You Won’t, But I Will

11 “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.

17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?

20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the Lord; I have spoken. Ezekiel 34:11-24 ESV

God has leveled His indictment against the leaders of Judah. From the priests and prophets to the king and his court, they all stand before God guilty of malfeasance. Not only have they neglected their God-ordained duties, but they have used their roles for personal profit and self-advancement. Personally responsible for the physical and spiritual well-being of God’s flock, these men had left the people of Judah in a weakened and vulnerable state. God describes them as scattered and defenseless. And, repeatedly, God accuses His undershepherds of failing to do anything about it.

“…my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them. – Ezekiel 34:5-6 NLT

“…you abandoned my flock and left them to be attacked by every wild animal. And though you were my shepherds, you didn’t search for my sheep when they were lost.” – Ezekiel 34:8 NLT

These men were guilty of abandonment and neglect. They were so self-absorbed with their own well-being that they failed to provide for the ones under their care. And because of their poor job performance, God declares the prophets, priests, and king to be His enemies.

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.” – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT

And God emphatically declares His intentions to step in and rectify the problem these men have created.

I will rescue my flock from their mouths; the sheep will no longer be their prey.” – Ezekiel 34:10 NLT

Four times in verse 10, God states, “I will.” He will not stand back and watch this travesty of leadership any longer. He will get involved intimately and personally. He offers His personal promise to do what the shepherds should have been doing all along.

In the next 14 verses of Ezekiel 34, God continues to use that same phrase, stating 21 more times that He is about to engage His divine powers on behalf of his neglected and disenfranchised sheep.

His use of the sheep metaphor is quite telling. Sheep are not the brightest of animals. They have a herd mentality and rarely think for themselves. They tend to wander, are virtually defenseless, susceptible to disease, easily frightened, injury-prone, and without proper care, can become filthy, matted, and insect-infested. That’s why they need a shepherd.

Throughout the Old Testament, God refers to His people as sheep and their leaders as shepherds. God appoints leaders to shepherd His flock. He expects them to care for and protect His people. But instead, they tended to fend for themselves and take advantage of the people, leading them into sin and causing them to stumble spiritually. Their lousy leadership was devastating to the nation, and it is chronicled in sordid detail in the history of Israel’s kings. Far too many of them proved to be godless men who led the people astray and caused them to seek sustenance and safety from false gods.

Even the spiritual leaders proved to be more harmful than helpful to the well-being of the people. And God was going to hold them all accountable. Ezekiel 34 is God’s indictment against the shepherds of Israel who had failed to do their jobs. He tells them, “You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty” (Ezekiel 34:4 NLT).

They had failed to do their job. They had left the sheep defenseless and helpless. So, God said He would step in and do what the shepherds had failed to do. Over and over again He says, “I will…” He will search, rescue, feed, care for, tend, bandage, judge, and set over them a true shepherd who will care for them properly.

At the point Ezekiel penned these words from God, the northern kingdom of Israel had been non-existent for hundreds of years. It had fallen to the Assyrians centuries earlier. And, just recently, the southern kingdom of Judah had fallen to the Babylonians. Nebuchadnezzar and his forces had ended their long siege of Jerusalem by breaking through the walls and completely destroying the capital city of Judah. The temple was demolished, the city looted, and the people were taken back to Babylon as captives. Those who didn’t end up as slaves fled for their lives. That is why God describes them as scattered and wandering “through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth” (Ezekiel 34:8 NLT).

But repeatedly declares that He is ready, willing, and able to do something about their plight. In the final verse of this chapter, God emphatically states His relationship with His sheep.

“You are my flock, the sheep of my pasture. You are my people, and I am your God.” – Ezekiel 43:31 NLT

The psalmists understood this unique relationship between God and His people.

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock. – Psalm 80:1 NLT

Acknowledge that the Lord is God!
    He made us, and we are his.
    We are his people, the sheep of his pasture. – Psalm 100:3 NLT

And as their shepherd, God promises to do what all good shepherds do: Care for His flock. They had been scattered to the four winds, but He would search for them until He found them. Then He would oversee their return to the land of promise where they will enjoy peace and prosperity once again.

Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills. I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Lord. – Ezekiel 34:14-15 NLT

God is promising a future day when His scattered, skittish, and scarred sheep will find themselves living in the rich pasturelands of Canaan again. It is an image of complete restoration, both physically and spiritually. They will once again be the sheep of His pasture.

The prophet, Micah, echoes this powerful promise from God.

“Someday, O Israel, I will gather you;
    I will gather the remnant who are left.
I will bring you together again like sheep in a pen,
    like a flock in its pasture.
Yes, your land will again
    be filled with noisy crowds! – Micah 2:12 NLT

And Micah takes this powerful prophecy one step further when he writes:

“In that coming day,” says the Lord,
“I will gather together those who are lame,
    those who have been exiles,
    and those whom I have filled with grief.
Those who are weak will survive as a remnant;
    those who were exiles will become a strong nation.
Then I, the Lord, will rule from Jerusalem
    as their king forever.”
As for you, Jerusalem,
    the citadel of God’s people,
your royal might and power
    will come back to you again.
The kingship will be restored
    to my precious Jerusalem. – Micah 4:6-8 NLT

But in the midst of all this good news, God delivered a bit of bad news.

I will judge between one animal of the flock and another, separating the sheep from the goats.” – Ezekiel 34:17 NLT

It’s hard not to see the foreboding nature of this statement. The warning of separation is meant to convey judgment. Jesus Himself used this same imagery when speaking of the final judgment in His Olivette discourse.

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. – Matthew 25:31-33 NLT

But in Ezekiel 34, the separation seems to be a statement of judgment against the underperforming shepherds of Israel. He accuses them of having kept the best pastures for themselves. In their zeal for self-promotion and personal gain, they had taken advantage of the people, leaving them in a neglected and weakened state. So, God warns them “I will surely judge between the fat sheep and the scrawny sheep. For you fat sheep pushed and butted and crowded my sick and hungry flock until you scattered them to distant lands” (Ezekiel 34:20-21 NLT).

Then with the sheep restored and the shepherds judged, God promises to give them a new shepherd, a man cut from the same cloth as King David.

“I will set over them one shepherd, my servant David. He will feed them and be a shepherd to them. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David will be a prince among my people. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Ezekiel 34:23-24 NLT

In the midst of all the turmoil surrounding Judah’s fall, God promises that a day is coming when the people of Israel will be restored and enjoy the protection of a king who, like David, will shepherd them just as David did.

He chose David his servant
    and took him from the sheepfolds;
from following the nursing ewes he brought him
    to shepherd Jacob his people,
    Israel his inheritance.
With upright heart he shepherded them
    and guided them with his skillful hand. – Psalm 78:70-72 ESV

God will make it happen.

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.

Scattered Sheep and Shoddy Shepherds

1 The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy, and say to them, even to the shepherds, Thus says the Lord God: Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.

“Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: As I live, declares the Lord God, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: 10 Thus says the Lord God, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them. Ezekiel 34:1-10 ESV

While every Israelite was personally responsible for their own sin, God placed blame on the nation’s leadership and held them culpable for the sorry spiritual state of the His chosen people. The civic and religious leaders of Judah had played an undeniable role in the nation’s demise. According to God, these powerful and influential men were guilty of using their positions of authority to mislead and abuse those under their care. Rather than serving as loving shepherds for God’s flock, they had used their God-given authority for personal gain.

Yahweh, the Good Shepherd, accused these men of fleecing His flock. When they should have been protecting God’s people, they had chosen to use their roles for personal profit and self-promotion. And God warns them that He will hold them responsible for their abuse of power.

What sorrow awaits you shepherds who feed yourselves instead of your flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed their sheep? – Ezekiel 34:2 NLT

God is unsparing in His assessment of their crimes. Using the shepherding metaphor to full advantage, God accuses them of neglect, abuse, cruelty, and dereliction of duty.

