Close, But No Cigar

48 That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, 49 “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. 50 And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 51 because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” Deuteronomy 32:48-52 ESV

That very day. Those three simple words are filled with significance. The same day on which Moses delivered the words of God’s song to the people of Israel would be his last. Not only would he be denied entrance into the land of Canaan, but he would exit this life for the next one. Moses is informed by God that he will die alone on a mountaintop somewhere on the eastern side of the Jordan.

The phrase, “close but no cigar” comes to mind. Moses was close enough to see the land, but would never have the joy of crossing over the Jordan and enjoying the fruit of all his labors. From the moment God had called him to deliverer Israel from their captivity in Egypt, Moses had lived with one objective in mind: To lead God’s people to the land He had promised as their inheritance. When God had appeared to Moses all those years earlier, it had been on another mountain top, at Horeb. And God had shown up in the form of a burning bush. On that occasion, God had delivered the news to Moses that He had plans for His people.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Fast-forward and that is exactly where we find Moses, standing on the edge of a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses could see it with his own eyes. He could look on it longingly, but he would never set foot there. All because he had sinned against God.

And it’s a bit ironic that Moses has just spent a great deal of time addressing the people of God about the need to keep God’s law faithfully and to treat God Himself reverently. He has gone out of his way to stress the seriousness of sin and the danger of disobedience. In a way, Moses had been speaking from personal experience. He knew firsthand what happens when you fail to do God’s will on God’s terms. There was no room for improvisation. God was not interested in seeing their version of His will. He had not asked for their input or allowed them the option of extemporizing on His commands. But that is exactly what Moses had done.

God accuses Moses of breaking faith with Him and of failing to treat Him as holy. But what had he done? What was the crime Moses committed that kept him from entering the land of promise? The story is recorded in Numbers 20. And it began with the people of God complaining about their lack of water.

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place? – Numbers 20:2-5 ESV

They were not happy campers. They were thirsty and they were upset. So, Moses took their complaint to God, who provided Moses with very specific instructions.

“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” – Numbers 20:8 ESV

But what did Moses do? How did he end up enacting the instructions given to him by God? The text is very explicit. Moses and Aaron gathered all the people together and prepared to do what God had told them to do, but with a slight twist.

“Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. – Numbers 20:10-11 ESV

You can almost hear the anger in his voice. He is put out with the people of Israel. This was not the first time he had been confronted by their anger and resentment. And it had only been a short time since his sister Miriam had died. He had not even had time to grieve over his loss and now he was having to deal with these ungrateful and grumbling ingrates again. So, he took advantage of the God-given opportunity to put on a show for the people. He struck the rock with the staff. Not exactly what God had told him to do. But his act of anger-induced spontaneity seemed to produce the same results. “Water came out abundantly and the congregation drank, and their livestock.”

But he had not done God’s will God’s way. And God accused Moses of breaking faith and treating Him as unholy. He had let his anger get the best of him. And in doing so, he displayed his lack of faith in God. It is almost as if Moses doubted that God was going to do what He had promised to do. Look closely at the words Moses spoke before striking the rock: “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”

Notice the emphasis on himself and Aaron, not God. And there is a degree of uncertainty or doubt in his voice as he states, “shall we…?” Perhaps Moses was questioning the ability of God to bring water out of a rock. He seems to be having misgivings about God’s plan. So, rather than speak to the rock as God had commanded, he decided to use the staff to strike the rock. He took out his anger on the rock. And the apostle Paul would later describe that rock as being a symbol or representation of Jesus Himself.

For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:3 ESV

Moses struck the rock. And in doing so, he displayed a lack of faith in God and demonstrated a disdain for the holiness of God. That rock was to have been a symbol of God’s gracious provision. There was no need to beat God into caring for their needs. God did not require coercion or compulsion. But because Moses did what he did, he was denied access to the land of promise. His sin was no different than the generation fo Israelies who refused to enter Canaan due to their fear of the giants in the land. They doubted God and trusted the words of men. And they all died in the wilderness.

Because Moses had failed to treat God as holy, he would fail to enter the land of promise. God is holy and He demands those who bear His name to live their lives in such a way that His reputation is honored by their actions. Moses had been God’s shepherd over the nation of Israel. He was God’s hand-picked leader and all that he said and did reflected on the character of God. He was held to a high standard. He was obligated to live according to God’s will faithfully and to speak God’s Word accurately. And because he didn’t, he was denied access into the land of promise.

For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 32:52 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

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Disobedience, Discipline, and Destruction

36 “The Lord will bring you and your king whom you set over you to a nation that neither you nor your fathers have known. And there you shall serve other gods of wood and stone. 37 And you shall become a horror, a proverb, and a byword among all the peoples where the Lord will lead you away. 38 You shall carry much seed into the field and shall gather in little, for the locust shall consume it. 39 You shall plant vineyards and dress them, but you shall neither drink of the wine nor gather the grapes, for the worm shall eat them. 40 You shall have olive trees throughout all your territory, but you shall not anoint yourself with the oil, for your olives shall drop off. 41 You shall father sons and daughters, but they shall not be yours, for they shall go into captivity. 42 The cricket shall possess all your trees and the fruit of your ground. 43 The sojourner who is among you shall rise higher and higher above you, and you shall come down lower and lower. 44 He shall lend to you, and you shall not lend to him. He shall be the head, and you shall be the tail.

45 “All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed, because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you. 46 They shall be a sign and a wonder against you and your offspring forever. 47 Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart, because of the abundance of all things, 48 therefore you shall serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you, in hunger and thirst, in nakedness, and lacking everything. And he will put a yoke of iron on your neck until he has destroyed you. 49 The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the end of the earth, swooping down like the eagle, a nation whose language you do not understand, 50 a hard-faced nation who shall not respect the old or show mercy to the young. 51 It shall eat the offspring of your cattle and the fruit of your ground, until you are destroyed; it also shall not leave you grain, wine, or oil, the increase of your herds or the young of your flock, until they have caused you to perish.”  Deuteronomy 28:36-51 ESV

How much worse can it get? Evidently, much worse. Because Moses is far from done with his compilation of curses that will come upon the Israelites should they fail to obey God’s commands. And for anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of Israel’s history, his list has gone from premonitory to prophetic. These are no longer warnings concerning what might happen, but bold predictions of what will be.

Look at the specificity of Moses’ warning. He speaks of a king who will reign over Israel – a man whom they will appoint. What makes this significant is that there has been no talk of a king before. Israel was a theocracy, with God as their sovereign King. And yet, Moses describes their chosen king being taken into captivity by a previously unknown nation. This was going to be a human king whom they appointed as a replacement for God. And that is exactly what happened hundreds of years later when the people of Israel demanded that the prophet, Samuel, choose a king for them.

Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” – 1 Samuel 8:5 ESV

This took place after the period of the judges, when the people of Israel had repeatedly rebelled against God and suffered many of the curses Moses had warned them about. Each time they rebelled, the judgment of God came and they would cry out to God. He would respond by sending a judge to rescue and rule over them. This would result in a brief period of repentance and renewal, but was always followed by more rebellion. And the cycle would repeat itself. But eventually, the people demanded a king, a man who would rule over them just like the kings who reigned over all the other nations. And God madeit  clear to Samuel that, in demanding a king, the people were rejecting Him.

“Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them. – 1 Samuel 8:7 ESV

It wasn’t that God had never intended for Israel to have a king. It was that their timing was poor and their motivation was wrong. Earlier in the book of Deuteronomy, God had told the people of Israel that the day would come when they would demand a king, but He also told them that the man  would have to meet certain requirements.

“When you come to the land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you possess it and dwell in it and then say, ‘I will set a king over me, like all the nations that are around me,’ you may indeed set a king over you whom the Lord your God will choose. One from among your brothers you shall set as king over you.” – Deuteronomy 17:14-15 ESV

The man who served as king would be chosen by God and would have to be knowledgeable of and obedient to His law.

