In the Fullness of Time

12 I will surely assemble all of you, O Jacob;
    I will gather the remnant of Israel;
I will set them together
    like sheep in a fold,
like a flock in its pasture,
    a noisy multitude of men.
13 He who opens the breach goes up before them;
    they break through and pass the gate,
    going out by it.
Their king passes on before them,
    the Lord at their head.
 
Micah 2:12-13 ESV

It was not entirely wrong for the people of Judah to place their hope in their covenant relationship with God. After all, they were His chosen people and He had committed Himself to their care. And that relationship was governed by more than one covenant between God and His people.

The first had been the one God had made with Abraham, the father of the Hebrew people. Long before Abraham even had a single heir, God had promised to create a mighty nation from his descendants. And this, in spite of the fact that Abraham was old and his wife was barren.

“Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

This covenant was unilateral and unconditional in nature. In other words, its success or failure was completely dependent upon God. Other than leave his native land, Abraham had no requirements placed upon him by God. He simply had to believe in what God had promised to do for him. And while, over the years, Abraham would have his moments of doubt, he continued to trust in the word of God.

On one of those occasions when Abraham doubted, God appeared to him and said:

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness. – Genesis 15:5-6 ESV

And God provided Abraham with insight into how this would all take place.

“Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions.” – Genesis 15:13-14 ESV

Abraham never lived long enough to see that covenant fully fulfilled, but he believed in the promise contained in it. And God fulfilled it. By the time the people of Israel were delivered from their captivity in Egypt, they had become a mighty nation, numbering in the millions. And God had delivered them safely to the land He had promised to give to them as an inheritance. Once there, God placed over them a man after His own heart, a king who would rule them in righteousness: David. And God made a covenant with David as well.

“When your days are fulfilled to walk with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, one of your own sons, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for me, and I will establish his throne forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. I will not take my steadfast love from him, as I took it from him who was before you, but I will confirm him in my house and in my kingdom forever, and his throne shall be established forever.” – 1 Chronicles 17:11-14 ESV

This too was an unconditional, unilateral covenant, bound only by the word of God. It required nothing from David but was solely based on God’s commitment to make the Davidic dynasty an everlasting one.

As part of that same covenant, God had promised to provide the nation of Israel with a permanent place in the land of Canaan, where they would live peacefully and undisturbed.

“And I will appoint a place for my people Israel and will plant them, so that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed no more. And violent men shall afflict them no more, as formerly.” – 2 Samuel 7:10 ESV

The third covenant God made with the nation of Israel is known as the Mosaic or Sinai Covenant. From a timeline perspective, this one falls between the Abrahamic and Davidic covenants. It was made not long after the people of Israel had departed Egypt and were camped at the base of Mount Sinai in the wilderness. It was there that God made His covenant with Moses and the people of Israel. And, in this case, the covenant was conditional in nature and chapters 19-24 of the book of Exodus contain the conditions or requirements placed upon Israel in order for this covenant to be fulfilled. God promised to keep His part of the covenant, but only as long as Israel lived up to their end of the agreement.

“‘Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.” – Exodus 19:5-6 ESV

With those three covenants in mind, let’s revisit verses 12-13 of the second chapter of the book of Micah. God has just warned the people of Judah about the judgment He was about to bring on them due to their sin and rebellion against Him. And yet, they were clinging to their belief that they were the covenant people of God.

“Do not preach”—thus they preach—
    “one should not preach of such things;
    disgrace will not overtake us.” – Micah 2:6 ESV

They couldn’t believe that Micah would preach a message of doom and gloom when they were God’s chosen people. Didn’t he know about God’s covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David? Hadn’t God committed to provide and care for His people. Wasn’t David’s kingdom supposed to be an everlasting one and their place in the land guaranteed by God to be permanent? So, how could Micah be preaching a message of destruction? It made no sense.

But what the people of Judah failed to understand was that God’s covenant commitments, while binding, were eternal and not temporal in nature. God had a long-term perspective in mind when He made His covenants with Abraham, Moses, and David. Yet, each generation of Jews had lived with the mistaken belief that all of God’s covenant promises had to be fulfilled in their lifetimes. They failed to understand that God had a much bigger, all-encompassing plan in place that would extend beyond their particular generation and even beyond the ethnic boundaries of Judaism. God had promised Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3 ESV).

God’s plans for the nation of Israel were global in nature. And the reason God had committed to preserve and protect the nation of Israel was so that He raise up the Messiah from among them, the one who would provide salvation not only for Israel but for all the nations of the world.

In his letter to the believers in Galatia, Paul provided them insight into God’s covenant promise to Abraham.

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

Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham. It would be through Jesus, a descendant of Abraham, that all the nations of the earth would be blessed. Through His death and resurrection, Jesus would make available to all men, salvation from sin and death. And Jesus would also be the ultimate fulfillment of the promise God made to King David. Jesus was would be born into the house and lineage of David, making Him the rightful heir to David’s throne. And one day, He will return to earth and rule in perfect righteousness from the throne of David in Jerusalem.

God had a long-term perspective. His focus was eternal in nature, as the prophet Jeremiah made clear.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ – Jeremiah 23:5-6 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah, a contemporary of Micah, provided insight into the coming of the one who would fulfill God’s covenant to David.

For a child is born to us,
    a son is given to us.
The government will rest on his shoulders.
    And he will be called:
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His government and its peace
    will never end.
He will rule with fairness and justice from the throne of his ancestor David
    for all eternity.
The passionate commitment of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    will make this happen! – Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

And Micah echoed the same message of hope regarding Israel’s future. God was going to keep His covenant promises. He was going to do all that He had said He would do.

“Someday, O Israel, I will gather you;
    I will gather the remnant who are left.
I will bring you together again like sheep in a pen,
    like a flock in its pasture.
Yes, your land will again
    be filled with noisy crowds!
Your leader will break out
    and lead you out of exile,
out through the gates of the enemy cities,
    back to your own land.
Your king will lead you;
    the Lord himself will guide you.” – Micah 2:12-13 NLT

But none of this would take place in Micah’s lifetime. He and the rest of the citizens of Judah would not live long enough to see the salvation that God had planned. But it would come nonetheless. In spite of their sin and rebellion, God would send a Savior. A child would be born. A son would be given. And His name would be Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). But it would all be according to God’s divine plan and in keeping with His sovereign schedule.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. – Galatians 4:4-7 ESV

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

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

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

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Jacob’s Redeemer

1 “But now hear, O Jacob my servant,
    Israel whom I have chosen!
Thus says the Lord who made you,
    who formed you from the womb and will help you:
Fear not, O Jacob my servant,
    Jeshurun whom I have chosen.
For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
    and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring,
    and my blessing on your descendants.
They shall spring up among the grass
    like willows by flowing streams.
This one will say, ‘I am the Lord’s,’
    another will call on the name of Jacob,
and another will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’
    and name himself by the name of Israel.”

6 Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel
    and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts:
“I am the first and I am the last;
    besides
me there is no god.
Who is like me? Let him proclaim it.[
    Let him declare and set it before me,
since I appointed an ancient people.
    Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen.
Fear not, nor be afraid;
    have I not told you from of old and declared it?
    And you are my witnesses!
Is there a God
besides me?
    There is no Rock; I know not any
.” Isaiah 44:1-8 ESV

Just as He had at the beginning of chapter 43, here God addresses His people by the two names of the son of Isaac: Jacob and Israel. Jacob had been his original name, given to him at birth, and it meant, “holder of the heel, supplanter, or layer of snares.” This name had to do with the circumstances surrounding the births of he and his brother.