“You drink the milk, wear the wool, and butcher the best animals, but you let your flocks starve. You have not taken care of the weak. You have not tended the sick or bound up the injured. You have not gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with harshness and cruelty.” – Ezekiel 34:4 NLT

But who are these shiftless shepherds? Throughout the Old Testament, the term “shepherd” is used to refer to kings, governors, priests, and even prophets. Since God is addressing His chosen people, His reference to shepherds would include the king and his royal court, as well as all the civic and religious leaders of Israel. Anyone in a position of authority would have been included in God’s indictment.

Earlier in his book, Ezekiel recorded God’s displeasure with the self-proclaimed prophets of Judah who were purporting to speak for God but were actually propagating false messages that contradicted the words of Ezekiel.

“…these prophets of yours are like jackals digging in the ruins. They have done nothing to repair the breaks in the walls around the nation. They have not helped it to stand firm in battle on the day of the Lord. Instead, they have told lies and made false predictions.” – Ezekiel 13:4-6 NLT

The people viewed these men as spiritual leaders and took their words as having come from God. But their messages were nothing but lies, intended to deceive and designed to provide false hope. They were nothing more than snake-oil salesmen promoting a self-concocted product offering beguiling but completely bogus benefits.

But the prophets weren’t the only ones whom God held responsible. The priests also played a role in the nation’s spiritual freefall. The very ones who should have been promoting obedience and modeling faithfulness were guilty of gross misconduct and failure to fulfill their God-given role. The prophet Hosea recorded God’s stinging rebuke of the priestly order and His intention to punish them for their catastrophic abuse of power.

“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.
Since you have forgotten the laws of your God,
    I will forget to bless your children.
The more priests there are,
    the more they sin against me.
They have exchanged the glory of God
    for the shame of idols.

“When the people bring their sin offerings, the priests get fed.
    So the priests are glad when the people sin!
‘And what the priests do, the people also do.’
    So now I will punish both priests and people
    for their wicked deeds.” – Hosea 4:6-9 NLT

The prophet Malachi provides God’s clear explanation of the priestly role and His blunt assessment of those responsible for carrying it out.

“The words of a priest’s lips should preserve knowledge of God, and people should go to him for instruction, for the priest is the messenger of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies. But you priests have left God’s paths. Your instructions have caused many to stumble into sin. You have corrupted the covenant I made with the Levites…” – Malachi 2:7-8 NLT

As the spiritual leaders of His people, God held the priests and prophets responsible for the well-being of the flock. They were the teachers and truth-tellers, the guides responsible for leading and feeding the sheep of God’s flock. But they had dropped the ball. Rather than model righteousness and promote holiness, they had led the way in wickedness and unfaithfulness. When God had made His covenant with the tribe of Levi, setting them apart for their role as the priestly order, He declared, “they did not lie or cheat; they walked with me, living good and righteous lives, and they turned many from lives of sin” (Malachi 2:6 NLT). But all that had changed. Over time, the priests had become corrupt and used their God-ordained roles to promote sin rather than sanctification, and God would hold them accountable.

But there’s one more group of shepherds whom God must expose and excoriate. At the top of the leadership pyramid sat the king and all his royal counselors. As the designated head of state, the king was ultimately responsible for the well-being of the nation. His position as supreme ruler meant that the buck stopped with him. His role as God’s vice-regent provided him with great authority but it came with significant responsibility. The king was to serve as the primary example of submission to God. His power and authority had been delegated to him by God and it was to be used to provide protection and promote godliness. Yet, all throughout the history of the kings of Israel and Judah, there appears a recurring theme. The vast majority of the kings “did what was evil in the Lord’s sight” (2 Kings 15:9 NLT). They promoted idolatry, encouraged wickedness, and modeled unfaithfulness.

King David had encouraged Solomon, his son and heir to the throne, to remain faithful to God. His ascension to the kingship would require obedience to God.

“Observe the requirements of the LORD your God, and follow all his ways. Keep the decrees, commands, regulations, and laws written in the Law of Moses so that you will be successful in all you do and wherever you go. If you do this, then the LORD will keep the promise he made to me. He told me, ‘If your descendants live as they should and follow me faithfully with all their heart and soul, one of them will always sit on the throne of Israel.’” – 1 Kings 2:3-4 NLT

Yet, Solomon had proved to be far from faithful. While he started out well, he ended his reign by promoting idolatry and causing the people to sin against God. As a result, God divided his kingdom in half, creating the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. And both kingdoms demonstrated a propensity for unfaithfulness. The sins of the kings resulted in God’s judgment of the people and their scattering among the nations.

