The Blame Game

1 How the Lord in his anger
    has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud!
He has cast down from heaven to earth
    the splendor of Israel;
he has not remembered his footstool
    in the day of his anger.

The Lord has swallowed up without mercy
    all the habitations of Jacob;
in his wrath he has broken down
    the strongholds of the daughter of Judah;
he has brought down to the ground in dishonor
    the kingdom and its rulers.

He has cut down in fierce anger
    all the might of Israel;
he has withdrawn from them his right hand
    in the face of the enemy;
he has burned like a flaming fire in Jacob,
    consuming all around.

He has bent his bow like an enemy,
    with his right hand set like a foe;
and he has killed all who were delightful in our eyes
    in the tent of the daughter of Zion;
he has poured out his fury like fire.

The Lord has become like an enemy;
    he has swallowed up Israel;
he has swallowed up all its palaces;
    he has laid in ruins its strongholds,
and he has multiplied in the daughter of Judah
    mourning and lamentation.” – Lamentations 2:1-5 ESV

Chapter one ended with the admission, “my groans are many, and my heart is faint” (Lamentations 1:22 ESV). The nation of Judah is portrayed as weak, demoralized, and helpless. The city of Jerusalem, serving as a representative for the entire nation, lies in a state of ruins, a victim of the years-long Babylonian siege that had ended with the city’s complete destruction.

Jeremiah, penning the words of this dirge-like poem, expresses the nation’s acknowledgment of God’s role in their fall.

“…you have punished me for all my sins.” – Lamentations 1:11 NLT

But their admission of guilt is missing something: A willingness to repent. At no point have we heard them express their desire to return to the Lord and renew their covenant commitment to Him. In fact, chapter two opens up with the nation pointing a finger of blame on God, casting Him as an angry deity who they view as an enemy and not as their Heavenly Father.

“How the Lord in his anger
    has set the daughter of Zion under a cloud!
He has cast down from heaven to earth
    the splendor of Israel;
he has not remembered his footstool
    in the day of his anger.” – Lamentations 2:1 ESV

This verse is filled with accusations against God. In His anger, He destroyed the once-beautiful city of Jerusalem. In essence, they are saying that God let His emotions get away with Him and in a fit of uncontrolled rage, He destroyed the very temple Solomon had built as a dwelling place for the Almighty.

But this portrayal of God as a deity with anger-control issues is inaccurate. It is a one-sided view of God based on the perspective of those who had been on the receiving end of His judgment. Unhappy with their circumstances, they attempted to blame their predicament on the anger of God.

Yet, God had warned them that this would happen. When Solomon had held a ceremony to dedicate the newly completed temple, God had responded with the following words of warning:

“But if you or your descendants abandon me and disobey the commands and decrees I have given you, and if you serve and worship other gods, then I will uproot Israel from this land that I have given them. I will reject this Temple that I have made holy to honor my name. I will make Israel an object of mockery and ridicule among the nations. And though this Temple is impressive now, all who pass by will be appalled and will gasp in horror. They will ask, ‘Why did the Lord do such terrible things to this land and to this Temple?’” – 1 Kings 9:6-8 NLT

Was God angry with Judah? Yes, but His anger was justified and His actions were not the result of uncontrolled rage. He was doing exactly what He said He would do if the people of Judah abandoned Him. And they had.

God’s destruction of the temple was symbolic. It was to have been the place where His glory dwelt. It was intended to symbolize His honor and to be a reminder of His presence among them. But through their persistent pursuit of idolatry, they had relegated the temple to second-class status, having replaced the glory of God with golden statues of false gods. The kings of Judah had been so arrogant that they had set up idols in the temple that was intended to honor the name of Yahweh.

But from the perspective of the people of Judah, God’s anger appeared unjustified and over-the-top. And then, they accuse Him of acting without mercy.

The Lord has swallowed up without mercy
    all the habitations of Jacob;
in his wrath he has broken down
    the strongholds of the daughter of Judah;
he has brought down to the ground in dishonor
    the kingdom and its rulers.”
– Lamentations 2:2 ESV

They are much more concerned about the former glory of their kingdom than they are about the damage they had done to the glory of God. They accuse God of being merciless in His destruction of their land and its inhabitants. But the question is, did they deserve His mercy? What had they done that would have justified God showing them compassion or sparing them for their sins against Him?

God had been merciful and compassionate to the people of Judah for centuries. In the face of their persistent rebellion against them, He had repeatedly spared them from destruction. He had replaced their bad kings with good kings. He had given them victories they did not deserve over enemies greater in strength and numbers. He had repeatedly spared them from harm. But God will not allow His people to treat Him as the proverbial doormat, trampling His glory while at the same time demanding His grace. The prophet, Nahum, describes God as being incredibly patient and slow to anger, but He will not tolerate sin forever.

The Lord is a jealous God,
    filled with vengeance and rage.
He takes revenge on all who oppose him
    and continues to rage against his enemies!
The Lord is slow to get angry, but his power is great,
    and he never lets the guilty go unpunished. – Nahum 1:2-3 NLT

But once again, notice how Jeremiah portrays the people of Judah as a disgruntled, finger-pointing mob who refuse to admit their culpability in all that they have suffered. They describe God as an all-consuming fire, an enemy with a bow, and a mass murderer who “has killed all who were delightful in our eyes” (Lamentations 2:4 ESV).

They view God as having “swallowed up” Israel and its palaces. The Hebrew word is bala` and it conjures the image of someone who devours his food greedily and eagerly. It portrays God as a glutton who can’t control himself. But nothing could be further from the truth. God’s destruction of Judah, the capital city of Jerusalem, and the temple that bore His name were all part of the judgment He had warned would come. His response had not been a knee-jerk reaction or out-of-control response to an unexpected turn of events. As the sovereign, omniscient God of the universe, He had known about this day from before the foundation of the world. And while their perspective of God was less-than-flattering, He stands as fully justified and completely righteous in all that He does to punish them for their sins.

The people of Judah were devastated by their circumstances and rightfully so. Their losses had been great. The destruction of their cities and their nation had been substantial and would leave them in a state of poverty and weakness for generations to come. They would never experience the glory days of David and Solomon again. They would go centuries without a king or an army to protect them. For 70 long years, many of their fellow citizens would languish in captivity in Babylon. And those who remained in Judah would suffer the constant harassment of their enemies, the blight of poverty, the stigma of defeat, and the absence of God’s presence.

But God will not always be angry with His people. The mercy they longed for would day come. But it would be on God’s terms and according to His timing. It will require a spirit of contrition and humility on the part of His people. It will demand that they repent of their sins and return to Him in faithfulness. As the prophet Isaiah predicted, the day would come when God restores His people, graciously and mercifully.

God says, “Rebuild the road!
Clear away the rocks and stones
so my people can return from captivity.”
The high and lofty one who lives in eternity,
the Holy One, says this:
“I live in the high and holy place
with those whose spirits are contrite and humble.
I restore the crushed spirit of the humble
and revive the courage of those with repentant hearts.
For I will not fight against you forever;
I will not always be angry.” – Isaiah 57:14-16 NLT

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

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

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

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Repentance Leads to Restoration

19 “I called to my lovers,
    but they deceived me;
my priests and elders
    perished in the city,
while they sought food
    to revive their strength.

20 “Look, O Lord, for I am in distress;
    my stomach churns;
my heart is wrung within me,
    because I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword bereaves;
    in the house it is like death.

