Yet I Will Praise Him

A writing of Hezekiah king of Judah, after he had been sick and had recovered from his sickness:

10 I said, In the middle of my days
    I must depart;
I am consigned to the gates of Sheol
    for the rest of my years.
11 I said, I shall not see the Lord,
    the Lord in the land of the living;
I shall look on man no more
    among the inhabitants of the world.
12 My dwelling is plucked up and removed from me
    like a shepherd’s tent;
like a weaver I have rolled up my life;
    he cuts me off from the loom;
from day to night you bring me to an end;
13     I calmed myself until morning;
like a lion he breaks all my bones;
    from day to night you bring me to an end.

14 Like a swallow or a crane I chirp;
    I moan like a dove.
My eyes are weary with looking upward.
    O Lord, I am oppressed; be my pledge of safety!
15 What shall I say? For he has spoken to me,
    and he himself has done it.
I walk slowly all my years
    because of the bitterness of my soul.

16 O Lord, by these things men live,
    and in all these is the life of my spirit.
    Oh restore me to health and make me live!
17 Behold, it was for my welfare
    that I had great bitterness;
but in love you have delivered my life
    from the pit of destruction,
for you have cast all my sins
    behind your back.
18 For Sheol does not thank you;
    death does not praise you;
those who go down to the pit do not hope
    for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living, he thanks you,
    as I do this day;
the father makes known to the children
    your faithfulness.

20 The Lord will save me,
    and we will play my music on stringed instruments
all the days of our lives,
    at the house of the Lord.

21 Now Isaiah had said, “Let them take a cake of figs and apply it to the boil, that he may recover.” 22 Hezekiah also had said, “What is the sign that I shall go up to the house of the Lord?” – Isaiah 38:9-21 ESV

Hezekiah had been severely ill, and the prophet Isaiah had given him the divine prognosis that his illness would end in death. In his despair, Hezekiah prayed to God and received the news that he would be healed and his life would be extended an additional 15 years. The book of 2 Kings provides additional details concerning Hezekiah’s miraculous recovery.

Then Isaiah said, “Make an ointment from figs.” So Hezekiah’s servants spread the ointment over the boil, and Hezekiah recovered! – 2 Kings 20:7 NLT

Sometime after these events, Hezekiah composed a poem commemorating the occasion and recording the diverse range of emotions he had experienced.

Hezekiah had been rocked by the news of his pending death. It was unexpected and had caught him completely by surprise. Like anyone facing the prospect of an untimely death, Hezekiah thought about all those he would leave behind.

“Never again will I see the Lord God
    while still in the land of the living.
Never again will I see my friends
    or be with those who live in this world.” – Isaiah 38:11 NLT

He couldn’t help but feel that he was being robbed of life, and denied the joy of experiencing all the pleasures that come to the living. Like all men, he had a difficult time imagining what existence beyond death might look like. He refers to his soul being confined to Sheol, the abode of the dead. The ancient Jews did not have a well-developed understanding of the afterlife. Their concept of the blessings of God was closely tied to life on this side of death, not beyond it. Which led Hezekiah to wonder whether his premature death was the result of his own sin. He couldn’t help but consider that he had somehow displeased God and his terminal illness was a form of divine punishment. For the Jews, disease was viewed as a sign of God’s displeasure. The apostle John records a scene from the life of Jesus that reflects this common misperception.

As Jesus was walking along, he saw a man who had been blind from birth. “Rabbi,” his disciples asked him, “why was this man born blind? Was it because of his own sins or his parents’ sins?” – John 9:1-2 NLT

The disciples were reflecting the commonly held view that blindness was a curse, not a blessing. So, this man or his parents must have done something that angered God and brought about his blindness.

Hezekiah shared this mindset and saw his illness as a curse from God. Which led Hezekiah to pray incessantly, his voice sounding like the coos of a dove as he moaned out his pleas for God’s mercy. And yet, he somehow believed that his calls for healing would be ineffectual.

“But what could I say?
    For he himself sent this sickness.
Now I will walk humbly throughout my years
    because of this anguish I have felt.” – Isaiah 38:15 NLT

His illness was God’s doing, and there was nothing he could do about it. But his poem takes a dramatic turn at this point. Suddenly, Hezekiah begins to reflect his gratefulness for the dark night of the soul he experienced.

“Lord, your discipline is good,
    for it leads to life and health.
You restore my health
    and allow me to live!
Yes, this anguish was good for me,
    for you have rescued me from death
    and forgiven all my sins.” – Isaiah 38:15-17 NLT

God provided healing and the assurance that his life would be extended another 15 years. Hezekiah’s sorrow was immediately replaced with joy. His despair was replaced with delight in God’s mercy and unmerited favor. God was allowing him to live and, not only that, forgiving his sins in the process. Because Hezekiah believed his illness was the result of sin, his healing could only have happened if God forgave his sin.

You can sense Hezekiah’s rather earth-bound and limited view of life and the afterlife. From his human perspective, life was essential if one were going to praise God.

“For the dead cannot praise you;
    they cannot raise their voices in praise.
Those who go down to the grave
    can no longer hope in your faithfulness.” – Isaiah 38:18 NLT

He shared the commonly-held view that this life was where God’s blessings were to be enjoyed and where our devotion to God was to be displayed. You see this mindset reflected in the psalms.

The heavens belong to the Lord,
    but he has given the earth to all humanity.
The dead cannot sing praises to the Lord,
    for they have gone into the silence of the grave. – Psalm 115:16-17 NLT

Even King David had shared this view of life and death.

Return, O Lord, and rescue me.
    Save me because of your unfailing love.
For the dead do not remember you.
    Who can praise you from the grave? – Psalm 6:4-5 NLT

From Hezekiah’s perspective, long life provided an opportunity to praise God. “Only the living can praise you as I do today” (Isaiah 38:19 NLT). And he intended to take advantage of every single moment God was going to give him on this earth.

I will sing his praises with instruments
every day of my life
    in the Temple of the Lord.” – Isaiah 38:20 NLT

Hezekiah’s desire to spend his remaining years praising God is commendable. His ecstatic reaction to the news of his healing is natural and normal. He had been facing certain death and, suddenly, he had been given a new lease on life. In the excitement of the moment, Hezekiah expressed his desire to repay God by dedicating his life to the praise and glory of God. And again, this reaction by Hezekiah is commendable, but it raises some unavoidable questions: Are we only willing to praise God when He gives us the desires of our heart? Had God not chosen to heal Hezekiah, would the king have praised the Almighty anyway? Would he have accepted the will of God even when it seemed to contradict his own human understanding of what it means to be blessed by God?

The prophet Habakkuk provides us with a much more balanced illustration of how we, as humans, should understand and respond to the seeming incongruities of life.

Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation! – Habakkuk 3:17-18 NLT

The apostle Paul shared this same viewpoint, declaring to the believers in Rome that, even in the face of trials and troubles, we have ample reason to praise God.

