Learning to Trust the Ways of God

All this I observed while applying my heart to all that is done under the sun, when man had power over man to his hurt.

10 Then I saw the wicked buried. They used to go in and out of the holy place and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. 11 Because the sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily, the heart of the children of man is fully set to do evil. 12 Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him. 13 But it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God.

14 There is a vanity that takes place on earth, that there are righteous people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the wicked, and there are wicked people to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. I said that this also is vanity. 15 And I commend joy, for man has nothing better under the sun but to eat and drink and be joyful, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of his life that God has given him under the sun.

16 When I applied my heart to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how neither day nor night do one’s eyes see sleep, 17 then I saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out. Even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out. Ecclesiastes 8:9-17 ESV

In this life, things don’t always turn out the way we think they should. The righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. Good people experience a lot of bad things. And, far too often, bad people seem to come out on top. Solomon is wise enough to know that, in the end, everybody dies. But some wicked people can spend their whole lives fooling others into thinking they were actually good and godly people who lived religious lives. So, when they die, they receive the unmerited praise and honor of men.

I have seen wicked people buried with honor. Yet they were the very ones who frequented the Temple and are now praised in the same city where they committed their crimes! This, too, is meaningless. – Ecclesiastes 8:10 NLT

They lived a lie, and in death, they receive unwarranted admiration. As far as Solomon is concerned, this is just another proof of the vanity and futility of life. At the time of death, good people get forgotten, while the wicked get a parade in their honor.

When Solomon mentions the wicked, he is not just speaking of the godless and immoral. He is referring to those who hurt others, abusing and taking advantage of them. They are the oppressors he mentioned in chapter four.

Again, I observed all the oppression that takes place under the sun. I saw the tears of the oppressed, with no one to comfort them. The oppressors have great power, and their victims are helpless. – Ecclesiastes 4:1 NLT

These people don’t commit their wicked deeds in a vacuum. Their behavior inevitably impacts the lives of those around them. There are always victims involved because wickedness is an equal-opportunity destroyer. And sadly, it is usually the innocent who end up suffering because of the lifestyle choices of the wicked. For Solomon, the actions of the wicked against the innocent are just another example of life’s meaninglessness.

I have thought deeply about all that goes on here under the sun, where people have the power to hurt each other. – Ecclesiastes 8:9 NLT

Prostitution and human sex trafficking destroy the lives of countless individuals every year. The drug cartels line their pockets with cash paid out by those seeking yet another high in a hopeless attempt to escape the lows of life. Abusive husbands have abused wives. Rapists have victims. Con artists have their marks. Bullies have the helpless. Liars have the naive and gullible. The powerful have the defenseless. The list goes on and on. And when the wicked see that they can get away with whatever it is they do, they feel emboldened to do more. Solomon put it this way: “When a crime is not punished quickly, people feel it is safe to do wrong” (Ecclesiastes 8:11 NLT). 

But Solomon introduces a vital point of clarification. Even though the wicked may appear to escape any retribution or justice, he knows that eventually, there will be payback. He has confidence that God’s justice will one day be meted out on all those who have made wickedness their lifestyle.

it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. – Ecclesiastes 8:13 ESV

From our perspective, it may appear as if the wicked just keep on sinning, committing evil after evil, with no apparent consequences. It can even seem as if they live charmed lives, marked by longevity and free from accountability. But Solomon knows that it is those who fear God who will prosper in the long run. They may not experience it in this life, but our righteous God will one day ensure that all is made right. In the meantime, we have to live with the incongruous reality that things don’t always add up in this life. It is full of contradictions and apparent paradoxes. This is why Solomon observes:

good people are often treated as though they were wicked, and wicked people are often treated as though they were good. – Ecclesiastes 8:14 NLT

It can feel so meaningless and futile. And trying to make sense of it all is about as productive as chasing the wind. You get nowhere. You expend a lot of energy but have nothing to show for it in the end. So, Solomon simply concludes. “I recommend having fun, because there is nothing better for people in this world than to eat, drink, and enjoy life. That way they will experience some happiness along with all the hard work God gives them under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 8:15 NLT).

Is this advice from Solomon wise? Does it even make sense? It may sound appealing but just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t necessarily mean it’s godly counsel. This isn’t the first time that Solomon has reached this conclusion and passed it on to his readers. He offered up the same basic conclusion back in chapter five.

Even so, I have noticed one thing, at least, that is good. It is good for people to eat, drink, and enjoy their work under the sun during the short life God has given them, and to accept their lot in life. – Ecclesiastes 5:18 NLT

He said virtually the same thing in chapter two, verse 24. He repeated it in chapter three, verses 12-13, and then again, here in chapter five. Eat, drink and enjoy your work. Eat, drink and be joyful. What’s Solomon saying and how should we take his advice?

He is not advising a life of hedonism and self-centered pleasure. He is not advocating unbridled self-satisfaction. But he is suggesting that there are joys associated with hard work and diligent effort in this life. We get to reap the rewards of our work. We can enjoy the warmth and safety of the home our labor helped to we helped to provide. We can take advantage of the many material blessings that God allows us to enjoy as a result of our work. Unlike a slave, who receives no personal benefit from his labors, but must watch the rewards be consumed by his master, we can enjoy the fruit of our effort. We can find joy in a job well done and the benefits it offers. And Solomon would have us remember that “To enjoy your work and accept your lot in life—this is indeed a gift from God” (Ecclesiastes 8:20 NLT).

We may not have much, but what we do have, we should appreciate and view as a gift from God. The ability to find joy in our labor is something God supplies, and it comes from having a healthy reverence for God. If you despise your job and resent the time you spend having to work for a living, you are essentially expressing to God your ungratefulness for His provision. Your job is not good enough. The benefits it provides are not sufficient enough. So, rather than joy, you express resentment and disappointment. You begin to look at the apparent prosperity of the wicked and question the goodness of God. This can lead to an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that produces a ledger of God’s failures to provide for you. This can lead to a lack of fear of God. And this can result in a failure to show Him reverence, honor, glory, or gratitude.

A big part of learning to fear God is learning to trust Him. It is coming to grips with who He is and who we are in comparison. He is God. He is sovereign, all-knowing, and all-powerful. He is not wise; He is wisdom itself. He knows what is best. He always does what is right. Moses expressed it this way:

I will proclaim the name of the Lord;
    how glorious is our God!
He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect.
    Everything he does is just and fair.
He is a faithful God who does no wrong;
    how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:3-4 NLT

Yes, there are many things in this life that appear unfair and unjust. There are paradoxes and incongruities galore. Our circumstances may scream to us that God is nowhere to be found, but the Scriptures tell us something radically different. He is always there. The wicked may appear to get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, but God is still in control. He has a plan. He will do what is just and fair. He can do no wrong. And if we could learn to view life through the lens of God’s transcendent power, glory, goodness, and love, we would be better able to enjoy our lives on this planet – in spite of the seeming contradictions and incongruities that surround us.

