How Can You Believe?

37 And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, 38 and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. 39 You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. 41 I do not receive glory from people. 42 But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. 43 I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. 44 How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God? 45 Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father. There is one who accuses you: Moses, on whom you have set your hope. 46 For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. 47 But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” – John 5:37-47 ESV

As the Son of God, Jesus had every right to stand in judgment of the Pharisees and Sadducees. Their rejection of Him was baseless because they had been given more than enough evidence to prove His identity. And, one of the primary pieces of evidence was to be found in the Hebrew scriptures, where the prophecies concerning the coming Messiah clearly pointed to Jesus as their fulfillment.

The men whom Jesus addressed were avid students of the Old Testament Scriptures and their familiarity with the many Messianic passages found there should have given them special insight into all that was happening right in front of them. Of all people, they should have recognized that Jesus was the one for whom they had long been waiting. But these men, like every Jew before them, had misread and misinterpreted these prophecies and had created a narrative concerning the Messiah that focused solely on His role as a conquering king and their political savior. They tended to ignore all the passages that pointed to the Messiah’s role as the suffering servant.

In his gospel, Luke records the moment when the recently resurrected Jesus appeared to His grieving disciples as they huddled together in a room somewhere in Jerusalem. Upon seeing Jesus, the disciples “stood there in disbelief, filled with joy and wonder” (Luke 24:41 NLT). But then Jesus spoke to them and what He had to say reveals a great deal about the blind ignorance and stubborn resistance of the Jewish religious leaders.

“When I was with you before, I told you that everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and in the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he said, “Yes, it was written long ago that the Messiah would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. It was also written that this message would be proclaimed in the authority of his name to all the nations, beginning in Jerusalem: ‘There is forgiveness of sins for all who repent.’ You are witnesses of all these things.” – Luke 24:44-48 NLT

The Pharisees and Sadducees had missed all of this. They were not expecting a Messiah who would suffer and die and rise from the dead on the third day. And they had no desire for such a Messiah. And, as far as repentance for the forgiveness of sins, they had no need for that either. They considered themselves to be fully righteous because of their faithful adherence to the Mosaic law so, they had no need to repent and required no one to save them from their sins.

But these men, while familiar with the written word of God, were oblivious to the testimony of God found there. God had spoken through the men who had penned the Old Testament books. He had revealed the truth regarding His Son’s coming and yet, these religious leaders had failed to recognize the voice of God. And Jesus issues a stinging condemnation concerning them: “you do not have his message in your hearts, because you do not believe me—the one he sent to you” (John 5:38 NLT).

The Pharisees and Sadducees had a love affair with the Scriptures. They revered them and dedicated their lives to studying them. Jesus even admitted as much. 

“You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me! Yet you refuse to come to me to receive this life.” – John 5:39-40 NLT

They spent countless hours pouring over the Scriptures, seeking to know the key to eternal life. They were desperate to know what God required of them so that they might keep God’s law and earn their way into His eternal kingdom. Their incessant need to “search” the Scriptures was based on their fear that they might overlook a commandment and fail in their quest for righteousness. It’s interesting to note that their obsession with the law caused them to seek the opinion of Jesus. On one occasion, they came to Him, asking, “Teacher, which is the most important commandment in the law of Moses?” (Matthew 22:36 NLT). They had prioritized the commands of God, giving some higher priority than others. This way, they could concentrate their efforts on keeping the more important laws.

And Jesus had responded to their question by saying, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matthew 22:37-38 NLT).

In a sense, Jesus was accusing these men of loving the Scriptures more than they loved God. They were more concerned about discovering the laws they needed to keep in order to be deemed righteous by God than they were in loving and listening to God.

As Jesus continued His indictment of these pious religious leaders, He told them that He had no need of their approval or official sanctioning of His ministry.

Your approval means nothing to me, because I know you don’t have God’s love within you.” – John 5:41-42 NLT

What a slap in the face this must have been to these prideful men. They considered themselves to be the spiritual elite of Israel, yet Jesus was accusing them of having no love for God. Even worse, He was inferring that God’s love was not within them. In his first epistle, John would later pen the following words of warning:

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

John had learned a great deal from observing Jesus’ many encounters with the Pharisees and Sadducees. At one time, he would have revered these men as icons of virtue and examples of spiritual sophistication. But he had discovered the truth that they were nothing more than hypocrites who loved the praise of men more than they loved God. They put more value in their own achievements than they did in the words and works of God.

So, when Jesus appeared claiming to be the Son of God sent to do the will of God, they refused to hear what He had to say.

“For I have come to you in my Father’s name, and you have rejected me.” – John 5:43 NLT

Because they had no real understanding of who God was, they were incapable of recognizing His Son. Their concept of God was skewed. Their understanding of righteousness was flawed. Their thinking concerning salvation was totally works-based and, therefore, inaccurate. That is why John the Baptist came preaching a message of repentance. He had repeatedly proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV). And the Greek word that is translated “repent” literally means “to change one’s mind for better.” It carries the idea of a radical change of mindset. John the Baptist was calling the people to rethink everything they believed concerning God, the kingdom, salvation, and righteousness. These were not what they seemed to be. Their understanding of God’s redemptive plan was inaccurate and insufficient.

With the arrival of Jesus, the truth of God concerning the salvation of mankind had become visible and knowable. But to believe in Jesus as the Savior of the world, the Jews were going to have to repent or radically change their way of thinking. They were going to have to listen to what Jesus had to say because He was the living Word of God. And even Moses had predicted that this day would come. He had foretold of a future prophet would come in the name of the Lord. And He would have a message for the people of God that came directly from the mouth of God.

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

I will raise up a prophet like you from among their fellow Israelites. I will put my words in his mouth, and he will tell the people everything I command him. I will personally deal with anyone who will not listen to the messages the prophet proclaims on my behalf.” – Deuteronomy 18:18-19 NLT

The Pharisees and Sadducees would have been very familiar with the words of Moses. And Jesus infers that they would have placed their hopes in the promises expressed by Moses. But they refused to recognize Jesus as the very fulfillment of those promises.

“But since you don’t believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?” – John 5:47 NLT

It all boiled down to belief. They refused to believe the words of the prophets. Which means they failed to believe the testimony of God. And that resulted in their refusal to accept the words and the works of Jesus, the Son of God. They found it impossible to repent of their preconceived notions regarding God, sin, righteousness, and salvation. Their minds were set. Their belief system was firmly in place and nothing was going to change their way of thinking. Not even the Son of God.

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

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

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

Not What He Expected

19 “And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.”– John 3:19-21 ESV

Nicodemus’ head must have been ready to explode. In just a few short minutes, Jesus has delivered some of the most shocking and paradigm-shifting news this Pharisee has ever heard. Nicodemus’ entire belief system has been shaken to its core. For starters, Jesus has informed him that unless he is born again, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That was news to Nicodemus. As a Jew and a well-respected member of the Pharisees, he believed himself to already have full rights and privileges to a place in God’s coming kingdom. When the Messiah finally came and restored the Jews to power and prominence, Nicodemus believed he would be among those who enjoyed the joys and delights of a reinvigorated kingdom.

But Jesus had put a strange and unexpected condition on anyone who hoped to be a part of the coming kingdom of God: “unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3 ESV). Then Jesus upped the ante by adding a further requirement: “unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God” (John 3:5 ESV).

Nicodemus was having a difficult time understanding what Jesus was saying. He was mind was focused on earthly, temporal concepts of the kingdom, while Jesus was speaking of spiritual matters. His concept of the coming Messiah was centered around a human deliverer who would lead Israel in an overthrow of the Roman occupying forces and reestablish the Davidic dynasty and Israel’s dominance in the region. But all that Jesus has shared with this highly esteemed religious leader has been spiritual in nature. It is not that Jesus is eliminating the idea of an actual physical kingdom of God, but He is letting Nicodemus know that something new is happening. The kingdom was coming, but not in the form Nicodemus expected. And entrance into that kingdom was going to require far more than Nicodemus could ever imagine.