And when the time came to give birth, Rebekah discovered that she did indeed have twins! The first one was very red at birth and covered with thick hair like a fur coat. So they named him Esau. Then the other twin was born with his hand grasping Esau’s heel. So they named him Jacob. – Genesis 25:24-26 NLT

That was how Jacob came by his somewhat strange, but highly descriptive name. And this rather bizarre birth narrative reflects a message that God had given to Rebekah even before the boys were born. She had been barren and unable to give Isaac any children, so he had “pleaded with the Lord on behalf of his wife” (Genesis 25:21 NLT). And God heard his prayer and enabled Rebekah to become pregnant with twins.

But the two children struggled with each other in her womb. So she went to ask the Lord about it. “Why is this happening to me?” she asked.

And the Lord told her, “The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son.” – Genesis 25:22-23 NLT

Jacob, though technically not the first-born, was going to end up having dominion over his brother. And later on in the story, Esau. in an act of impulsiveness, driven by physical desires, would trade his birthright for a bowl of stew. And not long after that, when their father, Isaac, was on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother would trick Isaac into giving him the blessing reserved for the firstborn. Jacob was a deceiver. And his actions brought the wrath of his brother down him, forcing him to run for his life and live in exile in Paddan-aram. But God eventually arranged for Jacob’s return, and that event was accompanied by a God-ordained name change

Now that Jacob had returned from Paddan-aram, God appeared to him again at Bethel. God blessed him, saying, “Your name is Jacob, but you will not be called Jacob any longer. From now on your name will be Israel.” So God renamed him Israel. – Genesis 35:10 NLT

So, why is any of this important? Because God opens this passage by using both names of this man as a designation for the people of God. The first name, Jacob, is an apt description of the people of God. They were deceivers and supplanters, having replaced the one-true God with false gods. But the name Israel means “God prevails.” It describes the undeniable reality that God was going to use the people of Israel, in spite of the people of Israel.

His will for them would prevail, not because of them, but because He was a faithful God. All throughout his life, Jacob had tried to fulfill the will of God by using trickery, deceit, and his own human efforts. God had already told Rebekah that the older son would serve the younger, but she and Jacob were both guilty of trying to accomplish God’s will through human means. But in Isaiah 44, God seems to be reminding the people of Judah that it is He who will bring about their preferred destiny. He is the one who had made and chosen them. They had nothing to do with it.

And almost as if He is addressing Jacob himself, God assures him, “Don’t be afraid, my servant Jacob, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen!” (Isaiah 44:2 NLT). God was going to do all that He had promised to do.

When Jacob had been forced to flee the land of Canaan in order to escape the vindictive wrath of his brother, God had visited him in a dream and made a covenant promise to him.

“I am the Lord, the God of your grandfather Abraham, and the God of your father, Isaac. The ground you are lying on belongs to you. I am giving it to you and your descendants. Your descendants will be as numerous as the dust of the earth! They will spread out in all directions—to the west and the east, to the north and the south. And all the families of the earth will be blessed through you and your descendants. What’s more, I am with you, and I will protect you wherever you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have finished giving you everything I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:13-15 NLT

And here is Isaiah 44, God is reaffirming that promise to the people of Judah, the descendants of Jacob. He uses another name by which to refer to them: Jeshurun. It means “upright one” and seems to be used to describe the ideal character God expected of His chosen people. And this is not the first time God used this particular name for Israel.

“But Jeshurun grew fat, and kicked;
    you grew fat, stout, and sleek;
then he forsook God who made him
    and scoffed at the Rock of his salvation.
They stirred him to jealousy with strange gods;
    with
abominations they provoked him to anger.
They sacrificed to demons that were no gods,
    to
gods they had never known,
to new gods that had come recently,
    whom your fathers had never dreaded.
You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you,
    and you forgot the God who gave you birth.”
– Deuteronomy 32:15-18 ESV

They had abandoned God, the one who gave the birth. They had gotten fat and happy, content with their lifestyle, and turned their backs on the one who had made them what they were.

And yet, here is God promising to bless them.

“For I will pour water on the parched ground
and cause streams to flow on the dry land.
I will pour my spirit on your offspring
and my blessing on your children.”
– Isaiah 44:3 NLT

God describes a future day when His people will once again take pride in being His children. Rather than boasting in their false gods, or taking pride in their wealth and material possessions, they will declare their job at being God’s chosen possession.

“One will say, ‘I belong to the Lord,’
and another will use the name ‘Jacob.’
One will write on his hand, ‘The Lord’s,’
and use the name ‘Israel.’”
– Isaiah 44:5 NLT

And just to ensure that the people of Judah understand just who it is that is going to bless them, God refers to Himself as “the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts” (Isaiah 44:6 NLT). He is the Lord, Jehovah, “the existing one.” He is their King and sovereign. He is their Redeemer, actually their ga’al or kinsman-redeemer, who will ransom them out of slavery to sin. And He is the Lord of hosts, the commanders of the armies of heaven. With these four designations, God sets Himself apart from all other gods.

“I am the first and I am the last,
there is no God but me.
Who is like me? Let him make his claim!”
– Isaiah 44:6-7 NLT

It’s a rhetorical question that requires only one answer: No one. But just to make sure they understand the answer, God expands on it.

“Don’t panic! Don’t be afraid!
Did I not tell you beforehand and decree it?
You are my witnesses! Is there any God but me?
There is no other sheltering rock; I know of none.”
– Isaiah 44:8 NLT

They have nothing to fear because they are the people of God. Their future is in His hands and not tied to their own ability to live up to His exacting standards. They had already proven their incapacity to remain faithful. They had repeatedly shown their propensity to rebel against Him. They were deceivers and tricksters, always ready, willing and able to supplant the one true God with a wide array of false gods. But God assures them that He remains Jacob’s Redeemer. Just as He restored Jacob from exile, He will restore the people of Judah from exile. And He has even greater plans in store for them when His Son returns again.

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 King Will Reign in Righteousness

1 Behold, a king will reign in righteousness,
    and princes will rule in justice.
Each will be like a hiding place from the wind,
    a shelter from the storm,
like streams of water in a dry place,
    like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.
Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed,
    and the ears of those who hear will give attention.
The heart of the hasty will understand and know,
    and the tongue of the stammerers will hasten to speak distinctly.
The fool will no more be called noble,
    nor the scoundrel said to be honorable.
For the fool speaks folly,
    and his heart is busy with iniquity,
to practice ungodliness,
    to utter error concerning the Lord,
to leave the craving of the hungry unsatisfied,
    and to deprive the thirsty of drink.
As for the scoundrel—his devices are evil;
    he plans wicked schemes
to ruin the poor with lying words,
    even when the plea of the needy is right.
But he who is noble plans noble things,
    and on noble things he stands. – Isaiah 32:1-8 ESV

In the future time period, predicted by Isaiah in the preceding chapter, there will be a time of great victory over the enemies of God’s people, foreshadowed by the soon-to-take-place defeat of the Assyrians. The miraculous nature of their fall, with an angel God destroying 185,000 of their soldiers in the middle of the night, is meant to be a precursor to an even greater victory in the end times: The Battle of Armageddon.