21 “They heard my groaning,
    yet there is no one to comfort me.
All my enemies have heard of my trouble;
    they are glad that you have done it.
You have brought the day you announced;
    now let them be as I am.

22 “Let all their evildoing come before you,
    and deal with them
as you have dealt with me
    because of all my transgressions;
for my groans are many,
    and my heart is faint.” – Lamentations 1:19-22 ESV

What do most of us do when we face trouble of any kind? We get busy, devising plans and potential solutions to solve our problem. It’s human nature. We are wired to survive. And there is nothing inherently wrong with having our survival instincts kick into high gear. But for those who claim to believe in God, He should be their first line of defense. It is to Him they should call for aid and assistance. And if they should turn to Him for help, they need to be prepared to hear words that bring conviction and not just comfort. God may be trying to expose an area of their life that requires repentance and confession.

David, the great king of Israel and a man after God’s own heart, knew the power of conviction and confession. That is why he called out in the midst of his suffering and sorrow, pleading “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life” (Psalm 139:23-24 NLT).

David was well aware that much of his suffering was self-inflicted. But he also knew that His sovereign God was intimately aware of and instrumental in the trials of his life. This was a man who understood the wickedness of his own heart and recognized his need for God to expose the true cause of his suffering. And he knew that no one knew him better than the One who had made him.

O Lord, you have examined my heart
    and know everything about me.
You know when I sit down or stand up.
    You know my thoughts even when I’m far away.
You see me when I travel
    and when I rest at home.
    You know everything I do.
You know what I am going to say
    even before I say it, Lord. – Psalm 139:1-4 NLT

Rather than attempting to solve his problems on his own, David was willing to reach out to God. Even after he had committed adultery with Bathsheba and ordered the murder of her husband in an attempt to cover up his sin, David had turned to God.

I recognize my rebellion;
    it haunts me day and night.
Against you, and you alone, have I sinned;
    I have done what is evil in your sight.
You will be proved right in what you say,
    and your judgment against me is just.
For I was born a sinner—
    yes, from the moment my mother conceived me.
But you desire honesty from the womb,
    teaching me wisdom even there. – Psalm 51:3-6 NLT

But let’s consider the response of Judah to the suffering inflicted upon them by God. Nowhere in Jeremiah’s poetic portrayal of their response to God’s judgment do we see any acknowledgment of their guilt or confession for their sins against Him. In fact, the only thing they admit to is their reliance upon other forms of rescue.

“I begged my allies for help,
    but they betrayed me. – Lamentations 1:19 NLT

Their military alliance with Egypt had proven to be a bust. As the Babylonian army had made its way into the region they had left behind them a wake of death and destruction. And it was only natural for the kings of Judah to seek outside assistance. But God had warned them in advance not to turn to Egypt for help.

“What sorrow awaits my rebellious children,”
    says the Lord.
“You make plans that are contrary to mine.
    You make alliances not directed by my Spirit,
    thus piling up your sins.
For without consulting me,
    you have gone down to Egypt for help.
You have put your trust in Pharaoh’s protection.
    You have tried to hide in his shade.
But by trusting Pharaoh, you will be humiliated,
    and by depending on him, you will be disgraced.
For though his power extends to Zoan
    and his officials have arrived in Hanes,
all who trust in him will be ashamed.
    He will not help you.
    Instead, he will disgrace you.” – Isaiah 30:1-5 NLT

In times of distress, Judah was to have turned to God.

What sorrow awaits those who look to Egypt for help, trusting their horses, chariots, and charioteers and depending on the strength of human armies instead of looking to the LORD, the Holy One of Israel. – Isaiah 31:1 NLT

But rather than placing their trust in their all-powerful God, the people of Judah had turned to human kings for aid. Even the priests and political leaders of Judah had proven to be unreliable saviors in the face of God’s judgment. They had suffered the same fate as the rest of the people.

“My priests and leaders
    starved to death in the city,
even as they searched for food
    to save their lives.” – Lamentations 1:19 NLT

The people seem to recognize that their sad state is directly tied to their rebellion against God, but rather than repent they simply inform God about the extent of their suffering.

Lord, see my anguish!
    My heart is broken
and my soul despairs,
    for I have rebelled against you.
In the streets the sword kills,
    and at home there is only death. – Lamentations 1:20 NLT

Though their pain was real and their suffering was intense, they remained unrepentant. They were displaying what the apostle Paul describes as “worldly sorrow.”

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 NLT

And Jeremiah describes this worldly sorrow and the spiritual death it produces in stark terms.

“My groans are many,
    and I am sick at heart.” – Lamentations 1:22 NLT

There was no relief. Why? Because they remained stubbornly committed to their lifestyle of sin and open rebellion against God. They were unwilling to change their ways. They knew they were suffering God’s judgment but were not ready to live according to God’s law. The people of Judah deeply desired to be comforted by God but resisted any attempts to be convicted by God.

Amazingly, the people of Judah remembered God’s promises to bring judgment upon their enemies. And they begged Him to keep His word.

“When my enemies heard about my troubles,
    they were happy to see what you had done.
Oh, bring the day you promised,
    when they will suffer as I have suffered.” – Lamentations 1:21 NLT

But God was out to teach His chosen people a lesson. He wanted to see and acknowledge the wickedness of their ways. He desired that they might experience and display godly sorrow that would lead to repentance and restoration to a right relationship with Himself. The apostle Paul describes the amazing benefits that godly sorrow can produce in the people of God.

Just see what this godly sorrow produced in you! Such earnestness, such concern to clear yourselves, such indignation, such alarm, such longing to see me, such zeal, and such a readiness to punish wrong. You showed that you have done everything necessary to make things right. – 2 Corinthians 7:11 NLT

God didn’t need to hear His people describe their suffering. He had sent it. He wasn’t waiting for them to admit that they had sinned against Him. He already knew it. What God was waiting to see was a spirit of humility and genuine repentance among His people.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.” – 2 Chronicles 7:14 NLT

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

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

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

The Lord is in the Right

12 “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?
    Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger.

13 “From on high he sent fire;
    into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
    he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
    faint all the day long.

14 “My transgressions were bound into a yoke;
    by his hand they were fastened together;
they were set upon my neck;
    he caused my strength to fail;
the Lord gave me into the hands
    of those whom I cannot withstand.

15 “The Lord rejected
    all my mighty men in my midst;
he summoned an assembly against me
    to crush my young men;
the Lord has trodden as in a winepress
    the virgin daughter of Judah.

16 “For these things I weep;
    my eyes flow with tears;
for a comforter is far from me,
    one to revive my spirit;
my children are desolate,
    for the enemy has prevailed.”

17 Zion stretches out her hands,
    but there is none to comfort her;
the Lord has commanded against Jacob
    that his neighbors should be his foes;
Jerusalem has become
    a filthy thing among them.

18 “The Lord is in the right,
    for I have rebelled against his word;
but hear, all you peoples,
    and see my suffering;
my young women and my young men
    have gone into captivity. – Lamentations 1:12-18 ESV

Jerusalem’s plight was self-inflicted but God-ordained. They had freely chosen to break the covenant they had made with Him through repeated violations of His commands. Idolatry, immorality, and injustice had become the new norm throughout the nation of Judah. The spiritual state of the people just prior to their fall to the Babylonians harkens back to the period of the judges. This was the time before the first king ruled over Israel, when the people were still trying to conquer and occupy the land of Canaan. Seven times in the book of Judges, Samuel uses the phrase: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 21:25 ESV). The people had essentially rejected God as their sovereign and had chosen instead to live their lives according to their own standards and rules.