We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. – Roman 5:3-5 NLT

In Hezekiah, we have reflected a similar but significantly different sentiment.

Lord, your discipline is good,
    for it leads to life and health.
You restore my health
    and allow me to live! – Isaiah 38:16 NLT

The question is whether we, as those who believe in the sovereignty of God, are willing to accept both the good and the bad of life as coming through His hands. It was right for Hezekiah to rejoice in God’s healing. It was appropriate for him to respond with praise and adoration at his miraculous restoration by God. But the fact is, God does not always heal. Things do not always turn out for the better. Those with terminal illnesses do not always receive an additional 15-years of life. But those facts do not alter the goodness of God. They do not do anything to diminish the divine sovereignty of God. In our greatest moments of darkness and despair, our attitude should be that of Job who, when facing the loss of all that he had, was able to say:

“Should we accept only good things from the hand of God and never anything bad?” – Job 2:10 NLT

Praising God in the good times is easy. Praising Him the difficult times requires faith and a strong belief that His will is always right and His plan, while not always clear to us, has our best interest in mind.

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

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

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

 

 

Prayer Changes Us, Not God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Faith, Not Fear.

The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.

As whirlwinds in the Negeb sweep on,
    it comes from the wilderness,
    from a terrible land.
A stern vision is told to me;
    the traitor betrays,
    and the destroyer destroys.
Go up, O Elam;
    lay siege, O Media;
all the sighing she has caused
    I bring to an end.
Therefore my loins are filled with anguish;
    pangs have seized me,
    like the pangs of a woman in labor;
I am bowed down so that I cannot hear;
    I am dismayed so that I cannot see.
My heart staggers; horror has appalled me;
    the twilight I longed for
    has been turned for me into trembling.
They prepare the table,
    they spread the rugs,
    they eat, they drink.
Arise, O princes;
    oil the shield!
For thus the Lord said to me:
“Go, set a watchman;
    let him announce what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
    riders on donkeys, riders on camels,
let him listen diligently,
    very diligently.”
Then he who saw cried out:
“Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord,
    continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed
    whole nights.
And behold, here come riders,
    horsemen in pairs!”
And he answered,
    “Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the carved images of her gods
    he has shattered to the ground.”
10 O my threshed and winnowed one,
    what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
    the God of Israel, I announce to you. – Isaiah 21:1-10 ESV

babylon-1200x831x300God now turns His attention to the land of Babylon, located on the eastern side of the Fertile Crescent about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad. The oracle describes Babylon as “the wilderness of the sea.” This was likely because of its close proximity to the Persian Gulf. The use of the term “wilderness” seems to contradict the fertile and fruitful nature of that part of the world, so it is more likely a description of its post-judgment condition.

The great city-state known as Babylon has come to symbolize mankind’s attempt to build powerful religious and commercial centers that ultimately stand opposed to God. During the 16th-Century, Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin regularly referred to Rome and the papal state as Babylon. Even the apostle Peter used the name Babylon to refer to the city of Rome in his first letter.

She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. – 1 Peter 5:13 ESV

In Peter’s day, Rome was the capital of the empire that ruled the world, and it was marked by religious pluralism, immorality, military power, and commercial success. So, in Peter’s mind, Rome was the modern-day embodiment of ancient Babylon.

The book of Revelation speaks of a future Babylon that will be destroyed by God for the role it plays as part of Antichrist’s earthly government during the Tribulation.

“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
    She has become a dwelling place for demons,
a haunt for every unclean spirit,
    a haunt for every unclean bird,
    a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.
For all nations have drunk
    the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,
and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her,
    and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” – Revelation 18:2-3 ESV

Chapter 17 of Revelation describes this future city as a “great prostitute…with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality” (Revelation 17:1-2 ESV). John goes on to provide further details regarding this future incarnation of the infamous city-state known as Babylon.

The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” – Revelation 17:4-5 ESV

The spirit of Babylon is always alive on the earth. Of course, in Isaiah’s day, it took the form of the actual nation of Babylon, which had become one of the major forces vying for control of that part of the world. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Elamites, and Egyptians were all in a constant state of warfare, jockeying for position and brokering alliances in an attempt to seize the upper hand in the battle for domination. And during the Chaldean dynasty and under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon would rise to its greatest period of power and influence.

But the oracle describes Babylon’s fall coming as the result of a desert wind, a sirocco, blowing across the land, leaving a wake of destruction in its path. This devastating “wind” would be sent by God in the form of the Elamites and Medes. These two nations would bring an end to Babylon’s reign as a world power. And what is truly amazing is that this prophecy was given 200 years before the events actually took place. At this point in time, Elam and Media were not even major players on the world scene. Media was little more than a tribe and Elam, which would later become the Persian empire, is referred to by its tribal name. And yet, God is predicting the fall of Babylon to the combined forces of the Medes and Persians.

And Isaiah is shocked by what he hears. The news of Babylon’s pending doom leaves him reeling. Not because he had any love affair for the Babylonians, but because it all sounded so far-fetched and unbelievable. The stability of the entire region was up for grabs. Nothing was certain anymore. Just when he thought things had settled down and the geopolitical landscape had stabilized, Isaiah hears news of more change, accompanied by more war and bloodshed. And he reacts accordingly.

“My stomach aches and burns with pain.
    Sharp pangs of anguish are upon me,
    like those of a woman in labor.
I grow faint when I hear what God is planning;
    I am too afraid to look.
My mind reels and my heart races.
    I longed for evening to come,
    but now I am terrified of the dark.” – Isaiah 21:3-4 NLT

He describes the uncertainty and instability of the times.

“Look! They are preparing a great feast.
    They are spreading rugs for people to sit on.
    Everyone is eating and drinking.
But quick! Grab your shields and prepare for battle.
    You are being attacked!” – Isaiah 21:5 NLT

God commands Isaiah to post a watchman on the wall, to keep a lookout for what is to come. A train of soldiers and their supplies is on its way. The watchman is to remain vigilant, looking for the inevitable signs of God’s judgment against the Babylonians. It will happen just as He has predicted. And, sure enough, the day comes when the watchman sees exactly what God has prophesied.

“Day after day I have stood on the watchtower, my lord.
    Night after night I have remained at my post.
Now at last—look!
Here comes a man in a chariot
    with a pair of horses!” – Isaiah 21:8-9 NLT

The armies of the enemy have arrived. And the watchman cries out, not a warning, but a statement declaring the inevitable outcome.

“Babylon is fallen, fallen!
All the idols of Babylon
    lie broken on the ground!” – Isaiah 21:9 NLT

Isaiah’s day was marked by a constant state of turmoil and political unrest. The nation of Judah was surrounded by powerful enemies who were constantly threatening the stability of the region and the security of Judah. But God was trying to let the people of Judah know that He was in control. He was not dismayed by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Elam or any other nation. They were little more than pawns in His hands. What God wanted was for the people of Judah to wake up and realize that He was their hope and help. Their fear of the circumstances surrounding them was unwarranted. God was not only aware of all that was happening, He was in control of it. He was letting them know ahead of time, exactly what was going to take place. The events God predicted were so certain that a watchman would see them coming.