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

But, here in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy, Moses describes a future scene where the king of Israel is being deported as a slave to a foreign country. The nation of Israel has fallen and the king is just one more captive being transported out of the land of promise by his conquering foes. And all because he failed to keep the words of the law and the statutes God had given them.

And in the new surroundings of their captivity, the Israelites will “shall serve other gods of wood and stone” (Deuteronomy 28:36 ESV). Having rejected God and His law, they will find themselves worshiping the false gods of their enemy. No longer set apart as God’s chosen people, living in the land of promise, they will experience the pain of captivity yet again. It will be Egypt all over again. Rather than being the prized possession of God, Moses warns them they will “become an object of horror, ridicule, and mockery among all the nations to which the Lord sends you” (Deuteronomy 28:37 ESV). And even in captivity, things will go from bad to worse. The curses will continue.

They will continue to experience fruitlessness and lack of productivity in their agricultural pursuits. Due to insects and disease, their harvests will be small. Any children they bear in captivity will end up as slaves. Rather than enjoying their former status as God’s chosen people, they’ll find themselves living in abject poverty while the non-Jews among them experience prosperity. Being a Jew will become a liability, not an asset.

And Moses makes clear why these things will happen: “because you did not obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that he commanded you” (Deuteronomy 28:45 ESV). It all hinges on their decision to disobey God’s law. Their disobedience will not only bring God’s discipline, it will ultimately result in their destruction. Disobedience, like cancer, has a way of spreading and growing, eventually infecting the entire body. The decision to rebel against God produces subsequent acts of rebellion, hardening the heart and producing a stubbornness that makes repentance increasingly more difficult.  And the just and righteous judgment of God requires that He discipline rebellion quickly and decisively.

Moses warned that the curses he was discussing would come as a result of disobedience, but he added that they would serve as proof of their failure to serve God with joy and gladness of heart.

“All these curses shall come upon you and pursue you and overtake you till you are destroyed…Because you did not serve the Lord your God with joyfulness and gladness of heart. – Deuteronomy 28:45, 47 ESV

And their disobedience will result in God’s discipline and, ultimately, their destruction. God will not relent until they repent. The curses will continue and increase in intensity until Israel is completely destroyed. Moses drives that point home four different times in seven verses.

…till you are destroyed. – vs. 45

until he has destroyed you. – vs. 48

until you are destroyed. – vs. 51

until they have caused you to perish. – vs. 51

The sad reality will be that, in spite of God’s generosity, kindness, and compassion, the people of Israel will fail to respond to Him in gratitude, joy, and gladness. And, while Moses will go out of his way to warn the people about the judgments of God that come on all who disobey Him, the people of Israel will regularly and repeatedly prove to be unfaithful. And as this passage points out and history will prove true, Israel will suffer the consequences.

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

Courtesy and Common Sense

1 “You shall not see your brother’s ox or his sheep going astray and ignore them. You shall take them back to your brother. And if he does not live near you and you do not know who he is, you shall bring it home to your house, and it shall stay with you until your brother seeks it. Then you shall restore it to him. And you shall do the same with his donkey or with his garment, or with any lost thing of your brother’s, which he loses and you find; you may not ignore it. You shall not see your brother’s donkey or his ox fallen down by the way and ignore them. You shall help him to lift them up again.

“A woman shall not wear a man’s garment, nor shall a man put on a woman’s cloak, for whoever does these things is an abomination to the Lord your God.

“If you come across a bird’s nest in any tree or on the ground, with young ones or eggs and the mother sitting on the young or on the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall let the mother go, but the young you may take for yourself, that it may go well with you, and that you may live long.

“When you build a new house, you shall make a parapet for your roof, that you may not bring the guilt of blood upon your house, if anyone should fall from it.

“You shall not sow your vineyard with two kinds of seed, lest the whole yield be forfeited, the crop that you have sown and the yield of the vineyard. 10 You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together. 11 You shall not wear cloth of wool and linen mixed together.

12 “You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself.– Deuteronomy 22:1-12 ESV

Let’s face it. These are some strange-sounding commands that appear to have little or nothing in common. They come across as a set of random rules dealing with a set of seemingly disconnected circumstances. After all, what does returning your brother’s lost ox have to do with building a parapet on your roof? And what do the verses which seem to be addressing cross-dressing have to do with the proper procedure for gathering eggs?

As Moses has revealed before, God was deeply concerned about all aspects of His chosen peoples’ lives. He has provided the Israelites with little leeway. And while many of these commands begin with the familiar phrase, “you shall not…,” they come across less as hard-and-fast prohibitions forbidding certain behaviors than they do as common-sense advice for living. And while, at first glance, they may appear to be somewhat heterogeneous in nature, they share a common theme.

Life within the nation of Israel was to be communal. God had declared the entire nation to be His chosen people. Each of the 12 tribes with each of their various clans formed a collective whole. And within that community, God expected His people to live together in unity, expressing their love for Him through acts of compassion and concern for one another.

Earlier on in the book of Deuteronomy, Moses gave the people of Israel the following command, which became the central part of the Shema, the daily prayer of the Jewish people.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-9 ESV

Love for God was a central tenet to the Hebrew faith. But that love had to have an outlet. It had to be expressed in acts of obedience. And many of the commands God gave to the people of Israel were other-oriented. In other words, they dealt with the interpersonal relationships between fellow Jews. The way they treated one another would be a powerful and visible expression of their love for God.

That is why, when Jesus was asked by the Jewish religious leaders to name the greatest of all the commandments, He stated: “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38 NLT). But then, He quickly added, “A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:39 NLT). Then Jesus summed up His answer with the following point of clarification: “The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:40 NLT).

It is impossible to love God without expressing love for others. And the apostle John makes that distinction quite plain.

If someone says, “I love God,” but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? – 1 John 4:20 NLT

That simple, yet profound message seems to be at the core of all the commands found in this section of Deuteronomy. For the most part, they are all horizontal and interpersonal in nature – they flow from one individual to another. And yet, they are concrete expressions of love for God. They display concern for His creation, whether it’s your brother who lost his ox, the ox itself, a bird in its nest, a guest in your home, or the animals used to plow your fields.

Verses 1-4 seem to be dealing with issues concerning common courtesy. If your neighbor has lost his ox, you should show concern. This is nothing more than the Golden Rule lived out in real life. Jesus Himself expressed this sentiment when He said, “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT).

The Mosaic law put a high priority on the personal interactions between fellow Jews. In fact, Leviticus 19:18 contains the following command: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.” That’s fairly straightforward and, apparently, not up for debate. To show disregard for your neighbor by neglecting to return his lost ox would be a blatant display of hatred toward God. That’s a convicting and condemning thought.

Even the verses dealing with women and men wearing the clothing of the opposite sex seem to be dealing with interpersonal relationships. It most likely has to do with deception. While there is an obvious moral component to these verses, the context has to do with love for one another. A woman dressing in the clothes of a man would have no implications unless her actions were meant to deceive others. She would be attempting to portray herself as something other than what she really was. And the same would be true of a man who dressed as a woman. For either to do so would be considered an abomination, a disgusting and immoral act. But again, the emphasis in the verses seems to be on the interpersonal relationships between individuals.

The inference seems to be that a woman who dresses as a man is trying to deceive others. She would be attempting to cover up her true, God-given identity, with a false one. And the same would apply to a man who dressed in a woman’s clothing.

Verses 6-7 veer in what appears to be a totally different direction, dealing with the collection of eggs found in a nest. This seems to deal with the proper treatment of God’s creation. God made man to be the steward over His creation.

“Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” – Genesis 1:28 ESV

The plants, birds, and animals were to serve as sources of sustenance for mankind, but they were to be treated with proper care and concern. Man was not free to abuse God’s creation. So, if someone discovered a bird’s nest containing eggs or recently hatched chicks, they were free to take the eggs or chicks, but they were not to take the hen. This would allow the hen to produce future eggs. Proper care for God’s creation would have long-term benefits. “Do this so that it may go well with you and you may have a long life” (Deuteronomy 22:7 NLT).

