Pride Goes Before Destruction

1 In the twenty-seventh year of Jeroboam king of Israel, Azariah the son of Amaziah, king of Judah, began to reign. He was sixteen years old when he began to reign, and he reigned fifty-two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jecoliah of Jerusalem. And he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that his father Amaziah had done. Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away. The people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. And the Lord touched the king, so that he was a leper to the day of his death, and he lived in a separate house. And Jotham the king’s son was over the household, governing the people of the land.’ Now the rest of the acts of Azariah, and all that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? And Azariah slept with his fathers, and they buried him with his fathers in the city of David, and Jotham his son reigned in his place.

In the thirty-eighth year of Azariah king of Judah, Zechariah the son of Jeroboam reigned over Israel in Samaria six months. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his fathers had done. He did not depart from the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. 10 Shallum the son of Jabesh conspired against him and struck him down at Ibleam and put him to death and reigned in his place. 11 Now the rest of the deeds of Zechariah, behold, they are written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel. 12 (This was the promise of the Lord that he gave to Jehu, “Your sons shall sit on the throne of Israel to the fourth generation.” And so it came to pass.) 2 Kings 15:1-12 ESV

Reading this chapter can become a bit confusing because it seems to chronicle the lives of two different kings serving over Judah at the very same time. In verse 1, we are introduced to Azariah, the son of Amaziah. Then in verse 13, we’re told that Shallum became king of Israel during the reign of Uzziah king of Judah. There is a simple solution though. The king of Judah went by two different names. Chapter 26 of the book of 2 Chronicles uses this alternate name exclusively when recording the history of his reign. But they are one and the same man.

As the opening verses indicate, Azariah (Uzziah) ascended to the throne of Judah after the death of his father, Amaziah. He was only 16-years-old at the time of his coronation and would reign for 52 years. Only one other king of Judah would enjoy a longer tenure on the throne of Judah: Manasseh.

Azariah’s lengthy reign brought stability to a nation that had been reeling after the assassination of its prior king, Azariah’s father. It was a time of blessing and prosperity because, unlike so many other kings of Judah, Azariah chose to seek the Lord.

…he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord, according to all that his father Amaziah had done. He set himself to seek God in the days of Zechariah, who instructed him in the fear of God, and as long as he sought the Lord, God made him prosper. – 2 Chronicles 26:4-5 ESV

But there are three qualifying words in the above statement: “as long as.” Azariah’s prosperity and success were directly tied to his faithfulness. It was God who made him prosper. And as long as he remained faithful to Yahweh, he experienced His blessings. And, according to the book of 2 Chronicles, those blessings were many.

God helped him against the Philistines and against the Arabians who lived in Gurbaal and against the Meunites. The Ammonites paid tribute to Uzziah, and his fame spread even to the border of Egypt, for he became very strong. – 2 Chronicles 26:7-8 ESV

Azariah built cities within the territories he confiscated from the Philistines. He also ordered the construction of fortified towers throughout the land of Judah and had cisterns dug to provide water for his growing herds. Azariah had large land-holdings, consisting of farms and vineyards. He was wealthy, successful, and powerful. His army was well-trained and equipped with the latest weapons technology. And the city of Jerusalem was protected by state-of-the-art fortifications. As a result:

His fame spread far and wide, for the Lord gave him marvelous help, and he became very powerful. – 2 Chronicles 26:15 NLT

Azariah was enjoying the blessings of God. He had it all: Wealth, power, and fame. But you can almost sense that he was ripe for a fall. And the author of 2 Kings cuts to the chase, revealing that Azariah’s days of enjoying the blessings of God were going to be short-lived and followed by a time of judgment and despair.

Nevertheless, the high places were not taken away. The people still sacrificed and made offerings on the high places. And the Lord touched the king, so that he was a leper to the day of his death, and he lived in a separate house. – 2 Kings 15:4-5 ESV

The book of 2 Chronicles provides us with the details surrounding Azariah’s fall. And it’s an all-too-familiar story of the pitfalls of pride.

But when he had become powerful, he also became proud, which led to his downfall. He sinned against the Lord his God by entering the sanctuary of the Lord’s Temple and personally burning incense on the incense altar. – 2 Chronicles 26:16 NLT

Azariah was a man who became used to getting what he wanted. He had enjoyed unprecedented success. Everything he touched seemed to turn to gold. His victories were many. His landholdings were great. His wealth was extensive. And his power was unsurpassed. But all of this led to a pride problem. He became to believe that he could get away with anything. But when he entered the sanctuary of God and attempted to usurp the role of the priests, he overstepped his bounds. He violated the Mosaic law and incurred the wrath of God. And it is not as if Azariah didn’t know any better. He was confronted by the high priest and 80 other men of God.

They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is the work of the priests alone, the descendants of Aaron who are set apart for this work. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have sinned. The Lord God will not honor you for this!” – 2 Chronicles 26:18 NLT

But rather than repent of his sin, Azariah became angry. He didn’t like being told what he could or could not do. And so, God struck him with leprosy. In just seconds, Azariah’s entire life was turned upside down. He was immediately removed from the temple and, because of his leprosy, would never set foot in the house of God again – for the rest of his life. He would spend the last 11 years of his reign in quarantine and isolation, as his son ruled the nation as his co-regent. Eventually, Azariah died, and his son took his place as king of Judah. He was buried and the only lasting legacy he left behind was his failure. The people would say of him, “He had leprosy” (2 Chronicles 26:23 NLT).

Azariah had fallen prey to the age-old sin of pride. He had failed to heed the warnings of his predecessor, Solomon. In his book of Proverbs, Solomon included the wise but often ignored saying, “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall” (Proverbs16:18 ESV). And Azariah learned a painful lesson on the pervasive power of pride. Because he had enjoyed the seemingly endless blessings of God, he had wrongly assumed that he could do no wrong. But God has standards, and He expects His children to live according to His will and in keeping with His commands. The king was not exempt from God’s rules, and Azariah learned that lesson the hard way. 

About three years before Azariah’s fateful decision to play priest and offer sacrifices to God, Zechariah, the son of Jeroboam II, became king in Israel. And the assessment of his reign is a familiar one.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as his fathers had done. – 2 Kings 15:9 ESV

Unlike Azariah, Zechariah’s reign was brief, lasting only six short months. And it would end with his assassination by Shallum, who would take his place on the throne of Israel. But Zechariah’s abbreviated reign fulfilled a promise that God had made to Jehu, king of Israel. Jehu had obeyed God’s command and destroyed the house of Ahab. Not only that, he ordered the execution of any who worshiped Baal and turned the temple of Baal into a public latrine. As a reward for Jehu’s cleansing campaign, God made a vow:

“You have done well in following my instructions to destroy the family of Ahab. Therefore, your descendants will be kings of Israel down to the fourth generation.” – 2 Kings 10:30 NLT

Zechariah was the fulfillment of that promise. But his reign would only last half a year. His murder would usher in an era of intrigue, deception, and instability. Over the next 20 years, the northern kingdom of Israel would have six different kings, and only one of them would die a natural death. The rest would be assassinated. It would be a time marked by pervasive wickedness, rampant idolatry, and increasing resistance on the part of the people to heed God’s call to repentance.