Isaiah reacted to this news as if everything was out of control. The world was falling apart. There was nothing anyone could count on. But God wanted Him to understand that just the opposite was true. God was sovereign over all. He had everything well in hand. There was not reason to panic or fear. Which is why Isaiah was able to say:

“…what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
    the God of Israel, I announce to you.” – Isaiah 21:10 ESV

The chaos of the times was not meant to cause fear, but to instill faith in the people of God, as they looked to Him who was sovereignly orchestrating each and every outcome.

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

There Is Only One God.

24 The Lord of hosts has sworn:
“As I have planned,
    so shall it be,
and as I have purposed,
    so shall it stand,
25 that I will break the Assyrian in my land,
    and on my mountains trample him underfoot;
and his yoke shall depart from them,
    and his burden from their shoulder.”

26 This is the purpose that is purposed
    concerning the whole earth,
and this is the hand that is stretched out
    over all the nations.
27 For the Lord of hosts has purposed,
    and who will annul it?
His hand is stretched out,
    and who will turn it back? – Isaiah 14:24-27 ESV

God makes it perfectly plain: What He has said, He will do. What He has planned, He will accomplish. His words are not idle threats. His prophecies of doom and destruction are not potential possibilities, but certain realities. And God points a divine finger at Assyria, declaring that it will be one of the nations which succumb to His divine wrath.

In the previous verses, God outlined the pride and arrogance of Babylon. While this nation had not yet risen to its full power and prominence in Isaiah’s day, it would eventually become a major player on the scene. And it would be Babylon, under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar, that would defeat Judah, destroy Jerusalem, demolish the temple, and deport many of the people as slaves. Throughout the Bible, Babylon is used as the personification of man’s pride, arrogance, and self-exaltation. It comes to be the epitome of fallen mankind under the influence of the prince of this world: Satan.

But in these verses, God focuses His attention on Assyria. They were going to be the “Babylon” of Isaiah’s day, representing the most recent manifestation of man’s hubris and arrogant opposition to God. Assyria was the nation that had begun to dominate the landscape of Isaiah’s day, conquering the area that is now made up of Iraq, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. In 733 BC, the Assyrians, under King Tilgath-pileser, came against the Northern Kingdom of Israel and took many of its people captive. Not many years later, they returned under King Shalmaneser and besieged Samaria, the capital city of Israel, finally defeating and destroying it.

And Isaiah had already warned the people of Judah that God would use the Assyrians to punish them as well.

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

In Isaiah 10, God refers to Assyria as “the rod of my anger.” He will use them to bring judgment against the people of Israel and, eventually, the nation of Judah. It was in 701 BC that the Assyrians captured 46 of Judah’s fortified cities and laid siege to the capital city of Jerusalem. During that siege, King Sennacherib sent an emissary to the king of Judah, with a word of warning.

“Tell Hezekiah: ‘This is what the great king, the king of Assyria, says: “What is your source of confidence? Your claim to have a strategy and military strength is just empty talk. In whom are you trusting, that you would dare to rebel against me? Look, you must be trusting in Egypt, that splintered reed staff. If someone leans on it for support, it punctures his hand and wounds him. That is what Pharaoh king of Egypt does to all who trust in him! Perhaps you will tell me, ‘We are trusting in the Lord our God.’ But Hezekiah is the one who eliminated his high places and altars and then told the people of Judah and Jerusalem, ‘You must worship at this altar.’ Now make a deal with my master the king of Assyria, and I will give you two thousand horses, provided you can find enough riders for them. Certainly you will not refuse one of my master’s minor officials and trust in Egypt for chariots and horsemen. Furthermore it was by the command of the Lord that I marched up against this land to destroy it. The Lord told me, ‘March up against this land and destroy it!’”’” – Isaiah 36:4-10 NLT

Sennacherib, the pagan king of the Assyrians, ridiculed the people of Judah, claiming that their king had eliminated the sacred high places and altars of their God, forcing them to worship at one location. But the trust was that Hezekiah had instituted a series of religious reforms, in an attempt to rid Judah of its many idols and return the people to the worship of Yahweh alone. But Sennacherib mocked them, claiming to have been sent by God to destroy their land. You can sense his arrogance and pride throughout this passage.

But while Sennacherib saw himself as the conqueror and the ultimate victor in this lopsided circumstance, he had no idea who he was fighting. He saw a demoralized and defeated enemy in the people of Judah. But he failed to see God Almighty standing alongside them, ready to protect and preserve them. God would use Assyria to punish Hise people but on His terms. They could only do what He allowed them to do, and no more. Sennacherib was an instrument in the hands of God, the rod of His anger. And when God had accomplished His divine purpose through Assyria, He would deal with them appropriately.

“I will break the Assyrian in my land,
    and on my mountains trample him underfoot;
and his yoke shall depart from them,
    and his burden from their shoulder.” – Isaiah 14:25 ESV

The kings of Assyria, like the kings of Babylon who would follow them, saw themselves as gods, limitless in their power and unstoppable in their quest to dominate the world. But like Satan, their power was limited by God. They existed only by the will of God.

Yet, man has always seen himself as the master of his fate and the sole arbiter of his future. From his vantage point here on earth, man sees things through the cloudy lens of his limited perspective, failing to take into account the sovereign will of God in the affairs of the world. But God makes it clear that He is the one who is in control.

“This is the purpose that is purposed
    concerning the whole earth,
and this is the hand that is stretched out
    over all the nations.” – Isaiah 14:26 ESV

God is the one who mocks at the futile and flawed aspirations of mere men. He looks down on their vain attempts to usurp His authority and mimic His divine power and laughs.

Why are the nations so angry?
    Why do they waste their time with futile plans?
The kings of the earth prepare for battle;
    the rulers plot together
against the Lord
    and against his anointed one.
“Let us break their chains,” they cry,
    “and free ourselves from slavery to God.”

But the one who rules in heaven laughs.
    The Lord scoffs at them.
Then in anger he rebukes them,
    terrifying them with his fierce fury. – Psalm 2:1-5 NLT

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter;
    he utters his voice, the earth melts.
The Lord of hosts is with us;
    the God of Jacob is our fortress. – Psalm 46:67 ESV

Man, in all his misplaced arrogance and pride, has attempted to make himself like God. But the Almighty wants us to know that there is no one else like Him. The kings of the earth can plot and plan, dreaming of world domination and a global kingdom of their own making. But they will fail. And the day is coming when God will defeat all the kings and nations of the earth, bringing to a final and abrupt end their attempt to replace Him as the sovereign ruler of the universe. And in Revelation 11, John hears the voices of the 24 elders as they bow before God, seated on His throne in heaven, and sing:

“We give thanks to you, Lord God, the Almighty,
    the one who is and who always was,
for now you have assumed your great power
    and have begun to reign.
The nations were filled with wrath,
    but now the time of your wrath has come.
It is time to judge the dead
    and reward your servants the prophets,
    as well as your holy people,
and all who fear your name,
    from the least to the greatest.
It is time to destroy
    all who have caused destruction on the earth.” – Revelation 11:16-17 NLT

God eventually dealt with the Assyrians. And when the Babylonians showed up on the scene, He handled them as well. All the great nations of the earth have come and gone. Every single king, dictator, president, ruler and human authority has eventually fallen from power and, in time, died. And most of their kingdoms have come to untimely ends.