And nothing had changed when the kings began to rule. As we saw in yesterday’s post, there had been times when the people were led by godly kings and lived in relative obedience to their covenant commitments. But for the most part, their track record was marred by repeated unfaithfulness and rampant idolatry.

Now, they were suffering the consequences of their actions. God had finally done what He had warned He would do: He had brought His judgment to bear against an ungrateful and unrepentant people who had taken their status as His chosen people for granted. And God’s judgment was fully righteous and their fate was well-deserved.

In verse 18 personifies the city of Jerusalem acknowledging God’s just and righteous actions against her.

“The Lord is in the right,
for I have rebelled against his word…” – Lamentations 1:18 ESV

This statement regarding God’s unwavering righteousness even while meting out His judgment upon His disobedient people is found throughout the Scriptures. The psalmist was saddened by the nation’s rejection of God’s laws because they reflected His righteous and holy standards.

My eyes shed streams of tears,
    because people do not keep your law.

Righteous are you, O Lord,
    and right are your rules.
You have appointed your testimonies in righteousness
    and in all faithfulness. – Psalm 119:136-138 ESV

Ezra and Nehemiah, two men who would eventually lead a remnant of the people our of Babylon and back to the land of Judah. After 70 years of captivity, a small contingent of God’s people would be restored to the land He had promised as their inheritance. And while they would return to find the city of Jerusalem empty and in a state of desolation, they would recognize and confess that God had been fully just in all He had done.

“O LORD, the God of Israel, you are just, for we are left a remnant that has escaped, as it is today. Behold, we are before you in our guilt, for none can stand before you because of this.” – Ezra 9:15 ESV

Every time you punished us you were being just. We have sinned greatly, and you gave us only what we deserved. – Nehemiah 9:33 NLT

And Nehemiah, speaking on behalf of the returned remnant, would acknowledge that the ingratitude and disobedience of their forefathers had been the cause of their plight.

Our kings, leaders, priests, and ancestors did not obey your Law or listen to the warnings in your commands and laws. Even while they had their own kingdom, they did not serve you, though you showered your goodness on them. You gave them a large, fertile land, but they refused to turn from their wickedness. – Nehemiah 9:34-35 NLT

And it’s important to remember that the words found in Lamentations are from the pen of Jeremiah and not from the lips of the people of Judah. He uses the city of Jerusalem to act as a kind of proxy for the people, allowing it to voice what they should have said but had failed to do so.

Look and see
if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,
    which was brought upon me,
which the Lord inflicted
    on the day of his fierce anger. – Lamentations 1:12 ESV

There is a clear acknowledgment that their suffering was God-inflicted. But Jeremiah seems to stress that the people are more focused on their sorrow and suffering. Notice how many times Jeremiah uses the personal pronoun “he” to refer to God.

“From on high he sent fire;
    into my bones he made it descend;
he spread a net for my feet;
    he turned me back;
he has left me stunned,
    faint all the day long.” – Lamentations 1:13 ESV

Fives time in one verse Jeremiah makes mention of God’s divine actions against Jerusalem. But in the following four verses, he will utilize the personal pronouns “me, my, and I” 12 separate times. The emphasis seems to be on the peoples’ plight. It is written from their perspective. Yes, God was just and right in all that He had done, but they were unhappy with the outcome.

he caused my strength to fail – vs. 14

“the Lord gave me into the hands
    of those whom I cannot withstand” – vs. 14

“The Lord rejected
    all my mighty men in my midst” – vs. 15

“he summoned an assembly against me
    to crush my young men” – vs. 15

It was all about them. They couldn’t dismiss the idea that God had brought His judgment against them, but that didn’t mean they had to accept it or like it. And Jeremiah, who was living among the people who had been left behind after the fall of the capital, knew them well. He had heard their cries and laments. He had witnessed the devastation and listened to the pitiable pleas of the people as they navigated the dark days after the Babylonians had left. They had no king, no army, no capital, no temple, and no idea what the future held in store.

But they did have the recognition that their God and His judgments were real. It should have been a time when they came to grips with the seriousness of God’s call to covenant commitment. He had not been bluffing when He warned that disobedience would result in curses. They had just watched it happen with their own eyes.

But Jeremiah portrays them as fixating on all they had lost, rather than focusing their attention on the lessons God was trying to teach them. It reminds me of the opening lines of Charles Dicken’s classic work, A Tale of Two Cities.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period…” – Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities

It is often in our moments of greatest despair that we experience the objectivity and clarity we need to view our circumstances accurately. Times of difficulty tend to get our attention and, if we allow them, they can be used to refocus our priorities.

But Jeremiah portrays the people of Judah as blaming God for their lot in life. They know He is the cause of their current circumstances, but what is missing is any confession on their part. There is no acknowledgment of guilt or expression of repentance. It is all about their pain and their suffering, their loss and their feelings of loneliness and hopelessness.

Jerusalem reaches out for help,
    but no one comforts her. – Lamentations 1:17 NLT

But despite the difficult conditions under which they suffered, their God had not abandoned them. Yes, He was punishing them and justifiably so. But He was a faithful, covenant-keeping God who would not fail to fulfill every promise He had made. All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, written before the people entered the land of promise under the direction of Joshua, God had warned them that their disobedience would have dire consequences.

“…the LORD will scatter you among the peoples, and only a few of you will survive among the nations to which the LORD will drive you. And there you will serve man-made gods of wood and stone, which cannot see or hear or eat or smell.” – Deuteronomy 4:27-28 BSB

But God had also promised to restore them.

“But if from there you will seek the LORD your God, you will find Him if you seek Him with all your heart and with all your soul. When you are in distress and all these things have happened to you, then in later days you will return to the LORD your God and listen to His voice. For the LORD your God is a merciful God; He will not abandon you or destroy you or forget the covenant with your fathers, which He swore to them by oath.”  – Deuteronomy 4:29-31 BSB

The people of Judah fully deserved what they had suffered. What they didn’t deserve was the gracious and merciful love of God. They could claim to have no comforter, but they would be wrong. God was still with them and for them. He still cared deeply about them. And God intended to keep every promise He had ever made to them.

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

Wait For Me

“I have cut off nations;
    their battlements are in ruins;
I have laid waste their streets
    so that no one walks in them;
their cities have been made desolate,
    without a man, without an inhabitant.
I said, ‘Surely you will fear me;
    you will accept correction.
Then your dwelling would not be cut off
    according to all that I have appointed against you.’
But all the more they were eager
    to make all their deeds corrupt.

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord,
    “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey.
For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all my burning anger;
for in the fire of my jealousy
    all the earth shall be consumed. – Zephaniah 3:6-8 ESV

At the time when Zephaniah penned the words of his prophecy from the city of Jerusalem, the northern kingdom of Israel had already been defeated by the Assyrians and its people had been taken captive. Samaria, the capital city of Israel, had been destroyed. The initial conquest of Israel had begun in 740 BC, and 20 years later it culminated with the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians under King Shalmaneser V, but only after a three-year-long siege of the city.

Then the king of Assyria invaded the entire land, and for three years he besieged the city of Samaria. Finally, in the ninth year of King Hoshea’s reign, Samaria fell, and the people of Israel were exiled to Assyria. They were settled in colonies in Halah, along the banks of the Habor River in Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes. – 2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT

And Shalmaneser V repopulated the northern kingdom with a vast array of people from a diverse range of ethnic backgrounds.

