Unbelievably Unrepentant

“I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places,
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

“I also withheld the rain from you
when there were yet three months to the harvest;
I would send rain on one city,
and send no rain on another city;
one field would have rain,
and the field on which it did not rain would wither;
so two or three cities would wander to another city
to drink water, and would not be satisfied;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

“I struck you with blight and mildew;
your many gardens and your vineyards,
your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

10 “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;
I killed your young men with the sword,
and carried away your horses,
and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

11 “I overthrew some of you,
as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning;
yet you did not return to me,”
declares the Lord.

12 “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel;
because I will do this to you,
prepare to meet your God, O Israel!”

13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
and treads on the heights of the earth—
the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!Amos 4:6-13 ESV

In this section of Amos’ message, it would appear that he has 1 Kings 8 in mind. In that passage, King Solomon is offering his prayer of dedication for the newly constructed temple in Jerusalem. Solomon fully realized that it was impossible for the God of the universe to actually take up residence in a building made with human hands. The omnipotent, omnipresent God who created the heavens and the earth could not be contained in a man-made structure. But Solomon God to “watch over this Temple night and day” (1 Kings 8:29 NLT). The temple was being dedicated to God’s glory and would bear His name.  So, with that in mind, Solomon asked God to “hear the prayers I make toward this place” (1 Kings 8:29 NLT). Then he added:

May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place. Yes, hear us from heaven where you live, and when you hear, forgive.” – 1 Kings 8:30 NLT

Then Solomon outlined for God a series of likely scenarios in which the people would find themselves needing divine assistance. Solomon knew his people well, and he was fully aware that they would commit sins against God that would result in the judgment of God. So, he asked that the temple might be a place of intercession where the people could come in repentance and offer up their prayers to the Almighty. And Solomon asked God to confirm that, if they prayed, He would hear and forgive.

Now, fast-forward to the reign of Jeroboam II. He is ruling over the kingdom of Israel, consisting of the ten northern tribes that broke away from Judah and Benjamin shortly after Solomon’s death. The northern kingdom is wicked and unrepentant. They are idolatrous, immoral, unjust, and guilty of having turned their backs on God. And in verses 6-11 of chapter four, Amos records God’s words concerning their stubborn, unrepentant hearts.

God reminds them that He has brought judgment after judgment against them, in the form of famine, drought, disease, pestilence, and war, but they have repeatedly refused to repent. And with each description of the judgment He sent upon them, God adds the sad refrain, “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6 ESV).

God had sent a famine among the cities of Israel. And because they had no food, they had “cleanness of teeth” (Amos 4:6 ESV). Their sin had resulted in God’s judgment and a devastating lack of life’s necessities. But Solomon had prayed with just such an incident in mind. He asked God, “If there is a famine in the land and if your people Israel pray about their troubles, raising their hands toward this Temple, then hear from heaven where you live, and forgive. Give your people what their actions deserve, for you alone know each human heart” (1 Kings 8:37, 38-39 NLT).

But notice what Solomon said: If there is a famine and if your people pray….

And there was a famine, but the people did not pray. They never turned to God in repentance. And because they were living in the northern kingdom of Israel, far from the city of Jerusalem, the temple of God was out of sight, out of mind. They had their own temples dedicated to their own false gods.

Next, God reminds them that He had withheld the rain, causing them to suffer the consequences of drought. This should have been no surprise to the people of God, because, generations earlier, Moses had warned them what would happen if they chose to disobey God’s laws:

The skies above will be as unyielding as bronze, and the earth beneath will be as hard as iron. The Lord will change the rain that falls on your land into powder, and dust will pour down from the sky until you are destroyed. – Deuteronomy 28:23-24 NLT

And Solomon, knowing the sinful propensity of the people of Israel, had foreseen this day and had used it as another example of the need for God’s forgiveness.

“If the skies are shut up and there is no rain because your people have sinned against you, and if they pray toward this Temple and acknowledge your name and turn from their sins because you have punished them, then hear from heaven and forgive the sins of your servants, your people Israel. Teach them to follow the right path, and send rain on your land that you have given to your people as their special possession.” – 1 Kings 8:35-36 NLT

But the lack of rain had not produced repentant hearts. Instead, the hearts of the people remained as hard as the sun-baked, rain-deprived soil. They remained unwilling to repent and, therefore, they remained unforgiven by God.

But God had not stopped with famine and drought. He had also destroyed their crops with blight and mildew. He sent locusts to devour their fig and olive trees. These natural disasters were actually divine judgments, designed to get the attention of the apostate people of Israel. But, once again, they failed to repent and return. And, once again, Solomon had foreseen this situation and had included it in his prayer to God.

“If there is … a plague or crop disease or attacks of locusts or caterpillars…whatever disaster or disease there is—and if your people Israel pray about their troubles, raising their hands toward this Temple, then hear from heaven where you live, and forgive.” – 1 Kings 8:37-39

All the people needed to do was admit their fault and turn to God in repentance. But they would stubbornly refuse to do so.

And their stubbornness proved costly. After sending diseases on the fields, vineyards, and orchards of Israel, God sent pestilence among the people. He brought upon the Israelites the same kind of plagues that had destroyed the people of Egypt. Solomon had seen this coming as well. He had specifically feared the possibility of this very thing happening when he prayed, “If there is … a plague…” (1 Kings 8:37 ESV).

But not only did God send a devastating and deadly plague, He sent enemy troops who killed the soldiers of Israel, leaving a mass of decaying corpses in their wake.

I killed your young men in war
    and led all your horses away.
    The stench of death filled the air!” – 1 Kings 8:10 NLT

And, according to the prayer of Solomon, the people of Israel had failed to pray to God before entering into battle with their enemies and, as a result, they were defeated.

“If your people go out where you send them to fight their enemies, and if they pray to the Lord by turning toward this city you have chosen and toward this Temple I have built to honor your name, then hear their prayers from heaven and uphold their cause.” – 1 Kings 8:44-45 NLT

The people of Israel didn’t turn to God because they didn’t believe they needed Him. And they refused to return to God because they no longer believed in Him. They had long ago rejected Him as their God. And they had paid the price.

God had even decreed the destruction of some of their cities. Enemy forces had besieged and destroyed many Israelite cities and towns, burning them to the ground and leaving them desolated wastelands, much like the sinful cities Sodom and Gomorrah had become.

“I destroyed some of your cities,
    as I destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.
Those of you who survived
    were like charred sticks pulled from a fire. – Amos 4:11 NLT

But even these devastating consequences failed to produce repentance among the people of Israel.

“But still you would not return to me,”
    says the Lord. – Amos 4:11 LT

At no point do the people of Israel turn their faces to the temple in Jerusalem and turn their hearts to the God whose name it bears. Despite all God’s judgments against them, they refuse to confess their sins and call out for His mercy and forgiveness. So, God provides them with one final and fateful warning: “prepare to meet your God, O Israel!” (Amos 4:12 ESV).

While they consistently refused to return to Him in repentance, they were still going to have to deal with Him. Closing their eyes and their hearts did not make God go away. Just because they failed to acknowledge Him as God, did not mean He no longer existed. And Amos adds his two cents worth by reminding them that Yahweh was the Creator-God, the maker of all things. He was the sovereign God of the universe who holds all things in His mighty hands and is fully capable of dealing justly and rightly with His creation. And He would.

For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind,
    and declares to man what is his thought,
who makes the morning darkness,
    and treads on the heights of the earth—
    the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name! – Amos 4:13 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

Wretched, Miserable, Poor, Blind, and Naked

1 “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan,
    who are on the mountain of Samaria,
who oppress the poor, who crush the needy,
    who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’
The Lord God has sworn by his holiness
    that, behold, the days are coming upon you,
when they shall take you away with hooks,
    even the last of you with fishhooks.
And you shall go out through the breaches,
    each one straight ahead;
    and you shall be cast out into Harmon,”
declares the Lord.

“Come to Bethel, and transgress;
    to Gilgal, and multiply transgression;
bring your sacrifices every morning,
    your tithes every three days;
offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened,
    and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them;
    for so you love to do, O people of Israel!”
declares the Lord God. Amos 4:1-5 ESV

As Amos continues to convey to the people of Israel God’s righteous indignation with them, he focuses his attention like a laser on the wealthy women of Samaria. Addressing them as “you cows of Bashan,” Amos is unapologetically brutal in his description of their selfish and luxuriant lifestyle. These well-to-do women were guilty of flaunting their wealth and social status by treating others with contempt and condescension. Amos accuses them of “oppressing” the poor and “crushing” the needy.  In the Hebrew language, those two words paint a stark and highly unflattering picture of these women from the upper strata of Israelites society. The word translated as “oppressed” is ʿāšaq, and it means “to violate, defraud, do violence.” Amos is accusing these women of taking advantage of the poor for personal gain. They were defrauding and deceiving the less fortunate in order to increase their own wealth and further enhance their luxurious lifestyles.

In Hebrew, the word “crush” is rāṣaṣ, and it too carries a much more sinister and sinful connotation. It means “to crack in pieces” and can be used either literally or figuratively. In the figurative sense, to crush someone is to treat them with such disdain and disrespect that they are left broken or crushed in spirit. It conveys a lack of empathy or compassion, a total disregard for the worth or well-being of the other.