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

 

Pride Goes Before Destruction

41 Now the rest of the acts of Solomon, and all that he did, and his wisdom, are they not written in the Book of the Acts of Solomon? 42 And the time that Solomon reigned in Jerusalem over all Israel was forty years. 43 And Solomon slept with his fathers and was buried in the city of David his father. And Rehoboam his son reigned in his place.

1 Rehoboam went to Shechem, for all Israel had come to Shechem to make him king. And as soon as Jeroboam the son of Nebat heard of it (for he was still in Egypt, where he had fled from King Solomon), then Jeroboam returned from Egypt. And they sent and called him, and Jeroboam and all the assembly of Israel came and said to Rehoboam, “Your father made our yoke heavy. Now therefore lighten the hard service of your father and his heavy yoke on us, and we will serve you.” He said to them, “Go away for three days, then come again to me.” So the people went away.

Then King Rehoboam took counsel with the old men, who had stood before Solomon his father while he was yet alive, saying, “How do you advise me to answer this people?” And they said to him, “If you will be a servant to this people today and serve them, and speak good words to them when you answer them, then they will be your servants forever.” But he abandoned the counsel that the old men gave him and took counsel with the young men who had grown up with him and stood before him. And he said to them, “What do you advise that we answer this people who have said to me, ‘Lighten the yoke that your father put on us’?” 10 And the young men who had grown up with him said to him, “Thus shall you speak to this people who said to you, ‘Your father made our yoke heavy, but you lighten it for us,’ thus shall you say to them, ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s thighs. 11 And now, whereas my father laid on you a heavy yoke, I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.’”

12 So Jeroboam and all the people came to Rehoboam the third day, as the king said, “Come to me again the third day.” 13 And the king answered the people harshly, and forsaking the counsel that the old men had given him, 14 he spoke to them according to the counsel of the young men, saying, “My father made your yoke heavy, but I will add to your yoke. My father disciplined you with whips, but I will discipline you with scorpions.” 15 So the king did not listen to the people, for it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word, which the Lord spoke by Ahijah the Shilonite to Jeroboam the son of Nebat. 1 Kings 11:41-12:15 ESV

As God had promised, Solomon was allowed to complete his reign with his kingdom still intact. But upon Solomon’s death, his son Rehoboam, who succeeded him to the throne, would find himself facing a God-ordained crisis that would leave his kingdom divided and greatly diminished. It would be easy to sympathize with poor Rehoboam because he is completely unaware of what is about to happen. The day of his coronation should have been one of the most joyous occasions of his life. He was inheriting the vast kingdom his father had established but all the wealth and riches that Solomon had accumulated over the last four decades. He was a lucky young man. But the reader has a distinct advantage over Rehoboam. He knows something of which the new king is most likely unaware. Speaking through the prophet Ahijah, God had promised to divide the kingdom of Israel, awarding ten of the tribes to Jeroboam and leaving Rehoboam with only one.

For the sake of my servant David, the one whom I chose and who obeyed my commands and decrees, I will keep Solomon as leader for the rest of his life. But I will take the kingdom away from his son and give ten of the tribes to you. His son will have one tribe so that the descendants of David my servant will continue to reign, shining like a lamp in Jerusalem, the city I have chosen to be the place for my name.” – 1 Kings 11:34-36 NLT

But any sorrow one might feel for Rehoboam is quickly dispelled when his true nature becomes apparent as he attempts to handle his first official crisis as king. For some undisclosed reason, Rehoboam had decided to hold his coronation ceremony in the city of Shechem, located in the land that belonged to the tribe of Ephraim. His decision to hold this important ceremony outside the city of Jerusalem may indicate that he was aware of the potential problem with Jeroboam. It is likely that Solomon had warned Rehoboam about the potential threat from the Ephraimites. Prior to his death, Solomon had become aware of the prediction concerning Jeroboam, made by Ahijah the prophet, and he had attempted to have Jeroboam murdered. Jeroboam, who was an Ephraimite, had been assigned the task of supervising the conscripted labor force from among his own people. And in performing his duties, he had become aware of the heavy burden Solomon had placed upon the Ephraimites and other northern tribes.

So, Rehoboam may have moved his coronation to Shechem in an attempt to placate and win over the disgruntled Ephraimites. But this ploy would prove unsuccessful.

From his place of exile in Egypt, Jeroboam heard the news that Solomon had died, and he returned to Israel, where he was promptly appointed the official spokesperson for the tribes of Israel. When Rehoboam arrived in Shechem for his coronation, he was met by a large contingent of the people who made an appeal through their appointed leader, Jeroboam.

“Your father was a hard master,” they said. “Lighten the harsh labor demands and heavy taxes that your father imposed on us. Then we will be your loyal subjects.” – 1 Kings 12:4 NLT

Notice that Jeroboam did not restate the words of the prophet. He did boast about the promise God had made, declaring that he was going to be the next king over ten of the tribes of Israel. There were no threats of insurrection or insurgency. He simply expressed the grievances of the people and their desire to have the heavy burdens of labor and taxation reduced.

This was a defining moment for Rehoboam. He could have seen this as an opportunity to unify the nation by demonstrating his intentions to be a fair and just king. Even though he was the son of Solomon, Rehoboam was going to have win the favor and trust of the people. And he was being given the opportunity to rectify some of his father’s less-than-stellar policies.

Having heard their complaints, Rehoboam sent the people away, assuring them that he would take everything into consideration and return with a decision. As the son of Solomon, the man who compiled and edited an entire book of proverbial sayings, Rehoboam would have grown up hearing all the sage advice his father had gathered.

Where there is no guidance, a people falls, but in an abundance of counselors there is safety. – Proverbs 11:14 ESV

Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed. – Proverbs 15:22 ESV

Plans are established by counsel; by wise guidance wage war. – Proverbs 20:18 ESV

Only with sound guidance should you wage war, and victory lies in a multitude of counselors. – Proverbs 24:6 BSB

So, it should come as no surprise that Rehoboam sought counsel. He first “discussed the matter with the older men who had counseled his father” (1 Kings 12:6 NLT). These men advised Rehoboam that he could win over the hearts of the people if he would respond favorably to their request. He could forestall any potential unrest by demonstrating that he was, first and foremost, the servant of all the people. While Rehoboam was from the tribe of Judah, he was expected to serve as God’s shepherd over all the tribes of Israel. By making this concession, Rehoboam could avoid a rebellion and establish himself as a compassionate and caring king.

But Rehoboam didn’t like what he heard. The author flatly states, “Rehoboam rejected the advice of the older men and instead asked the opinion of the young men who had grown up with him and were now his advisers” (1 Kings 12:8 NLT). And in doing so, Rehoboam lived out the truth revealed in the proverbs his father had so painstakingly collected.

The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice. – Proverbs 12:15 ESV

Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future. – Proverbs 19:20 ESV

Listen to instruction and be wise; do not ignore it. – Proverbs 8:33 BSB

Unlike his father, Rehoboam had not been given the gift of wisdom from God. He was young and inexperienced and in desperate need of wise counsel. But when he received it, he rejected it, choosing instead to seek out those who would tell him what he wanted to hear. Disliking the counsel of the older and wiser men, Rehoboam turned to his peers for advice. And they were more than eager to give it.

