It’s All About God

1 “And when all these things come upon you, the blessing and the curse, which I have set before you, and you call them to mind among all the nations where the Lord your God has driven you, and return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you. If your outcasts are in the uttermost parts of heaven, from there the Lord your God will gather you, and from there he will take you. And the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed, that you may possess it. And he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers. And the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live. And the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you. And you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today. The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous in all the work of your hand, in the fruit of your womb and in the fruit of your cattle and in the fruit of your ground. For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers, 10 when you obey the voice of the Lord your God, to keep his commandments and his statutes that are written in this Book of the Law, when you turn to the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Deuteronomy 30:1-10 ESV

When studying a book like Deuteronomy, with its emphasis on the covenant and God’s expectations that the people of Israel know and keep the commands associated with that covenant, it is easy to place all the emphasis on man. After all, their future seems to be in their own hands. If they would simply keep the requirements of the law as God had commanded and as they had agreed to do, all would go well. They were the masters of their fate. Their decision to obey God’s law would bring blessing. Their choice to disobey would bring the curses of God.

And even a cursory study of Israel’s history would seem to indicate that they chose to take the latter path. After entering the land of promise, the general pattern of their corporate existence was that of disobedience and rebellion. Yes, there were moments when they adhered to God’s commands and experienced His blessings. But, for the most part, they proved to be far less compliant, earning themselves a reputation for unfaithfulness and a designation by God as an adulterous generation. And, eventually, all that God had warned them about happened. They ended up in captivity. It began with the split of the kingdom immediately after the reigh of King Solomon. His failure to remain faithful to God, evidenced by his construction of shrines to the false gods of his many wives, resulted in God dividing the once-powerful kingdom his father David had built.

The northern kingdom of Israel would be plagued by a long line of disobedient and idolatrous kings who would lead the nation into further rebellion against God. And, just as Moses had warned, the people would find themselves conquered and taken captive by the Assyrians.

The southern kingdom of Judah would take a bit longer to experience the same fate, but eventually, they too would suffer defeat at the hands of a foreign power. In their case, it would be the Babylonians, who would destroy the capital city of Jerusalem, demolish the temple, and haul the brightest and best of Judah back to Babylon as slaves.

That’s the less-than-flattering picture of Israel’s history, after they had conquered and possessed the land of Canaan. But in this chapter of Deuteronomy, Moses is still addressing them prior to their entrance into the land. And he tells them that, even if they should fail to obey God and one day find themselves living in captivity in a foreign land, they can still be restored. All they have to do is repent.

“…return to the Lord your God, you and your children, and obey his voice in all that I command you today, with all your heart and with all your soul…” – Deuteronomy 30:2 ESV

Once again, it would be easy to read this and put all the emphasis on the Israelites. All they had to do was repent and return to God. The ball would be in their court. The responsibility would be theirs. And Moses makes it clear what the outcome of their decision to repent will be:

“…then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have mercy on you, and he will gather you again from all the peoples where the Lord your God has scattered you.” – Deuteronomy 30:3 ESV

Repent and be restored. That seems to be the gist of what Moses is telling them. The reward for their repentance will be their return to the land of Canaan.

“…the Lord your God will gather you…” – Deuteronomy 30:4 ESV

“…the Lord your God will bring you into the land that your fathers possessed…” – Deuteronomy 30:5 ESV

But while a study of Israel’s history does reveal that they were eventually returned to the land of Canaan, it doesn’t seem to be because of a spirit of corporate repentance among the people. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah indicate that only a small remnant of the people was willing to make the journey back to Judah when given permission by the Persian king, Cyrus. The vast majority of the people made the decision to remain right where they were, choosing the comfort of captivity over the prospect of a long and arduous trip back to their homeland where they would find their capital city and temple in a state of ruins.

There was no corporate repentance and the people of Judah had in no way shown that they had returned to the Lord with all their hearts and souls. And yet, God graciously returned a remnant to the land.

And Moses went on to explain in great detail what else God would do for His rebellious and unrepentant people.

“…he will make you more prosperous and numerous than your fathers…” – Deuteronomy 30:5 ESV

“…the Lord your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live.” – Deuteronomy 30:6 ESV

“…the Lord your God will put all these curses on your foes and enemies who persecuted you.”Deuteronomy 30:7 ESV

The Lord your God will make you abundantly prosperous…”Deuteronomy 30:9 ESV

“…the Lord will again take delight in prospering you…”Deuteronomy 30:9 ESV

The emphasis is on what God will do for them. He is the main focus of this chapter. God will do for them what they could have never done for themselves. He will restore them to the land, not because they have displayed a heart of repentance, but because He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God. And don’t miss what the result of God’s faithfulness will be.

“…you shall again obey the voice of the Lord and keep all his commandments that I command you today.”Deuteronomy 30:8 ESV

Their obedience will be the result of God’s work, not their own decision to repent and return. The truth is, the people of Israel have yet to repent and return to God. Even after He graciously orchestrated their release from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to enter the land of Canaan once again, they never fully returned to Him with all their hearts and souls. Yes, they eventually rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, restored the temple, and reinstituted the sacrificial system. But they remained a disobedient and rebellious nation for generations to come. Jesus would even say of the people of Israel:

“You hypocrites! Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you, for he wrote,

‘These people honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship is a farce,
    for they teach man-made ideas as commands from God.’” – Matthew 15:7-9 NLT

When Jesus showed up on the scene, the people of Israel were living in spiritual darkness. The apostle John describes Jesus as the light of the world who penetrated that darkness, but the “people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19 ESV). And despite Jesus’ offer of salvation, “his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV). In fact, they would be ones to demand His crucifixion and death. 

But God is not done with His people. And so much of what Moses is describing in chapter 30 of Deuteronomy has to do with God’s future restoration of the people of Israel. It has not yet taken place. They are still in a state of rebellion, exhibiting unrepentant hearts and a stubborn unwillingness to turn to Him as their sole source of help and hope. But the prophet Isaiah tells of a day, yet future, when God will change all that. One day He will redeem and restore His chosen people and return them to the land and reclaim them as His own. But it will all be the result of His divine mercy and grace.

“Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord God: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Lord God, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:22-28 ESV

It’s all about God. He is the faithful one. He is the covenant-keeping God who never fails to do what He has promised to do.

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

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

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

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The Just Judgment of God

Their appearance is like the appearance of horses,
    and like war horses they run.
As with the rumbling of chariots,
    they leap on the tops of the mountains,
like the crackling of a flame of fire
    devouring the stubble,
like a powerful army
    drawn up for battle.

Before them peoples are in anguish;
    all faces grow pale.
Like warriors they charge;
    like soldiers they scale the wall.
They march each on his way;
    they do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another;
    each marches in his path;
they burst through the weapons
    and are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
    they run upon the walls,
they climb up into the houses,
    they enter through the windows like a thief.

10 The earth quakes before them;
    the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.
11 The Lord utters his voice
    before his army,
for his camp is exceedingly great;
    he who executes his word is powerful.
For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome;
    who can endure it? Joel 2:4-11 ESV

In these verses, Joel provides additional details concerning the coming day of the Lord. It will feature another invasion of alien forces, but this time it will not be locusts, but a foreign army. Yet, Joel uses imagery to describe this invading force that sounds eerily similar to the locust infestation the people of Judah had just endured. You can almost imagine the locusts “devouring the stubble” (Joel 2:5 ESV). His description of the enemy soldiers climbing “up into the houses” and entering “through the windows like a thief” must have brought back unsettling memories of the millions of disgusting locusts invading their villages and homes.