The king of Assyria transported groups of people from Babylon, Cuthah, Avva, Hamath, and Sepharvaim and resettled them in the towns of Samaria, replacing the people of Israel. They took possession of Samaria and lived in its towns. – 2 Kings 17:24 NLT

And the people who occupied the southern kingdom of Judah had watched all of this happen. And the unstoppable Assyrian war machine had left a long line of defeated nations in its wake. They had even marched as far south as Judah where, in the year 701 BC they attempted to add Jerusalem to its growing list of victories. But God had intervened on Judah’s behalf.

Then King Hezekiah and the prophet Isaiah son of Amoz cried out in prayer to God in heaven. And the Lord sent an angel who destroyed the Assyrian army with all its commanders and officers. So Sennacherib was forced to return home in disgrace to his own land. And when he entered the temple of his god, some of his own sons killed him there with a sword.

That is how the Lord rescued Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem from King Sennacherib of Assyria and from all the others who threatened them. So there was peace throughout the land. – 2 Chronicles 32:20-22 NLT

But by the time Zephaniah wrote the book that bears his name, it had been years since the people of Judah had witnessed the saving work of God. King Hezekiah had died and replaced by his son Manasseh of whom it was said, “He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, following the detestable practices of the pagan nations that the Lord had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites. He rebuilt the pagan shrines his father, Hezekiah, had broken down. He constructed altars for the images of Baal and set up Asherah poles. He also bowed before all the powers of the heavens and worshiped them” (2 Chronicles 33:2-3 NLT).

At his death, Manasseh was replaced by his son, Amon. And his reign was marked by increasing apostasy.

He did what was evil in the Lord’s sight, just as his father, Manasseh, had done. He worshiped and sacrificed to all the idols his father had made. But unlike his father, he did not humble himself before the Lord. Instead, Amon sinned even more. – 2 Chronicles 33:22-23 NLT

And Amon’s successor was his 8-year-old son, Josiah, whom the Scriptures paint in a far different light.

He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight and followed the example of his ancestor David. He did not turn away from doing what was right. – 2 Chronicles 34:2 NLT

Josiah was a reformer. He attempted to restore Judah’s relationship with and dependence upon God. And while his efforts were well-intentioned and heartfelt, they did little to change the spiritual state of Judah’s inhabitants. That is why Zephaniah is having to deliver the words of this prophecy to God’s chosen, yet stubborn people.

This entire book was intended as a wake-up call for the people of Judah. God was reminding them of His unwavering expectation that they obey Him. He had created them for His glory. They were meant to shine as lights in the darkness of the pagan world, revealing how sinful men could live in communion with a holy God. But they had failed. Rather than remain faithful to God and live according to His righteous law, they had chosen to emulate the nations around them. They had compromised their convictions and accommodated their beliefs to such a degree that it was difficult to discern any meaningful difference between themselves and the nations that surrounded them.

And God reminded them that these nations with whom they had chosen to associate and whose practices they had determined to assimilate, had all been the victims of His divine judgment.

“I have wiped out many nations,
    devastating their fortress walls and towers.
Their streets are now deserted;
    their cities lie in silent ruin.
There are no survivors—
    none at all.” – Zephaniah 3:6 NLT

Judah had to look no further than the borders of Israel to the north. Their cities were in ruins. And the once-prolific Jewish population had been supplanted by foreigners. Their towns, villages, and homes were occupied by people from other countries, and what few Jews remained in the land had intermarried with these invaders, creating a new mixed-race population that would later be referred to with the pejorative term, “Samaritans.”

But in spite of all that had happened around them, the people of Judah remained unrepentant and blissfully oblivious to God’s gracious intentions.

“Surely they will have reverence for me now!
    Surely they will listen to my warnings.
Then I won’t need to strike again,
    destroying their homes.’
But no, they get up early
    to continue their evil deeds.” – Zephaniah 3:7 NLT

Even Zephaniah’s warnings would fall on deaf ears. But what the people of Judah failed to understand was that God would not tolerate their behavior forever. He had given them ample warning. He had repeatedly sent His prophets to call His stubborn people to repentance. And He had shown them just how harsh His judgment could be by pouring out His wrath on the northern kingdom of Israel. They too had been descendants of Abraham. Their land had been part of the inheritance promised to the patriarchs and allocated to the various tribes of Israel. But now, ten of those tribes were all but destroyed and their land was occupied by foreign invaders.

Yet, the people of Judah still held onto the false hope that their status as God’s chosen people would act as an inoculation from further harm. They believed themselves to be immune from judgment because they belonged to God. But they were mistaken.

“Therefore wait for me,” declares the Lord,
    “for the day when I rise up to seize the prey.
For my decision is to gather nations,
    to assemble kingdoms,
to pour out upon them my indignation,
    all my burning anger;
for in the fire of my jealousy
    all the earth shall be consumed.” – Zephaniah 3:8 ESV

God was going to bring His judgment. And in this verse, Zephaniah records the full extent of that coming judgment: “all the earth shall be consumed.”

Zephaniah had opened his prophecy with the very same warning from God.

“I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
    and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
    I will cut off mankind
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. – Zephaniah 1:2-3 ESV

The people of Judah were not to have a false sense of security. If God was willing to destroy all mankind from the face of the earth, what right did they have to think they were exempt?

It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to recognize that this prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. God has not yet cut off mankind from the face of the earth. But God did bring judgment upon Judah. It took place when He called the nation of Babylon and used them as His chosen instrument to bring about the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of the southern kingdom. For 70 years, the land of Judah would lay in a state of suspended animation, its cities and villages unoccupied, its fields untilled and its orchards untended. The once-great city of Jerusalem would be a heap of rubble, its walls and gates destroyed, and the former glory of its temple reduced to a pile of smoke-blackened stones.

Yet, after 70 years in captivity, God would allow a remnant of the people of Judah to return to the land, where they would once again occupy the city of Jerusalem, rebuilding its walls and restoring the temple and the sacrificial system. And it would be hundreds of years later that Jesus, the Messiah of the Jewish people, would enter the city of Jerusalem to the joyous shouts of the people.

“Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” – Matthew 21:9 ESV

And yet, those shouts would later turn to angry demands for His crucifixion. The people would reject God’s own Son. They would turn their backs on the very one who had come to offer them atonement for their sins and the hope of reconciliation with God.

But God is going to send His Son again. The day is coming when the Messiah will return to earth and the location of His arrival will be Jerusalem. The prophet Zechariah describes that future day.

Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward. – Zechariah 14:3-4 ESV

The nations of the earth, under the leadership of Antichrist and the control of Satan, will gather to do battle with Jesus and His heavenly host.

And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:14-16 ESV

The people of Judah needed to recognize the full plan of God. It was extensive in nature and spanned the centuries. Their little slice of the divine timeline was nothing when compared with the full range of God’s redemptive plan. They were insignificant and unimportant in the grand scheme of things. And they not exempt from God’s wrath. He would judge them for their sins and discipline them for their rebellion. But He would also restore them to the land because He had long-range plans that included the city of Jerusalem and the people of Judah. He was going to send His Son in human flesh, born into the tribe of Judah, a descendant of David, and as the rightful heir to the throne of Israel. And all of this had been prophesied long ago by the patriarch, Jacob.

Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor. – Genesis 49:9-10 NLT

God is not done with Judah. And He has not yet fulfilled all the prophecies found in the book of Zephaniah. But He will.