When Christ returns at the end of the seven years of the Tribulation, He will win a decisive victory over the combined armies of the world, which will be led by the Antichrist. The apostle John describes this epic battle in the book of Revelation. With the pouring out of the sixth bowl judgment, John saw:

…demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (“Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed!”) And they assembled them at the place that in Hebrew is called Armageddon. – Revelation 16:14-16 ESV

The word “Armageddon” is derived from the Hebrew word Har-Magedone, which means “Mount Megiddo.” The Hebrew word Har can also refer to a “hill,” and since there is no mountain known as Mount Megiddo, it is thought that this is likely a reference to the hill country that surrounds the plain of Meggido, some sixty miles north of Jerusalem Megiddo. It is in this massive plain that the armies of the world will assemble to wage war against the people of God, which will include the Jewish people and all those who will have come to faith in Christ during the days of the Tribulation. But John was given a further glimpse of this epic battle. He saw a vision of Jesus, arrayed in a white robe dipped in blood and riding a white horse. He was leading “the armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress” (Revelation 19:14-15 NLT).

And John goes on to describe how Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, totally destroys the combined armies of the world, bringing an end to the rule of the Antichrist and terminating the seven years of the Tribulation.

Then I saw the beast and the kings of the world and their armies gathered together to fight against the one sitting on the horse and his army. And the beast was captured, and with him the false prophet who did mighty miracles on behalf of the beast—miracles that deceived all who had accepted the mark of the beast and who worshiped his statue. Both the beast and his false prophet were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. Their entire army was killed by the sharp sword that came from the mouth of the one riding the white horse. And the vultures all gorged themselves on the dead bodies. – Revelation 19:19-21 NLT

And when Isaiah describes a king who will reign in righteousness and princes who will rule alongside him justice, he is speaking prophetically of this future period in history. The book of Revelation provides us with further insight into this end-times event. As a result of their defeat at the battle of Armageddon, Antichrist and his associate, the false prophet, will be cast into hell. This will be followed by the binding of Satan. John describes him as being captured by an angel of God and thrown “into the bottomless pit, which he then shut and locked so Satan could not deceive the nations anymore until the thousand years were finished. Afterward, he must be released for a little while” (Revelation 20:3 NLT). With Satan imprisoned and His influence removed from the earth, the Millennial Kingdom of Christ will begin, free from Satanic opposition. And John was given a vision of what happens next.

Then I saw thrones, and the people sitting on them had been given the authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony about Jesus and for proclaiming the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his statue, nor accepted his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They all came to life again, and they reigned with Christ for a thousand years. – Revelation 20:4 NLT

This literal one-thousand-year period of time will be like nothing mankind has ever seen of experience. And Isaiah attempts to give us some insight into its uniqueness. For the first time in a long time, those with eyes will actually see the truth of God. Those with hears will hear it. The imagery Isaiah uses is meant to provide a picture of spiritual transformation taking place in the hearts and minds of the people on earth at the time. The truth of God, so often marred by the stammering tongues and deceitful half-truths of men will be clearly understood. People will no longer listen to the words of fools and elevate these kinds of people to places of honor. The days of godless leaders misguiding the people will be over. In a world where injustice and unrighteousness have become the norm, God will usher in a one-thousand-year period of peace, righteousness and spiritual prosperity, made possible by the reign on His Son on the throne of David.

The prophet, Daniel, was also given a vision of this future scene.

As my vision continued that night, I saw someone like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient One and was led into his presence. He was given authority, honor, and sovereignty over all the nations of the world, so that people of every race and nation and language would obey him. His rule is eternal—it will never end. His kingdom will never be destroyed. – Daniel 7:13-14 NLT

The end of the age culminates with the righteous rule of Christ on earth. And Isaiah, later on in his book, provides us with further details concerning how the Tribulation will come to an end and the millennial kingdom of Christ will begin.

He put on righteousness as his body armor
    and placed the helmet of salvation on his head.
He clothed himself with a robe of vengeance
    and wrapped himself in a cloak of divine passion.
He will repay his enemies for their evil deeds.
    His fury will fall on his foes.
    He will pay them back even to the ends of the earth.
In the west, people will respect the name of the Lord;
    in the east, they will glorify him.
For he will come like a raging flood tide
    driven by the breath of the Lord.

“The Redeemer will come to Jerusalem
    to buy back those in Israel
who have turned from their sins,”
    says the Lord. – Isaiah 59:17-20 NLT

And Isaiah clearly indicates that the actions of Jesus will be to fulfill the covenant God had made with the people of Israel generations earlier.

“And this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord. “My Spirit will not leave them, and neither will these words I have given you. They will be on your lips and on the lips of your children and your children’s children forever. I, the Lord, have spoken! – Isaiah 59:21 NLT

What we have here is a remarkable reminder of God’s faithfulness. He keeps His commitments and fulfills His promises. It may not always appear as if God is holding up His end of the bargain, but there has never been a case where God has failed to come through on what He has said He will do.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through?
 – Numbers 23:19 NLT

As Paul reminded Timothy:

If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny who he is. – 2 Timothy 2:13 NLT

In spite of all that the people of Judah had done to offend Him, God will remain faithful to them. He will accomplish each and every promise He has made to them. When God told the people of Judah that a day was coming when “a king will reign in righteousness,” He meant it. And while the time waiting for the fulfillment of this promise has been long, the delay doesn’t in any way negate the reality of its future fulfillment. He has promised, and He will fulfill that promise, down to the very last detail.

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 Wondrous Ways of God.

And Stephen said:

“Brothers and fathers, hear me. The God of glory appeared to our father Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran, and said to him, ‘Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you.’ Then he went out from the land of the Chaldeans and lived in Haran. And after his father died, God removed him from there into this land in which you are now living. Yet he gave him no inheritance in it, not even a foot’s length, but promised to give it to him as a possession and to his offspring after him, though he had no child. And God spoke to this effect—that his offspring would be sojourners in a land belonging to others, who would enslave them and afflict them four hundred years. ‘But I will judge the nation that they serve,’ said God, ‘and after that they shall come out and worship me in this place.’ And he gave him the covenant of circumcision. And so Abraham became the father of Isaac, and circumcised him on the eighth day, and Isaac became the father of Jacob, and Jacob of the twelve patriarchs.

“And the patriarchs, jealous of Joseph, sold him into Egypt; but God was with him 10 and rescued him out of all his afflictions and gave him favor and wisdom before Pharaoh, king of Egypt, who made him ruler over Egypt and over all his household. 11 Now there came a famine throughout all Egypt and Canaan, and great affliction, and our fathers could find no food. 12 But when Jacob heard that there was grain in Egypt, he sent out our fathers on their first visit. 13 And on the second visit Joseph made himself known to his brothers, and Joseph’s family became known to Pharaoh. 14 And Joseph sent and summoned Jacob his father and all his kindred, seventy-five persons in all. 15 And Jacob went down into Egypt, and he died, he and our fathers, 16 and they were carried back to Shechem and laid in the tomb that Abraham had bought for a sum of silver from the sons of Hamor in Shechem.” – Acts 7:2-16 ESV

What is Stephen doing? Why in the world would this Hellenistic Jew take so much time explaining the history of Israel to the high priest and other religious leaders of Israel? Doesn’t it appear a bit condescending on Stephen’s part? It is essential that we keep in mind the accusation that was leveled against Stephen. He is responding to the charge of blasphemy – against God and Moses. This was a serious charge that could easily result in his death, so it was important that he explain himself and prove that he was innocent of any and all charges against him. What appears to be an unnecessary lecture on Israelite history was actually Stephen’s rebuttal. He is showing that, even as a Hellenistic Jew, he was fully steeped in the history of Israel but, more importantly, he was intimately familiar with the God of Israel.

Stephen begins his defense by describing God as the “God of glory” – a direct reference to Psalm 29:2.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
    worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.