The young men replied, “This is what you should tell those complainers who want a lighter burden: ‘My little finger is thicker than my father’s waist! Yes, my father laid heavy burdens on you, but I’m going to make them even heavier! My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions!’” – 1 Kings 12:10-11 NLT

These brash young men appealed to Rehoboam’s ego. They advised him to law down the law and establish his reputation as a no-holds-barred disciplinarian who ruled with an iron fist. These young men knew Rehoboam well and their advice was meant to appeal to his over-inflated ego and his desperate desire to escape the shadow of his father’s reputation. And in a demonstration of his inherent foolishness and pride, Rehoboam heeded the counsel of his peers and handed down his decision to the people. And in doing so, he fulfilled the words of the proverb.

Those who trust their own insight are foolish, but anyone who walks in wisdom is safe. – Proverbs 28:26 NLT

Rather than humbly heed the pleas of his people, Rehoboam listened to his own heart. But the author reveals that this was all part of the sovereign will of God.

…it was a turn of affairs brought about by the Lord that he might fulfill his word. – 1 Kings 12:15 ESV

God didn’t force Rehoboam to do what he did. This stubborn and prideful young man simply acted according to his own sinful nature. But in doing so, he was fulfilling the will of God. Rehoboam’s decision would fuel the fire that would end up burning down his kingdom. In his foolish attempt to establish himself as a great king, Rehoboam was unwittingly destroying his own kingdom. And, once again, he was living out the wisdom of the proverbs.

Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 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

Even Our Disobedience Can’t Disrupt God’s Plans

26 Jeroboam the son of Nebat, an Ephraimite of Zeredah, a servant of Solomon, whose mother’s name was Zeruah, a widow, also lifted up his hand against the king. 27 And this was the reason why he lifted up his hand against the king. Solomon built the Millo, and closed up the breach of the city of David his father. 28 The man Jeroboam was very able, and when Solomon saw that the young man was industrious he gave him charge over all the forced labor of the house of Joseph. 29 And at that time, when Jeroboam went out of Jerusalem, the prophet Ahijah the Shilonite found him on the road. Now Ahijah had dressed himself in a new garment, and the two of them were alone in the open country. 30 Then Ahijah laid hold of the new garment that was on him, and tore it into twelve pieces. 31 And he said to Jeroboam, “Take for yourself ten pieces, for thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Behold, I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon and will give you ten tribes 32 (but he shall have one tribe, for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, the city that I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel), 33 because they have forsaken me and worshiped Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, Chemosh the god of Moab, and Milcom the god of the Ammonites, and they have not walked in my ways, doing what is right in my sight and keeping my statutes and my rules, as David his father did. 34 Nevertheless, I will not take the whole kingdom out of his hand, but I will make him ruler all the days of his life, for the sake of David my servant whom I chose, who kept my commandments and my statutes. 35 But I will take the kingdom out of his son’s hand and will give it to you, ten tribes. 36 Yet to his son I will give one tribe, that David my servant may always have a lamp before me in Jerusalem, the city where I have chosen to put my name. 37 And I will take you, and you shall reign over all that your soul desires, and you shall be king over Israel. 38 And if you will listen to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you and will build you a sure house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you. 39 And I will afflict the offspring of David because of this, but not forever.’” 40 Solomon sought therefore to kill Jeroboam. But Jeroboam arose and fled into Egypt, to Shishak king of Egypt, and was in Egypt until the death of Solomon. 1 Kings 11:26-40 ESV

Despite all his wisdom, Solomon had made some serious errors in judgment. Not the least of which was his decision to violate a number of God’s commands. He had chosen to disobey God by amassing for himself stables full of thousands of horses and a harem filled with a thousand wives and concubines. On top of that, he had filled his treasury with vast quantities of amounts of gold and silver – all in direct violation of God’s commands (Deuteronomy 17:16-17).

And Solomon had also managed to fulfill all the dire predictions the prophet Samuel had conveyed to the people of Israel when they had demanded “a king to judge us like all the other nations have” (1 Samuel 8:5 NLT). Long before David or Solomon reigned over Israel, God had been their sovereign King. But the day had come when the people grew tired of being governed by the judges and prophets whom God had placed over them. They preferred to have a leader that looked and acted like the kings of their enemies. And in demanding the human king, they were actually rejecting the righteous rule of God over their lives. So, God gave them their wish but warned them of the consequences.

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen and to run before his chariots. And he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plow his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakersHe will take your male servants and female servants and the best of your young men and your donkeys, and put them to his work. – 1 Samuel 8:11-13, 16 ESV

Solomon was guilty of all of the above. He had conscripted large numbers of his own people to serve as laborers on his many building projects. Solomon had used his power as king to force the people of Israel to do his bidding. And there’s little doubt that the common people grew resentful of the involuntary nature of their role in building Solomon’s kingdom and fame. So, in verse 26, we are introduced to a man named Jeroboam, from the tribe of Ephraim, one the largest of the northern tribes. It just so happened that Jeroboam was the son of one of Solomon’s former officials. At some point, Solomon took note of this young man, whose father had recently died. Recognizing a certain degree of leadership ability in Jeroboam, Solomon decided to put him on his payroll.

Jeroboam was a very capable young man, and when Solomon saw how industrious he was, he put him in charge of the labor force from the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh, the descendants of Joseph. – 1 Kings 11:28 NLT

But notice that Solomon expected Jeroboam to supervise the laborers who had been conscripted from his own tribe. This unique responsibility gave Jeroboam a first-hand exposure to the less-than-ideal conditions under which his fellow tribesmen were forced to serve King Solomon. It would not be surprising if Jeroboam began to build up resentment for what he observed day after day. And this scenario is strangely similar to one involving the famous Hebrew patriarch, Moses. The great deliverer of Israel had been born in Egypt during a time when the people of Israel were suffering great persecution under the hand of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt.

…the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. They appointed brutal slave drivers over them, hoping to wear them down with crushing labor. They forced them to build the cities of Pithom and Rameses as supply centers for the king.the Egyptians worked the people of Israel without mercy. They made their lives bitter, forcing them to mix mortar and make bricks and do all the work in the fields. They were ruthless in all their demands. – Exodus 1:11, 13-14 NLT

But even under these harsh conditions, the people of Israel continued to increase in number, causing Pharaoh to develop a plan for greatly reducing their number.

Then Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, gave this order to the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah: “When you help the Hebrew women as they give birth, watch as they deliver. If the baby is a boy, kill him; if it is a girl, let her live.” – Exodus 1:15-16 NLT

He instituted a policy of ethnic cleansing that was meant to diminish any future possibility of the Israelites staging a revolt. But in the midst of this horrible circumstance, God raised up Israel’s future deliverer. Moses, who was an infant at the time and a target of Pharoah’s edict, was miraculously spared and ended up being raised in the household of the Pharaoh himself. He would be raised as an Egyptian, living in the royal palace and enjoying all the benefits of his position as the adopted grandson of Pharaoh. But one day, as an adult, Moses would be given an up-close and personal exposure to the plight of his own people.