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

   

 

God’s Godless People

1 Woe to her who is rebellious and defiled,
    the oppressing city!
She listens to no voice;
    she accepts no correction.
She does not trust in the Lord;
    she does not draw near to her God.

Her officials within her
    are roaring lions;
her judges are evening wolves
    that leave nothing till the morning.
Her prophets are fickle, treacherous men;
her priests profane what is holy;
    they do violence to the law.
The Lord within her is righteous;
    he does no injustice;
every morning he shows forth his justice;
    each dawn he does not fail;
    but the unjust knows no shame. Zephaniah 3:1-5 ESV

God has issued His warnings of judgment against the nations that surrounded Judah. But now He addresses His own chosen people, revealing the sorry condition of their spiritual state. And this comes immediately after His indictment of Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire.

“This is the exultant city
    that lived securely,
that said in her heart,
    “I am, and there is no one else.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV

God used the city to describe the state of the people who occupied it. They were characterized by pride and arrogance, viewing themselves as invincible and without equal. That magnificent city, renowned for its beauty and splendor, was filled with people who were enamored by their own power and prominence. But God warned them that they, like their city, would one day find themselves the brunt of everyone’s jokes, rather than the envy of the world.

“But now, look how it has become an utter ruin,
    a haven for wild animals.
Everyone passing by will laugh in derision
    and shake a defiant fist.” – Zephaniah 2:15 ESV

Yet, the great city of Jerusalem, the capital of Judah and the former royal residence of the great King David was also in for a rude awakening. Once again, God uses the city as a proxy for the people who lived within its walls. He describes Jerusalem as “rebellious and defiled” (Zephaniah 3:1 ESV). In Hebrew, these two words are rich in meaning, carrying a much deeper significance that gets lost in translation.

First, God describes Jerusalem as mara’, a word that can mean “filthy” or “lifted up.” It can also convey the idea of maltreatment of another through whipping or beating. This latter definition seems more fitting because God describes Jerusalem as an “oppressing city” (Zephaniah 3:1 ESV). The city is defiled because it is characterized by the oppression of its own people. The Hebrew word for “defiled” is yanah, which means “to suppress” or “maltreat.” The very name of the city means “possession of peace,” and yet the description given to it by God reveals the true nature of its inhabitants. They were marked by injustice, immorality, and rebellion. And yet, God had given them clear instructions regarding the kind of behavior He expected of them.

He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

The prophet Micah goes on to record God’s further indictments against the inhabitants of Jerusalem.

What shall I say about the homes of the wicked
filled with treasures gained by cheating?
What about the disgusting practice
of measuring out grain with dishonest measures?
How can I tolerate your merchants
who use dishonest scales and weights?
The rich among you have become wealthy
through extortion and violence.
Your citizens are so used to lying
that their tongues can no longer tell the truth. –
Mi
cah 6:10-12 NLT

But along with these accusations of injustice and corruption, God provides four pieces of evidence or proof of Jerusalem’s guilt and well-deserved judgment. First, He states that “She listens to no voice” (Zephaniah 3:2 ESV). In other words, she is disobedient, having refused to hear and obey the commands of God. And it is not as if God had been silent. Over the centuries, He had spoken through His prophets, calling the people of Jerusalem to repent and return to Him. But God’s people had rejected His messengers and their message. This leads to His second indictment: “she accepts no correction.”

The people of Judah had a long track record of rejecting God’s correction.

“…but they did not listen or obey. They stubbornly refused to pay attention or accept my discipline.” – Jeremiah 17:23 NLT

“My people have turned their backs on me and have refused to return. Even though I diligently taught them, they would not receive instruction or obey. – Jeremiah 32:33 NLT

As the proverb states, “the LORD reproves him whom he loves, as a father the son in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 ESV). But rather than accept God’s discipline, His people repeatedly rejected it, choosing to live according to their own standards, rather than His.

And this refusal to accept His loving discipline stems from a lack of trust, which God makes painfully clear: “She does not trust in the Lord.” In spite of all that God had done for them, they doubted His goodness, grace, mercy, and power. And their distrust was evidenced by their propensity to place their hope in false gods. When times got tough and they found themselves in difficulty, they would turn to nations like Egypt or Assyria to come to their aid. And their actions revealed that their God was not enough. He was insufficient to meet their needs and incapable of solving their problems.

And this lack of trust in God led the people to distance themselves from Him. Sadly, we read the sobering words, “she does not draw near to her God.” This is not simply a statement of distance or disconnectedness. It conveys their refusal to seek God’s counsel or advice. They had reached the point where they were turning to other sources for guidance. They neither desired or sought input from Yahweh. In a sense, He was out of sight, out of mind.

And this growing distance from God had led to an ever-increasing degree of godlessness among them. Zephaniah pulls no punches when describing just how bad things had gotten in the city.

“Its leaders are like roaring lions
    hunting for their victims.
Its judges are like ravenous wolves at evening time,
    who by dawn have left no trace of their prey.
Its prophets are arrogant liars seeking their own gain.
    Its priests defile the Temple by disobeying God’s instructions.” – Zephaniah 3:3-4 NLT

Greed, avarice, and injustice were prevalent – from the halls of government to the inner recesses of the temple. Everyone was out for themselves. The rich took advantage of the poor. Judges no longer dispense justice. Prophets, posing as messengers of God, spoke lies rather than truth. All for personal gain. The city had become a cesspool of self-indulgence and selfishness.

And yet, Zephaniah provides a much-needed reminder: “The Lord within her is righteous; he does no injustice” (Zephaniah 3:5 ESV). God has not vacated the premises. He has not yet abandoned them. He was still there, in all His glory and exhibiting all the facets of His character, including His unwavering, undiminished righteousness. So, they were without excuse.

Zephaniah contrasts God with the unrighteous inhabitants of the city, stating, “every morning he shows forth his justice; each dawn he does not fail; but the unjust knows no shame” (Zephaniah 3:5 ESV). There was never a day that God failed to display His righteousness and justice. Under no circumstances could they ever point a finger at God and accuse Him of being unjust or unfaithful. And His coming judgment of them would be well-deserved and fully justified. He had every right to be upset with them. He had shown them mercy time and time again. He had spared them from destruction more times than they could remember. He had put up with their ingratitude and infidelity. The only reason they still existed as a nation was because God was faithful to keep the covenant He had made with Abraham.

Their continued existence had nothing to do with them. They were undeserving of His grace and mercy. Their actions were no more righteous than those of the Cushites, Moabites, Ammonites, or Philistines. In fact, they stood before God as more guilty and deserving of His righteous indignation because they had been the beneficiaries of His unmerited favor and then had chosen to disobey His commands, reject His correction, withhold their trust, and ignore His counsel.

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

   

 

To the Glory of God

“I have heard the taunts of Moab
    and the revilings of the Ammonites,
how they have taunted my people
    and made boasts against their territory.
Therefore, as I live,” declares the Lord of hosts,
    the God of Israel,
“Moab shall become like Sodom,
    and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
    and a waste forever.
The remnant of my people shall plunder them,
    and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.”
10 This shall be their lot in return for their pride,
    because they taunted and boasted
    against the people of the Lord of hosts.
11 The Lord will be awesome against them;
    for he will famish all the gods of the earth,
and to him shall bow down,
    each in its place,
    all the lands of the nations. Zephaniah 2:8-11 ESV

After having issued His warning of coming judgment upon the Philistines, God now addresses Judah’s neighbors to the east. Moab and Ammon lie on the opposite side of the Dead Sea in land that is often referred to as the Transjordan.

