father, Amram, was a Levite, born to Kohath, who was a son of Levi, the third son of Jacob. Moses’ mother was also a Levite. And Moses and his brother, Aaron, would become the first priests overseeing the well-being of the tribes of Israel as a whole. The Levites would become God’s ordained instruments dedicated to His service and assigned the task of ministering to the spiritual needs of the people. They belonged to God and, as His servants, they were to be cared for by God. So, when it came time to apportion the land of promise, they were not given a particular portion of land like all the other tribes. Instead, God gave them cities located within the boundaries of the other tribes – 48 cities in all. Each tribe was required to provide four cities each, and the Levites were given pasture land around those cities for their own use. This plan resulted in the Levites being equally distributed among the other tribes, providing them with ready access to the people of God so that they might instruct them in the law and in the worship of Jehovah. The Levites did not become the sole-inhabitants of these cities and the cities did not become their possessions. The cities remained the property of the tribes on whose land they existed. But the Levites were provided places to live and a means for raising flocks to care for their needs. God became their provider and benefactor.

God provided for His people. He had given them the land, but He had also provided them with a priestly clan, whose sole purpose was to teach the people the law and encourage them in their worship of God. God knew the people were going to need far more than land. He also recognized that their designation as His chosen people would not be enough to keep them faithful to His law and committed to the worship of Him alone. In fact, one of the key reasons the Levites had been chosen by God is because of the role they had played in God’s discipline of the people of Israel after they had made the golden calf in the wilderness. When Moses had seen what Aaron and the people had done while He had been on the top of Mount Sinai receiving the law from God, he called for judgment to be enacted upon the people, nd it was the Levites who responded.

26 then Moses stood in the gate of the camp and said, “Who is on the Lord‘s side? Come to me.” And all the sons of Levi gathered around him. 27 And he said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel, ‘Put your sword on your side each of you, and go to and fro from gate to gate throughout the camp, and each of you kill his brother and his companion and his neighbor.’” 28 And the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses. And that day about three thousand men of the people fell. 29 And Moses said, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord, each one at the cost of his son and of his brother, so that he might bestow a blessing upon you this day.” – Exodus 32:26-29 ESV

The Levites, the tribe of Moses, came to his aid and to the defense of God’s name, and brought just judgment upon all those who had worshiped the false god. This tribe was dispersed among all the other tribes in order that they might hold the people of God accountable. They were to be a strong influence for good among the people,

9 “For they observed your word
    and kept your covenant.
10 They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar. – Deuteronomy 33:9-10 ESV

These men were dedicated to God. They belonged to Him and were given the indispensable and unenviable task of keeping the people of God faithful to God. From their 48 cities, spread all across the land of promise, they were to be salt and light among the tribes of Judah. Their job would not be an easy one, but it was vital to the spiritual well-being of the nation. Obedience was going to be the key to Israel getting the most out of their experience in the land. And the Levites were God’s ambassadors, tasked with teaching the people the ways of God so that they might walk in obedience to God and fully know the blessings of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

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

Caught In the Cross Fire.

The Lord made it known to me and I knew;
    then you showed me their deeds.
But I was like a gentle lamb
    led to the slaughter.
I did not know it was against me
    they devised schemes, saying,
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
    let us cut him off from the land of the living,
    that his name be remembered no more.”
But, O Lord of hosts, who judges righteously,
    who tests the heart and the mind,
let me see your vengeance upon them,
    for to you have I committed my cause.

Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the men of Anathoth, who seek your life, and say, “Do not prophesy in the name of the Lord, or you will die by our hand”—therefore thus says the Lord of hosts: “Behold, I will punish them. The young men shall die by the sword, their sons and their daughters shall die by famine, and none of them shall be left. For I will bring disaster upon the men of Anathoth, the year of their punishment.” Jeremiah 11:18-23 ESV

Jeremiah’s job was dangerous. Had there been such a thing as the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during his day, they would have likely leveled fines against Jeremiah’s employer for the life-threatening conditions under which the prophet was forced to work. Jeremiah’s life was in danger, because what he had to say was not what the people wanted to hear. And like all of God’s prophets, Jeremiah was under constant death threats. In this case, he had received news of a threat from the people of the city of Anathoth. They had determined to get rid of Jeremiah.

