Prayer Changes Us, Not God

In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, and said, “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city.

“This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he has promised: Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.” So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined. – Isaiah 38:1-8 ESV

A key to understanding chapters 38-39 and their place in the chronology of the book of Isaiah is the first three words of verse one of chapter 38: “In those days…” This is a clear reference to the events surrounding the siege of Jerusalem as described in chapters 36-37. Isaiah is providing additional information that will help shed light on all that took place in those dark days, but he is also prefacing the remaining chapters of his book.

During the height of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, King Hezekiah became deathly ill. We are not told the extent of his condition, but the prophet Isaiah delivered a divine prognosis that was anything but good news.

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness.’” – Isaiah 38:1 NLT

So, along with the pending invasion of the Assyrian forces and the likely fall of Jerusalem, Hezekiah had to deal with the threat of a terminal illness. All of this had to have weighed heavily on Hezekiah’s heart. He must have been confused by this unrelenting wave of bad news. After all, he had been one of the few kings of Judah who had tried to do the right thing, instituting a series of drastic religious reforms in an effort to restore the peoples’ worship of Yahweh.

Hezekiah had ascended to the throne of Judah after the death of King Ahaz, who was the poster-boy for unfaithfulness and apostasy. The book of 2 Chronicles gives a summary of some of his exploits.

The king took the various articles from the Temple of God and broke them into pieces. He shut the doors of the Lord’s Temple so that no one could worship there, and he set up altars to pagan gods in every corner of Jerusalem. He made pagan shrines in all the towns of Judah for offering sacrifices to other gods. In this way, he aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of his ancestors. – 2 Chronicles 28:24-25 NLT

But when Hezekiah took the throne at the age of 25, “He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Chronicles 29:2 NLT). One of the first things he did was to reopen the temple and recommission the Levites so that the sacrifices to Yahweh could begin again. He also revived the celebration of Passover and called the people to worship Yahweh alone. As a result, “they smashed all the sacred pillars, cut down the Asherah poles, and removed the pagan shrines and altars” (2 Chronicles 31:1 NLT). 

Yet, in spite of all his reforms and his efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh in Judah, God sent the Assyrians.

After Hezekiah had faithfully carried out this work, King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified towns, giving orders for his army to break through their walls. – 2 Chronicles 32:1 NLT

And to make matters even worse, Hezekiah was told he was going to die. If anyone had the right to ask God, “Why?” it was Hezekiah. But rather than questioning God’s actions or doubting His love, Hezekiah simply asked that his acts of faithfulness be remembered.

“Remember, O Lord, how I have always been faithful to you and have served you single-mindedly, always doing what pleases you.” – Isaiah 38:3 NLT

Hezekiah was not bragging or boasting, but merely expressing his confusion over this latest bit of bad news. Isaiah describes the king as weeping bitterly. He was devastated by all that was happening to him and around him. The nation of Judah was under siege. It was just a matter of time before the Assyrians arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem. And now, he was facing imminent death. It was all more than he could handle. So, he took his hurt, confusion, and despair to God. And his prayer was heard. God gave Isaiah a second message for Hezekiah.

“This is what the Lord, the God of your ancestor David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will rescue you and this city from the king of Assyria. Yes, I will defend this city.” – Isaiah 38:5-6 NLT

This raises the often-debated question: “Can the prayers of men change the mind of God?” Was God’s prescribed will somehow altered by the prayer of Hezekiah? The text is clear that, as a result of Hezekiah’s prayer, God extended his life by 15 years. So, it would appear that Hezekiah’s death date was postponed because he prayed. But at the heart of the question lies the sovereignty of God. There is also the issue of God’s omniscience. He knows all. There is nothing that escapes His notice or that lies outside His awareness. While there are many occasions recorded in Scripture where it appears that God “changed His mind” because of the prayers of men like Moses, Abraham, David, and others, it is essential that we understand that God’s will is never altered by anyone. In fact, the book of Numbers tells us that God never changes His mind.

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

So, what is going on here? Why did God determine to extend Hezekiah’s life? One of the things we need to always bear in mind is God’s complete and unwavering knowledge of all things. God knew Hezekiah’s heart. He was fully aware of how Hezekiah would respond to the news of his pending death. Hezekiah’s prayer didn’t change the heart of God, it changed the heart of Hezekiah. The king, faced with the news of his terminal illness, unknowingly prayed within the will of God, revealing his desire that his life be extended because he cared for the glory of God and the good of the people of Judah. God, because He is all-knowing, knew exactly how Hezekiah was going to respond and His “decision” to extend the king’s life had been part of His will all along.

God used the announcement of Hezekiah’s death to bring the king to the point of total dependence upon Him. The terminal prognosis was meant to get Hezekiah’s attention, not God’s. It was intended to bring the king to a place of total reliance upon the will of God and to remind the king of his own faithfulness. So much of this is about perspective. We see things from our limited vantage point as human beings. From our earth-bound, time-controlled view, we are incapable of seeing into the future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. But God does. He knew all along that Hezekiah was going to live an additional 15 years because He knew how Hezekiah was going to respond to the news of his illness. Hezekiah didn’t change the mind of God, but Hezekiah’s mindfulness of God was dramatically altered. God wanted Hezekiah to know and not forget that faithfulness was the key to God’s graciousness. In a time when it could have been easy for Hezekiah to turn away from God and restore the former alters to the false gods, he remained faithful to Yahweh. He did not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Even during this time of trouble, King Ahaz continued to reject the Lord. He offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus who had defeated him, for he said, “Since these gods helped the kings of Aram, they will help me, too, if I sacrifice to them.” – 2 Chronicles 28:22-23 NLT

In a sense, the news of Hezekiah’s terminal illness had been a test. Not of God, but of Hezekiah. And God knew that Hezekiah would pass the test with flying colors. Hezekiah’s death date did not really change. But his view of God did. And in the remaining verses of this chapter, Hezekiah will reveal the profound impact this situation had on his life and his heart. He was drawn closer to God. His reliance upon and love for God deepened. And this enhanced understanding of God’s love and faithfulness was going to be needed in the days ahead.

One of the more interesting aspects of this story is the proof that God gave Hezekiah to assure that all He had said was true.

“‘And this is the sign from the Lord to prove that he will do as he promised: I will cause the sun’s shadow to move ten steps backward on the sundial of Ahaz!’” So the shadow on the sundial moved backward ten steps. – Isaiah 38:7-8 NLT

We know from the parallel story found in 2 Kings, that Hezekiah had asked God for a sign.

“What shall be the sign that the Lord will heal me?” – 2 Kings 20:8 ESV

This was not necessarily an expression of doubt on Hezekiah’s part, but a request for some form of reassurance on God’s part. The news was almost too good to be true. So, Hezekiah asked God to provide him with a tangible sign that what He had promised would indeed take place. And God graciously and miraculously obliged.