Seven times in this very short Psalm, King David refers to “the voice of the Lord.” He states that the voice of the Lord is powerful, full of majesty, flashes forth flames of fire, shakes the wilderness, and causes the wild animals to give birth. For Stephen, the issue is the glory of God as revealed through the voice of God. He speaks. He calls. He commands. And Stephen reminds his listeners about God’s call of Abraham. He appeared to Abraham and said, “Go out from your land and from your kindred and go into the land that I will show you” (Acts 7:3 ESV). God had spoken and given very specific directions to their great patriarch. He had directed Abraham to leave Ur and to relocate his family to the land of promise – the land of Canaan. This land would become the Holy Land, the homeland of the Israelites and a possession that brought them great pride. But Stephen reminds them that Abraham, the one to whom the land was promised, never owned an inch of it during his lifetime. Instead, the promise was to be fulfilled to his descendants. 

“But God gave him no inheritance here, not even one square foot of land. God did promise, however, that eventually the whole land would belong to Abraham and his descendants—even though he had no children yet. – Acts 7:5 NLT

But before that could happen, the descendants of Abraham would be forced to live “in a foreign land, where they would be oppressed as slaves for 400 years” (Acts 7:6 NLT). It’s vital that we understand what Stephen is doing here. He is portraying the God of Israel as one who speaks, and when He does speak, His words are often difficult to understand and His ways are beyond our ability to comprehend. Why would God have commanded Abraham to leave Ur, promised him land, but never have given him possession of the land? Why would He have chosen Abraham to be the father of a great nation, when God knew full well that Abraham’s wife was barren? And when Sarah finally did conceive and the descendants of Abraham began to increase, why did God ordain their slavery in the land of Egypt for 400 years? And why had God sealed His covenant with Abraham by requiring the circumcision of every male member of his household? As we will see, this was a sign of the promise. It was a permanent reminder that God would do what He had said He would do. The sign of circumcision was a mark of ownership. Abraham’s descendants belonged to God.

In this speech, Stephen touches on some of the most critical junctures in Israelite history, pointing out the difficult to comprehend ways of God. Joseph, the favorite son of Jacob, was sold into slavery by his own brothers. But God had a purpose behind those actions. It was Joseph who would rise to power, becoming the second highest official in the land of Egypt. He would be placed by God in a position of power and prominence, fully prepared to respond to the needs of his family when they arrived in Egypt looking to escape the famine in the land of promise. And when Jacob, his remaining sons, and their families arrived in Egypt, they were only 75 in number. Not exactly a great multitude. And Stephen points out that Jacob died and was buried in the land of Egypt. He had left his homeland in a state of devastation, due to a famine. He had given up his possession in the promised land to live in a foreign land. But it had all been part of God’s grand plan for the people of Israel. And Stephen points out that Jacob’s bones eventually made it back to Canaan, and were buried in a tomb that had been originally purchased by Abraham, many years earlier – the only plot of land he ever owned in Canaan.

Even for the Israelites in Stephen’s audience, who would have known this story well, it was a reminder of just how remarkable their nation’s legacy really was. It would have been easy for them to forget how they had arrived at where they were. Their establishment as a nation had not been easy. And had it not been for the sovereign hand of God, they would not have existed at all. From the call of Abraham to the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt, it had all been part of God’s plan for the people of Israel. And there was more to come. God had not been done. They were not to remain in Egypt. God had plans to get them back to the land of promise. And Stephen will next retell the story of the deliverance of Israel at the hands of Moses – another man, chosen by God, to play a part in the establishment of the nation of Israel, the people of God.

And perhaps you can begin to see where Stephen is going with all this. On the one hand, he is clearly proving His love and respect for God. He is anything, but blasphemous. But even more importantly, Stephen is pointing out that Yahweh was and still is a promise-making, promise-keeping God. Yes, they were now in the land of Canaan, and the Jews took great pride in their promised possession of that land. But for Stephen, there was more. There was an ever greater portion of the promise that they were missing. The land was an inheritance, but not the inheritance. God had something far greater in store for them than just a portion in the land of promise. He had Jesus, the promised Messiah and Savior of the world.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

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 Long-Term Investment.

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the tenth year of Zedekiah king of Judah, which was the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar. At that time the army of the king of Babylon was besieging Jerusalem, and Jeremiah the prophet was shut up in the court of the guard that was in the palace of the king of Judah. For Zedekiah king of Judah had imprisoned him, saying, “Why do you prophesy and say, ‘Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am giving this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall capture it; Zedekiah king of Judah shall not escape out of the hand of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him face to face and see him eye to eye. And he shall take Zedekiah to Babylon, and there he shall remain until I visit him, declares the Lord. Though you fight against the Chaldeans, you shall not succeed’?”

Jeremiah said, “The word of the Lord came to me: Behold, Hanamel the son of Shallum your uncle will come to you and say, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth, for the right of redemption by purchase is yours.’ Then Hanamel my cousin came to me in the court of the guard, in accordance with the word of the Lord, and said to me, ‘Buy my field that is at Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, for the right of possession and redemption is yours; buy it for yourself.’ Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord.

“And I bought the field at Anathoth from Hanamel my cousin, and weighed out the money to him, seventeen shekels of silver. I signed the deed, sealed it, got witnesses, and weighed the money on scales. Then I took the sealed deed of purchase, containing the terms and conditions and the open copy. And I gave the deed of purchase to Baruch the son of Neriah son of Mahseiah, in the presence of Hanamel my cousin, in the presence of the witnesses who signed the deed of purchase, and in the presence of all the Judeans who were sitting in the court of the guard. I charged Baruch in their presence, saying, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Take these deeds, both this sealed deed of purchase and this open deed, and put them in an earthenware vessel, that they may last for a long time. For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.’ Jeremiah 32:1-15 ESV

The year is 587 B.C.. The fall of Jerusalem is less than a year away and Jeremiah has persistently and consistently been delivering his prophetic warning about the coming destruction of Jerusalem for a long time. But he has also been telling the people that God is going to restore them one day. Yes, they would spend 70 years in captivity in Babylon, but then God would miraculously restore a remnant of them to the land. And while Jeremiah has proven to be faithful to speak the words of God, it seems that he harbored some personal doubts as to whether all he prophesied was going to come true. So, God provides Jeremiah with a small test. He instructs Jeremiah to buy a plot of land in Judah. Now, it’s important to note that when Jeremiah receives these instructions from God, he is sitting in jail, having been imprisoned by Zedekiah. His crime? He had been telling the king that Jerusalem was going to fall to the Babylonians and that Zedekiah himself would be taken captive. This was probably viewed by the king as an act of treason. Jeremiah was seen as seditious, stirring up unrest in the city during a time of national crisis. So, he was imprisoned to keep him from causing panic among the people. So, it is while he was locked up in the court of the guard that Jeremiah received his instructions from God.

“Your cousin Hanamel son of Shallum will come and say to you, ‘Buy my field at Anathoth. By law you have the right to buy it before it is offered to anyone else.’” – Jeremiah 32:7 NLT

God tells Jeremiah that his cousin is going to come and offer him the opportunity to buy a piece of land in Anathoth, his hometown. Land was extremely valuable in the Hebrew economy and it was important to keep land within the family. So, Hanamel was going to offer Jeremiah, as a family member, the first rights to buy the land. But think about the absurdity of this. Anathoth is just a few miles northeast of Jerusalem. For years now, Jeremiah has been prophesying the fall of Jerusalem and Judah. He has been warning about the coming of the Babylonians and even now, they are outside the walls of Jerusalem, laying siege to the city. It’s just a matter of time before the words of God come true and the destruction of the nation of Judah is fulfilled. And remember, Jeremiah is sitting in jail because he has been warning the people, “This is what the Lord says: ‘I am about to hand this city over to the king of Babylon, and he will take it’” (Jeremiah 32:7 NLT). 