But this time, the enemy was going to be made up of men armed with swords, marching in endless columns, and riding in chariots of iron. And, like the locusts, they would be driven by a primal urge to devour and destroy everything in their path. And there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. Which is why Joel describes the people as being in a state of anguish with their faces white with fear. The armies of Judah will prove inadequate against this massive enemy onslaught. Any attempt to defend the city of Jerusalem will fail, as “they burst through the weapons and are not halted” (Joel 2:8 ESV). 

Joel is describing a scene that is meant to instill fear in the hearts of the people. And he purposefully uses language that is intended to remind his audience of all that they have just endured. But this judgment will be far greater in intensity, and the damage will far exceed the loss of grain and grapes. When the locusts had finally disappeared, they left behind a land devoid of crops. But when the invading army that shows up on the day of the Lord is finished, the land of Judah will be like a ghost town, free of human life. Those who are not slain by the sword will be taken captive.

And Joel wants his audience to know that this invasion will be God’s doing. The army that shows up will be His army, and they will be accomplishing His divine will.

The Lord is at the head of the column.
    He leads them with a shout.
This is his mighty army,
    and they follow his orders. – Joel 2:11 NLT

God had used similar language when addressing the people of Judah through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah.

“…behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.” – Jeremiah 25:9 ESV

God is sovereign over all. And He is fully capable of using anything He has created to accomplish His will, including pagan armies and foreign dignitaries. In fact, the prophet Isaiah provides another message from God, where He warns Babylon of their coming destruction at the hands of yet another foreign power.

“Raise a signal flag on a bare hilltop.
    Call up an army against Babylon.
Wave your hand to encourage them
    as they march into the palaces of the high and mighty.
I, the Lord, have dedicated these soldiers for this task.
    Yes, I have called mighty warriors to express my anger,
    and they will rejoice when I am exalted.” – Isaiah 13:2-3 NLT

The sovereign God of the universe has the entire world at His disposal. He can accomplish His will by any means He deems necessary. And His use of unrighteous kings and ungodly armies does not make God unholy. His ways are always right, and His judgments are blameless. Even Daniel, one of the Jews who found himself living in exile in Babylon after the fall of the city of Jerusalem, commented on the righteousness of God in light of Judah’s rebellion against Him.

To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. – Daniel 9:7 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah provides further insight into Judah’s treachery and God’s righteous response to it.

For they have rejected the law of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies;
    they have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
That is why the Lord’s anger burns against his people,
    and why he has raised his fist to crush them.
The mountains tremble,
    and the corpses of his people litter the streets like garbage.
But even then the Lord’s anger is not satisfied.
    His fist is still poised to strike! – Isaiah 5:24-25 NLT

And Isaiah goes on to describe how the Lord will mete out His anger against His rebellious children.

He will send a signal to distant nations far away
    and whistle to those at the ends of the earth.
    They will come racing toward Jerusalem.
They will not get tired or stumble.
    They will not stop for rest or sleep.
Not a belt will be loose,
    not a sandal strap broken.
Their arrows will be sharp
    and their bows ready for battle.
Sparks will fly from their horses’ hooves,
    and the wheels of their chariots will spin like a whirlwind.
They will roar like lions,
    like the strongest of lions.
Growling, they will pounce on their victims and carry them off,
    and no one will be there to rescue them.
They will roar over their victims on that day of destruction
    like the roaring of the sea.
If someone looks across the land,
    only darkness and distress will be seen;
    even the light will be darkened by clouds. – Isaiah 5:26-30 NLT

Because of their unholy behavior, God will use Judah’s unholy enemies to punish them. Like Adam and Eve banned from the garden due to their rejection of God’s word, the people of Judah would be expelled from the land of promise because they had rejected His law. He had set them apart as His own possession and had called them to live holy lives.

You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own. – Leviticus 20:26 NLT

You have been set apart as holy to the LORD your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 14:2 NLT

But rather than living in a way that illustrated their status as God’s chosen people, they had chosen to assimilate with and follow the example of the pagan nations around them. They fell in love with the world. And their love affair with the world led them to conduct themselves like an unfaithful wife, giving their affection and attention to false gods.

So, God warns them of coming judgment. And it will come in two phases. There will be a more immediate judgment that shows up in the form of the Babylonian army. But there is another judgment that lies in the distant future and will take place at the end of the age. God knows His people. And as the sovereign God of the universe, He is well aware that they will continue to be unfaithful to Him. Which is why He has a future day of restoration planned for them.

But in the meantime, He is going to call them to repentance. He is going to offer them a second chance.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
   and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster. – Joel 2:12-13 ESV

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

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

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

 

A Recipe for Restoration.

And now, go, write it before them on a tablet
    and inscribe it in a book,
that it may be for the time to come
    as a witness forever.
For they are a rebellious people,
    lying children,
children unwilling to hear
    the instruction of the Lord;
10 who say to the seers, “Do not see,”
    and to the prophets, “Do not prophesy to us what is right;
speak to us smooth things,
    prophesy illusions,
11 leave the way, turn aside from the path,
    let us hear no more about the Holy One of Israel.”
12 Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel,
“Because you despise this word
    and trust in oppression and perverseness
    and rely on them,
13 therefore this iniquity shall be to you
    like a breach in a high wall, bulging out and about to collapse,
    whose breaking comes suddenly, in an instant;
14 and its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel
    that is smashed so ruthlessly
that among its fragments not a shard is found
    with which to take fire from the hearth,
    or to dip up water out of the cistern.”

15 For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
    in quietness and in trust shall be your strength.”
But you were unwilling, 16 and you said,
“No! We will flee upon horses”;
    therefore you shall flee away;
and, “We will ride upon swift steeds”;
    therefore your pursuers shall be swift.
17 A thousand shall flee at the threat of one;
    at the threat of five you shall flee,
till you are left
    like a flagstaff on the top of a mountain,
    like a signal on a hill. – Isaiah 30:8-17 ESV

God commands Isaiah to make a permanent record of all that He has said against Judah. He wants it all in writing so that the people of Judah cannot disagree with the words that Isaiah spoke to them, or deny that they ever heard them. It seems that Isaiah is commanded to use two different mediums upon which to record God’s words against Judah. One was a tablet, on which he would inscribe the words and place in the public record. The second was a book or scroll, made of papyrus, on which he would record the very same words, but for future use. This scroll would be set aside and kept safe so that Isaiah could bring it out at a later date and remind the people of their refusal to listen to God. It would act as a permanent witness against them.

And all of this was necessary because the people were stubborn. God describes them as “a rebellious people, lying children, children unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord” (Isaiah 30:9 ESV). Like immature children, who think they can avoid anything bad by simply refusing to acknowledge its presence, the people of Judah begged their seers and prophets to stop giving them bad news.

They tell the seers,
    “Stop seeing visions!”
They tell the prophets,
    “Don’t tell us what is right. – Isaiah 30:10 NLT

three-wise-monkeys-sculpture-in-bronze-finish-111676-p

They truly thought the could just escape the bad news by denying its reality. If they covered their ears, they wouldn’t hear. If they closed their eyes, they wouldn’t have to see what was happening around them and to them. And if the could only get everyone to stop talking about all this doom and gloom, they could go on with their lives. They could get back to business as usual. They even demanded that Isaiah change his message and tell them what they wanted to hear.

