The Mysterious Ways of God

5 And Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my servant to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!” 6 But Abram said to Sarai, “Behold, your servant is in your power; do to her as you please.” Then Sarai dealt harshly with her, and she fled from her.

7 The angel of the Lord found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur. 8 And he said, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” She said, “I am fleeing from my mistress Sarai.” 9 The angel of the Lord said to her, “Return to your mistress and submit to her.” 10 The angel of the Lord also said to her, “I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” Genesis 16:5-10 ESV

The story of Sarai’s decision to give her maidservant, Hagar, to Abram as a surrogate birth mother for their future inheritance, brings an old hymn comes to mind. The events surrounding her clever solution to her own barrenness problem seem to be headed in a decidedly troubled direction. And yet, as this timeless song so aptly states, God was in full control of the entire situation.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform
He plants His footsteps in the sea
And rides upon the storm

Deep in unsearchable mines
Of never-failing skill
He treasures up His bright designs
And works His sovereign will

William Cowper, “God Moves In a Mysterious Way” – 1774

Every detail recorded in this story seems to be taking place outside of God’s preordained will. Nowhere in the narrative does Sarai receive orders from God instructing her to implement His “Plan B.” And yet, as William Cowper so elegantly put it, God was treasuring up His bright designs and working His sovereign will.

From Sarai’s perspective, things had gone terribly wrong. Her bright idea had produced some decidedly dark outcomes. What should have been a joyous occasion, had turned into a toxic scene filled with jealousy, envy, and deep resentment. Sarai had given Hagar to Abram so that she might bear the offspring he was so desperately seeking. But when her wish came true and Hagar became pregnant with Abram’s child, she began to have a case of buyer’s remorse. Sarai’s lowly maidservant suddenly found herself in the envious position of serving as the future mother of Abram’s long-awaited son. She considered herself to be the “chosen” vessel through whom God would fulfill His promise to produce from Abram a great nation.  And she flaunted her newfound celebrity status in Sarai’s despondent face.

Sarai suddenly found herself in a dramatically diminished role. She was still Abram’s wife, but she was damaged goods – unable to conceive and, therefore, of little value. But rather than blame herself for this unpleasant predicament, she lashed out at Abram.

“This is all your fault! I put my servant into your arms, but now that she’s pregnant she treats me with contempt. The Lord will show who’s wrong—you or me!” – Genesis 16:5 NLT

She admits that the idea had been hers, but she demanded that Abram take responsibility for the unfortunate outcome. After all, he was the one who got Hagar pregnant. But Sarai seems to be suffering from a severe case of selective memory. It was she who gave Abram both the idea and the permission to impregnate Hagar.

“Go and sleep with my servant. Perhaps I can have children through her.” – Genesis 16:2 NLT

Her plan had worked to perfection. Abram had faithfully (and, most likely, with great eagerness) followed her instructions and accomplished his assignment. He had successfully gotten Hagar pregnant but, in doing so, he had inadvertently made Sarai mad.

Sarai portrayed herself as the innocent victim, even suggesting that God would not hold her culpable or blameworthy for this disastrous situation. Fueling her unbridled anger and resentment was the arrogant attitude exhibited by Hagar. Moses identifies this newly elevated servant an Egyptian. It is most likely that Hagar had become a part of Abram’s family when, 10 years earlier, he had taken his family to Egypt to escape the famine in the land of Canaan. Upon his departure from Egypt, Abram had been rewarded by Pharaoh with great wealth.

Pharaoh gave Abram many gifts because of her—sheep, goats, cattle, male and female donkeys, male and female servants, and camels. – Genesis 12:16 NLT

Hagar had probably been among the many male and female servants who accompanied Abram back to the land of Canaan. And, at some point, she had been elevated to her position as Sarai’s personal maidservant, which eventually led to her selection as the surrogate birth mother for her mistress.

It is fascinating to consider the intricate and interconnected plot lines that permeate the story of Abram’s life. Early on, even before God called Abram and commanded him to move to Canaan, Abram’s father had already decided to uproot his family from Ur and relocate them to the very same spot. It was while they were temporarily residing in Haran, that God shared His plan and promise to Abram.

Later on, Abram made a decision to escape a famine in Canaan by seeking food and shelter in Egypt. Little did he know at the time that the famine had been God’s doing. Once in Egypt, Abram feared the Egyptians would kill him in order to gain access to his attractive wife. So, he concocted a misguided plan to save his own skin declaring Sarai to be his sister. This resulted in Pharaoh confiscating Sarai as his own personal property and placing her in his harem. But paid a handsome bride price to Sarai’s “brother.” Abram ended up a much wealthier man despite his deceit and deception. And God graciously rescued Sarai from her captivity, returning her to Abram, and sending the two of them back to Canaan.

God had been working behind the scenes “in a mysterious way His wonders to perform.” All along, God had been working His sovereign will – despite Abram’s selfish and self-centered actions. And the same thing was true for Sarai’s misguided attempt to do God a favor by implementing her own plan to fulfill His long-delayed promise.

Both Sarai and Abram were oblivious to what God was going. She was mad and blamed Abram. Abram simply shrugged his shoulders and told her to do what she thought best.