The absurdity is that others have followed them, thinking that they will be the ones to establish their own dominions and rule the world according to their own sovereign will. But they fail to recognize one very important thing: God. He is in charge. The world and all that exists within it and on it belongs to Him. His purpose is supreme. His will is certain. His power is unmatched. And His plan will be accomplished.

For the Lord of hosts has purposed,
    and who will annul it?
His hand is stretched out,
    and who will turn it back? – Isaiah 14:27 ESV

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

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

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

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

It Must Be So!

47 While he was still speaking, Judas came, one of the twelve, and with him a great crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, “The one I will kiss is the man; seize him.” 49 And he came up to Jesus at once and said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” And he kissed him. 50 Jesus said to him, “Friend, do what you came to do.” Then they came up and laid hands on Jesus and seized him. 51 And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. 52 Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. 53 Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” 55 At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, “Have you come out as against a robber, with swords and clubs to capture me? Day after day I sat in the temple teaching, and you did not seize me. 56 But all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples left him and fled. – Matthew 26:47-56 ESV

BetrayalWhile Jesus had prayed, the disciples had slept. But one of their number had been busy that night. Immediately upon leaving the upper room, after having been exposed by Jesus as the one who would betray Him, Judas had gone straight to the home of the high priest, intent on following through with his plan to betray Jesus. And before long, he arrived on the scene, accompanied by a crowd made up of both Roman soldiers and a contingent of the high priest’s guards. Judas, having been an intimate follower of Jesus, knew that He would likely be on the Mount of Olives that night. John tells us that Jesus “often met there with his disciples” (John 18:2 ESV). And Judas showed up just as Jesus had told His disciples:

“See, the hour is at hand, and the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.” – Matthew 26:45-46 ESV

This scene is filled with tension and emotion. Jesus, having just poured out His heart to His heavenly Father, had fully committed Himself to accomplish what He had come to do. The disciples, having been awakened from their sleep, suddenly found themselves startled by the arrival of Judas and a large group of armed guards. They were surprised and scared. And Judas had to have been jumble of raw nerves as he prepared to betray, not only Jesus, but the rest of the disciples with whom he had spent three years of his life. The guards, carrying their swords and clubs, would have been on edge, not knowing what they would encounter when they attempted to arrest Jesus. Would His disciples put up a fight? Would there be a large crowd of His followers there, ready to defend Him at all costs?

And in the midst of this chaotic and potentially volatile scene, a strange moment of intimacy took place. Judas stepped forward and kissed Jesus on the cheek. This had been the pre-agreed sign that would mark Jesus as the one they had come to arrest. Why had Judas chosen to betray the Lord in this particular way? He could have simply pointed to Jesus. But it’s almost as if Judas wanted to defuse the tension of the moment and to fool the rest of the disciples into thinking he was still a faithful follower of Jesus.

Each of the gospel writers provide their own recollections of what happened next. Matthew tells us that Judas walked up to Jesus, saying, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and then kissed Him. Luke records that Jesus responded to this act of betrayal by saying, “Judas, would you betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” (Luke 22:48 ESV). John paints a slightly different picture, saying that “Jesus, knowing all that would happen to him, came forward and said to the soldiers, “Whom do you seek?’” (John 18:4 ESV). These are not discrepancies, but simply the recollections of those who were there. In the case of Luke, he was recording what he had gleaned from his interviews of the disciples themselves. This was not a static scene, but one filled with confusion and fear. They each saw and heard different things. And in the midst of the confusion, the ever-impulsive Peter, drew a sword and attacked one of those who had come to arrest Jesus. It was as if Peter was attempting to live up to the rash vow he had made earlier that evening:

“Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you! – Matthew 26:35 ESV

This is the same man who, upon hearing Jesus announce that He was going to die in Jerusalem, had rebuked Him, saying, “Heaven forbid, Lord, this will never happen to you!” (Matthew 16:22 NLT). Peter was trying to prevent the inevitable. More than that, he was trying to prevent the expressed will of God. Which is why Jesus had said to him, “Get away from me, Satan! You are a dangerous trap to me. You are seeing things merely from a human point of view, not from God’s” (Matthew 16:23 ESV).

Peter, like the rest of the disciples, could not believe this was happening. In spite of all Jesus had told them, they could not bring themselves to accept that this was God’s will concerning the Messiah. It was not what they had been taught. It was not what they had hoped for and dreamed of.

And the scene provides us with a dramatic dichotomy between the angry and impulsive actions of Peter and the peace-filled, submissive response of Jesus. He turned to Peter and said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52 ESV). This is an interesting statement and seems to conflict with one Jesus had made earlier in His ministry.

“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword. – Matthew 16:34 ESV

But on that occasion, Jesus had been talking about the future, after His death, resurrection and ascension. His act of redemption would put all those who believed in Him at odds with the world around them. There would be conflict in families as some expressed faith in Jesus and others rejected him.

“I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. Your enemies will be right in your own household!” – Matthew 16:35-36 ESV

Jesus had not been advocating armed conflict between Christians and non-Christians. He was simply warning His disciples that following Him would be costly and filled with conflict. But the garden of Gethsemane was not the place to stage a revolt against the authorities. Peter’s battle would not be with the armed guards of the Sanhedrin, but “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV).

On this night, the actions of Judas and the guards who accompanied him were part of the sovereign will of God Almighty. It was all part of the divine plan prescribed by God before the foundation of the world. These events were inevitable, unavoidable and ordained by God. Jesus let Peter know that if God did not want this to happen, He was more than equipped to do something about it. He could send 72,000 angels from heaven to defend His Son, if necessary. But Jesus made it perfectly clear that all of this was necessary.

“But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?” – Matthew 26:54 ESV

This was all in fulfillment of prophecy. Things were happening just as God had planned. And nothing and no one was going to be able to stand in His way or delay, detour or defend against His will. The armed soldiers, equipped with swords and clubs, may have believed that they were in control of the scene, but Jesus knew better. They were simply pawns in the hands of a sovereign God. In fact, John records that when Jesus had asked them, “Whom do you seek?,” they had responded, “Jesus of Nazareth.” And as soon as Jesus had said, “I am he,” they “they drew back and fell to the ground” (John 18:6 ESV). Jesus was in control of the situation, not Peter or the guards and soldiers. And Jesus revealed that this entire scene was in fulfillment of God’s prophetic promises.