It seems that Amos is targeting these particular women because they represent that segment of Israelite society that had enjoyed a certain amount of personal success during Jeroboam II’s reign. Under his leadership, the nation had expanded its borders and many of these wealthy families had probably profited from the boom environment this growth created. In the very next chapter, Amos points out the injust nature of their treatment of the poor.

You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.
Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses,
    you will never live in them. – Amos 5:11 NLT

Amos is not suggesting that these women were responsible for all these injustices. But they were enjoying the fruit of someone else’s unjust “labor.” Most likely their husbands were the ones who were “trampling the poor” by levying excessive taxes and charging exorbitant rental fees for their properties. And all the while, they were using their ill-gotten profits to build luxury homes for themselves and their wives.

And Amos portrays the wives of these men as demanding taskmasters who treat their husbands like slaves. Amos purposefully uses hyperbolic, over-the-top language to illustrate the decadent and immoral lifestyle of the upper-class members of Israelite society. His portrayal of these women as lounging on their couches and demanding their husbands to bring them another drink is meant to expose the narcissistic nature of their lives. They are self-consumed and more interested in personal pleasure than in keeping God’s laws.

But by all appearances, these very same women were faithful members of the religious community of Israel. They made regular trips to the altars and shrines set up in Bethel and Gilgal. They worshiped the false gods that Jeroboam II and his predecessors had set up all throughout Israel. In other words, these wealthy women were outstanding members of the faith community. And they most likely believed that their wealth and prosperity had been a gift from the gods.

But Yahweh sees through their sanctimonious and self-righteous displays of mock-godliness. He sees behind the walls of their ostentatious homes and witnesses their “Lives of the Rich and Famous” lifestyles. But He also sees into the recesses of their sin-hardened hearts and knows that they are uncaring and unrepentant of their many transgressions. That’s why He sarcastically challenges them to keep doing what they’ve always done. He encourages them to continue offering their sacrifices and tithes to their false gods.

“Go ahead and offer sacrifices to the idols at Bethel.
    Keep on disobeying at Gilgal.
Offer sacrifices each morning,
    and bring your tithes every three days.
Present your bread made with yeast
    as an offering of thanksgiving.
Then give your extra voluntary offerings
    so you can brag about it everywhere!
This is the kind of thing you Israelites love to do…” – Amos 4:4-5 NLT

They’re worshiping the wrong gods and for all the wrong reasons. They want to be recognized for their religious zeal and applauded for their sacrificial displays of self-righteous sacrifice.

In His sermon on the mount, Jesus exposed this kind of hypocritical religious play-acting. He viewed it as nothing more than an attempt to gain the praise of men.

“Watch out! Don’t do your good deeds publicly, to be admired by others, for you will lose the reward from your Father in heaven. – Matthew 6:1 NLT

These very same women who were oppressing the poor and crushing the needy were regularly offering their sacrifices and tithes at the temple. They even offered “extra voluntary offerings” but only so they could brag about it to others. Everything they did was all about inflating their own sense of value and worth. It wasn’t enough to be rich. They wanted to be esteemed. But to God, their acts of religious pietism were nothing more than evidence of their sin-hardened hearts. And Jesus would go on to point out the hypocritical nature of giving to get noticed.

“When you give to someone in need, don’t do as the hypocrites do—blowing trumpets in the synagogues and streets to call attention to their acts of charity!” – Matthew 6:2 NLT

But God makes it clear that these kinds of people will pay dearly for their actions. He cannot and will not tolerate this kind of behavior among His chosen people. God has sworn by His own holiness that the guilty will be punished. This statement is intended to stress the otherness of God. He is set apart and holy. He is fully righteous and without sin. He cannot simply turn a blind eye to the unrighteous behavior of His people. His holy nature requires that He deal justly with the blatant disobedience of those who bear His name and have been called to be His light to the nations.

And God announces that these self-absorbed, pampered, and pretentiously pious women will suffer a devastating and humiliating fate.

“The time will come when you will be led away
    with hooks in your noses.
Every last one of you will be dragged away
    like a fish on a hook!
You will be led out through the ruins of the wall;
    you will be thrown from your fortresses.” – Amon 4:2-3 NLT

God predicts a less-than-flattering outcome for these women. They will one day find themselves on the receiving end of the oppression and crushing. When the Assyrians invade Israel, lay siege to the capital city of Samaria, and eventually breach the walls, they capture these women, leading them out of the city with hooks in their noses – just like cows being led to the slaughter. Their wealth and luxurious homes will provide no comfort or protection. Their tithes and extra volunteer offerings will do nothing to garner aid or assistance from their false gods. They will be unceremoniously marched out of town and led to a life marked by poverty and oppression.

But it didn’t have to be this way. As Amos will reveal in the following verses, God had given them ample opportunity to repent and return to Him. He had warned them. He had even afflicted them with plagues, diseases, famines, and troubles of all kinds. But they had repeatedly refused to heed His warnings or be humbled by His judgments. And God will repeatedly remind them, “you did not return to me” (Amos 4:8 ESV).

In the book of Revelation, the apostle John records the words of Jesus regarding the spiritual state of the church in Laodicea, and it is not a flattering picture.

You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” – Revelation 3:17 NLT

This indictment from the lips of Jesus seems to apply to the wealthy women of Samaria who were living during the days of Amos. They were convinced that their wealth was evidence of their spiritual superiority. They were blessed. And they somehow believed that they deserved even more, which is what led them to oppress and crush the poor and needy. But like the Laodiceans, they were actually wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked. And the day was coming when their true spiritual condition would be exposed for all to see.

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

Guilty as Charged

“Do two walk together,
    unless they have agreed to meet?
Does a lion roar in the forest,
    when he has no prey?
Does a young lion cry out from his den,
    if he has taken nothing?
Does a bird fall in a snare on the earth,
    when there is no trap for it?
Does a snare spring up from the ground,
    when it has taken nothing?
Is a trumpet blown in a city,
    and the people are not afraid?
Does disaster come to a city,
    unless the Lord has done it?

“For the Lord God does nothing
    without revealing his secret
    to his servants the prophets.
The lion has roared;
    who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
    who can but prophesy?” Amos 3:3-8 ESV

Israel’s judgment by God was inevitable. That seems to be the point that Amos is attempting to drive home in verses 3-8. To do so, he uses a series of rhetorical questions that each has an obvious and non-debatable answer. God has already established that He and the people of Israel shared a unique relationship.

“You only have I known
    of all the families of the earth…” – Amos 3:2 ESV

And the knowledge of which God speaks was intimate and reciprocal in nature. The Hebrew word is yāḏaʿ, and it conveys the idea of both knowing and being known.  God had revealed Himself to the people of Israel and allowed them to enjoy an understanding of Him that was unavailable to any other people group on earth. Like Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden, the Israelites had walked with God, enjoying intimate fellowship with Him and experiencing the benefits of His presence, power, and provision.

So, when Amos asks, “Do two walk together, unless they have agreed to meet?,” he is fully expecting his audience to respond, “No!” And his point is that the Israelites and Yahweh had a mutual understanding about their relationship. It came with expectations and was based on a bilateral covenant that required the Israelites to be faithful and obedient.

God had told them long ago, “I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall know that I am the Lord your God” (Exodus 6:7 ESV). But He had also warned them that obedience would be a non-negotiable requirement if they wanted to experience His blessings.

Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.” – Jeremiah 7:23 ESV

Like two people who have agreed to go on a long journey together, the people of Israel had ratified the covenant God had made with them. In doing so, they had agreed to live according to His laws and in keeping with His will for them. The book of Exodus records that momentous occasion.

Then Moses went down to the people and repeated all the instructions and regulations the Lord had given him. All the people answered with one voice, “We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 24:3 ESV

But they had failed to keep their end of the agreement. They had not completed the journey or reached the destination God had in store for them. So, God was declaring His intention to judge them for their disobedience and unfaithfulness. That’s why Amos uses the illustration of a lion roaring in the forest. He asks the question, “Does a lion roar in the forest, when he has no prey?” (Amos 3:4 ESV). And, once again, the answer is meant to be a resounding, “No!”

Under normal conditions, a lion remains silent, stealthily stalking its unsuspecting victim in order to catch it by surprise. If a lion is roaring, it is because he has successfully captured his prey. The roar is a declaration of victory. And in the case of Israel, Amos was declaring that the “roar” of Yahweh was due to their coming judgment. They were about to become His “prey.”

Yahweh was not a silent lion, having failed in the hunt. He was a roaring, victorious lion who stood over His prey, declaring His right of possession and demonstrating His  power and authority.

According to Amos, Israel was like a clueless bird being lured to a trap by the tempting presence of bit of tantalizing bait. The prophet Hosea, a contemporary of Amos, compares Israel to “silly, witless doves, first calling to Egypt, then flying to Assyria for help” (Hosea 6:7 NLT). They flit and fly this way and that, easily allured and distracted by those things it think will bring it satisfaction and security. But it’s all a trap, set by the hunter, who just happens to be God Almighty.