“Look, she is your servant, so deal with her as you see fit.” – Genesis 16:6 NLT

He wasn’t about to come between his disgruntled wife and her pregnant maidservant. In fact, he wanted no part of what he considered to be a no-win situation. Abram displays a disappointing lack of leadership and integrity throughout this ordeal. He had been willing to “go into” Hagar, but now he refused to stand up for her. He was abandoning his responsibilities as a husband and a father. He placed Hagar at the mercy of his disgruntled and vengeful wife.  And Moses makes it clear that Sarai wasted no time inacting her revenge.

Then Sarai treated Hagar so harshly that she finally ran away. – Genesis 16:6 NLT

But as before, God’s sovereign, all-knowing will reveals itself again. Hagar fled into the desert to escape the wrath of her mistress but, while there, she encounters the mercy of gracious God. Moses indicates that “The angel of the Lord found Hagar beside a spring of water in the wilderness, along the road to Shur” (Genesis 16:7 NLT). This does not mean the angel had been sent on a search-and-rescue mission from God, hoping to find this missing pregnant woman. God knew Hagar’s exact whereabouts, and that is right where the angel found her.

The angel asked Hagar two questions that were designed to elicit the rationale behind her flight. The angel already knew the answers but he wanted Hagar to consider the absurdity of her decision to seek refuge in the wilderness. She was an abandoned and unprotected pregnant woman attempting to fend for herself in the most inhospitable of places. She was hopeless and helpless. Or so she thought. In her mind, she had gone from the prized position as the mother of Abram’s offspring to a social pariah preparing to give birth to a bastard child in the middle of nowhere. Yet, God had news for Hagar.

When Hagar acknowledged that she was running from the wrath of Sarai, the angel gave her the surprising and somewhat disconcerting instructions to return. And then he added a shocking addendum to his command.

“I will surely multiply your offspring so that they cannot be numbered for multitude.” – Genesis 16:10 ESV

This was the angel of the Lord speaking on behalf of His Master. He was delivering to Hagar the very same God-guaranteed promise that Abram and Sarai had received. This transplanted and recently abandoned Egyptian slave girl had just received a promise from God that she would be the mother of a great nation. Abram and Sarai had condemned she and her yet-born son to a certain death, but God had chosen to reward her with progeny and a fruitful posterity.

God even assured Hagar that she could safely return to her mistresses’ side and fear no repercussions. He would go with her and protect her. At this point, Hagar has no idea what God has in store. The prospect of returning to the unfriendly and potentially hostile atmosphere of Abram’s household must have frightened her. Would she be welcomed with open arms or clenched fists? Upon his birth, would her son be accepted or rejected? She had no way of knowing how God would fulfill the promise He made, but as the following verses will make clear, she eventually took God at His word and obeyed.

Despite Sarai’s plotting and scheming and Abram’s spineless leadership, Hagar had a future, because God had a plan – a plan even included her.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Fine Line From Cursing to Blessing

10 These are the generations of Shem. When Shem was 100 years old, he fathered Arpachshad two years after the flood. 11 And Shem lived after he fathered Arpachshad 500 years and had other sons and daughters.

12 When Arpachshad had lived 35 years, he fathered Shelah. 13 And Arpachshad lived after he fathered Shelah 403 years and had other sons and daughters.

14 When Shelah had lived 30 years, he fathered Eber. 15 And Shelah lived after he fathered Eber 403 years and had other sons and daughters.

16 When Eber had lived 34 years, he fathered Peleg. 17 And Eber lived after he fathered Peleg 430 years and had other sons and daughters.

18 When Peleg had lived 30 years, he fathered Reu. 19 And Peleg lived after he fathered Reu 209 years and had other sons and daughters.

20 When Reu had lived 32 years, he fathered Serug. 21 And Reu lived after he fathered Serug 207 years and had other sons and daughters.

22 When Serug had lived 30 years, he fathered Nahor. 23 And Serug lived after he fathered Nahor 200 years and had other sons and daughters.

24 When Nahor had lived 29 years, he fathered Terah. 25 And Nahor lived after he fathered Terah 119 years and had other sons and daughters.

26 When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran.

27 Now these are the generations of Terah. Terah fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran; and Haran fathered Lot. 28 Haran died in the presence of his father Terah in the land of his kindred, in Ur of the Chaldeans. 29 And Abram and Nahor took wives. The name of Abram’s wife was Sarai, and the name of Nahor’s wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran the father of Milcah and Iscah. 30 Now Sarai was barren; she had no child.

31 Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. 32 The days of Terah were 205 years, and Terah died in Haran. Genesis 11:10-32 ESV

With the opening verses of chapter 11, Moses provides an explanation of an earlier comment he made regarding Peleg, a descendant of Shem.

To Eber were born two sons: the name of the one was Peleg, for in his days the earth was divided – Genesis 10:25 ESV

Bookending the story of the tower of Babel are two genealogical lists. In chapter 10, beginning in verse 11, Moses provides an abbreviated version of Shem’s lineage, because it provides no branch for Peleg, the son of Eber. In reference to Peleg simply states: “in his days the earth was divided” (Genesis 10:25 ESV). The story of Babel is what follows. When humanity decided to settle down in the land of Shinar, build a city, and erect a tower as a monument to their own glory, God took action. They shared a common ancestry and enjoyed the benefits of a common language. This unified connection gave them a sense of invincibility and fueled their desire for autonomy. That is why God said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Genesis 11:6 ESV). 