The building of a parapet or safety wall around the roof of a home was just another common-sense practice that expressed concern for others. While it might require added construction expense, it would be the right thing to do. If it could prevent the inadvertent death of an innocent individual, any additional cost in money or time would be well worth it. What price can you put on a human life?

In verses 9-11, we have a series of commands prohibiting the mixing of seeds, animals, and fabrics. Again, at first blush, these rules seem odd and unnecessary to us. But they display God’s concern for every aspect of Israelite life. While these restrictions may come across as petty to us, there was a method to God’s seeming madness. All of these things are tied to the pagan practices of the Canaanites. So, while these restrictions have practical applications tied to them, they are really designed to separate the Israelites from the nations around them. The blending of two types of seeds was a common practice among the pagans, because they believed doing would have a mystical benefit to crop production. The combining of dissimilar things was thought to have magical benefits. But God would not allow the Israelites to do things the world’s way. And from a practical standpoint, the combining of these things was ineffective and unhelpful. An ox and donkey will not plow well together. Two different types of cloths will not wear well together. Two different types of seeds will produce a less-than-perfect harvest. So, the Israelites were to do things God’s way.

The final command contains a reminder, not a prohibition. This verse sums up all that Moses had just told them by reminding the Israelites to live their lives set apart unto God.

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Give the following instructions to the people of Israel: Throughout the generations to come you must make tassels for the hems of your clothing and attach them with a blue cord. When you see the tassels, you will remember and obey all the commands of the Lord instead of following your own desires and defiling yourselves, as you are prone to do. The tassels will help you remember that you must obey all my commands and be holy to your God.” – Numbers 15:37-40 NLT

Every area of their lives was to be different and distinct. From the way they treated one another to the way they interacted with God’s creation. As His chosen people, they were to live distinctively different lives – for their own good and His glory.

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

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

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

Free From the Curse

22 “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23 his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ESV

God’s rules regarding the corporate stoning of a morally and spiritually degenerate son are now followed by strict instructions regarding the public display of the dead man’s body. Once the guilty party was put to death, it was common practice to hang the dead man’s body from a tree as a visual demonstration of the consequences of sin. It was also meant to serve as a deterrent, a somewhat macabre but effective means of discouraging others to take the same deadly path.

But God provided strict regulations concerning the disposal of the body.  It had to be removed from the tree and buried the same day as the execution. Otherwise, the curse of God, which resulted in the man’s death, would extend to the land. The public display of the man’s corpse was meant as a further means of humiliating and degrading the guilty one for his death-deserving sin. Even in death, he would be subjected to ridicule and scorn. The hanging of the body did not bring about the curse. It was a result of the curse that had deemed the man deserving of death.

The immediate burial of the body was essential in order to prevent ceremonial defiling of the land. Had the body been left hanging overnight, there is a greater likelihood that animals and birds would have desecrated the body, causing blood to spill onto the ground and essentially bringing the curse of the man upon the entire land. God had warned the Israelites about practicing the ways of the Canaanites. Their pagan, godless ways had literally cursed the land of Canaan, requiring God to ceremonially purge it by having the Israelites remove every vestige of Canaanite influence from the land.

“You shall not pollute the land in which you live, for blood pollutes the land, and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of the one who shed it. You shall not defile the land in which you live, in the midst of which I dwell, for I the Lord dwell in the midst of the people of Israel.” – Numbers 35:33-34 ESV

This requirement to bury the dead man’s body was meant to keep the Israelites from following one sin with another. Once the man was executed for his sin, his body was to be displayed, but then properly disposed of, so that the curse of death could be removed.

Sin against God has always carried with it a curse. When Adam and Eve rebelled against God in the garden, their actions brought about a series of curses from God, including the entrance of physical death into the equation.

“Because you have listened to the voice of your wife
    and have eaten of the tree
of which I commanded you,
    ‘You shall not eat of it,’
cursed is the ground because of you;
    in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life;
thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;
    and you shall eat the plants of the field.
By the sweat of your face
    you shall eat bread,
till you return to the ground,
    for out of it you were taken;
for you are dust,
    and to dust you shall return.” – Genesis 3:17-19 ESV

Adam’ sin brought a death sentence upon all mankind. It placed every single one of his descendants under a curse. And the apostle Paul goes out of his way to stress this sobering reality.

When Adam sinned, sin entered the world. Adam’s sin brought death, so death spread to everyone, for everyone sinned. – Romans 5:12 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, brought death to many. – Romans 5:15 NLT

For Adam’s sin led to condemnation… – Romans 5:16 NLT

For the sin of this one man, Adam, caused death to rule over many. – Romans 5:17 NLT

Yes, Adam’s one sin brings condemnation for everyone… – Romans 5:18 NLT

Because one person disobeyed God, many became sinners. – Romans 5:19 NLT

Don’t miss what Paul is saying. All mankind is under a curse and worthy of death. For all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glorious standard of righteousness (Romans 3:23). There is none righteous, no not one (Romans 3:10).

It Israelites who stood back and threw the stones that took the guilty man’s life were no more righteous. They were no less deserving of death. Their sins, while perhaps less egregious, we no less worthy of death. Their very existence made them worthy of death because they stood under the same curse that had condemned Adam. But God didn’t require them to die. Instead, He had extended them mercy.

This brings to mind the encounter between Jesus and the religious leaders of Israel. The scribes and Pharisees, seeing Jesus visiting the Mount of Olives, dragged a woman whom they claimed to be guilty of the crime of adultery. They said to Jesus, “Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” (John 8:5 ESV).

And Jesus wisely responded to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7 ESV). And then John records, “when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him” (John 8:9 ESV).

There was no one in the crowd that day who could claim to be sin-free. The spiritual state of every single human being is that of a sinner who is deserving of death for their rebellion against a holy and righteous God. And that brings us to the vital link between this obscure regulation regarding the burial of an executed criminal and the remedy for the curse of death.

In his letter to the churches in Galatia, Paul provides us with a connecting point that makes this Old Testament passage relevant. He reminds his readers that the Jews, who were required to live according to the Mosaic law, were under a God-ordained curse if they didn’t keep the entire law perfectly.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

The painful reality was that no Jew had ever kept all of God’s law without fail. As a result, every single Jew stood condemned, cursed, and worthy of death.  And Paul points out that keeping the law was never going to make anyone right with God. It was an impossible standard for sinful men to keep.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Galatians 3:11-12 ESV

The law was the righteous standard provided by God, but no one was able to live up to that standard. And them, Paul provides the missing link.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV

Jesus became the curse. He took on the sins of mankind and personally bore the full brunt of God’s righteous wrath against rebellious humanity. And His death was not by stoning. By time Jesus began His earthly ministry, the Romans had outlawed the Jewish practice of stoning because they wanted to control all forms of capital punishment. So, when Jesus was tried before the Sanhedrin, they needed to accuse Jesus of a crime that would warrant the Romans putting Him to death. They chose to accuse Jesus of claiming to be the rightful king of the Jews and of mounting an insurrection against the Romans. This resulted in Jesus being  “hanged on a tree” or crucified.

The prophet, Isaiah prophesied about Jesus and the death He would suffer on behalf of sinful mankind.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:4-5 ESV

With His death, Jesus provided a means by which sinful men and women could escape the curse of the law. By placing their faith in His personal sacrifice on their behalf, they could be freed from living under the looming curse of death associated with failure to keep God’s law.

In his first letter to the believers in Corinth, Paul provided another encouraging connection between Adam and Jesus.

So you see, just as death came into the world through a man, now the resurrection from the dead has begun through another man. Just as everyone dies because we all belong to Adam, everyone who belongs to Christ will be given new life. – 1 Corinthians 15:21-22 NLT

No one need die for their own sins anymore. God sent His Son to pay the penalty for every single violation of His law. But the gift of salvation made possible by Christ’s death and resurrection is only available to those who will accept it as what it is: A free gift made possible by God’s grace and received by faith alone in Christ alone.