“all this has taken place that the Scriptures of the prophets might be fulfilled.” – Matthew 26:56 ESV

And is if to drive home that point, Matthew records that, upon Jesus’ arrest, “all the disciples left him and fled” (Matthew 26:56 ESV). Over in the book of Zechariah, we have a prophetic pronouncement concerning the Messiah that forewarned of this very thing.

“Strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered;
    I will turn my hand against the little ones. – Zechariah 13:7 ESV

Jesus was on His own. The disciples had fled. Judas had done his dastardly deed and departed the scene. But Jesus, while devoid of any companionship from His followers, was not alone. His heavenly Father was with Him. He would go through the next hours of suffering knowing that He was doing His Father’s will and well within the divine grasp of His Father’s love. What Jesus was about to do, He did willingly. Because it must be so. It had to happen. It was why He had come to earth. His incarnation would be meaningless without His crucifixion. His having taken on human flesh would be pointless if He did not become the sacrifice for the sins of mankind. It must be so. The journey to Calvary had begun and God’s plan for the redemption of man was well on its way.

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 Will of My Father.

46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” – Matthew 12:46-50 ESV

Like so many other statements made by Jesus, these words concerning His mother and brothers sound a bit surprising and confusing. They seem unexpected coming from the lips of Jesus. But it is important that we keep His words within their context. He has been facing opposition from the Pharisees and other religious leaders. They have accused Him of performing miracles by the power of Satan. And Jesus has labeled them as part of an evil generation who, by rejecting Him as their Messiah, are denying the revealed will of God. These men put a high stock in the heritage as Jews. They viewed themselves as God’s chosen people and, because of what they believed to be their strict adherence to the law, they believed they highly favored by God.

But Jesus has made it clear that they will be held accountable for their rejection of Him. Their status as Jews was not going to keep them from experiencing the coming judgment of God. And their obsession with the law of Moses was not going to be enough to save them. The apostle Paul, while speaking to the Jews in the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, told them regarding Jesus, “Everyone who believes in him is declared right with God–something the law of Moses could never do” (Acts 13:39 NLT). But the Pharisees and scribes refused to believe that Jesus was who He claimed to be.

So, when Jesus was informed that His mother and brothers were there to see Him, He used that moment to make a point. He was not diminishing the importance of family or denigrating His mother, Mary. But He was trying to emphasize the importance of the spiritual over the physical. Mary had given birth to Jesus, but that physical relationship would not be enough to provide her with forgiveness of her sins and salvation from death. She would be required to believe in Jesus as her Savior just like everyone else. In fact, that seems to be the whole point behind what Jesus said.

Jesus had come to do the will of His Father. And John records exactly what Jesus believed that will to include.

“For I have come down from heaven to do the will of God who sent me, not to do my own will. And this is the will of God, that I should not lose even one of all those he has given me, but that I should raise them up at the last day. For it is my Father’s will that all who see his Son and believe in him should have eternal life. I will raise them up at the last day. – John 6:38-40 NLT

God’s will for Jesus included His eventual death on the cross and His resurrection. But it also required belief on the part of those whom He had given to His Son. They would see and believe. And Luke adds some extremely important words of clarification in his Gospel account.

“My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.” – Luke 8:19-21 ESV

Earlier in his Gospel, Matthew recorded another statement of Jesus regarding family.

“If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. – Matthew 10:37 ESV

Again, these words sound harsh and unexpected coming from Jesus, but He is trying to make a point. Belief in Him would require people to make some difficult decisions. They would be forced to choose faith in Jesus over the familiar and comfortable surroundings of family. And, once again, it is essential that we view His words within their context.

34 “Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword.

35 ‘I have come to set a man against his father,
    a daughter against her mother,
and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.
36     Your enemies will be right in your own household!’

37 “If you love your father or mother more than you love me, you are not worthy of being mine; or if you love your son or daughter more than me, you are not worthy of being mine. 38 If you refuse to take up your cross and follow me, you are not worthy of being mine. 39 If you cling to your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life for me, you will find it.” – Matthew 10:34-39 NLT

Following Jesus was going to be costly. It would require leaving behind all that once provided identity and a sense of significance. Even Jesus knew what it was like to be rejected by His own family. John records an interesting and insightful exchange between Jesus and His brothers.

and Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, where your followers can see your miracles! You can’t become famous if you hide like this! If you can do such wonderful things, show yourself to the world!” For even his brothers didn’t believe in him. – John 7:3-5 NLT

They certainly didn’t seem to mind Jesus becoming famous, but they weren’t quite ready to accept Him as their Messiah and Savior. They didn’t believe in Him. And, therefore, they were failing to do the will of God. At that point, the 12 disiples were actually much closer to Jesus than His own half-brothers. They had left all to follow Him. They believed Him to be the Messiah. And while they were unaware of all that was going to happen in the days and months ahead, they continued to follow Him faithfully.

In the Gospel of John, he records a fascinating exchange between Jesus and a group of Jews who had been part of a huge crowd He had miraculously fed with fives loaves of bread and two fish. The day after this incredible event, these people showed up looking for Jesus.

25 When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, “Rabbi, when did you come here?” 26 Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you are seeking me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. 27 Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” 28 Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” 29 Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” – John 6:25-29 ESV

They wanted to know what they were going to have to do to have eternal life. Like good Jews, their minds were stuck on performance. They were thinking in terms of works. What kind of good deeds would they have to perform in order to earn eternal life? But Jesus clarified His words by stating that the only acceptable “work” was belief in Him. That was God’s will. And anyone and everyone who placed their faith in Jesus would be saved and inherit eternal life – including not only those who shared Jesus’ Hebrew heritage, but those outside the Jewish nation.

25 Concerning the Gentiles, God says in the prophecy of Hosea,

“Those who were not my people,
    I will now call my people.
And I will love those
    whom I did not love before.”

26 And,

“Then, at the place where they were told,
    ‘You are not my people,’
there they will be called
    ‘children of the living God.’” – Romans 9:25-26 NLT

 Jesus came to establish a new family – the family of God – made up of people from all walks of life and every nationality. Their belief in Jesus as their Savior would be their common bond. And just as Jesus would do the will of His Father, sacrificing His life on behalf of all those the Father had given Him, those who eventually placed their faith in Him would be fulfilling the will of God as well. They would be doing the one work required to inherit eternal life: Believing in Jesus as their Savior.

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 Sovereign Work of God.

1 The second lot came out for Simeon, for the tribe of the people of Simeon, according to their clans, and their inheritance was in the midst of the inheritance of the people of Judah. And they had for their inheritance Beersheba, Sheba, Moladah, Hazar-shual, Balah, Ezem, Eltolad, Bethul, Hormah, Ziklag, Beth-marcaboth, Hazar-susah, Beth-lebaoth, and Sharuhen—thirteen cities with their villages; Ain, Rimmon, Ether, and Ashan—four cities with their villages, together with all the villages around these cities as far as Baalath-beer, Ramah of the Negeb. This was the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Simeon according to their clans. The inheritance of the people of Simeon formed part of the territory of the people of Judah. Because the portion of the people of Judah was too large for them, the people of Simeon obtained an inheritance in the midst of their inheritance.