What’s truly interesting is that God used something built by and named after wicked King Ahaz to provide faithful King Hezekiah with proof of His word. God caused the shadow of the sun to reverse itself. In a sense, time reversed itself. We are not told whether the sun itself moved backward in the sky or whether the shadow moved contrary to the position of the sun. In either case, God provided a miracle, a supernatural sign that provided Hezekiah with all the proof he required. And again, the impact of all of this on Hezekiah was profound, resulting in his penning of a poem of praise to God.

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

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

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

 

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No Match For God.

The Lord is good,
    a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.
    But with an overflowing flood
he will make a complete end of the adversaries,
    and will pursue his enemies into darkness.
What do you plot against the Lord?
    He will make a complete end;
    trouble will not rise up a second time.
For they are like entangled thorns,
    like drunkards as they drink;
    they are consumed like stubble fully dried.
From you came one
    who plotted evil against the Lord,
    a worthless counselor.
Nahum 1:7-11 ESV

Nahum’s primary subject would appear to be the city of Nineveh, but upon closer examination, it is really God. While Nahum’s oracle deals extensively with what is going to happen to the city of Nineveh, it is God who will be the cause behind everything that takes place. Nahum’s message was intended for the people of Judah, not Nineveh. Unlike Jonah, Nahum was not commissioned by God to warn the people of Nineveh. His words were meant to encourage the nation of Judah and remind them that their God was still in control. As vast and mighty as the Assyrians might have been, their God was greater and more powerful. He could be trusted.
The Lord is good—
indeed, he is a fortress in time of distress,
and he protects those who seek refuge in him. – Jonah 1:7 NET
There is a stark contrast between the opening six verses and verse seven. In terms of His relationship with the Assyrians, God was a jealous and wrathful God who takes vengeance on His enemies. He will deal with the guilty.
Who can stand before his fierce anger?
    Who can survive his burning fury?
His rage blazes forth like fire,
    and the mountains crumble to dust in his presence. – Nahum 1:6 NLT
When it comes to His righteous indignation, no one can stand before Him. He is the God who can make mountains quake and the rivers dry up. He controls all the forces of nature. So, no human army is a match for Him. And yet, at the same time, God is good to those who seek refuge in Him. He is like a fortress that provides shelter to all those who seem safety in the midst of trouble. The people of Nineveh would seek safety within the fortified walls of their city, but they would find no protection from God’s fierce anger. But the Jews could, if they so chose, seek safety within the loving arms of God and find Him more than capable of protecting them from the onslaught of the Assyrians or any other human foe.
In fact, Nahum goes on to contrast once again God’s love and wrath. While He is a reliable source of refuge for all who seek safety from trouble and come to Him, He is also an overwhelming flood, sweeping away His enemies and destroying all those in His path who stand opposed to Him and His people. His wrath will come like a tsunami, overpowering all that stand in His way. And God, because He is sovereign, is fully capable of fulfilling His wrath and bringing about destruction in any of a number of ways. In the case of Nineveh, they would fall to a combined force made up of Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians. This alliance of pagan nations would destroy the city and during the siege, the rivers surrounding the city would overflow, flooding the city and destroying part of its walls. God can use nature or He can utilize other nations to accomplish His will. His resources are boundless. His creativity is limitless when it comes to how He brings about His will regarding those who stand against Him.
One of the points Nahum is making through this oracle is the tremendous value God puts on justice. He is a God of mercy and justice, and one of the great indictments He will lodge against the Assyrians is their reputation for injustice and oppression. They are cruel and unjust in their treatment of their foes. They are arrogant and prideful, believing they can do what they want to any nation they conquer and have to answer to no one for their actions. But God will prove them wrong. He sees all that they are doing. He is well aware of their injustices, and He will deal with them.
The Assyrians saw themselves as unstoppable. No one could stand in their way. Not even the God of the Israelites. When Sennacherib and the forces of Assyria had attempted to lay siege to Jerusalem in 701 B.C., they had failed. They had attempted to destroy the people of God without the permission of God. He had not called them to do what they had done. In essence, as Nahum writes, they had plotted against God Himself. Their attack against His people was unprovoked, unwarranted and unsanctioned by God. And they failed. Not only that, Nahum warns that they will never do it a second time, because God would destroy them before they could even try.
Like a wall of tangles thorns that appear impossible to penetrate, the Assyrians appear mighty and formidable. But thorns are no match for fire. Like helpless drunks, the Assyrians would prove hopeless and helpless before God. Dry dry stalks standing in a field, they will prove to be no match for the fiery wrath of God.
Nahum also makes reference to “one who plotted evil against the Lord, a worthless counselor” (Nahum 1:11 ESV). This is probably a reference to King Sennacherib of Assyria. When he had come against the city of Jerusalem, he had sent a message to the king of Judah, telling him:

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident? Do you think that mere words can substitute for military skill and strength? Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!

 “But perhaps you will say to me, ‘We are trusting in the Lord our God!’ But isn’t he the one who was insulted by Hezekiah? Didn’t Hezekiah tear down his shrines and altars and make everyone in Judah and Jerusalem worship only at the altar here in Jerusalem?

“I’ll tell you what! Strike a bargain with my master, the king of Assyria. I will give you 2,000 horses if you can find that many men to ride on them! With your tiny army, how can you think of challenging even the weakest contingent of my master’s troops, even with the help of Egypt’s chariots and charioteers? What’s more, do you think we have invaded your land without the Lord’s direction? The Lord himself told us, ‘Attack this land and destroy it!’” – 2 Kings 18:19-25 NLT

God has not sent the Assyrians. This was a lie meant to confuse the king of Judah and cause him to surrender the city without a fight. God would thwart the plans of Sennacherib and put an end to his ambitious plans to defeat the people of Judah. God would eventually allow Nebuchadnezzar and the nation of Babylon to conquer Judah, as a part of His judgment against them for having failed to heed His calls to repentance. But that was not something He had asked the Assyrians to do. They were out of line with their efforts to defeat the people of Judah, and they were unsuccessful. Not because Judah was powerful, but because their God is great.

Our God is a great God. He is sovereign over any and all. He answers to no one, and no one can stand against Him. He is righteous and wrathful, merciful and vengeful. He is gracious and loving, but can also be a formidable enemy against those who would stand in His way or who would attempt to thwart His will. History is full of stories of great nations and powerful kingdoms. There have countless empires that have risen up and attempted to force their will on the world. Kings and dictators have ascended to places of power with grand plans to conquer the world with their armies, but each has ultimately failed. This world belongs to God, and He has a divine plan for it. He will use nations. He will appoint kings. He will raise up leaders of all kinds. But they will all be answerable to Him. Their power is limited. Their plans are temporary. Their reigns are short-lived. But God remains on His throne for all time. His power is limitless and His plans are unavoidable and unstoppable. And all who would find refuge and safety from the storms of this life, brought on by the Sennacheribs of this world, can run to God and find Him to be a strong fortress, against which no one and nothing can prevail.