Rather than obeying God’s mandate to fill the earth, they had determined to remain in one place and construct a city that would reflect their own greatness. Rather than honor God, they chose to glorify themselves. So, God stepped in and “confused” their language. He miraculously divided their number by creating a barrier to further communication. Suddenly, they found themselves unable to understand one another. This God-enforced diversity resulted in their dispersal across the face of all the earth.

And it is at this point, that Moses picks back up the genealogical record of Shem’s descendants. With the story of Babel explained, Moses is able to reveal what happened to Peleg after “the earth was divided” (Genesis 10:25 ESV).

Back in chapter five, Moses recorded another genealogical record that began with Adam and ended with Noah and his three sons. This list contains the names of all those who descended from Adam and Eve and vividly portrays the life-altering consequences of the first couple’s sin and the divine curse it incurred.

First of all, it states that Adam “fathered a son in his own likeness, after his image” (Genesis 5:3 ESV). This statement stands in stark contrast to the creation account where God had said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis1:26 ESV). Because of the entrance of sin into the perfect environment of Eden, mankind was permanently damaged. Adam and Eve would pass on to their descendants their proclivity for sin and the divine decree of death as its punishment. The original man and woman were to be God’s image-bearers. But like a marred mirror, this first couple and all their progeny would be incapable of perfectly reflecting the glory of God – all because of sin. Their children would be born in their image and bear their likeness. 

And the list found in chapter five contains another sober reminder of the consequences of the fall. With each successive generation, Moses repeatedly and intentionally states “he fathered” and “he died.” While the creation story in chapter one emphasizes the glory and wonder of new life, the genealogical list in chapter five provides the new post-fall reality of death.

But Moses leaves out that dark and depressing aspect of mankind’s fate in the genealogy of Shem recorded in chapter 11. While the age of each father is listed, there is no mention of death. This distinction is subtle, yet significant. Moses is attempting to paint a more hopeful future for humanity. Even after the debacle of Babel, when “the earth was divided” by God (Genesis 10:25) because of the pride and arrogance of man, this second genealogy of Shem is intended to reveal a new line of humanity that will result in another new beginning.

The first part of this list is much like the one found in chapter 10. But this time, Moses traces the branch of Eber’s family tree through his son, Peleg. According to the list, Eber had other sons and daughters. In other words, there were other branches to his family tree that could have been traced, but Moses concentrated all his attention on Peleg and the line of descent that flowed through his son, Reu. Moses is very specific and has an end in mind. His methodical record of Peleg’s lineage has actually been reverse-engineered and intended to trace the ancestral pedigree of a particular offspring of Adam. Notice where the genealogy ends.

When Terah had lived 70 years, he fathered Abram, Nahor, and Haran. – Genesis 11:26 ESV

After listing generations of descendants from Shem, the list suddenly stops. Moses has reached his desired destination. And the name of Abram would have caught the attention of Moses’ Hebrew audience. After all, he was their revered patriarch, the father of the Hebrew nation. This entire exercise in genealogical authentication was meant to validate Abram as a descendant of Noah and an offspring of Adam. And one of the reasons this is so important is because of the curse God had leveled against the serpent for his role in the fall of man.

And I will cause hostility between you and the woman,
    and between your offspring and her offspring.
He will strike your head,
    and you will strike his heel.” – Genesis 3:15 NLT

Of all the genealogical lists contained in Genesis, this one is intended to provide a sense of hope and anticipation. The world is broken and marred. And with the birth of each new generation, mankind is slowly moving further away from God. And yet, here in chapter 11, an offspring of Eve is born who will play a significant role in fulfilling the divine curse that God had leveled on the enemy. Satan would pay dearly for his attempt to dethrone God by deceiving and damaging His image-bearers. Despite the subsequent generations that flowed from the first couple and the track record of wickedness that plagued them, God had a plan for restoring them. He had a preconceived strategy for redeeming fallen humanity even before He had breathed life into the first man.

This chapter is intended to be a turning point in what has been a somewhat bleak story. Moses is preparing to reveal the next chapter in his history of mankind by introducing a new character who will play a vital role in God’s redemptive plan. Up to this point in the Genesis account, there have been two primary protagonists: Adam and Noah. One represents humanity in its pre-fall and post-fall states. The other spans the pre-flood and post-flood periods of mankind’s existence. But now, Moses introduces a third character whose life will greatly influence the unfolding story of God’s redemptive plan.

What should stand out in all of this is God’s sovereignty. He is operating behind the scenes, orchestrating and overseeing every aspect of His creation. Nothing escapes His notice or happens outside of His sovereign and providential will. The birth of Abram was not a case of blind luck, fate, or cosmic karma. It was the preordained will of God Almighty. God had predetermined the birth of Abram because He had always planned to use this one man as a conduit through whom He would one day pour out His blessings on humanity. As will become evident as the story unfolds, God had grand plans for this seemingly insignificant descendant of Adam. The One who ordained Abram’s birth would one day divulge Abram’s calling.