10 The third lot came up for the people of Zebulun, according to their clans. And the territory of their inheritance reached as far as Sarid. 11 Then their boundary goes up westward and on to Mareal and touches Dabbesheth, then the brook that is east of Jokneam. 12 From Sarid it goes in the other direction eastward toward the sunrise to the boundary of Chisloth-tabor. From there it goes to Daberath, then up to Japhia. 13 From there it passes along on the east toward the sunrise to Gath-hepher, to Eth-kazin, and going on to Rimmon it bends toward Neah, 14 then on the north the boundary turns about to Hannathon, and it ends at the Valley of Iphtahel; 15 and Kattath, Nahalal, Shimron, Idalah, and Bethlehem—twelve cities with their villages. 16 This is the inheritance of the people of Zebulun, according to their clans—these cities with their villages.

17 The fourth lot came out for Issachar, for the people of Issachar, according to their clans. 18 Their territory included Jezreel, Chesulloth, Shunem, 19 Hapharaim, Shion, Anaharath, 20 Rabbith, Kishion, Ebez, 21 Remeth, En-gannim, En-haddah, Beth-pazzez. 22 The boundary also touches Tabor, Shahazumah, and Beth-shemesh, and its boundary ends at the Jordan—sixteen cities with their villages. 23 This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Issachar, according to their clans—the cities with their villages.

24 The fifth lot came out for the tribe of the people of Asher according to their clans. 25 Their territory included Helkath, Hali, Beten, Achshaph, 26 Allammelech, Amad, and Mishal. On the west it touches Carmel and Shihor-libnath, 27 then it turns eastward, it goes to Beth-dagon, and touches Zebulun and the Valley of Iphtahel northward to Beth-emek and Neiel. Then it continues in the north to Cabul, 28 Ebron, Rehob, Hammon, Kanah, as far as Sidon the Great. 29 Then the boundary turns to Ramah, reaching to the fortified city of Tyre. Then the boundary turns to Hosah, and it ends at the sea; Mahalab,[a] Achzib, 30 Ummah, Aphek and Rehob—twenty-two cities with their villages. 31 This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Asher according to their clans—these cities with their villages.

32 The sixth lot came out for the people of Naphtali, for the people of Naphtali, according to their clans. 33 And their boundary ran from Heleph, from the oak in Zaanannim, and Adami-nekeb, and Jabneel, as far as Lakkum, and it ended at the Jordan. 34 Then the boundary turns westward to Aznoth-tabor and goes from there to Hukkok, touching Zebulun at the south and Asher on the west and Judah on the east at the Jordan. 35 The fortified cities are Ziddim, Zer, Hammath, Rakkath, Chinnereth, 36 Adamah, Ramah, Hazor, 37 Kedesh, Edrei, En-hazor, 38 Yiron, Migdal-el, Horem, Beth-anath, and Beth-shemesh—nineteen cities with their villages. 39 This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Naphtali according to their clans—the cities with their villages.

40 The seventh lot came out for the tribe of the people of Dan, according to their clans. 41 And the territory of its inheritance included Zorah, Eshtaol, Ir-shemesh, 42 Shaalabbin, Aijalon, Ithlah, 43 Elon, Timnah, Ekron, 44 Eltekeh, Gibbethon, Baalath, 45 Jehud, Bene-berak, Gath-rimmon, 46 and Me-jarkon and Rakkon with the territory over against Joppa. 47 When the territory of the people of Dan was lost to them, the people of Dan went up and fought against Leshem, and after capturing it and striking it with the sword they took possession of it and settled in it, calling Leshem, Dan, after the name of Dan their ancestor. 48 This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Dan, according to their clans—these cities with their villages.

49 When they had finished distributing the several territories of the land as inheritances, the people of Israel gave an inheritance among them to Joshua the son of Nun. 50 By command of the Lord they gave him the city that he asked, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim. And he rebuilt the city and settled in it.

51 These are the inheritances that Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun and the heads of the fathers’ houses of the tribes of the people of Israel distributed by lot at Shiloh before the Lord, at the entrance of the tent of meeting. So they finished dividing the land. Joshua 19:1-51 ESV

division-of-promised-land-to-ancient-israel

This is a long chapter that contains seemingly insignificant information that is of little use to us as 21st-Century Christians. There are plenty of details regarding the borders of the various land allotments and the names of cities located within those lands, but there appears to be no theological or doctrinal insights we can glean from the passage and apply to our daily lives. It is what I tend to call a “skip-over” passage – one of those sections of Scripture, like the genealogies found in the gospels, that prompt us to skip over them rather than waste time wading through their apparently unimportant content. But their very inclusion in the Scriptures begs the question: Why are they there? If, as the Bible states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives” (2 Timothy 3:16 NLT), why did the Holy Spirit inspire the authors of the Scriptures to include passages like this? What is remotely useful in this passage and how can it teach us what is true?

In this chapter we have the allocation of land to the remaining seven tribes. The major tribes have been taken care of, including Judah, Manasseh, and Ephraim. And the smaller, but far from insignificant tribe of Benjamin has also received its allotment. But there are seven tribes remaining, many of which we know little or nothing about. The names of Simeon, Asher, Zebulun, Napthali, Dan, and Issachar may be familiar to us, but most of us would be hard-pressed to provide any pertinent information regarding these tribes if pressed to do so. And yet, they represent the rest of the nation of Israel. They are the descendants of the sons of Jacob and, as such, they are the rightful heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The land is as much theirs as it is Judah’s or the sons of Joseph. In Genesis 49:1-27, we have recorded the words of Jacob as he lie on his deathbed and pronounces his blessings upon each of his 12 sons. And when he was done, the text provides us with the following summary statement:

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. – Genesis 49:28 ESV

Each of Jacob’s sons received a blessing that was appropriate for them, and when it came time to disperse to each of them their allotment of land in Canaan, they each received what God deemed right. It is important to remember the process that was used to discern the allotment of land. Joshua had sent out three representatives from each of the seven tribes, charging them with the task of conducting a survey of the remaining territory. They were to divide the land into seven sections and then the decision as to which tribe received what land would be determined by God, using lots.

“And you shall describe the land in seven divisions and bring the description here to me. And I will cast lots for you here before the Lord our God.” – Joshua 18:6 ESV

And after having followed Joshua’s instructions, the men returned with a map containing a detailed survey of the seven tracts of land, “and Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh before the Lord. And there Joshua apportioned the land to the people of Israel, to each his portion” (Joshua 18:10 ESV). There was no arguing or fighting over who got what land. It was a decision determined by God. And Proverbs 16:33 clearly reflects the belief of the Jews that the casting of lots was anything but a game of chance.