Many years later, when Moses had grown up, he went out to visit his own people, the Hebrews, and he saw how hard they were forced to work. During his visit, he saw an Egyptian beating one of his fellow Hebrews. After looking in all directions to make sure no one was watching, Moses killed the Egyptian and hid the body in the sand. – Exodus 2: 11-12 NLT

Despite his high standing in Pharoah’s household, Moses’ rash action brought down the full wrath of his grandfather. He became a wanted man and was forced to run for his life, eventually ending up living as an exile in the land of Midian. It would be while living in the wilderness of Midian that Moses would have a personal encounter with God and receive his commission as Israel’s future deliverer.

Moses had seen the mistreatment of his people and taken matters into his own hands. But God was going to use Moses’ misapplied empathy and compassion in a far more effective way – all so that His divine will might be fulfilled.

In the case of Jeroboam, he was given a similar commission from God. But rather than a visit from God in the form of a burning bush, Jeroboam was confronted by a prophet of God.

One day as Jeroboam was leaving Jerusalem, the prophet Ahijah from Shiloh met him along the way. Ahijah was wearing a new cloak. The two of them were alone in a field, and Ahijah took hold of the new cloak he was wearing and tore it into twelve pieces. Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten of these pieces, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and I will give ten of the tribes to you!’” – 1 Kings 11:29-31 NLT

Like Moses, Jeroboam was given a commission directly from God. In a sense, he too would become a deliverer of his people. God was going to use Jeroboam to deliver the tribe of Ephraim, along with nine other northern tribes, from their subjugation under Solomon’s rule. And as Moses was used by God to punish the wicked Egyptians, Jeroboam would become God’s chosen instrument for delivering judgment upon Solomon for his many acts of unfaithfulness and disobedience.

Much to his shock and surprise, Jeroboam is informed that God is going to divide Solomon’s vast kingdom in half and install him as the new king over ten of the tribes. And God is painfully clear when delineating His reasons for this dramatic shift in the nation’s fortunes.

“For Solomon has abandoned me and worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians; Chemosh, the god of Moab; and Molech, the god of the Ammonites. He has not followed my ways and done what is pleasing in my sight. He has not obeyed my decrees and regulations as David his father did.” – 1 Kings 11:33 NLT

Yet, God also reveals His intentions to allow Solomon to complete his reign over an undivided kingdom. But at Solomon’s death, his son would inherit a kingdom that consisted of a single tribe, that of Judah.

“His son will have one tribe so that the descendants of David my servant will continue to reign, shining like a lamp in Jerusalem, the city I have chosen to be the place for my name.” – 1 Kings 11:36 NLT

Despite Solomon’s unfaithfulness, God would remain faithful, vowing to keep the covenant He had made with David. He would preserve a remnant of Solomon’s kingdom so that one day He might fulfill the promise concerning the future king who would reign on David’s throne for perpetuity.

“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” – 2 Samuel 7:16 ESV

God had future plans in store for the rebellious nation of Israel. But for now, He was determined to punish Solomon for his repeated acts of unfaithfulness. And He provided Jeroboam with the same arrangements He had made with Solomon. If Jeroboam would remain committed to the word and the will of God, he would enjoy the blessings of God.

“I will place you on the throne of Israel, and you will rule over all that your heart desires. If you listen to what I tell you and follow my ways and do whatever I consider to be right, and if you obey my decrees and commands, as my servant David did, then I will always be with you. I will establish an enduring dynasty for you as I did for David, and I will give Israel to you. – 1 Kings 11:37-38 NLT

And because 1 Kings is a book of history, it will just be a matter of time before we know whether Jeroboam lived up to God’s expectations. Yet, regardless of what Solomon had done or whatever Jeroboam will end up doing, God’s will would be done. All His promises would be kept and His plan would be fulfilled in its entirety.

But when Solomon heard about the message spoken by the prophet, he set out to eliminate any threat by having Jeroboam murdered. But Jeroboam escaped to Egypt, where he remained in exile until the death of Solomon. It’s interesting to note that Moses had fled from Egypt to escape the wrath of Pharaoh. Now, Jeroboam was fleeing to Egypt in an attempt to escape the wrath of Solomon.

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 Holy House-Cleaning

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

28 When the news came to Joab—for Joab had supported Adonijah although he had not supported Absalom—Joab fled to the tent of the Lord and caught hold of the horns of the altar. 29 And when it was told King Solomon, “Joab has fled to the tent of the Lord, and behold, he is beside the altar,” Solomon sent Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, saying, “Go, strike him down.” 30 So Benaiah came to the tent of the Lord and said to him, “The king commands, ‘Come out.’” But he said, “No, I will die here.” Then Benaiah brought the king word again, saying, “Thus said Joab, and thus he answered me.” 31 The king replied to him, “Do as he has said, strike him down and bury him, and thus take away from me and from my father’s house the guilt for the blood that Joab shed without cause. 32 The Lord will bring back his bloody deeds on his own head, because, without the knowledge of my father David, he attacked and killed with the sword two men more righteous and better than himself, Abner the son of Ner, commander of the army of Israel, and Amasa the son of Jether, commander of the army of Judah. 33 So shall their blood come back on the head of Joab and on the head of his descendants forever. But for David and for his descendants and for his house and for his throne there shall be peace from the Lord forevermore.” 34 Then Benaiah the son of Jehoiada went up and struck him down and put him to death. And he was buried in his own house in the wilderness. 35 The king put Benaiah the son of Jehoiada over the army in place of Joab, and the king put Zadok the priest in the place of Abiathar. – 1 Kings 2:26-35 ESV

After having dealt decisively with his half-brother’s continued deceit by having him put to death, Solomon turned his attention to the accomplices in his failed coup attempt. First, he took care of Abiathar, the priest. But rather than ordering Abiathar’s execution, Solomon decreed that this traitor be removed from his priestly role. The new king was willing to spare Abiathar’s life because he was well aware of his long and faithful service to David. But he was not willing to let the guilty go unpunished, so he humiliated Abiathar by having him defrocked. And Solomon’s decision had far greater ramifications than even he could have known. The author of 1 Kings reveals that Abiathar’s removal from the priesthood fulfilled a prophecy made by God concerning the descendants of Eli, the priest who had served at Shiloh. Eli had two sons, Hophni and Phinehas, who served alongside their father as priests, but they were “worthless men” who “did not know the Lord” (1 Samuel 2:12 ESV).

These two brothers used their priestly role to fulfill their own selfish desires, and “the sin of these young men was very serious in the Lord’s sight, for they treated the Lord’s offerings with contempt” (1 Samuel 2:17 NLT). They were even guilty of committing sexual sins with “the young women who assisted at the entrance of the Tabernacle” (1 Samuel 2:22 NLT). Their father, fully aware of their indiscretions, tried to reprimand them but his words fell on deaf ears. They refused to listen to his warnings or change their wicked ways, so God stepped in and delivered a sobering statement of judgment against the house of Eli.