“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

That last line speaks volumes. God was going to use a solitary offspring of Eve to reverse the curse and pour out His blessings on all the families of the earth. This one man, Abram, would prove to be the divinely ordained conduit thought whom God would bring hope to a sin-damaged world and the gift of life to all those living under the curse of death.

And Moses ends chapter 11 with Abram moving from his home in Ur to the distant land of Haran. Moses describes Abram’s slow but steady migration east, bringing him ever closer to the land of Canaan. And Moses intended this far-from-subtle insight into Abram’s former home and ultimate destination to remind his Jewish readers of their roots. They hailed from the land of Shinar, the infamous site of Babel and the future home of Babylon. Their patriarch was a Chaldean and not a Jew. And their distinct Hebraic language had been the result of God’s judgment against the rebellious people of Babel. Their heritage was marred. Their patriarch was far from pristine. But their God had a plan that would put all these pieces together to form a perfect plan so that He might bless the nations of the earth.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

The Unfathomable Ways of God

1 These are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. Sons were born to them after the flood.

The sons of Japheth: Gomer, Magog, Madai, Javan, Tubal, Meshech, and Tiras. The sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz, Riphath, and Togarmah. The sons of Javan: Elishah, Tarshish, Kittim, and Dodanim. From these the coastland peoples spread in their lands, each with his own language, by their clans, in their nations.

The sons of Ham: Cush, Egypt, Put, and Canaan. The sons of Cush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The sons of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan. Cush fathered Nimrod; he was the first on earth to be a mighty man. He was a mighty hunter before the Lord. Therefore it is said, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter before the Lord.” 10 The beginning of his kingdom was Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh, in the land of Shinar. 11 From that land he went into Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-Ir, Calah, and 12 Resen between Nineveh and Calah; that is the great city. 13 Egypt fathered Ludim, Anamim, Lehabim, Naphtuhim, 14 Pathrusim, Casluhim (from whom the Philistines came), and Caphtorim.

15 Canaan fathered Sidon his firstborn and Heth, 16 and the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, 17 the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, 18 the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites. Afterward the clans of the Canaanites dispersed. 19 And the territory of the Canaanites extended from Sidon in the direction of Gerar as far as Gaza, and in the direction of Sodom, Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, as far as Lasha. 20 These are the sons of Ham, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations. Genesis 10:1-20 ESV

Noah lived a long and fruitful life. For 950 years, this righteous and blameless man had walked with God. No, he had not been perfect or sinless. But he had stood out from the rest of his generation as a man who had a heart for God. And, as a result, Noah found favor with God. He and the members of his immediate family were chosen by God and graciously given a chance to survive the judgment that God poured out on the world. They alone had lived before and after the devastation of the flood. After assessing the pervasive presence of wickedness amongst mankind, God had decided to destroy His creation and start over. With this small remnant of humanity and a relative sampling of the rest of the living creatures, God rebooted the entire creation project.

In Genesis 10, Moses provides another genealogical listing designed to emphasize this new phase of God’s plan. The first genealogy is found in chapter five and covers the family tree of Adam all the way to Noah. Now, Moses picks up the story of mankind’s expansion by chronicling the family trees of Noah’s three sons: Shem, Ham, and Japheth.

Noah eventually died, but his three sons would continue to fulfill God’s mandate to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. Humanity would continue to use its God-given capacity to procreate. Just as Adam and Eve had born children, so would these three men. And, as Moses makes clear, “Sons were born to them after the flood” (Genesis 10:1 ESV). Life continued. But as will soon become readily evident, so did sin.

From this one man, Noah, would come all the nations of the world. And though he was a man who walked with God, his descendants would show a stubborn capacity to walk away from God. The further the narrative gets away from the story of Eden, the greater the distance grows between God and mankind. As humanity multiplies and spreads across the earth, its desire for autonomy and independence from God will increase exponentially.

Yet, God had a strategy in place. He was working behind the scenes to preserve a faithful remnant through whom He could bring about His ultimate redemptive plan for the world. The genealogical lists found in Genesis 10 are intended to display God’s sovereign power and glory. The births recorded in this chapter are meant to emphasize God’s providential orchestration of all things. He was divinely determining the trajectory of mankind, creating from the three sons of Noah all the future nations of the world. In the book of Deuteronomy, Moses encouraged the people of Israel to consider God’s sovereign authority over the nations.

Remember the days of old;
    consider the years of many generations;
ask your father, and he will show you,
    your elders, and they will tell you.
When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance,
    when he divided mankind,
he fixed the borders of the peoples
    according to the number of the sons of God. – Deuteronomy 32:7-8 ESV

And many centuries later, the apostle Paul would reemphasize the undeniable sovereignty of God over the affairs of mankind.

And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’” – Acts 17:26-28 ESV

In the lengthy list of names found in Genesis 10, Moses provides a series of not-so-subtle hints, designed to explain to his readers the origins of some of the nations of their day. In the family tree of Ham, Moses reveals the genesis of Babel, the city that would later become known as Babylon. Of course, that same family tree contains the name of Canaan, the son of Ham whom Noah had cursed. From this son would come the Canaanites, the people group who would occupy the land that God would later promise to Abraham as his inheritance. In verse 12 is mentioned the city of Nineveh, which would later become the capital of the Assyrian empire, the nation that God would eventually use to destroy the northern kingdom of Israel. Verse 14 contains the name of the Philistines, another people group that would prove to be a constant thorn in the side of God’s chosen people.