Now God wants him to invest in land. It sounds absurd. The property values had to be at an all-time low. But in less than a year, they were going to be even worse. God was commanding Jeremiah to invest in the future. God was telling the prophet to make a long-term investment based on nothing more than His word. The day would come when the land would once again increase in value. Not only that, the people who returned to the land under Ezra and Zerubbabel would naturally head to their former cities and villages, in order to rebuild and start over. The book of Ezra describes exactly what happened 70 years later:

Now these were the people of the province who came up out of the captivity of those exiles whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried captive to Babylonia. They returned to Jerusalem and Judah, each to his own town. They came with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, Nehemiah, Seraiah, Reelaiah, Mordecai, Bilshan, Mispar, Bigvai, Rehum, and Baanah. – Ezra 2:1-2 ESV

It goes on to say that 128 men of Anathoth returned from captivity. And where would they head as soon as they returned to Judah? Their hometown. The very place where Jeremiah was instructed to buy land. And Ezra describes how God miraculously provided for the financial needs of the returning remnant as King Cyrus decreed that all those who chose to remain behind in Babylon were to provide the capital necessary to fund their trip and the rebuilding process.

“Anyone who survives in any of those places where he is a resident foreigner must be helped by his neighbors with silver, gold, equipment, and animals, along with voluntary offerings for the temple of God which is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:4 NLT

So those 128 men who returned to Anathoth with their families would have resources available to buy land should Jeremiah choose to sell. But Jeremiah would also have written proof that he owned land in Anathoth because he had instructed Baruch to place the deeds of sale in earthenware jars to protect them from the elements.

This entire episode was designed to be a test of Jeremiah’s faith. By the time Hanamel came to Jeremiah with the offer to purchase the plot of land, Anathoth was already under Babylonian control. In essence, Jeremiah was being made an offer to buy land that no longer belonged to Hanamel. It was the property of the conquering king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar. But this fact, combined with Jeremiah’s imprisonment, made the whole affair even more unthinkable and absurd for the prophet. But that was God’s point. None of it made sense. He was asking Jeremiah to do the ridiculous: Invest in land that had no value. Buy a piece of property that really wasn’t Hanamel’s to sell. And all on the future hope that God’s word would come true and the land would one day be returned to the people of Judah.

And Jeremiah did exactly what the Lord commanded him to do. He bought the land. And Hanamel and the witnesses to the transaction must have smiled to themselves, laughing at the stupidity of Jeremiah for agreeing to such a bad deal. But Jeremiah’s actions were based on faith in God. He may have appeared ridiculous to those around him, but he was stepping out in faith, trusting that what God was telling him to do was wise and would be well worth it in the long run. The author of Hebrews describes faith as “the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see” (Hebrews 11:1 NLT). Jeremiah was putting his confidence in God, not his surrounding circumstances. He was in jail. He had just spent money on land that belonged to the Babylonians. He knew the entire land of Judah was soon to be under the control of King Nebuchadnezzar and would stay that way for 70 long years. But God was forcing Jeremiah to put his money where his mouth was. It was one thing to preach about future restoration. It was another thing to invest in it. Now, Jeremiah had some skin in the game. He had stepped out in faith and personally staked his hope of the promises of God. And that is the essence of faith. Abram had been promised a land by God, but he had to get up and move his family out of Ur. Noah had been promised salvation from the coming flood, but first he had to build an ark and suffer the ridicule of his neighbors. Sarah had to believe the promise of God that she would bear a son and become the mother of a multitude of nations, even though she was barren. David had to believe that his anointing as the next king of Israel was real, even though he had to suffer death threats and persecution at the hands of King Saul before it would ever happen. Faith requires hope. It demands patience. It takes a willingness to risk all by investing all in nothing more than the promises of God. Believing that He is faithful to do what He has said He will 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.

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

Good News. Bad News.

“Therefore, behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when it shall no longer be said, ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the land of Egypt,’ but ‘As the Lord lives who brought up the people of Israel out of the north country and out of all the countries where he had driven them.’ For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their fathers.

“Behold, I am sending for many fishers, declares the Lord, and they shall catch them. And afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks. For my eyes are on all their ways. They are not hidden from me, nor is their iniquity concealed from my eyes. But first I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.” – Jeremiah 16:14-18 ESV

God is reliable. He can be counted on to do what He says. His character is unchanging and while His ways are difficult to understand at times, He is consistently faithful in all that He does. God had warned the people of Israel that if they failed to remain faithful to Him, He would bring curses upon them. They failed and He was going to faithfully keep His word. He was going to do exactly what He said He would do. He hadn’t been lying. He had meant what He said. And they were about to learn the trustworthiness of God the hard way. They were going to go into exile. And God compares their pending judgment to fish being caught by a fishermen or prey being stalked by a hunter. The prophet Ezekiel used this same kind of terminology when he described the pending fall of Jerusalem and the capture of the king, Zedekiah.

“And I will spread my net over him, and he shall be taken in my snare. And I will bring him to Babylon, the land of the Chaldeans, yet he shall not see it, and he shall die there.” – Ezekiel 12:13 NLT

Later on in his book, Jeremiah will chronicle the actual capture of Zedekiah after he attempted to escape from the city as King Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians invaded.

But the Babylonian troops chased the king and caught him on the plains of Jericho. They took him to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, who was at Riblah in the land of Hamath. There the king of Babylon pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. He made Zedekiah watch as they slaughtered his sons and all the nobles of Judah. Then they gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him in bronze chains, and led him away to Babylon. – Jeremiah 39:3-7 NLT

Exactly what God had said would happen took place. Zedekiah was taken captive to Babylon, but never saw it, because his eyes had been gouged out.

The prophet Habakkuk, like Jeremiah, had a hard time understanding why God was going to allow the Babylonians to take His people captive. And he uses the same imagery of fishermen catching fish to convey his concern.

Are we only fish to be caught and killed?
    Are we only sea creatures that have no leader?
Must we be strung up on their hooks
    and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate?
Then they will worship their nets
    and burn incense in front of them.
“These nets are the gods who have made us rich!”
    they will claim. – Habakkuk 1:14-16 NLT

Judah was going to fall. They would be as helpless as fish caught in a net. Any attempt to escape their fate would prove useless because God had ordained it. It was going to happen just as He said it would. But that should also be a comfort to them. While it was difficult for them to see the good news in the midst of all the bad, God informed Jeremiah that there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and it was not a train. It was the goodness and graciousness of God. He reminded His prophet that He had long-term plans for the people of Judah.

“As surely as the Lord lives, who brought the people of Israel back to their own land from the land of the north and from all the countries to which he had exiled them.’ For I will bring them back to this land that I gave their ancestors.” – Jeremiah 16:15 NLT

Yes, they would go into exile. Because God had said they would. But they would also return from exile, because said they would. Both events would occur, because God said they would. He could be trusted to keep His word. And when we read these passages that contain examples of God’s judgment upon His people, rather than question the ways of God, we should be reminded of the faithfulness of God. He doesn’t lie. He never fails to follow through on what He has said. And when He tells the people of Judah that they will one day return to the land of promise, He means it. His word means something. His threats are never idle. His words are never cheap. His promises never prove false. Even before the people of Israel entered into the land of Canaan, promised to them by God, He had told them that if they failed to obey Him and remain faithful to Him, they would suffer the consequences of their disobedience and experience capture and exile. But He had also promised to restore them.