Solomon realized that “no one can discover everything God is doing under the sun. Not even the wisest people discover everything, no matter what they claim” (Ecclesiastes 8:17 NLT). God’s ways are not our ways. His sovereign plans are sometimes a mystery to us, but they are always righteous and good. Attempting to judge the faithfulness of God based on the incongruous circumstances of life is a dangerous game to play. The apostle Paul warned against presumptuous behavior.

Who are you, a mere human being, to argue with God? Should the thing that was created say to the one who created it, “Why have you made me like this?” – Romans 9:20 NLT

And Paul borrowed his analogy from the prophet Isaiah.

How foolish can you be?
    He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
    “He didn’t make me”?
Does a jar ever say,
    “The potter who made me is stupid”? – Isaiah 29:16 NLT

Both men believed it was ludicrous for a mere man to question the goodness of God just because life had not turned out as expected. For Isaiah, it was ridiculous for the creature to question the Creator. The one who was made had no right to call into question the integrity and righteousness of his Maker.

…can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it? Is the saw greater than the person who saws? Can a rod strike unless a hand moves it? Can a wooden cane walk by itself? – Isaiah 10:15 NLT

In the end, Solomon recognized his inability to understand the ways of God. No amount of wisdom would ever explain the vagaries of life and the mysteries of God’s ways. And it was the apostle Paul who succinctly summed up the lesson that Solomon was learning.

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

For who can know the Lord’s thoughts?
    Who knows enough to give him advice?
And who has given him so much
    that he needs to pay it back?

For everything comes from him and exists by his power and is intended for his glory. All glory to him forever! Amen. – Romans 11:33-36 NLT

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

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

Getting to Know God

1 The words of Agur son of Jakeh. The oracle.

The man declares, I am weary, O God;
    I am weary, O God, and worn out.
Surely I am too stupid to be a man.
    I have not the understanding of a man.
I have not learned wisdom,
    nor have I knowledge of the Holy One.
Who has ascended to heaven and come down?
    Who has gathered the wind in his fists?
Who has wrapped up the waters in a garment?
    Who has established all the ends of the earth?
What is his name, and what is his son’s name?
    Surely you know!

Every word of God proves true;
    he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
Do not add to his words,
    lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.

Two things I ask of you;
    deny them not to me before I die:
Remove far from me falsehood and lying;
    give me neither poverty nor riches;
    feed me with the food that is needful for me,
lest I be full and deny you
    and say, “Who is the Lord?”
or lest I be poor and steal
    and profane the name of my God. – Proverbs 30:1-9 ESV

The closing chapters of the book of Proverbs are attributed to two different individuals whose identities remain a ministry. The first is Agur, the son of Jakeh. The second is referred to as King Lemuel. But we know nothing else about these men. Lemuel’s name does not appear anywhere in the list of the kings of Judah or Israel, found in the books of Kings or Chronicles. So, it is unclear where his kingdom was located. Some have speculated that Lemuel was a pen name for Solomon, but without evidence to back up their claim. The names Agur and Jakeh appear nowhere else in Scripture, so we have no way of knowing who they were or when and where they lived. But Agur and Lemuel were considered to be sages whose wise sayings were included in Solomon’s compendium of proverbs.

The first part of Agur’s collection of proverbs deals with man’s relationship with God. The author opens his list of three proverbial statements regarding God by speaking in the third person, describing himself as “weary and worn out” (Proverbs 30:1 NLT). He addresses his statements to God and makes a stunning confession:

I am too stupid to be human,
    and I lack common sense. – Proverbs 30:2 NLT

Agur acknowledges that his lack of wisdom has left him unable to truly know and understand God.

I have not mastered human wisdom,
    nor do I know the Holy One.
Proverbs 30:3 NLT

Agur is not declaring himself to be a fool, but he is simply acknowledging the transcendence of God. Agur’s wisdom is limited in scope and incapable of plumbing the depths of God’s character and nature. That is why Agur asks five probing questions that are intended to reveal man’s incapacity to fully know and appreciate the greatness of God.

Who but God goes up to heaven and comes back down?
Who holds the wind in his fists?
Who wraps up the oceans in his cloak?
Who has created the whole wide world?
What is his name—and his son’s name? Tell me if you know!

It’s almost as if Agur was familiar with the book of Job because he seems to mirror the questioning style found in chapters 38-42. In the book of Job, God confronts the main character with a series of questions that are designed to reestablish His own greatness and Job’s insignificance.

“Who is this that questions my wisdom
    with such ignorant words?
Brace yourself like a man,
    because I have some questions for you,
    and you must answer them.”  – Job 38:2-3 NLT

And God precedes to expose Job’s unwarranted boldness to question His goodness and glory by asking a series of rhetorical questions.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” – Job 38:4 NLT

“Have you ever commanded the morning to appear
    and caused the dawn to rise in the east? – Job 38:12 NLT

“Have you explored the springs from which the seas come?
    Have you explored their depths? – Job 38:16 NLT

For two solid chapters, God levels question after question to Job. And when He is done, God asks Job, “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (Job 40:2 NLT). To which Job humbly responds:

“I am nothing—how could I ever find the answers?
    I will cover my mouth with my hand.
I have said too much already.
    I have nothing more to say.” – Job 40:4-5 NLT

Like Job, Agur understands that he has no right to question God. His wisdom is insufficient to comprehend the will and the ways of God. And he is worn out from attempting to gain enough wisdom to know and understand God.

But he has learned enough to know that God’s word is always true. Agur’s God is faithful and can be fully trusted.

In reading the book of Proverbs it would be easy to focus on what appear to be the main themes or topics of the book: Wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. There is a natural tendency to make the gaining of these three things our sole or primary objective. After all, no one wants to be a fool, so it would make sense to pursue wisdom, knowledge, and understanding. But in doing so, we would miss the real objective of the book.

If you recall, in the very first chapter, Solomon stated that “Fear of the Lord is the foundation of true knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7 NLT). In other words, while wisdom, knowledge, and understanding are worthy objectives, they are only available through a right relationship with God. The Message paraphrases Proverbs 1:7 this way: “Start with God — the first step in learning is bowing down to God.”

It all begins with God. In Proverbs 30, Agur confesses, “I am weary, O God; I am weary and worn out, O God. I am too stupid to be human, and I lack common sense. I have not mastered human wisdom, nor do I know the Holy One” (Proverbs 30:2-3 NLT). When we fail to start with God, and we neglect to get to know Him for who He is, we end up worn out, and lacking in the very things we need to survive and thrive in this world: wisdom, knowledge, and understanding.

Yet, when we make getting to know God our objective, we discover the true source of all wisdom. He is the creator of all things. His wisdom and knowledge are beyond our comprehension, yet He makes Himself known to us when we seek Him. He gives us His Word and it is completely reliable and true. Growing in our knowledge of God gives us a greater understanding of ourselves – our weaknesses, limitations, sinful tendencies, and our total dependence on Him.

Getting to know God gives us a new perspective on life. It changes our priorities, which is why Agur could say, “O God, I beg two favors from you; let me have them before I die. First, help me never to tell a lie. Second, give me neither poverty nor riches! Give me just enough to satisfy my needs. For if I grow rich, I may deny you and say, ‘Who is the Lord!’ And if I am too poor, I may steal and thus insult God’s holy name” (Proverbs 30:7-9 NLT).