“Let’s destroy this man and all his words,” they said. “Let’s cut him down, so his name will be forgotten forever.” – Jeremiah 11:19 NLT

They wanted to kill messenger. That would have been like ripping out the smoke alarm in your home because you’re tired of hearing of hearing it wail. Getting rid of Jeremiah wasn’t going to change the outcome. But the people of Anathoth were sick of hearing Jeremiah drone on and on about their sins and God’s coming judgment. And it’s interesting to note that the city of Anathoth was the home of the priestly house of Abiathar, who had served King David. This is important because the descendants of Abiathar would have had a bone to pick with God over their treatment. At one time, Abiathar had been a leading figure in the administration of King David. But when David’s son, Adonijah had determined to state a coupe and take the throne from his father, Abiathar sided with him.

He conferred with Joab the son of Zeruiah and with Abiathar the priest. And they followed Adonijah and helped him. But Zadok the priest and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada and Nathan the prophet and Shimei and Rei and David’s mighty men were not with Adonijah.– 1 Kings 1:7-8 ESV

Zadok was another priest serving in the court of David. He remained faithful to the King and did not take part in Adonijah’s rebellion or follow Abiathar’s lead in taking part in the coupe. As a result of all this, David was forced to have Solomon anointed king of Israel sooner than he had planned.

King David said, “Call to me Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada.” So they came before the king. And the king said to them, “Take with you the servants of your lord and have Solomon my son ride on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihon. And let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel. Then blow the trumpet and say, ‘Long live King Solomon!’” – 1 Kings 1:32-34 ESV

Solomon was crowned the next king of Israel. And the coupe was stopped dead in its tracks. Adonijah was eventually put to death by Solomon and Abiathar was exiled to Anathoth, never to serve as a priest again.

And to Abiathar the priest the king said, “Go to Anathoth, to your estate, for you deserve death. But I will not at this time put you to death, because you carried the ark of the Lord God before David my father, and because you shared in all my father’s affliction.” So Solomon expelled Abiathar from being priest to the Lord, thus fulfilling the word of the Lord that he had spoken concerning the house of Eli in Shiloh. – 1 Kings 1:26-27 ESV

What is that reference to the word of the Lord and Eli mean? At one time, Eli had been a priest serving in Shiloh. He had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas. They too were priests, but they were wicked, and Eli did nothing to correct their immoral behavior. The book of 1 Samuel tells us, “the sin of the young men was very great in the sight of the Lord, for the men treated the offering of the Lord with contempt” (1 Samuel 2:17 ESV). As a result, God told Eli, “‘I promised that your house and the house of your father should go in and out before me forever, but now the Lord declares: “Far be it from me, for those who honor me I will honor, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed. Behold, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your father’s house, so that there will not be an old man in your house” (1 Samuel 2:30-31 ESV). And God went on to tell Eli that his house would be replaced as the priests of God.

“And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind. And I will build him a sure house, and he shall go in and out before my anointed forever.” – 2 Samuel 2:35 ESV

Zadok would be that faithful priest. His very name meant “one who’s proved righteous.” He remained faithfully by David’s side. He represents those who remain faithful to God. But Abiathar represents another kind of priesthood, one that is immoral and unfaithful, like Hophni and Phinehas. One of the things Jeremiah had to constantly fight was the presence of false prophets and ungodly priests, who were actually leading the people away from God. They rejected the warnings of God spoken through the mouth of Jeremiah. In fact, they planned to kill the messenger in a futile attempt to rid themselves of the threat. These evil men had told Jeremiah, ““We will kill you if you do not stop prophesying in the Lord’s name” (Jeremiah 11:21 NLT). But God had other plans. 