While Nicodemus was secretly longing that Jesus was the Messiah and had come to set up the kingdom of God on earth, Jesus let him know that the real reason for His coming was to offer eternal life.

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. – John 3:16 ESV

In all his study of the Hebrew scriptures, what Nicodemus had failed to understand was that when the Messiah came, His mission would be to suffer and die, not rule and reign. He would come to wear a crown of thorns, not a crown of gold. He would be lifted up and nailed to a Roman cross rather than placed on a royal throne in David’s palace.

Jesus, the Son of God, had come to earth in order to provide sinful mankind with a means to escape the coming condemnation of God. He was going to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV). He would sacrifice His life in the place of humanity, taking on the sins of the world in order to satisfy the just and righteous judgment of God. The apostle Peter would later describe the full impact of Jesus’ sacrificial death on our behalf.

He personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right. By his wounds you are healed. – 1 Peter 2:24 NLT

And Peter was presenting the atoning death of Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Isaiah had penned centuries earlier.

But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5 ESV

But Jesus reveals a sad truth to his mystified and mind-muddled guest.

“…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

Jesus’ reference to Himself as the light ties directly back to the opening lines of John’s gospel.

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV

Now we can see where John got the idea of Jesus being the light of men and the true light that shines in the darkness. He had heard it directly from the lips of Jesus Himself. And Jesus reveals that his entrance into the darkness of this world would be met with disbelief and indifference. His life, death, and resurrection would fail to convince many that He truly was the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

Everyone, including Nicodemus, recognized that there was something remarkable about this itinerant Rabbi from Nazareth. His message and miracles were like nothing they had ever heard or seen before. Some were impressed. Others were intrigued. A few were even convinced. But the majority continued to reject the light because they preferred to continue living in the darkness of sin.

But Jesus had come to illuminate the darkness of sin and to eliminate the penalty that accompanied it. And throughout the years of His earthly ministry, He continued to declare His divine mission to bring light to a sin-darkened world and life to a spiritually dead people.

Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” – John 8:12 ESV

“As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” – John 9:5 ESV

“I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. – John 12:46 ESV

And Jesus makes it clear that the peoples’ refusal to believe in Him would be based on their love affair with sin.

“…people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” – John 3:19 ESV

No one likes having their sins exposed. So, they try to keep them concealed. They attempt to hide them from others. Darkness serves as a metaphor for the secrecy that accompanies a life of sinfulness. But that darkness takes a variety of forms. Too often, we can try to veil our sinfulness with acts of self-righteousness. That is exactly what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are so careful to clean the outside of the cup and the dish, but inside you are filthy—full of greed and self-indulgence! You blind Pharisee! First wash the inside of the cup and the dish, and then the outside will become clean, too.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 25-28 NLT

So, we can attempt to cover our sins with a thin veneer of righteous-looking deeds or we can simply commit our sins in secrecy, hidden away from the sight of others. As long as no one sees what we are doing, our reputations remain intact. The apostle Paul warns that even believers can find themselves attempting to harbor secret sins, hidden away from the eyes of others. But light has a way of exposing what is hidden.

Take no part in the worthless deeds of evil and darkness; instead, expose them. It is shameful even to talk about the things that ungodly people do in secret. But their evil intentions will be exposed when the light shines on them, for the light makes everything visible. – Ephesians 5:11-14 NLT

Jesus made it painfully clear that “everyone who does wicked things hates the light” (John 3:20 ESV). Their sinful natures crave hiddenness and despise exposure. Like a roach that scatters when a light is turned on, a sinner will tend to run from the illuminating light of the gospel “lest his works should be exposed” (John 3:20 ESV).

One of the most indicting statements Jesus ever made was directed at the sect to which Nicodemus was a member. Luke records a scene in which Jesus was confronted by the Pharisees for having eaten with tax collectors and sinners. They were appalled by His actions and arrogantly asked, “Why do you eat and drink with such scum?” (Luke 5:30 NLT). And Jesus simply responded:

“Healthy people don’t need a doctor—sick people do. I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners and need to repent.” – Luke 5:31-32 NLT

The Pharisees were living in darkness, convinced that their outward displays of righteousness were enough to cover up their inward need for repentance and restoration. They were diseased, dying, and in need of a doctor, but refused to admit it. Because they loved the darkness rather than the light. 

Even Nicodemus would refuse to have his deeds exposed by the light. He had come under the cover of darkness, attempting to find out if Jesus was the Messiah. But he would walk away, still in the dark, both physically and spiritually. He had come into the presence of the light but would walk away just as he had come.

Jesus leaves Nicodemus with a final word that re-emphasizes the spiritual nature of all that He has said.

“…whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.” – John 3:21 ESV

Salvation is a work of God. And this would have been a foreign concept to Nicodemus. He had been raised to believe that human effort was the essential ingredient for finding acceptance with God. Good works were the criteria by which men were judged by God and deemed worthy of His love. But Jesus was letting Nicodemus know that no man could earn a right standing with God through self-effort. The apostle Paul, a former Pharisee himself, put it this way:

Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it. – Ephesians 2:9 NLT

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are. – Romans 3:20 NLT

For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law. – Galatians 2:16 NLT

This would have been shocking news to Nicodemus. And he would walk away that night with his head spinning from all that he had heard. Jesus had just enlightened him as to the true means by which sinful men can be made right with a holy God. Now, Nicodemus had a decision to make.

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

Born From Above

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” – John 3:3-8 ESV

Whatever signs Jesus had performed that day in Jerusalem had gotten the attention of the people and many had believed. But there were others in the crowd who, while impressed by Jesus’ exploits, were choosing to reserve judgment. This included the religious leaders of Israel. Among them were the Pharisees, a fairly conservative religious sect that was comprised predominantly of men from the working class of Israel. On the evening of the day when Jesus had cleansed the temple and performed signs and wonders, Nicodemus, a member of the Pharisees, came to call on Him.

Nicodemus came alone. And he does not appear to have been sent by his colleagues in the Sanhedrin, the religious council of Israel. Nicodemus had been impressed by the miracles of Jesus and his curiosity about Jesus got the best of him. He had to more. So, he showed up, addressing Jesus with the respectful title of “Rabbi.” But he seemed to know that there was more to Jesus than met the eye.

“Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God, for no one can do these signs that you do unless God is with him.” – John 3:2 ESV

Nicodemus sensed that Jesus was anointed by God, and he wanted to know more about Him. His statement stands in stark contrast to that of his religious peers, who, upon hearing that Jesus had healed a blind, mute, and demon-possessed man, had accused Jesus of being in league with the devil.

Then a demon-possessed man, who was blind and couldn’t speak, was brought to Jesus. He healed the man so that he could both speak and see. The crowd was amazed and asked, “Could it be that Jesus is the Son of David, the Messiah?”

But when the Pharisees heard about the miracle, they said, “No wonder he can cast out demons. He gets his power from Satan, the prince of demons.” – Matthew 12:22-24 NLT

But Nicodemus was intrigued. He believed there was something different about Jesus. Unlike his fellow Pharisees, Nicodemus believed that the miracles Jesus performed were done by the power of God, not Satan. But Jesus responds to Nicodemus in a rather strange and cryptic manner.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” – John 3:3 ESV

With this rather abrupt statement, Jesus seems to be cutting to the heart of the matter. He knows that Nicodemus has shown up because he is curious to know if Jesus might be the long-awaited Messiah. As a student of the Scriptures, Nicodemus would have expected the arrival of the Messiah to usher in a new age, featuring the much-anticipated revitalization of the kingdom of Israel. Nicodemus seems to have a glimmer of hope that Jesus is the anointed one of God, the Messiah.