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. – Proverbs 16:33 ESV

If you compare the blessings spoken by Jacob in Genesis 49 with the allotment of the land recorded in Joshua 19, you will see some slight differences. For instance, concerning his son, Zebulun, Jacob had said:

Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea; he shall become a haven for ships, and his border shall be at Sidon.” – Genesis 49:13 ESV

And yet, according to the allotment, the tribe of Zebulun ended up landlocked. The land located along the Mediterranean coast, including the city of Sidon, was actually given to the tribe of Asher. But in his Antiquities, the 1st-Century Jewish historian, Josephus wrote:

“The tribe of Zebulon’s lot included the land which lay as far as the Lake of Genesareth [Sea of Galilee], and that which belonged to Carmel and the sea [Mediterranean]”

There was evidently a certain amount of fluidity among the borders of the various tribes. Over time, the actual boundaries of their respective land allotments fluctuated. So, it is not so much that Jacob’s blessing was in error, as it reveals that God was in control of the timing and specifics of each tribe’s assignment of land. It seems that Jacob’s blessings had far more to do with the character of each of his sons and what he believed would be God’s future treatment of them. While he made vague references to the land, he was actually making a prophetic pronouncement regarding the future status of each son’s descendants. God would reward or punish each son according to his actions. And each son’s descendants would be impacted by how they had lived their lives. God’s determination of their land allotment would coincide with Jacob’s blessings, fully bringing about each and every word that Jacob had spoken.

This chapter, while a somewhat boring read, is a classic example of Scripture revealing the sovereign hand of God in the affairs of men. Jacob had 12 sons, and he had spoken 12 separate blessings over each one. Those 12 sons had descendants, who eventually made it to the land promised to Abraham by God. And those 12 tribes would be awarded their portion of the land according to the sovereign will of God. Not one tribe was left out. Each and every tribe received their fair share of the land, according to the divine will and wisdom of God. While lots were used to make the determination, this had not been a case of chance or blind luck. It was the result of the providential and predetermined will of God Almighty. And as 21st-Century Christians, we should be encouraged by the knowledge that our God was in control of every detail of the process that made the land of promise a reality for the people of Israel. Every tribe, from Judah to Issachar, received their allotment. They each were given their appropriate portion within the land that God had promised to Jacob. And the God who orchestrated every detail of this historic event is the same God who moves behind the scenes in our lives. He is in control, whether we feel like it or not. He is sovereign, whether we recognize it or not. Our God is not distant or detached, but intimately involved in the daily affairs of our lives.

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

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

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

March. Madness.

1 Now Jericho was shut up inside and outside because of the people of Israel. None went out, and none came in. And the Lord said to Joshua, “See, I have given Jericho into your hand, with its king and mighty men of valor. You shall march around the city, all the men of war going around the city once. Thus shall you do for six days. Seven priests shall bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark. On the seventh day you shall march around the city seven times, and the priests shall blow the trumpets. And when they make a long blast with the ram’s horn, when you hear the sound of the trumpet, then all the people shall shout with a great shout, and the wall of the city will fall down flat, and the people shall go up, everyone straight before him.” So Joshua the son of Nun called the priests and said to them, “Take up the ark of the covenant and let seven priests bear seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the Lord.” And he said to the people, “Go forward. March around the city and let the armed men pass on before the ark of the Lord.”

And just as Joshua had commanded the people, the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the Lord went forward, blowing the trumpets, with the ark of the covenant of the Lord following them. The armed men were walking before the priests who were blowing the trumpets, and the rear guard was walking after the ark, while the trumpets blew continually. 10 But Joshua commanded the people, “You shall not shout or make your voice heard, neither shall any word go out of your mouth, until the day I tell you to shout. Then you shall shout.” 11 So he caused the ark of the Lord to circle the city, going about it once. And they came into the camp and spent the night in the camp.

12 Then Joshua rose early in the morning, and the priests took up the ark of the Lord. 13 And the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the ark of the Lord walked on, and they blew the trumpets continually. And the armed men were walking before them, and the rear guard was walking after the ark of the Lord, while the trumpets blew continually. 14 And the second day they marched around the city once, and returned into the camp. So they did for six days. Joshua 6:1-14 ESV

Joshua and the people of Israel stood on the western banks of the Jordan River, camped at a place called Gilgal. They were just a few miles from the city of Jericho, which would be the site of their first attempt at taking possession of the land provided to them by God. The men of Israel had followed the Lord’s command and been circumcised. The nation had just celebrated their first Passover in the new land. And Joshua had received a reassuring visit from the captain of the Lord’s armies, the pre-incarnate Jesus Christ Himself. Now, Joshua received news that they were to take the city of Jericho, but the battle strategy given to him by the Lord was anything but conventional. In fact, it was outright strange. They were preparing to attack one of the most formidable cities in the entire region, an 8-1/2 acre walled fortress guarded by, according to the Lord’s own description, “mighty men of valor.” And yet, God’s battle plan involved the army of Israel walking around the circumference of the city, following the ark of the covenant as it was carried by the Levitical priests. They were to do this for six consecutive days, then on the seventh and final day, they were to march around the city seven times, and after their final lap, the priests were to blow their shofars, the people were to shout, and the walls would fall. That was the plan.

And the truly amazing thing is that there is absolutely no indication in the text that the people showed any signs of dissent or disagreement with this plan. In fact, it tells us that Joshua commanded the people, “Go forward. March around the city and let the armed men pass on before the ark of the Lord” (Joshua 6:7 ESV), and “just as Joshua had commanded the people, the seven priests bearing the seven trumpets of rams’ horns before the Lord went forward…” (Joshua 8:8 ESV). They simply obeyed. What a stark contrast to the day, 40 years earlier, when the people of Israel stood on the eastern shores of the Jordan, poised to enter the land of promise, but they refused to do so. They heard the reports of the spies and listened to their warnings about giants in the land, and they stood their ground, disobeying the expressed will of God and threatening to kill Moses and Aaron.

Yet, on this occasion, the people responded with willing obedience. And it is important to consider just how strange this battle plan must have sounded to them. They were an ill-equipped and inexperienced band of former farmers and peasants who had spent the last 40 years wandering around the desert. They were not seasoned soldiers and they lacked any of the weapons of modern warfare that the troops inside the walls of Jericho would have had. Not only that, they were going up against a city that had a virtually impenetrable barrier around it. They had no siege engines. They lacked any kind of trebuchet or catapult that could bring down the walls of the city. No, all they had was a strange-sounding battle plan that involved a great deal of walking and waiting.

Imagine what it was like that very first evening, as the men made their way back to their camp in Gilgal. They had walked the circumference of the city wall, in silence, as the priests blew their shofars and the enemy soldiers on the walls hurled taunts and ridicule their way. These men must have questioned the wisdom behind this bizarre tactic. That night, around the camp fires, there must have been whispered discussions regarding the credibility of the Lord’s battle plan. But they obeyed. They got up the next morning and did it all over again.