“I will punish them! Their young men will die in battle, and their boys and girls will starve to death. Not one of these plotters from Anathoth will survive, for I will bring disaster upon them when their time of punishment comes.” – Jeremiah 11:22-23 NLT

There will always be spiritual leaders like Abiathar, Hophni and Phinehas – men who claim to speak on behalf of God, but who are really unfaithful and unworthy to be called priests of God. They will twist the words of God and present their version of the facts, claiming to be speaking for God. They will lead people astray. They will lie and call it truth. They will attack others who speak the truth. But they will not escape the wrath of God. The men of Anathoth had a bone to pick. They were still upset with all that had happened to their forefather, Abiathar. They had been removed from significance by Solomon and replaced by the house of Zadok. But they still viewed themselves as priests and still attempted to lead the people. But they led them in the wrong direction. And their threat to kill the prophet of God would backfire on them. They could not stop the will of God. They could not replace the plans of God with their own. They would fail. Like Hophni, Phinehas and Abiathar, they would suffer the fate that God had in store for them. Their sins would be exposed and their judgment would be just. They would get just what they deserved.

Jeremiah was caught in the cross fire. He was in a dangerous place, attempting to warn the people of Judah and calling them back to God. But there were those who were not only rejecting his words, but were calling him a liar. They were undermining his ministry and even threatening his life. They stood opposed to God and His messenger. And they would do everything in their power to keep God’s will from taking place. But they would fail. Jeremiah was in a dangerous place, but it would prove to be the safest place for him to be – within the will of God, obediently obeying His will and proclaiming His Word.

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 Leadership Void.

Yet let no one contend, and let none accuse, for with you is my contention, O priest. You shall stumble by day; the prophet also shall stumble with you by night;  and I will destroy your mother. My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge, I reject you from being a priest to me. And since you have forgotten the law of your God, I also will forget your children. The more they increased, the more they sinned against me; I will change their glory into shame.

They feed on the sin of my people; they are greedy for their iniquity. And it shall be like people, like priest; I will punish them for their ways and repay them for their deeds. They shall eat, but not be satisfied; they shall play the whore, but not multiply, because they have forsaken the Lord to cherish whoredom, wine, and new wine, which take away the understanding. – Hosea 4:4-11 ESV

God held all of the people of Israel responsible for their sin, but He had a special word of accusation against the spiritual leaders of Israel. The priests and prophets, while not actually men appointed by God, were still going to be held accountable because of their claim to be representatives of God. The priests of Israel were actually unsanctioned by God, because they had been appointed by Jeroboam after the kingdom split in two. He had created his own gods and appointed his own priests. They were not Levites, as God had commanded. So these were actually false priests leading the people in the worship of false gods. So God held them to a higher standard and leveled more severe charges against them. The same was true of the false prophets who were claiming to bring messages from the false gods they worshiped. These men were supposedly speaking new revelations from their gods, giving the people of Israel divine direction. But they were simply misleading the people. The revelations they received, if indeed they received any, were most likely demonic and most definitely not from God.

God’s main accusation against the priests was that they were leading the people away from Him, not toward Him. The people’s knowledge of God was actually diminishing, not increasing. God said, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge; because you have rejected knowledge” (Hosea 4:6 ESV). The priests were not seeking after the one true God, so the people were becoming increasingly ignorant of God and His ways. The priests were not teaching the laws of God, so the people were breaking them without even knowing it. And all of this was leading to their destruction, both spiritually and physically.

As priests, these men were to be promoting godliness and the worship of God. They were to be leading the people into a deeper understanding of and appreciation for God. But God said, “The more priests there are, the more they sin against me. They have exchanged the glory of God for the shame of idols” (Hosea 4:7 NLT). They were leaving God out of the equation. They had replaced Him with false gods and the peoples sins were actually increasing, not decreasing. And God even accused the priests of wanting the people to sin more, because the more they sinned, the more sacrifices they had to bring to repent of their sins. And the more sacrifices the people made, the more portions of those sacrifices they got to eat as their priestly payment. They were actually getting fat and happy off of the sins of the people. “When the people bring their sin offerings, the priests get fed. So the priests are glad when the people sin!” (Hosea 4:8 NLT).

