The God of the Land

19 Judah also did not keep the commandments of the Lord their God, but walked in the customs that Israel had introduced. 20 And the Lord rejected all the descendants of Israel and afflicted them and gave them into the hand of plunderers, until he had cast them out of his sight.

21 When he had torn Israel from the house of David, they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king. And Jeroboam drove Israel from following the Lord and made them commit great sin. 22 The people of Israel walked in all the sins that Jeroboam did. They did not depart from them, 23 until the Lord removed Israel out of his sight, as he had spoken by all his servants the prophets. So Israel was exiled from their own land to Assyria until this day.

24 And the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the people of Israel. And they took possession of Samaria and lived in its cities. 25 And at the beginning of their dwelling there, they did not fear the Lord. Therefore the Lord sent lions among them, which killed some of them. 26 So the king of Assyria was told, “The nations that you have carried away and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the law of the god of the land. Therefore he has sent lions among them, and behold, they are killing them, because they do not know the law of the god of the land.” 27 Then the king of Assyria commanded, “Send there one of the priests whom you carried away from there, and let him go and dwell there and teach them the law of the god of the land.” 28 So one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and lived in Bethel and taught them how they should fear the Lord. 2 Kings 17:19-28 ESV

The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BC, and as verse 18 indicates, the defeat of the ten northern tribes left only the southern kingdom of Judah. Yet none of this should have come as a surprise. God had repeatedly sent His prophets to warn of the coming fall of Israel. Even the prophets like Micah, who ministered to the southern kingdom of Judah, were ordered to declare God’s words of judgment against Israel’s capital city of Samaria.

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

And Isaiah, another prophet to the southern kingdom, had also predicted the fall of Samaria.

What sorrow awaits the proud city of Samaria—
    the glorious crown of the drunks of Israel.
It sits at the head of a fertile valley,
    but its glorious beauty will fade like a flower.
It is the pride of a people
    brought down by wine.
For the Lord will send a mighty army against it.
    Like a mighty hailstorm and a torrential rain,
they will burst upon it like a surging flood
    and smash it to the ground.
The proud city of Samaria—
    the glorious crown of the drunks of Israel—
    will be trampled beneath its enemies’ feet. – Isaiah 28:1-3 NLT

But God had also sent His prophets directly to the people of Israel. Despite their apostasy and unfaithfulness, He continued to raise up men like Amos, to deliver His message of pending judgment for their sins.

Announce this to the leaders of Philistia
    and to the great ones of Egypt:
“Take your seats now on the hills around Samaria,
    and witness the chaos and oppression in Israel.”

“My people have forgotten how to do right,”
    says the Lord.
“Their fortresses are filled with wealth
    taken by theft and violence.
Therefore,” says the Sovereign Lord,
    “an enemy is coming!
He will surround them and shatter their defenses.
    Then he will plunder all their fortresses.” – Amos 3:9-11 NLT

Hosea was another prophet to the northern kingdom who had also clearly communicated God’s displeasure and His intention to punish them for their rebellion.

…they have deserted the Lord
    to worship other gods.

“Wine has robbed my people
    of their understanding.
They ask a piece of wood for advice!
    They think a stick can tell them the future!
Longing after idols
    has made them foolish.
They have played the prostitute,
    serving other gods and deserting their God.” – Hosea 10-12 NLT

Decade after decade, the kings of Israel had led the nation down a path of destruction. They had been warned but had refused to listen. And the author of 2 Kings reminds his readers that the Israelites had no one to blame but themselves.

Jeroboam drew Israel away from following the Lord and made them commit a great sin. And the people of Israel persisted in all the evil ways of Jeroboam. They did not turn from these sins until the Lord finally swept them away from his presence, just as all his prophets had warned. – 2 Kings 17:212-23 NLT

The fall of Israel should have been a wake-up call to the people living in Judah. As they witnessed the fall of their northern neighbor, they should have recognized it as the hand of God Almighty. “But even the people of Judah refused to obey the commands of the Lord their God, for they followed the evil practices that Israel had introduced” (2 Kings 17:19 NLT). It was God’s desire that Judah would take notice of Israel’s fall and refuse to follow their example of idolatry and apostasy. The prophet Hosea shared God’s heart when he wrote, “Though you, Israel, are a prostitute, may Judah not be guilty of such things” (Hosea 4:15 NLT).

But the handwriting was on the wall. The fate of Judah was sealed. God knew exactly what was going to happen. The people of Judah would fail to learn from Israel’s mistake.

“The arrogance of Israel testifies against her;
    Israel and Ephraim will stumble under their load of guilt.
    Judah, too, will fall with them.
When they come with their flocks and herds
    to offer sacrifices to the Lord,
they will not find him,
    because he has withdrawn from them.
They have betrayed the honor of the Lord,
    bearing children that are not his.
Now their false religion will devour them
    along with their wealth.” – Hosea 5:5-7 NLT

It would be just a matter of time before Judah experienced a similar fate. While they had enjoyed a limited degree of spiritual success due to the efforts of a few of their kings, they were still guilty of emulating the sins of Israel. A love affair with false gods would continue to plague the nation, leading them to turn their backs on Yahweh. Though they continued to offer their sacrifices at the temple, the day was coming when God would no longer tolerate their hypocritical displays of faithfulness. That is why Hosea wrote, “When they come with their flocks and herds to offer sacrifices to the Lord, they will not find him” (Hosea 5:6 NLT).