And the people of Jericho must have scratched their heads in wonder as they watched, day after day, the inexplicable ritual taking place just outside their walls. What were these crazy Jews doing? What did they hope to accomplish by walking around the city in some kind of strange parade? The people of Jericho must have felt comfortable and safe inside their city, surrounded by their walls and protected by their superior army. But little did they know that God Almighty was the one behind all the events taking place just on the other side of their impregnable walls.

And, the people of Israel kept walking. For six days, they did what God had told them to do. In the face of opposition, in spite of their own doubts and in direct contradiction to all common sense, they obeyed. God had promised to bring down the walls. But that promise was directly tied to their faith and their faith was to be displayed in the form of obedience. Partial obedience would not suffice. A single trip around the walls was not going to bring them down. Half-hearted commitment was not going to result in an all-out victory. They were going to have to take God at His word, and obediently follow His directions – down to the very last word.

God’s will doesn’t always make sense. His ways are sometimes strange and illogical to us. But Joshua seemed to know that their capture of Jericho was going to require complete dependence upon God. He knew they were undermanned and poorly equipped for the job of taking the city of Jericho. He realized that any hope they had of conquering the land of Canaan was directly tied to their reliance upon God. The captain of the Lord’s armies had appeared to Joshua with a sword in His hand, and He had claimed, “I have come.” He was there to do battle on behalf of the people of Israel. And He had a plan. His was not a normal, run-of-the-mill battle plan, but a divinely ordained strategy that was going to unleash the power of heaven through the willing obedience of ordinary men. The greatest effort required of the people of Israel was not their daily walk around the walls. It was their faith. It was their continued confidence in God’s plan and their faithful reliance upon His promise: “the wall of the city will fall down flat” (Joshua 6:5 ESV). Their faith in God, while demonstrated by their obedience to the will of God, was going to ultimately manifest itself in the miraculous display of the power of God. The walls would fall. Their faithful walking and waiting would turn impenetrable walls to rubble, an unconquerable army to fallen foes, and a ragtag group of wandering Israelites into a powerful force led by the captain of the Lord’s armies.

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

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

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

 

Shipwrecked, Snake-bit, and Sovereignly Spared.

39 Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to run the ship ashore. 40 So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders. Then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach. 41 But striking a reef, they ran the vessel aground. The bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. 43 But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44 and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

1 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him, healed him. And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed. Acts 27:39-28:10 ESV

pauls-journey-to-rome

Paul was headed to Rome. While it would appear that his journey was the result of a decision made by the Roman governor, Festus, and in keeping with Paul’s own request for a trial before the emperor, Luke repeatedly insinuates that Paul’s trip was due to the sovereign will of God. Yes, the Romans were funding the trip and had provided the soldiers to accompany Paul all the way to Rome. The sailors were piloting the ship on which Paul was a passenger, but as we have already seen, they were far from in control of the situation, and completely unable to deal with the weather conditions hammering their ship. Until Paul had intervened and assured them of God’s sovereign plan to spare all their lives, they had been ready to abandon all hope of survival. The sailors had even tried to escape by using the lifeboat, but were prevented from doing so by the Roman soldiers. Through the words of an angel, God had made it clear to Paul that everyone would be spared, even though the ship would be lost.

Luke wants us to recognize that this entire affair, from Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem to his repeated hearings in Caesarea and his departure for Rome, had all been part of God’s divine plan for Paul’s life. None of this had happened by chance. And while everyone from the Jewish high priest, the Roman governor, King Agrippa, the centurion in charge of Paul’s safety, and the ship’s captain, thought they were in control, Luke repeatedly reveals that it was the sovereign God of the universe who was in charge of any and all things – from the wind and the waves to the decisions of men. As the angel had foretold, the ship carrying Paul eventually ran aground and began to break up. Everyone on board was forced to abandon ship and swim for shore. And while they had no idea where they were, God did. Upon reaching shore, waterlogged but safe, they discovered themselves to be on the island of Malta. And as the angel had predicted, not a soul had been lost. Every sailor, soldier, prisoner and passenger had been spared by God. What had appeared to be a hopeless ending to a very difficult and doomed journey, had ended in no loss of life. And the shipwrecked survivors found themselves surrounded by the caring citizens of Malta, who Luke describes as having showed them “unusual kindness.” They had built fires on the beach in an effort to warm the weary men who had washed ashore. So, not only had they survived the shipwreck, but they were greeted and well taken care of by the people of Malta. They hadn’t washed ashore on some deserted island or along an uninhabited section of the Maltese shoreline. Again, the sovereign hand of God had been propelling them along and protecting them every step of the way.

But God was not done. As Paul was adding wood to one of the fires, a venomous snake escaping the flames, sunk its fangs into his hand. The natives of Malta, seeing Paul shake the snake from his hand, assumed the worst. They quickly made the determination that Paul was an ill-fated soul who, while having escaped drowning at sea, was destined to die for his sins.

“No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” – Acts 28:4 ESV

Yet, once again, Paul survived. He was far from ill-fated, cursed or doomed. He was under the watchful eye of God Almighty. His life was not destined to end as a result of drowning or poisoning. Storms would not take his life, neither would a snake. God was not done with Paul. Paul was under the impenetrable force-field of God’s protective plan. There was nothing anyone or anything could to to him that did not first have to come through God’s hands and with His permission. Paul had a confidence in God that matched that of the author of Hebrews.

5 For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.”

So we can say with confidence,“The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6 NLT

In fact, what can the storms of life do to me? Or vindictive Jews? Or all-powerful Romans? Or governors and kings? Or even a deadly venomous snake? For Paul, the answer was nothing. Nothing at all.

When the people of Malta failed to see Paul swell up and drop down dead, they had determined that he must have been some kind of god. How else could they explain such a miraculous scene? They had no concept of God Almighty. And while they believed in the idea of supernatural beings, knew nothing of Yahweh and were completely ignorant of Jesus, the Messiah. But it would not be long before they saw the power of God on display, as Paul was given the opportunity to perform a miracle in their midst, healing the father of a man named Publius. And Luke tells us that when news of this incredible event for out, “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured” (Acts 28:9 ESV). Paul’s presence on Malta was eventful. From surviving a deadly snake bite to healing the sick, Paul was.a walking advertisement for the power of God. And while Luke doesn’t report it, there’ss little doubt that Paul was sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with everyone who would listen. He didn’t waste a single second of his time on Malta. Yes, he performed miracles. He healed the sick. He cured those who came to him with diseases. But based on what we know about Paul, he shared the good news of salvation made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And according to verse 11, God would provide Paul with a three-month window of opportunity to do so. He was still headed to Rome. That would be his final destination. But Malta would prove to be a divinely determined detour that had been a part of God’s divine plan all along. Stormy seas, helpless sailors, a shipwreck, and a poisonous serpent were no match for the sovereign will of God.

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

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

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