But Jesus reveals to Nicodemus a detail about the coming kingdom of God about which he was ignorant. Nicodemus could long for it, but he would never see it unless he was “born again.” The Greek word Jesus used is anōthen, and it can mean “again” or “anew.” But it can also mean “from above” or “from a higher place.” It seems that Jesus had the second meaning in mind, speaking of this new birth as being spiritual in nature. Yet Nicodemus clearly understood Jesus to be talking about a second physical birth, an image that left him scratching his head in confusion.

“How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” – John 3:4 ESV

Nicodemus, while a wise and well-educated man, was completely puzzled by the words of Jesus. The condition Jesus had placed upon seeing the kingdom of God was a second birth. It made no sense. It was physically impossible. And what Jesus says next doesn’t seem to help clear up the matter.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. – John 3:5 ESV

Jesus provides a bit more information, but it seems to provide little in the way of clarification. Notice that the focus has shifted from seeing the kingdom of God to actually entering it. The new birth Jesus is speaking about will be the key to anyone entering and enjoying life in the kingdom the Messiah will establish on earth.

Verse 5 has been proved to be a difficult passage to interpret. And there are a number of different views as to what Jesus meant by “water and the Spirit.” In the Greek text, the definite article “the” before “Spirit” is not present. It was added by English translators for clarification. So, verse 5 could be translated, “unless one is born of water and spirit.” The point Jesus seems to be making is that this new birth will be from above and it will involve a spiritual cleansing that makes the recipient worthy of entrance into the kingdom of God.

This imagery of cleansing by the Spirit is found throughout the Old Testament and Nicodemus, as a student of the Scriptures, should have been aware of it.

And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. – Isaiah 4:3-4 ESV

Isaiah went on to talk about a future day when the Spirit of God will be “poured upon us from on high” (Isaiah 32:15 ESV). Even John the Baptist had understood that Jesus was going to bring about a different kind of baptism, one that would include a king of purification that was far from symbolic or ceremonial in nature.

“I baptize you with water; but someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not even worthy to be his slave and untie the straps of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” – Luke 3:16 NLT

Jesus’ reference to “water and spirit” is meant to let Nicodemus know that the kingdom he longs to see will only be occupied by those who have received purification from above. Jesus is not talking about physical birth, but spiritual rebirth or regeneration. The kingdom He will eventually establish on earth will be reserved for those who are righteous and holy, having been cleansed from the stains of their sin by faith in the Son of God. And that day will be in fulfillment of God’s promise recorded by Isaiah.

“Though your sins are like scarlet, I will make them as white as snow. Though they are red like crimson, I will make them as white as wool.” – Isaiah 1:18 NLT

Sensing that Nicodemus was still struggling to understand what He was saying, Jesus provides him with an important point of clarification: “That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit” (John 3:6 ESV). Jesus is informing his learned visitor that there are two types of birth – one physical and one spiritual. Nicodemus had already experienced the first, but he was in need of the second. And it was going to require belief. But there would have to be more to that belief than simply an acknowledgment that Jesus was a teacher sent from God.

Nicodemus, like every other Jew of his day, thought of the kingdom of God in physical terms only. It would be a literal kingdom ruled by a literal king who would sit on the throne of David in Jerusalem. And, as far as he understood, entrance into that kingdom was reserved for all those who could claim to be a descendant of Abraham. Nicodemus believed he had an inherited right to the kingdom God due to his birth into the line of Abraham. But Jesus is letting him know that there was going to be another birth required – a new birth – a birth from above.

Nicodemus, like every other Pharisee, took great pride in his position and viewed himself as one of the spiritual elite of Israel. But Jesus was breaking the news that his flowing robes, biblical knowledge, sterling reputation, and longing for the kingdom of God would not be enough to guarantee his entrance into the coming kingdom of God.

Jesus knew that this information had left his visitor perplexed so, He told him, “don’t be surprised when I say, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows wherever it wants. Just as you can hear the wind but can’t tell where it comes from or where it is going, so you can’t explain how people are born of the Spirit” (John 3:7-8 NLT).

The things Jesus was describing to Nicodemus were virtually impossible for him to comprehend. Like the wind, the ways of God are invisible and imperceptible. You can hear the wind, but you can’t see it. You can feel the wind, but you can control it. And the new birth Jesus is attempting to describe to Nicodemus is just as impossible to understand. Without the illuminating and regenerating power of the Holy Spirit, Nicodemus would remain incapable of understanding the nature of the new birth and his need for it. And his continued confusion is illustrated by his response: “How can these things be?” (John 3:9 ESV).

But Jesus will go on to answer that question with a clear and concise explanation of how sinful men and women can be made right with God and gain access into His kingdom and presence. And it will all be through belief in God’s Son.

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

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

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

No Comparison

19 And this is the testimony of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” 20 He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” 21 And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” And he answered, “No.” 22 So they said to him, “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” 23 He said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”

24 (Now they had been sent from the Pharisees.) 25 They asked him, “Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” 26 John answered them, “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, 27 even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” 28 These things took place in Bethany across the Jordan, where John was baptizing. – John 1:19-28 ESV

Beginning with verse 19, John provides a more detailed introduction to the life and ministry of John the Baptist. He first alluded to this important character in verses 6-8.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light. – John 1:6-8 ESV

As John continues to establish the unique identity of Jesus as the God-man, he will use John the Baptist as a point of contrast. Like Jesus, John the Baptist was a man sent from God. But unlike Jesus, John the Baptist was just a man. He had been commissioned by God to prepare the way for the Messiah, by testifying to the people of Israel about His imminent arrival. The one for whom they had long waited had arrived. But as the text makes clear, John the Baptist was not the light. And John will confirm the contrast between the light and the witness to the light by using the testimony of the witness himself.

Unlike the three synoptic gospels, John’s gospel provides few details concerning John the Baptist’s ministry. He seems much more interested in using the testimony of John the Baptist concerning Jesus as proof of Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God and the son of man. Yet a bit of background into John the Baptist’s unique ministry and message can be helpful. So, Matthew provides some essential details concerning this rather strange character who had suddenly appeared on the scene in Judea.

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

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

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

Luke records that the appearance of John the Baptist attracted large crowds of people who made their way to the Judean wilderness in order to be baptized by him. But there was tremendous speculation regarding his identity.

Everyone was expecting the Messiah to come soon, and they were eager to know whether John might be the Messiah. – Luke 3:15 NLT

As John the Baptist proclaimed the imminent arrival of the kingdom of heaven, the people couldn’t help but wonder if he was the Messiah. And John records that even the Jewish religious leaders were curious about this strange-looking individual who was proclaiming the arrival of the kingdom.

the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?” – John 1:19 ESV

Notice that John prefaces this exchange between John the Baptist and the religious leaders with the words: “And this is the testimony of John.”  What follows is the clear testimony from John the Baptist that clarifies the identity of the Christ (Greek: Messiah). First and foremost, John the Baptist wanted to squelch any rumors about himself.

He confessed, and did not deny, but confessed, “I am not the Christ.” – John 1:20 ESV

John the Baptist had come to witness, not be worshiped. He had no interest in passing himself off as the long-awaited Messiah. But if he was not the Christ, then who was he? And why had he suddenly appeared on the scene preaching about the coming kingdom? The religious leaders were perplexed and continued their questioning by asking if he was Elijah or the prophet.

Their first inquiry had to do with an Old Testament prophecy found in the book of Malachi.

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

Based on this passage, the Jews expected the long-dead prophet, Elijah, to reappear and his arrival would signal the imminent arrival of the Messiah. But John the Baptist confession that he was not Elijah led the religious leaders to ask whether he was “the Prophet.”