It was the prophet Isaiah who declared God’s displeasure and disgust with Judah because their worship of Him was and meaningless. They were just going through the motions.

“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

The people of Judah had ring-side seats to the divine destruction of Israel. After witnessing the fall of their northern neighbor, they must have realized that the king of Assyria would not limit his conquest to the capture of Samaria. He would continue south and they would likely be his next victim.

After having conquered Israel, the Assyrians took many of its citizens as captives. Then they began a repopulation campaign, importing people from other conquered territories like Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim. These non-Jews were forcibly relocated into the towns of Samaria, filling the vacancies left by the exiled Israelites. The Assyrians expected these migrant workers to tend the land in order to maintain its production capacities. But God had other plans.

Because these foreigners knew nothing about Yahweh, they continued to worship their own gods. But they were now living on land that belonged to the God of Israel. Just because the people of Israel were gone did not mean that God had vacated the premises. It had been His land all along, and the Israelites had been nothing more than His stewards. In their absence, God was going to protect the integrity of His name and the sacredness of the land He had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was holy land because He had consecrated it and set it apart. And God was not about to let it revert to its former state. When God had given the land to Joshua and the people of Israel, He had tasked them with the removal of all the pagan nations that currently occupied its borders. And He was not about to let the land revert to its former state of pagan idolatry. So, when the new arrivals began to worship their false gods, Yahweh sent lions to attack them. The news of this divinely ordained act of judgment reached the king of Assyria.

“The people you have sent to live in the towns of Samaria do not know the religious customs of the God of the land. He has sent lions among them to destroy them because they have not worshiped him correctly.” – 2 Kings 17:26 NLT

Amazingly, the pagan Assyrians recognized the hand of God in all of this. They were more attentive to the actions of Yahweh than the people of Israel had ever been. And the king of Assyria took immediate action.

“Send one of the exiled priests back to Samaria. Let him live there and teach the new residents the religious customs of the God of the land.” – 2 Kings 17:27 NLT

It’s interesting to note that this lone priest was sent to Bethel, one of the two cities where King Jeroboam had placed his golden idols (1 Kings 12:25-30). Perhaps the king of Assyria knew that this town had become a key focal point of pagan worship. It would have made sense for these idol-worshipers to seek out those places within Israel where they could offer sacrifices to their false gods. And because Jeroboam had erected shrines in Bethel and Dan, these would have been attractive destinations for these newly arrived occupants who were looking for something that would remind them of home. So, the priest was sent to Bethel which, in Hebrew, means “house of God.”

This priest was tasked with instructing the new residents in the proper worship of God. Don’t miss the irony in all of this. The people of Israel, who had been chosen by God, had refused to worship Him. So, He had removed them from the land. The king of Assyria sent foreigners to replace the exiled Israelites and then ordered that they be instructed in the proper worship of Yahweh. This pagan king did what none of the kings of Israel had ever done, and it was all the work of God.

But as will become clear, these new converts to Judaism would prove to be no different than the Israelites. Unwilling to give up their idols, they would simply add Yahweh as another option in their arsenal of deities. And the pattern of syncretism and unfaithfulness would continue. The land had new occupants, but it was the same old story. Their worship of God would be nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. Like the Israelites before them, they would just be going through the motions.

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

Free to Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Faithful Thing

Beloved, it is a faithful thing you do in all your efforts for these brothers, strangers as they are, who testified to your love before the church. You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. For they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. Therefore we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth. – 3 John 1:5-8 ESV

Once again, John refers to Gaius as his “beloved.” He will use this term repeatedly throughout his letter. And while this word carries romantic connotations to a modern reader, the Greek word John used could better be translated as “dear friend.” It was a term of endearment that expressed the closeness and warmth behind their relationship. John had a deep and abiding affection for Gaius. It could be that Gaius was a disciple of John’s, much like Timothy had been to Paul. In his second letter to his young protege, Paul referred to Timothy as “my beloved child” (2 Timothy 1:2 ESV). And he expressed his deep longing to see him again.

I long to see you, that I may be filled with joy. – 2 Timothy 1:4 ESV

The apostles developed strong attachments for the local flocks to whom they ministered and the men they trained to carry on the Gospel message. While we’re not certain of the exact nature of the relationship between John and Gaius, it’s quite evident that they were close.

It seems that Gaius had shown hospitality to some itinerant evangelists who had visited their local fellowship. In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul mentioned evangelists among the “gifts” Jesus had given to the church.

Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. – Ephesians 4:11 NLT

An evangelist, by definition, was “a bringer of good tidings. The Greek word is euaggelistēs and it derives from another Greek word, euaggelizō, which means “to preach the Good News.” Both words stem from the Greek word, aggelos, which means, “angel, messenger, or one who is sent.”

An evangelist was a messenger of the Gospel or the good news concerning Jesus Christ. These individuals expanded the work of the Great Commission by taking the Gospel to places the apostles had not yet been able to reach. And when they had visited the local congregation where Gaius was a member in Asia Minor, he had shown them hospitality. And John compliments him for his generosity and kindness, describing his efforts as a “faithful thing.” The New Living Translation accurately renders John’s meaning by describing the efforts of Gaius as an expression of his faith in God.