Finally, Amos moves from the metaphorical realm of nature to the very real arena of warfare and military conquest. In the day in which Amos lived, this next question would have struck a very sensitive nerve. He asks, “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?” (Amos 3:6 ESV). For centuries, the people of Israel had lived in a state of constant instability, facing the very real possibility of defeat at the hands of their enemies. The book of Amos starts out with a list of those nations that surrounded Israel and posed a real threat to their existence, including Syria, Philistia, Phoenicia, Ammon, and Moab.

The Israelites were very familiar with the sound of a trumpet being blown from the walls of the city. It was a warning signal to those living inside that the enemy was at the gates and the possibility of attack was eminent. This news was intended to produce a certain amount of fear and encourage preparation for battle. But Amos adds that the looming tragedy is meant to be seen as the handiwork of God.

Does disaster come to a city,
    unless the Lord has done it? – Amos 3:6 ESV

Once again, this is a rhetorical question that can only be answered one way: With the word, “No!” The sovereign God of the universe was in control of all things, and even the fate of a city was held in His fully capable, all-powerful hands.

Amos sums up his series of questions with a statement.

“For the Lord God does nothing
    without revealing his secret
    to his servants the prophets.
The lion has roared;
    who will not fear?
The Lord God has spoken;
    who can but prophesy?” – Amos 3:7-8 ESV

God had spoken through the prophets. In fact, every judgment Israel was about to undergo had been predicted by God’s appointed messengers, including men like Amos and Hosea. They had warned what would happen if Israel continued to ignore God and violate their covenant commitment to Him. And the rest of this book is going to defend God’s actions toward His rebellious and unrepentant people. God was going to fulfill each and every one of His warnings and, when He was done, they would hear His righteous roar as He stood over them in victory.

But Amos will also reveal that, while God will pour out His righteous anger against the nation of Israel, He will not completely destroy them.

“I, the Sovereign Lord,
    am watching this sinful nation of Israel.
I will destroy it
    from the face of the earth.
But I will never completely destroy the family of Israel,”
    says the Lord.  – Amos 9:8 NLT

Despite Israel’s unfaithfulness, God will remain faithful to His covenant commitment to them. He will fulfill each and every promise He has made to them. But in the meantime, their many transgressions will have to be atoned for – they will have to pay the price for their disobedience. And the price will be high.

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

Chosen But Not Immune from Judgment

“Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them,
    whose height was like the height of the cedars
    and who was as strong as the oaks;
I destroyed his fruit above
    and his roots beneath.
10 Also it was I who brought you up out of the land of Egypt
    and led you forty years in the wilderness,
    to possess the land of the Amorite.
11 And I raised up some of your sons for prophets,
    and some of your young men for Nazirites.
    Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel?”
declares the Lord.

12 “But you made the Nazirites drink wine,
    and commanded the prophets,
    saying, ‘You shall not prophesy.’

13 “Behold, I will press you down in your place,
    as a cart full of sheaves presses down.
14 Flight shall perish from the swift,
    and the strong shall not retain his strength,
    nor shall the mighty save his life;
15 he who handles the bow shall not stand,
    and he who is swift of foot shall not save himself,
    nor shall he who rides the horse save his life;
16 and he who is stout of heart among the mighty
    shall flee away naked in that day,”
declares the Lord. Amos 2:9-16 ESV

In the face of Israel’s ongoing unfaithfulness to Him, God reminds them that He had been constantly faithful from the very day He called them out of captivity in Egypt. Israel, the very name by which the ten northern tribes were known, was the name God had given to their patriarch, Jacob.

“Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men, and you have prevailed.” – Genesis 32:28 BSB

And just like their namesake, generations of Israelites had “struggled with God and with men.” But whereas Jacob had dared to wrestle with God in order to obtain a blessing from Him, the nation of Israel had chosen to go to oppose God by rejecting His divine will for them. And rather than a blessing, they would receive His judgment.

God takes the Israelites all the way back to the day that Moses sent the 12 men to spy out the land of Canaan.

Moses gave the men these instructions as he sent them out to explore the land: “Go north through the Negev into the hill country. See what the land is like, and find out whether the people living there are strong or weak, few or many. See what kind of land they live in. Is it good or bad? Do their towns have walls, or are they unprotected like open camps? Is the soil fertile or poor? Are there many trees? Do your best to bring back samples of the crops you see.” (It happened to be the season for harvesting the first ripe grapes.). – Numbers 13:17-20 NLT

And when the spies returned, they gave Moses and the people a mixed report:

“We entered the land you sent us to explore, and it is indeed a bountiful country—a land flowing with milk and honey. Here is the kind of fruit it produces. But the people living there are powerful, and their towns are large and fortified. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak! The Amalekites live in the Negev, and the Hittites, Jebusites, and Amorites live in the hill country. The Canaanites live along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea and along the Jordan Valley.” – Numbers 13:27-29 NLT

The land was fruitful, just as God had promised. But it was also filled with formidable enemies whose size and strength made the land unconquerable and its fruit unattainable. And the people listened to the report of the spies and refused to enter the land. Rather than trust God, they succumbed to their fears and listened to the hyperbole-filled report of the spies.

“The land we traveled through and explored will devour anyone who goes to live there. All the people we saw were huge. We even saw giants there, the descendants of Anak. Next to them we felt like grasshoppers, and that’s what they thought, too!” – Numbers 13:32-33 NLT

Two of the spies, Caleb and Joshua, provided a very different assessment of the situation, encouraging the people of Israel to rely on the faithfulness and power of Yahweh.

“The land we traveled through and explored is a wonderful land! And if the Lord is pleased with us, he will bring us safely into that land and give it to us. It is a rich land flowing with milk and honey. Do not rebel against the Lord, and don’t be afraid of the people of the land. They are only helpless prey to us! They have no protection, but the Lord is with us! Don’t be afraid of them!” – Numbers 14:7-9 NLT

The people respond by threatening to stone Caleb and Joshua. They want nothing to do with the land, its fruit, or the so-called giants who lived there. They would rather return to Egypt than risk certain death by entering the land of Canaan. And God was infuriated with their stubborn refusal to trust Him.

“How long will these people treat me with contempt? Will they never believe me, even after all the miraculous signs I have done among them? – Numbers 14:11 NLT

They had conveniently forgotten about the 12 plagues that God had poured out on the Egyptians. Their memory of His parting of the Red Sea had long ago faded. God had proven His power and faithfulness time and time again but, when they found themselves facing another new and seemingly insurmountable obstacle, they suddenly lost their ability to trust Him. And, as a result of their unwillingness to obey God and enter the land, He condemned that entire generation of Israelites.

You will all drop dead in this wilderness! Because you complained against me…You will not enter and occupy the land I swore to give you… – Numbers 14:29, 30 NLT

Four decades later, the next generation of Israelites did as God commanded and entered the land of Canaan. And Amos records that God gave them victory over the Amorites, even though “they were as tall as cedars and as strong as oaks.” (Amos 2:9 NLT). During the 40 years their mothers and fathers had spent wandering through the wilderness, God was preparing this generation to take possession of their rightful inheritance. And God reminds them that He raised up godly leaders from among them, in the form of prophets and Nazirites. The prophets spoke on behalf of God and the Nazirites modeled lives that were totally dedicated to God.

But the Israelites had ended up rejecting the messages of the prophets. And they had caused the Nazirites to violate their vows of abstinence from wine. In other words, they didn’t want to hear godly words or were unwilling to tolerate godly behavior. The entire nation was guilty of compromise, complacency, and complete disregard for the call of God to live set-apart lives.

And God warned them that the burden of judgment would be so great that they would grown under the weight. The punishment that God would bring against them would be unbearable and inescapable. They could run but they wouldn’t get far. Even the strongest and bravest warriors among them would be overcome with fear, abandoning their posts and running for their lives.

“On that day the most courageous of your fighting men
    will drop their weapons and run for their lives,”
    says the Lord. – Amos 2:16 NLT

And the book of 2 Kings tells us exactly how God fulfilled this prophecy. In 722 B.C., King Shalmaneser of Assyria invaded Israel “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” (2 Kings 17:5-6 NLT). The fall of Israel was complete, and the author of 2 Kings explains why this devastating event took place.

This disaster came upon the people of Israel because they worshiped other gods. They sinned against the Lord their God, who had brought them safely out of Egypt and had rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. They had followed the practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of them, as well as the practices the kings of Israel had introduced. – 2 Kings 17:7-8 NLT

The persistent and pervasive disobedience of the people of Israel would eventually catch up with them. Their rejection of His prophets and refusal to repent from their blatant and widespread apostasy brought God’s righteous and just judgment upon them. Yes, they had been set apart by God. They enjoyed the distinction of being His chosen people. But their unique status as His prized possession required that they live in obedience to His commands. Yet, they had failed to do so and now God was letting them know that their disobedience would have dire and deadly 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

Blind to His Own Sin

1 But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” And the Lord said, “Do you do well to be angry?”

Jonah went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, till he should see what would become of the city. Jonah 4:1-5 ESV

Once again, Jonah finds himself in an unexpected and unpleasant situation. This entire portion of the narrative parallels Jonah’s experience in chapter 2. But this time, rather than praying from the belly of the fish, Jonah cries out to God from inside the walls of Nineveh, where a spiritual revival seems to be taking place. But in both cases, Jonah shares with God his dissatisfaction with his uncomfortable circumstances. Upon finding himself trapped inside the gullet of the giant fish, Jonah turned his attention to Yahweh.