Even though you are banished to the ends of the earth, the Lord your God will gather you from there and bring you back again. The Lord your God will return you to the land that belonged to your ancestors, and you will possess that land again. Then he will make you even more prosperous and numerous than your ancestors!

“The Lord your God will change your heart and the hearts of all your descendants, so that you will love him with all your heart and soul and so you may live!” – Deuteronomy 30:4-6 NLT

This prophecy has been fulfilled in part. The people of Judah were restored to the land of Canaan. The books of Ezra and Nehemiah record exactly how God kept His word. But there is a part of God’s promise that has yet to be fulfilled. He has not yet changed the hearts of the people of Israel so that they might love him will all their heart and soul. That part of His promise has yet to take place. The prophet Ezekiel provides us with further insight into what God has in store for the nation of Israel some time in the future.

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.

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God. I will cleanse you of your filthy behavior.” – Ezekiel 36:24-29 NLT

That has not yet happened. But we can be certain that it will. Why? Because God has promised it. Jeremiah could rest on the certainty that God would one day return the people of Judah back to Jerusalem. Because He had promised it. And one day, God is going to give the people of Israel new hearts. He is going remove their stubborn hearts and replace them with tender, responsive hearts. He is going to put His Spirit within them so that they will love and serve Him faithfully. And the truly amazing thing is that God is going to do all this, not because they deserve it, but because He has promised it.

“I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations.’” – Ezekiel 36:22 NLT

“But remember, says the Sovereign Lord, I am not doing this because you deserve it. O my people of Israel, you should be utterly ashamed of all you have done!” – Ezekiel 36:32 NLT

But how can we know that this is going to happen? How can we be so sure that God is going to do what He has promised? He answers those questions for us.

“For I, the Lord, have spoken, and I will do what I say.” – Ezekiel 36:36 NLT

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

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

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

The Strange Ways of God.

The sons of Israel did so: and Joseph gave them wagons, according to the command of Pharaoh, and gave them provisions for the journey. To each and all of them he gave a change of clothes, but to Benjamin he gave three hundred shekels of silver and five changes of clothes. To his father he sent as follows: ten donkeys loaded with the good things of Egypt, and ten female donkeys loaded with grain, bread, and provision for his father on the journey. Then he sent his brothers away, and as they departed, he said to them, “Do not quarrel on the way.”

So they went up out of Egypt and came to the land of Canaan to their father Jacob. And they told him, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt.” And his heart became numb, for he did not believe them. But when they told him all the words of Joseph, which he had said to them, and when he saw the wagons that Joseph had sent to carry him, the spirit of their father Jacob revived. And Israel said, “It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”

So Israel took his journey with all that he had and came to Beersheba, and offered sacrifices to the God of his father Isaac. And God spoke to Israel in visions of the night and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” – Genesis 45:21-46:4 ESV

Upon their return to Canaan, the brothers found their father a bit hard to convince. He didn’t exactly find the news of Joseph being alive believable. After all the years that had passed, it was far from being too good to be true, it was impossible. But he finally came around when he heard the whole story and saw the wagons and goods that Joseph had sent. He became convinced that his son was alive and that he should go and see him while he still had time.

But as amazing as the news of Joseph’s “resurrection” was to Jacob, the most fascinating part of this story is the way in which God chose to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Decades earlier, God had called Abraham out of Ur and sent him to Canaan, promising to give him the land as his possession and to make of him a great nation.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Leave your native country, your relatives, and your father’s family, and go to the land that I will show you. I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you.” – Genesis 12:1-3 ESV

But Abraham never owned any land in Canaan, and he only had two sons when he died. Yet years later, God would reconfirm the promise to Isaac, Abraham’s son. This is where it gets interesting.

Now there was a famine in the land, besides the former famine that was in the days of Abraham. And Isaac went to Gerar to Abimelech king of the Philistines. And the Lord appeared to him and said, “Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land of which I shall tell you. Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father. I will multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and will give to your offspring all these lands. And in your offspring all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” – Genesis 26:1-5 ESV

Two things jump out. The mention of a famine and the reference to the land of Egypt. On this occasion, God commands Isaac to NOT go down to Egypt to escape the famine. Instead, he was to remain in the land. What makes this so fascinating is that his father, Abraham, had faced a similar situation years earlier, not long after God he had arrived in the land of Canaan.

At that time a severe famine struck the land of Canaan, forcing Abram to go down to Egypt, where he lived as a foreigner. – Genesis 12:10 ESV

Abraham traveled to the land of Canaan, just as God had told him to do, and found it suffering from a severe famine. His decision was to go to Egypt. It was there that Abraham came up with the ridiculous idea for Sarah, his wife, to lie and say that she was his sister. This was because she was beautiful and Abraham feared that someone would have him murdered just to get their hands on her. Abraham’s worst fear came true when Pharaoh himself found Sarah attractive and took her into his harem. It took a divine intervention from God to save her and return her to Abraham. God even blessed Abraham, allowing him to walk out of Egypt with great wealth.

But in all three cases, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, God chose to utilize a famine and a foreign country to accomplish His divine plan. Egypt looms large in each of the stories. For Abraham, it was a place of escape. He had been called to Canaan, but found it not as he had expected. The famine in the land caused him to run to the Nile valley where he knew he could find food for he and his wife. There is no indication that God sent him there. For Isaac, the presence of yet another famine had caused him to consider going to Egypt, just as his father had done. But God commanded him not to go. He was to stay in the land that God would show him. And yet, in the case of Jacob, God would visit him in a dream and tell him, “I am God, the God of your father. Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation. I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes” (Genesis 46:3-4 ESV).

This time, God was clearly sending His people to Egypt and confirming that, in Egypt, He would make them into a great nation. Three men, three famines and three occasions to turn to Egypt for help. But only in the last case did God command that Egypt was to be the place of refuge for His people and the means by which He would fulfill His promise. It is fascinating to consider why God chose to send Joseph to Egypt and then have Jacob and his entire family end up living there. Why did He not simply leave them in the land He had promised to them? What was His reasoning for sending them to Egypt where they would remain for 400 years, many of those years as slaves? God doesn’t give us answers. But we are simply asked to trust in His plan and the timing of that plan. God dealt differently with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. His promise to them was the same, but the particular plan He had for each of them was distinctly different. Abraham went to Egypt but hadn’t been told to. Isaac considered going to Egypt, but was commanded not to. Jacob was reticent to go to Egypt, but God assured him to do so. The time was right. What had been wrong for Abraham and Isaac was now right for Jacob. God was going to make of Jacob a great nation, but He was going to do so while Jacob and his family lived in Egypt. The opening lines of the book of Exodus provide us with a snapshot of what God did to fulfill His promise to Jacob.

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:1-7 ESV

Why did God choose to do it this way? We don’t know. But we can know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that it was the way He chose and all His ways “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).

 

Learning to Trust God.

Then their father Israel said to them, “If it must be so, then do this: take some of the choice fruits of the land in your bags, and carry a present down to the man, a little balm and a little honey, gum, myrrh, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Take double the money with you. Carry back with you the money that was returned in the mouth of your sacks. Perhaps it was an oversight. Take also your brother, and arise, go again to the man. May God Almighty grant you mercy before the man, and may he send back your other brother and Benjamin. And as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved.”