…you are being faithful to God when you care for the traveling teachers who pass through, even though they are strangers to you. – 3 John 1:5 NLT

It is likely that John had in mind the parable Jesus told regarding the final judgment. In that story, Jesus describes those who are blessed by the Father and who would inherit the Kingdom. And He provided the reason why:

For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. – Matthew 25:35 NLT

But the recipients of this fantastic news respond with amazement, asking, “Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing?” (Matthew 25:37-38 NLT). And the King in Jesus’ story answers their question by stating, “I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!” (Matthew 25:40 NLT).

Gaius had graciously provided food and shelter to strangers, the divine messengers of the Gospel who had shown up in their community. And these men had testified about Gaius’ kindness before the entire congregation. When John had received news of Gaius’ actions, he had been thrilled. The actions of this selfless servant of God were exactly what the Gospel was all about. The body of Christ was meant to function as a self-contained organism where the needs of all were met. God had equipped His church with all the resources it needed to survive and thrive. And the apostle Paul had reminded Timothy that those whom Jesus had gifted to the church as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers, were to be well taken care of.

Elders who do their work well should be respected and paid well, especially those who work hard at both preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.” And in another place, “Those who work deserve their pay!” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 NLT

These individuals had no source of income. They were totally dependent upon the generosity of the local churches to care for their needs. And Gaius had been one of the first to step up and welcome these men with open arms and a heart of generosity. But John encouraged Gaius to extend his generosity by equipping the evangelists for the next phase of their ministry.

You will do well to send them on their journey in a manner worthy of God. – 3 John 1:6 ESV

These men were divine messengers and they needed to be treated in a manner that reflected the honor and respect due to God. He had sent them and He expected His people to provide for them. And John emphasizes that “they have gone out for the sake of the name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles” (3 John 1:7 ESV). These men were ministering on behalf of Jesus. It was in His name and according to His commission that they made their way from town to town, bearing the Good News to those who had yet to hear it. And John emphasizes that the only financial support these men could expect to receive was from the church and not from Gentile unbelievers.

The church was to care for its own and Gaius had illustrated that truth in a way that had gained John’s attention and admiration. He was proud of his “dear friend.” And he encouraged Gaius to keep up the good work, reminding him, “we ought to support people like these, that we may be fellow workers for the truth” (3 John 1:8 ESV).

Some can go. Others can give. God calls certain individuals to serve as pastors, teachers, evangelists, and missionaries, and that calling requires them to dedicate themselves to the full-time use of their gifts and resources for His service. The apostle Paul spent his entire adult life answering the call given to him by Jesus on the road to Damascus. And he was grateful for the support provided to him by local congregations of believers, like those in Philippi.

Every time I think of you, I give thanks to my God. Whenever I pray, I make my requests for all of you with joy, for you have been my partners in spreading the Good News about Christ from the time you first heard it until now. – Philippians 1:3-5 NLT

But not every congregation followed the example of Gaius and the Philippians. Paul had to admonish the church in Corinth, reprimanding them for their lack of support for his ministry.

Don’t you realize that those who work in the temple get their meals from the offerings brought to the temple? And those who serve at the altar get a share of the sacrificial offerings. In the same way, the Lord ordered that those who preach the Good News should be supported by those who benefit from it. – 1 Corinthians 9:13-14 NLT

And Paul made his point perfectly and painfully clear.

What soldier has to pay his own expenses? What farmer plants a vineyard and doesn’t have the right to eat some of its fruit? What shepherd cares for a flock of sheep and isn’t allowed to drink some of the milk? Am I expressing merely a human opinion, or does the law say the same thing? For the law of Moses says, “You must not muzzle an ox to keep it from eating as it treads out the grain.”[ Was God thinking only about oxen when he said this? Wasn’t he actually speaking to us? Yes, it was written for us, so that the one who plows and the one who threshes the grain might both expect a share of the harvest. – 1 Corinthians 9:7-10 NLT

God had sent these workers into the harvest. Now, He expected them to be compensated for their work. Their sacrifice was worthy of remuneration. Their efforts to spread the Gospel and to build up the body of Christ deserved the generous support of those who had benefited from their work. Those who had been blessed were to be a blessing to others. And Gaius provides a tangible expression of faithfulness to God by exhibiting gratefulness to the servants of God.

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

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

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

What Did You Expect?

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds concerning John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to see? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? A man dressed in soft clothing? Behold, those who wear soft clothing are in kings’ houses. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10 This is he of whom it is written,

“‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face,
    who will prepare your way before you.’

11 Truly, I say to you, among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist. Yet the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he. 12 From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force. 13 For all the Prophets and the Law prophesied until John, 14 and if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come. 15 He who has ears to hear, let him hear. – Matthew 11:7-15 ESV

As the disciples of John the Baptist walked away with their message from Jesus to deliver to their imprisoned teacher, Jesus used the opportunity to address the perceptions and expectations of the crowd. He realized that many of those who had chosen to follow Him had discovered Him through the ministry of John the Baptist. Earlier in his gospel account, Matthew recorded the launch of John’s ministry in the wilderness of Judea.