I called out to the Lord, out of my distress – Jonah 2:1 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “distress” is ṣārâ, which literally means “tightness.” Jonah was in a literal and figurative “tight spot.” To put it another way, he was in dire straits, something the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines as “a very bad or difficult situation.” And it was the unpleasant conditions of his surroundings that produced in him feelings of anguish and distress. He wanted out. He was looking for a way of escape. And he ended that prayer with the confident assertion: “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9 ESV).

But fast forward to chapter four. Jonah now stands in the crowded streets of Nineveh, where the citizens, covered in sackcloth and ashes as a sign of mourning for their sins, are calling out to Yahweh. But rather than rejoicing in this incredible display of repentance, Jonah is “displeased…exceedingly” (Jonah 4:1 ESV). In Hebrew, that phrase literally reads, “Jonah was displeased with great displeasure.” He is enraged by what he is witnessing. And raʿ, the Hebrew word describing his displeasure, is also translated as “evil” elsewhere in the book. The previous chapter ended with the statement, “When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil (raʿ) way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 ESV). 

The Ninevites had repented of their evil ways while Jonah was consumed by evil thoughts. He was angered by the thought that God might spare these pagan idolaters. He was repulsed by their displays of mourning and their cries for mercy from his God. And at this point in the narrative, Jonah had no way of knowing whether their actions would result in God sparing their lives. He wasn’t yet aware that God had already “relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them” (Jonah 1:10 ESV). But he suspected as much, and the very thought of it left him in a fit of rage. He is literally “hot and bothered.” The Hebrew word is ḥārâ, and it means “to burn up.”

In chapter 3, the king of Nineveh expressed his hope that God might “turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger” (Jonah 3:9 ESV). The Hebrew word translated as “fierce” is ḥārôn, and it comes from the same root word as ḥārâ. It means “burning anger.” So, while God relented or turned from His righteous anger against the Ninevites, Jonah found himself consumed by self-righteous indignation.

So, in his “distress,” he called out to Yahweh, trying to explain the source of his consternation and concern.

“Didn’t I say before I left home that you would do this, Lord? That is why I ran away to Tarshish! I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. – Jonah 4:2 NLT

He justified his rage by claiming that his worst fears had been realized. The potential repentance of the Ninevites was exactly why he had run away in the first place. Now, as he stood in the streets of Nineveh, he realized that his compassionate, gracious, and loving God might change His mind and let the guilty Ninevites off the hook. And that prospect appalled and angered him.

Jonah described Yahweh as being “slow to anger” and yet, here he was filled with uncontrollable rage at the thought of the Ninevites literally getting away with murder, torture, idolatry, and immorality. But Jonah seems to have an inflated sense of his own righteousness and that of the people of Israel. Somehow he believed that the chosen people of God were somehow deserving of God’s mercy and grace, but not the Gentiles of the world.

Back in chapter 1, Jonah slept like a baby while the Gentile sailors desperately struggled to save the ship and their lives. Even when they discovered that Jonah was the source of their predicament, they made one last attempt to row to shore rather than throw him overboard. They showed him mercy and extended him grace. But Jonah seemed unconcerned with either the physical or spiritual well-being of these pagan men. And it was only after he got exposed as the guilty party that he offered to sacrifice himself. But it seems that Jonah was more interested in ending his own life than in saving theirs. He would rather die than have to obey God’s command and go to Nineveh.

And as Jonah considered the unacceptable prospect of Nineveh being spared, he called on God to put him out of his misery.

“Just kill me now, Lord! I’d rather be dead than alive if what I predicted will not happen.” – Jonah 4:3 NLT

Jonah would rather die than have to watch the sinful Ninevites escape the wrath of God. But his arrogant attitude failed to recognize his own guilt and worthiness of God’s judgment. When he had been trapped inside the belly of the great fish, Jonah had called on God to extend him mercy and grace. And God had heard his cry and spared his life. But Jonah suffered from short-term memory loss. And he seems to have conveniently forgotten the words of his fellow prophets, who had repeatedly declared the guilt of the people of Israel. Poor Hosea had been commanded by God to marry a prostitute who ended up bearing him three children. The first child was a son, whom God told Hosea to name Jezreel, “because in a little while I will punish the dynasty of Jehu on account of the bloodshed in the valley of Jezreel, and I will put an end to the kingdom of Israel” (Hosea 1:4 ESV).

At the birth of Hosea’s second child, God told him, “Name her No Pity’ (Lo-Ruhamah) because I will no longer have pity on the nation of Israel. For I will certainly not forgive their guilt” (Hosea 1:6 ESV). When Hosea’s wife gave birth to another son, God told him, “Name him ‘Not My People’ (Lo-Ammi), because you are not my people and I am not your God” (Hosea 1:9 ESV).

And yet, despite these sobering and convicting words from God, Hosea had also recorded the good news of God’s gracious and merciful forgiveness.

“However, in the future the number of the people of Israel will be like the sand of the sea that can be neither measured nor numbered. Although it was said to them, “You are not my people,” it will be said to them, “You are children of the living God!” Then the people of Judah and the people of Israel will be gathered together. They will appoint for themselves one leader, and will flourish in the land. Certainly, the day of Jezreel will be great!” – Hosea 1:10-11 NLT

The nation of Israel was guilty of having rejected God. They stood condemned before Him and worthy of His just and righteous judgment. God would be fully justified in punishing them for having broken their covenant commitment to Him.

“…you broke my covenant and betrayed my trust.” – Hosea 6:7 NLT

God would go on to describe the people of Israel as “silly, witless doves” (Hosea 7:11 ESV). The Hebrew word for “dove” is yônâ, which should sound familiar because it just happens to be Jonah’s name. This arrogant prophet, just like the people of Israel, was worthy of death. He didn’t need to give God an excuse to kill him. He was already worthy of God’s judgment and deserving of death. Yet God had spared his life. Jonah had been miraculously rescued from “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:2 ESV. He had been able to praise God for having, “snatched me from the jaws of death” (Jonah 2:6 NLT). After having been graciously spared by God, Jonah had declared, “Salvation belongs to the Lord!” (Jonah 2:9 ESV). And yet, here was this same man demanding that God take his life so he wouldn’t have to witness the salvation of the Ninevites.

But God, who is all-righteous and yet slow to anger, asked his pouting prophet if his rage was justified.

“Is it right for you to be angry about this?” – Jonah 4:4 NLT

Did Jonah really believe he had a right to stand in judgment over the Ninevites? Was he so blind to his own sin that he couldn’t see the hypocrisy of his own actions? But Jonah refused to answer God’s question. Instead, he simply walked away. Jonah “went out of the city and sat to the east of the city and made a booth for himself there” (Jonah 4:5 ESV). Still unaware of God’s plans for Nineveh, Jonah erected a shelter from which he could view the city and wait to see what God was going to do. The fact that he sought shelter outside the walls of the city reveals that he still had hopes that the destruction of Nineveh was a possibility. And there he sat, “till he should see what would become of the city” (Jonah 4:5 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

God Relented

The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. And he issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, “By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.”

10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. Jonah 3:6-10 ESV

There seems to be little doubt that Jonah delivered his message of God’s pending overthrow of the Ninevites with “evangelistic” zeal. As a dedicated Hebrew, Jonah would have relished the opportunity to be God’s messenger of destruction to such a wicked and godless people. He fully recognized the danger associated with his task but enthusiastically and repeatedly warned them, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4 ESV). So, when the Ninevites responded to his message with repentance and not revenge, Jonah was completely dumbfounded and extremely disappointed. This was not the outcome he had hoped for. But it was the one he had feared. In the very next chapter, Jonah will express to God the depth of his displeasure and anger over the repentance of the Ninevites.

“O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish…” – Jonah 4:2 ESV

His worst fears had come to fruition. Rather than destroy the Ninevites, God had responded to them with grace, mercy, patience, and love. But rather than rejoicing over the miraculous conversion of these former enemies of Israel, Jonah complained bitterly to God. This brings us back to the opening line of this book.

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah… – Jonah 1:1 ESV

In the original Hebrew, the very first word of this entire narrative was intended to set the stage for all that was to follow. It can be translated as “and it happened.” This word usually serves to connect the narrative to something that has preceded it. The author is letting his readers know that what they are about to read is a story, but it is not an isolated or independent one. The book of Jonah was not intended to be taken as a free-standing narrative but as an integral part of a much larger story. The author is linking his chronicle of Jonah’s Ninevite mission to the writings of Amos and Hosea. These two men had been prophets to the northern kingdom of Israel during the reign of King Jeroboam II, making them contemporaries of Jonah. And like Jonah, both of them have books that bear their names. In those books, they paint a bleak image of the spiritual state of Israel.