“Tell us nice things.
    Tell us lies.
Forget all this gloom.
    Get off your narrow path.
Stop telling us about your
    ‘Holy One of Israel.’” – Isaiah 30:11 NLT

This reveals just how bad things had gotten in Judah. They were tired of hearing about God and His holiness. They even distance themselves from Yahweh, describing Him as Isaiah’s God, not their own. This desire to ignore God’s holiness and escape His judgment is nothing new. Remember, they had convinced themselves that God couldn’t see what they were doing anyway.

“The Lord can’t see us,” they say.
    “He doesn’t know what’s going on!”
How foolish can you be? – Isaiah 29:15-16 NLT

This tendency among God’s people has always been around. Paul warned Timothy that the day would come in his own ministry when people would want their preachers to tell them nice things.

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths. – 2 Timothy 4:3-4 NLT

For some reason, we think we can escape the truth by simply redefining it. In our day, we deny the reality of hell, by turning it into nothing more than the earthly results of our bad decision-making. Hell becomes figurative, not literal. But denying hell or redefining it, does not make it go away. Another major trend in modern evangelicalism is the emphasis being placed on the love of God, at the expense of His holiness. It goes something like this: A loving God would not send condemn anyone to an eternity in hell. Or another manifestation of this redefining of God shows up in a message of tolerance. We demand that a loving God is accepting of everyone and everything. He is all-loving. But in reaching this seemingly correct conclusion, we leave out the very important doctrine of God’s holiness and His hatred of sin. God does not tolerate sin. He sent His Son to pay the penalty for sin with His own life.

And God would tell us the same thing He said to the people of Judah:

“Because you despise what I tell you
    and trust instead in oppression and lies,
calamity will come upon you suddenly.” – Isaiah 30:12-13 NLT

They didn’t like what God had to say. His words of condemnation and the constant call to repentance were not what they wanted to hear. So, they trusted in lies and half-truths. They changed the rules of the game. But their denunciation of Isaiah and their denial of his message would do nothing to alter the outcome. Their calamity was going to come – suddenly. Like a bulging wall that is on the brink of failure, their demise would take place quickly, and the consequences would be devastating. Their wall of lies and self-constructed truth was not going to stand the onslaught of God’s judgment. And God warns them, “You will be smashed like a piece of pottery—shattered so completely that
there won’t be a piece big enough to carry coals from a fireplace or a little water from the well” (Isaiah 30:14 NLT). 

But it didn’t have to be this way. Their inevitable destruction could have been avoided. And God makes it clear how they could have escaped what was about to happen.

This is what the Sovereign Lord,
    the Holy One of Israel, says:

“Only in returning to me
    and resting in me will you be saved.
In quietness and confidence is your strength. – Isaiah 30:15 NLT

And it’s essential that we not miss how God refers to Himself in this passage. He is the “Holy One of Israel.” Remember, they had refused to recognize Him as such. But here, God is letting them know that He is their God, not just Isaiah’s. And He is holy. He is also sovereign. He is in complete control of all things, whether they want to admit it or not.

As the Holy One of Israel, He lets them know that remedy for their coming fall was simple. All they had to do was return to Him and rest in Him. Repent of their sin of trusting in Egypt, and rely upon Him instead.  It was that easy. And God lets them know that it was the only way they would find salvation. He uses two Hebrew words to describe what they had to do: shaqat and bitchah. The first refers to a state of rest or inactivity. It’s the thought conveyed by the psalmist: “Be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 NLT). It carries the idea of tranquility, even in the midst of trouble.

The second word has to do with a confidence that is a direct byproduct of trust. It is the same idea expressed by Isaiah earlier in this book.

You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!
 – Isaiah 26:3 NLT

God spells out the remedy for what ailed them. But He also sadly states, “But you would have none of it” (Isaiah30:15 NLT). Rather than repenting and returning to God, they had made the decision to trust and find confidence in Egypt.

“No, we will get our help from Egypt.
    They will give us swift horses for riding into battle.” – Isaiah 30:16 NLT

But God breaks the bad news to them that their so-called savior was going to prove completely unreliable. The only swift horses they were going to see would be the ones their enemies rode. It would be a lopsided battle with the people of Judah completely routed and destroyed. And God describes their post-battle condition in bleak terms.

“You will be left like a lonely flagpole on a hill
    or a tattered banner on a distant mountaintop.” – Isaiah 30:17 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

Bitter Sweet.

Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me again, saying, “Go, take the scroll that is open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.” So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll. And he said to me, “Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” 10 And I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it. It was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it my stomach was made bitter. 11 And I was told, “You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” Revelation 10:8-11 ESV

From the moment John was transported to the throne room of God in chapter one, he has experienced a virtual assault on his senses. The sights and sounds have come at him in relentless succession. He has repeatedly stated, “And then I saw” or “then I heard” as yet another heavenly insight has been revealed to him. But in this chapter, John will be required to use his sense of taste for the first time. The little scroll or book he saw in the hand of the mighty angel now comes into play. If you recall, verse two revealed that the diminutive scroll was open. It was not sealed like the first scroll. And while John has been commanded to seal up what the seven thunders said and not to reveal the content of their messages, the same will not be true of the scroll. In fact, he hears a voice from heaven commanding him to take the scroll from the angel’s hand and eat it.

“Take and eat it; it will make your stomach bitter, but in your mouth it will be sweet as honey.” – Revelation 10:9 ESV

This is a new experience for John. Rather than acting as a spectator, silently taking dictation and soaking in all that is being revealed to him, he becomes an active participant. And this scene is reminiscent of one found in the book of Ezekiel.

1 And he said to me, “Son of man, eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll, and go, speak to the house of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and he gave me this scroll to eat. And he said to me, “Son of man, feed your belly with this scroll that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” Then I ate it, and it was in my mouth as sweet as honey.

And he said to me, “Son of man, go to the house of Israel and speak with my words to them. – Ezekiel 3:1-4 ESV

Like Ezekiel, John is told to consume the scroll and then divulge its contents. And also like Ezekiel, John would find the contents of the scroll to be as sweet as honey. But he is warned that it will not set well with him. It will upset his stomach. John will find the words pleasant, because they come from God. But their ultimate outcome will leave him in discomfort. Perhaps the imagery of an upset stomach conveys the idea of John needing to vomit up its content, spewing it out in an uncontrollable, reflexive manner. He will not be able to keep it inside. The message contained in the scroll is intended to be dispersed abroad so that others can know it.

“You must again prophesy about many peoples and nations and languages and kings.” – Revelation 10:11 ESV

The mighty angel had come from heaven, carrying a small scroll in his hand. That scroll contained a message from God and John was commanded to consume that message. In the Bible, the word of God is often referred to as sweet. Consider Psalm 19:9-11:

the fear of the Lord is clean,
    enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
    and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
    and drippings of the honeycomb.
11 Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
    in keeping them there is great reward.

But while God’s Word is sweet to consume, it can be difficult to hear at times. If we meditate on its content and consider what its truths say to us about our lives, we can find it convicting, or to put it another way, bitter to the taste. Paul reminded Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV). Sometimes, we can find what God has to say difficult to hear. And as a prophet for God, John was going to discover the bitterness that comes with speaking the truth of God and finding no one willing to listen. And he would not be alone. All of the prophets of God had experienced that disappointing realization. They willingly proclaimed God’s revealed will only to find the people unwilling to hear and heed what they had to say. In fact, God had warned Ezekiel that the people to whom he would speak, would refuse to listen

“But the house of Israel will not be willing to listen to you, for they are not willing to listen to me: because all the house of Israel have a hard forehead and a stubborn heart.” – Ezekiel 3:7 ESV

John, like Ezekiel, had an obligation to share what he had been “fed” by God. He was not to keep it to himself. The content, while sweet going down, because it came from God, John would find impossible to keep down. And it would be anything but sweet to those who heard it from John’s lips. But John had a God-ordained obligation to share what he had been given. And as God had told Ezekiel, John was to warn the world of what was to come.