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 Siren Call of Apostasy

1 If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. You shall walk after the Lord your God and fear him and keep his commandments and obey his voice, and you shall serve him and hold fast to him. But that prophet or that dreamer of dreams shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you out of the house of slavery, to make you leave the way in which the Lord your God commanded you to walk. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.

“If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son or your daughter or the wife you embrace or your friend who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which neither you nor your fathers have known, some of the gods of the peoples who are around you, whether near you or far off from you, from the one end of the earth to the other, you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him. Your hand shall be first against him to put him to death, and afterward the hand of all the people. 10 You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. 11 And all Israel shall hear and fear and never again do any such wickedness as this among you.

12 “If you hear in one of your cities, which the Lord your God is giving you to dwell there, 13 that certain worthless fellows have gone out among you and have drawn away the inhabitants of their city, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods,’ which you have not known, 14 then you shall inquire and make search and ask diligently. And behold, if it be true and certain that such an abomination has been done among you, 15 you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword. 16 You shall gather all its spoil into the midst of its open square and burn the city and all its spoil with fire, as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. It shall be a heap forever. It shall not be built again. 17 None of the devoted things shall stick to your hand, that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of his anger and show you mercy and have compassion on you and multiply you, as he swore to your fathers, 18 if you obey the voice of the Lord your God, keeping all his commandments that I am commanding you today, and doing what is right in the sight of the Lord your God. – Deuteronomy 13:1-18 ESV

Chapter 12 ended with the following call from Moses:

“Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. – Deuteronomy 12:32 ESV

And what follows in chapter 13 was intended to provide the Israelites with concrete, real-life examples of what adding or taking away from the law might look like. Moses wanted them to know that keeping God’s commands was about far more than what they did or did not do. The temptation to play fast and loose with God’s laws was going to be great, and it would come in a variety of forms. So, Moses provided them with three concrete illustrations of just how subtle and subversive the threat to their faithfulness to God could show up.

It is important to note that this is a communal problem, not just an individual one. The call to faithfulness and obedience was national in scope and aimed at the entire Israelite community. No family, tribe, or city was exempt. There were to be no exceptions, and anyone who failed to treat God’s commands with reverence and respect were to be dealt with quickly and harshly.

In each of the three case-studies Moses provides, the common theme and threat is apostasy, a turning away from God to serve a false god. In other words, they each involve idolatry, which is a direct violation of the first of the Ten Commandments. Moses presents the same basic scenario in three different forms but featuring one common element: The call to abandon God.

“Let us go after other gods…” – vs. 2

“Let us go and serve other gods…” – vs. 6

Let us go and serve other gods…” – vs. 13

One message, but each delivered by three radically different messengers. The first two are individuals, and their inclusion was meant to surprise and shock the Israelites. The first is a prophet, a respected religious leader. The second is a trusted family member. No Israelite in their right mind would have expected a prophet of God or a member of their own family to issue a call to practice idolatry. Such a thing would have been unthinkable.

But the point Moses seems to be making is that call to apostasy can come from the most unexpected places and from the least likely sources. Yet, regardless of the source, the people of Israel were to take it seriously and deal with it immediately.

A prophet was considered a spokesman for God. He was to have been a messenger of God who faithfully proclaimed the word and will of God. A prophet was a truth-teller. Yet, Moses described a scenario in which a prophet issued a call to the people of Israel to abandon God in order to serve gods “which you have not known.”

So, get the picture. Here you have a recognized leader, who by virtue of his role, represents and speaks for God Almighty. But he is encouraging the people to disobey the very first commandment. Because he is a prophet, the people would be prone to take his words as having come from God. But Moses makes it clear that if this man’s message is not in keeping with the commands of God, he is not speaking on behalf of God. He is a liar and he “shall be put to death, because he has taught rebellion against the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 13:5 ESV).

Notice how Moses describes this seemingly unlikely scenario: “For the Lord your God is testing you, to know whether you love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul.”

The Israelites were going to face constant tests to their faithfulness. And Moses wanted them to know that the call to idolatry could and would come from the most unexpected places, including the lips of men who claimed to be speaking for God. That’s why Moses has put so much stress on hearing and knowing the commands of God. It is why he told the people to make them a permanent part of their lives.

“…commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that as long as the sky remains above the earth, you and your children may flourish in the land the LORD swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 11:18-21 NLT

The best way to recognize falsehood is to know the truth. And as long as the people of Israel made the commands of God their highest priority, they would be able to discern a lie, even if it came from a so-called prophet of God.

But the next scenario Moses described brought the danger even closer to home, literally. It involves an intimate friend or family member issuing a secret call to join them in apostasy. Unlike the prophet calling the entire nation to disobey the command of God, this close friend or relative is using their familial relationship to encourage unfaithfulness. And because it involves a close friend or family member, the temptation will be that much greater. But the point Moses seems to be making is that it is the content of the message that matters, not the source. It doesn’t matter whether the call to unfaithfulness comes from a prophet or a parent, the response is to be the same.

“…you shall not yield to him or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him.” – Deuteronomy 13:8-9 ESV

The lie was the same, regardless of the lips from which it came. And the danger was just as real whether it came from a religious leader or a relative. So, Moses outlines a non-negotiable strategy for eliminating the threat of apostasy.

You shall stone him to death with stones, because he sought to draw you away from the Lord your God…” – Deuteronomy 13:10 ESV

This kind of language shocks and surprises us. It all sounds so barbaric and inhumane. It rubs against our modern sensibilities and seems to contradict our view of God as loving and kind. But we must remember that God is holy, righteous, and just. He cannot and will not tolerate sin. It is nothing less than open rebellion to His sovereign will. God had great things in store for the people of Israel, but it was going to require that they obey Him by taking His commands seriously. And the greatest affront to God’s holiness is to reject His status as the one and only God. Which is why Moses had repeatedly told the Israelites:

“Listen, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. And you must commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these commands that I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 6:4-6 NLT

That’s why the call, “let us go after other gods” was to be considered so egregious and dangerous, no matter whose lips it came from. And that brings us to the third and final scenario. This time it entails an entire city. Moses describes a group of “worthless fellows” – literally, “sons of Belial.” These are individuals lacking in morals and scruples who influence and, ultimately, infect an entire town with their apostasy. They issue the very same call, “Let us go and serve other gods” and, in time, the entire city buys into their lie and follows their lead. So, what is the rest of Israel to do? How are they to respond to this isolated case of unfaithfulness in their midst? Moses provides them with the answer.

“…you shall surely put the inhabitants of that city to the sword, devoting it to destruction, all who are in it and its cattle, with the edge of the sword.” – Deuteronomy 13:15 ESV

No punches pulled. No excuses accepted. No exceptions made. This was to be treated with a soberness and seriousness that reflected an understanding of the danger involved. Sin, like cancer left untreated, will spread unchecked and result in the spiritual death of the community. And the greatest sin is that of apostasy, rejecting God as the one true God. The constant threat God’s people face is to listen to the siren call to seek and serve other gods. It is subtle and can come from the least-expected places. But regardless of the source, we are to reject the message and do what is right in the sight of our 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

 

 

 

A Former Kingdom of Priests

 1 “At that time the Lord said to me, ‘Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and come up to me on the mountain and make an ark of wood. And I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets that you broke, and you shall put them in the ark.’ So I made an ark of acacia wood, and cut two tablets of stone like the first, and went up the mountain with the two tablets in my hand. And he wrote on the tablets, in the same writing as before, the Ten Commandments that the Lord had spoken to you on the mountain out of the midst of the fire on the day of the assembly. And the Lord gave them to me. Then I turned and came down from the mountain and put the tablets in the ark that I had made. And there they are, as the Lord commanded me.”