Moses also points out that Canaan became the father of “the Jebusites, the Amorites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Arkites, the Sinites, the Arvadites, the Zemarites, and the Hamathites” (Genesis 10:16-18 ESV). This list of names would have been very familiar to Moses’ audience. Among this list are the names of the nations that God had promised to defeat so that Moses and the people of Israel could occupy the land of Canaan.

The Lord said to Moses, “Depart; go up from here, you and the people whom you have brought up out of the land of Egypt, to the land of which I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, saying, ‘To your offspring I will give it.’ I will send an angel before you, and I will drive out the Canaanites, the Amorites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. Go up to a land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people.” – Exodus 33:1-3 ESV

Moses is assuring his people that God had been behind the creation of these various nations. Their formation had not been a byproduct of chance or serendipity. They had been divinely ordained. And while many of these nations would eventually become the enemies of Israel, they would be completely under the authority and dominion of God Almighty. There was a purpose for their existence and it had been determined by God.

And Moses provides one last “hint” in his genealogical record of Ham’s family tree. In verse 19, he describes the eventual territorial boundaries of the Canaanites. And in his description, he includes the names of two infamous cities that would play an important role in the history of Israel: Sodom and Gomorrah.

The family tree of Ham includes such names as Egypt, Canaan, Babel, Assyria, Nineveh, Canaan, Sodom, and Gomorrah. The Jewish readers to whom Moses wrote would have flinched at the mention of these names. They were laden with significance and represented important milestones in the history of the Jewish people. And yet, Moses is painstakingly proving that these various nations and cities were the byproduct of God’s sovereign will. A point he emphasizes when he writes, “These are the sons of Ham, by their clans, their languages, their lands, and their nations” (Genesis 10:20 ESV).

“The table of nations is a ‘horizontal’ genealogy rather than a ‘vertical’ one (those in chapters 5 and 11 are vertical). Its purpose is not primarily to trace ancestry; instead, it shows political, geographical, and ethnic affiliations among tribes for various reasons, most notable being holy war. Tribes shown to be ‘kin’ would be in league together. Thus this table aligns the predominant tribes in and around the land promised to Israel. These names include founders of tribes, clans, cities, and territories.” – Allen P. Ross, Genesis

The Jews, who were designated as God’s chosen people, had to constantly question why God had allowed such nations as Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon to exist. Why did God permit the presence of wicked cities like Sodom and Gomorrah? Wouldn’t the world have been a better place without the Canaanites, Amorites, and Jebusites?

But this chapter was intended to display and explain the sovereignty of God. As Paul so clearly asserted, “From one man he created all the nations throughout the whole earth. He decided beforehand when they should rise and fall, and he determined their boundaries” (Genesis 17:26 NLT).

The sin committed by Ham (Genesis 9) produced some significant consequences. His genealogical line is filled with a rogue’s gallery of names and locations that would have struck fear into the hearts of the Jewish people. But these individuals and nations each existed for a reason. They would have divinely ordained roles to play in God’s unfolding redemptive plan. Yes, from Ham would come the Canaanites. But as chapter 11 will reveal, from Shem would come Abram, the father of the Hebrew people.

When dealing with the question of God’s sovereignty, it’s essential that we accept the bad with the good. The existence of the Canaanites, Ninevites, Babylonians, Egyptians, and Sodomites may cause us to question the wisdom of God, we must always remember that God’s ways are not always understandable or even logical to our finite minds. And the sovereign God of the universe has warned us that trying to comprehend His ways is well beyond our limited capacity.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

Mankind was procreating and filling the earth, but all the while, God was fulfilling His sovereign, infallible will.

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.

New English Translation (NET)NET Bible® copyright ©1996-2017 by Biblical Studies Press, L.L.C. http://netbible.com All rights reserved.

You Can Run, But You Can’t Hide

But the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea, so that the ship threatened to break up. Then the mariners were afraid, and each cried out to his god. And they hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them. But Jonah had gone down into the inner part of the ship and had lain down and was fast asleep. So the captain came and said to him, “What do you mean, you sleeper? Arise, call out to your god! Perhaps the god will give a thought to us, that we may not perish.”

And they said to one another, “Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” So they cast lots, and the lot fell on Jonah. Jonah 1:4-7 ESV

God told Jonah to “get up and go” and that is exactly what he did. But in the wrong direction. Rather than head to Nineveh as God had commanded, Jonah decided to “to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord” (Jonah 1:3 ESV). While we have no idea of the exact location of Tarshish, we do know that it was nowhere near Nineveh. In fact, to go there, Jonah headed east to the city of Joppa on the Mediterranean coast, where he hired a boat. Some speculate that Tarshish was another name for the city of Tartesus in southwest Spain. In Jonah’s day, the 2,500-mile journey to this remote location would have been like traveling to the end of the world.

But for Jonah, the trip was well worth the effort and expense. He was determined to get as far away from the land of Israel as he possibly could. Among the people of the ancient world, it was a common belief that the gods were regionalized deities whose domains were restricted to specific geographic locations. We have an example of this mindset recorded in 1 Kings 20. In this account, the Israelite army finds itself encamped in a valley, facing a much larger Syrian force. But God delivers a word to the king of Israel.