As students of the Hebrew Scriptures, these men were well-versed in those passages that were associated with the coming Messiah. And they were familiar with the promise that God had made to the people of Israel during their days in the wilderness, prior to the arrival in the land of promise.

“The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen—just as you desired of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly, when you said, ‘Let me not hear again the voice of the Lord my God or see this great fire any more, lest I die.’ And the Lord said to me, ‘They are right in what they have spoken. I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their brothers. And I will put my words in his mouth, and he shall speak to them all that I command him.” – Deuteronomy 18:15-18 ESV

The Jews had long believed that the arrival of the Messiah would be accompanied by the return of Elijah and the appearance of the Prophet of God. And this threesome would usher in a period of great revival and renewal in Israel. They would lead the people of God and help reestablish the nation to its former glory. But John the Baptist denies being the Prophet.

John the Baptist’s inquisitors were perplexed and knew that they were going to have to give a report to their superiors back in Jerusalem. So, they simply asked John: “Who are you? We need to give an answer to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” (John 1:22 ESV). If he was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, then who was he? And John the Baptist gives them the only answer he knows.

“I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’” – John 1:23 ESV

Knowing that these men were highly knowledgeable of the Hebrew Scriptures, John the Baptist identifies himself by quoting from the writings of Isaiah. In doing so, he affirms that they were right in assuming that his arrival had something to do with the Messiah. He quotes from what the Jews considered to be Messianic passage and applies it to himself.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
    that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from the Lord‘s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord;
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all flesh shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” – Isaiah 40:1-5 ESV

John the Baptist was nothing more than a voice crying in the wilderness. He was the witness, testifying to the arrival of the glory of the Lord. He was not the Word but was simply the voice. He was not the Messiah but was the one who had been chosen to announce His arrival. And that led the religious leaders to ask the next logical question.

“Then why are you baptizing, if you are neither the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the Prophet?” – John 1:25 ESV

This was a question regarding authority. If John the Baptist was not the Messiah, Elijah, or the Prophet, he had no right or authority to baptize anyone. The Jews understood baptism to be reserved for ritual cleansing. So, why was this unknown and unqualified individual “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3 ESV)? The Jews, because they were God’s chosen people, believed they had no need for repentance. They viewed themselves as already in right standing with God by virtue of their status as descendants of Abraham and as heirs of the promise.

But Luke goes on to record that John the Baptist saw through the over-confident self-righteousness of his audience, and he delivered a stinging indictment against the religious leaders.

“Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin 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. Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” – Luke 3:8-9 ESV

Their heritage was no guarantee of righteousness. And their identity as Jews was not going to preserve them from the coming wrath of God against all those who have sinned against Him. That is why John the Baptist had come on the scene preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).

John confesses that his authority to baptize came from a source far superior to himself or the religious leaders of the Jews. And this supreme source was about to make Himself known.

“I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie.” – John 1:2-27 ESV

John was just a man who baptized repentant people with physical water. But there was another one who would follow who had the authority to offer true cleansing from sin and the baptism of the Holy Spirit. The messenger was proclaiming the arrival of the Messiah.

“I baptize with water those who repent of their sins and turn to God. But someone is coming soon who is greater than I am—so much greater that I’m not worthy even to be his slave and carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.
” – Matthew 3:11 NLT

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

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

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

But As For Me

1 Woe is me! For I have become
    as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
    as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
    no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.
The godly has perished from the earth,
    and there is no one upright among mankind;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and each hunts the other with a net.
Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well;
    the prince and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul;
    thus they weave it together.
The best of them is like a brier,
    the most upright of them a thorn hedge.
The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come;
    now their confusion is at hand.
Put no trust in a neighbor;
    have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
    from her who lies in your arms;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
    the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
    a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
    I will wait for the God of my salvation;
    my God will hear me.
– Micah 7:1-7 ESV

Serving as one of God’s prophets could be a difficult and thankless task. You were required to faithfully deliver God’s message, condemning His people for their sin and calling them to repentance. And few of the prophets were welcomed with open arms or receptive ears. In most cases, they were despised for their efforts and often, physically abused for attempting to save the people from the coming judgment of God.

These men were not automatons, heartless robots who mindlessly mouthed the words of God. They were not devoid of feeling and they received no joy in having to call out their brothers and sisters for their apostasy and spiritual adultery.

And as Micah begins to wrap up the book that bears his name, he shares his own sense of heartache and despair as he assesses the situation in Judah. He describes the current spiritual condition among his people as fruitless. It’s a scene of barrenness, with not a single cluster of grapes or a solitary fig to be found. Rather than enjoying the blessings of God and the spiritual abundance He had promised, they are living in a time of spiritual famine. They are reaping the God-ordained consequences for their disobedience. He had warned them what would happen if they failed to keep His commands.

“You will plant much but harvest little, for locusts will eat your crops. You will plant vineyards and care for them, but you will not drink the wine or eat the grapes, for worms will destroy the vines. You will grow olive trees throughout your land, but you will never use the olive oil, for the fruit will drop before it ripens.” – Deuteronomy 28:38-40 NLT

The psalmist paints a very different picture, describing how God had uprooted the people of Israel from Egypt and replanted them in the land of Canaan. He had greatly blessed and prospered them, facilitating and cultivating their growth into a mighty nation.

You brought us from Egypt like a grapevine;
    you drove away the pagan nations and transplanted us into your land.
You cleared the ground for us,
    and we took root and filled the land.
Our shade covered the mountains;
    our branches covered the mighty cedars.
We spread our branches west to the Mediterranean Sea;
    our shoots spread east to the Euphrates River. – Psalm 80:8-11 NLT

Yet the psalmist goes on to reveal the sad outcome of Israel’s disobedience.

But now, why have you broken down our walls
    so that all who pass by may steal our fruit?
The wild boar from the forest devours it,
    and the wild animals feed on it. – Psalm 80:12-13 NLT

Micah is writing before the actual fall of Judah and Jerusalem. What he describes in these verses is the scene taking place around him as he completes his prophetic message and awaits the coming judgment of God. And you can sense his deep despair through the hyperbolic, overly-exaggerated he employs.

The godly people have all disappeared;
    not one honest person is left on the earth. – Micah 7:2 NLT

From Micah’s vantage point, the land of Judah appears to have been completely overrun by the godless and the unrighteous. Everywhere he looks he sees the indisputable evidence of their wickedness. And he is unrelenting in his assessment of his countrymen, describing them as murderers who have developed an uncanny capacity to commit evil with both hands. They can sin equally well with either their right or their left hand. In other words, they have no limits or restrictions on their sinfulness.

The officials and judges use their positions to demand bribes. Those with influence and power distort justice for their own advantage. The standard for righteousness has fallen so low that Micah describes the best among them as nothing more than briars and thorn bushes. In other words, they’re worthless.

And Micah warns that “The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come” (Micah 7:4 ESV). God’s punishment was eminent and the watchmen stationed on the walls of Jerusalem would soon be declaring the arrival of the Babylonian army. And with their arrival, the wicked within the walls of the city would be thrown into confusion and dismay, wondering how this terrible tragedy could be happening to them. Those who had rejected Micah’s call to repentance would soon be calling out in despair, begging God to rescue them from the very judgment He had warned was coming.

The people of Judah had refused to trust Micah and his message from God. So, he warns them that now the time has come when they will no longer be able to trust anyone.

Don’t trust anyone—
    not your best friend or even your wife!
For the son despises his father.
    The daughter defies her mother.
The daughter-in-law defies her mother-in-law.
    Your enemies are right in your own household! – Micah 7:5-6 NLT

It will be every man and woman for themselves. In fear and desperation, people will turn on one another. The abuse described in verses 2-4 will become widespread and impossible to escape. The Babylonians will lay siege to the city, slowly starving the residents within its walls and producing an atmosphere of civil unrest and rampant self-preservation. And we have ample descriptions of just how badly things eventually got inside Jerusalem.