“…if you warn the wicked, and he does not turn from his wickedness, or from his wicked way, he shall die for his iniquity, but you will have delivered your soul.” – Ezekiel 3:19 ESV

The book of Revelation is a book that is sweet to some and bitter to others. Some read its content and find their faith in God stirred and enhanced. Others read it and come away questioning the love of God and wondering how He could perpetrate such heinous acts against His own creation. And still others write it off as nothing but fantasy and nonsense. But John’s job was to tell. He is not told to convince or convict. That is the role of the Word of God with the help of the Spirit of God.

We are never told the exact content of the scroll. It could be that it contained the rest of the message revealed in the remaining pages of John’s book. Some have conjectured that it was the Word of God in its entirety. But whatever it was, John found it sweet to the taste. It contained the grace and mercy of God. It revealed the divine will of God. Because it was from God, it was deliciously received by the servant of God. But to those apart from God, it would be repugnant. The Word of God is full of difficult-to-digest statements about sin and God’s judgment. It contains words of warning and calls to repentance. It is intended to reprove sinful men. But there will always be those who reject what God has to say. Jesus told His disciples, “The one who hears you hears me, and the one who rejects you rejects me, and the one who rejects me rejects him who sent me (Luke 10:16 ESV). We have already seen that, even the judgments of God, were insufficient to turn the hearts of the people to God. His punishment for their sin made them desire death, but not Him. Their pain and agony, brought on them by the sovereign hand of God, drove them to consider suicide, but not to consider turning to God. 

John was eventually going to write down all that he saw and heard. Even that which he had tasted. We find it all in the book of Revelation. And over the centuries, millions upon millions of people have read its content. Some have been driven to the cross by what they have read. They have been convicted and called to turn to the offer of forgiveness made available through the sacrificial death of the Lamb of God. Yet, others have heard the warnings found in John’s book and, while intrigued by its message, have remained unmoved, refusing its call to “keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:4 ESV). And yet, the apostle John, like the prophet Ezekiel, is given the responsibility to take what he has heard and to share it with any an all.

“Thus says the Lord God. ‘He who will hear, let him hear; and he who will refuse to hear, let him refuse, for they are a rebellious house’” – Ezekiel 3:27 ESV

John will not be held accountable for the response of his audience. They will be free to do with the message of God as they see fit. And many who hear it will rebel against it. Others will simply ignore it or write it off as unimportant or non-applicable to them. But there will be some who hear and who heed the warnings found in God’s Word. They will repent and return to the Lord in humble submission to His will and in gratitude to His gracious offer of salvation from the judgment to come.

The scroll was small, but the message it contained was massive in terms of its importance. The remainder of the book of Revelation will reveal all that is yet to take place before the second coming of Jesus Christ. The stage has been set. The grand play that tells the story of man’s existence is coming to a close. The final act is about to begin and as it unfolds, God will still be offering those who are willing to hear, one last chance to heed His call to repent and return.

 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

 

Remember and Repent.

1 “To the angel of the church in Ephesus write: ‘The words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand, who walks among the seven golden lampstands.

“‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.’” Revelation 2:1-7 ESV

revelation_Turkey_mapIf you recall, in verse 19 of chapter 1, John was told, “Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.” These next two chapters of his book contain the things “that are.” In other words, he is going to write about the seven churches that existed in real time during his own day. These were seven literal congregations located in seven different cities in Asia Minor. In these two chapters, John is seen acting in the role of a secretary, writing down everything he hears from the lips of the Lord. The first church Jesus addresses is the one located in the city of Ephesus. In each case, Jesus will state the identity of the church to which He is speaking. Then He will point out their strengths and weaknesses. This will be followed by a call to repentance and an exhortation to listen carefully to His words. And Jesus makes it perfectly clear that his intended audience is far bigger than the existing congregations of these seven 1st-Century churches. He says, “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Revelations 2:7 ESV). This is obviously a reference to the seven churches, but also includes a call to the churches of all ages to hear and heed what He has to say. Anyone and everyone who has the capacity to hear each of the messages to these churches should listen carefully and consider the implications, regardless of the century in which he or she lives.

As Jesus begins His address the church in the city of Ephesus, He singles out its “angel” or messenger. John provides us with no clarification as to whom Jesus is referring. There are those who believe His use of the Greek word angelos is a reference to angels or heavenly beings who are assigned to the various churches as guardians or keepers. There are others who believe the seven angels of the seven churches is a reference to the pastors of these churches. The Greek word, angelos can also be translated as “messenger” and could be used to speak of those who will deliver the message of Jesus to the particular churches. From Revelation 1:20, we do know that the seven lampstands are intended to represent the seven churches.

So, Jesus addresses the angel of the church at Ephesus and He points out two things that He knows regarding this local fellowship:

I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false.” – Revelations 2:2 ESV

“I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary.” – Revelation 2:3 ESV

Jesus offers two statements of commendation to the church in Ephesus. In spite of the presence of false teachers, they remained true to the Word of God, faithful to their calling to live out their faith in love and good works, and for patiently enduring persecution for the sake of the gospel. At first glance, it looks as if this church has their spiritual act together and that Jesus is well-pleased with them. And they were doing a lot of things right. But then, Jesus drops the other shoe.

But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first.” – Revelation 2:4 ESV

This church had started out with a deep love for God’s Word and a desire to defend it at all costs. They would not tolerate false gospels or allow faulty interpretations of the Scriptures to mislead or confuse them. But something had happened along the way. They had lost their fervor for God. Jesus describes it as having abandoned the love they had at first. The love to which Jesus refers is agape love, the sacrificial, lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of love with which He loved us. Jesus gave His life for the church. His was a selfless kind of love, preferring to put the needs of others ahead of His own. And evidently, this local fellowship had allowed their love for one another to wain. They were orthodox in their theology and dedicated to the gospel, but somehow they had allowed the flame of love to dwindle and practically die out. So, Jesus calls them to repentance.

“Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. – Revelation 2:5 ESV

This church had a heart problem. They loved God. They loved the Word of God. But it seems that they didn’t necessarily love one another. At least not in the way they once did. Perhaps they were lacking in unity and harmony. Sometimes a church’s determination to maintain orthodoxy can result in an uncompromising dedication to the truth that lacks compassion for others. We end up disliking those with whom we disagree.

It is interesting to note that in his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul had commended them for their love for others.

“I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints…” – Ephesians 1:15 ESV

And Paul had ended his letter to them with the following words:

Peace be to the brothers, and love with faith, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Grace be with all who love our Lord Jesus Christ with love incorruptible. – Ephesians 6:23-24 ESV

Notice his emphasis on brothers and love with faith, as well as love for Christ – a love that is incorruptible. This church had allowed that love to be corrupted in some form or fashion, and Jesus called them to do two things: First of all, they were to remember from where they had fallen. In other words, they were to reflect on the difference between their current state of affairs and how they had started. Then, they were to repent. They needed to change their minds and, as a result, their behavior. They were to return to their former way of loving Christ and others. Orthodoxy (right thinking) without orthopraxy (right behavior) can be deadly. It can become divisive. What we say we believe has to show up in how we behave. John, the very one to whom Jesus was dictating these words, had written something about this very matter in one of his letters.