“Thus says the Lord, ‘Because the Syrians have said, “The Lord is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys,” therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am the Lord.’” – 1 Kings 20:28 ESV

Based on his actions, it seems that Jonah believed that Yahweh, the God of Israel, was somehow restricted to that region of the world. After all, the temple where God’s presence was said to dwell was located in Jerusalem.

Three separate times in this opening chapter, the author stresses that Jonah was attempting to flee from the presence of the Lord. In other words, his decision to go to Tarshish was motivated by a desire to get away from God. Having found the task assigned to him by God to be unacceptable, Jonah chose to avoid doing God’s will by escaping His presence. And this raises some serious questions about Jonah’s theology. Did he really think he could run from God? As a good Hebrew and a prophet of God, was he not aware of the concept of God’s omnipresence? Had he never read the words of King David?

Where shall I go from your Spirit?
    Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
    If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
    and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
    and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
    and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
    the night is bright as the day,
    for darkness is as light with you.” – Psalm 139:7-12 ESV

To think that Jonah had a fully formed theology of God would be a mistake. Later in the book, he will display an intimate understanding of God’s nature.

“I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” – Jonah 4:2 ESV

But we should not assume that Jonah’s concept of God was fully complete or entirely accurate. Even his understanding of God’s grace and mercy seems a bit skewed. He almost describes these divine traits as weaknesses, that might somehow allow God to relent from pouring out His judgment on the Assyrians. Jonah describes his understanding of God’s grace, mercy, patience, and love as the very reasons why he ran away in the first place. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish” (Jonah 4:2 ESV).

Rather than run the risk of having to watch God spare the Ninevites, Jonah simply ran away. But he was about to discover the truth behind David’s words – the hard way.

The author matter-of-factly states that “the Lord hurled a great wind upon the sea, and there was a mighty tempest on the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV). It’s almost as if, at the very moment Jonah stepped foot on the boat, his plan began to fall apart. His hope to escape the presence of the Lord was met with a divine reminder that running from God is not only futile but utterly impossible.

The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees all the children of man;
from where he sits enthroned he looks out
    on all the inhabitants of the earth,
he who fashions the hearts of them all
    and observes all their deeds. – Psalm 33:12-15 ESV

And the prophet Amos, a contemporary of Jonah, had declared God’s words of judgment against the rebellious people of Israel.

“Even if they dig down to the place of the dead,
    I will reach down and pull them up.
Even if they climb up into the heavens,
    I will bring them down.
Even if they hide at the very top of Mount Carmel,
    I will search them out and capture them.
Even if they hide at the bottom of the ocean,
    I will send the sea serpent after them to bite them.” – Amos 9:2-3 NLT

Little did Jonah know that he was about to experience the words of this prophetic statement in real life. He could run but he couldn’t hide. Jonah had no idea that he had just purchased a ticket to “Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride.”

One of the things that will become readily apparent as we work our way through the book of Jonah is the author’s habit of repeating certain words for emphasis. He states that God “hurled a great wind upon the sea” (Jonah 1:4 ESV). One verse later, he writes that the sailors “hurled the cargo that was in the ship into the sea to lighten it for them” (Jonan 1:5 ESV). And in verse 15, he will bring this part of Jonah’s story to a climax by stating that “they picked up Jonah and hurled him into the sea” (Jonah 1:15 ESV). The Hebrew word for “hurled” is ṭûl and it was often used to describe the act of casting a spear. Like a divine warrior, God uses the elements of nature like a weapon, flinging the wind and the waves at his reluctant and rebellious prophet. And the psalmist describes the Lord’s sovereign authority over the wind and the waves in graphic terms.

Some went off to sea in ships,
    plying the trade routes of the world.
They, too, observed the Lord’s power in action,
    his impressive works on the deepest seas.
He spoke, and the winds rose,
    stirring up the waves.
Their ships were tossed to the heavens
    and plunged again to the depths;
    the sailors cringed in terror.
They reeled and staggered like drunkards
    and were at their wits’ end.
Lord, help!” they cried in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress. – Psalm 107:23-28 NLT

That is the scene being played out in the opening chapter of the book of Jonah. God is hurling his divine weapons of judgment against the ship in which his prodigal prophet has sought refuge. And the sailors responsible for Jonah’s safe passage find themselves in a state of abject fear as their vessel begins to break up under the relentless wrath of God Almighty. As a sign of their desperation, they begin to jettison the ship’s valuable cargo, willingly sacrificing any hopes of profit in order to preserve their lives. In 1 Kings 10:22, we are given a description of the potential value of the cargo contained on ships traveling to and from Tarshish.

…the king [Solomon] had a fleet of ships of Tarshish at sea with the fleet of Hiram. Once every three years the fleet of ships of Tarshish used to come bringing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks. – 1 Kings 10:22 ESV

These seasoned sailors were terrified by the intensity of the storm. So much so that they “each cried out to his god” (Jonah 1:5 ESV). These men were non-Israelites and the fact that they each had their own god would seem to indicate that were from different countries and cultures.  Little did Jonah know that his traveling companions were a mixed bag of pagan idol worshipers. And these men were in fear of losing their lives. But while they were busy calling out to their respective deities and throwing cargo overboard, Jonah was fast asleep in the hold of the ship.