In those days John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said,

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
    make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then Jerusalem and all Judea and all the region about the Jordan were going out to him, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. – Matthew 3:1-6 ESV

And Jesus asked the crowd what had prompted them to make their way to the wilderness in the first place. Was it to see the natural sights? This is most likely what Jesus meant by “A reed shaken by the wind?” (Matthew 11:7 ESV). Some interpret this to mean that Jesus was describing John as strong and unaffected by the political and religious winds of his day. But it seems more likely that Jesus was focusing on the motivation behind the peoples’ actions rather than John’s character. These two opening examples are meant to be silly or extreme. They are rhetorical questions. Who in their right mind would have made the trip to the Judean wilderness simply to see a reed blowing in the wind? Reeds were a common, everyday sight, and certainly, no reason to attract large crowds of people to the middle of nowhere.

Next, Jesus asked if they went to the wilderness looking for a man dressed in fine clothes. The answer is obvious: No. To do so would be silly and unheard of. No wealthy, well-dressed man would be found wandering around in the wilderness.

The bottom line was that the people had made their way to the wilderness to see a prophet, and that is what they found. They had heard the rumors about John and were not disappointed when they saw him face to face. He proved to be everything they were expecting: He was a man dressed in an outfit made of course camel’s hair and a leather belt, subsisting on a diet of locusts and wild honey. And he was preaching a message of repentance, just as every other God-fearing prophet had done. They had gone into the wilderness expecting to see a prophet, and they had found one. But Jesus informed them that they found much more than they imagined.

John the Baptist wasn’t just any prophet, he was the God-appointed herald of the Messiah’s arrival. He had been sent by God to fulfill the prophecy recorded by Malachi centuries earlier.

Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. – Malachi 3:1 ESV

John had been given the unique privilege and responsibility of announcing the arrival of the long-awaited Messiah. Unlike his predecessors, John’s message had been dealing with immediate and imminent events, not those to take place in the distant future. John not only predicted the coming of the Messiah, but he had also been given the privilege of seeing Him with his own eyes. And when John had laid eyes on Jesus, he had responded, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

John wasn’t just a prophet, he was the personal herald or messenger of the Messiah Himself. Not only that, he was the preparer of the way. This aspect of John’s ministry is vital but often overlooked and misunderstood. In the Malachi passage, the Hebrew word that is translated as “prepare” is panah. It actually means “to turn” or “to turn oneself.” And this makes perfect sense when you recognize that the message John was given to proclaim involved repentance or the changing of one’s mind. John had regularly preached a message of repentance, saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And that message was a call for the people to turn to the truth. They were going to need to change their minds about all that they thought about God, the kingdom, righteousness, holiness, and the Messiah. And John had been one of the first “to turn” to Jesus was the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophets had predicted.

And Jesus graciously conveys on John a high honor, declaring “among those born of women there has arisen no one greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). That’s high praise indeed, coming from the lips of the Messiah Himself. According to Jesus, John the Baptist was greater than Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and even King David. But John’s greatness was not based on his own character. It was due to the one-of-a-kind role he was called to play.

Like an obscure actor, given the opportunity to play the part of a lifetime, John found himself undeservedly privileged to perform the most important role in all of human history: That of the forerunner to the Savior of the world.

And yet, Jesus then stated that, in spite of His glowing words concerning John, “the one who is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he” (Matthew 11:11 ESV). In a sense, Jesus is linking John with all the Old Testament prophets who were sent by God to tell of things to come. But now, with the arrival of Jesus, the fulfillment of all the words of the prophets, including John, had taken place. Remember what Jesus stated earlier:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” – Matthew 5:17 ESV

And part of His fulfillment would be the introduction of a new covenant. Jesus was ushering in a new way for men to be restored to a right relationship with God. No longer would men have to try and keep the law. It was not that the law had become null and void, it was that Jesus had come to fulfill the law on behalf of men. He would do what no other man had ever done, keep the holy law of God perfectly and completely. And it would be His perfect obedience to the law that would make Him the perfect, unblemished sacrifice needed to pay for the sins of mankind.

And all those who placed their faith in the sacrificial death of Jesus would become members of the Kingdom of God, regardless of whether they were Jews or Gentiles, rich or poor, slave or free, male or female. And Jesus announces that even “the least” in His new kingdom will be considered greater than John. In a sense, Jesus is saying that even the lowliest peasant who places his faith in Jesus will be more significant than John, Moses, Abraham, David, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, or any other Old Testament saint. Why? Because that individual’s greatness will be based on the righteousness of Christ.

The next part of this passage is a bit difficult to understand, and there are many views as to what Jesus was trying to say. It is important to keep these words within the overall context of Jesus’ message. He has been discussing the greatness of John and his unique role as the herald or messenger of the King and His Kingdom. All the other prophets had spoken of things to come, but John had brought the prophetic into the present. The Kingdom was at hand because the Messiah had finally come.

But Jesus infers that from the moment John had begun to pronounce his message of the Kingdom’s imminence, there had been those who were trying to “take it by force” (Matthew 11:12 ESV). This seems to be a reference to those who wanted to manipulate the arrival of Jesus for their own selfish gain. If He was the long-awaited Messiah, they wanted to make sure that He set up His Kingdom as soon as possible and rid Israel of every single Roman. Even Jesus’ closest disciples had aspirations concerning His coming Kingdom. They wanted to rule and reign beside Him when He set up His throne in Jerusalem.