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:9-11 ESV

Jesus warns the church at Ephesus that if they don’t repent, He will remove their lampstand. It is important that we remember this message was to the church as a body, not to an individual believer. So, Jesus is not threatening the loss of salvation. He is simply warning the believers in Ephesus that their refusal to repent will result in their failure to exist as a local fellowship. They will forfeit their preferred position as Christ’s ambassadors. A church that lacks love lacks the ability to truly reflect the message of the gospel to a lost and dying world. Loveless, bickering Christians are the worst form of advertising for the life-transforming power of the gospel.

But Jesus has one last word of commendation: “Yet this you have: you hate the works of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate” (Revelation 2:6 ESV). We don’t know much about the Nicolaitans. Whoever they were and whatever they taught, it is important to note that Jesus expresses His hatred for their works. Notice that Jesus says He hates their works, not them. It is speculated that these were individuals who had infiltrated the church at Ephesus and who were teaching false doctrines, most likely some form of false gospel. The apostle Paul had some harsh words to say about these kinds of people and their dangerous doctrines of salvation.

“Let God’s curse fall on anyone, including us or even an angel from heaven, who preaches a different kind of Good News than the one we preached to you. – Galatians 1:8 NLT

Jesus commends the Ephesian church for its hatred of falsehood. But He longed for them to return to their first and former love – a love for God expressed in their selfless love for one another.

Finally, Jesus leaves the church at Ephesus with a word of promise.

He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God. – Revelation 2:7 ESV

He challenges them, and us, to listen. To heed what He has to say. This is a call that is common to all seven letters and is intended to be true for the church throughout all the ages. The Spirit of God is out to convict the people of God, in all times and places, with the truth of God. Jesus is offering us the promise of eternal life, guaranteed to all who conquer. But what does that mean? Is Jesus inferring that we have to win the victory? Is he saying our future glorification is somehow up to our ability to fight the good fight on our own? The answer is a simple, yet resounding, “No.”

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul reminds us that our ability to conquer comes from without, not from within. He asks the compelling question:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? – Romans 8:35 ESV

Then he provides us with the confidence-boosting answer:

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:37-39 ESV

The key to conquering is Christ and our faith in Him. Paul reminds us that it is the love of Christ for us that makes us conquerors. Not the other way around. And the apostle John reminds us, “We love each other because he loved us first” (1 John 4:19 NLT). Our ability to conquer comes from God. It is He who redeemed us through the blood of His Son. And, the apostle John tells us that our basis for love is the love showed to us by God. “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16 NLT). When we realize how much God loved us, we should desire to share that love with others. And what should encourage us is that God’s love for us is perfect and unwavering. Nothing can separate us from His love. So, why would we allow anything to keep us from loving our brothers and sisters in Christ. The church at Ephesus needed to return to their first love. They needed to be reminded that their salvation had been based on God’s unmerited love and favor. And their love for one another was to be a reflection of that reality. If they did what Jesus was telling them to do, they would not only continue to exist as a church, they would conquer and enjoy eternal life.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

All Is Lost.

In the fifth month, on the tenth day of the month—that was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon—Nebuzaradan the captain of the bodyguard, who served the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem. And he burned the house of the Lord, and the king’s house and all the houses of Jerusalem; every great house he burned down. And all the army of the Chaldeans, who were with the captain of the guard, broke down all the walls around Jerusalem. And Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard carried away captive some of the poorest of the people and the rest of the people who were left in the city and the deserters who had deserted to the king of Babylon, together with the rest of the artisans. But Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard left some of the poorest of the land to be vinedressers and plowmen.

And the pillars of bronze that were in the house of the Lord, and the stands and the bronze sea that were in the house of the Lord, the Chaldeans broke in pieces, and carried all the bronze to Babylon. And they took away the pots and the shovels and the snuffers and the basins and the dishes for incense and all the vessels of bronze used in the temple service; also the small bowls and the fire pans and the basins and the pots and the lampstands and the dishes for incense and the bowls for drink offerings. What was of gold the captain of the guard took away as gold, and what was of silver, as silver. As for the two pillars, the one sea, the twelve bronze bulls that were under the sea, and the stands, which Solomon the king had made for the house of the Lord, the bronze of all these things was beyond weight. As for the pillars, the height of the one pillar was eighteen cubits, its circumference was twelve cubits, and its thickness was four fingers, and it was hollow. On it was a capital of bronze. The height of the one capital was five cubits. A network and pomegranates, all of bronze, were around the capital. And the second pillar had the same, with pomegranates. There were ninety-six pomegranates on the sides; all the pomegranates were a hundred upon the network all around. – Jeremiah 52:12-23 ESV

It can be quite easy to read the description of the fall of Jerusalem in a flippant and somewhat disconnected manner. The prophet, Jeremiah, is quite stingy in his use of words, painting a quite matter-of-fact image of the city’s fall. But if we look at other passages in the Scriptures, we get a much fuller and more terrifyingly chilling depiction of all that went on during the nearly 20-month-long siege of Jerusalem and its eventual fall. The book of Lamentations records a particularly disturbing aspect of the siege.


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.

Tenderhearted women
    have cooked their own children.
They have eaten them
    to survive the siege. – Lamentations 4:9-10 NLT

The residents of the city had been forced to resort to cannibalism in order to survive. These were not easy days. Starvation was an everyday reality. Parents had to stand back and watch their young children die. And when the walls were finally breached, the death and destruction was like nothing the people of Judah had ever witnessed before. In their weakened state, there was nothing they could do to defend themselves against the Babylonian troops who had were more than ready to seek their revenge on the stubbornly rebellious people inside the walls. The book of Lamentations provides another grisly look at just how bad things were when the walls fell.

Our enemies rape the women in Jerusalem
    and the young girls in all the towns of Judah.
Our princes are being hanged by their thumbs,
    and our elders are treated with contempt.
Young men are led away to work at millstones,
    and boys stagger under heavy loads of wood. – Lamentations 5:10-13 NLT

Nebuchadnezzar took many of the people as captives, leaving nothing but the poorest of the poor to occupy the destroyed city. He stripped the city bare, taking all that was of value, including the treasures of the palace and the temple, as well as the most gifted of all the people. We are provided with a detailed description of the items taken from the temple. The Babylonians left nothing of value untouched. Every ounce of gold, silver or bronze was stripped away and taken as plunder. The sacred vessels, set apart by God for use in the sacrificial system, were hauled off as booty. Not only that, we read in the next section of this chapter that “Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, took with him as prisoners Seraiah the high priest, Zephaniah the priest of the second rank, and the three chief gatekeepers” (Jeremiah 52:24 NLT).

The detailed description of the items taken by the Babylonians is similar to what we read in the book of 1 Kings, that describes Solomon’s painstaking and extremely costly construction of the temple many years earlier.

So Solomon finished building the Temple. The entire inside, from floor to ceiling, was paneled with wood. He paneled the walls and ceilings with cedar, and he used planks of cypress for the floors. He partitioned off an inner sanctuary—the Most Holy Place—at the far end of the Temple. It was 30 feet deep and was paneled with cedar from floor to ceiling. The main room of the Temple, outside the Most Holy Place, was 60 feet long. Cedar paneling completely covered the stone walls throughout the Temple, and the paneling was decorated with carvings of gourds and open flowers.