It’s amazing to think that Jonah was able to sleep through the storm and the constant noise associated with the sailors’ frantic efforts to jettison cargo. But the author is very specific in the word he uses to describe Jonah’s slumbering state. The Hebrew word is rāḏam and it conveys the idea of a sleep bordering on unconsciousness. Jonah is in a state of stupefaction. He is out like a light. Perhaps Jonah had imbibed in some liquid refreshment that contributed to his coma-like condition. But regardless of what caused Jonah’s deep sleep, it was soon interrupted by the angry cries of the ship’s captain.

“How can you sleep at a time like this?”Jonah 1:6 NLT

It was all hands on deck. This was no time for anyone to be sleeping while sinking. He demanded that Jonah join the rest of the crew by calling on his particular deity of choice. He was an equal-opportunity idolater who was more than willing to accept the aid of any and all gods. At this point, he had no idea who Jonah was, where he was from, or what religion he practiced. He just knew that, without divine intervention, they were dead men.

“Get up and pray to your god! Maybe he will pay attention to us and spare our lives.” – Jonah 1:6 NLT

It should not go unnoticed that these pagan sailors displayed far more spiritual awareness than the Hebrew prophet, Jonah. While they had been praying, Jonah had been sleeping. He almost seems resigned to the fact that his life is not worth living if he has to do what God has commanded him to do. Jonah shows no signs of remorse or regret. He was not tossing and turning in sleepless anxiety, questioning his actions, or agonizing over his decision to disobey God. He was sleeping like an innocent baby. But these pagan sailors seemed to recognize that this storm had divine retribution written all over it. Someone was guilty of something and the god(s) were angry. So, in the hopes of assuaging the divine wrath, they come up with a plan to discover the identity of the guilty party.

“Come, let us cast lots, that we may know on whose account this evil has come upon us.” – Jonah 1:7 ESV

And, not surprisingly, “the lot fell on Jonah” (Jonah 1:7 ESV). These sailors discovered what the readers of the book already knew. Jonah was the cause of all their troubles. This unknown and unnamed passenger had uncaringly jeopardized the lives of the entire crew. And whatever deity Jonah worshiped was going to kill them all if they didn’t figure out a way to appease its wrath.

Jonah, the Hebrew prophet, showed no concern for the suffering sailors. At no point does this servant of Yahweh display a heart for these pagan idolaters who were desperately calling out to the gods in hopes of experiencing salvation. Jonah was a follower of the one true God, but he had no desire to share what he knew with these desperate and dying men. There is no indication that Jonah ever prayed to Yahweh on their behalf. He was too busy running from the presence of God to take time to call on the power of God. And as the representative of Israel, Jonah displayed their ongoing reticence to be a light to the nations.

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

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

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

When God’s Ways Escape Us

12 Are you not from everlasting,
    O Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
    and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
    like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
    he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
    so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
    and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
    and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
    and mercilessly killing nations forever? Habakkuk 1:12-17 ESV

Habakkuk questioned God and the Almighty responded. But the answer Habakkuk received was not what he had hoped for, and in these verses, you can see he is desperately trying to reconcile the divine pronouncement with what he understood about God.

After hearing God announce that the Babylonians worship strength as their deity of choice, Habakkuk declares “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One” (Habakkuk 1:12 ESV). This statement seems to be partially a confident assertion of Yahweh’s unique status as the one true, eternal God of the universe, and an attempt by Habakkuk to shame God into doing something about Judah’s predicament. After declaring God’s holiness and eternality, the prophet states: “We shall not die.” 

While this appears as a statement in the English Standard Version, I believe the New Living Translation provides a more accurate rendering of the original intent behind Habakkuk’s words.

O Lord my God, my Holy One, you who are eternal—
    surely you do not plan to wipe us out? – Habakkuk 1:12 NLT

Habakkuk had been seeking God’s intervention but had been expecting Him to deal with the wicked who were causing all the trouble in Judah. He never dreamed that God would use a pagan nation and its godless king as His chosen instrument of judgment. And God had warned Habakkuk that what He had planned for Judah would be a shock to the senses.

“I am doing something in your own day,
    something you wouldn’t believe
    even if someone told you about it.” – Habakkuk 1:5 NLT

Now that Habakkuk knew God’s plans, he was concerned as to the extent of the judgment. Would it be complete, bringing an end to the nation of Judah. He had seen what had happened to the northern kingdom of Israel when it fell to the Assyrians. They ceased to exist as a nation. Their land was devastated, their cities and towns were destroyed, and the people were taken into captivity or left to live in abject poverty. Was that God’s plan for Judah?

Habakkuk could handle the thought of God sending the Babylonians as a form of reprimand and reproof.

O Lord, our Rock, you have sent these Babylonians to correct us,
    to punish us for our many sins.
– Habakkuk 1:12 NLT

He knew that he and his people deserved God’s punishment and he understood that God had chosen to deliver it by means of the Babylonians. But his concept of God made it difficult for him to accept the logic behind God’s plan.