Growing in our knowledge of God refocuses our priorities and puts Him at the center of our lives. When we begin to understand just how much God hates pride, we will no longer desire to see it in our own lives. When we see it in others, we are turned off by it. We understand the danger of pride, arrogance, and over-inflated self-worth in our children. A growing knowledge of God will expose the ever-present danger of gluttony in our lives – in all its forms.

We are prone to discontentment and incessantly desire more and more of just about everything, including pleasure, food, attention, accolades, money, and power. Like the leech, we cry out, “More, more!” A person who has an intimate understanding of God is able to see through the facade of temptation and spot the dangers that lurk behind the lure. The fool is simply that person who doesn’t know God and, as a result, lacks wisdom, knowledge, understanding, and basic common sense. Like Agur, they end up weary from trying to live life in this world with nothing but their own human understanding to rely upon. That’s why it pays to start with God. The first step in achieving wisdom is learning is bow down before God. He is the key to life.

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.

But Wait, There’s More

23 These also are sayings of the wise.

Partiality in judging is not good.
24 Whoever says to the wicked, “You are in the right,”
    will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations,
25 but those who rebuke the wicked will have delight,
    and a good blessing will come upon them.
26 Whoever gives an honest answer
    kisses the lips.

27 Prepare your work outside;
    get everything ready for yourself in the field,
    and after that build your house.

28 Be not a witness against your neighbor without cause,
    and do not deceive with your lips.
29 Do not say, “I will do to him as he has done to me;
    I will pay the man back for what he has done.”

30 I passed by the field of a sluggard,
    by the vineyard of a man lacking sense,
31 and behold, it was all overgrown with thorns;
    the ground was covered with nettles,
    and its stone wall was broken down.
32 Then I saw and considered it;
    I looked and received instruction.
33 A little sleep, a little slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest,
34 and poverty will come upon you like a robber,
    and want like an armed man. – Proverbs 24:23-34 ESV

Solomon has already provided his sons with 30 wise sayings that he had collected and compiled. But it seems he discovered a half dozen more that he felt were worthy of publication. With these final six sayings, Solomon brings this section to a close and concludes his mission to equip his sons for life in this world.

I have written thirty sayings for you,
    filled with advice and knowledge.
In this way, you may know the truth
    and take an accurate report to those who sent you. – Proverbs 22:20-21 NLT

It seems obvious that Solomon never intended for the first 30 sayings to be comprehensive and complete. Chapter 22, verse 17 through chapter 24, verse 22 was not meant to be an exhaustive list of sage advice or Solomon never would have included the final six. But it is as if, when looking over all the sage wisdom he had collected, he ran across a few more that he felt worthy of inclusion.

These also are sayings of the wise. – Proverbs 24:23 ESV

In 12 short verses, Solomon discusses a number of seemingly unrelated topics; from the practice of partiality to the destructive nature of poor planning. He warns about falsely accusing someone else and encourages truthfulness at all costs. He discourages the seeking of revenge and warns against giving in to the desire to lite against an enemy just to get even with them.

These are all lifestyle messages, and they convey the idea that wisdom must show up in daily life. The sage advice that Solomon was sharing with his sons was meant to make a difference in the way they conducted themselves in every area of life.

Solomon wanted his sons to be honest, God-fearing men who displayed an appreciation for the divine wisdom he was sharing with them. He desired that they would put these time-tested truths into practice, but he knew that they would constantly face the temptation to follow the ways of the world. In a fallen world, disingenuous flattery and falsehood take precedence over the truth. Approval of the wicked seems to be more profitable than calling them out. That’s why Solomon warns, “Whoever says to the wicked, ‘You are in the right,’ will be cursed by peoples, abhorred by nations” (Proverbs 24:24 ESV).

Years later, the prophet Isaiah would also warn against the temptation to distort reality by purposefully confusing right from wrong.

What sorrow for those who say
    that evil is good and good is evil,
that dark is light and light is dark,
    that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter.
What sorrow for those who are wise in their own eyes
    and think themselves so clever. – Isaiah 5:20-21 NLT

In contrast, Solomon promotes a lifestyle of integrity and honesty.

…those who rebuke the wicked will have delight,
    and a good blessing will come upon them.
Whoever gives an honest answer
    kisses the lips. – Proverbs 24:25-26 ESV

Twisting the truth may seem like a profitable tact to take, but it stands in direct opposition to the will of God. To turn a blind eye to the unethical and immoral behavior of others may pay off in the short term but it will have eternal consequences. As far as Solomon was concerned, honesty is always the best policy. There was no situation in which falsehood or deception would be the preferred course of action. And willingly distorting the truth in order to seek revenge was totally unacceptable.

Don’t testify against your neighbors without cause;
    don’t lie about them.
And don’t say, “Now I can pay them back for what they’ve done to me!
    I’ll get even with them!” – Proverbs 24:28-29 NLT

Solomon wanted his boys to understand that unethical behavior was never to be an option for them. If they chose the path of the wicked and foolish, it would not end well. And Solomon closes out this section by giving a less-than-flattering description of a man who chose folly over wisdom and lived to suffer the consequences.

I walked by the field of a lazy person,
    the vineyard of one with no common sense.
I saw that it was overgrown with nettles.
    It was covered with weeds,
    and its walls were broken down. Proverbs 24:30-31 NLT

Solomon describes a vineyard that is overgrown and in a state of disrepair. It is unproductive and unfruitful, displaying the consequences of years of neglect and poor management. The dilapidated state of this vineyard wasn’t due to some kind of natural disaster but was the result of negligence and laziness. It was the byproduct of a life dedicated to foolishness rather than wisdom.

One of the fallacies associated with the life of faith is that there is little we are responsible for in our Christian life. It is a life based solely upon grace and not merit. While it is true that we can’t earn our salvation through self-effort or work, it is NOT true that grace eliminates effort altogether. Grace is opposed to earning, not effort. We can’t earn favor with God and we can’t work our way into heaven. We can’t achieve a state of godliness on our own, but we are to strive for it.

Paul said, “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should” (1 Corinthians 9:27 NLT). Paul aggressively pursued the life of righteousness. While he knew that it was ultimately God’s responsibility to produce the life of godliness within him, Paul also knew that he had a responsibility to actively participate in the process. God makes the crops grow, but the farmer still has to till the ground and plant the seed.

The book of Proverbs contains repeated mentions of the sluggard or the lazy person. Sometimes he is referred to as the sloth, a slow-moving, sleep-loving, and work- avoiding individual who lacks initiative and self-motivation. In verse 30, Solomon combines the attribute of laziness with the lack of common sense. He presents a toxic blend of two character traits that are each bad enough alone, but devastating when combined.

In reality, the lazy person always lacks common sense or understanding, because they fail to recognize that their failure to act and desire to avoid work will always produce the wrong results. Solomon describes the visible outcome of the lifestyle of laziness and ignorance. This man’s refusal to use common sense and properly care for his vineyard produced devastating results:  “…it was overgrown with nettles. It was covered with weeds, and its walls were broken down” (Proverbs 24:31 NLT).