“…my sheep have been scattered without a shepherd, and they are easy prey for any wild animal. They have wandered through all the mountains and all the hills, across the face of the earth, yet no one has gone to search for them. – Ezekiel 34:5-6 NLT

God accuses His shepherds of abandonment. Not only had they been the cause of their sin, but they had also done nothing to restore them to God’s fold when they had become scattered. And God declares His intention to hold these men responsible for their actions. And, more than that, He promises to step in and do what they should have done all along.

“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 34:10 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

Polluted Prophets, Priests, and Princes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

Shepherd My Sheep

22 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 23 “Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

24 The Lord bless you and keep you;
25 the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you;
26 the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

27 “So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” Numbers 6:22-27 ESV

At this point, God switches His focus back to Aaron and his sons, whom He had appointed to serve as priests. Aaron was the older brother of Moses (Exodus7:7) and had served at his sibling’s side ever since the days when God commissioned them to deliver the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt. Moses was the God-appointed deliverer but Aaron was to serve as his brother’s mouthpiece.

“Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. – Exodus 4:14-16 ESV

In those days, Moses had been living in the land of Midian, having left Egypt out of fear for his life. In an attempt to protect a Jewish slave from mistreatment by an Egyptian, Moses inadvertently killed the oppressor and was forced to run for his life. It was while he was in Midian that he received God’s call to deliver the people of Israel. And, at the same time, Aaron, who was still living in Egypt, received his own divine commission to come to his brother’s aid.

The Lord said to Aaron, “Go into the wilderness to meet Moses.” So he went and met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. And Moses told Aaron all the words of the Lord with which he had sent him to speak, and all the signs that he had commanded him to do. Then Moses and Aaron went and gathered together all the elders of the people of Israel. Aaron spoke all the words that the Lord had spoken to Moses and did the signs in the sight of the people. And the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped. – Exodus 4:27-31 ESV

Later in the book of Genesis, Moses records the point at which God set apart Aaron and his sons to serve as priests. This was long after the people of Israel had made their miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt.

“Call for your brother, Aaron, and his sons, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar. Set them apart from the rest of the people of Israel so they may minister to me and be my priests. – Exodus 28:1 NLT

These men were given the privilege and responsibility of serving as God’s mediators and ministers. Their role was defined by God and could not be performed by anyone else in the Israelite community. As members of the tribe of Levi, Aaron, Nadab, Abihu, Eleazar, and Ithamar were doubly set apart. They were part of the Levitical cast whom God had chosen to serve in the place of all the firstborn males of Israel, but they were also the clan that would serve as priests within the tabernacle of God. And God ordered Moses to perform an elaborate ceremony that would consecrate them for their new role as His servants.

“Present Aaron and his sons at the entrance of the Tabernacle, and wash them with water. Dress Aaron in his priestly garments—the tunic, the robe worn with the ephod, the ephod itself, and the chestpiece. Then wrap the decorative sash of the ephod around him. Place the turban on his head, and fasten the sacred medallion to the turban. Then anoint him by pouring the anointing oil over his head. Next present his sons, and dress them in their tunics. Wrap the sashes around the waists of Aaron and his sons, and put their special head coverings on them. Then the right to the priesthood will be theirs by law forever. In this way, you will ordain Aaron and his sons.” – Exodus 29:4-9 NLT

God went on to tell Moses that Aaron and his sons would serve as priests for perpetuity. Unlike a Nazirite, whose service to God was voluntary and temporary, the Aaronic priesthood came with a mandatory and lifelong commitment.

“Yes, I will consecrate the Tabernacle and the altar, and I will consecrate Aaron and his sons to serve me as priests. Then I will live among the people of Israel and be their God, and they will know that I am the Lord their God. I am the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt so that I could live among them. I am the Lord their God.” – Exodus 29:44-46 NLT

As priests, their role was essential in maintaining the holiness of God’s people. One of their primary responsibilities was to offer sacrifices to God in the tabernacle, ensuring that the sins of the people were atoned for so that God’s presence would remain within their midst.