But you are pure and cannot stand the sight of evil.
    Will you wink at their treachery?
Should you be silent while the wicked
    swallow up people more righteous than they? – Habakkuk 1:13 NLT

To Habakkuk’s way of thinking, this was only making matters worse. If you recall, in his opening statement to God, Habakkuk had described the sorry state of affairs in Judah, declaring, “The wicked far outnumber the righteous, so that justice has become perverted” (Habakkuk 1:4 NLT). As far as Habakkuk was concerned, Judah had more wicked people than they knew what to do with. He had been asking God to do something about the wicked living in his own country. Now God had announced that He was going to use the wicked Babylonians as His instruments of judgment. That made no sense. It was like throwing gasoline on a fire in a vain attempt to douse the flames.

To Habakkuk, God’s plan seemed like an overreaction to the problem – a literal form of overkill. And the prophet is not shy in sharing his concerns with God.

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? – Habakkuk 1:14-15 NLT

Submitting to the righteous judgment of God was one thing. But having to endure that judgment at the hands of pagan Babylonians was something different altogether, and the thought of it left Habakkuk in a state of confusion and consternation. And just in case God didn’t understand the problem with His plan, Habakkuk attempted to inform Him. Knowing that Yahweh hated idolatry in any form, Habakkuk warns that any victory by the Babylonians over the chosen people of God will be followed by worship of their false gods. It will rob God of glory and give the appearance that He has been defeated by the gods of Babylon.

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 1:16 NLT

This was too much for Habakkuk to comprehend. If this was the divine plan, Habakkuk wanted to know how long God was going to let it go on. Would the Babylonians destroy God’s people and enjoy uninterrupted rule over that part of the world?

Will you let them get away with this forever?
    Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquests? – Habakkuk 1:17 NLT

As usual, Habakkuk was operating with a limited perspective. As a mere human, he had no capacity to understand the mind of God. He couldn’t look into the future and see the outcome of God’s divine strategy for Judah’s rebuke and eventual restoration. He had no way of knowing how God would eventually punish the Babylonians for their part in Judah’s demise.

Habakkuk was a prophet of God, but that did not mean he understood the will and the ways of God. Like any other man, he was dependent upon Yahweh to provide him with divine insights and even the words to speak. The extent of his knowledge was solely dependent upon what the Almighty determined to share.  And in most cases, the prophets were all required to operate on limited data, restricted to sharing only that which God had chosen to reveal. But in time, God would divulge the rest of His plan, providing His prophets with a clearer understanding of His strategy in its entirety.

Concerning the Babylonians and Habakkuk’s worry that their global domination would be permanent, God revealed His plans for them to the prophet Jeremiah.

“You rejoice and are glad,
    you who plundered my chosen people.
You frisk about like a calf in a meadow
    and neigh like a stallion.
But your homeland will be overwhelmed
    with shame and disgrace.
You will become the least of nations—
    a wilderness, a dry and desolate land.
Because of the Lord’s anger,
    Babylon will become a deserted wasteland.
All who pass by will be horrified
    and will gasp at the destruction they see there.” – Jeremiah 50:11-13 NLT

God had plans for the Babylonians. Yes, those plans included their role as God’s agents of judgment upon the people of Judah. But those plans also included the ultimate destruction of the Babylonians for their willful participation in Judah’s subjugation and suffering. God would eventually repay Babylon for its wickedness and wanton destruction. And Habakkuk is going to learn of God’s plan for Babylon in the very next chapter.

Because you have plundered many nations,
    now all the survivors will plunder you.
You committed murder throughout the countryside
    and filled the towns with violence. – Habakkuk 2:8 NLT

One of the benefits of reading Scripture is that we get a glimpse into God’s sovereignty and man’s constant attempt to make sense of the Almighty’s ways. Even the prophets of God wrestled with the ways of God. The Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day found it impossible to understand what God was doing in their midst. He had sent His Son as their Messiah but these learned men failed to recognize Jesus as who He truly was. Jesus even accused them of missing the forest for the trees.

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

They were knowledgeable of God’s Word but remained ignorant of God’s will. They enjoyed an encyclopedic understanding of God’s law but failed to understand that the law could not provide them with salvation. It could convict of sin but had no capacity to provide escape from the condemnation of sin. Only Jesus could do that.

Habakkuk was operating on limited information. And each time God revealed another aspect of His divine plan, the prophet found himself trying to reconcile God’s version of reality with his own. But part of being a child of God is learning to trust our heavenly Father’s ways. Habakkuk had been right when he said, “Are you not from everlasting, O Lord my God, my Holy One” (Habakkuk 1:12 ESV). He recognized God’s holiness and transcendence, but now he was having to come to grips with God’s sovereign will over all things, including Judah’s judgment and the Babylonian’s role in it.

Learning to trust God is a big part of choosing to follow Him. We don’t always know where He is leading us. We won’t always understand what He is doing around us. The circumstances of life will not always appear just and fair. There will be times when He appears distant or disinterested in what is happening in our lives. But God is always there and His plan for us is perfect and unstoppable. We may not always understand His ways, but we can always trust in His will. And, in the meantime, we can express the words of the apostle Paul.

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! – Romans 11:33 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

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

 

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