This guy’s field or vineyard was overgrown with weeds and the walls designed to protect it were in shambles. In other words, due to this person’s laziness and lack of common sense, his vineyard would fail to produce fruit. His ignorance and unwillingness to work had resulted in fruitlessness.

What a sad picture of the lives of so many Christians today. Due to spiritual apathy and laziness, their lives produce little in the way of fruit. They have neglected the spiritual disciplines of prayer, Scripture reading, meditation, and the study of God’s Word. As a result, their spiritual walls are broken down and their lives are fruitless.

The lesson Solomon learned from seeing the field of the lazy person applies to us today.

A little extra sleep, a little more slumber,
    a little folding of the hands to rest—
then poverty will pounce on you like a bandit;
    scarcity will attack you like an armed robber.Proverbs 24:33-34 NLT

The choice to take the lazy way will always result in spiritual poverty. The apostle Paul challenges us, “let us cleanse ourselves from everything that can defile our body or spirit. And let us work toward complete holiness because we fear God” (2 Corinthians 7:1 NLT). The godly life requires diligent effort and common sense. We must aggressively pursue the things of God. We must make the pursuit of His will our highest priority. He has placed His Spirit within us, but the Holy Spirit will not force Himself on us. We must make a choice to tap into His power and take full advantage of His presence in our lives.

But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live. – Romans 8:13 NLT

Laziness and a lack of common sense are a dangerous combination in the life of a believer. God has called us to work hard and think wisely, which is why Paul encourages us to “Work hard to show the results of your salvation, obeying God with deep reverence and fear. For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him” (Philippians 2:12-13 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.

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

The Unlikely Purpose of Perez

20 When Judah sent the young goat by his friend the Adullamite to take back the pledge from the woman’s hand, he did not find her. 21 And he asked the men of the place, “Where is the cult prostitute who was at Enaim at the roadside?” And they said, “No cult prostitute has been here.” 22 So he returned to Judah and said, “I have not found her. Also, the men of the place said, ‘No cult prostitute has been here.’” 23 And Judah replied, “Let her keep the things as her own, or we shall be laughed at. You see, I sent this young goat, and you did not find her.”

24 About three months later Judah was told, “Tamar your daughter-in-law has been immoral. Moreover, she is pregnant by immorality.” And Judah said, “Bring her out, and let her be burned.” 25 As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” 26 Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again.

27 When the time of her labor came, there were twins in her womb. 28 And when she was in labor, one put out a hand, and the midwife took and tied a scarlet thread on his hand, saying, “This one came out first.” 29 But as he drew back his hand, behold, his brother came out. And she said, “What a breach you have made for yourself!” Therefore his name was called Perez. 30 Afterward his brother came out with the scarlet thread on his hand, and his name was called Zerah.  Genesis 38:20-30 ESV

Reading through the book of Genesis reminds us that God’s are incomparable and, at times, inconceivable. There are times when He accomplishes His divine will in the most extraordinary ways and through the most unlikely of people. Consider His choice of Abram and Sarah. Why would God set apart a man from the land of Chaldea, who had done nothing to deserve the right to be the father of a great nation? And why would God choose to make that great nation using a man who had a barren wife? Why did God choose Jacob over Esau, knowing that Esau was a natural-born con man who would go out of his way to defraud his own brother and deceive his elderly father?

In this chapter, we see additional evidence of God’s sometimes strange and difficult-to-understand ways. And as we read this story, we must remember the words of the apostle Paul: “How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” (Romans 11:33 NLT). And God Himself reminds us, “…my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine” (Isaiah 55:8 NLT).

Judah had refused to honor his commitment to allow his third-born son, Shelah, to father a son through Tamar, the widowed wife of his two older brothers. Er and Onan had both been wicked men whom God had punished by death. This had left Tamar not only a widow but childless. And Judah had agreed to honor the practice of levirate marriage by requiring his third son to marry Tamar and father a son who would carry on the family name. But when the time came, Judah changed his mind. But Tamar never forgot the vow he had made, and when the time was right, she took matters into her own hands and attempted to right the wrong that had been done to her.

Through a rather remarkable set of circumstances, Judah had sexual relations with Tamar, believing her to be a cult prostitute. And he had agreed to compensate her for her services by giving her a goat. Since he didn’t have the goat with him when the salacious act took place, he offered three items as collateral. Later on, he sent a friend to pay the “prostitute” and retrieve his personal effects, but the woman was nowhere to be found. Anxious to put this indiscretion behind him, Judah calls off the search for the woman and writes off his personal items as a loss.

But little did Judah know that his one-night fling would come back to haunt him. Three months later, he received word that Tamar had become pregnant, and he was furious. He saw this as an unacceptable act of immorality on her part and demanded that she be put to death. But in the heat of his righteous indignation, Jacob received a shocking message from his daughter-in-law that turned his anger into anxiety.

“The man who owns these things made me pregnant. Look closely. Whose seal and cord and walking stick are these?” – Genesis 38:25 NLT

There in his hands, Jacob held the proof of his own sin. He had impregnated his own daughter-in-law. This news must have been a shock to his system, tempting him to come up with some way to cover up his sin and save face among his people. But it appears that Judah owned up to his role in the affair and declared Tamar as the undeserving victim.

“She is more righteous than I am, because I didn’t arrange for her to marry my son Shelah.” – Genesis 38:26 NLT

Tamar went on to give birth to twin sons: Perez and Zerah. And the nature of their births was similar to that of Jacob and Esau. When Zerah attempted to exit the womb first, a midwife tied a scarlet thread to his wrist. But when the babies were finally born, it was Perez who came out first, much to the surprise of the midwife. To all those watching, Zerah should have been the firstborn. Since his hand had come out first, he must have been closest to the birth canal. But inside the womb, the two babies switched positions at the last second, and Perez came out first. He became the unexpected and unlikely firstborn. And it would be through this son that God would fulfill His commitment to Abraham.

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 12:2-3 ESV

In his letter to the believers in Galatia, the apostle Paul unpacks this divine promise and clarifies the nature of its meaning.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. – Galatians 3:7-9 ESV

According to Paul, when God made that promise to Abraham, He was predicting the coming of the Messiah. It would be through the offspring of Abraham that “the blessing” of the nations would come. And Paul reveals that this blessing would come in the form of Jesus the Messiah of Israel.

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

This amazing fact is in keeping with the way God continued to reiterate the promise to Abraham and his descendants.

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you.  And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. – Genesis 17:4-7 ESV

Not only would Abraham father a great nation, but from his offspring would come great kings, including King David. And the book of Ruth reveals that God would use an unlikely candidate named Perez as the conduit through whom the great King David would come.

Now these are the generations of Perez: Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Ram, Ram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, Salmon fathered Boaz, Boaz fathered Obed, Obed fathered Jesse, and Jesse fathered David. – Ruth 4:18-22 ESV

And if we fast-forward to the gospel of Matthew, we see that Jesus would come through the line of Perez as well. That is why He is referred to as the Son of David. Matthew opens up his gospel with the genealogy of Jesus.

Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram, and Ram the father of Amminadab, and Amminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of David the king. – Matthew 1:2-6 ESV

And the very next line of the genealogy provides another reminder of God’s unfathomable ways.

And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah – Matthew 1:7 ESV

David had committed adultery with Bathsheba and then ordered the death of her husband so that he could take her as his wife. The child born to them as a result of their immoral act was taken by the Lord. But God replaced that child with Solomon, who would become the heir to David’s throne. And it would be through the line of Solomon that Jesus came. Matthew ends the lineage with the words, “and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16 ESV). From Abraham to Judah to Perez to David to Joseph to Jesus.

And while Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, the throne of David rightfully belonged to Jesus as the king’s legally-justified descendant and heir. God had chosen to bring salvation to the world through the most unlikely of circumstances and by using the least likely people. Despite the immorality of Judah, the trickery of Jacob, the deceit of Tamar, and the other egregious acts of countless other individuals, God’s divine will was being accomplished according to His perfect and righteous plan.

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 Marvelous and Mysterious Ways of God

26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.” 27 So he came near and kissed him. And Isaac smelled the smell of his garments and blessed him and said,

“See, the smell of my son
    is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed!
28 May God give you of the dew of heaven
    and of the fatness of the earth
    and plenty of grain and wine.
29 Let peoples serve you,
    and nations bow down to you.
Be lord over your brothers,
    and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
Cursed be everyone who curses you,
    and blessed be everyone who blesses you!”

30 As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of Isaac his father, Esau his brother came in from his hunting. 31 He also prepared delicious food and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father arise and eat of his son’s game, that you may bless me.” 32 His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your son, your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Then Isaac trembled very violently and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? Yes, and he shall be blessed.” 34 As soon as Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me, even me also, O my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully, and he has taken away your blessing.” 36 Esau said, “Is he not rightly named Jacob? For he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” Then he said, “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” 37 Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I have made him lord over you, and all his brothers I have given to him for servants, and with grain and wine I have sustained him. What then can I do for you, my son?” 38 Esau said to his father, “Have you but one blessing, my father? Bless me, even me also, O my father.” And Esau lifted up his voice and wept.

39 Then Isaac his father answered and said to him:

“Behold, away from the fatness of the earth shall your dwelling be,
    and away from the dew of heaven on high.
40 By your sword you shall live,
    and you shall serve your brother;
but when you grow restless
    you shall break his yoke from your neck.” Genesis 27:26-40 ESV

Rebekah’s clandestine plan had worked to perfection. Her elderly and half-blind husband had been so thoroughly fooled by Jacob’s slipshod disguise that he truly thought he was about to bestow a blessing on his eldest son, Esau.

Having satiated his appetite with the food that Jacob had prepared, the old man called his son to his side and kissed him. And because Jacob had followed his mother’s advice and was wearing Esau’s clothes, Isaac’s dulled senses were fooled yet again. Esau was an outdoorsman and a hunter, so his clothing carried a unique scent. Isaac described it as “the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed” (Genesis 27:27 ESV). Along with an affectionate fatherly kiss, Isaac bestowed a blessing upon his son. But little did he realize that his blessing was being stolen right from under his clouded eyes.

But completely oblivious to the fraudulent nature of the moment, Isaac placed his hands on his son and passed on the blessing of the firstborn.

“From the dew of heaven
    and the richness of the earth,
may God always give you abundant harvests of grain
    and bountiful new wine.
May many nations become your servants,
    and may they bow down to you.
May you be the master over your brothers,
    and may your mother’s sons bow down to you.
All who curse you will be cursed,
    and all who bless you will be blessed.” – Genesis 27:28-29 NLT

This blessing would have been of great value to Isaac because it had been passed down to him by his own father. There had been a time in Isaac’s life when Abraham had declared these very same words to him, and now he was passing them on to his eldest son – or so he thought.

The words contained in the blessing are a reiteration of the promise that God had made to Abraham. In fact, on the day that Abraham obeyed the word of the Lord and prepared to offer up the life of Isaac as an offering, God had intervened and repeated His covenant promise.

“Because you have obeyed me and have not withheld even your son, your only son, I swear by my own name that I will certainly bless you. I will multiply your descendants beyond number, like the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will conquer the cities of their enemies. And through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed—all because you have obeyed me.” – Genesis 22:16-18 NLT

That is the core message behind Isaac’s blessing of Esau. It contains the promises of land, fruitfulness, and power. Isaac is declaring his belief that, even after his own death, God will continue to fulfill every aspect of His covenant promise. But while Isaac’s heart was in the right place, his hands were on the wrong son. He was inadvertently bestowing the blessing on Jacob instead of Esau. But despite Isaac’s confusion, God’s will was actually being fulfilled. This convoluted mess was turning out just as God had planned.

God had declared his intentions regarding these two brothers long before they were born. While Rebekah was still carrying them in her womb, He had revealed their preordained destinies.

“Two nations are in your womb,
    and two peoples from within you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
    the older shall serve the younger.” – Genesis 25:23 ESV

God had already predetermined that Jacob would be the greater of the two. And while Esau had been the first to exit the birth canal providing him with a legal claim to the birthright and the blessing of the firstborn, God had other plans.

This passage provides a powerful reminder that God’s ways are beyond our limited capacity to understand. He declares of Himself, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” and then He adds, “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV). God is not required to explain Himself. And Moses provides no explanation for God’s actions in this story. We are not told why God allowed Rebekah to do what she did. There is no rationale given for why God permitted the deceptive and manipulative Jacob to steal his brother’s blessing. 

Each of the characters in the story comes off as fatally flawed and seemingly out of step with the will of God. And yet, God’s will was being done in spite of them but, more importantly, through them. Each of them had been driven by their own selfish agenda, but their wills were completely subject to the sovereign will of God.

Isaac’s misplaced blessing would prove to have long-term implications, but the outcome would be in keeping with God’s predetermined plan. Jacob, the younger, would be blessed so that he might be a blessing. He would inherit the right to rule over his brothers. And his descendants would enjoy the divine protection of God Almighty. Those who cursed them would be cursed. Those who blessed them would be blessed.

It’s difficult to reconcile this news when one considers the ungodly actions of Rebekah and Jacob. They employed deceit, manipulation, and fraud to accomplish their objective. But God was working behind the scenes to ensure their less-than-righteous actions produced good rather than evil. It is the same message that will be conveyed later on in the story of Genesis, when Joseph, a son of Jacob, confronts his own brothers who, out of jealousy and spite, had sold him into slavery. Through the sovereign will of God, Joseph ended up in Egypt and rose from slavery to the second-highest position in the land. And when his brothers came seeking food because of a severe famine in Canaan, Joseph confronted them about their ill-treatment of him.

“But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh—the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt.” – Genesis 45:5-8 NLT

Joseph could see the hand of God in all that had happened in his life. His brothers had been guilty of selling him into slavery, but Joseph recognized that it had all been a part of God’s sovereign plan. And it is important to remember that Joseph was a son of Jacob, the man who stole the blessing from his own brother. And, even at the end of his life, Joseph was able to reiterate to his brothers his belief in God’s sovereign plan.

“Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. – Genesis 50:19-20 ESV

But the story of Jacob and Esau is still difficult to read and even more difficult to justify. It all seems so unfair and indefensible, especially when Moses relates the impact it had on the unsuspecting and seemingly innocent Esau. He ultimately comes home to find that his blessing has been stolen and he is beside himself with frustration and anger. This is the second time his brother has taken advantage of him and he declares his well-justified resentment at this most recent injustice.

“…he has cheated me these two times. He took away my birthright, and behold, now he has taken away my blessing.” – Genesis 27:36 ESV

Esau demands to receive a blessing, but Isaac sadly informs him that Jacob has received it all.

“I have made Jacob your master and have declared that all his brothers will be his servants. I have guaranteed him an abundance of grain and wine—what is left for me to give you, my son?” – Genesis 27:37 NLT

There is nothing left to give. Esau’s brother now owns his birthright and his blessing. And when Isaac hears Esau’s anguished pleas to be blessed, all he can do is restate the negative impact that the blessing of Jacob will have on Esau’s life. It is less a blessing than it is a curse.

“You will live away from the richness of the earth,
    and away from the dew of the heaven above.
You will live by your sword,
    and you will serve your brother.
But when you decide to break free,
    you will shake his yoke from your neck.” – Genesis 27:39-40 NLT

While this story is intended to leave the reader with a sense of dissonance, it should also remind them of the unfathomable nature of God’s ways. There are things going on behind the scenes that we cannot see or comprehend. The dysfunctionality of this family is appalling, but even their worse actions are no match for God’s best-laid plans. The fulfillment of His will is not dependent upon their faithfulness. Jacob did not deserve the blessing, yet it was his. Rebekah’s unrighteous behavior is in no way justified by the outcome it seems to have produced. And she will live to regret the division her behavior has created within her own household. Her sins will have consequences. And, as the story unfolds, it will become painfully clear that Jacob’s sins will have serious consequences as well.

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.

What Sorrow Awaits

Shall not all these take up their taunt against him, with scoffing and riddles for him, and say,

“Woe to him who heaps up what is not his own—
    for how long?—
    and loads himself with pledges!”
Will not your debtors suddenly arise,
    and those awake who will make you tremble?
    Then you will be spoil for them.
Because you have plundered many nations,
    all the remnant of the peoples shall plunder you,
for the blood of man and violence to the earth,
    to cities and all who dwell in them.

“Woe to him who gets evil gain for his house,
    to set his nest on high,
    to be safe from the reach of harm!
10 You have devised shame for your house
    by cutting off many peoples;
    you have forfeited your life.
11 For the stone will cry out from the wall,
     and the beam from the woodwork respond.” – Habakkuk 2:6-11 ESV

God continues His response to Habakkuk’s critique of the divine plan to bring judgment upon Judah through the means of the wicked Babylonians. God has not denied the fact that the Babylonians are puffed up with pride, greedy, arrogant, and unrighteous. But neither has He apologized for planning to use this wicked nation as His preferred method for bringing judgment upon His disobedient children. God had shown no remorse in having used King Sennacherib and the Assyrians to punish the northern kingdom of Israel. And He was not about to alter His plans for Judah just because Habakkuk had a problem with them.

What Habakkuk failed to see was the bigger picture of God’s plan. The prophet, while a spokesman for God, did not have all the facts to make an informed decision. He was not privy to the full scope of what God had in store for Judah or the Babylonians. And in His response to Habakkuk, God graciously begins to reveal the hidden aspects of His divine plan. He was going to use the Babylonians to accomplish His sovereign will, but that did not mean the Babylonians would escape His justice and judgment. In fact, in this section, God pronounces five “woes” or expressions of lament against the Babylonians. In the New Living Translation, these five statements of woe begin with the phrase: “What sorrow awaits….”

While God’s answer is directed at Habakkuk, He has a much larger audience in mind. He has already told His prophet to “Write my answer plainly on tablets, so that a runner can carry the correct message to others” (Habakkuk 2:2 NLT). God wanted the entire nation of Judah to know what He had in store, not only for them but for the nation of Babylon. That is why He had emphasized their need for faith. They were going to have to trust that God would do the right thing. He would keep His covenant commitment to the nation of Judah. But part of that commitment had included His promise to bring curses upon them for their disobedience and unfaithfulness. He would keep His word. But He would also keep His promise to never fully abandon them. They would suffer punishment for their apostasy, but they would also enjoy future restoration because of His unfailing love and faithfulness.

But as for Babylon, God had plans for them as well. He warns that the day will come when He turns the pride of the Babylonians into humiliation and their global domination into defeat and despair. All the nations conquered by the Babylonians will rise up and taunt them. They will relish watching the meteoric fall of the once-powerful Babylonian empire and mock as their former conquerors become the conquered and the captives.

The first woe deals with the Babylonian’s penchant for enriching themselves by plundering then taxing their conquered foes into financial destitution. Their greed and avarice were insatiable. The book of 2 Kings describes in great detail the fall of Jerusalem and the pillaging that took place by the Babylonians.

Nebuchadnezzar carried away all the treasures from the Lord’s Temple and the royal palace. He stripped away all the gold objects that King Solomon of Israel had placed in the Temple. King Nebuchadnezzar took all of Jerusalem captive, including all the commanders and the best of the soldiers, craftsmen, and artisans—10,000 in all. Only the poorest people were left in the land. – 2 Kings 24:13-14 NLT

After leaving its conquered enemies defeated and demoralized, the Babylonians would demand exorbitant tribute payments, essentially taxing them into further submission. But the first woe explains that this practice would not go on forever.

“What sorrow awaits you thieves!
    Now you will get what you deserve!
You’ve become rich by extortion,
    but how much longer can this go on?” – Habakkuk 2:6 NLT

God would turn the tables on the Babylonians, bringing an abrupt end to their period of world domination. Just as quickly as they rose to power, they will suddenly find themselves on the receiving end of God’s wrath and having to deal with the rebellion and retribution of all their enemies.

“Suddenly, your debtors will take action.
    They will turn on you and take all you have,
    while you stand trembling and helpless.” – Habakkuk 2:7 NLT

Just as the Babylonians had replaced the Assyrians as the 800-pound gorilla on the world stage, the Babylonians would eventually fall to the Medes and the Persians in 539 B.C. And all of this was under the sovereign control of God Almighty. As the prophet, Daniel wrote, “He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings” (Daniel 2:21 NLT).

The Babylonians would reap what they had sowed. They would experience what it was like to have their cities plundered and pillaged, and their people indiscriminately murdered.

“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

Now, while these woes are directed at the nation of Babylon, it should not be overlooked that much of what is being said applied to Judah as well. And it is likely that Habakkuk did not miss the somewhat subtle indictment that God was bringing against His own people. If you recall, Habakkuk had begun his book with a dark description of the state of affairs in Judah.