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

Our Great God.

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
    the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
    and keeps wrath for his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
    and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
    he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
    the bloom of Lebanon withers.
The mountains quake before him;
    the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
    the world and all who dwell in it.

Who can stand before his indignation?
    Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
    and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
Nahum 1:1-6 ESV

Nahum was an unknown man from an unknown town. Other than what we read about him in the book that bears his name, we know very little about him. He was simply Naham of Elkosh, but the one thing that sets him apart from all his peers is that he was chosen by God to be a prophet. Nahum was most likely a contemporary of Jonah. We have some idea of when he penned this information, because he mentions the fall of Thebes in chapter three, verse 8. Historically, we know that took place in 663 B.C. So his writing had to have taken place after that. Most of this book predicts the fall of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, which occurred in 612 B.C., when Nineveh fell to a combined force of Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians. So, that puts the date of his prophecy and writing somewhere between 663 and 612 B.C. Most scholars put the date closer to 660 and 650 B.C. So, it is likely that Nahum prophesied during the reign of King Manasseh of Judah.

Nahum was a Jew and, while the majority of his message concerned the Assyrians and their capital city of Nineveh, it was intended for the Jewish people. It is interesting to note that Jonah was given a message of judgment for the people of Nineveh, but God spared them when they repented. Jonah was required by God to take that message directly into the heart of enemy territory, within the walls of the city of Nineveh itself. And he did so under great duress, having tried to escape from the task by running from God. And even when he saw that the people of Nineveh repented and God spared them from judgment, he was angry with God, and even accused God of evil. But at virtually the very same time, Nahum was writing an oracle concerning the Assyrians and their great capital city. He also had a word of warning from God concerning them. But his was very descriptive and specific as to exactly what was going to happen to them.

This message, while dealing with the coming fall of Nineveh, was meant to bring comfort to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah. The Assyrians were a powerful force in the region, having already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. The Assyrian troops remained in the area and had conquered many Judean cities and had even besieged Jerusalem, the capital of Judah in 701 B.C. While their efforts to take the city had failed, their presence had left its mark on the people of Judah. They were scared and demoralized. They felt it was only a matter of time before they were the next victims of the all-powerful Assyrians.

It is interesting to note that God had been warning the people of Judah that their destruction would come, and that He would use the Assyrians to accomplish it. He had warned of this very thing to King Ahaz of Judah through the prophet, Isaiah.

“The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!” – Isaiah 7:17 ESV

Unless the people of Judah repented of their rebellion against God, He would send judgment upon them. He would use godless nations like the Assyrians and Babylonians to harass and defeat them. But God also assured the people of Judah that He would bring justice to those same pagan nations.

“What sorrow awaits Assyria, the rod of my anger.
    I use it as a club to express my anger.
I am sending Assyria against a godless nation,
    against a people with whom I am angry.
Assyria will plunder them,
    trampling them like dirt beneath its feet.
But the king of Assyria will not understand that he is my tool;
    his mind does not work that way.
His plan is simply to destroy,
    to cut down nation after nation.
He will say,
    ‘Each of my princes will soon be a king.
We destroyed Calno just as we did Carchemish.
    Hamath fell before us as Arpad did.
    And we destroyed Samaria just as we did Damascus.
Yes, we have finished off many a kingdom
    whose gods were greater than those in Jerusalem and Samaria.
So we will defeat Jerusalem and her gods,
    just as we destroyed Samaria with hers.’” – Isaiah 10:5-11 NLT

Ultimately, the book of Nahum is a book about the sovereignty of God. He is in control of all things, including all nations and kings. He has the power to lift up and tear down. He can make a nation great, like He had done for Judah, and He can bring a nation to its knees. As Daniel wrote:

…he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. – Daniel 2:20-21 NLT

While God had sovereignly used Assyria to punish the sins of Israel, He would also hold them accountable for their own sins and for their pride and arrogance. The Assyrians would not acknowledge God as the source of their strength or power. They would never acknowledge that they were instruments in His hands. Instead, they would see themselves as all-powerful and a force to be reckoned in the world of their day. They were arrogant and self-assured, believing themselves to be invincible. But God had other plans for the nation of Assyrian. The prophet, Zephaniah would make those plans perfectly clear:

And the Lord will strike the lands of the north with his fist,
    destroying the land of Assyria.
He will make its great capital, Nineveh, a desolate wasteland,
    parched like a desert.
The proud city will become a pasture for flocks and herds,
    and all sorts of wild animals will settle there.
The desert owl and screech owl will roost on its ruined columns,
    their calls echoing through the gaping windows.
Rubble will block all the doorways,
    and the cedar paneling will be exposed to the weather.
This is the boisterous city,
    once so secure.
“I am the greatest!” it boasted.
    “No other city can compare with me!”
But now, look how it has become an utter ruin,
    a haven for wild animals.
Everyone passing by will laugh in derision
    and shake a defiant fist. – Zephaniah 2:13-15 NLT

The Assyrians were mighty warriors. And their military exploits were well-known and well-chronicled. They were brutal in battle and unmerciful to all those they conquered. Nahum graphically describes this powerful and fearful nation:

She is crammed with wealth
    and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
    the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
    and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
    as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
    heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
    people stumble over them. – Nahum 3:1-3 NLT

They had left a wake of destruction in their path. They had swept through that region of the world, reeking havoc and decimating city after city. But Nahum also assures the people of Judah that God is also a great power.

The Lord is a jealous God,
    filled with vengeance and rage.
He takes revenge on all who oppose him
    and continues to rage against his enemies! – Nahum 1:2 NLT

He too, is a force to be reckoned with. He may be slow to get angry, but that does not mean His anger will go unchecked forever. And He has the power to back up His anger with action. He will ultimately deal with the guilty and justly mete out exactly what they deserve.

The Lord is slow to get angry, but his power is great,
    and he never lets the guilty go unpunished.

He displays his power in the whirlwind and the storm.
    The billowing clouds are the dust beneath his feet. – Nahum 1:3 NLT

God could and did use nations to accomplish His divine will. He had used Assyria to conquer Israel. He would eventually use Babylon to conquer Judah. But God was not dependent upon these nations. He had all of creation at His disposal. He could wipe out entire armies with a word. He could use the forces of nature to defeat the forces of Assyrian or any other nation.

At his command the oceans dry up,
    and the rivers disappear.
The lush pastures of Bashan and Carmel fade,
    and the green forests of Lebanon wither. – Nahum 1:4 NLT

Nahum is about to utter an oracle against Nineveh and the nation of Assyria. And he reminds the people of Judah that their God is great. He is all-powerful. He stands in judgment over all nations, and is equipped to enact justice against any and all, at any time.