(The people of Israel journeyed from Beeroth Bene-jaakan to Moserah. There Aaron died, and there he was buried. And his son Eleazar ministered as priest in his place. From there they journeyed to Gudgodah, and from Gudgodah to Jotbathah, a land with brooks of water. At that time the Lord set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the covenant of the Lord to stand before the Lord to minister to him and to bless in his name, to this day. Therefore Levi has no portion or inheritance with his brothers. The Lord is his inheritance, as the Lord your God said to him.)

10 “I myself stayed on the mountain, as at the first time, forty days and forty nights, and the Lord listened to me that time also. The Lord was unwilling to destroy you. 11 And the Lord said to me, ‘Arise, go on your journey at the head of the people, so that they may go in and possess the land, which I swore to their fathers to give them.’ – Deuteronomy 10:1-11 ESV

The scene that had taken place at the base of Mount Sinai some 40 years earlier had been a tense and potentially deadly one. God had called Moses up to the top of the mountain and had provided him with the tablets of stone containing the Ten Commandments. But even while the mountain displayed the powerful presence of God, in the form of fire, smoke, and ground-shaking tremors, the people had decided to manufacture an idol of gold in the form of a calf. This tangible manifestation of a deity was familiar to them and likely called to mind the false gods they had worshiped during their 400-year stay in Egypt.

But their actions that day had brought down the wrath of God. Without realizing it, they had violated the very first of the ten commandments written on the stone tablets that Moses had carried down the mountain.

“You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me.” – Exodus 20:3-5 NLT

God knew His chosen people well, and it is evidenced by the very fact that this was the first of His prohibitions. But before Moses could even deliver the commandments to the people, they had broken the first and most important one of them. And their violation of that command was worthy of God’s righteous judgment. In fact, even before Moses was aware of what had taken place down at the base of the mountain, God informed him of His intentions to destroy the people of Israel.

“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. Let me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.” – Deuteronomy 9:13-14 ESV

But Moses had intervened on behalf of the people.

“Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger. For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also.” – Deuteronomy 9:18-19 ESV

God commanded Moses to return to the mountaintop, where he received a second set of the commandments. In a sense, God renewed His covenant with the people of Israel. He provided them with a second chance to prove their allegiance to Him. Their actions had earned them the wrath of God, but God had chosen to postpone His judgment and bless them His unmerited and undeserved favor instead.

But before we jump to the wrong conclusion and assume that Moses talked God out of enacting His just and righteous judgment against a people who were guilty and fully deserving of punishment, we have to look at the same event as described in the book of Exodus. There we find that Moses, upon seeing the sin-fueled spectacle that had been taking place in the valley, called on volunteers to enact God’s judgment upon the guilty.

So Moses stood at the entrance of the camp and said, “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me.” All the Levites gathered around him, and he said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, ‘Each man fasten his sword on his side, and go back and forth from entrance to entrance throughout the camp, and each one kill his brother, his friend, and his neighbor.’”

The Levites did what Moses ordered, and that day about three thousand men of the people died. – Exodus 32:26-28 NLT

According to Hebrews 9:22, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” This is based on the word of God found in Leviticus 17:11:

“I have given you the blood on the altar to purify you, making you right with the LORD. It is the blood, given in exchange for a life, that makes purification possible.”

While the entire camp of Israel had taken part in the orgy-like display that day, only 3,000 individuals lost their lives. All had been guilty and been worthy of death, and yet, most were spared. But God was not done.

When Moses had returned to the mountain, God informed him that there would be more deaths.

“Whoever has sinned against me—that person I will wipe out of my book. So now go, lead the people to the place I have spoken to you about. See, my angel will go before you. But on the day that I punish, I will indeed punish them for their sin.”

And the Lord sent a plague on the people because they had made the calf—the one Aaron made. – Exodus 32:33-35 NLT

With the deaths of the 3,000, the rest of the sinful Israelites must have assumed they had somehow escaped the judgment of God. They had gotten away with their sin. But they were wrong. God continued to pour out His wrath. But He did spare the nation as a whole. He allowed a remnant of these rebellious people to remain alive so that He might fulfill His covenant promises to Abraham.

But some else took place occurred that fateful day that is easily overlooked. When the Levites joined Moses in enacting the judgment of God against the people of Israel, Moses told them, “Today you have been ordained for the service of the Lord” (Exodus 32:29 ESV). They became God’s priests and were given the task of representing the people of Israel before God. But it is essential that we remember what God had said to the people of Israel before He gave them His commandments.

“…if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation…” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

With their actions at Mount Sinai, the rest of the tribes had forfeited their right to act as priests of God. Rather than acting as intercessors for the sins of others, they would require intercession. Their rebellion had resulted in their removal as priests of God.

Moses informed them, “The Lord was unwilling to destroy you” (Deuteronomy 10:10 ESV), but their relationship with God was dramatically altered that day. God would allow them to remain alive and He would continue to guide them to the land of promise, but that generation would continue to display its propensity to reject and rebel against Him. Even Moses called them out for their serial rebellion, flatly stating: “you have been rebelling against the Lord as long as I have known you” (Deuteronomy 9:24 NLT).

And yet, in spite of them, God told Moses, “Get up and resume the journey, and lead the people to the land I swore to give to their ancestors, so they may take possession of it” (Deuteronomy 10:11 NLT).

But notice that subtle, yet significant phrase, “the land I swore to give to their ancestors.” The generation that rebelled against God at Mount Sinai would be the same generation that refused to enter the land of Canaan, and they would all die in the wilderness. Not a single one of them would ever set foot in the land of promise. They would give birth to a new generation of Israelites, whom God would give the privilege of entering and possessing the land He had promised to Abraham. But the original generation of Israelites who “rebelled against the commandment of the Lord…and did not believe him or obey his voice” (Deuteronomy 9:23 ESV), would never have the joy of experiencing God’s ultimate blessing: the land of promise.

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 History of Rebellion, Not Righteousness

 13 “Furthermore, the Lord said to me, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. 14 Let me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’ 15 So I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. 16 And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had made yourselves a golden calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. 17 So I took hold of the two tablets and threw them out of my two hands and broke them before your eyes. 18 Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger. 19 For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also. 20 And the Lord was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him. And I prayed for Aaron also at the same time. 21 Then I took the sinful thing, the calf that you had made, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it very small, until it was as fine as dust. And I threw the dust of it into the brook that ran down from the mountain.

22 “At Taberah also, and at Massah and at Kibroth-hattaavah you provoked the Lord to wrath. 23 And when the Lord sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, ‘Go up and take possession of the land that I have given you,’ then you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God and did not believe him or obey his voice. 24 You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you.

25 “So I lay prostrate before the Lord for these forty days and forty nights, because the Lord had said he would destroy you. 26 And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, do not destroy your people and your heritage, whom you have redeemed through your greatness, whom you have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin, 28 lest the land from which you brought us say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to put them to death in the wilderness.” 29 For they are your people and your heritage, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.’ – Deuteronomy 9:13-29 ESV

If the Israelites still harbored any remaining thoughts that they somehow deserved God’s good favor, Moses was about to deliver the crushing blow. He had made it clear that God was not giving them the land of Canaan because they deserved it, but because He was keeping the promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God was going to remove the Canaanites from the land because they were an evil and idolatrous people who desecrated the land with their unbridled immorality.

But Moses let the Israelites know that they were no better than the Canaanites. It was not as if they were a spiritually superior people who lived morally upright lives and had somehow earned the right to take possession of the land because of their faithfulness to God. No, it was quite the opposite, and Moses had already delivered the painfully truthful news that God’s provision of the land had nothing to do with their worthiness or righteousness.

“Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:6 ESV

They were stiff-necked and obstinate, stubbornly refusing to bow the knee to God and live according to His commands. And they had been that way from the beginning. Which is why Moses goes all the way back to Mount Sinai and the occasion when God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. He remembered that fateful well and looked back on it, not with nostalgia, but with a certain amount of anger and resentment at the way the people had treated God. Their actions that day had placed Moses in a very difficult position. He had found himself in the awkward place of having to mediate between a holy, angry God, and the very people he had helped to deliver from slavery in Egypt.