Wherever I look,
    I see destruction and violence.
I am surrounded by people
    who love to argue and fight.
The law has become paralyzed,
    and there is no justice in the courts.
The wicked far outnumber the righteous,
    so that justice has become perverted. – Habakkuk 1:3-4 NLT

The people of Judah were just as guilty of violence, injustice, greed, and unrighteousness. And the next woe is even more reflective of the attitude shared by many of those in Judah who lived in open rebellion against God while enjoying the many blessings He had poured out on them.

“What sorrow awaits you who build big houses
    with money gained dishonestly!
You believe your wealth will buy security,
    putting your family’s nest beyond the reach of danger. – Habakkuk 2:9 NLT

The Babylonians used all their plunder and ill-gained booty to enrich their lives and to secure their futures. They enjoyed unparalleled success and all the benefits that came with it. But God’s people were just as guilty. In fact, the prophet, Amos, provides a stinging indictment from God against the nation of Israel.

You trample the poor,
    stealing their grain through taxes and unfair rent.
Therefore, though you build beautiful stone houses,
    you will never live in them.
Though you plant lush vineyards,
    you will never drink wine from them.
For I know the vast number of your sins
    and the depth of your rebellions.
You oppress good people by taking bribes
    and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. – Amos 5:11-12 NLT

This kind of behavior was to be expected from the pagan Babylonians, but it should have been unheard of among the people of God. Yet sadly, it had become the norm. Injustice, greed, selfishness, and an unbridled passion for pleasure and possessions made become commonplace among the people of God. And in pronouncing woes upon the guilty Babylonians, God was condemning the sins of His own chosen people.

“But by the murders you committed,
    you have shamed your name and forfeited your lives.
The very stones in the walls cry out against you,
    and the beams in the ceilings echo the complaint.” – Habakkuk 2:10-11 NLT

What was true for the Babylonians was true of the nation of Judah as well. And God would deal with both nations, according to His justice, holiness, and righteousness. They would not get away with their wicked behavior or escape His divine wrath. As the apostle Paul makes clear in his letter to the Romans, “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Romans 1:18 ESV). Your country of origin does not matter. Your status on the pecking order of world powers makes no difference. Whether you are the conqueror or the conquered, God will hold you accountable to His just and righteous requirements.

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

Not What You Expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Ways Are Higher

10 “When you draw near to a city to fight against it, offer terms of peace to it. 11 And if it responds to you peaceably and it opens to you, then all the people who are found in it shall do forced labor for you and shall serve you. 12 But if it makes no peace with you, but makes war against you, then you shall besiege it. 13 And when the Lord your God gives it into your hand, you shall put all its males to the sword, 14 but the women and the little ones, the livestock, and everything else in the city, all its spoil, you shall take as plunder for yourselves. And you shall enjoy the spoil of your enemies, which the Lord your God has given you. 15 Thus you shall do to all the cities that are very far from you, which are not cities of the nations here. 16 But in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, 17 but you shall devote them to complete destruction, the Hittites and the Amorites, the Canaanites and the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites, as the Lord your God has commanded, 18 that they may not teach you to do according to all their abominable practices that they have done for their gods, and so you sin against the Lord your God.

19 “When you besiege a city for a long time, making war against it in order to take it, you shall not destroy its trees by wielding an axe against them. You may eat from them, but you shall not cut them down. Are the trees in the field human, that they should be besieged by you? 20 Only the trees that you know are not trees for food you may destroy and cut down, that you may build siegeworks against the city that makes war with you, until it falls.– Deuteronomy 20:10-20 ESV

Let’s face it, these are difficult verses to understand, let alone to justify. They deal with sensitive topics, and their content appears counter-intuitive and contradictory to our sense of fairness and ethics. This is one of those passages that cause many to reject the God of the Old Testament as antithetical to the loving, grace-giving, and merciful God of the New Testament.

But despite any reservations we may have with the more sinister portrait of God found in these verses, the Scriptures do not portray God as bipolar in nature. We may not like what we see. His actions may offend our more refined 21st-Century sensibilities, but the biblical portrait of God is designed to be taken in full, not in part.

The nature of God is complex and complicated. And mankind is at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to comprehending His wisdom or His ways. God, by the very nature of His being, is incomprehensible and beyond man’s capacity to understand. His own assessment of His transcendent nature is quite plain.

“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

Even the psalmist understood that mere humans were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to understanding the ways of God.

When I look at the night sky and see the work of your fingers—the moon and the stars you set in place—what are mere mortals that you should think about them, human beings that you should care for them? – Psalm 8:3-4 NLT

He was blown away that the God who created the universe and all it contains would even give a second thought to “mere mortals” like himself. But how quickly we more sophisticated and well-educated modern mortals attempt to judge God and hold Him accountable for His actions. And yet, the ancient prophet, Isaiah, would have us consider the danger of putting the God of the universe on trial, passing judgment on His behavior as if He somehow answers to us.

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

These verses in Deuteronomy 20 must be read with the whole context of the biblical narrative in mind. The Bible is a single book written by a solitary author and tells a singular story. It is the revelation of God. On its pages are found a diverse and somewhat disparate compellation of images that, when taken together, provide a comprehensive portrait of God. As God, He is far from simple or simplistic in nature. His character is complex and multifaceted, yet never contradictory or conflicting. He is, at the same time loving, wrathful, holy, vengeful, kind, angry, just, condemning, forgiving, uncompromising, and compassionate.

So, when we read of God advocating the complete annihilation of a people group, we are tempted to react with shock and disdain. The image it portrays stands diametrically opposed to the one we have formed in our minds. But far too often, our image of God is a flawed and overly simplistic one, based on human reasoning and not divine revelation. We tend to paint God using a limited palette of colors, designed to cast Him in a way that mirrors our own nature and pleases our human sensibilities. We prefer a God who looks like us, acts like us, and can be fully understood by us. We are not comfortable with the apparent contradictions and contrasts that accompany a transcendent, incomprehensible God.

In these verses, God provides the Israelites with His rules regarding warfare. He has brought them to the land of Canaan and now it is time for them to inhabit the land He had promised to them as their inheritance. But to do so, they would have to remove the nations that currently occupied the land. And while we may find this as nothing more than a display of God-ordained ethnic cleansing, we have to be careful that we do not step into the very dangerous role of acting as God’s judge.

Our inability to grasp God’s ways does not give us carte blanch to judge His actions. As God said to His disgruntled and disenchanted servant, Job: “Do you still want to argue with the Almighty? You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” (Job 40:2 NLT).

In response to Job’s relentless questioning of His motives and methods, God went on to ask Job, “Will you discredit my justice and condemn me just to prove you are right?” (Job 40:8 NLT).

God was unsparing in His response to Job’s arrogant assault on His character, asking him, “Who is this that questions my wisdom with such ignorance?” (Job 42:3 NLT).

And, while we may find if offensive and incomprehensible that God would issue a command for Israel to put all the males of a city to the sword and to take all the women and children as captives, we must refrain from acting as God’s judge. When we hear Moses tell the Israelites: “in the cities of these peoples that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, you shall save alive nothing that breathes, but you shall devote them to complete destruction” (Deuteronomy 20:16 ESV), we naturally react with shock and dismay. But who are we to question the ways of God? What right do we have to judge the Almighty according to our limited wisdom and understanding? His ways are far beyond anything we could ever imagine or comprehend.