Hundreds of years earlier, when the people of Israel were making their way from Egypt to the land of Canaan, they had to pass through this region of the Transjordan. And when they arrived at the border of Moab, God commanded Moses to avoid any confrontation with the people who lived there.

“And we turned and went in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. And the Lord said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.’” – Deuteronomy 2:8-9 ESV

God also commanded that the Israelites treat the people of Ammon in the same way and for a similar reason.

“And when you approach the territory of the people of Ammon, do not harass them or contend with them, for I will not give you any of the land of the people of Ammon as a possession, because I have given it to the sons of Lot for a possession.…” – Deuteronomy 2:19 ESV

To grasp what’s going on here, you have to understand why God had given “the sons of Lot” possession of these territories. Lot was the nephew of Abraham who, according to the book of Genesis, accompanied his uncle when he began his God-ordained relocation to Canaan.

And Abram took Sarai his wife, and Lot his brother’s son, and all their possessions that they had gathered, and the people that they had acquired in Haran, and they set out to go to the land of Canaan. – Genesis 12:12:5 ESV

Upon their arrival in the land of Canaan, Lot and Abram eventually parted ways.

And Lot lifted up his eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. Abram settled in the land of Canaan, while Lot settled among the cities of the valley and moved his tent as far as Sodom. Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord. – Genesis 13:10-13 ESV

This little bit of historical context is going to be important as we move through God’s judgment upon Moab and Ammon. Lot ended up settling in the wicked city of Sodom, rather than taking up residence in the “well-watered” Jordan Valley. And sometime later, when God brought judgment upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, He would spare Lot and his family “because he was a righteous man who was sick of the shameful immorality of the wicked people around him” (2 Peter 4:7 NLT).

But during their escape from the city of Sodom, Lot’s wife would die for violating God’s command. He had commanded them, “Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away” (Genesis 19:17 ESV). 

But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt” (Genesis 19:26 ESV). With the death of his wife, “Lot went up out of Zoar and lived in the hills with his two daughters” (Genesis 19:30 ESV). And it didn’t take long before the negative influence of having grown up in Sodom became apparent. Fearful that they would both become old maids, unmarried and childless, the two daughters of Lot conspired to get their father drunk and have sex with him. The result of their illicit and immoral decision would be the nations of Moab and Ammon.

Thus both the daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father. The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day. – Genesis 19:36-38 ESV

Now that we have the historical context, let’s got back to the prophecy of Zephaniah. God specifically calls out Moab and Ammon, the descendants of Lot and the close relatives of God’s chosen people. And He accuses them of having taunted and reviled the people of Judah. As far back as Israel’s exodus from Egypt, the Moabites had been guilty of trying to prevent the Israelites from settling in the land of Canaan. The sheer number of Israelites had frightened the people of Moab.

And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. And Moab said to the elders of Midian, “This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field.” – Numbers 22:3-4 ESV

So, the king of Moab had hired a local diviner named Balaam, ordering him to pronounce a curse of the people of Israel.

Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22:6 ESV

But God prevented Balaam from cursing the people of Israel. In fact, he would actually end up pronouncing a God-ordained blessing upon the people of Israel. And that blessing would take the form of a prophetic message concerning the coming Messiah and the Savior of the world.

“I see him, but not now;
    I behold him, but not near:
a star shall come out of Jacob,
    and a scepter shall rise out of Israel;
it shall crush the forehead of Moab
    and break down all the sons of Sheth.
Edom shall be dispossessed;
    Seir also, his enemies, shall be dispossessed.
    Israel is doing valiantly.
And one from Jacob shall exercise dominion
    and destroy the survivors of cities!” – Numbers 24:17-19 ESV

The Ammonites would also prove to be a constant source of animosity for the people of Israel, waging war against them throughout the period of the judges and well into the reigns of Saul and David. The Ammonites and Moabites, while descendants of Lot, were a pagan people who worshiped false gods. And God commanded the Israelites not to intermarry with them because those relationships would lead the Israelites to turn their backs on Him. Yet, even King Solomon would choose to disobey God, marrying Naamah, who was an Ammonite (1 Kings 14:21). And Solomon would end up worshiping the gods of his many pagan wives and concubines, resulting in God dividing his kingdom in half, creating the northern nation of Israel and the southern nation of Judah.

But back to Moab and Ammon. God had plans for them. They were not going to enjoy their pagan ways forever. Their pride and arrogance and their hostility toward the people of Judah would be repaid.

“Moab shall become like Sodom,
    and the Ammonites like Gomorrah,
a land possessed by nettles and salt pits,
    and a waste forever.
The remnant of my people shall plunder them,
    and the survivors of my nation shall possess them.” – Zephaniah 2:9 ESV

God foreshadows the coming destruction of these two nations, comparing their fall to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Isn’t it fascinating that God chooses to use these two wicked cities to describe the fall of Ammon and Moab? The common link is Lot, the progenitor of the Ammonites and Moabites. But the two cities and the two nations also share a track record of wickedness, pride, sin, immorality, and godlessness.

Ultimately, the sins of Moab and Ammon were against God. By rejecting Israel, they had rejected Him.

“Make him drunk, because he magnified himself against the Lord, so that Moab shall wallow in his vomit, and he too shall be held in derision.

We have heard of the pride of Moab—
    he is very proud—
of his loftiness, his pride, and his arrogance,
    and the haughtiness of his heart.
I know his insolence, declares the Lord;
    his boasts are false,
    his deeds are false.” – Jeremiah 48:26, 29-30 ESV

“I will make Rabbah a pasture for camels and Ammon a fold for flocks. Then you will know that I am the Lord. For thus says the Lord God: Because you have clapped your hands and stamped your feet and rejoiced with all the malice within your soul against the land of Israel…” – Ezekiel 25:5-6 ESV

The day is coming, the “great day of the Lord,” when He will bring His judgment against all the nations of the earth. And there will be a reason for God’s destruction of these pagan nations.

The Lord will terrify them
    as he destroys all the gods in the land.
Then nations around the world will worship the Lord,
    each in their own land. – Zephaniah 2:11 NLT

He will remove all vestiges of the false gods that have led the nations to live in open rebellion to Him. He will destroy them, making it perfectly clear that He is the one and only God. And the end result will be that the nations of the world will bow down in worship of Him and Him alone.

“‘As surely as I live,’ says the LORD, ‘every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will declare allegiance to God.’” – Romans 14:11 NLT

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

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

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

   

 

They Have Sinned Against the Lord

14 The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
    the mighty man cries aloud there.
15 A day of wrath is that day,
    a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
    a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16 a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements.

17 I will bring distress on mankind,
    so that they shall walk like the blind,
    because they have sinned against the Lord;
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
    and their flesh like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
    shall be able to deliver them
    on the day of the wrath of the Lord.
In the fire of his jealousy,
    all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
    he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.Zephaniah 1:14-18 ESV

Zephaniah is warning of two judgments to come. One will involve the people of Judah. The other will include the rest of humanity, as well as all beasts, birds, and fish. What makes reading these prophetic passages so difficult is that the timeline regarding these future judgments is unclear. The prophet seems to combine portions pertaining to each judgment into one message, making it nearly impossible to differentiate between the two. He uses a single phrase to reference both judgments: The great day of the Lord.