So the men took this present, and they took double the money with them, and Benjamin. They arose and went down to Egypt and stood before Joseph. – Genesis 43:11-15 ESV

There is something eerily familiar about this passage. It is strikingly similar to an event that occurred years earlier in Jacob’s life and reveals that, in many way, his trust in God had not grown. As Jacob prepares to send his sons back to Egypt as commanded by the Pharaoh’s governor, he comes up with the plan to soften the governor’s heart with gifts. He instructs his sons: “Pack your bags with the best products of this land. Take them down to the man as gifts—balm, honey, gum, aromatic resin, pistachio nuts, and almonds. Also take double the money that was put back in your sacks” (Genesis 43:11-12 NLT). Essentially, Jacob is trying to influence the outcome of his circumstances through the use of whatever means necessary. Is this necessarily wrong? Only when we look at his possible motivation. You see, Jacob was doubtful that God was going to come through. He told his sons, “May God Almighty give you mercy as you go before the man, so that he will release Simeon and let Benjamin return. But if I must lose my children, so be it” (Genesis 43:14 NLT). Those are not the words of a man who has complete confidence in God. He seems resigned to the fact that he will never seen his sons again. So he determines to do what he can to stack the odds in his favor. He determines to help God out.

This is extremely similar to the approach Jacob took when he was returning to the land of Canaan after his forced exile in the land of Paddan-aram.He had originally fled there to escape the anger of his brother, Esau, whom he had cheated out of his inheritance. Then years later, he ended up running away from Paddan-aram and the anger of his uncle because Jacob had become wealthy at his expense. God told Jacob, “Return to the land of your father and grandfather and to your relatives there, and I will be with you” (Genesis 31:3 NLT). On his way home with all his wives, children and livestock, he received the news that his brother was coming to meet him. “We met your brother, Esau, and he is already on his way to meet you—with an army of 400 men!” (Genesis 32:6 NLT). Jacob assumed the worst. This did not sound like a housewarming party. So he did two things. First he prayed:

“O God of my grandfather Abraham, and God of my father, Isaac—O Lord, you told me, ‘Return to your own land and to your relatives.’ And you promised me, ‘I will treat you kindly.’ I am not worthy of all the unfailing love and faithfulness you have shown to me, your servant. When I left home and crossed the Jordan River, I owned nothing except a walking stick. Now my household fills two large camps! O Lord, please rescue me from the hand of my brother, Esau. I am afraid that he is coming to attack me, along with my wives and children. But you promised me, ‘I will surely treat you kindly, and I will multiply your descendants until they become as numerous as the sands along the seashore—too many to count.’” – Genesis 32:9-12 NLT

Jacob reminded God of all His promises and begged Him for rescue. Then he hedged his bets. He came up with his own plan. Doubting that God could come through for him, he came up with a strategy to buy his brother’s favor with gifts.

Jacob stayed where he was for the night. Then he selected these gifts from his possessions to present to his brother, Esau: 200 female goats, 20 male goats, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 30 female camels with their young, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys, and 10 male donkeys. He divided these animals into herds and assigned each to different servants. Then he told his servants, “Go ahead of me with the animals, but keep some distance between the herds.”

He gave these instructions to the men leading the first group: “When my brother, Esau, meets you, he will ask, ‘Whose servants are you? Where are you going? Who owns these animals?’ You must reply, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob, but they are a gift for his master Esau. Look, he is coming right behind us.’” – Genesis 32:13-18 NLT

Now, years later, here was Jacob doing the very same thing. He was hoping on the mercy of God, but was really depending upon his own ability to buy the Egyptian governor’s favor with gifts. He did not really believe that God could go before his sons and show them favor with this foreign dignitary. So he prayed, but he seems to have had more faith in his own plans than he did in the providence and provision of God. Jacob’s final statement to his sons before they departed was one of resignation, not confident reliance upon God. He was preparing himself for the worst possible outcome – “as for me, if I am bereaved of my children, I am bereaved” (Genesis 43:15 ESV).

Jacob was in a difficult place. He had lost his son, Joseph. His son, Simeon, was imprisoned in Egypt. His family and flocks were suffering through a famine that had devastated the land of Canaan. His only hope lie in sending all of his sons, along with his youngest, back to Egypt. His options were limited. The odds seemed stacked against him. But Jacob had his God. He had seen Him work miracles before. His God had blessed him time and time again, making him wealthy even while living in exile in Paddan-arram. His God had softened the heart of his brother, Esau, and caused him to greet with tears of joy, not anger. His God had given him 12 healthy sons. And now his God was going to rescue his family from the famine and take them to a land where they would grow into a mighty nation just as He had promised. But Jacob was having a hard time seeing God’s blessings and resting on God’s promises. He was too busy looking at his problems.

And the journey back to Egypt must have been a somber one. The brothers returned, gifts in hand, Benjamin in tow, with doubts and fears running through their minds. And Jacob sat at home, praying for God’s mercy, but preparing himself for disappointment. How easy it is to doubt our God and deny His goodness just because things do not seem to be turning out the way we expected. How quick we can be to pray for God’s mercy, but then plan for it not to come. Jacob had not yet learned to trust his God. Have you?

An Awkward Reunion.

Now Joseph was governor over the land. He was the one who sold to all the people of the land. And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. Joseph saw his brothers and recognized them, but he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them. “Where do you come from?” he said. They said, “From the land of Canaan, to buy food.” And Joseph recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Joseph remembered the dreams that he had dreamed of them. And he said to them, “You are spies; you have come to see the nakedness of the land.” They said to him, “No, my lord, your servants have come to buy food. We are all sons of one man. We are honest men. Your servants have never been spies.”

He said to them, “No, it is the nakedness of the land that you have come to see.” And they said, “We, your servants, are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan, and behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is no more.” But Joseph said to them, “It is as I said to you. You are spies. By this you shall be tested: by the life of Pharaoh, you shall not go from this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him bring your brother, while you remain confined, that your words may be tested, whether there is truth in you. Or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies.” And he put them all together in custody for three days. – Genesis 42:6-17 ESV

And Joseph’s brothers came and bowed themselves before him with their faces to the ground. That line should ring a loud bell in your mind. It acts as a link to the events that took place years earlier when Joseph was still his father’s favorite son, wearing his multicolored tunic and living in the land of Canaan along with his brothers. Those words are a not-so-subtle reminder of the two dreams Joseph had regarding his family.

One night Joseph had a dream, and when he told his brothers about it, they hated him more than ever. “Listen to this dream,” he said. “We were out in the field, tying up bundles of grain. Suddenly my bundle stood up, and your bundles all gathered around and bowed low before mine!” – Genesis 37:5-7 NLT

Soon Joseph had another dream, and again he told his brothers about it. “Listen, I have had another dream,” he said. “The sun, moon, and eleven stars bowed low before me!” – Genesis 37:9 NLT

It was these two dreams, at least in part, that had led to Joseph’s brothers selling him into slavery. The dreams had been the last straw, the final point of irritation that had caused their jealousy and hatred of Joseph to reach the point of no return. And yet, 21 years later, here they were bowing down before their brother. Granted, they had no idea it was their long-lost brother. While Joseph recognized them, they were unaware that the man before whom they knelt was the same individual they had sold into slavery years earlier. It would have been the last thing they expected.

But Joseph recognized his brothers and remembered his dreams. There must have been a host of emotions that welled up in Joseph as he looked at his brothers for the first time in years, recalling what they had done to him. All the memories of his childhood and the special relationship he shared with Jacob, his father, would have come to mind. Joseph was human, and like any human being, he would have felt pangs of anger and resentment, the desire for revenge, the temptation to gloat, and the longing for restoration. For the time being, Joseph decided to keep his identity hidden from his brothers and “he treated them like strangers and spoke roughly to them” (Genesis 37:7 ESV).