There is no faithfulness or steadfast love,
    and no knowledge of God in the land;
there is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery;
    they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. – Hosea 4:1-2 ESV

They have deeply corrupted themselves – Hosea 9:9 ESV

…they multiply falsehood and violence – Hosea 12:1 ESV

…you turn justice into poison
    and the sweet fruit of righteousness into bitterness – Amos 6:12 NLT

Amos and Hosea describe God’s people as rebellious, idolatrous, immoral, unjust, and stubbornly unrepentant. In fact, God says of them, “The more they were called, the more they went away” (Hosea 11:2 ESV). Amos reminds them how God had punished them with drought, famine, disease, and destruction, yet they would not return to Him (Amos 4:6).

God had repeatedly called His people to repentance.

“Seek me and live…” – Amos 5:4 ESV

Seek good, and not evil, that you may live – Amos 5:14 ESV

Hate evil, and love good,
    and establish justice in the gate;
it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts,
    will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. – Amos 5:15 ESV

But God’s gracious calls to repent and return to Him had fallen on deaf ears. So, He had warned them that he would raise up a nation against them (Amos 6:14). And that brings us back to verse 1 of Jonah chapter one.

“Now (and it happened) the word of the Lord came to Jonah…” (Jonah 1:1 ESV). And God told Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). But was their evil any worse than that of Israel? That seems to be the point. God was sending Jonah to a people who were renowned for their wickedness but Amos and Hosea had clearly exposed the wanton sinfulness of the covenant people of God.

By sending His reluctant prophet to Nineveh and bringing about the repentance of its godless inhabitants, God was indicting His own chosen people. He was revealing just how faithless and spiritually adulterous Israel really was. Years of prophetic warnings had failed to produce repentance among the covenant people of God. But Jonah’s message produced a citywide revival in Nineveh. It reminds me of the words of Jesus, spoken to the prideful, unrepentant religious leaders of Israel in His day.

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.” – Matthew 3:7-9 ESV

Jonah had claimed to be a Hebrew who feared the Lord, “the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). Yet, he had refused to obey the One he claimed to fear. In a similar way, the people of Israel had claimed to know God.

To me they cry, “My God, we—Israel—know you.” – Hosea 8:2 ESV

But God exposed their hypocrisy.

“They do not cry to me from the heart…” – Hosea 7:14 ESV

Yet, the people of Nineveh, who had no knowledge of or past experience with Yahweh, repented and mourned at the word of His prophet. Even the king of Nineveh “arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes” (Jonah 3:6 ESV). This royal ruler of the dreaded Assyrian empire humbled himself before God Almighty. Yet the kings of Israel had repeatedly refused to bow the knee to Yahweh, choosing instead to lead the people into apostasy and idolatry. These arrogant, pride-filled kings had made a habit of turning their backs on God. And the day was coming when the people of Israel would find themselves without a king. The very same Assyrians who repented at Jonah’s message would eventually come to Israel as God’s agents of judgment. And, as a result, “Samaria’s king shall perish” (Hosea 10:11 ESV). But rather than respond in humility and repentance, the people of Israel will continue to reject Yahweh as their true King.

“We have no king,
for we do not fear the Lord;
    and a king—what could he do for us?” – Hosea 10:3 ESV

But, in stark contrast, Sennacherib, the king over Nineveh, “issued a proclamation and published through Nineveh, ‘By the decree of the king and his nobles: Let neither man nor beast, herd nor flock, taste anything. Let them not feed or drink water, but let man and beast be covered with sackcloth, and let them call out mightily to God. Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands’” (Jonah 3:7-8 ESV).

This was a corporate call for the entire city to fast and mourn before God. And the king included men and animals in that call. Every living creature within the walls of Nineveh was to experience the pain associated with self-denial. The Ninevites were even expected to deny their domesticated animals food and water, as a sign of the entire city’s humble submission to Yahweh. They recognized the pervasive nature of their sin and wanted to do whatever was necessary to assuage the righteous anger of Israel’s God.

The king was well aware of their corporate guilt and wanted to ensure that their repentance was equally shared among every stratum of society – from the rich to the poor. And he set the example, declaring his hope that Yahweh may yet show them mercy.

“Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish.” – Jonah 3:9 ESV

And when God saw that their repentance was sincere and heartfelt, “how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it” (Jonah 3:10 ESV). The God of the nations had graciously declared His message of pending judgment and His loving offer of redemption, and the Ninevites had responded in repentance.

But the prophet of Israel found all of this to be disconcerting and disappointing. He failed to see the lesson contained in the miraculous conversion of the Ninevites. The God he claimed to believe in was capable of saving even the worst of sinners. Yet the people whom God had graciously set apart as His own, had repeatedly refused to accept His call to repent and experience restoration and redemption. Jonah had just witnessed the truth of God’s statement to Moses lived out.

“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” – Exodus 33:19 ESV

But Jonah would find no joy in the display of God’s grace, mercy, and love. And rather than being convicted by the repentance of the Ninevites, Jonah would respond in anger and resentment.

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

Something Greater Than Jonah

10 And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land.

1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah 2:10-3:3 ESV

Though the book bears Jonah’s name, it is really less about him than it is about the God he claims to worship. When quizzed by the sailors about his identity, Jonah had told them. “I am a Hebrew, and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9 ESV). And his summary statement concerning Yahweh was far truer than even Jonah imagined. He knew that his God was the creator of all things. Yahweh was all-powerful and the one true God. Jonah also viewed Yahweh as “a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2 ESV). And this great God of his, who had made the sea and the dry land, had been the one who sent the storm and had “appointed a great fish to swallow up Jonah” (Jonah 1:17 ESV).

Jonah had failed miserably in his attempt to flee from the presence of God. Yahweh had never lost sight of Jonah and had been sovereignly orchestrating each and every aspect of his life, including the wind, the waves, and the giant fish. Once again, as the original Jewish audience read or heard this story, they would have been reminded of the greatness of their God. They would have recalled the words of the psalmists:

O Lord God of hosts,
    who is mighty as you are, O Lord,
    with your faithfulness all around you?
You rule the raging of the sea;
    when its waves rise, you still them. – Psalm 89:8-9 ESV

Yahweh had made all the creatures in the seas and oceans of the world. And not only that, He had sovereign control over each and every one of them. When the author states that God “appointed” the fish that swallowed Jonah, he is essentially claiming that the fish was sovereignly ordained for its role. God had created this particular fish for this specific occasion. It had a pre-ordained role to play in God’s grand redemptive plan. Just as Jonah did. But Jonah didn’t like the part he had been assigned by God. So, he had run. But he didn’t get far.

In the vast depths of the Mediterranean Sea, the fish found Jonah and fulfilled the will of God. But the story doesn’t end there. God was not done with Jonah. And while Jonah’s experience in the belly of the fish was far from pleasant, it was not intended as a form of final judgment. The fish would actually be the God-appointed means of Jonah’s deliverance. In his prayer, Jonah described his 3-day confinement as “the belly of Sheol” (Jonah 2:1 ESV). As a Hebrew, Jonah understood Sheol to be “the place of the dead” or “the place of departed souls/spirits.” From his perspective, he was as good as dead. But he cried out to God and was graciously delivered. But notice how God brought about that deliverance.

…the Lord spoke to the fish… – Jonah 2:10 ESV

Yahweh didn’t address His reluctant but seemingly repentant prophet. He talked to the fish. He gave the fish instructions and it obeyed.

it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land. – Jonah 2:10 ESV

God spoke, and the fish obeyed. And that minor detail should not be overlooked. It stands in stark contrast to the opening lines of the book, where God spoke to Jonah and His self-willed prophet responded in disobedience. God had told Jonah to go, and Jonah had basically told God, “No!” He expressed his autonomy by rejecting God’s command. And it was his stubborn determination to live according to his own will that had resulted in his unpleasant “captivity.”

But Jonah had been miraculously released from his imprisonment in Sheol. The fish had conveniently, albeit unceremoniously, vomited the renegade prophet on dry ground. His life had been spared. And he soon found that his original mission had been preserved. God had not changed His mind regarding Nineveh or chosen another prophet to fill Jonah’s sandals. Jonah’s flight and three-day ordeal in the belly of the fish had changed nothing. God was just as determined as ever for Jonah to deliver His message to “Nineveh, that great city” (Jonah 1:2 ESV). And it seems that even before Jonah’s clothes had time to dry, God delivered His message a second time.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” – Jonah 3:1-2 ESV

Jonah’s flight, the deadly storm, and his unpleasant confinement in the belly of the great fish, while all significant to Jonah, were of little consequence to God. They had done nothing to alter God’s original plan. In fact, from God’s divine perspective, they had been part of the plan all along. God had not been caught off guard or surprised by Jonah’s actions. The prophet’s refusal to obey and his plan to run away had not forced God to come up with “Plan B.” No, every aspect of this story reflects the sovereign will of God over the affairs of men. God had sovereignly raised up Jonah to be a prophet, and He had preordained Jonah’s role in the redemption of Nineveh.