“Whereas Nazirites generally undertook their vows for a short period, the priests were always there pronouncing this blessing at the close of the daily morning service in the temple and later in the synagogues.” – Gordon J. Wenham, “Aaron’s Rod (Numbers 17:16-28).” Zeitschrift für die Alttestamentliche Wissenschaft 93:2 (1981):280-81.

After providing the requirements concerning the Nazirite vow of service, God ordered Aaron and his sons to pronounce a blessing on the people of Israel. This three-fold blessing was not intended to be a one-and-done event. In prescribing the exact wording of the blessing, God was giving Aaron and his sons an outline for determining all future blessings. God was revealing His heart for the people of Israel and was delegating to His priests the authority to speak on His behalf.

“Whenever Aaron and his sons bless the people of Israel in my name, I myself will bless them.” – Numbers 6:27 NLT

These men were to love the people under their care in the same way that God did. They were to be servant-shepherds, calling down the blessings of God upon the flock over which He had given them responsibility. They were to view their commission as a gift from God and a high and holy calling.

“But only you and your sons shall attend to your priesthood for everything concerning the altar and what is inside the veil, and you are to perform that service. I am giving you the work of the priesthood as a gift…” – Numbers 18:7 BSB

The apostle Peter shared similar words with the elders who served the congregation to whom he wrote.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. And when the Great Shepherd appears, you will receive a crown of never-ending glory and honor.– 1 Peter 5:2-4 NLT

God gave His priests the authority to “bless” His sheep. They were ordered to pronounce a divinely inspired promise of future blessing upon a people who were preparing to enter the land of Canaan.

“May the Lord bless you
    and protect you.
May the Lord smile on you
    and be gracious to you.
May the Lord show you his favor
    and give you his peace.” – Numbers 6:24-26 NLT

“This blessing, like the preceding Nazirite legislation, deals with the purification of Israel. As the nation prepared to move out toward the Promised Land, God gave this benediction to the priests to offer for the sanctification of the people. God’s will was to bless all His people, not just the Nazirites. The priests were the mediators of this blessing from God to the Israelites.” – Thomas L. Constable, Notes on Numbers

For the people of Israel to enjoy God’s protection, grace, favor, and peace, they would need to remain holy and pure. And that would only happen if the priests carried out their God-ordained assignment to shepherd the people well. By dictating the content of the blessing, God was providing His undershepherds with a glimpse into His heart. The prophet Isaiah painted a vivid picture of Great Shepherd’s gentle and caring demeanor.

He tends His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart. He gently leads the nursing ewes. – Isaiah 40:11 BSB

And Aaron and his sons were to “bless” the people in the same way. Words would not be enough. Saying it would be insufficient. In a way, God was demanding that His priests be the conduits through which His protection, grace, favor, and peace flowed. And if they did their job faithfully and rightly, the presence of God would remain within the camp of Israel, and the people of God would be blessed. But if they failed, the people would suffer.

Years later, long after the people of Israel had conquered and populated the land of Canaan, the priests of Israel would fail to do their jobs and bring down His wrath rather than His blessing. And He would indict them for their dereliction of duty.

“The shepherds of my people have lost their senses. They no longer seek wisdom from the LORD. Therefore, they fail completely, and their flocks are scattered.” – Jeremiah 10:21 NLT

“What sorrow awaits the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for…” – Jeremiah 23:1 NLT

And the prophet Ezekiel provides a stinging rebuke from God against the derelict shepherds of Israel.

“Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them. So they were scattered, because there was no shepherd, and they became food for all the wild beasts. My sheep were scattered; they wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. My sheep were scattered over all the face of the earth, with none to search or seek for them.” – Ezekiel 34:2-6 ESV

Rather than providing protection, grace, favor, or peace, God’s shepherds had fleeced the flock of God. They had abused, used, and abandoned God’s people, bringing down curses rather than blessings. And God held them responsible.

So, when God ordered Aaron and his sons to bless the people, He was expecting far more than just lip service. He was demanding actions in keeping with the words.

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 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