“I promised that your branch of the tribe of Levi would always be my priests. But I will honor those who honor me, and I will despise those who think lightly of me. The time is coming when I will put an end to your family, so it will no longer serve as my priests. All the members of your family will die before their time. None will reach old age.” – 1 Samuel 2:30-31 NLT

In the short-term, God would take the lives of Hophni and Phinehas. But with Solomon’s removal of Abiathar, another descendant of Eli suffered the humiliating loss of his priestly role. He was allowed to live but would have to bear the constant shame that accompanied his fall from grace.

Having dealt with the prodigal priest, Solomon turned his attention to Joab, the former general over the armies of Israel. This man had been a close friend and ally of David, having served alongside him for many years. But Joab had fallen out of favor with the king because of insubordination. Against the wishes of King David, Joab had taken the lives of two men, Amasa and Abner, both of whom he perceived as threats to his power and prestige. Now, years later, Joab had chosen to align himself with the king’s son, Adonijah, choosing to lend his reputation and military expertise to an attempted takeover of David’s throne. And when Joab heard that Adonijah was dead and Abiathar had been stripped of his priesthood, he knew it was just a matter of time before Solomon came looking for him. So, he sought refuge in the tabernacle, just as Adonijah had done.

But Solomon was not about to show this murderer and traitor any mercy. Instead, he commanded that Joab be executed on the spot. In ordering Joab’s death, Solomon was clearing his father’s dynasty of any responsibility for the unwarranted deaths of Amasa and Abner. As long as Joab remained alive and unpunished for his crimes, his guilt would be shared by the house of David. By removing Joab, Solomon hoped to avoid the condemnation of God and restore the hope of His future blessings on Israel.

“May their blood be on Joab and his descendants forever, and may the Lord grant peace forever to David, his descendants, his dynasty, and his throne.” – 1 Kings 2:23 NLT

Unlike his father, Solomon wasted no time in dealing with the issues that surrounded him. He had just ascended to the throne but had taken decisive action to clean up the mess his father had left behind. Solomon was quick to deal with the guilty, delivering the appropriate punishment and, in doing so, ensuring the spiritual health of his kingdom. He was also faithfully fulfilling his father’s dying wishes, meting out justice, and repaying the guilty for their crimes.

But Solomon didn’t just purge the sin from their midst. He quickly filled the vacancies created by the removals of Joab and Abiathar by promoting “Benaiah the son of Jehoiada over the army” and anointing “Zadok the priest in the place of Abiathar” (1 Kings 2:35 ESV). He surrounded himself with faithful men he could trust and began the important task of establishing the identity that would mark his reign as king.

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

Risky Business

23 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, “How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end. 27 But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man. Then indeed he may plunder his house.

28 “Truly, I say to you, all sins will be forgiven the children of man, and whatever blasphemies they utter, 29 but whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin” 30 for they were saying, “He has an unclean spirit.” Mark 3:13-30 ESV

“He’s an amazing miracle worker.”

“He’s crazy!”

“He’s demon-possessed.”

The opinions about Jesus were all over the proverbial map. Some people loved Him, while others, like the Pharisees, harbored an intense and intensifying hatred for Him. But regardless of the diversity of opinions about Him, everyone would have agreed that this man from Nazareth was impossible to ignore. They couldn’t explain Him but neither could they dismiss Him.

And Mark indicates that a group of scribes had traveled all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee just to investigate this rural Rabbi was causing such a stir. It is likely that these men had been sent by the high priest and the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, and given the responsibility to find legal evidence to use against Jesus. As experts in the Mosaic law, as well as the oral and traditional regulations of the Jews, these men would have been well-qualified for their task.

Yet, despite their knowledge of the law, their initial assessment of Jesus was that He was possessed by a demon and under the control of Satan.

“He is possessed by Beelzebul,” and “by the prince of demons he casts out the demons.” – Mark 3:22 ESV

They couldn’t deny the fact that Jesus did supernatural wonders and signs. It was obvious that He had powers and abilities that were not of this world. But rather than admit that Jesus was the Son of God, they accused Him of being in league with Satan.

By declaring that Jesus was “possessed by Beelzebul,” they were hoping to link Jesus to the demonic realm. The Greek name “Beelzebul” means “lord of the house or dwelling,” and it was used to refer to Satan, who was lord over the dwelling place of evil spirits. This accusation would have been well-understood by all those who heard it, and it would have shocked and surprised them.

Matthew and Luke provide additional context for this scene. The pronouncement by the scribes didn’t come out of the blue but was based on their assessment of a miracle Jesus had just performed.

Then a demon-oppressed man who was blind and mute was brought to him, and he healed him, so that the man spoke and saw. And all the people were amazed, and said, “Can this be the Son of David?” – Matthew 12:22-23 ESV

The people were so impressed by what Jesus had done that they questioned whether Jesus might be the Messiah, the long-awaited descendant of David, and the heir to his throne. But Matthew records the quick and calculated rebuttal of the religious leaders.

“It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this man casts out demons.” – Matthew 12:24 ESV

They were hoping to dispel any thoughts that this man, Jesus, had been sent by God. By linking His activities to Satan, they were attempting to tarnish His reputation and turn the people against Him.

Rather than wasting their time gathering forensic evidence providing that Jesus had violated their written and oral laws, they simply accused Him of being under the influence of Satan. In doing so, they put their argument against Jesus in terms the common people could understand. The scribes and Pharisees had little respect for the average Jew because they viewed them as being ignorant of the law. John records a very blunt assessment made by these very same religious leaders of their own people.

“…this rabble who do not know the law are accursed!” – John 7:49 NLT

But if there was one thing these uneducated and superstitious people could understand, it was the difference between good and evil. By associating Jesus with Satan, the scribes explained His power and, at the same time, maligned His character.

Yet rather than responding in anger, Jesus simply answered their accusation with a parable. He provided a well-reasoned response to their assertion that quickly exposed its absurdity and their own lack of judgment.

“How can Satan cast out Satan?” he asked. “A kingdom divided by civil war will collapse. Similarly, a family splintered by feuding will fall apart. And if Satan is divided and fights against himself, how can he stand? He would never survive.”  – Mark 3:23-26 NLT

Through the use of simple reasoning, Jesus dismantled the very foundation of their argument. And He did so in terms the people could understand. You can almost see them looking at one another as Jesus spoke, nodding their heads in approval. The things He was saying made sense to them.

But Jesus was not done. He continued to point out the flawed logic behind their accusation.

“Who is powerful enough to enter the house of a strong man and plunder his goods? Only someone even stronger—someone who could tie him up and then plunder his house.” – Mark 3:27 NLT

Why would Satan cast out one of his own demons? That would be counter-productive. And how could anyone cast out a demon unless he possessed a power greater than that of the demon?

Whether the religious leaders realized it or not, Jesus was taking them to school. He was providing them with a lesson on divine power and authority. Jesus had subtly moved the point of emphasis from casting out demons to the plundering of the home of “a strong man.”  It would seem that Jesus has shifted His focus to the religious leaders and the powerful hold they had over the nation of Israel. It explains what happened when Jesus entered the temple in Jerusalem and saw how the priests of God had transformed His Father’s house into a carnival-like atmosphere.