God was not asking the Israelites to approve of His methods. He was demanding that they trust His character and willingly rely on His track record of faithfulness. He had never let them down. He had never given them a reason to doubt His word or to question His integrity. And while we may not particularly like God’s methods or understand His ways, we have no right to act as His judge. This chapter of the story may not make sense to us. We may not see the method behind God’s seeming madness, but the Bible contains a story that has a beginning and an end. Every chapter and every verse in every book of the Bible paints a comprehensive picture of God’s redemptive plan for mankind. And this story, while sometimes a difficult read, ends very well.

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 Destruction of the Destroyer.

Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
    the staff in their hands is my fury!
Against a godless nation I send him,
    and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
    and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
But he does not so intend,
    and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
    and to cut off nations not a few;
for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
Is not Calno like Carchemish?
    Is not Hamath like Arpad?
    Is not Samaria like Damascus?
10 As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
    whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
11 shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
    as I have done to Samaria and her images?” 

12 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. 13 For he says:

“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
    and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
    and plunder their treasures;
    like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
14 My hand has found like a nest
    the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
    so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
    or opened the mouth or chirped.”

15 Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
    or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
    or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!
16 Therefore the Lord God of hosts
    will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
    like the burning of fire.
17 The light of Israel will become a fire,
    and his Holy One a flame,
and it will burn and devour
    his thorns and briers in one day.
18 The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land
    the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
    and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
19 The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
    that a child can write them down. Isaiah 10:5-19 ESV

God’s ways are not our ways. His actions are not always understandable by us. In fact, there are times when, from our vantage point, the ways of God appear unjust or unfair. We can read many of the accounts recorded in Scripture and wonder how a loving God can act so harshly, even to His own people. When confronted with stories like the flood that wiped out an entire generation of people, we can end up questioning His goodness. And, of course, His command to the people of Israel to eliminate all the nations occupying the land of Canaan is particularly difficult for us to reconcile with our belief in an all-loving and merciful God.

And, as today’s passage so clearly portrays, there were times when God used the pagan nations to punish His chosen people, then turned around and punished the very ones He used for their actions. It sounds so capricious and temperamental. God comes across more as a tyrant than a loving and gracious sovereign. But our perspective is limited by our vantage point. We see things only from our earth-bound and man-focused point of view. So, we must be careful in judging God or indicting Him based on a limited understanding of His will or His ways. As Moses so eloquently and accurately stated:

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT

In today’s passage, we find God describing the nation of Assyria as “the rod of my anger” and “a club to express my anger” (Isaiah 10:5 NLT). He will use them to punish Judah, His own chosen people, whom He describes as “a godless nation.” God will utilize Assyria like a workman uses a tool to accomplish a task. He will go on to compare Assyria to an ax or a saw, a rod or a wooden cane. These instruments are lifeless and incapable of accomplishing anything of significance apart from the one who picks them up and puts them to work according to his will.

But God makes it clear that the king of Assyria “will not understand that he is my tool; his mind does not work that way” (Isaiah 10:7 NLT). His own pride and arrogance will not allow him to see himself as an unwilling instrument in the hands of a sovereign God. From his perspective, his actions will be according to his own will. He will attack Judah because he wants to, not because God has sovereignly ordained it.

His plan is simply to destroy,
    to cut down nation after nation. – Isaiah 10:7 NLT

He will be doing what he wants to do, unaware that his actions are part of the sovereign will of God. In attacking Judah and Jerusalem, he will be doing what he has always done. He will be following a well-established strategy that had resulted in the defeats of other nations. He will not recognize the hand of God in this victory any more than he had in all the others. In fact, he arrogantly boasts:

So we will defeat Jerusalem and her gods,
    just as we destroyed Samaria with hers. – Isaiah 10:11 NLT

Little did the king of Assyria know or understand that his coming victory over Judah would be God’s doing and not his own. His success would be God-ordained, not the result of his own strategic thinking or military might. But that will not be how he sees it.

“By my own powerful arm I have done this.
    With my own shrewd wisdom I planned it.
I have broken down the defenses of nations
    and carried off their treasures.
    I have knocked down their kings like a bull.
I have robbed their nests of riches
    and gathered up kingdoms as a farmer gathers eggs.
No one can even flap a wing against me
    or utter a peep of protest.” – Isaiah 10:13-14 NLT

And yet, God makes it perfectly clear that, when the Assyrians have completed the task He has set out for them, He will turn His judgment against them. He will punish them for their role in the destruction of His people – even though He is the one who ordained it.

After the Lord has used the king of Assyria to accomplish his purposes on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, he will turn against the king of Assyria and punish him—for he is proud and arrogant. – Isaiah 10:12 NLT

Yes, God would use Assyria to punish godless Judah, but their actions would not be against their will. The king of Assyria, like the people over whom he ruled, would be acting in keeping with his nature. He was proud and arrogant. He was power hungry and convinced of his own invincibility. And God would use the king of Assyria’s pride-filled ambition like a workman wielding a sharpened ax. But unlike a lifeless, inanimate ax, the king of Assyria would boast in his accomplishments, taking full credit for the destruction of Jerusalem. But God points out the absurdity of this kind of arrogance in the face of His sovereign will.

But can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it?
    Is the saw greater than the person who saws?
Can a rod strike unless a hand moves it?
    Can a wooden cane walk by itself? – Isaiah 10:15 NLT

And God goes on to describe the ramifications for Assyria’s part in the fall of Judah. God would punish them, not because they did exactly what He ordained them to do, but because they did it joyfully and with no recognition of His hand in it. They acted arrogantly and willingly in all that they did. So, He warns them that their punishment would be severe. He threatens them with a plague among their all-powerful troops. He predicts the destruction of their once-glorious army. As the Holy One and the Light of Israel, He would consume them as easily as fire destroys thorns and briers. The once great nation of Assyria would be destroyed in a single night.

The Lord will consume Assyria’s glory
    like a fire consumes a forest in a fruitful land;
    it will waste away like sick people in a plague.
Of all that glorious forest, only a few trees will survive—
    so few that a child could count them! – Isaiah 10:18-19 NLT

This pattern is repeated all throughout the Scriptures – all the way to the book of Revelation. God will use the Antichrist to bring judgment on the world, then cast him into hell for his efforts. In the end, God will unleash demonic hordes on humanity to torment and kill them. But, after their work is done, God will cast them and Satan into hell for all eternity.

We may not understand the ways of God. We may not even like the ways of God. But as God will point out much later on in the book of Isaiah:

“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

His ways are always right and just. His divine will is always perfect and His actions are never in error or motivated by injustice or unrighteousness. That may be difficult for us to comprehend, but our inability to understand God’s ways does not diminish God’s character. Our limited perspective may not allow us to fully grasp the ways of our unlimited, all-powerful God, but rather than question His goodness, we should find comfort in the fact that He is in complete control of any and all things.

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