Mark records that, at one point, James and John came to Jesus requesting a favor of Him.

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

In a sense, they were attempting to force Jesus into establishing His Kingdom according to their own terms and for their own benefit. Jesus was pointing out that ever since John began preaching in the wilderness about the Kingdom of God being at hand, the people had begun to grow increasingly more excited about what that might mean for them. But their views were skewed by centuries of anticipation and faulty interpretation of the words of the prophets. They were attempting to understand the new through the lens of the old.

But Jesus uses the old to help them understand that their perceptions were misguided. The arrival of the Messiah would not bring a revival of the Davidic kingdom – at least not initially. Jesus had come to restore hearts and revive the spiritual stupor of the people of God. And He referenced yet another prophecy from the Old Testament prophet, Malachi, to prove His point.

“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.” – Malachi 4:5-6 ESV

Jesus had come to bring heart-change, not a regime change. He had come to bring a spiritual revival among the people, not a restoration of the Davidic kingdom. But the people were going to have to put aside their false perceptions and selfish expectations and hear what He was saying. And if they would, they would discover that the Kingdom He came to bring was far greater than anything they could have imagined.

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 Prophet Like Me

15 “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen— 16 just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ 17 And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. 18 I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. 19 And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him. 20 But the prophet who presumes to speak a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die.’ 21 And if you say in your heart, ‘How may we know the word that the Lord has not spoken?’— 22 when a prophet speaks in the name of the Lord, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the Lord has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously. You need not be afraid of him. – Deuteronomy 18:15-22 ESV

The preceding verses contain a God-ordained ban on “anyone who practices divination, an omen reader, a soothsayer, a sorcerer,  one who casts spells, one who conjures up spirits, a practitioner of the occult, or a necromancer” (Deuteronomy 18:10-11 NLT). There is a special significance to these particular pagan practices because they were often used as a means of discerning the future or of obtaining divine guidance.

According to the NET Bible Study Notes, divination was “a means employed to determine the future or the outcome of events by observation of various omens and signs.” An omen reader was, in essence, a fortune-teller who supposedly possessed the power to predict the future based on the reading of signs. A soothsayer was someone who had the power to divine the future. The pagans believed that anyone who possessed the ability to cast spells could control the future. They also placed high stock in those who claimed to be able to communicate with the spirit world because these people could gain insights that were inaccessible to others. The term, “practitioner of the occult” is actually one word in Hebrew and it refers to a wizard or what we might refer to as a false prophet. The word actually means “knower” and is a reference to their knowledge or insight into the unknown. Finally, a necromancer was someone who had the ability to communicate with the dead.

All of these practices were closely associated with the pursuit of supernatural guidance or assistance. Which is why Moses bans their practice among the Israelites. The people of God were to have one source of divine input, and that was to be God Almighty, and God had chosen to communicate His will through Moses. With Moses having been banned by God from entering the land of Canaan, there was a greater-than-normal risk that the people of Israel would be tempted to use pagan practices to gain divine insight. So, speaking through Moses, God assured His people that He would continue to speak to them through men whom He would appoint.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you—from your fellow Israelites; you must listen to him.” – Deuteronomy 18:15 NLT

God would not leave them without a means of receiving His guidance and direction. And Moses reminded them that this promise of a God-appointed prophet was in keeping with the request they had made at Mount Sinai.

All the people were seeing the thundering and the lightning, and heard the sound of the horn, and saw the mountain smoking—and when the people saw it they trembled with fear and kept their distance. They said to Moses, “You speak to us and we will listen, but do not let God speak with us, lest we die.” – Exodus 20:18-19 NLT

The powerful manifestations of God’s glory had left the Israelites paralyzed by fear. So, they had demanded that Moses act as God’s mouthpiece, communicating His divine will and protecting them from God’s holiness. And God had given His divine approval of this plan, assuring Moses, “What they have said is good. I will raise up a prophet like you for them from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth and he will speak to them whatever I command” (Deuteronomy 18:17-18 NLT).

The prophet of God was required to speak on behalf of God and was not allowed to communicate anything other than the word of God. In a sense, a prophet was like a preacher, disseminating divine wisdom to the people of God. He was expected to be a truth-teller, speaking only what He had received directly from God Himself. And since the prophet was God’s primary means of communication, the people were obligated to listen to and obey all that the prophet said. And Moses warned that God would hold the people personally responsible for refusing to heed the words of His prophets.

This dire warning would become particularly pertinent centuries later, when God sent His prophets to warn of coming judgment if they did not repent. God would even warn His prophet, Jeremiah, that his words would fall on deaf ears.

“Tell them all this, but do not expect them to listen. Shout out your warnings, but do not expect them to respond.” – Jeremiah 7:27 NLT

God would promise to give Jeremiah the words to speak, but also the strength to withstand the anger of the people when they chose to reject what he had to say.