Now, stop for a moment and consider the significance of what is happening in the opening verses of chapter 3. Jonah has rejected the word of God and responded by attempting to run from the expressed will of God. But his disobedience did nothing to change God’s mind or alter the divine plan. After all the running, sailing, hurling, drowning, swallowing, pain and suffering, Jonah found himself standing before God and faced with the same unpleasant task.

“Get up and go to the great city of Nineveh, and deliver the message I have given you.” – Jonah 3:2 NLT

God had created the nation of Israel so that they might be a blessing to the nations. He had called, consecrated, and commissioned them to be a part of His divine plan of global redemption. They were not to be an end unto themselves. While they were the apple of His eye (Zechariah 2:8) and His “treasured possession among all peoples” (Exodus 19:5 ESV, they had been set apart for a grand and glorious purpose that was bigger than their status as God’s chosen people. And whether they realized it or not, God was going to use them, in spite of them. Like Jonah, they would run away from His divine calling, choosing to live according to their own wills rather than obey His. For generations, they would rebel against God’s commands and pursue their own selfish agendas. But while they could run from God, they could never successfully escape His presence or avoid His will for them. He had told Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV), and that promise would ultimately be fulfilled. Centuries of disobedience, seeming delays, defeats, and deportations would not keep God from accomplishing His plan. In fact, all these things would be part of the plan.

So, as the recently regurgitated Jonah stood on the shore, he heard those familiar words once again: “Get up and go…” And this time, he went.

So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. – Jonah 3:2 ESV

Nineveh was still there, and the people of Nineveh were just as wicked as they had ever been. But there was one more thing that remained unchanged: God’s plan for the city and its inhabitants. And whether Jonah liked it or not, God was going to use him to pour out a blessing on the immoral and totally unworthy people of Nineveh.

For those of us living on this side of the cross, this scene should remind us of the words of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son… ” – John 3:16 ESV

God loves the people of Israel, but His love is not exclusive to them. They were intended to be the conduit through which His divine love flowed to the nations of the world. And God had planned all along that His Son would enter the world, born a descendant of Abraham, and of the seed of David so that He might be the ultimate fulfillment of the promise. The apostle Paul reminds us that Jesus was the means by which God had always intended to bless the nations.

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:16 ESV

Jesus wasn’t “Plan B.” He wasn’t some kind of last-minute stand-in, a divine proxy sent to fix what the people of Israel had failed to do. Jesus had been the plan all along, and Peter makes this point powerfully clear.

God chose him as your ransom long before the world began, but now in these last days he has been revealed for your sake. – 1 Peter 1:20 NLT

In a sense, the story of Jonah is like reading the Cliff Notes of a much larger work. It provides a synopsis of the greater story of redemption that runs from the opening lines of Genesis to the final verses of the book of Revelation. Jonah is a bit player in the grand narrative of God’s divine plan for the restoration of all things. He, like Israel, is portrayed as a reluctant and sometimes rebellious tool in the hands of the sovereign God of the universe. He is one of many characters found in the Scriptures who, despite their flaws and failings, are used by God to accomplish His plan to bless the nations. Ultimately, Jonah points to Jesus. And, centuries later, Jesus would use the life and ministry of Jonah and the repentance of the Ninevites to condemn the unbelieving, unrepentant Jews of His day.

“The men of Nineveh will rise up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it, for they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. – Luke 11:32 ESV

Something greater than Jonah is here. And it is Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the ultimate blessing to the nations.

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 Plan of Deliverance

1 Then Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish, saying,

“I called out to the Lord, out of my distress,
    and he answered me;
out of the belly of Sheol I cried,
    and you heard my voice.
For you cast me into the deep,
    into the heart of the seas,
    and the flood surrounded me;
all your waves and your billows
    passed over me.
Then I said, ‘I am driven away
    from your sight;
yet I shall again look
    upon your holy temple.’
The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
    at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God.
When my life was fainting away,
    I remembered the Lord,
and my prayer came to you,
    into your holy temple.
Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love.
But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” Jonah 2:1-9 ESV

Does the story of Jonah contain allegorical elements? It seems quite clear that the author is attempting to convey more than just a historical recounting of Jonah’s life. Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, he has recorded the details concerning Jonah’s ordeal in order to convey an important message to his primary audience: The chosen people of God. He reveals distinct and not-so-subtle parallels between Jonah’s life and the descendants of Abraham: The Hebrew nation. But this allegorical connection does not in any way diminish or dismiss the historical nature of the book’s content. If anything, it reinforces it. The real-life experiences of Jonah are meant to be a powerful reminder of God’s sovereignty, power, grace, mercy, and love. And the fact that these events really did take place would have provided the book’s original readers with a sense of God’s control over all things.

This relatively short book is packed with Old Testament scriptural references that its original readers would have quickly recognized. There are allusions to the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, two renowned prophets of God. Its narrative style brings to mind the stories of Ruth and Esther, two other Old Testament books that convey powerful messages concerning God’s sovereignty and power. Both are stories about individuals that carry much broader truths concerning God’s interactions with His chosen people. And the book of Jonah contains countless references to the Psalms. In today’s passage alone, there are at least 21 direct links.

These Old Testament references are intended to provide an indisputable connection between Jonah’s current circumstances and the historical record of Israel. This one man’s ordeal is meant to reflect the corporate experience of the entire nation. And through it all, the reader is encouraged to recognize the sovereign hand of God working behind the scenes to accomplish His divine will – not just for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. And they were intended to apply this powerful truth to their own lives. God was in full control and had a plan in place that would bring about His will concerning the redemption of the world through His chosen instrument.

So, as the Jewish audience read of Jonah’s flight from God, the ensuing storm, and his eventual imprisonment in the belly of the great fish, they were meant to see themselves in the story. If the book of Jonah has a post-exilic date of authorship, as many scholars believe, then the people of Israel would have been reading its content while living as slaves in Assyria. The conquest of the northern kingdom of Israel began in 740 BC and culminated nearly 20 years later when the capital city, Samaria, was overtaken by the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V. This devastating defeat resulted in the deportation of thousands of Israelites to Assyria. And this terrible plight could have been avoided had the people listened to the calls of Elijah and Elisha to repent and return to Yahweh.

So, reading of Jonah being trapped in the belly of the fish would have had a particularly powerful impact on these exiles. They were in a similar predicament. But what did Jonah do? How did he respond? Chapter two provides us with the answer.

Jonah prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the fish – Jonah 2:1 ESV

And it’s important to recognize that it was only when he found himself confined to the fish’s stomach that Jonah cried out to God. Earlier, when the storm was raging and the sailors were desperately calling on their various gods to save them, Jonah had been sleeping like a baby. The ship’s captain even chastised Jonah for his lack of concern, shouting, “Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives” (Jonah 1:6 NLT). But there is no indication that Jonah ever uttered a single word to Yahweh on their behalf. 

But now, in the darkness and dampness of his aquatic prison, Jonah cried out to God. And the record of his prayer provides a glimpse into Jonah’s knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures and his basic understanding of Yahweh. He begins by quoting Psalm 120:1:

In my distress I called to the Lord,
    and he answered me.

Jonah is clearly referencing one of the songs of ascent, psalms that were sung by the people of Israel as they made their way to Jerusalem to celebrate the annual feasts established by God. These were songs of thanksgiving that celebrated God’s many acts of deliverance. Jonah, in the midst of his predicament, is thanking God for what He is about to do. He expresses confidence in God’s compassion and willingness to deliver the repentant. And clearly referencing Psalm 30, Jonah speaks in the past tense, reflecting his belief that God will hear his prayer and respond.

“O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
    and you have healed me.
O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit.” – Psalm 30:1-2 ESV

Like King David, Jonah cries out to God from the literal depths of his despair.

“Save me, O God!
    For the waters have come up to my neck.
I sink in deep mire,
    where there is no foothold;
I have come into deep waters,
    and the flood sweeps over me.” – Psalm 69:1-12 ESV

Jonah finds himself in a hopeless situation, unable to save himself and forced to call out to God for deliverance. He is surrounded by darkness and sinking deeper and deeper into the ocean, further and further away from God. And yet, even in this dire circumstance, his mind recalls the words of King David.

I had said in my alarm,
    “I am cut off from your sight.”
But you heard the voice of my pleas for mercy
    when I cried to you for help. – Psalm31:22 ESV

The man who had attempted to “flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV), is now feeling cut off from God. Yet, he is able to express his confidence that God will deliver him. “I shall again look upon your holy temple” (Jonah 2:4 ESV). This is a direct reference to another psalm of David: Psalm 5, verse 7. Jonah is attempting to keep his focus on the faithfulness of God by recalling the many psalms that reflect God’s goodness and past acts of divine deliverance. And he speaks in terms that project hope in the face of adversity.

The waters closed in over me to take my life;
    the deep surrounded me;
weeds were wrapped about my head
   at the roots of the mountains.
I went down to the land
    whose bars closed upon me forever;
yet you brought up my life from the pit,
    O Lord my God. – Jonah 2:5-6 ESV

Once again, Jonah finds comfort in the psalms of David, reminding himself that God is far greater than his worst predicament.