Who can stand before his fierce anger?
    Who can survive his burning fury?
His rage blazes forth like fire,
    and the mountains crumble to dust in his presence. – Nahum 1:6 NLT

The news of the day was filled with stories of the atrocities being committed by the Assyrians. Conversations at the water wells of Judah were all about what was going on in the surrounding regions. News of destruction and devastation was everywhere. The people had begun to fear the Assyrians. But Nahum wanted them to know that they need not fear their enemies. Their God was still in control. It was He they should fear. It was His power they should be talking about. It was His sovereignty they should be concerned with.

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 Death of a Dream?

Now his brothers went to pasture their father’s flock near Shechem. And Israel said to Joseph, “Are not your brothers pasturing the flock at Shechem? Come, I will send you to them.” And he said to him, “Here I am.” So he said to him, “Go now, see if it is well with your brothers and with the flock, and bring me word.” So he sent him from the Valley of Hebron, and he came to Shechem. And a man found him wandering in the fields. And the man asked him, “What are you seeking?” “I am seeking my brothers,” he said. “Tell me, please, where they are pasturing the flock.” And the man said, “They have gone away, for I heard them say, ‘Let us go to Dothan.’” So Joseph went after his brothers and found them at Dothan.

They saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer. Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits. Then we will say that a fierce animal has devoured him, and we will see what will become of his dreams.” But when Reuben heard it, he rescued him out of their hands, saying, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben said to them, “Shed no blood; throw him into this pit here in the wilderness, but do not lay a hand on him” — that he might rescue him out of their hand to restore him to his father. So when Joseph came to his brothers, they stripped him of his robe, the robe of many colors that he wore. And they took him and threw him into a pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it. – Genesis 37:12-24 ESV

Joseph has had two very vivid dreams. But neither he or the members of his family seem to know what they mean. Jacob, his father, seems the most oblivious and yet he is one who had experienced his own personal encounters with God. Years earlier, when he was escaping from the wrath of his brother, Esau, for having stolen his birthright, he had had a dream of his own.

And he came to a certain place and stayed there that night, because the sun had set. Taking one of the stones of the place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place to sleep. And he dreamed, and behold, there was a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven. And behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it! And behold, the Lord stood above it and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring. Your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south, and in you and your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Behold, I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land. For I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” – Genesis 28:11-15 ESV

Years later, on his return home, he had another encounter with God. This time it wasn’t a dream, but a very real and physically exhausting wrestling match with God. He even named the place where it happened, Peniel, which means “the face of God.” So of all people, Jacob should have known that something was going on in regards to the two dreams of Joseph. But did nothing about them. In fact, for him, it was simply business as usual. He didn’t even seem to be aware of the growing animosity of his own sons to their younger brother. While they were off tending the families sheep, he sent Joseph to go check on them. The trip from Hebron to Shechem would have been 60 miles one way. And when Joseph arrived, he found that his brothers had moved on to Dothan, another ten miles further north. What was Jacob thinking? Why would he put his favorite son at risk? Was this Jacob’s attempt to knock his son down a few notches and teach him a lesson regarding his arrogant-sounding dreams? There are so many questions that whirl around this narrative. Many of which are left unanswered. We are not told the motivation behind Jacob’s decision. But we are given numerous signs that God was sovereignly and providentially at work behind the scenes.

Why had the brothers traveled 60 miles to pasture their flocks? It was because Jacob owned land there. He had purchased it on his return from his self-imposed exile (Genesis 33:18-20). But why had the brothers then moved on to Dothan? It seems that they had left the flocks in Shechem to pasture and had headed to Dothan, which was trading town that lay on a busy caravan route between Damascus and Egypt. We are not told the reason for their little jaunt to Dothan. It could have been to buy goods or simply to see the sights. But their decision would prove providential.

When Jacob finally arrived in Dothan, the text says, “saw him from afar, and before he came near to them they conspired against him to kill him” (Genesis 37:18 ESV). How did they recognize him from a distance? Perhaps it was his coat of many colors that gave him away. But upon recognition that it was their despised brother, Joseph, they come up with a plan to eliminate him once and for all. They are 70 miles from home. He is not under the protective care of their doting father. The circumstances couldn’t have been more perfect. It was time to put an end to the dreams and the dreamer. And little did Joseph know of the nightmare that lay ahead.

It was Reuben, the first-born, who intervened and prevented the brothers from killing Joseph. He advised them to place Joseph in a cistern in the ground, with the intention to come back later and rescue him. So when Joseph arrived, he received a shocking and less-than-welcoming reception. His brothers stripped him of his multi-color tunic and threw him in a pit. This scene is a foreshadowing of what is to come. It will be repeated several times in the life of Joseph over the course of his life. His meteoric fall from favored son to despised and deserted brother will not be the last time he experiences a setback in his young life. And yet, we will see that God is with him – all along the way. His father’s insensitivity and lack of common sense are no match for God’s sovereign plan. His brothers’ hate-filled, revenge-motivated plan cannot thwart the will of God. In fact, they will eventually discover that their evil actions end up actualizing the very dreams they so despised. Their wrongly-motivated intentions to strip Joseph of his favored status would actually result in his ultimate rise to the second-highest position in the land of Egypt.

It was Nebuchadnezzar, the king the Babylon, who had another dream given to him by God. He was told that, because of his pride, he would suffer from a period of insanity. He would fall from his splendor as king and spend his time living like a wild animal. And when the king’s sanity returned to him, he “praised and worshiped the Most High and honored the one who lives forever” (Daniel 4:34 NLT), saying, “All the people of the earth are nothing compared to him. He does as he pleases among the angels of heaven and among the people of the earth. No one can stop him or say to him, ‘What do you mean by doing these things?’” (Daniel 4:35 NLT). God’s will is unstoppable. His providential purposes are irrefutable and irresistible. What He determines will take place. What He predicts will come to pass. What He promises will be fulfilled. A dream given by God can never die. And while the dreamer may suffer, he or she is protected by the sovereign hand of God.

The Forgotten God Who Never Forgets.

King Ahasuerus imposed tax on the land and on the coastlands of the sea. And all the acts of his power and might, and the full account of the high honor of Mordecai, to which the king advanced him, are they not written in the Book of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia? For Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was great among the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brothers, for he sought the welfare of his people and spoke peace to all his people. – Esther 10:1-3 ESV

Some things never change. And King Ahasuerus is a case in point. All through this struggle he remained committed to his own kingdom and his own personal pleasure. The book of Esther opened with an opulent feast that lasted for six solid months. This affair was meant to be a calculated display of the king’s wealth and power. The wine flowed. The decorations were sumptuous and the food was of the highest quality and served in great quantity. No expense was spared. Part of the reason behind the opening scene of the book was to establish King Ahasuerus as the sovereign ruler of the kingdom of Persia. He was powerful, influential and in total control of his domain. He could do as he wished, whether with his money or his queen. He could elevate a person to the second highest office in the land, as he did with Haman, or he could decree the elimination of an entire people group with nothing more than his signature. He is set up as no less than a god.