There was evidently a common saying among the Israelites that said, “And what the priests do, the people also do” (Hosea 4:9a NLT). These so-called spiritual leaders were actually setting the standard for sin. They were leading the people into idolatry, immorality, and sins of all kinds by their very actions. Which led God to declare, So now I will punish both priests and people for their wicked deeds” (Hosea 4:9b NLT).

One of the saddest results of turning from God and seeking false gods is that the blessings you seek never come to fruition. The benefits you hope to derive from your false god never appear. The satisfaction you want remains illusive and unattainable. And God told the people of Israel, “They will eat and still be hungry. They will play the prostitute and gain nothing from it, for they have deserted the Lord to worship other gods” (Hosea 4:10-11a NLT). If you make money your god, you will never have enough of it to make you happy or bring you satisfaction. If you make popularity or beauty your god, there will always be someone more popular and more beautiful than you are. If you place your hope and trust in an individual, they will inevitably let you down. Whatever you end up worshiping in place of God will always let you down. It is incapable of delivering what you seek.

While the Israelites were guilty of worship golden calves and idols made of wood, our false gods are more sophisticated and subtle. Ours take the form of people, careers, material things, money, politicians, success, entertainment, and even self. And sadly, in our culture, there are those claiming to speak for God who encourage the worship of these false gods. They claim to speak for God, but actually direct people away from Him by encouraging actions and attitudes that are opposed to His will. These false preachers and pastors promote happiness over holiness. They downplay the topic of sin and portray God as some kind of self-help guru who exists to meet all your personal desires. They preach inclusion and tolerance at the expense of God’s holiness and man’s need of repentance and salvation from sin. They teach the love of God as some kind of syrupy, sweet, all-accepting idea where God never opposes sin and never condemns the sinner. In essence, they emasculate God, turning Him into a doddering grandfather in the sky who doles out blessings on any and all, free from judgment and mindless of the idea of accountability. But this is not the God of the Bible. And like the false priests and prophets of Israel, the pastors, teachers, evangelists and prophets of today who lead people away from the one true God, will be held responsible by God for their actions.

Day 129 – Matthew 26:57, 59-68; Mark 14:53, 55-65; Luke 22:54, 63-65; John 18:24

Guilty As Charged.

Matthew 26:57, 59-68; Mark 14:53, 55-65; Luke 22:54, 63-65; John 18:24

Jesus replied, “I Am. And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven.” – Mark 14:62 NLT

When Jesus was finally brought before Caiaphas, the high priest, He found Himself in a room crowded with leading priests, elders and teachers of religious law. Even the high council or Sanhedrin was there. They had pulled out all the big guns for this final showdown with Jesus. There is little doubt that they intended this evening to result in the elimination of Jesus as a threat to their authority and way of life. He had been a thorn in their side for far too long, and now they were going to deal with Him. The only problem was that they needed solid accusations for which to bring this matter before the Roman authorities. They were wanting to have Jesus put to death and they did not have the authority to do so. They were going to have to convince the Roman authorities that Jesus had committed a crime worthy of death. So all these well-educated religious leaders were attempting to find any evidence that they could use against Jesus. But even when they couldn’t find any charges worthy of death, they didn’t let that stop them. They had arranged for a variety of individuals to come and give witness against Jesus, but they all ended up contradicting one another. These people were more than willing to accuse Jesus, probably for the hope of financial gain. Finally, some men stood up and claimed that they heard Jesus say that He was going to destroy the Temple. “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this Temple made with human hands, and in three days I will build another, made without human hands’” (Mark 14:58 NLT). These men were actually twisting what Jesus had actually said. What Jesus had actually said was, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up (John 2:19 NLT). Jesus had made this statement early in His ministry. It took place immediately after He had cleansed the Temple for the first time. The Jewish leaders had confronted Him, asking Him what He thought He was doing and who gave Him the authority to do it. Then they asked Him to give them a miraculous sign to prove His authority. That’s when Jesus made His statement regarding the destruction and raising of the “temple.” They obviously didn’t understand that He was talking about His own death and resurrection. They saw Jesus’ statement as ridiculous, exclaiming, “What! It has taken forty-six years to build this Temple, and you can rebuilt it in three days?” (John 2:20 NLT).