While Moses had been on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, his fellow Israelites, with the help of his brother, Aaron, had been busy worshiping a false god they had crafted out of gold. During the 40 days that Moses had been on top of the mountain, they had begun to question everything about their circumstances. And they had somehow forgotten the incredible demonstration of God’s power they had witnessed as His glory had descended upon Mount Sinai.

Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently.  As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. – Exodus 19:17-19 NLT

There was no doubt that God was there. His presence was unmistakable. His power was on display. And even when Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, the fire never died down, and the smoke remained. The mountain never ceased to shake. And yet, the people became unimpressed and unwilling to wait to see what God was going to say to His servant, Moses. Tired of waiting, they took matters into their own hands.

When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT

And it was that fateful decision that Moses recalled.

“So while the mountain was blazing with fire I turned and came down, holding in my hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. There below me I could see that you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves.” – Deuteronomy 9:15-16 NLT

Notice what Moses says: “So while the mountain was blazing with fire….” The presence of God was still visible. God had not gone anywhere. And Moses was descending the mountain holding the very commandments of God, “inscribed with the terms of the covenant.”

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And the people had eagerly and enthusiastically agreed to the conditions of the covenant, giving their word that they would obey

“We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 19:8 NLT

But that commitment had not lasted long. Before Moses could make it back down the mountain, the people had turned their backs on God. They had come up with the bright idea to make their own gods. And when Moses had seen what had taken place in his absence, he was filled with surprise and anger.

“How quickly you had turned away from the path the Lord had commanded you to follow!” – Deuteronomy 9:16 NLT

They had been in the early days of their journey from Egypt to the promised land and had already chosen to forsake God. And Moses, sensing the anger of God against His people, had chosen to intercede with God on their behalf. He began a 40-day fast, during which time he sought to persuade God to refrain from wiping out the people of Israel for their wickedness.

“I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again he listened to me.” – Deuteronomy 9:19 NLT

God spared the people and even allowed Aaron to live, in spite of the role he had played in the peoples’ rebellion. God showed mercy. He showered the people with His undeserved favor. And it all goes back to the covenant He had made with Abraham. God had made two promises to Abraham. One was that He would make of Abraham a great nation. The second was that He would bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. And so, God was going to keep His covenant commitment, not because of the Israelites, but in spite of them.

And Moses reminded the people that Mount Sinai had not been an aberration. It was just one of many occasions in which the people of Israel displayed their stubbornness and rebellion. Moses recalled Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah – three other less-than-flattering moments from Israel’s not-so-distant past that illustrated their propensity to rebel against God. And he brought up that infamous day at Kadesh-barnea, when the first generation of Israelites had refused to enter the promised land, causing God to send them into the wilderness where they would die as punishment for the rebellion.

Moses had pleaded with God to spare them. He had appealed to God’s covenant faithfulness.

“Please overlook the stubbornness and the awful sin of these people, and remember instead your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 9:27 NLT

But notice that Moses did not offer up a single example of Israel’s worthiness or righteousness. What they deserved was God’s wrath. Moses knew that. So he appealed to God’s unwavering faithfulness to keep His commitments. He had promised to make of Abraham a great nation, and He had fulfilled that promise. But God had also promised to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. And that promise had not yet been fulfilled. But, in time, it would be. And God would continue to bless the people of Israel, not because they deserved it, but because He was going to use them as the means by which He brought the solution to man’s sin problem into the world. And the apostle Paul wrote of this coming fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham.

God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. – Galatians 3:16 NLT

God was going to bring to earth the source of true righteousness, and He would do it through a people marked by unrighteousness. God would eventually offer the sole means of salvation through a people who deserved His wrath. He would bring about redemption through a nation that would eventually murder its own redeemer.

The people of Israel had a long history of rebellion, not righteousness; but God would eventually make righteousness available through them in the form of His Son, the sinless Savior of the world.

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

 

 

 

Cut Off and Dried Up

Awake, you drunkards, and weep,
    and wail, all you drinkers of wine,
because of the sweet wine,
    for it is cut off from your mouth.
For a nation has come up against my land,
    powerful and beyond number;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
    and it has the fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vine
    and splintered my fig tree;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
    their branches are made white.

Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth
    for the bridegroom of her youth.
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
    from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
    the ministers of the Lord.
10 The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes.

11 Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil;
    wail, O vinedressers,
for the wheat and the barley,
    because the harvest of the field has perished.
12 The vine dries up;
    the fig tree languishes.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple,
    all the trees of the field are dried up,
and gladness dries up
    from the children of man. – Joel 1:5-12 ESV

The relentless waves of locusts have come and gone, leaving a lunar-like landscape in their wake. The land of Judah has been stripped bare of all vegetation as these voracious insects devoured every plant in their path.  Joel paints a grim picture of the aftermath of their devastating destruction, describing the grape vines as being “laid waste,” the fig trees as “splintered,” the fields as “destroyed,” and the trees of the field as “dried up.” And he calls on the people of Judah to mourn their loss. In fact, he addresses several distinctly different groups of individuals, in an obvious effort to show the non-discriminatory nature of the locust judgment.

First, he speaks to the drunkards (Hebrew: shikkowr), those who spend their days intoxicated by the fruit of the vine. These individuals were going to find the days ahead especially difficult to endure. While they would survive in the short-term, living off the surplus of wine from the last harvest, the day would come when the shelves at the local convenience store would be bare, and the storage vats would be dry. Suddenly, the drunks would find themselves with nothing to drink, and no way to satisfy their insatiable desire for wine-fueled escape. It will be a rude and unpleasant wake-up call, like an alcoholic having to go cold-turkey.

Joel compares the overwhelming numbers of the locusts to that of a vast human army “powerful and beyond number.” But he describes their capacity to devour and destroy as being like the teeth and fangs of a lion.  Then, Joel provides a graphic description of the devastating consequences of this vast army’s destructive power.  And he uses the voice of God to portray the scene.

It has destroyed my grapevines
    and ruined my fig trees,
stripping their bark and destroying it,
    leaving the branches white and bare. – Joel 1:7 NLT

This judgment from God has impacted the land of God. The land of promise, provided by God to the people of Judah, has had to suffer because of their sin. It was His grapevines that had been stripped bare, and the fig trees that were stripped of their bark and left with fruitless branches had been His property. The sins of mankind always impact the creation of God. Even the original fall left the created order under a curse. The apostle Paul describes creation as groaning under that curse, awaiting its re-creation at the return of Christ.

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:20-22 NLT

Next, Joel turns his attention to the priests. The loss caused by the locust infestation was going to make a very different impact on their lives. Joel describes the “grain offering and the drink offering” as being “cut off from the house of the Lord” (Joel 1:9 ESV). With the fields left stripped bare and the vines devoid of fruit, there would be no grain or wine to use in the sacrificial system. Like a gasoline-powered engine with no fuel to fill its tank, the temple rituals would grind to a halt, leaving the priests with nothing to do, but mourn.

The fields are ruined,
    the land is stripped bare.
The grain is destroyed,
    the grapes have shriveled,
    and the olive oil is gone. – Joel 1:10 NLT

No grain for the grain offering. No wine for the drink offering. No olive oil for the lamps. All the way back during the days of the exodus from Egypt, God had provided the people of Israel with instructions regarding the importance of grain, wine, and oil in the sacrificial system He had instituted.

“These are the sacrifices you are to offer regularly on the altar. Each day, offer two lambs that are a year old, one in the morning and the other in the evening. With one of them, offer two quarts of choice flour mixed with one quart of pure oil of pressed olives; also, offer one quart of wine as a liquid offering. Offer the other lamb in the evening, along with the same offerings of flour and wine as in the morning. It will be a pleasing aroma, a special gift presented to the Lord.” – Exodus 29:38-41 NLT

And notice what Moses says. These offerings of wine, oil, and grain were “a special gift presented to the Lord.” The Jews were to present these offerings to the Lord, in obedience to His commands, but also in appreciation for His goodness and grace. The apostle Paul used the drink offering as a way to describe his commitment to live his life in obedience to the cause of Christ.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. – Philippians 2:17 ESV

Because of their sins, the people of Judah had brought the judgment of God on themselves. But their disobedience wasn’t going to impact them alone. It would rob God of the glory and honor He deserved.