So it should be no surprise to read at the end of all the events recorded in the book of Esther that the king chose to levy a tax on the land of Persia. This was probably motivated by a number of factors, none more obvious than the king’s greed. But it is important to recall that Haman had promised to pay 10,000 talents of silver into the king’s treasury in exchange for an edict to wipe out the Jews. That would have been roughly 375 tons of silver, an exorbitant amount that represented two-thirds of the entire empire’s income. Obviously, with Haman’s death, this financial boon was never realized. So the king resorted to a tax. He was going to fill his royal coffers one way or another.

But what about Mordecai and Esther. How does the story leave them? Esther remains queen. She has been given all the lands and the wealth of Haman. Mordecai has been elevated to the second-highest position in the land. He has a great reputation among the Jews and is even extremely popular among the Persians. In essence, his ship has come in. He, like Esther, is set for life.

But there is a subtle silence in these closing verses, and it is in keeping with the rest of the story. There is no mention of God. The people have been rescued from destruction, but there is not a single word said about God’s role in their miraculous salvation. One of the things we must refrain from doing when reading the book of Esther is making either Mordecai or Esther the heroes of the story. While the book bears her name, Esther is not intended to be the focal point of the story. It is important to remember that Esther and Mordecai were part of the Jewish population in Persia that had determined to remain rather than return to their homeland under the leadership of Zerubbabel.

Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem. – Ezra 1:2-4 ESV

Cyrus had given the Jews the opportunity to return to their land and play a part in the reestablishment of their kingdom and the restoration of their capital and its temple. While tens of thousands returned, some obviously chose to stay in Persia. Mordecai and Esther were part of that group. The Jews who remained in Persia had been unwilling to make the long trek back to Jerusalem and preferred to stay behind. They took the path of least resistance. To a certain degree, they compromised their convictions and chose to remain exiles in a land that was not their home, but that had become quite comfortable and familiar to them. In fact, you see throughout this story a spirit of compromise and convenience. It is only natural to compare what is taking place in the lives of Esther and Mordecai with the stories of Daniel and Joseph. These two men also found themselves living as exiles in unfamiliar lands. Joseph was in Egypt, sold into slavery by his own brothers. Daniel was in Babylon, taken captive by the forces of Nebuchadnezzar when he destroyed Jerusalem. But these two men refused to compromise. They remained committed to their God and determined to live according to His laws. And it was their obedience to Him that resulted in His blessings on their lives. But in the cases of Mordecai and Esther, it seems as if any convictions they may have had took a backseat to their attitudes of compromise and convenience. Unlike Daniel, Esther willingly ate the king’s food and submitted to the beauty treatments designed to prepare her for the king’s bed. At no point in the story do we hear her refuse to eat certain foods that would improper for a Jew to consume. While Daniel refused to obey the king’s edict that banned prayer to any deity but the king, Esther was willing to subjugate herself to King Ahasuerus through sexual intercourse. Daniel’s actions got him thrown into the lions’ den, while Esther was made queen.

It would seem that Mordecai and Esther were more concerned about the people of Judah than the God of Judah. Ultimately, they used their positions of influence and authority to come up with a plan to protect their people from destruction. But their objective seems to have had little to do with the holiness of God’s name. And yet, throughout the story, God is actively moving behind the scenes to orchestrate affairs in such a way that his unfaithful people are the unlikely and undeserving recipients of His faithful mercy and grace. Mordecai and Esther are not icons of virtue. But they are instruments in the Redeemer‘s hands. Oftentimes, God uses us in spite of us. He has used pagan kings, egocentric Amalakites, young Hebrew virgins, common fishermen, misguided zealots, reluctant prophets, adolescent shepherds, and a wide assortment of other unqualified, unlikely individuals to accomplish His divine will. The story of Esther is the story of God working through the lives of the unfaithful in order to display His faithfulness. God didn’t need Mordecai or Esther to accomplish His will, but He used them anyway. He didn’t choose them because of their qualifications or potential contributions to His plan.

I am reminded of the words of Paul, written to the believers in Corinth. He wanted them to remember that their salvation by God had not been a result of their merit. They had not been deserving of salvation. They were not chosen by God because of their wealth, wisdom, power, or positions. It was their lack of merit that resulted in God’s mercy. It was their absence of greatness that resulted in God’s grace.

Remember, dear brothers and sisters, that few of you were wise in the world’s eyes or powerful or wealthy when God called you. Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful. God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God. – 1 Corinthians 1:26-29 NLT

The story of Esther is the story of God’s faithful love and unmerited favor. It is the story of God’s might overcoming the power of kings and the plans of the enemy. While His name is never mentioned in the book, His presence is felt on every page of the story. He is the immortal, invisible, God.

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
In light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
Most blessèd, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
Almighty, victorious, Thy great name we praise. – Walter C. Smith

Seeing The God Who Sees All.

On that day King Ahasuerus gave to Queen Esther the house of Haman, the enemy of the Jews. And Mordecai came before the king, for Esther had told what he was to her. And the king took off his signet ring, which he had taken from Haman, and gave it to Mordecai. And Esther set Mordecai over the house of Haman. – Esther 8:1-2 ESV

Over in the book of Deuteronomy, we read the following description of God:

I will proclaim the name of the Lord; how glorious is our God! 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 32:3-4 NLT

The truly unique attribute about the story of Esther is that God is nowhere mentioned in the book, but His presence can be seen and felt as the narrative unfolds. He is portrayed as the faithful God who does no wrong. He works invisibly, but invincibly behind the scenes, orchestrating His plan and asserting His will on the lives of men, including those who do not believe He exists. God has been actively involved throughout the story of Esther and Mordecai. He is the one who put Esther on the throne of Persia. He was behind the seeming coincidence that allowed Mordecai to discover the plot against the king. He was the cause behind the king’s insomnia and his request to have the royal record read to him in hope that it might lull him to sleep. God had been witnessing the actions of Haman. He knew his heart and was well aware of his hatred for Mordecai and the people of Israel. While it may have appeared that God was out of sight and out of touch with all the events unfolding in Persia, He was actually in complete control. And He had a plan already in place to deal with not only Haman, but the king’s decree.

Later on in the the same chapter in the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

The Lord says, “Am I not storing up these things, sealing them away in my treasury? I will take revenge; I will pay them back. In due time their feet will slip. Their day of disaster will arrive, and their destiny will overtake them.” – Deuteronomy 32:34-35 NLT

God is always watching. Like a divine accountant, He is documenting every deposit and withdrawal. He knows the heart of every man. He sees their every action and knows the motivation behind all that they do or don’t do. And while it may appear that God is blind to our predicament and unaware of the injustices being heaped upon us, unlike King Ahasuerus, He is fully cognizant of all that goes on in His kingdom. And God has a just outcome in store for every individual who rises up against His rule or raises a hand against His people.

When we find ourselves going through difficulty, it is sometimes easy to assume that God is not there or that He does not care. We react like the psalmist.