What happened next was a series of tests administered by Joseph in order to determine the hearts and attitudes of his brothers. It had been two decades since he had seen them and he needed to know if they were the same men who had sold him into slavery. Had their hearts changed? Were they the least bit remorseful over their actions? Could they be trusted? His last memory of his brothers was that of a scheming, disloyal band of individuals who let petty jealousy and envy so cloud their minds that they sold their own flesh and blood for 20 shekels of silver. And we must always remember that their original idea had been to kill Joseph. They had been willing to take his life, but had settled for selling him to the slave traders when cooler heads prevailed.

By this time, Joseph must have looked like an Egyptian. As the royal governor, he would have been wearing Egyptian garments and surrounded by the trappings of his office. All his brothers saw was a powerful Egyptian official to whom they must humbly bow if they hoped to walk away with any grain to take home to their father. So when this unknown official accused them of being spies, they were shocked and dismayed. Their pulse rates quickened and their eyes grew wide with fright. They were a long way from home and were in a hopeless position, falsely accused by one of the most powerful men in Egypt. So they denied the charges and told the governor their story. They let him know about their father and their younger brother, who both awaited their return. They even mentioned their brother who “is no longer with us” (Genesis 42:13 NLT).

But Joseph demands that they prove their story by sending one of their brothers back to Canaan to fetch their father and brother. In the meantime, the rest would remain under house arrest as spies. The Joseph had them put in custody for three days to give them time to think about what they would do. This allowed the brothers time to think about their precarious situation and to discuss their strategy. Would they be honest or would they concoct a lie in order to save their lives? They had no idea that this entire scenario was the sovereign plan of God and that the brother they had sold into slavery was the one before they bowed and to whom they owed their lives and those of their families back in Canaan. This tension-filled reunion was part of God’s plan to fulfill His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, their father. Even their immoral act of betraying their own brother would be redeemed by God in order to bring about His sovereign plan. The next weeks and months would prove uncomfortable and disconcerting for them. They would have to live with uncertainty and a growing sense of remorse and regret, wondering if their former actions were the reason for their current circumstances. Had their earlier sin finally caught up with them? Was this God’s payback for their mistreatment of Joseph? God was looking for a change of heart. He was desiring repentance in the lives of those whom He was about to fulfill His covenant promise.

God’s Promise and His Providence.

Jacob lived in the land of his father’s sojournings, in the land of Canaan.

These are the generations of Jacob.

Joseph, being seventeen years old, was pasturing the flock with his brothers. He was a boy with the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, his father’s wives. And Joseph brought a bad report of them to their father. Now Israel loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age. And he made him a robe of many colors. But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him and could not speak peacefully to him. – Genesis 37:1-4 ESV

The story of Joseph is one that has intrigued people of faith for generations. It contains the recounting of the life of a man who experienced more ups and downs, peaks and valleys, in his life than any one individual should have to face. It is a story that deftly blends what appears to be fate with the invisible providence of the all-knowing, all-seeing God of Israel. The central figure in the story is Joseph, a son of Jacob, and a great-grandson to Abraham, the patriarch of the nation of Israel. Joseph’s life stands in stark contrast to that of his father, Jacob. The preceding chapters reveal the story of Jacob’s life. He and his twin brother, Esau, were born to Isaac. But as the meaning of his name “heel-grabber” reveals, Jacob was the second born, but he came out literally holding on to his brothers heel. And he would spend the early years of his life attempting to supplant his brother as the first-born. His was a life marked by deceit and artful scheming. He was a trickster, a conniving conman, who was always looking out for his own best interests. After having manipulated his brother into selling him his birthright, and then deceiving his father into  giving him the blessing intended for the firstborn, Jacob was forced to flee for his life. He ended up spending much of his young adult life in exile, only to return years later under the prompting of God Himself. Jacob was shown mercy by God and extended forgiveness by his brother, Esau. He was welcomed back into his family. And he given the privilege of having a number of sons to carry on his legacy and to care for him in old life. Joseph was one of those sons.

When the story of Joseph opens up, he and his family are living in the land of Canaan, just as Abraham had done. They are essentially nomads, not yet having experienced the comfort or convenience of living in their own city within the land promised to them by God. They are shepherds. Theirs is a simple life. And Jacob is enjoying his role as father over a growing family, living once again in the land of his fathers. But there is a problem brewing. All is not well in the house of Jacob. The text reveals to us that Jacob “loved Joseph more than any other of his sons, because he was the son of his old age” (Genesis 37:3 ESV). He was playing favorites. He even had a beautiful robe made for Joseph. But his favoritism was going to result in sibling rivalry. It would also create in Joseph a certain sense of privilege and superiority. The text seems to paint Joseph as somewhat of a tattle tale, a snitch who enjoyed sharing less-than-flattering news about his brothers to their father. This, along with Jacob’s blatant acts of preferential treatment, would not endear Joseph to his brothers. In fact, it produced in them a hatred for their brother that would escalate over time.

But there is far more going on in this story than the blind nepotism of a father toward his son. This is the story of the people of Israel and God’s promises concerning them. It is part of the larger narrative about God’s sovereign selection of Abraham and His descendants to be the chosen recipients of His grace and mercy. The story of Joseph is a window into the providential work of God in the lives of men. From beginning to end, Joseph’s life will intertwine the seeming independent actions of men with the all-powerful intentions of God.

The theme of the Joseph narrative concerns God’s hidden and decisive power which works in and through but also against human forms of power. A “soft” word for that reality is providence. A harder word for the same reality is predestination. Either way God is working out his purpose through and in spite of Egypt, through and in spite of Joseph and his brothers. – Brueggemann, Genesis, p. 293. Richard D. Patterson, “Joseph in Pharaoh’s Court,” Bibliotheca Sacra 164:654 (April-June 2007)

Undergirding and heavily influencing the narrative of this story are the promises of God made to Abraham.

I will make you into a great nation. I will bless you and make you famous, and you will be a blessing to others. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who treat you with contempt. All the families on earth will be blessed through you. – Genesis 12:2-3 NLT

This is my covenant with you: I will make you the father of a multitude of nations! What’s more, I am changing your name. It will no longer be Abram. Instead, you will be called Abraham, for you will be the father of many nations. I will make you extremely fruitful. Your descendants will become many nations, and kings will be among them! – Genesis 17:4-6 NLT

God would reaffirm that same promise to Jacob.

I am El-Shaddai — “God Almighty.” Be fruitful and multiply. You will become a great nation, even many nations. Kings will be among your descendants! And I will give you the land I once gave to Abraham and Isaac. Yes, I will give it to you and your descendants after you. – Genesis 35:11-12 NLT

Up until this moment in time, the promise of God had remained just that – a promise. They were not yet a great nation. They did not possess the land of Canaan. They were a nomadic, insignificant tribe of shepherds living in a land occupied by much more numerous and powerful people groups. But God was not done. His promise was still unfolding. The story of Joseph is actually the story of God as He unveils His sovereign plan in time and space, through the seemingly autonomous lives of mortal men. There are few other places in Scripture where you see the free will of man and the providence God so intricately entwined. Decisions will be made. Human emotions will be displayed. Circumstances will be altered based on nothing more than the whims or wishes of men. But throughout the story, God will remain in control and His divine plan to fulfill His promise will remain unaltered.

To read the story of the life of Joseph is to reminded of the unwavering, unstoppable providence of God over the lives of men.

…for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom endures from generation to generation; all the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and he does according to his will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand or say to him, “What have you done?” – Daniel 4:34-35 ESV