Finally, Joel addresses the farmers and the vine-growers. With no grain or grapes to harvest, they would have plenty of time to weep and mourn. Joel uses the Hebrew word, yabesh, and it is translated as “ashamed.” But it can mean “to dry up” or “to wither away.” Joel seems to be saying that the barren fields and fruitless vines would act as a visual representation of the spiritual condition of God’s people. They were dried up and withered. They were spiritually fruitless and non-productive.

Don’t miss the picture Joel is painting. The farmers have no grain to harvest. The vine-growers have not grapes with which to produce wine. As a result, the drunks have no wine with which to get drunk. But the people have no wine or grain to offer up to God. Not only can the drunks not sin, but the people can’t effectively find forgiveness for their sins. And the priests, whose primary job was to act as “the ministers of the Lord,” would find themselves with no role to play. Rather than wearing robes of righteousness and presenting offerings of thankfulness to God, they would be wearing the sackcloth associated with mourning and weeping tears of sorrow and regret.

And Joel summarizes the situation, revealing that the destruction of the locusts had been all-encompassing in its scope.

The grapevines have dried up,
    and the fig trees have withered.
The pomegranate trees, palm trees, and apple trees—
    all the fruit trees—have dried up.
    And the people’s joy has dried up with them. – Joel 1:12 NLT

Virtually every living thing had been impacted by the judgment of God as manifested in the locust plague.  Grapes, figs, pomegranates, palms, apples, and all other fruit trees were destroyed. But, more significantly, so was the joy of the people. As the crops had withered, so had the joy of the people. The Hebrew word for “joy” that Joel used is sasown, and it could be used to speak of gladness, rejoicing, or “the oil of gladness“ that was used in times of celebration. The people of Judah had no reason to rejoice or celebrate. Their sins had brought the judgment of God. And while the primary target of God’s judgment had been nature itself, the people would feel the consequences.  And in the book of isaiah, the prophet speaks of “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2), describing a future day when God will restore joy and gladness to His rebellious people. 

…to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. – Isaiah 61:3 ESV

Sin always brings death and destruction. It always results in sorrow. Ultimately, it prevents mankind from giving God the glory and honor He deserves. And, as this passage so powerfully illustrates, it leaves the people of God spiritually barren and fruitless, dried up and devoid of joy.

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

 

Then They Remembered…

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
    the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
    and the great goodness to the house of Israel
that he has granted them according to his compassion,
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love.
For he said, “Surely they are my people,
    children who will not deal falsely.”
    And he became their Savior.
In all their affliction he was afflicted,
    and the angel of his presence saved them;
in his love and in his pity he redeemed them;
    he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old.

10 But they rebelled
    and grieved his Holy Spirit;
therefore he turned to be their enemy,
    and himself fought against them.
11 Then he remembered the days of old,
    of Moses and his people.
Where is he who brought them up out of the sea
    with the shepherds of his flock?
Where is he who put in the midst of them
    his Holy Spirit,
12 who caused his glorious arm
    to go at the right hand of Moses,
who divided the waters before them
    to make for himself an everlasting name,
13     who led them through the depths?
Like a horse in the desert,
    they did not stumble.
14 Like livestock that go down into the valley,
    the Spirit of the Lord gave them rest.
So you led your people,
    to make for yourself a glorious name.

15 Look down from heaven and see,
    from your holy and beautiful habitation.
Where are your zeal and your might?
    The stirring of your inner parts and your compassion
    are held back from me.
16 For you are our Father,
    though Abraham does not know us,
    and Israel does not acknowledge us;
you, O Lord, are our Father,
    our Redeemer from of old is your name.
17 O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways
    and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
    the tribes of your heritage.
18 Your holy people held possession for a little while;
    our adversaries have trampled down your sanctuary.
19 We have become like those over whom you have never ruled,
    like those who are not called by your name. Isaiah 63:7-19 ESV

After hearing God’s grand plan for the future redemption of His people, Isaiah responds with a somewhat nostalgic recollection of all of God’s great and gracious redemptive activities on behalf of the people of Israel. And he does so in the form of a prayer.

He starts by recalling the myriad examples of God’s merciful kindness or favor. Throughout this prayer, Isaiah will focus on the undeserved nature of God’s love for the people of Israel. They have been the undeserving recipients of God’s unmerited favor. Every single incident involving God’s love toward Israel “he has granted according to his mercy and love” (Isaiah 63:7 NLT). The Hebrew word for mercy is racham, and it can be used to refer to a mother’s womb. From Isaiah’s perspective, the children of Israel have been cared for and protected by God like a baby in its mother’s womb. An unborn baby does nothing to earn its place of safety and security, but enjoys nourishment and protection because of the gracious actions of its mother. And Isaiah did not come up with this comparison on his own. He had heard it from the lips of God Himself.

“Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
    all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
    carried from the womb (racham).” – Isaiah 46:3 ESV

Of His own accord, God had made the people of Israel His children and He had every right to expect them to live up to their position as His sons and daughters. God had agreed to be their Savior, providing them with protection and rescue when necessary. In return, He asked that they not deal falsely with Him. He expected them to remain faithful to Him.

Isaiah recounts the history of his people, recalling the many times in which God stepped into their circumstances and rescued them. He describes God as suffering along with them. When the found themselves experiencing difficulty, God was empathetic, but also immediate in His response.

he personally rescued them.
In his love and mercy he redeemed them.
    He lifted them up and carried them
    through all the years. – Isaiah 63:9 NLT

But how had they responded to God’s gracious acts of redemption? By rebelling against Him and, by doing so, grieving His Holy Spirit. As a result, they would find their relationship to Him becoming antagonistic rather than affectionate. From their vantage point, God would appear more like their enemy than their gracious, loving Father. But God was not the one who had reneged on the relationship. The fault was all theirs.

Their unfaithfulness to God would result in His loving discipline of them. They would discover the painful consequences of their willful decision to violate their covenant with God. Their failure to remain faithful to Him would cost them. Their choice to worship false gods would cause them great pain and suffering. And Isaiah recounts the many times the people of God had called out to the very one they had abandoned, in the hopes that He would rescue them yet again.

“Then they remembered…” (Isaiah 63:11 NLT). It took the very real presence of trials to get them to recall the true identity of their Savior. It had been God who had rescued them from their captivity in Egypt. It had been God who had brought the plagues upon the people of Egypt. And it had been God who had provided them with a path across the Red Sea, allowing them to escape the armies of Egypt. They remembered and they cried out.

Now, Isaiah cries out. He turns His recollections of God’s past mercies into a call for His immediate intervention into their current state of affairs.

Lord, look down from heaven;
    look from your holy, glorious home, and see us.
Where is the passion and the might
    you used to show on our behalf?
    Where are your mercy and compassion now? – Isaiah 63:15 NLT

Isaiah begs God to do as He has done so many times before. He knows that they don’t deserve God’s favor, but he pleads with Him to extend His mercy and compassion yet again. Like Moses and the Israelites standing on the shore of the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army bearing down on them, the people of Judah found themselves in a similar situation. They were in trouble. The enemy was bearing down on them and they had no way of escape. The only hope they had was God.

And Isaiah addresses God as their loving Father, appealing to His sense of responsibility for His children.

Surely you are still our Father!
    Even if Abraham and Jacob would disown us,
Lord, you would still be our Father.
    You are our Redeemer from ages past. – Isaiah 63:16 NLT

Isaiah knows that God is faithful. He is not questioning God’s commitment to His covenant promises or raising doubts about God’s everlasting love. He is simply appealing to God’s unchanging nature. He is the very same God who has rescued the people of Israel time and time again, in spite of their unfaithfulness to Him. So, Isaiah is simply asking God to respond to their current situation with the same sense of mercy and grace.