O Lord, the God of vengeance, O God of vengeance, let your glorious justice shine forth! Arise, O judge of the earth. Give the proud what they deserve. How long, O Lord? How long will the wicked be allowed to gloat? How long will they speak with arrogance? How long will these evil people boast? They crush your people, Lord, hurting those you claim as your own. They kill widows and foreigners and murder orphans. “The Lord isn’t looking,” they say, “and besides, the God of Israel doesn’t care.” – Psalm 94:1-7 NLT

But our perspective gets skewed. Our circumstances blind us to the ways of God. We get so busy looking at our difficulties, that we lose the ability to see God working in our midst. So the psalmist goes on to remind us of God’s ever-constant presence. And he warns the wicked that God knows all and sees all.

Think again, you fools! When will you finally catch on? Is he deaf—the one who made your ears? Is he blind—the one who formed your eyes? He punishes the nations—won’t he also punish you? He knows everything—doesn’t he also know what you are doing? The Lord knows people’s thoughts; he knows they are worthless! – Psalm 94:8-11 NLT

It is as if the psalmist knew about Haman long before he was even born.

Can unjust leaders claim that God is on their side—leaders whose decrees permit injustice? They gang up against the righteous and condemn the innocent to death. But the Lord is my fortress; my God is the mighty rock where I hide. God will turn the sins of evil people back on them. He will destroy them for their sins. The Lord our God will destroy them. – Psalm 94:20-23 NLT

And God dealt with Haman, a leader whose decrees permit injustice, by turning his sins back on him. He was destroyed for his sins. And, at the same time, Esther and Mordecai were rewarded. Esther was given the property of Haman. Mordecai was given the king’s signet ring, the symbol of his power and authority, which had previously been given to Haman. And Esther put her uncle, Mordecai, in charge of all the Haman’s vast estate and wealth. The tables had turned. The wicked were defeated. The righteous were blessed.

But while the story of Esther has a happy ending, we must be careful not to assume that every situation and circumstance works out with a perfect fairy tale ending. Stephen, while preaching the gospel, was brutally stoned and murdered by an angry mob. Paul spent much of his adult life in prison as a result of his ministry on behalf of Christ. John was exiled to the island of Patmos by the Roman government because of his persistent preaching of the gospel. We would be wrong to assume that things always turn out right. The Christian faith has always had its martyrs. There are countless believers all across the world who are suffering for their faith at this very moment. Many of them will die as a result of their faith in Christ. But that does not change the fact that God is in control. He knows what He is doing. He has a plan and He will bring it about in His perfect timing and according to His perfect will. We may not understand it or even like it, but we can trust that whatever happens is within the just and righteous providence of God. For Esther and Mordecai, the story has a happy ending. But while some may experience pain, suffering, lose and even death, it does not mean that God is not working.

The Lord will not reject his people; he will not abandon his special possession. Judgment will again be founded on justice, and those with virtuous hearts will pursue it. – Psalm 94:14-15 NLT

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The Unseen Sovereign.

Then Memucan said in the presence of the king and the officials, “Not only against the king has Queen Vashti done wrong, but also against all the officials and all the peoples who are in all the provinces of King Ahasuerus. For the queen’s behavior will be made known to all women, causing them to look at their husbands with contempt, since they will say, ‘King Ahasuerus commanded Queen Vashti to be brought before him, and she did not come.’ This very day the noble women of Persia and Media who have heard of the queen’s behavior will say the same to all the king’s officials, and there will be contempt and wrath in plenty. If it please the king, let a royal order go out from him, and let it be written among the laws of the Persians and the Medes so that it may not be repealed, that Vashti is never again to come before King Ahasuerus. And let the king give her royal position to another who is better than she. So when the decree made by the king is proclaimed throughout all his kingdom, for it is vast, all women will give honor to their husbands, high and low alike.” This advice pleased the king and the princes, and the king did as Memucan proposed. He sent letters to all the royal provinces, to every province in its own script and to every people in its own language, that every man be master in his own household and speak according to the language of his people. – Esther 1:16-22 ESV

The king is angry. He has just thrown a six-month long celebration for his dignitaries and the citizens of his kingdom. He has pulled out all the stops in an effort to flaunt his vast wealth and power. And it all went south when his own queen refused to respond to his command to put herself on display like a piece of royal property. In his anger, Xerxes summoned his wise men, and in doing so, he turned a family dispute into a national crisis. Queen Vashti’s refusal to obey the king’s command for her to appear in all her royal finery and parade herself in front of his drunken guests was seen as an affront against all men. One of the king’s wise men declared his fear of the shock waves her actions were going to have on the entire kingdom.

Queen Vashti has wronged not only the king but also every noble and citizen throughout your empire. Women everywhere will begin to despise their husbands when they learn that Queen Vashti has refused to appear before the king. Before this day is out, the wives of all the king’s nobles throughout Persia and Media will hear what the queen did and will start treating their husbands the same way. There will be no end to their contempt and anger. – Esther 1:16-18 NLT

At face value, this appears like a bit of over-reaction. But we must keep in mind that the king is asking his counselors for advice, and so they feel they must give it. Did Memucan truly believe that Queen Vashti’s actions were going to have national ramifications? We will never know. But he knew the king was angry and, as we will see, the king seems to have an anger problem. Perhaps Memucan was simply trying to placate the king by providing him with a viable way of dealing with this affront to his sovereignty. It was obvious to all who had just taken part in the king’s non-stop revelry that his power and influence were important to him. He was not a man who was used to being refused. He got his own way on a regular basis. So Memucan came up with a plan that appealed to the king’s pride and gave him a way to reassert his authority in the eyes of the people.

So if it please the king, we suggest that you issue a written decree, a law of the Persians and Medes that cannot be revoked. It should order that Queen Vashti be forever banished from the presence of King Xerxes, and that the king should choose another queen more worthy than she. – Esther 1:19 NLT

What better way to get the king in a good mood than to encourage him to flaunt his power as king by having him issue a royal decree. And this decree was to be “proclaimed throughout all his kingdom.” It would not be enough to simply let Queen Vashti know that she was no longer welcome in the king’s presence and that she was going to be replaced. No, the king needed to send out a royal edict to all 127 provinces, from India to Ethiopia. Yes, this was overkill, but it was intended to be an appeal to the king’s obvious megalomania. Memucan was truly a wise man. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was very familiar with the king and had more than likely seen this episodes of anger before. So he came up with a plan to pacify the king’s anger and feed his overactive ego.

Memucan’s advice pleased the king, so the decree was issued and sent across his vast empire, having been translated into all the languages of the kingdom. Queen Vashti’s fate was sealed. Her snubbing of the king’s command had proven to be costly. We are not told what happens to the queen from this point forward. She disappears from the scene, like an actor who has played her part and exited the stage, never to be seen again. But her absence creates a vacancy, a void that begs to be filled. The king must have a queen.