“But you, Jeremiah, get yourself ready! Go and tell these people everything I instruct you to say. Do not be terrified of them, or I will give you good reason to be terrified of them. I, the Lord, hereby promise to make you as strong as a fortified city, an iron pillar, and a bronze wall. You will be able to stand up against all who live in the land, including the kings of Judah, its officials, its priests and all the people of the land. They will attack you but they will not be able to overcome you, for I will be with you to rescue you.” – Jeremiah 1:17-19 NLT

The role of the prophet was a divinely-appointed one, and while anyone could claim to be speaking on behalf of God, there were serious repercussions for those who did so and proved to be lying. They were to be put to death. And the litmus test for determining the veracity of someone’s claim to be a prophet was whether what they prophesied actually happened.

“…whenever a prophet speaks in my name and the prediction is not fulfilled, then I have not spoken it; the prophet has presumed to speak it, so you need not fear him.” – Deuteronomy 18:22 NLT

So, Moses assured the people that they would have no reason to seek the pagan forms of divination as a means of knowing the future. God would continue to speak to them through prophets whom He would appoint. Their only obligation was to listen to what the prophets had to say.

And, there is a final aspect of this passage that must not be overlooked. Two separate times Moses states, “The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you” (Deuteronomy 18:15 ESV). The tense is in the singular. And while the context of the verses clearly indicates that there would be many prophets who would follow Moses, there is a sense in which these verses predict the coming of a particular prophet, one who would show up in the same way that Moses had. This prophet would be a deliverer, just as Moses had been. He too would be sent by God to rescue the people from captivity, but rather than deliverance from slavery in Egypt, this prophet would provide release from slavery to sin and death.

The author of Hebrews provides a comparison between Moses and this future deliverer/prophet who would be similar to, but greater than Moses.

For he has come to deserve greater glory than Moses, just as the builder of a house deserves greater honor than the house itself! For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God. Now Moses was faithful in all God’s house as a servant, to testify to the things that would be spoken. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. We are of his house, if in fact we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope we take pride in. – Hebrews 3:3-6 NLT

God promises to send “a prophet” who will speak on His behalf.

“I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him. And whoever will not listen to my words that he shall speak in my name, I myself will require it of him.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 ESV

The apostle John would later write of Jesus, the promised prophet of God:

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him. He came to his own people, and even they rejected him. But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God. They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God. – John 1:10-13 NLT

And John would later quote Jesus Himself as He provided clarification for what God had meant when He told the people of Israel that for all those who refused to believe His prophet, He would “require it of him.”

“God sent his Son into the world not to judge the world, but to save the world through him. There is no judgment against anyone who believes in him. But anyone who does not believe in him has already been judged for not believing in God’s one and only Son.” – John 3:17-18 NLT

God would not leave His people without direction. He would continue to guide them and provide for them. But they were obligated to obey the words of His prophets. And the day would come when He would send His final prophet, Jesus Christ, in order to deliver the most important message ever delivered by God through the lips of man.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me.” – John 14:6 NLT

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

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

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




Praise to the Righteous One.

14 They lift up their voices, they sing for joy;
    over the majesty of the Lord they shout from the west.
15 Therefore in the east give glory to the Lord;
    in the coastlands of the sea, give glory to the name of the Lord, the God of Israel.
16 From the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise,
    of glory to the Righteous One.
But I say, “I waste away,
    I waste away. Woe is me!
For the traitors have betrayed,
    with betrayal the traitors have betrayed.”

17 Terror and the pit and the snare
    are upon you, O inhabitant of the earth!
18 He who flees at the sound of the terror
    shall fall into the pit,
and he who climbs out of the pit
    shall be caught in the snare.
For the windows of heaven are opened,
    and the foundations of the earth tremble.
19 The earth is utterly broken,
    the earth is split apart,
    the earth is violently shaken.
20 The earth staggers like a drunken man;
    it sways like a hut;
its transgression lies heavy upon it,
    and it falls, and will not rise again.

21 On that day the Lord will punish
    the host of heaven, in heaven,
    and the kings of the earth, on the earth.
22 They will be gathered together
    as prisoners in a pit;
they will be shut up in a prison,
    and after many days they will be punished.
23 Then the moon will be confounded
    and the sun ashamed,
for the Lord of hosts reigns
    on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and his glory will be before his elders. – Isaiah 24:14-23 ESV

In this second half of God’s oracle concerning the earth, we have an interesting and seemingly misplaced song of praise and joy. In the midst of all the destruction that God will bring in the end times, there will be some who rejoice. The will be a remnant who are spared from God’s judgment. These individuals will praise God for His intervention into the affairs of men, expressing gratitude and great joy over His salvation. “They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; over the majesty of the Lord” (Isaiah 24:14 ESV).

We know from the book of Revelation that there will be many who come to faith in Christ during the last days. Even during the darkest days of the Tribulation, God will redeem 144,000 Jews (Revelation 7) who will become His witnesses to the nations. And their efforts will result in “a great multitude” coming to faith in Christ. The apostle John describes seeing them standing before the throne of heaven.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:9-10 ESV

And John is given a clear explanation as to who these people are.

“These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white.” – Revelation 9:14 NLT

They will be martyred for their faith. But there will be others who God spares, allowing them to remain on the earth all the way through the final days of the Great Tribulation. And they will be alive when Christ returns to earth. That seems to be the scene described in this section of Isaiah 24. From the east to the west and as far away as “the ends of the earth we hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One” (Isaiah 24:16 ESV).