He prepared the inner sanctuary at the far end of the Temple, where the Ark of the Lord’s Covenant would be placed. This inner sanctuary was 30 feet long, 30 feet wide, and 30 feet high. He overlaid the inside with solid gold. He also overlaid the altar made of cedar. Then Solomon overlaid the rest of the Temple’s interior with solid gold, and he made gold chains to protect the entrance to the Most Holy Place. So he finished overlaying the entire Temple with gold, including the altar that belonged to the Most Holy Place.

He made two cherubim of wild olive wood, each 15 feet tall, and placed them in the inner sanctuary. The wingspan of each of the cherubim was 15 feet, each wing being 7 1⁄2 feet long. The two cherubim were identical in shape and size; each was 15 feet tall. He placed them side by side in the inner sanctuary of the Temple. Their outspread wings reached from wall to wall, while their inner wings touched at the center of the room. He overlaid the two cherubim with gold.

He decorated all the walls of the inner sanctuary and the main room with carvings of cherubim, palm trees, and open flowers. He overlaid the floor in both rooms with gold. – 1 Kings 6:14-30 NLT

In a case of divine deconstruction, God reversed the process and turned the former glory of the temple into an empty shell. All that had been set apart to Him was now the property of the Babylonians. The vessels and tools, once integral to the sacrificial system, were now the property of pagans. And the not-so-subtle message to the people of Judah was that, in their determination to reject God, they had rejected all that was associated with Him, including access to His temple and the availability of atonement made possible through the sacrificial system. The temple was destroyed. The priests were now prisoners. And the people had no way of receiving forgiveness for their sins. The people were to learn that turning their backs on God would have dire consequences.

Once again, we must turn to the book of Lamentations to get a clearer understanding of how the fall of Jerusalem impacted the people of God. It is believed that Jeremiah was the author of the book of Lamentations and he is often referred to as “the weeping prophet” because of his close association with this book. In the closing verses of the book, we read the following prayer, described as coming from the mouths of the people of Judah.

But Lord, you remain the same forever!
    Your throne continues from generation to generation.
Why do you continue to forget us?
    Why have you abandoned us for so long?
Restore us, O Lord, and bring us back to you again!
    Give us back the joys we once had!
Or have you utterly rejected us?
    Are you angry with us still? – Lamentations 5:19-22 NLT

The devastation had created a renewed dependency on God in the hearts of the people. The destruction they had witnessed had led to a greater desire for God. Isn’t it interesting how that works? When things are going well, we can find ourselves forgetting all about God. We don’t see the need for Him. But as soon as something goes wrong; our health takes a turn for the worse, our finances falter, our marriage goes south, or our sunny skies turn dark and foreboding, we turn to God. We call out. We question His faithfulness. We demand that He restore our fortunes and make everything bright and cheery again. It’s interesting to note that the people accuse God of rejecting them, but they say nothing of their own rejection of God. They feel abandoned and alone. But they don’t seem to understand that their adandonment by God was due to their own abandonment of Him. But they were right in understanding that God is faithful. They were right in turning to Him. He is our hope in time of need. He is our rock when all else around us is shaky and unstable. He is our faithful Father and loving God. But we must be careful to learn an important lesson from the people of Judah. In their prayer, they state, “Give us back the joys we once had!” Notice what is behind that statement or demand. They want things to go back to the way they were. They want restoration of their former good fortunes. In other words, they want a return to the status quo. They want their old lives back, not God. God was simply a means to an end for them. And we can be guilty of treating God the same way. We go to Him, asking Him to return us to health, to restore our marriage, to fix our financial problems, to make all the hurts and heartaches of life to go away. But what God really wants is for us to desire Him. He wants us to long for Him above anything and everything else in life. The people of Judah didn’t need their old lives back, they needed 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.

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

If You Return…

“If you return, O Israel,
declares the Lord,
    to me you should return.
If you remove your detestable things from my presence,
    and do not waver,
and if you swear, ‘As the Lord lives,’
    in truth, in justice, and in righteousness,
then nations shall bless themselves in him,
    and in him shall they glory.”

For thus says the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem:

“Break up your fallow ground,
    and sow not among thorns.
Circumcise yourselves to the Lord;
    remove the foreskin of your hearts,
    O men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem;
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
    and burn with none to quench it,
    because of the evil of your deeds.” Jeremiah 4:1-4 ESV

God’s continued call for the people of Judah to return to Him was conditional. In other words, He was fully expecting them to change their ways. It wasn’t going to be enough for them to display some half-hearted effort at reform. They were going to have to destroy their idols, tear down the pagan alters, and as God so graphically puts it, “circumcise their hearts.” And God knew their hearts were the sources of their idolatry addiction. As God complained through the prophet Isaiah, “These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote” (Isaiah 29:13 NLT). Any worship the people of Israel did direct toward God was tainted by legalism and man-made decrees. Their hearts weren’t really in it. They were going through the motions, while also worshiping the false gods of the nations around them.

But the conditional nature of God’s call also had a positive side. If they would return, in sincerity and with the proper proofs of their determination to make God their only God, then He would bless them. God would take a rebellious, unfaithful people, who were doomed to destruction, and place them once again at the center of His will and affections. And when the other nations saw the radical reversal of Israel’s fortunes, they too would turn to God.

“…the nations will pray to be as blessed by him as you are
and will make him the object of their boasting.” – Jeremiah 3:2 NLT

When Israel had been delivered by God from captivity in Egypt, the other nations heard about what had happened. The news of Israel’s salvation by their God spread quickly. And as they made their way through the wilderness to the land of Canaan, the nations occupying the land became increasingly more fearful of this nation and its God. In fact, when the two spies went into Jericho to check out the fortifications of the city, they were protected by Rahab. And she told them:

“I know the Lord is handing this land over to you. We are absolutely terrified of you, and all who live in the land are cringing before you. For we heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you left Egypt and how you annihilated the two Amorite kings, Sihon and Og, on the other side of the Jordan. When we heard the news we lost our courage and no one could even breathe for fear of you. For the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on earth below.” – Joshua 2:9-11 NLT

God’s power was impressive. His care for those who worshiped Him was like nothing these pagan nations had ever seen before. And God is telling Israel that those very same nations will be blown away when they see how forgiving the God of Israel can be when they repent. But again, God was very specific. He was going to require legitimate heart change.

“Like a farmer breaking up hard unplowed ground,
you must break your rebellious will and make a new beginning;
just as a farmer must clear away thorns lest the seed is wasted,
you must get rid of the sin that is ruining your lives.” – Jeremiah 3:3 NLT

One of the things we tend to leave out when we confess our sins is the legitimate intention of changing our ways. For many of us, confession is nothing more than a required step to get to what we really want: His forgiveness. Our objective is to keep God happy, not to pursue holiness. We know we have screwed up and we also know God is not pleased with us. So, to escape His anger and possible discipline, we confess. It is the equivalent of saying, “I’m sorry.” But what is typically missing is our intention to change our behavior. We simply want to escape God’s wrath, but we have no real desire to pursue holiness. But God had a serious warning to the people of Israel.

“…you must genuinely dedicate yourselves to the Lord
and get rid of everything that hinders your commitment to me,
people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem.

If you do not, my anger will blaze up like a flaming fire against you
that no one will be able to extinguish.
That will happen because of the evil you have done.” – Jeremiah 3:4 NLT

Just as God had done all the way back in the days when Moses leading the people of Israel to the Promised Land, He gives the people of Israel a choice. They could choose to keep His commands and enjoy His many blessings, or they could choose to disobey Him and face the consequences of His curses.

“Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. However, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish!” – Deuteronomy 30:15-18 NLT

Once again, they had a choice to make. And as before, it was between life and death. And God is trying to get them to understand that their choice of life will require a dedicated commitment to follow Him faithfully, but it will be well worth the effort. But it is interesting to note, that even in light of all the God has promised to do for the, we know that Israel will prove too stubborn to take God up on His offer. They will choose death over life. Why? What would cause them to be that stubborn and self-destructive? The simply answer is sin. Their hearts are wicked. Yes, they had been set apart by God and been deemed His chosen people. But their hearts were far from Him. By the giving of the Law, God had made it perfectly clear what He expected of them. He had made His requirements for holy and acceptable living plain as day. But they couldn’t live up to them. Not only that, they couldn’t stop themselves from chasing after other gods. Their natural inclination was toward sin and away from God. And that has been man’s problem since the fall. Mankind has been on a trajectory away from God, not toward Him. Paul puts it this way:

“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” – Romans 3:10-12 ESV

The amazing thing about God is that He knew Israel would fail to return to Him. He knew they would continue to sin against Him and doom themselves to suffer His discipline. But He was not going to give up on them. In fact, God is far from done with Israel. Their track record of apostasy is undeniable. But God’s faithfulness to them is unalterable. He will one day redeem them and place within them the capacity to do what they have never been able to do from the beginning: Love Him with all their hearts. In the book of Ezekiel, we have recorded a promise made by God to the people of Israel that has yet to be fulfilled.

“For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:24-27 NLT

God knew Israel would not return to Him. But He also knows that there is a day when they will. But it will be the result of His sovereign work and His Spirit’s transforming power. He will do for them what they could never have done for themselves: Change their hearts.

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

Who Is Your God?

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. Take with you words and return to the Lord; say to him, “Take away all iniquity; accept what is good, and we will pay with bulls the vows of our lips. Assyria shall not save us; we will not ride on horses; and we will say no more, ‘Our God,’ to the work of our hands. In you the orphan finds mercy.” – Hosea 14:1-3 ESV

In verse 16 of chapter 13, God warned of the gruesome manner in which many of the Israelites would die at the hands of the Assyrians:

Samaria shall bear her guilt, because she has rebelled against her God; they shall fall by the sword; their little ones shall be dashed in pieces, and their pregnant women ripped open. – Hosea 13:16 ESV

Many would die in battle against the Assyrians, but their deaths would be in vain. Pregnant women and innocent children would suffer tragic and hideous deaths as the Assyrians attempted to wipe out the next generation of Israelites in order to prevent future rebellion.  The judgment that was coming would be devastating and impossible to escape. So Hosea pleaded with his fellow Israelites to return to the Lord.

Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity. – Hosea 14:1 ESV

The Hebrew word he used is שׁוּב (shuwb) and it means “to turn back (to God), repent” (“H7725 – shuwb – Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It carries the idea of restoration and point to a future day in which God would reestablish His covenant relationship with His people. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word can also mean “to bring back, refresh, restore.”  There is a sense in which God is calling His people back to a right relationship with Himself, but its ultimate fulfillment will be His responsibility, not theirs. At the same time, God was calling them to acknowledge their sin. He wanted to hear them say, “Forgive all our sins and graciously receive us, so that we may offer you our praises” (Hosea 14:2b NLT). The acknowledgement of their sins against Him was an essential part of their return to Him. They would also have to recognize and repent of their misplaced trust in things other than God. “Assyria cannot save us, nor can our warhorses. Never again will we say to the idols we have made, ‘You are our gods’” (Hosea 14:3a NLT).

One of the hardest things for us to do as God’s people is to admit our unfaithfulness to God. It is not that we lack faith. It is that our faith is misplaced. Our trust is misappropriated. Rather than relying solely on God, we turn to other sources for assurance, comfort, security and salvation. For some, their own intellect becomes the go-to source of their rescue. They learn to think their way out of any troubles or trials. For others, financial resources become the means of their salvation. They learn to buy their way out of moments of distress, discomfort and dissatisfaction. Money and materialism become their gods of choice. And yet, God would have us acknowledge our false gods. He desires that we admit our wandering hearts and prodigal faith. But that will not happen until we learn the sometimes painful lesson that our bank accounts, portfolios, talents, resources, careers, or friends cannot save us. They make lousy gods and even worse saviors. But as long as we think they can provide us with any sliver of hope and help, we will never fully return to and place our faith in God.

The whole point behind God’s coming judgment against Israel was to get them to realize that their salvation was in Him alone. He wanted them to come to the conclusion that He was the soul source of salvation. He desired to hear them say, “No, in you alone do the orphans find mercy” (Hosea 14:3b NLT). That statement carries with it a recognition of need. Orphans are inherently needy. They have no resources, no means of self-reliance. And that is exactly the attitude that God desires in us. But like the church in Laodicea, we can arrogantly claim, “I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!” (Revelation 3:17a NLT). But the reality is, “you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Revelation 3:17b NLT). We can wrongly assume we are spiritually healthy and in no need of a healing. But Jesus would remind us, “I have come to call not those who think they are righteous, but those who know they are sinners” (Matthew 9:13b NLT). If you don’t think you need God, you will not return to Him. And why would you? As long as you think you have another trick up your sleeve, another option available to you, you will not seek God’s help. In fact, for most of us, God can become an option of last resort. We turn to Him only when all else has failed. We call on Him only when our other sources of salvation have run out or proven unreliable.

But God longs for us to see Him as David did. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my savior; my God is my rock, in whom I find protection. He is my shield, the power that saves me, and my place of safety” (Psalm 18:2 NLT). God longs that we see Him in those same terms. That we would be able to say, “He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is!” (Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT). But instead, we can become like Israel, who “became fat and unruly; the people grew heavy, plump, and stuffed! Then they abandoned the God who had made them; they made light of the Rock of their salvation” (Deuteronomy 32:15 NLT). And sadly, the same can be said of us that was said of them: “You neglected the Rock who had fathered you; you forgot the God who had given you birth” (Deuteronomy 32:18 NLT).

But God’s desire is that we return to Him. He wants us to abandon our other sources of salvation and to rely solely on Him. He wants to be our rock, shield, and tower. But if we don’t think we need Him, we will never fully return to Him. As long as our faith is focused on anything other than Him, we will never fully recognize our need for Him.

 

God-lessness Leads To Ungodliness.

A merchant, in whose hands are false balances, he loves to oppress. Ephraim has said, “Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself; in all my labors they cannot find in me iniquity or sin.” I am the Lord your God from the land of Egypt; I will again make you dwell in tents, as in the days of the appointed feast. I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables. If there is iniquity in Gilead, they shall surely come to nothing: in Gilgal they sacrifice bulls; their altars also are like stone heaps on the furrows of the field.– Hosea 12:7-11 ESV

The people of Israel lived a lie. They seriously thought they were able to pull the wool over the eyes of God, that He was somehow ignorant of their sinfulness. They even believed that their many blessings, in the form of wealth, power, abundant crops, and growing families, were a sign of God’s approval of them. Yet, like a dishonest grain merchant who cheats his customers by using rigged scales, the Israelites were guilty of deceit and dishonesty. They simply saw themselves as clever and resourceful, and they believed their success was a sign of God’s approval. They prided themselves on their wealth and arrogantly believed their sins were somehow hidden and undetectable by others.