So the city was besieged till the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. – 2 Kings 25:2-3 ESV

The prophet Jeremiah provides a vivid portrait of the suffering that took place within the city of Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege.

The parched tongues of their little ones
    stick to the roofs of their mouths in thirst.
The children cry for bread,
    but no one has any to give them.

The people who once ate the richest foods
    now beg in the streets for anything they can get.
Those who once wore the finest clothes
    now search the garbage dumps for food. – Lamentations 4:4-5 NLT

Their skin sticks to their bones;
    it is as dry and hard as wood.

Those killed by the sword are better off
    than those who die of hunger.
Starving, they waste away
    for lack of food from the fields. – Lamentations 4:8-9 NLT

Things were bad in Judah, and they were only going to get worse. The stubbornness of the people was going to result in the judgment of God, and it would be unrelenting and, ultimately, unbearable. Their refusal to hear and obey Micah’s call to repentance would cost them dearly. The years of fruitfulness they had enjoyed as a result of God’s grace would be replaced with decades of barrenness and spiritual famine.

And yet, in the midst of all the apostasy and spiritual adultery, Micah is able to remain committed to his God. He maintains his hope in the saving power of God Almighty.

But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
    I will wait for the God of my salvation;
    my God will hear me. – Micah 7:7 ESV

Micah may have felt like he was surrounded by wickedness and devoid of spiritual companionship, but he knew he was not alone. God was with him. And while no one else seemed willing to wait upon the Lord, Micah was going to place his hope in God, waiting confidently for His salvation. When Micah looked around him, all he saw was evidence of faithlessness. But when he looked up, he saw a faithful, covenant-keeping God who was committed to finishing what He started, doing what He promised, and answering the cries of His repentant people.

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

Repentance or Regret

For this I will lament and wail;
    I will go stripped and naked;
I will make lamentation like the jackals,
    and mourning like the ostriches.
For her wound is incurable,
    and it has come to Judah;
it has reached to the gate of my people,
    to Jerusalem.

10 Tell it not in Gath;
    weep not at all;
in Beth-le-aphrah
    roll yourselves in the dust.
11 Pass on your way,
    inhabitants of Shaphir,
    in nakedness and shame;
the inhabitants of Zaanan
    do not come out;
the lamentation of Beth-ezel
    shall take away from you its standing place.
12 For the inhabitants of Maroth
    wait anxiously for good,
because disaster has come down from the Lord
    to the gate of Jerusalem.
13 Harness the steeds to the chariots,
    inhabitants of Lachish;
it was the beginning of sin
    to the daughter of Zion,
for in you were found
    the transgressions of Israel.
14 Therefore you shall give parting gifts
    to Moresheth-gath;
the houses of Achzib shall be a deceitful thing
    to the kings of Israel.
15 I will again bring a conqueror to you,
    inhabitants of Mareshah;
the glory of Israel
    shall come to Adullam.
16 Make yourselves bald and cut off your hair,
    for the children of your delight;
make yourselves as bald as the eagle,
    for they shall go from you into exile. Micah 1:8-16 ESV

After describing the coming judgment of God against the kingdom of Israel and its capital city of Samaria, Micah’s reaction is one of deep sorrow. He doesn’t rejoice over the pending fall of Judah’s northern neighbor, even though they had sided with the Syrians and attacked the city of Jerusalem (2 Kings 16:5). Micah mourned over the fate of the northern kingdom because it was comprised of ten of the tribes of the sons of Jacob. Their fall would leave only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin remaining in the land of promise. And Micah knew that the same fate awaited the southern kingdom because they had been just as unfaithful.

The book of 2 Kings recounts the rise of Ahaz to the throne of Judah, describing his reign in less-than-flattering terms.

He did not do what was pleasing in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done. Instead, he followed the example of the kings of Israel, even sacrificing his own son in the fire. – 2 Kings 16:2-3 NLT

So, Micah declares his intent to mourn over the fall of Israel because he knows it is only a matter of time before Judah finds itself suffering under the righteous wrath of God Almighty. He compares Israel’s spiritual and moral condition to a deadly disease, totally incurable and highly infectious.

her wound is incurable,
    and it has come to Judah;
it has reached to the gate of my people,
    to Jerusalem. – Micah 1:9 ESV

Sin, like cancer, never remains localized but has a way of metastasizing and spreading, and Micah knew that Judah had already been negatively influenced by its neighbor to the north. But Micah also knew that the cure is sometimes worse than the disease. Judah’s sin was going to bring the judgment of God and His punishment was going to be severe, leaving the nation in a state of physical, emotional, and mental devastation. The prophet Isaiah could not imagine why the people of Judah would refuse to repent, choosing instead to suffer the ongoing and merciless anger of God.

Why do you continue to invite punishment?
    Must you rebel forever?
Your head is injured,
    and your heart is sick.
You are battered from head to foot—
    covered with bruises, welts, and infected wounds—
    without any soothing ointments or bandages. – Isaiah 1:5-6 NLT

In an attempt to personalize the coming judgment of God, Micah uses his hometown of Moresheth-gath as the epicenter of all that is going to happen. He mentions the names of various cities in Judah that encircle his hometown, including Gath, Beth-le-aphrah, Shaphir, Zaanan, Beth-ezel, Maroth, and Lachish. Each of these towns seem to have been chosen for their location as well as the meaning of their names. Micah is using a not-so-subtle play on words to drive home the extreme nature of God’s coming judgment.

Gath means “winepress” and the residents of this city were going to experience “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15 ESV). Beth-le-aphrah means “house of Aphrah” but Aphrah can be translated as “dust.” So, Micah states that the citizens of “the house of dust” will soon find themselves rolling in the dust as a form of mourning. Shaphir means “fair” or “beautiful” but it would soon be marked by “nakedness and shame” (Micah 1:11). The name Zaanan is similar in sound to the Hebrew word for “come out” and Micah informs these people that they will not be able to escape the coming judgment of God. Zanaan actually means “place of flocks” and sadly, Micah lets them know that they will be trapped like sheep in the fold when God pours out His wrath.

Beth-ezel means “house of firm root.” Yet Micah delivers the bad news that their “house has no support” (Micah 1:11 NLT) and God will level it in His anger. The name of the city of Maroth is similar in sound to the Hebrew word for “bitterness.” Like a thirsty person seeking for refreshing water, they will “anxiously wait for relief, but only bitterness awaits them” (Micah 1:12 NLT). The name of the city of Lachish, which means “invincible,” sounds very similar to the Hebrew word rekesh, which means “steeds.” Micah warns this “invincible” town to “Harness your chariot horses and flee” (Micah 1:13 NLT). He accuses them of being “the first city in Judah to follow Israel in her rebellion” and of leading Jerusalem into sin (Micah 1:13 NLT).

Achzib, which means “deceit,” would end up deceiving the kings of Israel by failing to resist the coming invaders. Every single town would fall at the hands of the Babylonians. Even Micah’s hometown of Moresheth-gath, which means “possession of Gath” would become the possession of the Babylonians.

Marashesh (“crest of a hill”) will not be high enough to escape the coming judgment of God. Adullam (“justice of the people”) will experience the justice of God as He forces “the glory of Israel” (its kings and leaders) to run there in a vain attempt to escape His wrath.

Over and over again, Micah uses these plays or words to drive home the message of God’s pending judgment and the devastating impact it is going to have on the entire nation of Judah. It will be unavoidable and its consequences, inescapable. From the streets of the smallest village to the gates of Jerusalem, the story will be the same: The people of Judah will find themselves mourning just like Micah.