This speaks of a day, an actual point in time when God will display His wrath against sinful mankind. But it is important to recognize that Zephaniah is foretelling the coming judgment of Judah, the people of God, and the far-more-distant judgment of mankind. These are two separate events that will both be seen as “great days” because they will each involve the inescapable wrath of God against the sins of men.

And Zephaniah makes it quite clear that the coming judgments of God will be due to sin. God is not capricious or cavalier. He does not have an anger-management problem. The book of Ezekiel describes God as persistently patient and kind, having displayed amazing self-control, even in the face of mankind’s ongoing refusal to honor Him as their Creator and God. But God will not put up with humanity’s rejection of Him forever. As a holy God, He cannot allow sin to remain unpunished. The guilty must be condemned and face the righteous consequences for their acts.

The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation. – Ezekial 36:23 ESV

And Zephaniah states that the great day of the Lord is coming on sinful mankind “because they have sinned against the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:17 ESV). King Solomon added his assessment of the problem: “Surely there is not a righteous man on earth who does good and never sins” (Ecclesiastes 7:20 ESV). And centuries later, the apostle Paul would provide his own Spirit-inspired take on the problem: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23 ESV).

In verses 14-16, Zephaniah describes the day of the Lord as being near. It is barreling down the track like an out-of-control freight train, with no means of stopping its devastating arrival.

It will be…

…a day of wrath
a day of distress and anguish
… day of ruin and devastation
a day of darkness and gloom
…a day of clouds and thick darkness
a day of trumpet blast and battle cry

It will be marked by bitterness and distress. It will involve great suffering and, ultimately, death. And there will be no escape.

These descriptors were meant to apply to the coming judgment of Judah, which would take place with the fall of Jerusalem at the hands of the Babylonians in 586 BC. But they also describe the final day of the Lord, which will occur at the end of the seven-year period of time called the Great Tribulation – an end-times event that will precede the establishment of Christ’s Kingdom on earth.

Both of these events, the defeat of Judah by the Babylonians, and the final judgment of all mankind at the hand of Christ are examples of the “day of the Lord.”

“As employed by the prophets, the Day of the Lord is that time when for His glory and in accordance with His purposes God intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sin or for the deliverance of His own.” – Richard D. Patterson, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah

When Zephaniah described the day of the Lord as being near, he was not exaggerating. He was not using hyperbole. We know from the opening lines of the book that Zephaniah prophesied during the reign of Josiah (640-609 BC). We also know that the first deportation of Jews to Babylon took place in 605 BC. Josiah died in 609 BC, and his son, Jehoahaz, replaced him on the throne. But his reign would last just three months, and he would be succeeded by his brother, Jehoiakim. At this point, the Babylonians had already begun their conquest of the region, demanding tribute payments from the occupants of the land. Jehoiakim joined the other nations in the area by sending exorbitant sums of money to Nebuchadnezzar in an effort to stave off further destruction. In spite of these ransom payments, Nebuchadnezzar began deporting the people of Judah in 609 BC.

When Zephaniah delivered this prophetic word concerning the coming day of the Lord, the end was nearer than anyone could have imagined. No more than five years remained until the pending judgment would begin. The deportation of the people of Judah to Babylon would ultimately be accompanied by the destruction of Jerusalem. And before the city fell, there would be a prolonged siege followed by intense fighting and the total annihilation of the city.

The people of Judah would no longer be able to buy their way out of trouble.

Neither their silver nor their gold
    shall be able to deliver them
    on the day of the wrath of the Lord. – Zephaniah 1:18 ESV

Once God made His decision to bring judgment against His people, there would be nothing they could do to prevent it. The opportunity to repent would no longer exist. The hope of buying more time by bribing the Babylonians would end. God’s patience with His people will have run its course, and the promise of His judgment will find its fulfillment.

But notice how this chapter ends.

In the fire of his jealousy,
    all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
    he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth. – Zephaniah 1:18 ESV

This is one of those instances where the two different judgments being predicted by Zephaniah seem to overlap, creating a somewhat confusing and difficult to comprehend scenario. In the same verse, he warns that the people of Judah would be unable to buy their way out of God’s judgment, but he also warns that God’s judgment will result in the complete destruction of all the inhabitants of the earth.

The question that must be asked is whether this prophecy has yet to be fulfilled. And the answer is obviously, “No.” The inhabitants of the earth still exist. The earth itself has not yet been consumed. So, it would make sense that there are two judgments involved. One, in the not-so-distant future that will involve the nation of Judah. The other, in the as-yet-to-be-revealed future that will involve all the nations of the earth.

It is clear, from the historical record, that Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC. It is also clear that after 70 years in captivity in Babylon, the Jews were allowed to return to the land of Canaan. Under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, a remnant of the people were given permission by King Cyrus to return to the land, rebuild the city of Jerusalem, restore its walls, and renovate the long-abandoned temple. The sacrificial system would be reinstituted, and the celebration of Passover reinstated to the annual calendar.  In keeping with His covenant promise, God would restore the Israelites to the land He had given them. And they remain in that land to this day.

And their restoration to the land was in order that God might one day send His Son in human flesh, born as a descendant of King David, into the tribe of Judah. But as the apostle John points out, Jesus would come to His own, but they would refuse to receive Him (John 1:11). And John adds that Jesus came into the world He created, “yet the world did not know him” (John 1:10 ESV).

The first advent of Jesus into the world was marked by rejection. The vast majority of the world, including His own people, the Jews, would refuse to accept Him as the Son of God and the Savior of the world. And their rejection of Him would take the form of their demand for His crucifixion. The prophet Isaiah predicted that when Jesus came, He would be “despised and rejected— a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (Isaiah 53:3 NLT).  Rather than accept Him, the people would turn their backs on him and look the other way. He would be despised, and no one would care.

But there is a day when Jesus will come again. He will have a second advent or arrival on earth, but this time He will come to bring judgment. It will be the great day of the Lord when, as Robert Patterson put it, “God intervenes in human affairs in judgment against sin or for the deliverance of His own.”

God’s plan for mankind extends well beyond the people of Judah and the time period in which Zephaniah prophesied. He is providing through His prophet a glimpse into His full redemptive plan, which will find its final fulfillment in the Second Coming of Christ and the pouring out of His judgment upon unrepentant humanity. But all those who have placed their faith in God’s Son will find forgiveness for their sins, restoration to a right relationship with Him, and the joy of unbroken, undiminished fellowship with God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Sin will be punished. Faith will be rewarded. The earth will be made new. The saints of God will receive their resurrected bodies. And the joy of the eternal state will begin and never end.

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

   

 

I Will…

1 The word of the Lord that came to Zephaniah the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah, in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.

“I will utterly sweep away everything
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away man and beast;
    I will sweep away the birds of the heavens
    and the fish of the sea,
and the rubble with the wicked.
    I will cut off mankind
    from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
“I will stretch out my hand against Judah
    and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem;
and I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal
    and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests,
those who bow down on the roofs
    to the host of the heavens,
those who bow down and swear to the Lord
    and yet swear by Milcom,
those who have turned back from following the Lord,
who do not seek the Lord or inquire of him.” – Zephaniah 1:1-6 ESV

To understand a book like Zephaniah, you have to establish the historical context. Any attempt to read it without first determining the identity of his original audience, and the unique circumstances in which they lived, will leave its content obscure and its application impossible.