The prophet Micah describes this same end-times event.

In the last days, the mountain of the Lord’s house
    will be the highest of all—
    the most important place on earth.
It will be raised above the other hills,
    and people from all over the world will stream there to worship.
People from many nations will come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
    to the house of Jacob’s God.
There he will teach us his ways,
    and we will walk in his paths.” – Micah 4:1-2 NLT

Both passages picture a scene of universal reverence for God. The day is coming when all who remain on the earth, having been spared the judgment of God, will worship Him alone. But, in the midst of all the rejoicing, Isaiah seems to pull the emergency brake, reminding his readers of the judgment that still must take place before rejoicing can begin.

But my heart is heavy with grief.
Weep for me, for I wither away.
Deceit still prevails,
and treachery is everywhere. – Isaiah 24:16 NLT

From his vantage point in Judah, nothing has changed. The people are not worshiping God. They are not repentant and continue to live in open rebellion against God. And Isaiah warns them: “Terror and traps and snares will be your lot, you people of the earth” (Isaiah 24:17 NLT). He describes the windows of heaven opening up and the earth trembling, the moon being confounded and the sun being ashamed. Then God will punish all those who oppose Him, including the kings of the earth and the fallen heavenly host, whom Paul describes as “evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).

Isaiah is distraught because he knows that judgment is coming. The return of Christ, while a cause to rejoice for many, will be a time of unprecedented destruction for most. The prophet Zechariah provides us with further insight this event that will bring an end to the reign of sin in the world.

Then the Lord will go out to fight against those nations, as he has fought in times past. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem. And the Mount of Olives will split apart, making a wide valley running from east to west. Half the mountain will move toward the north and half toward the south. You will flee through this valley, for it will reach across to Azal. Yes, you will flee as you did from the earthquake in the days of King Uzziah of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all his holy ones with him.

On that day the sources of light will no longer shine, yet there will be continuous day! Only the Lord knows how this could happen. There will be no normal day and night, for at evening time it will still be light.

On that day life-giving waters will flow out from Jerusalem, half toward the Dead Sea and half toward the Mediterranean, flowing continuously in both summer and winter.

And the Lord will be king over all the earth. On that day there will be one Lord—his name alone will be worshiped. – Zechariah 14:3-9 NLT

Notice the similarity between the final statement of Zechariah and that of Isaiah.

…the Lord of hosts reigns
    on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and his glory will be before his elders. – Isaiah 24:23 ESV

Both of these men were prophesying about events they did not fully understand. They were being given a glimpse of the distant future, into a day when God is going to conquer all those who stand in opposition to Him. He will do so by sending His Son, the Messiah, to defeat the kings of the earth and the prince of this world, Satan. And when He is done, Jesus will set up His earthly Kingdom in Jerusalem and sit on the throne of David, all in fulfillment of the covenant promise God made to David centuries earlier.

Isaiah, Zechariah, Micah, Daniel and all the other prophets who spoke of the coming day of the Lord, did not fully understand the nature of what they were prophesying. Even Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, many prophets, and righteous people longed to see what you see, but they didn’t see it. And they longed to hear what you hear, but they didn’t hear it” (Matthew 13:17 NLT). Peter went on to say that the prophets did not fully comprehend the nature of the salvation that God was going to bring through Jesus Christ.

This salvation was something even the prophets wanted to know more about when they prophesied about this gracious salvation prepared for you. –  1 Peter 1:10 NLT

But Peter would go on to validate the words of the prophets. While these men did not have a complete and comprehensive understanding of how the end would come, they were speaking on behalf of God. And Peter, looking back on his experience when Christ was transfigured before he, James and John, he wrote:

Because of that experience, we have even greater confidence in the message proclaimed by the prophets. You must pay close attention to what they wrote, for their words are like a lamp shining in a dark place—until the Day dawns, and Christ the Morning Star shines in your hearts. Above all, you must realize that no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God. – 2 Peter 1:19-21 NLT

He was convinced that Jesus was the Messiah. He was sure, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus was the one the prophets had predicted. And he was fully persuaded that Jesus had come into the world to shine in the hearts of men, providing salvation from sin and a restored relationship with God the Father. But He would also come back one day to restore God’s fallen and sin-damaged creation. And on that day, you will “hear songs of praise, of glory to the Righteous One” (Isaiah 24:16 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

Changed by God.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them.Jonah 3:1-5 ESV

God gave Jonah a second chance. And He appeared to Jonah a second time and gave him a second commission. But it’s interesting to compare the content of those two commissions. In chapter one, we read that God said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). The second time, God said, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you” (Jonah 3:2 ESV). This time, God evidently gave Jonah the exact message He wanted conveyed. We are not told what that message was, but the words that Jonah used are recorded for us: “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). Was that the message God had given Jonah or had he taken liberties with the wording? We don’t know for certain. But it’s interesting to note that the word, “overthrown” is the Hebrew word, haphak and it can mean to overthrow, upturn, turn or transform. It is the same word used in the book of Genesis in the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground. – Genesis 19:24-25 ESV

God transformed those two wicked cities by complete destroying them. He turned them into rubble. And I have a feeling that when Jonah gave his message to the people of Nineveh, that is exactly what he was hoping the outcome would be for them. He probably enjoyed walking through the streets of Nineveh, telling them their city was going to be transformed into a heap of rubble. Calling down God’s judgment and wrath on a city full of sinful pagans came easy to Jonah. But what Jonah didn’t seem to understand was that the overthrow or upturning of Nineveh was going to be dramatically different than that of Sodom and Gomorrah. There was not going to be any sulfur and fire. There would not be any death and destruction. Jonah was in for a surprise.