Like so many Christians today, the Israelites saw their material abundance and wealth as a sign of God’s approval. They believed their affluence could be directly attributed to God and His pleasure with them. But they were in for a rude awakening. God was about to radically re-align their perspective. They were going to go from living lives of abundance and wealth to abject poverty. They would find themselves living in tents just like their ancestors had done while slaves in the land of Egypt. No more plush, comfortable homes. Gone would be the days of sumptuous clothes and delicious meals. Once a year, at the Feast of Booths, the Israelites would build temporary shelters made from branches in order to commemorate the years their ancestors spent wandering in the wilderness. Now they were going to experience what it was like to live in these shanties 365 days out of the year. Their sudden fall from grace would be a rude awakening, shattering their ill-conceived notion that affluence was somehow a sign of God’s approval.

God had sent His prophets, and they had warned the people to repent or face His coming judgment. They had had visions, spoken in parables, and repeatedly pleaded with the people to hear what they were saying and return to the Lord. But the people had rejected their messages and, in some cases, killed the messengers. Even Jesus declared of the city of David, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Luke 13:34 ESV). The people of Israel were unwilling to return to God. They had stubbornly refused His prophets, rejected their message, and remained committed to living life on their own terms. But God warned, “they shall surely come to nothing” (Hosea 12:11 ESV). Their altars to false gods would become like heaps of stones lying at the side of a plowed field. Their entire way of life was going to come to an end. Everything they put their faith and hope in – their wealth, material assets, false gods, fruitful fields, prolific families, and foreign alliances – would prove unreliable and no longer be available.

Ungodliness is essentially God-lessness. It is attempting to live your life with God removed from the center of it. It is the result of refusing to include Him in every area of life, of not giving Him access to and influence over the everyday affairs of life. When we convince ourselves that God doesn’t care about what we watch on TV, what we purchase with our money, how we spend our time, or where we place our hopes, we become ungodly. That doesn’t mean that everything we do is immoral or sinful. It simply means that God becomes less and less an influence over the everyday decisions of life. Our lives become essentially God-less. And it doesn’t take long for a God-less life to manifest itself in godless decisions and ungodly behavior. The Israelites had long ago left God out of the everyday mix of life. He had become an afterthought. He was their god in name only. They gave Him lip-service but not heart-allegiance. They wanted His blessings, but not His influence over their lives. As God declared through the prophet Isaiah:

These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote. – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

God went on to declare:

What sorrow awaits those who try to hide their plans from the Lord, who do their evil deeds in the dark! “The Lord can’t see us,” they say. “He doesn’t know what’s going on!” How foolish can you be? He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay! Should the created thing say of the one who made it, “He didn’t make me”? Does a jar ever say, “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:15-16 NLT

God-lessness can take the form of us deliberately leaving God out of our lives or simply assuming He is oblivious to what is going on. But any thought on our part that God does not care or that we can keep Him in the dark is misguided and, ultimately, dangerous. God wants to be engaged and involved in every area of our lives. But when we deliberately decide to leave Him out, our decision making will become God-less and our lives will gravitate toward ungodliness. And while we may experience what appears to be success and enjoy what feels like happiness, we will soon discover that abundance, without God, is actually poverty. Happiness, apart from God, will only result in misery. The call of Jesus to the church in Laodicea applies to many of us today:

“You say, ‘I am rich. I have everything I want. I don’t need a thing!’ And you don’t realize that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked. So I advise you to buy gold from me—gold that has been purified by fire. Then you will be rich. Also buy white garments from me so you will not be shamed by your nakedness, and ointment for your eyes so you will be able to see. I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference.” – Revelation 3:17-19 NLT

Discipline Lovingly.

When heaven is shut up and there is no rain because they have sinned against you, if they pray toward this place and acknowledge your name and turn from their sin, when you afflict them, then hear in heaven and forgive the sin of your servants, your people Israel, when you teach them the good way in which they should walk, and grant rain upon your land, which you have given to your people as an inheritance. – 1 Kings 8:35-36 ESV

1 Kings 8:22-53

This is the third of seven scenarios that Solomon used in his prayer as a means of illustrating the potential unfaithfulness of the people of Israel and to plead for God’s mercy and forgiveness. Solomon was no stranger to the promises of God concerning the land of Canaan. He knew that their very existence as a people and their presence in the land was the work of God. He had chosen them as His own and then provided them with a land in which to live. But their privileged position as His people and their possession of the land came with conditions. God had clearly warned them that, as His chosen people, they would be required to live in obedience to His commands. If they obeyed, they would experience His blessings. If they chose to disobey, their would be ramifications in the form of curses.  “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full.  Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you” (Deuteronomy 11:13-17 ESV).

It is with this warning in mind that Solomon prays. He knew full well that there was always a distinct possibility that they would prove to be unfaithful. As a people, their history was replete with stories of unfaithfulness and idolatry. Remaining true to God had proven to be difficult for them. During their 400 years of captivity in Egypt they had forgotten Yahweh and worshiped the gods of their captors. Even after God’s miraculous deliverance from their slavery in Egypt, it had not taken long before they were worshiping the golden calf in the wilderness. When they had arrived in the land of promise, God gave them victories over their enemies, but the people just couldn’t seem to keep their hearts and hands off the false gods of the very nations they had conquered. So the scenario Solomon used in his prayer was far from unlikely or impossible. He knew in his heart that their unfaithfulness was a distinct and potentially dangerous possibility. If Solomon knew anything about God, it was that He kept His word. So He appeals to God’s promise to forgive. But he knows that God’s forgiveness would be conditioned on their repentance and confession. They would have to acknowledge God’s name and turn from their sin. This would have to be more than just a casual, “I’m sorry.” To acknowledge God’s name was to confess that His unique character as the one true God. It was to openly admit that He alone was holy, righteous, almighty and worthy of their worship. And to turn from their sin was to reject all false gods and renounce their improper dependence upon them. Solomon knew that God’s forgiveness would required their genuine repentance. He also knew that God’s punishment of them would always be positive in nature, designed to turn them from their unfaithfulness and return them to a right relationship with Himself. God disciplines His people for their own good, so that they might give Him glory. “For the LORD corrects those he loves, just as a father corrects a child in whom he delights” (Proverbs 3:12 NLT). “I correct and discipline everyone I love. So be diligent and turn from your indifference” (Revelations 3:19 NLT).

The unfaithfulness of God’s people was inevitable, but God made provision for it. In Solomon’s day, it came in the form of the sacrificial system. It required repentance and confession. The shedding of blood was necessary. Sin required punishment. But God provided a means by which sin could be atoned for or covered over. It was through the death of an innocent animal whose life was sacrificed as a substitute or stand-in for the guilty party. But those sacrifices were never intended to be permanent or complete in their effectiveness. They simply foreshadowed a greater sacrifice to come. God would eventually provide His own Son as the perfect, sinless sacrifice for the sins of man. His Son, Jesus Christ, would give His life as payment for the sins of all men – past, present and future. He would die in their place, taking on their punishment and paying their debt so that they might have forgiveness from sin and escape the penalty of death – eternal separation from God. But this gift must be received. The payment made by God through His Son must be accepted. Men must acknowledge their sin and turn to God for the forgiveness made possible through the death of Jesus Christ. Many years after Solomon prayed this prayer, Peter would preach a message to the Jews gathered in Solomon’s Portico, an area just outside the temple. “But what God foretold by the mouth of all the prophets, that his Christ would suffer, he thus fulfilled. Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus” (Acts 3:18-20 ESV). Repent. Return. And receive forgiveness from the hand of a loving God.