The book was most likely authored by the man whose name it bears: Zephaniah. There is debate over the exact meaning of his name. It has been translated as “Jehovah has treasured” and “whom Jehovah hid.” Along with the obscurity of his name, we are given little in the way of details concerning Zephaniah’s background. In the opening verse he describes himself as “the son of Cushi, son of Gedaliah, son of Amariah, son of Hezekiah.” This would make him the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s former kings. Which means he had royal blood pulsing through his veins.

Zephaniah’s royal lineage provides a unique link between Judah’s past and the present circumstances in which the prophet is living. He acts as a kind of human bridge between two different eras of the nation’s history. The very mention of King Hezekiah’s name provides a link to his reign. He is one of the few kings of Judah who, upon death, received a positive statement regarding his time on the throne. The book of 2 Chronicles states, “he did what was good and right and faithful before the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 31:20 ESV). And it adds, “every work that he undertook in the service of the house of God and in accordance with the law and the commandments, seeking his God, he did with all his heart, and prospered” (2 Chronicles 31:21 ESV).

What makes Hezekiah’s reign especially significant is that he inherited the throne from his father, Ahaz, one of the most wicked and immoral kings in Judah’s long history. And Zephaniah, the great-great-grandson of Hezekiah provides a bridge between this godly king and the current king of Judah, Josiah.

King Hezekiah had been a godly outlier in the long line of unrighteous and disobedient kings of Judah. The book of 2 Kings provides a flattering description of this man reveals the one-of-a-kind nature of his reign.

He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him. For he held fast to the Lord. He did not depart from following him, but kept the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses. And the Lord was with him; wherever he went out, he prospered. – 2 Kings 18:5-7 ESV

Josiah had been a reformer, spending the majority of his reign attempting to correct all the immoral excesses of his father. He had reopened the temple and reinstated the Levitical priesthood. He destroyed all the pagan altars and temples, removing all vestiges of idol worship from the land of Judah. He even reestablished Passover as a national holiday in Judah. Under his leadership, the nation experienced a spiritual renewal and revival.

But after his death, the nation would find itself headed back into apostasy. Hezekiah was succeeded by Manasseh, who ascended to the throne at the young age of 12 and promptly led the nation into another season of spiritual rebellion. Sadly, he is described in less-than-flattering terms: “he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 21:2 ESV). This young man undid all that his father had done, returning the people to a state of idolatry and apostasy.

“…he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them.” – 2 Kings 21:3 ESV

Upon his death, Manasseh was followed by his son Amon. And this apple did not fall far from the tree. He picked up where his father had left off, leading the nation into further spiritual decline.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. – 2 Kings 21:20-22 ESV

But this wicked young man did not reign for long. He was assassinated by his own servants and his son Josiah was made king in his place. Amazingly, in spite of his father’s evil influence and example, Josiah proved to be a godly king. The description of his reign bears a striking resemblance to that of Hezekiah.

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

Josiah reigned in Jerusalem from approximately 640 to 609 B.C. And while he was far from a perfect king, he made significant strides in restoring the nation’s spiritual state. In the 18th year of his reign, he ordered the restoration of the temple, which had fallen into a state of disrepair. In the process, the workmen discovered the Book of the Law, the Mosaic Law given by God on Mount Sinai. Hilkiah, the high priest, read the content of the book to Josiah, and “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” (2 Kings 22:11 ESV). Convicted by what he heard, Josiah repented and called the entire nation of Judah to a time of renewal and rededication to the ways of God.

And the king stood by the pillar and made a covenant before the Lord, to walk after the Lord and to keep his commandments and his testimonies and his statutes with all his heart and all his soul, to perform the words of this covenant that were written in this book. And all the people joined in the covenant. – 2 Kings 23:3 ESV

We are not told when Zephaniah received his calling to be a messenger for God. So, it is impossible to know if he began his prophetic role before or after the reforms of Josiah. All we know is that it was “in the days of Josiah the son of Amon, king of Judah.”

And the opening verses of his book seem to paint a rather bleak picture. While the reign of Josiah would be marked by radical reforms and a renewal of the covenant between God and His people, Zephaniah’s words are far from encouraging or complimentary. The news he delivers is not good. And what makes it worse is that it comes from the lips of God Himself.

“I will utterly sweep away everything from the face of the earth…” – vs. 2

“I will sweep away man and beast…” – vs. 3

“I will sweep away the birds of the heavens and the fish of the sea, and the rubble with the wicked…” – vs. 3

 I will cut off mankind from the face of the earth…” – vs. 3

“I will stretch out my hand against Judah and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem…” – vs. 4

I will cut off from this place the remnant of Baal and the name of the idolatrous priests along with the priests…” – vs. 4

God is not happy. And it really doesn’t matter if these messages from God came before or after the reforms of Josiah. God knew the hearts of His people. He had seen reform and revival before, and He knew that, too often than not, it was short-lived. Restoring the temple, reestablishing the Passover, and renewing the covenant did not mean that the hearts of the people had been changed. God could see into the hearts of His people and He was well aware that external behavior was not always an indicator of internal change.

“These people draw near to Me with their mouths and honor Me with their lips, but their hearts are far from Me. Their worship of Me is but rules taught by men.” – Isaiah 29:13 BSB

“What right have you to recite My statutes and to bear My covenant on your lips?” – Psalm 50:16 BSB

Hezekiah and Josiah act as bookmarks, bracketing a period of spiritual apathy and apostasy in Judah. Hezekiah began a series of reforms, but his efforts were curtailed by Manasseh and Amon. Josiah would pick up the mantel of his predecessor, but he too would find that his reforms lacked staying power. The propensity of the people to act unfaithfully was too strong. In spite of Josiah’s best attempts to restore righteousness in Judah, the people would continue to “bow down on the roofs to the host of the heavens” (Zephaniah 1:5 ESV). And their hypocrisy would be evident as they “bow down and swear to the Lord and yet swear by Milcom” (Zephaniah 1:5 ESV). Milcom was another name for Molech, the god of Ammon. So, in other words, the people of Judah were guilty of worshiping Yahweh while also bowing down to the false gods of the nations of Canaan. They were hedging their bets, attempting to maintain their relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, while supplementing His care with that of the myriad idols available to them in Canaan. 

But God wanted no part of their syncretistic worship. He described it as what it truly was, their abandonment of Him, accusing them as having “turned back from following the Lord” (Zephaniah 1:6 ESV), and of no longer seeking or inquiring of Him.

These opening verses are prophetic in nature, describing a series of future events that will involve not only Judah but the world as a whole. At this point, it is impossible to tell the exact timeline God has in mind here. All of the things Zephaniah has shared lie in the future, but some will take place long before others. When will God “sweep away everything from the face of the earth”? The prophet doesn’t say. When will God “sweep away man and beast” and “cut off mankind from the face of the earth”? Again, we are given no details. But it is painfully clear that God is unhappy with the state of affairs on earth. Things are not as they should be and He is stating His intention to rectify what is wrong. When it will happen is far less important than the fact that it will happen.

God is attempting to gain the attention of the people of Judah. They have become complacent and comfortable. Some are living in obvious rebellion to God, while others feign allegiance and practice their infidelity in secret. But God sees through it all. He is well aware of the true condition of His peoples’ hearts. And He will not tolerate their unfaithfulness and unrighteousness forever. So, as He has done so many times before, God sends His prophet to warn the people about the unavoidable consequences of their actions. And He lets them know that if they continue to what they are doing, He will be forced to act. And He simply states, “I will…”

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

   

 

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

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