The text simply tells us, “And the people of Nineveh believed God” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). We’re told that they immediately “called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them” (Jonah 3:5 ESV). What was it they believed? They heard the word of warning from God regarding their eminent destruction and they believed it to be true. Now, it is important to note that the message Jonah preached contained no specifics. He provided them with no details regarding what it was they had done to deserve their overthrow. He pointed out no specific sins or acts of wickedness. And there was no call to repentance or demand from God that they turn from their wicked ways. All Jonah had said was that their overthrow was coming in 40 days.

Compare the message of Jonah with that of the prophet, Jeremiah:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this;
    be shocked, be utterly desolate,
declares the Lord,
for my people have committed two evils:
they have forsaken me,
    the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves,
    broken cisterns that can hold no water. – Jeremiah 2:12-13 ESV

God had been very specific regarding the sins of Israel. We find them outlined in great detail throughout chapters two and three of the book of Jeremiah. But God also had Jeremiah call them to repentance.

“Return, faithless Israel,
declares the Lord.
I will not look on you in anger,
    for I am merciful,
declares the Lord;
I will not be angry forever.
Only acknowledge your guilt,
    that you rebelled against the Lord your God
and scattered your favors among foreigners under every green tree,
    and that you have not obeyed my voice,
declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:12-13 ESV

God offered them a chance to repent of their sins and to return to Him. He would show them mercy and grant them forgiveness. But we see no such offer in the message of Jonah. He simply warned them of their coming destruction. But they believed that what he said was true and they put on sack cloth and ashes – from the greatest of them to the least of them. They had no guarantee that God would spare them if they did so. They had been offered no mercy. They had been given no hope of a reprieve. But they were a religious people. They had their own gods and knew that their only hope was if they could somehow satisfy the deity who was angry with them. And since Jonah was a Hebrew and spoke for the Hebrew God, they did they only thing they knew to do: They mourned and called out to Him. And we will see that this attitude of repentance will permeate the entire society, all the way to the royal palace. Even the king would hear the words of Jonah and believe.

But let’s go back to the book of Jeremiah and God’s indictment against the people of Israel. Here were the people of God, who had rebelled against Him and were being called to repent of their sins and return to Him. And this was not the first time God had sent a prophet to warn them of their coming destruction and call them to repentance. In fact, earlier in the book of Jeremiah, God exposes their track record of stubbornness and gives Jonah his assignment:

“From the day that your fathers came out of the land of Egypt to this day, I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day. Yet they did not listen to me or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers.

“So you shall speak all these words to them, but they will not listen to you. You shall call to them, but they will not answer you. And you shall say to them, ‘This is the nation that did not obey the voice of the Lord their God, and did not accept discipline; truth has perished; it is cut off from their lips.’” – Jeremiah 7:25-28 ESV

What an interesting contrast. Here you have Jonah, the Hebrew prophet, who initially refused to obey God’s command and take His message to the people of Nineveh, finally doing what God had called Him to do. And the people of Nineveh hear his words and believe. They take God at His word and realize that their destruction is eminent. No mercy offered. No hope of reprieve. Yet they mourn and call out to God. Unlike the stiff-necked people of God, they bow their knees to Yahweh and beg for His mercy.

Which takes us back to that Hebrew word, haphak. Remember, it can mean to overthrow, but also to turn or transform. In the book of Exodus, it is the word used to describe the rod of Aaron turning into a snake or the water of the Nile turning into blood. In the book of Deuteronomy, it is used to speak of God turning the curse of Balaam into a blessing. It is a word that speaks of transformation or change. And that is exactly what we see happening in Nineveh. Jonah thought the transformation was going to come in the form of destruction, but instead, it came in the form of repentance. The great and powerful city of Nineveh was brought to its knees. The pagan people of Nineveh were calling out to the God of the Hebrews. What a radical change. What a transformation.

In the book of 1 Samuel, we are told the story of how God called Saul to be the first king of Israel. In chapter 10, he is anointed with oil by the prophet, Samuel, and commissioned to be king. And then it says, “When he turned his back to leave Samuel, God gave him another heart” (1 Samuel 10:9 ESV). The word “gave” is the same Hebrew word, haphak. God transformed Saul. He gave him a new heart.

One of the things Jonah seems to have overlooked, was the power of God to transform. God can overthrow a people in any of a number of ways. He can destroy them or He can redeem them. He can turn them to dust or He can turn their hearts to Himself. He is sovereign and all-powerful. Jonah was looking for destruction. But God was planning something completely different. A pagan, sinful and doomed people heard a message of judgment and they were changed. Rather than reject the message and kill the messenger, like the Israelites had done so many times, they bowed their knees to God. And as we will see, their transformation didn’t stop there.


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