O Lord, you have brought up my soul from Sheol;
    you restored me to life from among those who go down to the pit. – Psalm 30:3 ESV

As Jonah sank deeper and deeper into the sea, he cried out louder and louder, believing that his God could and would hear him from His holy temple. Distance and darkness are no problem for God. As King David said:

If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you. – Psalm 139:9-12 ESV

But Jonah ends his prayer in a somewhat prideful and arrogant tone, seemingly comparing himself to the pagan sailors who had tossed him overboard.

Those who pay regard to vain idols
    forsake their hope of steadfast love. – Jonah 2:8 ESV

What Jonah didn’t know was what had happened to those men when they threw him overboard and the storm subsided.

Then the men feared the Lord exceedingly, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows. – Jonah 1:16 ESV

These former idolaters believed in Yahweh and expressed their gratitude for His goodness by offering sacrifices and making vows. But Jonah assumes that these men remained worshipers of false gods. He viewed them as pagan Gentiles who would never understand or experience the steadfast love of Yahweh. But he was wrong. And he arrogantly bragged about how he would pay God back for His deliverance.

“But I with the voice of thanksgiving
    will sacrifice to you;
what I have vowed I will pay.
    Salvation belongs to the Lord!” – Jonah 2:9 ESV

Notice that nowhere in his prayer does Jonah mention Nineveh or the people who live there. He offers up no prayer of intercession on their behalf. Instead, he seems to echo the words of the self-righteous Pharisee from the story told by Jesus in Luke’s gospel.

“I thank you, God, that I am not like other people—cheaters, sinners, adulterers. I’m certainly not like that tax collector! I fast twice a week, and I give you a tenth of my income.” – Luke 18:11-12 NLT

Jonah shows no regard for the nations of the earth. He had been more than willing to sleep while the Gentile sailors went to their deaths. And he had chosen to disobey God rather than deliver His message to the wicked citizens of Nineveh. Yet, when he found himself in desperate circumstances, Jonah called upon his gracious and merciful God. As a Jew, he believed he somehow deserved to be saved. And his self-consumed prayer seems to reflect the hearts of the people living in exile. They too had come to believe that they were deserving of God’s deliverance. Even their prophets were prophesying falsehoods, proclaiming that their days in exile would be few. These men were guilty of leading the people astray, allowing them to think that, despite their captivity, all was well between them and God.

After Jonah completed his prayer to God, the author records, “And the Lord spoke to the fish, and it vomited Jonah out upon the dry land” (Jonah 2:10 ESV). Don’t miss the significance of that statement. It says that God spoke to the fish, but not to Jonah. Yahweh does not respond to Jonah’s pious-sounding words. Instead, He speaks to the fish and commands that it deliver Jonah to dry land. The fish in which Jonah had been imprisoned suddenly became God’s instrument of deliverance. And not only for Jonah, but for the people of Nineveh. God would use the fish to accomplish His divine plan of redemption, and God would use His reluctant and rebellious prophet as well. The sovereign will of God would be done.

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

Too Little, Too Late

1 Josiah was eight years old when he began to reign, and he reigned thirty-one years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Jedidah the daughter of Adaiah of Bozkath. 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.

3 In the eighteenth year of King Josiah, the king sent Shaphan the son of Azaliah, son of Meshullam, the secretary, to the house of the Lord, saying, “Go up to Hilkiah the high priest, that he may count the money that has been brought into the house of the Lord, which the keepers of the threshold have collected from the people. And let it be given into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the Lord, and let them give it to the workmen who are at the house of the Lord, repairing the house (that is, to the carpenters, and to the builders, and to the masons), and let them use it for buying timber and quarried stone to repair the house. But no accounting shall be asked from them for the money that is delivered into their hand, for they deal honestly.”

And Hilkiah the high priest said to Shaphan the secretary, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the Lord.” And Hilkiah gave the book to Shaphan, and he read it. And Shaphan the secretary came to the king, and reported to the king, “Your servants have emptied out the money that was found in the house and have delivered it into the hand of the workmen who have the oversight of the house of the Lord.” 10 Then Shaphan the secretary told the king, “Hilkiah the priest has given me a book.” And Shaphan read it before the king.

11 When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes. 12 And the king commanded Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam the son of Shaphan, and Achbor the son of Micaiah, and Shaphan the secretary, and Asaiah the king’s servant, saying, 13 “Go, inquire of the Lord for me, and for the people, and for all Judah, concerning the words of this book that has been found. For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book, to do according to all that is written concerning us.”

14 So Hilkiah the priest, and Ahikam, and Achbor, and Shaphan, and Asaiah went to Huldah the prophetess, the wife of Shallum the son of Tikvah, son of Harhas, keeper of the wardrobe (now she lived in Jerusalem in the Second Quarter), and they talked with her. 15 And she said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: ‘Tell the man who sent you to me, 16 Thus says the Lord, Behold, I will bring disaster upon this place and upon its inhabitants, all the words of the book that the king of Judah has read. 17 Because they have forsaken me and have made offerings to other gods, that they might provoke me to anger with all the work of their hands, therefore my wrath will be kindled against this place, and it will not be quenched. 18 But to the king of Judah, who sent you to inquire of the Lord, thus shall you say to him, Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Regarding the words that you have heard, 19 because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the Lord, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the Lord. 20 Therefore, behold, I will gather you to your fathers, and you shall be gathered to your grave in peace, and your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place.’” And they brought back word to the king. – 2 Kings 22:1-20 ESV

Just as Manasseh had reversed all the reforms of his father Hezekiah, so Josiah used his authority as king to overturn Manasseh’s ungodly and pagan-inspired initiatives. The young king began an aggressive campaign to restore the spiritual health of Judah.

At the age of 16, just eight years into his reign, he began to “seek the God of his ancestor David” (2 Chronicles 34:3 NLT). Then, at the ripe old age of 20, he launched a widespread effort “to purify Judah and Jerusalem, destroying all the pagan shrines, the Asherah poles, and the carved idols and cast images” (2 Chronicles 34:3 NLT). And his reformation projects continued well into his reign. At the age of 26, Josiah turned his attention to the temple of God. In the 18th year of his reign, he “appointed Shaphan son of Azaliah, Maaseiah the governor of Jerusalem, and Joah son of Joahaz, the royal historian, to repair the Temple of the Lord his God” (2 Chronicles 34:8 NLT).

Due to Manasseh’s efforts to promote idol worship in Judah, the temple had fallen into a state of neglect and disrepair. The former glory of the house that Solomon built had been greatly diminished by Manasseh’s shameless actions. He had desecrated God’s house and defamed the Lord’s name by ordering the placing altars to some of his false gods right in the temple itself.

…he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. – 2 Kings 21:5 ESV

What Manasseh failed to realize was that the temple was intended to be a symbol of God’s abiding presence. Inside the Holy of Holies, the sacred inner sanctum of the temple, was contained the Ark of the Covenant, and in the ark was kept a variety of items designed to remind Israel of God’s faithfulness and providential care.

Inside the Ark were a gold jar containing manna, Aaron’s staff that sprouted leaves, and the stone tablets of the covenant. – Hebrews 9:4 NLT

During Israel’s years wandering in the wilderness, God’s presence had dwelt above the mercy seat, which sat atop the Ark of the Covenant. Wherever God commanded Israel to stop and set up camp, they would erect the tabernacle and then God’s shekinah glory would take up residence within the Holy of Holies. The book of Exodus provides us with a description of this divine manifestation of God’s presence.

Then the cloud covered the Tabernacle, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle. Moses could no longer enter the Tabernacle because the cloud had settled down over it, and the glory of the LORD filled the Tabernacle.

Now whenever the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle, the people of Israel would set out on their journey, following it. But if the cloud did not rise, they remained where they were until it lifted. The cloud of the LORD hovered over the Tabernacle during the day, and at night fire glowed inside the cloud so the whole family of Israel could see it. This continued throughout all their journeys. – Isaiah 40:34-38 NLT

And when Solomon had built his magnificent temple in Jerusalem, he had ordered the Ark of the Covenant to be moved into the Holy of Holies. And God had promised to bless the temple with His presence as long as the people of Israel remained obedient to His commands.

“My name will be honored forever in this Temple and in Jerusalem—the city I have chosen from among all the tribes of Israel. If the Israelites will be careful to obey my commands—all the laws my servant Moses gave them—I will not send them into exile from this land that I gave their ancestors.” – 2 Kings 21:7-8 NLT

But by the time Josiah became king of Judah, the northern kingdom of Israel had already fallen to the Assyrians, due to their unfaithfulness to God. And the southern kingdom of Judah had come close to experiencing the same fate, but Hezekiah had repented, prompting God to miraculously deliver them from defeat at the hands of the Assyrians. Yet, the spiritual state of Judah had been greatly diminished by the ungodly leadership of men like Manasseh. And his son, Josiah, was forced to repair all the damage he had done to the kingdom and its relationship with God Almighty.