He found in the temple courts those who were selling oxen and sheep and doves, and the money changers sitting at tables. So he made a whip of cords and drove them all out of the temple courts, with the sheep and the oxen. He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. To those who sold the doves he said, “Take these things away from here! Do not make my Father’s house a marketplace!” – John 2:14-16 NLT

Jesus had come to do the will of His Father, and He was operating under the power of the Holy Spirit. He had God-given authority and Spirit-enabled power to do what He did. But when these pride-filled men accused Jesus of operating under the influence and power of Satan, they had crossed the line. And Jesus clearly warned them that they were walking on thin ice.

“I tell you the truth, all sin and blasphemy can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven. This is a sin with eternal consequences.” – Mark 3:28-29 NLT

Their flippant and poorly-reasoned accusation against Jesus had been a dangerous mistake. Whether they realized it or not, He was the Son of God, and they had just accused Him of fraternizing with the enemy. They had also attributed the work of the Spirit of God to the prince of this world. And in doing so, they had refused to accept the will of God. In essence, they had offended all three members of the Holy Trinity. And Jesus calls it exactly what it is: blasphemy.

And while blasphemy was normally a forgivable sin, in this case, Jesus was describing a condition in which men willingly and repeatedly reject the will of God, the claims of His Son, and the power of His Spirit. These men had been given ample evidence of who Jesus was. In a sense, the entire Godhead had provided testimony that Jesus was who He claimed to be: The Son of God. But these men had refused to believe. And it would be their stubborn disbelief that would prove to be the unpardonable sin.

Blasphemy is nothing more than speaking of God in terms that are disrespectful and derogatory. It is to dismiss the word of God and to reject the will of God. In denying Jesus as the Son of God, the religious leaders were snubbing their noses at God Almighty. They were rejecting the truth as found in His Word. And by attributing the power of the Spirit of God to Satan, they were robbing God of glory.

Blasphemy is a sin, and all sin is forgivable by God. But the one who repeatedly rejects the testimony of God regarding His Son runs the risk of committing the unpardonable and unforgivable sin. The apostle John put it in rather stark but understandable terms:

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 3:18 NLT

The religious leaders stood condemned because they refused to believe the testimony of God concerning His Son. Not only that, they had dismissed the evidence of the Holy Spirit’s power displayed through the life of the Son, falsely attributing it to the enemy.

They had accused Jesus of being possessed of a demon. But there are those who accuse Jesus of being nothing more than a man. Others claim He was a moral teacher who had the ability to perform miracles. But they deny that He was the Son of God. Some deny that He ever existed at all. And over the centuries, there have been those who have denied His virgin birth, His sinless life, His death and resurrection, and His atoning work on behalf of man. And in doing so, they have committed blasphemy. And all those who persist in rejecting the Son of God as the Savior sent by God, will be “guilty of an eternal sin.”

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

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

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

Not What You Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ways of God

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. Habakkuk 1:1 ESV

This rather obscure little Old Testament book has an equally obscure author. We know very little about Habakkuk, other than his role as a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah during the days before the nation was judged by God, defeated by the Babylonians, and sent into exile. Thus, he is what is known as a pre-exilic prophet. His primary job was to warn God’s people of His pending judgment and to call them to repentance.

The book is comprised of a unique combination of poetry and prose, revealing Habakkuk as a poet as well as a prophet. And, like all the other prophets of God, Habakkuk was not intended to be the focus of the book that bears his name. He was a spokesman for God Almighty, tasked with delivering His divine warning of imminent judgment against God’s chosen people for their sins against Him.

It seems likely that Habakkuk prophesied during the reign of King Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.). His prophetic ministry covered a period of time when Judah was in a steep spiritual decline following the death of Josiah, the great reformer king. Josiah was one of the few kings of either Israel or Judah who proved faithful to God. When he had ascended to the throne of Judah, he inherited a spiritually bankrupt legacy passed down by his father Manasseh.

Manasseh…did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. – 2 Kings 21:1-2 ESV

He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. – 2 Kings 21:6 ESV

Manasseh turned the people of Judah against God, erecting shrines and high places to false gods all throughout the nation. He even placed “the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord” (2 Kings 21:7 ESV). On top of that, Manasseh followed the practices of the pagan nations, instituting child sacrifice as a part of their worship. He was so wicked that the author of 2 Kings states, “Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:9 ESV).

And God pronounced His judgment against Manasseh, warning that his behavior was going to have dire consequences.

Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.” – 2 Kings 21:11-15 ESV

Eventually, Manasseh died and his son, Amon took his place on the throne. He followed in his father’s footsteps, continuing his legacy of idolatry and apostasy. But his reign was shortlived, lasting only two years before he was assassinated by his own servants. He was succeeded by his son Josiah who, at the age of eight, was given the responsibility of leading a nation who had turned its back on God. But for the next 31 years, Josiah would prove to be a royal anomaly, leading the nation of Judah in a period of unprecedented spiritual renewal and revival.

…he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. – 2 Kings 22:2 ESV

Josiah instituted a series of reforms designed to restore the nation’s allegiance to Yahweh. He ordered repairs to the much-neglected temple. He recommitted the nation to keep the law of God. He razed all the high places and pagan shrines dedicated to the false gods of the Canaanites. And finally, he reinstituted the annual celebration of Passover. These initiatives set Josiah apart from all his predecessors, establishing him as an example of faithfulness and righteousness.

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. – 2 Kings 23:25 ESV

But despite all of his efforts, Josiah’s reforms made little impact on the hearts of the people of Judah. God knew that nothing had really changed and His plans for dealing with the sins of Manasseh remained unaltered because the people remained unfaithful.

Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. – 2 Kings 23:26 ESV

Josiah was eventually killed in combat by Egyptian forces and replaced as king by his son Jehoahaz. But his reign would last only three months before Neco, the Pharaoh of Egypt, removed him from power and replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim. For the next 11 years, Jehoiakim would rule over Judah, emulating his father’s evil ways and continuing the nation’s downward spiritual spiral. All the reforms of Josiah would be neglected and the idolatrous practices of Manasseh would be restored.

he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his fathers had done. – 2 Kings 23:37 ESV

And it was during this dark period of Judah’s history that Habakkuk received his prophetic call from God. It was accompanied by the rise of the nation of Babylon, a powerful pagan people who were slowly replacing the Assyrians as the force to be reckoned with in the region. While the Assyrians had already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and taken a large contingent of their people into captivity, they would soon find their 15-minutes of fame coming to an abrupt end. In 605 B.C., the Babylonians defeated a combined army of Egyptians and Assyrians at the battle of Carchemish, establishing themselves as the major power in the ancient Near East. The book of 2 Kings reveals that the Babylonians soon relegated Judah’s status in the region as that of a vassal state.

In his days, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant for three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him. And the Lord sent against him bands of the Chaldeans and bands of the Syrians and bands of the Moabites and bands of the Ammonites, and sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by his servants the prophets. Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done… – 2 Kings 24:1-3 ESV

Jehoiakim’s reign would last 11 years, with the final three years marked by subservience to the Babylonians. But long before the Babylonians came to prominence and power, God would use Habakkuk to warn of their coming.