And this is just another turning point in the story. Queen Vashti’s actions have set the stage for something significant to take place. The king’s edict has left him without a queen. And this was not something a man with an ego like Xerxes could live with for very long. And so a new chain of events was about to take place. God was setting the stage for something significant to happen that no one in the kingdom of Persia could have foreseen or expected. What appears to be nothing more than a series of unfortunate events is actually the hand of God working behind the scenes. There is an unseen Sovereign issuing decrees and orchestrating events and even Memucan and his team of wise men have no idea He is there. All they can see is an earthly king and their influence over him. He is a monarch who is easily upset and just as easily influenced. He is prone to listen to their advice and susceptible to their suggestions. But God is operating on His own. He is truly sovereign, determining the future without the need for human advice or influence. Neither King Xerxes or Memucan have any idea what the outcome of their decisions will be. They think they are in control. They believe they are the arbiters of their fate. But God is at work behind the scenes. His sovereign plan is greater than that of kings and wise men. His will trumps the will of earthly rulers. His decrees are greater than those of despots and dictators. We may not see Him, but God is always at work and always in control.

Honor the Emperor.

Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. – 1 Peter 2:13-17 ESV

In verses 9-12, Peter provided his readers with some indicative statements regarding their new status in Christ. He matter-of-factly stated some realities that applied to them as followers of Christ. He told them that they were a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation and God’s possession. They were sojourners and exiles living in this land on temporary assignment. They had received the undeserved mercy of God. They were God’s people and He was their God. So, what should their response be? How should they react to this news? This is where Peter began to list out some imperatives or commands that illustrate how their status as children of God should impact the way they live. First of all they were to abstain from the passions of the flesh. In other words, they were not to live as they had before, giving in to and satisfying their sinful desires. Instead they were to conduct themselves among the lost around them in an honorable and righteous way. Their actions were to bring glory to God because it was the Spirit of God within them that made it possible for them to live set apart from and distinctively different from those who did not know Christ.

But there was more. Peter provided even more imperatives to give shoe leather to their faith. He told them, “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors” (1 Peter 2:13-14 ESV). Keep in mind, these people were living in a Roman province, under the authority of the most powerful government of that age. His readers were living in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, all located in northern Asia Minor. As his letter reveals, the churches in this regions were experiencing persecution. And under future Roman rulers like Nero, the intensity of the persecution against Christians would increase dramatically. And yet, here is Peter telling his readers to “be subject to” those in authority over them. His words sound very familiar to those Paul wrote to the believers living in Rome.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. – Romans 13:1-4 ESV

Paul told Timothy,

First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior – 1 Timothy 2:1-3 ESV

Paul gave a similar admonishion to Titus,

Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people. – Titus 3:1-2 ESV

Peter told his readers that there was no authority except from God. In fact, he said that they had been instituted by God. Government was and is a God-ordained institution. A properly run government should provide peace and stability so that the gospel can spread unhindered. And it is interesting to note that the amazing spread of the gospel and the incredibly rapid growth of Christianity in the first and second centuries took place primarily under the age of Roman rule. Rome had established the Pax Romana or Roman Pax RomanaPeace and it lasted from roughly 27 B.C. to 180 A.D. Rome’s territory spread all the way  from Spain to Israel, into Africa and Egypt and even as far as Britain. They brought peace and a certain amount of stability to the world. Their intricate network of roads made travel not only easier, but safer. It was during this time that Paul was able to travel all throughout the Roman world sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, the Roman government could be highly corrupt. Their presence in any land could be heavy handed and at times, oppressive. They ruled with an iron fist. They taxed their subjects mercilessly. They brought their polytheistic religion wherever they went. And yet, they tended to be surprisingly tolerant of the religious faiths of their subjects.

With all that in mind, the words of Peter take on a whole new degree of significance. He told his readers to be subject to the Roman authorities “for the Lord’s sake.” They were to view their submission to Rome as submission to God. It was a matter of trusting in God’s sovereign will and His ability to use even pagan governments to accomplish His divine plan. The Old Testament is filled with examples of God using Pharaoh in Egypt to provide the people of Israel with protection and provision, and then using that same authority to display His power and supremacy over man-made institutions. God used Nebuchadnezzar to punish disobedient Judah. He used Cyrus, the king of Persia to fund the return of the Jewish exiles to the promised land. He did the same thing with Artaxerxes. The lesson learned from these stories is that God is in control. He is sovereign over all, including governments and political leaders.

We have to approach those in authority with an attitude that they have been placed their by God. That doesn’t mean they are godly. Rome certainly wasn’t. But God has us where we are, living during a specific time frame for a reason. Peter told his readers to “live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Peter 2:16 ESV). They were to “Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor” (1 Peter 2:17 ESV). Christians should make the best citizens, even though we are actually citizens of another Kingdom. Of all people, we should be the most respectful and obedient, treating those in authority over us as servants of God. If our government is evil or corrupt, we are to trust that God knows and He will deal with them justly and appropriately. If our government provides us with a modicum of peace and tranquility, we are to thank God for it and use our freedom to spread the gospel.

Ultimately, we must recognize the fact that God is our King. Everyone else works for Him and under Him. And one day they will all answer to Him. So when we submit to those in authority over us, we are really submitting to God. When we honor the emperor, we are honoring God as our ultimate, supreme authority.

Sovereign Over All.

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed. – Romans 13:1-7 ESV

At the heart of this passage is the sovereignty of God. That should not be overlooked or under-emphasized. All throughout his letter, Paul has been dealing with the subject of man’s justification before God. He has made it clear that this is the work of a sovereign God. He is the one who calls, justifies, sanctifies and ultimately glorifies all believers. And even in this section of his letter, where Paul is talking about the practical outflow of one’s faith in relationship to others, he keeps emphasizing God’s sovereignty. In chapter 12, Paul talked about spiritual gifts and their role in the body of Christ. Because they are given by God, there is no room for pride or boasting. Like salvation, they are a gift from God and have nothing to do with human merit. Paul wanted his readers to remember that they had “gifts that differ according to the grace given to us” (Romans 12:6 ESV).

Now, as Paul addresses the subject of the believer’s relationship with civil authority, He continues to emphasize God’s sovereignty. It is important that we keep the words of Paul within their context. He is writing to believers who live in Rome, the capital of the Roman government, representing the most powerful nation in the world at the time. Both the Jews and the Gentiles who made up the church in Rome knew what it was like to live under the authority of the Roman government. And as far as the Romans were concerned, the Christians were little more than a break-off sect of the Hebrew religion. Their only real knowledge of Christianity was tied to the individual for which it was named, Jesus Christ, who was crucified by Pontus Pilate for claiming to be King of the Jews. The Christians, like the Jews, were tolerated by the Romans and given certain freedoms to practice their religions in peace. But the Jewish Christians would have had no affinity for the Romans, knowing full well that their people had lived under the weight of Roman rule for years.