So in the minds of those accusing Jesus, His statement came across as the words of an insurrectionist. He had claimed He was going to destroy the Temple – Herod’s Temple. Now they were getting somewhere. This was just the kind of evidence they needed to bring before the Romans. The last thing the Roman authorities would want is someone threatening the peace and security of Jerusalem. But to the obvious disappointment of the religious leaders, even the men who accused Jesus couldn’t get their stories straight. So in frustration, the high priest asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” (Mark 14:60 NLT). But Jesus said nothing. The charges were false and He remained silent. Then the high priest asked Him point blank, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” (Mark 14:61 NLT). This was the real issue. When all was said and done, this was the main point of contention between Jesus and the religious leaders. He had claimed to be the Messiah. That was the reason the people followed Him. It was for that reason the people welcomed Him with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna!” when He had arrived in Jerusalem the previous Sunday. He had set Himself up as having been sent by God. Not only that, He had claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus responded to Caiaphas’ question by saying, “I Am. And you will see the Son of Man seated in the place of power at God’s right hand and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mark 14:62 NLT). His statement brought an immediate reaction from the crowd because they knew exactly what He was saying. He was claiming to be God. His use of the phrase, “I Am” was intentional. It was the very same way God referred to Himself when He spoke to Moses at the burning bush. Moses had asked God what name He should give when the people ask who it was who sent him. God said to tell them, “I Am who I Am” had sent him. Jesus was clearly associating Himself with God. He was using the same language that God had used in order to refer to Himself. On top of that, Jesus claimed that He was going to be sitting at God’s right hand, a place of honor and power, and that He would be returning some day. That was all they needed. Caiaphas tore his clothes in shock. They no longer needed any witnesses. Jesus had committed the unpardonable sin: blasphemy. He had claimed to be God. In reality, it was Jesus’ words that were the problem. Blasphemy was based on injurious or disrespectful words or speech. In their minds, by saying what He said, Jesus had diminished the holiness of God. He had treated God with disrespect and dishonored His “otherness” or set-apartness. By claiming to be God, Jesus had become an offense to God – at least in their minds.

Their immediate response was violent. They began to spit on Him. They blindfolded him and beat Him with their fists. They mocked Him, telling Him to use His “divine” powers to tell them who it was who was hitting Him. The one piece of evidence they needed, Jesus gave them. And all He did was speak the truth. He acknowledged who He was. To do anything other than that would have truly been blasphemy. If Jesus had denied His deity, He would have been an offense to God. So He spoke the truth, and it set in motion everything that was about to happen. Jesus was guilty as charged. Not of blasphemy, but of being the Son of God and the Savior of the world. His crime was being God. And His punishment would be death. But it was for just that purpose He had come. God had come to die on behalf of sinful men. He had come to sacrifice His own life for the lives of all those who deserved death. It was because Jesus was spotless, sinless, and blameless that He was condemned to die. His worthiness was what led to His demise. He was guilty of being God, and nothing else. And it is for that reason that He made a perfect sacrifice. He was guilty as charged and we are innocent because of it.

Father, Your sinless Son was put to death because He was holy, righteous, and fully God. He was killed because He was who He said He was. He died because He was the only one who was undeserving of death. He was innocent, and we were guilty, but He is the one who died. All so that we might have life. What an amazing turn of events. What an incredible plan.  Amen.

Ken Miller
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men
kenm@christchapelbc.org