Oh, people of Judah, shave your heads in sorrow,
    for the children you love will be snatched away.
Make yourselves as bald as a vulture,
    for your little ones will be exiled to distant lands. – Micah 1:16 NLT

They had made their bed, now they were going to have to sleep in it. But God still longed for His rebellious people to return to Him in repentance. He greatly desired to bless them and restore them to their place of honor as His chosen people. But the prophet Isaiah declared God’s requirements for judgment to be avoided.

“Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts;
    the incense of your offerings disgusts me!
As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath
    and your special days for fasting—
they are all sinful and false.
    I want no more of your pious meetings.
I hate your new moon celebrations and your annual festivals.
    They are a burden to me. I cannot stand them!” – Isaiah 1:13-14 NLT

God wasn’t interested in watching them through the motions, perfunctorily performing their religious rituals like mindless robots. He wanted true heart change and legitimate repentance.

“Wash yourselves and be clean!
    Get your sins out of my sight.
    Give up your evil ways.
Learn to do good.
    Seek justice.
Help the oppressed.
    Defend the cause of orphans.
    Fight for the rights of widows.” – Isaiah 1:16-17 NLT

The choice was up to them. They could obey and experience God’s blessings, or they could continue to rebel and endure His wrath. He was ready to forgive and cleanse them. But it was going to require obedience and submission to His will for them.

“Though your sins are like scarlet,
    I will make them as white as snow.
Though they are red like crimson,
    I will make them as white as wool.
If you will only obey me,
    you will have plenty to eat.
But if you turn away and refuse to listen,
    you will be devoured by the sword of your enemies.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Isaiah 1:18-20 NLT

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

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

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

Intoxicated With the World

15 “Woe to him who makes his neighbors drink—
    you pour out your wrath and make them drunk,
    in order to gaze at their nakedness!
16 You will have your fill of shame instead of glory.
    Drink, yourself, and show your uncircumcision!
The cup in the Lord‘s right hand
    will come around to you,
    and utter shame will come upon your glory!
17 The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you,
    as will the destruction of the beasts that terrified them,
for the blood of man and violence to the earth,
    to cities and all who dwell in them.” Habakkuk 2:15-17 ESV

It’s quite obvious that God had no love affair with the Babylonians. He was going to use them as His instruments of wrath against the disobedience people of Judah, but He despised their ways. They were a wicked and degenerate nation marked by ungodliness and driven by immoral passions that knew no bounds. They were opportunistic oppressors who took advantage of their superior military strength to extend their borders and expand their vast wealth at the expense of smaller, more vulnerable nations.

The “Babylon” described in Habakkuk’s book is the Neo-Babylonian Empire, which rose to power and prominence under the leadership of King Nabopolassar and would dominate that region of the world from 626 BC until its defeat by the 539 BC. It would be under the reign of King Nebuchadnezza that Babylon would reach the zenith of its power. But in 539 BC, the Medes and Persians would invade and conquer Babylon, bringing an end to the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Yet, for the biblical authors, the name “Babylon” would come to represent all those ungodly nations which stood opposed to God and His people, glorying in their own power and worshiping their self-sufficiency and autonomy. It was King Nebuchadnezzar himself who bragged about the glory of the magnificent capital city he had constructed with the revenue he had gained from his many conquests.

“Twelve months later he was taking a walk on the flat roof of the royal palace in Babylon. As he looked out across the city, he said, ‘Look at this great city of Babylon! By my own mighty power, I have built this beautiful city as my royal residence to display my majestic splendor.’” – Daniel 4:29-30 NLT

In the book of Revelation, Babylon comes to represent the kingdom of the Antichrist, the world leader who will come to power in the last days. He will set up a great vast empire that spans the globe and his capital city will become the economic, military, and political epicenter for the world. And like the ancient nation from which it borrows its name, the end-times Babylon will be destroyed by God.

“Babylon is fallen—that great city is fallen!
    She has become a home for demons.
She is a hideout for every foul spirit,
    a hideout for every foul vulture
    and every foul and dreadful animal.
For all the nations have fallen
    because of the wine of her passionate immorality.
The kings of the world
    have committed adultery with her.
Because of her desires for extravagant luxury,
    the merchants of the world have grown rich.” – Revelation 18:2-3 NLT

And notice John’s reference to “the wine of her passionate immorality.” The power and influence of this future Babylon will tempt the nations of the world to become intoxicated by its vast wealth and attracted to the ungodly lifestyle it represents. Decadence and immorality will be the order of the day in the kingdom of the Antichrist. But it too will fall, leaving the nations of the world staggering under the weight of their loss.

…the kings of the world who committed adultery with her and enjoyed her great luxury will mourn for her as they see the smoke rising from her charred remains. – Revelation 18:9 NLT

The merchants of the world will weep and mourn for her, for there is no one left to buy their goods. – Revelation 18:11 NLT

“The fancy things you loved so much
    are gone,” they cry.
“All your luxuries and splendor
    are gone forever,
    never to be yours again.” – Revelation 18:14 NLT

“How terrible, how terrible for that great city!
    She was clothed in finest purple and scarlet linens,
    decked out with gold and precious stones and pearls!
In a single moment
    all the wealth of the city is gone!” – Revelation 18:16-17 NLT

“How terrible, how terrible for that great city!
    The shipowners became wealthy
    by transporting her great wealth on the seas.
In a single moment it is all gone.” – Revelation 18:19 NLT

In this fourth “woe,” delivered by God against the Babylon of Habakkuk’s day, we see a reference to “him who makes his neighbors drink” (Habakkuk 2:15 ESV). God accuses Babylon of using its vast power to degrade the nations of the world, causing them to stagger and reel like drunks, incapable of defending themselves against the immoral intentions of their adversary.  God exposes the true intentions of the Babylonians: “You force your cup on them so you can gloat over their shameful nakedness.” (Habakkuk 2:15 NLT). The imagery is that of sexual abuse, as the more powerful forces himself on a helpless and defenseless victim. 

But God warns that this kind of behavior will not go unpunished.

“But soon it will be your turn to be disgraced.
    Come, drink and be exposed!
Drink from the cup of the Lord’s judgment,
    and all your glory will be turned to shame.” – Habakkuk 2:16 NLT

The perpetrator would become the victim, getting a taste of their own medicine as God pours out His cup of judgment upon them. And rather than glorying in their power and prominence, they will experience shame and humiliation at the hand of God Almighty.

As has been the case with the previous three woes, God is making a not-so-subtle point, aimed at His rebellious and stubborn children, the nation of Judah. They stand guilty before Yahweh, having committed many of the same sins as the ungodly Babylonians. Prior to their fall to the Assyrians, the prophet Isaiah described the northern kingdom of Israel as drunks, who had willingly rendered themselves intoxicated and insensible, completely incapable of living up to God’s righteous standard for them.

Now, however, Israel is led by drunks
    who reel with wine and stagger with alcohol.
The priests and prophets stagger with alcohol
    and lose themselves in wine.
They reel when they see visions
    and stagger as they render decisions.
Their tables are covered with vomit;
    filth is everywhere. – Isaiah 28:7-8 NLT

God had blessed them with fertile and fruitful land, but they had taken the gift of His abundance and used it in ways that were out of step with His will for them.

What sorrow awaits the proud city of Samaria—
    the glorious crown of the drunks of Israel.
It sits at the head of a fertile valley,
    but its glorious beauty will fade like a flower.
It is the pride of a people
    brought down by wine. – Isaiah 28:1 NLT

They had become drunk on their own success, enjoying the fruits of God’s undeserved blessings, and arrogantly bragging that they were immune to His judgment.

You boast, “We have struck a bargain to cheat death
    and have made a deal to dodge the grave.
The coming destruction can never touch us,
    for we have built a strong refuge made of lies and deception.” – Isaiah 28:15 NLT

But they were wrong. Like the Babylonians, the people of Israel would see their immoral lifestyle come to an abrupt end.