Not only had the nation of Judah failed to care for the temple of God, they had refused to keep the laws the God had handed down to Moses. And in doing so, they had unknowingly placed themselves in a dangerous predicament. God had promised to dwell among them and provide protection for them, only as long as they were careful to obey all His commands. But they had failed to do so. And their neglect of God’s temple was further exacerbated by their neglect of God’s law.

But in the process of repairing the temple, Hilkiah the high priest, made an important discovery.

“I have found the Book of the Law in the Lord’s Temple!” – 2 Kings 22:8 NLT

This is most likely a reference to the Torah or Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. Somewhere in the recesses of the temple , Hilkiah had run across a scroll containing God’s history of His relationship with Israel and the commands He had passed on to them through Moses. When the contents of this scroll were read to King Josiah, he was immediately and dramatically impacted by what he heard. He recognized that they were in serious trouble because had failed to keep their covenant commitment to God. He could restore the temple, but the people were going to have to restore their devotion to God and their determination to live in obedience to His holy law.

So, Josiah gave instructions to his high priest and other officials, ordering them to seek the Lord’s instructions. What were they to do? How were they to make up for all the years of disobedience?

“Go to the Temple and speak to the Lord for me and for the people and for all Judah. Inquire about the words written in this scroll that has been found. For the Lord’s great anger is burning against us because our ancestors have not obeyed the words in this scroll. We have not been doing everything it says we must do.” – 2 Kings 22:13 NLT

These men returned with a disturbing message from Hilduh, a prophetess of Yahweh. She informed the king that, because of their years of disobedience, the nation of Judah was going to experience all the curses described in the book of Deuteronomy.

“This is what the Lord says: I am going to bring disaster on this city and its people. All the words written in the scroll that the king of Judah has read will come true. For my people have abandoned me and offered sacrifices to pagan gods, and I am very angry with them for everything they have done. My anger will burn against this place, and it will not be quenched.” – 2 Kings 22:16-17 NLT

This devastating news must have hit Josiah like a ton of bricks. He had faithfully doing all that he could to stop the nation’s spiritual decline, but now he was being told that it was too little, too late. But there was a second part to Hilduh’s message. God had taken note of Josiah’s response to the first part of the message. Rather than react in anger or resentment, Josiah had displayed a heart of sorrow marked by repentance.

“You were sorry and humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I said against this city and its people—that this land would be cursed and become desolate. You tore your clothing in despair and wept before me in repentance. And I have indeed heard you, says the Lord. So I will not send the promised disaster until after you have died and been buried in peace. You will not see the disaster I am going to bring on this city.’” – 2 Kings 22:19-20 NLT

God was going to reward Josiah’s repentance by exempting him from the coming judgment. God would still fulfill His promise to punish Judah for its insubordination and blatant immorality, but He would spare Josiah from having to watch it all happen. Josiah’s reform efforts, while sincere, would not result in the repentance of the people. God knew their hearts and was aware that they would never fully abandon their false gods and return to Him. Like their northern neighbors, Judah would stubbornly cling to its many idols and continue to reject Yahweh as the one true God. And they would pay dearly for their spiritual infidelity. But Josiah would be spared.

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 Impeccable Timing of God

16 Moreover, Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another, besides the sin that he made Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord.

17 Now the rest of the acts of Manasseh and all that he did, and the sin that he committed, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 18 And Manasseh slept with his fathers and was buried in the garden of his house, in the garden of Uzza, and Amon his son reigned in his place.

19 Amon was twenty-two years old when he began to reign, and he reigned two years in Jerusalem. His mother’s name was Meshullemeth the daughter of Haruz of Jotbah. 20 And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. 21 He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. 22 He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. 23 And the servants of Amon conspired against him and put the king to death in his house. 24 But the people of the land struck down all those who had conspired against King Amon, and the people of the land made Josiah his son king in his place. 25 Now the rest of the acts of Amon that he did, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah? 26 And he was buried in his tomb in the garden of Uzza, and Josiah his son reigned in his place. 2 Kings 21:16-26 ESV

Manasseh seems to have been obsessed with overturning every one of the religious reforms his father had instituted in Judah. He systematically dismantled his father’s legacy of godly leadership, supplanting with his own reign of moral decay and domestic terror. As the heir to his father’s throne, Manasseh did nothing to keep alive his father’s policies or programs. Instead, he led the nation of Judah down a dark and dangerous path that ultimately led to the judgment of God. And his condemnation by God was well-deserved.

Manasseh also murdered many innocent people until Jerusalem was filled from one end to the other with innocent blood. This was in addition to the sin that he caused the people of Judah to commit, leading them to do evil in the Lord’s sight. – 2 Kings 21:16 NLT

But God continued to send His prophets, calling the wayward king to repent and lead the people back to Him. But their words of warning fell on deaf ears.

The Lord spoke to Manasseh and his people, but they ignored all his warnings. – 2 Chronicles 33:10 NLT

Their arrogant refusal to listen to God’s prophets led the Almighty to send another kind of messenger.

So the Lord sent the commanders of the Assyrian armies, and they took Manasseh prisoner. They put a ring through his nose, bound him in bronze chains, and led him away to Babylon. But while in deep distress, Manasseh sought the Lord his God and sincerely humbled himself before the God of his ancestors. And when he prayed, the Lord listened to him and was moved by his request. So the Lord brought Manasseh back to Jerusalem and to his kingdom. Then Manasseh finally realized that the Lord alone is God! – 2 Chronicles 33:11-13 NLT

Manasseh’s imprisonment and debasement by the Assyrians got his attention. In his miserable and hopeless condition the formerly prideful king called out to God. And Yahweh graciously listened to his prayer and ended his exile in Babylon.

And Manasseh was a changed man. Upon his return to Jerusalem, he began an aggressive campaign to reverse the downward spiritual decline he had helped to cause.

After this Manasseh rebuilt the outer wall of the City of David, from west of the Gihon Spring in the Kidron Valley to the Fish Gate, and continuing around the hill of Ophel. He built the wall very high. And he stationed his military officers in all of the fortified towns of Judah. Manasseh also removed the foreign gods and the idol from the Lord’s Temple. He tore down all the altars he had built on the hill where the Temple stood and all the altars that were in Jerusalem, and he dumped them outside the city. Then he restored the altar of the Lord and sacrificed peace offerings and thanksgiving offerings on it. He also encouraged the people of Judah to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. – 2 Chronicles 33:14-16 NLT

But, while his efforts were well-intended, they were only partially successful.

However, the people still sacrificed at the pagan shrines, though only to the Lord their God. – 2 Chronicles 33:17 NLT

He had helped to restore the worship of Yahweh, but the people remained strangely attached to the pagan shrines where they once worshiped the false gods of their enemies. They continued to frequent these unholy sites and desecrated the name of Yahweh by worshiping him in these unconsecrated locations. Manasseh’s reforms, while significant, couldn’t completely eradicate the years of damage he had done through his godless leadership. Prior to his humble return to God, Manasseh had “built pagan shrines and set up Asherah poles and idols” all over Judah (2 Chronicles 33:19 NLT). And because he failed to remove these physical sites where the people had regularly dishonored God, he allowed the roots of idolatry and apostasy to remain the land of Judah.

And Manasseh would leave this partially restored but highly unstable environment to his son. At the young age of 22, Amon ascended to the throne of his father and took over the reins of responsibility for a nation that wavered in the dangerous state between semi-faithfulness and outright rebellion. While Manasseh had ended his reign in repentance and had made a concerted effort to restore the nation’s commitment to Yahweh, it proved to be too little, too late. His years of ungodly leadership and idolatrous behavior had negatively influenced his young son. So, when Amon became king, rather than continuing the reforms of his father, he returned the nation to the days of darkness that had marked the early years of Manasseh’s reign.

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

In less than two years, Amon managed to plunge Judah back into the dark ages of sin, idolatry, and moral instability. And his chaotic and destructive reign abruptly ended with his assassination. His own disgruntled servants tried to take over Amon’s throne by taking his life. But their attempt at insurrection failed and they were summarily executed.

With Amon’s abbreviated but sin-laced reign over, his eight-year-old son Josiah took his place. And everything about this succession plan has disaster written all over it. Josiah was just a child when he ascended to the throne, and he was inheriting a kingdom that was reeling from the effects of a failed coup attempt and a two-year campaign of state-enforced moral decline. Conditions in Judah could not have been worse and would have proven problematic for any newly crowned king. But Josiah was young and poorly prepared to step into such a unstable political and spiritual situation. Or was he?

A brief glimpse into 2 Chronicles 34 reveals that this innocent young boy was far better prepared than we might assume. At the age of 16, Josiah would begin a passionate pursuit of God that would result in a revival within the land of Judah.

For in the eighth year of his reign, while he was yet a boy, he began to seek the God of David his father, and in the twelfth year he began to purge Judah and Jerusalem of the high places, the Asherim, and the carved and the metal images. – 2 Chronicles 34:3 NLT

God was at work behind the scenes, orchestrating events in such a way that Josiah would come to the throne at just the right time and equipped with a heart for the things of God. Despite the legacy left by his father, Josiah would prove to be a God-fearing king who began one of the most aggressive reform efforts ever seen in the nation of Judah. He was God’s man for the occasion.

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