Isaiah had a healthy understanding of the sovereign will of God. He knew that nothing happens in this life apart from the will of God, including the rebellion of the people of God. When Isaiah asks the question, “why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not?,” he is not blaming God for the sins of the people of Judah. He is simply acknowledging that God could have prevented their unfaithfulness, but chose not to. To put it another way, God gave them free rein to practice free will. He allowed them to live according to the desires of their hearts. The apostle Paul provides us with a powerful reminder of what it looks like when God “abandons” men and women to live according to their own desires, and it is not a pretty picture.

…instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired. – Romans 1:23-24 NLT

Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done. – Romans 1:28 NLT

God does not cause us to sin. James makes that point perfectly clear.

And remember, when you are being tempted, do not say, “God is tempting me.” God is never tempted to do wrong, and he never tempts anyone else. Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:13-15 NLT

God was not responsible for the sins of the people of Judah. But Isaiah knew that the only way they could have remained faithful would have been through the intervention of God. And the only way they were going to return to God was if He acted on their behalf. They didn’t have it in them to do so on their own accord. Which is what led Isaiah to plead: “Return and help us, for we are your servants, the tribes that are your special possession” (Isaiah 63:17 NLT).

Isaiah knew their only hope of salvation was God. They had no other options. If He did not intervene on their behalf, they were doomed. Isaiah knew the his own people well and realized that if repentance, as evidenced by changed hearts, was the only way God would rescue them, it would never happen. They were far too stubborn for that to happen. And Isaiah includes a sad expression of his outlook on their current state of affairs.

Sometimes it seems as though we never belonged to you,
    as though we had never been known as your people. – Isaiah 63:17 NLT

This was his honest opinion. As he looked at the circumstances surrounding the people of Judah, it was as if they had never been chosen by God. Things had deteriorated so badly, that they were unrecognizable as God’s chosen people. They looked no different than any other nation on the planet. Their distinctiveness had long ago dissipated. Rather than living as set apart by God, it appeared as if they had been set aside. But Isaiah was not willing to give up, as the rest of his prayer will reveal.

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 Peace

1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save,
    or his ear dull, that it cannot hear;
but your iniquities have made a separation
    between you and your God,
and your sins have hidden his face from you
    so that he does not hear.
For your hands are defiled with blood
    and your fingers with iniquity;
your lips have spoken lies;
    your tongue mutters wickedness.
No one enters suit justly;
    no one goes to law honestly;
they rely on empty pleas, they speak lies,
    they conceive mischief and give birth to iniquity.
They hatch adders’ eggs;
    they weave the spider’s web;
he who eats their eggs dies,
    and from one that is crushed a viper is hatched.
Their webs will not serve as clothing;
    men will not cover themselves with what they make.
Their works are works of iniquity,
    and deeds of violence are in their hands.
Their feet run to evil,
    and they are swift to shed innocent blood;
their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity;
    desolation and destruction are in their highways.
The way of peace they do not know,
    and there is no justice in their paths;
they have made their roads crooked;
    no one who treads on them knows peace.
Isaiah 59:1-8 ESV

Judah’s sorry state of affairs was not an indictment against God’s power to save. He was fully capable of bringing them relief. After all, He was the very source of their current condition. It was God who had chosen to use the Assyrians as His instruments of judgment against His rebellious people. And He was the one who had warned that future judgment would come in the form of the Babylonians. The circumstances in which the people of Judah found themselves were, in a sense, self-inflicted. They had brought it on themselves because they had refused to listen to God’s calls to acknowledge their sin and return to Him. They had repeatedly stiff-armed God’s prophets, including Isaiah, rejecting their messages and stubbornly maintaining their love affair with false gods.

So, in this chapter, we see Isaiah delivering a message to his fellow Judahites that leaves them without excuse. He will not allow them to blame God. He refuses to let them cast God as the villain and themselves as the innocent victims. This was not a case of divine parental abuse or abandonment. They were the cause of their own pain and suffering. And Isaiah conveys that message in stark terms.

It’s your sins that have cut you off from God.
    Because of your sins, he has turned away
    and will not listen anymore. – Isaiah 59:2 NLT

They had abandoned God. Not the other way around. In fact, God had patiently and persistently called on them to repent. He had rescued them time and time again from the consequences of their own sinfulness. He had lovingly disciplined them for their unfaithfulness, welcoming them back with open arms. But they had responded to His grace with ingratitude and continued infidelity. And the prophet Jeremiah describes their stubborn refusal to repent with a sense of shock and surprise.

O Lord, do not your eyes look for truth?
You have struck them down,
    but they felt no anguish;
you have consumed them,
    but they refused to take correction.
They have made their faces harder than rock;
    they have refused to repent. – Jeremiah 5:3 ESV

That the people of Judah were guilty was beyond debate, and Isaiah reveals why. He provides a list of evidence that is both lengthy and appalling. It includes murder, depravity, lying, injustice, perjury, dishonesty, and violence. And these manifestations of their own wickedness were showing up in every area of their lives – from their homes to their courts of law. Iniquity was ubiquitous. And while not every member of their society was equally complicit, they all stood equally condemned. There was a corporate culpability shared by all, from the youngest to the oldest and the richest to the poorest. At some level, every single individual in their community stood before God as guilty, having committed their own fair share of sins against Him.

The list Isaiah shares is similiar to one that the apostle Paul gave to the believers in Colossae. He reminded them that, even as Christians,  they needed to continue to purge their lives of those sins which mark the lives of each and every human being who walks this planet.

Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. – Colossians 3:5-6 ESV

Mankind, apart from help from God, is hopelessly addicted and attracted to the very things that bring the wrath of God. We can’t help it. And Paul warned the believers in Rome how a holy God must deal with those who continue to live lives of unholiness.

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. – Romans 1:18 ESV

But not only does a life of ungodliness and unrighteousness bring the judgment of God, it breeds destruction. Isaiah describes the people of Judah as hatching adders’ eggs. Their evil actions were going to produce some seriously negative consequenes. And it doesn’t take a herpetologist to understand that hatching the eggs of a poisonous snake brings more of the same.

And Isaiah compares their sinful actions with the weaving of spider webs.  You can’t expect to produce clothes with that which is ephemeral and fragile. The life of ungodliness can produce nothing of lasting value. It may appear attractive but, in the end, it leaves you with nothing tangible or beneficial from all your effort.

Just how bad was it in Judah? Isaiah is unsparing in his assessment.

All their activity is filled with sin – Isaiah 59:6 NLT

Their feet run to do evil, and they rush to commit murder – Isaiah 59:7 NLT

They think only about sinning… – Isaiah 59:7 NLT

Not exactly a flattering picture. Their lives were inundated by sin and rebellion. It permeated their community. It influenced every facet of their corporate experience, from the halls of the king’s palace to the lowliest peasant’s hut. And, as a result, they were all experiencing the consequences that come from living in open rebellion against God and pursuing a way of life that is in direct violation to His call to holiness.

They don’t know where to find peace
    or what it means to be just and good.
They have mapped out crooked roads,
    and no one who follows them knows a moment’s peace. – Isaiah 59:8 NLT

No peace. No joy. No justice. No righteousness. Without God, none of these things are achievable. You can’t walk away from Him and expect to find what only He can deliver. A life of sin is a dead end. It offers hope, fulfillment, satisfaction, and peace. But it can’t deliver on its promise. Pursuing the false gods of this world may appear attractive, but they will never produce a single promise they offer. God was offering His people peace. They could be restored to a right relationship with Him and enjoy peace with the One who had made them. They could enjoy peace in their community as they allowed God to guide their actions and change their attitudes. But as long as they continued to refuse Him and choose their own paths, they would find themselves living in turmoil and in constant pursuit of the one thing for which all men long: Peace.

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