For I am doing something in your own day,
    something you wouldn’t believe
    even if someone told you about it.
I am raising up the Babylonians,
    a cruel and violent people.
They will march across the world
    and conquer other lands. – Habakkuk 1:5-6 NLT

While Jehoiakim and the people of Judah were busy turning their backs on God, He was planning their judgment. And what God was going to do would come as a complete surprise to the people of Judah. They had no way of knowing about Babylon’s rise to power. In their minds, it was the Assyrians who were the major threat to their well-being. But God had something else in store. While they continued to place their hope and trust in false gods, Yahweh was planning His righteous retribution for their blatant violation of their covenant commitment to Him.

One of the things that the book of Habakkuk will reveal is the prophet’s struggle with God’s ways. He was commissioned to speak on God’s behalf, but he didn’t fully comprehend what it was that God was doing. Even as a prophet, he was confused as to why God would choose to use a pagan nation to punish the chosen people of God. To Habakkuk, the plans God had for Judah’s demise seemed unfair and uncharacteristic of His covenant commitment to them. While Habakkuk was fully aware of Judah’s wickedness, his national pride made it difficult for him to understand what God was doing. So, part of the book contains his questions to God. In fact, verse two opens up with the words, “O Lord, how long?”

But God wanted Habakkuk to know what Isaiah the prophet had come to understand.

Seek the Lord while you can find him.
    Call on him now while he is near.
Let the wicked change their ways
    and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
    Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:6-9 NLT

Habakkuk may not have understood what God was doing, but he would eventually to learn to trust His 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

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

The Good, the Bad, and God

34 To crush underfoot
    all the prisoners of the earth,
35 to deny a man justice
    in the presence of the Most High,
36 to subvert a man in his lawsuit,
    the Lord does not approve.

37 Who has spoken and it came to pass,
    unless the Lord has commanded it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come?
39 Why should a living man complain,
    a man, about the punishment of his sins?

40 Let us test and examine our ways,
    and return to the Lord! – Lamentations 3:34-40 ESV

Jeremiah was painfully aware that the nation of Judah stood fully and justifiably condemned before God. They were guilty as charged and their fate had been ordained by the hand of God. It was the just and righteous punishment they so thoroughly deserved. And while God had graciously delayed His judgment for generations, He had not forgotten His promise to punish His chosen people for their rejection of Him. Their spiritual infidelity had become so pervasive that He could no longer allow them to defame His holy name through their unholy actions.

Jeremiah reminds his fellow citizens that God had not been blind to their behavior. He had seen it all. And He had grown tired of their blatant disregard for His holy law. They had long ago forgotten what it means to live in obedience to God’s law. The admonition delivered by Moses to the Israelites while they were still in the wilderness had been clear and compelling.

And now, Israel, what does the LORD your God require of you? He requires only that you fear the LORD your God, and live in a way that pleases him, and love him and serve him with all your heart and soul. And you must always obey the LORD’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good. – Deuteronomy 10:12-13 NLT

And yet, over the centuries, God’s people had failed to live in a way that pleased Him. They made it all about themselves. God became little more than a cosmic Genie in a bottle, whom the Israelites turned to when all else failed. They had long ago forgotten what it means to fear God, treating the Almighty as if He was just one more god in a long list of possible options. And over time, their outward behavior stood as evidence of their unbelief. Their actions condemned them.

And Jeremiah had spent years pointing out the glaring wickedness of their ways.

“Among my people are wicked men
who lie in wait for victims like a hunter hiding in a blind.
They continually set traps
to catch people.
Like a cage filled with birds,
their homes are filled with evil plots.
And now they are great and rich.
They are fat and sleek,
and there is no limit to their wicked deeds.
They refuse to provide justice to orphans
and deny the rights of the poor.
Should I not punish them for this?” says the Lord.
“Should I not avenge myself against such a nation?” – Jeremiah 5:26-29 NLT

And now, Jeremiah reminds his fellow sufferers that they had received the just recompense for their sins against God.

If people crush underfoot
all the prisoners of the land,
if they deprive others of their rights
in defiance of the Most High,
if they twist justice in the courts—
doesn’t the Lord see all these things? – Lamentations 3:34-36 NLT

They had lived their lives as if God was blind or oblivious to their actions. But now they knew that He had seen it all and He had held them accountable. Everything that had happened to them was the direct result of God’s sovereign will. It had not been a mistake. It had not been the result of poor timing, bad luck, or the fickleness of fate. It had been the providential plan of God Almighty.

Who can command things to happen
without the Lord’s permission?
Does not the Most High
send both calamity and good?
Then why should we, mere humans, complain
when we are punished for our sins? – Lamentations 3:37-39 NLT

The people of Judah couldn’t blame Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians for their problems. They had been little more than instruments in the hands of God. They had been His chosen means for delivering His divine judgment against a stubborn rebellious people. The people of Judah had been punished by God for their sins against Him. And they had no cause to complain.

For years, they had lived in a state of overconfidence, basking in the goodness of God’s blessings, while regularly disobeying His commands. They thought they were immune from judgment. As God’s chosen people, they lived with a false sense of security, wrongly assuming that they were divinely protected from harm. But disobedience always leads to discipline. They were wrong to assume that their unique relationship with God made them untouchable by God. If anything, God was holding them to a higher standard. He had expected them to live lives that were distinctively different from all the other nations around them.

But their behavior had brought shame to the name of God. Their actions reflected poorly on His character. As His children, they bore God’s name, but they had failed to live up to their calling as His sons and daughters. Now, they were suffering the consequences for their blatant disregard for His holiness.

“For I, the LORD, am the one who brought you up from the land of Egypt, that I might be your God. Therefore, you must be holy because I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:45 NLT

Their holiness was not an option. It had been God’s expectation from the moment He had chosen Abram out of Ur and promised to make of him a great nation. His descendants would be God’s chosen people, unique among all the nations of the earth. And their relationship with God, determined by His law and regulated by His sacrificial system, was to have set them apart as holy and wholly belonging to Him. But their lack of holiness had left a black eye on God’s character. And now they were suffering because of it.

So, Jeremiah calls them to examine their lives and to understand that their current circumstances were ordained by God and were for their own good.

…let us test and examine our ways.
Let us turn back to the Lord. – Lamentations 3:40 NLT

God had blessed them. Now, God was punishing them. But it was all for their good. And Jeremiah wanted them to learn the invaluable lesson that both the good and the bad come from the hand of God. And both are conditioned upon the love of God. He disciplines those whom He loves. But it is often difficult for us to recognize God’s love when it shows up as correction. It feels like anger. It comes across as rejection. But as Jeremiah stated earlier in this same chapter.

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning. – Lamentations 3:22-23 NLT

As God’s children, we must learn to recognize His love in all the circumstances of life. From the good to the bad, the enjoyable to the painful, the indescribable to the inexplicable, God never falls out of love with us. And, like Job, we must learn to see that God’s love never fails, whether we fail to understand it or not.

“Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 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

No Faith. No Hope.