I will cancel the bargain you made to cheat death,
    and I will overturn your deal to dodge the grave.
When the terrible enemy sweeps through,
    you will be trampled into the ground. – Isaiah 28:18 NLT

This fourth woe was intended to indict the people of Judah as much as the nation of Babylon. Just as their northern neighbors would fall to the Assyrians, the rebellious and arrogant Judahites would fall to the Babylonians. And, eventually, in His own timing, God would deal with the Babylonians themselves.

“The violence done to Lebanon will overwhelm you…” – Habakkuk 2:17 ESV

They would all reap what they sowed. Their glory would be turned to shame. Their self-sufficiency would result in self-destruction. Their love affair with wealth, power, and prominence would leave them staggering under the weight of their own poverty, weakness, and humiliation.

The prophet Isaiah warned the people of Judah that their fate was sealed. They had refused to listen to the messages of the prophets, calling them to repentance. So, God had chosen to keep His promise to bring curses upon them for their disobedience and unfaithfulness. And, like Habakkuk, they would find God’s decision difficult to fathom and even harder to accept, it was the just reward for their rebellion against Him.

Are you amazed and incredulous?
    Don’t you believe it?
Then go ahead and be blind.
    You are stupid, but not from wine!
    You stagger, but not from liquor!
For the Lord has poured out on you a spirit of deep sleep.
    He has closed the eyes of your prophets and visionaries. – Isaiah 29:9-10 NLT

They had become drunk on the things of this world. But they had also been blinded by God, spiritually incapable of comprehending the danger of their situation and insensitive to His call to repentance. How easy it is to allow temporal treasures and worldly delights to blind us to the reality of God’s love. We can even allow His blessings to become distractions, focusing on the gifts rather than the Giver. This is why the apostle John warned us to never allow the love of the world to replace our love for God.

Do not love this world nor the things it offers you, for when you love the world, you do not have the love of the Father in you. For the world offers only a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. These are not from the Father, but are from this world. And this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave. But anyone who does what pleases God will live forever. – 1 John 2:15-17 NLT

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

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

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

Not What You Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Infectiousness of Unfaithfulness

For this I will lament and wail;
    I will go stripped and naked;
I will make lamentation like the jackals,
    and mourning like the ostriches.
For her wound is incurable,
    and it has come to Judah;
it has reached to the gate of my people,
    to Jerusalem.

10 Tell it not in Gath;
    weep not at all;
in Beth-le-aphrah
    roll yourselves in the dust.
11 Pass on your way,
    inhabitants of Shaphir,
    in nakedness and shame;
the inhabitants of Zaanan
    do not come out;
the lamentation of Beth-ezel
    shall take away from you its standing place.
12 For the inhabitants of Maroth
    wait anxiously for good,
because disaster has come down from the Lord
    to the gate of Jerusalem.
13 Harness the steeds to the chariots,
    inhabitants of Lachish;
it was the beginning of sin
    to the daughter of Zion,
for in you were found
    the transgressions of Israel.
14 Therefore you shall give parting gifts
    to Moresheth-gath;
the houses of Achzib shall be a deceitful thing
    to the kings of Israel.
15 I will again bring a conqueror to you,
    inhabitants of Mareshah;
the glory of Israel
    shall come to Adullam.
16 Make yourselves bald and cut off your hair,
    for the children of your delight;
make yourselves as bald as the eagle,
    for they shall go from you into exile. Micah 1:8-16 ESV

Micah has a message from God Almighty that contains information regarding His chosen people, the descendants of Abraham. But Micah calls on all the people of the earth to hear what God has to say about the fate of the nation of Israel. Like a judge in a courtroom, God is going to deliver His indictment against the accused, and He wants everyone to hear the vindication of His actions.

He is judging His people for their sins. These are not the actions of some capricious deity who is arbitrarily meting out judgment upon innocent people. They stand before Him as guilty.

All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem? – Micah 1:5 ESV

Here, Micah uses two different designations for the people of God because he is writing during the period of the divided kingdom. Originally, Israel had been one nation with a single capital, Jerusalem, where the king of Israel reigned over a unified kingdom. But during the reign of Solomon, the son of David, things had taken a decidedly dark turn. This young man, who had ascended to his father’s throne, had begun his reign by building a house for the Lord. He had spent seven years and a vast sum of money constructing this elaborate and ornate structure designed to serve as God’s temple.

The inner sanctuary he prepared in the innermost part of the house, to set there the ark of the covenant of the Lord. The inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high, and he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid an altar of cedar. And Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, and he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. And he overlaid the whole house with gold, until all the house was finished. Also the whole altar that belonged to the inner sanctuary he overlaid with gold. – 1 Kings 6:19-22 ESV

Upon completion of the temple, Solomon went on to build himself a palace, spending 15 years and an exorbitant amount of money in the process. And sadly, 1 Kings 7:8 reveals that he also built a temple for one of his many wives.

His own house where he was to dwell, in the other court back of the hall, was of like workmanship. Solomon also made a house like this hall for Pharaoh’s daughter whom he had taken in marriage.

We know that Solomon went on to have 700 wives and 300 concubines. This was in direct violation of God’s law.

The king must not take many wives for himself, because they will turn his heart away from the LORD. And he must not accumulate large amounts of wealth in silver and gold for himself. – Deuteronomy 17:7 NLT

And it is clear that Solomon ignored God’s prohibition against excessive wealth.

So King Solomon became richer and wiser than any other king on earth. People from every nation came to consult him and to hear the wisdom God had given him. Year after year everyone who visited brought him gifts of silver and gold, clothing, weapons, spices, horses, and mules.

Solomon built up a huge force of chariots and horses. He had 1,400 chariots and 12,000 horses. He stationed some of them in the chariot cities and some near him in Jerusalem. The king made silver as plentiful in Jerusalem as stone. And valuable cedar timber was as common as the sycamore-fig trees that grow in the foothills of Judah. Solomon’s horses were imported from Egypt and from Cilicia… – 1 Kings 10:23-28 NLT

Solomon was obsessed with all the trappings of success that come with royal sovereignty. He enjoyed being the king and he used his great wealth and power to satisfy his every whim. According to his own testimony, Solomon spared no expense in meeting his every perceived need.

I also tried to find meaning by building huge homes for myself and by planting beautiful vineyards. I made gardens and parks, filling them with all kinds of fruit trees. I built reservoirs to collect the water to irrigate my many flourishing groves. I bought slaves, both men and women, and others were born into my household. I also owned large herds and flocks, more than any of the kings who had lived in Jerusalem before me. I collected great sums of silver and gold, the treasure of many kings and provinces. I hired wonderful singers, both men and women, and had many beautiful concubines. I had everything a man could desire!

So I became greater than all who had lived in Jerusalem before me, and my wisdom never failed me. Anything I wanted, I would take. I denied myself no pleasure. – Ecclesiastes 2:4-10 NLT

But Solomon’s greatest sin was his unfaithfulness to God. He allowed his uncontrolled desires to lead him away from the worship of the one true God. His physical passions ended up having spiritual ramifications.

Now King Solomon loved many foreign women. Besides Pharaoh’s daughter, he married women from Moab, Ammon, Edom, Sidon, and from among the Hittites. The LORD had clearly instructed the people of Israel, “You must not marry them, because they will turn your hearts to their gods.” Yet Solomon insisted on loving them anyway. He had 700 wives of royal birth and 300 concubines. And in fact, they did turn his heart away from the LORD. – 1 Kings 11:1-3 NLT

And, as a result of Solomon’s idolatry, God chose to split his kingdom in half. He raised up Jeroboam and made him king over the ten tribes located in the northern half of the kingdom. And God left no doubts as to the cause of the split.