Yet Paul tells his readers, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities” (Romans 13:1 ESV). The word Paul uses is hypotassō and it means “to subject one’s self, obey” (Greek Lexicon :: G5293 (KJV). Blue Letter Bible. Web. 23 Dec, 2015). In this passage, Paul does not address the question of what Christians are to do when those in authority over them overstep their God-given authority and begin to persecute their subjects. He simply encourages believers to submit to those in authority over them. And he was not alone in promoting this kind of behavior. The apostle Peter said something very similar. “For the Lord’s sake, submit to all human authority—whether the king as head of state, or the officials he has appointed. For the king has sent them to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right” (1 Peter 2:13-14 NLT). And Paul provides the “why” behind his words. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1 ESV). It is a case of the sovereignty of God. Jesus lived out this very idea, having submitted Himself to the Roman authorities and submitting to their ultimate decision to crucify Him. But He knew that what He was doing was ultimately an act of submission to God. During His trial, when Pilate asked Him, “Don’t you realize that I have the power to release you or crucify you?” (John 19:10 NLT), Jesus responded, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above” (John 19:11 NLT).

The very existence of the Romans as a nation-state was decreed by God. And their presence in the land of Palestine and their rule over the people of Israel was not something that caught God off guard. Paul wrote in his letter to the Galatians, “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” (Galatians 4:4-7 ESV). At just the right time, God sent His Son. Right when Roman rule was at its zenith and the Jewish people were living under their control, the Messiah appears on the scene. The very existence of the Roman government in the land of Israel was going to play a vital role in fulfilling the promises of God. The death of Jesus, predicted in Isaiah 53, was fulfilled in detail because of the Romans and their practice of crucifixion. Jesus’ submission to the Roman authorities was based on His understanding of God’s sovereign will for His life.

When Paul encourages our subjection to governing authorities, he does so based on his understanding that all authority exists by God’s decree. And for a believer to resist God-given authority is to resist God. Again, Paul does not address the issue of what a Christian is to do when the government encourages disobedience to God. But if we follow the example of Paul, he submitted to the governmental authorities on many occasions, but was willing to go to jail when their demands contradicted the will of God for his life. Ultimately, Paul would even find himself in Rome as a prisoner, because of his faith. There may come a time when the believer has to resist and disobey civil authority, but we must always be willing to suffer the consequences for our disobedience, even if it means persecution.

Paul makes it clear that governing authorities are appointed by God. They are “God’s servant for your good” (Romans 13:4 ESV). They are “ministers of God” (Romans 13:6 ESV). Ultimately, our submission to civil authority is to be seen as submission to God. He is in control. We are to live our lives with the understanding that our God is sovereign and rules over all, including nations, governments, leaders, parliaments, presidents, dictators, senates, and man-made authorities of all kinds. His will will be done. His plan for this world will be fulfilled. Our lives are to be lived out in submission to and trust in His sovereign power.

None Like You.

Because of your promise, and according to your own heart, you have brought about all this greatness, to make your servant know it. Therefore you are great, O Lord God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you, according to all that we have heard with our ears. – 2 Samuel 7:21-22 ESV

2 Samuel 7:18-29

God had transformed David from an obscure shepherd boy into a mighty king over the nation of Israel – God’s chosen people. Not only that, God had promised to give David an everlasting dynasty, with one of his descendants occupying the throne in Jerusalem. David could look back over his life and see the hand of God, and now he could contemplate the future with confidence, knowing that God had it all under control. Yes, David was going to have to die to his dream of building a temple for God, but his disappointment was replaced with joy as soon as he understood that God had an even great plan in store. The interesting thing to note is the David, the king of Israel, willingly submitted himself to God, the King of the universe. In fact, David repeatedly refers to himself as God’s servant throughout this prayer. Yes, he was king and held the most powerful position in the land. But he humbly submitted himself to God because he recognized that any power, authority, success or significance he enjoyed was due to the sovereign hand of God. He confessed to God, “you have brought about all this greatness”. David could look back over his life and see God intimately involved every step along the way. From his unlikely selection by Samuel to be the next king of Israel to his defeat of the Philistine warrior, Goliath, David saw God’s divine fingerprints. He knew that it had been God who had protected him all those years he lived in exile in the wilderness with a bounty on his head issued by King Saul. He knew that it had been God who had arranged his ascent to the throne. God had given him his victories over the enemies of Israel. God had been the one to forgive his sin with Bathsheba and allowed him to continue his reign. Everywhere David looked, he could see the hand of God.

They say hindsight is 20/20. It sometimes takes the passing of time and the opportunity to contemplate where we have been to give us a true perspective on just what has happened. Looking back allows us to view the events of our life more realistically. We are able to see the lessons learned even in the darkest moments. From our present vantage point, we are more apt to understand now what was going on then. In fact, our reflection on the past often leads us to say, “If I had only known then what I know now”. But as believers in Christ, there is far more benefit to reflection on the past than potential life lessons to be learned. Like David, we should be able to look and see God’s fingerprints all over every aspect of our lives. We should be able to see how He was leading us and eventually calling us to Himself. We should recognize the moments in which He had protected us or possibly disciplined us. Looking back allows us to better see our own sin and God’s gracious acts of salvation all along the way. And the result of our reflection should be the same as that of David. “Therefore you are great, O Lord God. For there is none like you, and there is no God besides you.”

But not only does looking back allow us to see the handiwork of God in our lives, so does looking forward. David could “see” into the future and rest easy, knowing that God had promised that He would “raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom” (2 Samuel 7:12 ESV). God had told David that He would “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Samuel 7:13 ESV). And one of the reasons David could trust God’s word regarding the future was because he had experienced God’s faithfulness in the past. He had learned to trust God. He had no reason to doubt that God would fulfill His promises for the future because God had already proven Himself trustworthy and good for His word.

The greatness of God. Sometimes I think that reality escapes many of us who call ourselves Christians. We have somehow lost our awe for God. Rather than see Him as great, we simply take Him for granted. We fail to look back and see His hand in our lives. Any success we have achieved, we tend to take credit for. Any difficulties we have endured, we fail to see any value in. Some of us simply regret the past. Others of us inordinately revel in it. And either way, we can fail to see God in it. Recognizing God’s involvement in our past is essential if we are going to trust His promises for the future. If we don’t believe He has been there for us all along the way, we are going to have a hard time believing He will be there for us in the days ahead. One of the greatest lessons we can learn in this life is to recognize and appreciate the greatness of God. He is always great, whether we see it or are willing to acknowledge it. Sometimes, the best way to comprehend His greatness is to come to grips with our own weakness and insignificance. For David, the very thought that God had chosen him, an insignificant shepherd boy, and made him a king, was mind blowing. That God had chosen to protect him all those years he was running from a psycho king with a one-track mind focused on David’s annihilation, was almost too much for him to believe. But he did believe and he was grateful. He was awed at God’s greatness. And so should we be. Like David, we should be able and willing to exclaim, “Great is the LORD! He is most worthy of praise! No one can measure his greatness” (Psalm 145:3 NLT).