The roads to Zion mourn,
    for none come to the festival;
all her gates are desolate;
    her priests groan;
her virgins have been afflicted,
    and she herself suffers bitterly.

Her foes have become the head;
    her enemies prosper,
because the Lord has afflicted her
    for the multitude of her transgressions;
her children have gone away,
    captives before the foe.

From the daughter of Zion
    all her majesty has departed.
Her princes have become like deer
    that find no pasture;
they fled without strength
    before the pursuer.

Jerusalem remembers
    in the days of her affliction and wandering
all the precious things
    that were hers from days of old.
When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
    and there was none to help her,
her foes gloated over her;
    they mocked at her downfall. – Lamentations 1:4-7 ESV

All throughout this book, the author utilizes the literary device of personification in which human attributes and qualities are given to nonhuman or inanimate objects. He describes the city of Jerusalem as “the daughter of Zion” and provides “her” with a range of human qualities, from fear and sorrow to pain and suffering.

This former “princess” turned “widow” is portrayed in terms that are meant to stir the reader’s emotions and elicit both sympathy and shock. Jeremiah wants everyone who reads this story to ask, “How did this happen?” By personifying Jerusalem and Judah as helpless women who were having to suffer needlessly for the sins of others, Jeremiah was able to confront his fellow countrymen for their culpability in the nation’s fall and the city’s sad fate.

Every Jew who found themselves exposed to the words written by Jeremiah would be reminded that they had played a role in the demise and destruction of their beloved homeland. It had been the persistent rebellion of the people against God that had led to their judgment by God. And it had come in the form of the years-long Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that had ended in the plundering, pillaging, and burning of the city. The beautiful temple built by Solomon, the symbol of God’s abiding presence and that had stood for more than 400 years, had been ransacked and reduced to rubble.  And with its destruction, the entire sacrificial system God had ordained as a means for providing atonement for sin was eliminated.

Life in Judah had come to a complete halt. Nothing was the same anymore. No longer could the people make their annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem to celebrate the feasts and festivals that had been so integral to Israel’s identity as a nation. That’s why Jeremiah describes the city as lonely, and the roads to Zion as in a state of mourning “for none come to the festival” (Lamentations 1:4 ESV). The gates of the city are completely deserted. Once the centers of commerce and the portals through which the throngs of people made their way into the city, these gates stood like vacant eyes staring into the empty streets and buildings of the once-great city.

With no temple in which to offer sacrifices on behalf of the people, the priests have nothing to do. And the few virgins who remain in the city are distraught became they have no one to marry. All the able-bodied men have been taken captive and deported by the Babylonians.

The enemies of Judah have prevailed. And Jeremiah pulls no punches when he explains the cause of Judah’s sad state of affairs: “because the Lord has afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions” (Lamentations 1:5 ESV). He wanted his readers to never forget that the fall of Judah and Jerusalem had been the sovereign work of God Almighty. God had warned them this would happen. Long before they ever set foot in the land of promise, God had spoken through Moses, providing the people of Israel with the non-negotiable conditions surrounding His covenant relationship with them. As His people, they could choose to serve Him obediently and enjoy the many blessings He promised. Or they could choose to break their covenant agreement and suffer the consequences.

“If you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and to obey the commands and decrees he has given you, all these curses will pursue and overtake you until you are destroyed. These horrors will serve as a sign and warning among you and your descendants forever. If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. You will be left hungry, thirsty, naked, and lacking in everything. The Lord will put an iron yoke on your neck, oppressing you harshly until he has destroyed you.” – Deuteronomy 38:45-48 NLT

Now, here they were, living in the stark reality of God’s promised judgment. It had all happened just as He had said it would. Their king and princes were gone. The royal palace had been plundered and destroyed. The nation’s brightest and best had been taken captive and transported to Babylon. The economy was in ruins. With no standing army, the nation was completely defenseless. There weren’t enough laborers to plant and harvest the fields. A massive tribute tax kept the few who remained in a constant state of poverty and despair. And it was all because they had failed to heed God’s warning and obey His commands.

All they had left were their collective memories.

Jerusalem remembers
    in the days of her affliction and wandering
all the precious things
    that were hers from days of old. – Lamentations 1:7 ESV

They had all the time in the world to reminisce and recall the nation’s former days of glory. At one time, Judah had been a major player in the geopolitical landscape of the region. Even after Israel, their northern neighbor had fallen to the Assyrians, Judah had continued to enjoy a period of relative peace and prosperity. They had been cocky and self-assured, resting in the false confidence that they were God’s chosen people and, therefore, immune from harm. Their alliances with Egypt and other neighboring nations had left them feeling self-assured and untouchable. Regardless of the fact that Babylon was making significant inroads into the region, Judah considered itself invulnerable and impervious.

But they had been wrong. Their sins against God had been great and His warnings of pending judgment had been true. The nations in whom they had placed so much hope had proved to be unreliable and fair-weather friends.

When her people fell into the hand of the foe,
    and there was none to help her,
her foes gloated over her;
    they mocked at her downfall. – Lamentations 1:7 ESV

Even when Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, had threatened to attack Judah, he had laughed at their pitiful peace treaty with Egypt.

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!” – 2 Kings 18:19-21 NLT

Even this pagan king recognized that Judah’s hope of deliverance was ill-founded. Their confidence was resting in a source that was insufficient to deliver them. And Sennacherib had even insinuated that the God of Judah would not save them.

“But perhaps you will say to me, ‘We are trusting in the LORD our God!’ But isn’t he the one who was insulted by Hezekiah? Didn’t Hezekiah tear down his shrines and altars and make everyone in Judah and Jerusalem worship only at the altar here in Jerusalem?” – 2 Kings 18:22 NLT

What this pagan king failed to understand was that the actions of Hezekiah had actually resulted in God’s deliverance of Judah from the Assyrians. Hezekiah was one of the few good kings to rule over Judah. The son of the wicked King Ahaz, Hezekiah had instituted a series of reforms that included the tearing down of the many shrines to false gods his father had installed all across the nation. According to 2 Chronicles, Hezekiah “did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20). Under Hezekiah’s leadership, revival came to Judah. And it was his actions during the Assyrian siege that stemmed the tide and saved the day. Threatened with defeat at the hands of the Assyrians, Hezekiah had made his way to the temple and interceded on behalf of his nation before God.

“So now, O Lord our God, save us, please, from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you, O Lord, are God alone.” – 2 Kings 19:19 NLT

And God answered Hezekiah’s prayer.

Then Isaiah son of Amoz sent this message to Hezekiah: “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: I have heard your prayer about King Sennacherib of Assyria. And the Lord has spoken this word against him:

“The virgin daughter of Zion
    despises you and laughs at you.
The daughter of Jerusalem
    shakes her head in derision as you flee.” – 2 Kings 19:20-21 NLT

Hezekiah had placed his hope in God and He had come through. The Assyrians called off their siege and returned home. This one man’s faith in God had saved the day.

But sadly, when the Babylonians had arrived outside the gates of Jerusalem, there was no king like Hezekiah sitting on the throne of Judah. There had been no reforms. The pagan shrines had not been removed. There had been no revival among the people. And, therefore, there had been no miraculous deliverance by 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