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

Upon Solomon’s death, the nation of Israel found itself divided in two. Ten tribes formed the northern kingdom of Israel with their capital located in Samaria. The tribes of Judah and Benjamin formed the southern kingdom of Judah with its capital in Jerusalem. And over the years, these two kingdoms would find themselves ruled by a litany of different kings who, over time, led the people of God further and further away from Him. What Solomon had begun, they accelerated and exacerbated. And by the time Micah records the contents of his book, the overall spiritual outlook for the two kingdoms had grown decidedly dark.

And Micah describes his emotional state when considering the sad reality of the circumstances surrounding him.

Therefore, I will mourn and lament.
    I will walk around barefoot and naked.
I will howl like a jackal
    and moan like an owl.
For my people’s wound
    is too deep to heal.
It has reached into Judah,
    even to the gates of Jerusalem. – Micah 1:8-9 NLT

In these verses, Micah mentions a number of different cities, including Samaria, the capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. The sins of the ten northern tribes had infected the southern kingdom of Judah. The cancer of spiritual infidelity had spread all the way to the gates of Jerusalem. And in Micah’s lifetime, he would see the northern kingdom attacked and destroyed by the Assyrians. God would bring judgment against His people for their unrepentant rebellion against Him. And those same Assyrians would threaten the southern kingdom of Judah.

Micah weaves in the names of cities located in Judah, not far from his hometown of Moresheth. He warns the citizens of Beth-leaphrah, Shaphir, Zaanan, Beth-ezel, and Maroth to consider their fate. They will soon suffer the same fate as the cities in the northern kingdom. They are not immune from God’s judgment. They stand just as guilty before God and are doomed to endure the same tragic outcome.

They “anxiously wait for relief, but only bitterness awaits them as the Lord’s judgment reaches even to the gates of Jerusalem” (Micah 1:123 NLT). City after city will fall under the righteous wrath of God. These two kingdoms, which had once formed the dynastic legacy of King David, were now relegated to positions of powerlessness and helplessness in the face of their enemies. They could run, but they could not hide. They could try to wish it all away, but their sins had caught up with them. And Micah gives them a piece of advice that comes across as too little, too late.

Oh, people of Judah, shave your heads in sorrow,
    for the children you love will be snatched away.
Make yourselves as bald as a vulture,
    for your little ones will be exiled to distant lands. – Micah 1:16 NLT

They should have mourned over their sins generations ago. This problem was not a new one. Their sins were not an aberration or a recent development. The sins of the northern kingdom had grown progressively worse until God was ready to bring judgment against them in the form of the Assyrians. And the infectious nature of their sin had spread to the southern kingdom, leaving the tribes of Judah and Benjamin equally culpable and fully responsible for God’s judgment against them.

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

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

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

God Is Ready When You Are

41 Let us lift up our hearts and hands
    to God in heaven:
42 “We have transgressed and rebelled,
    and you have not forgiven.

43 “You have wrapped yourself with anger and pursued us,
    killing without pity;
44 you have wrapped yourself with a cloud
    so that no prayer can pass through.
45 You have made us scum and garbage
    among the peoples.

46 “All our enemies
    open their mouths against us;
47 panic and pitfall have come upon us,
    devastation and destruction;
48 my eyes flow with rivers of tears
    because of the destruction of the daughter of my people.

49 “My eyes will flow without ceasing,
    without respite,
50 until the Lord from heaven
    looks down and sees;
51 my eyes cause me grief
    at the fate of all the daughters of my city.

52 “I have been hunted like a bird
    by those who were my enemies without cause;
53 they flung me alive into the pit
    and cast stones on me;
54 water closed over my head;
    I said, ‘I am lost.’

55 “I called on your name, O Lord,
    from the depths of the pit;
56 you heard my plea, ‘Do not close
    your ear to my cry for help!’
57 You came near when I called on you;
    you said, ‘Do not fear!’”Lamentations 3:41-57 ESV

In these verses, we have recorded a powerful prayer of intercession, as the prophet of God models for the suffering citizens of Judah what true repentance must look like. He begs them to take stock of their circumstances and learn the lesson God is attempting to teach them. It is not too late. But they are going to have to take ownership for their actions. Complaining over their condition must be replaced with confession for their sins. And Jeremiah walks them through the painful, yet necessary process of returning to the Lord with humble and contrite hearts.

First, they must admit their guilt.

We have transgressed and rebelled,
    and you have not forgiven. – Lamentations 3:42 ESV

They were in the midst of the furnace of God’s judgment and there was no sign of relief in sight. It was as if God had vacated the premises and left them to fend for themselves. Even their prayers seemed to bounce off the ceiling and return to them unheard and unanswered. Their conditions were abysmal and any hope of rescue seemed unlikely. Things were so bad in Judah that their neighbors considered to be “scum and garbage.” Those two words are very graphic, comparing the condition of the people of God to dung or refuse. Nobody had it as bad as the people of Judah.

And Jeremiah puts their feelings of despair into words: “We are filled with fear, for we are trapped, devastated, and ruined” (Lamentations 3:47 NLT). This brutal assessment of their condition was a vital part of the repentance process. They could not afford to treat their circumstances lightly or to wrongly assume that “this too shall pass.” It was essential that they come to grips with the devastating reality of their condition and the true cause behind it: Their sin.

Their suffering was directly tied to their willful rebellion against God. And all the innocent lives that had been lost in Judah could be laid at their doorstep. And Jeremiah expresses his deep sorrow and regret over all those who had died unnecessarily as a result of Judah’s stubborn resistance to God’s call to repentance.

My tears flow endlessly;
    they will not stop
until the Lord looks down
    from heaven and sees.
My heart is breaking
    over the fate of all the women of Jerusalem. – Lamentations 3:49-51 NLT

Jeremiah’s grief is not self-centered or focused on his own pain and suffering. He expresses his deep heartache over all those whose lives have been dragged down the path of sin and forced to suffer its consequences.

As a prophet of God, Jeremiah was well-acquainted with suffering. He knew from first-hand experience what it was like to confront the prospect of death, even while innocent of any wrong-doing. He describes a point in time in which he had been thrown in a pit by his enemies and left to consider an untimely end.

My enemies, whom I have never harmed,
    hunted me down like a bird.
They threw me into a pit
    and dropped stones on me.
The water rose over my head,
    and I cried out, “This is the end!” – Lamentations 3:52-54 NLT

This event is recorded in Jeremiah 38:6.

So the officials took Jeremiah and put him in the cistern of Malkijah, one of the royal princes, that was in the courtyard of the guardhouse. There was no water in the cistern, only mud. So when they lowered Jeremiah into the cistern with ropes he sank in the mud.

This personal experience had left a lasting impact on Jeremiah. He describes how he had prayed from the bottom of that cistern, begging God to rescue him.

But I called on your name, Lord,
    from deep within the pit.
You heard me when I cried, “Listen to my pleading!
    Hear my cry for help!”
Yes, you came when I called;
    you told me, “Do not fear.” – Lamentations 3:55-57 NLT

During one of the darkest moments of his life, Jeremiah had called out to God from the pit and God had graciously answered, telling His servant, “Do not fear.” Trapped in darkness, mired in the mud, and left for dead, Jeremiah called on His God. And that is exactly what he wants the people of Judah to do. Yes, their circumstances were bleak. Things couldn’t have been any worse for them. But all they had to do was call on the name of the Lord.

The Lord is righteous in everything he does;
    he is filled with kindness.
The Lord is close to all who call on him,
    yes, to all who call on him in truth. – Psalm 145:17-18 NLT

God is our refuge and strength, always ready to help in times of trouble. – Psalm 46:1 NLT

But did the people of Judah believe that truth? Were they willing to trust in the righteousness of God and place their hope in His goodness and grace? They were in trouble, but their God was bigger than their greatest problem. He had brought judgment upon them, but He was more than willing to restore them if they would only confess their sin and cry out for His help.

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