Bless, As You Have Been Blessed

12 “If your brother, a Hebrew man or a Hebrew woman, is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall let him go free from you. 13 And when you let him go free from you, you shall not let him go empty-handed. 14 You shall furnish him liberally out of your flock, out of your threshing floor, and out of your winepress. As the Lord your God has blessed you, you shall give to him. 15 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt, and the Lord your God redeemed you; therefore I command you this today. 16 But if he says to you, ‘I will not go out from you,’ because he loves you and your household, since he is well-off with you, 17 then you shall take an awl, and put it through his ear into the door, and he shall be your slave forever. And to your female slave you shall do the same. 18 It shall not seem hard to you when you let him go free from you, for at half the cost of a hired worker he has served you six years. So the Lord your God will bless you in all that you do. – Deuteronomy 15:12-18 ESV

The people of God were supposed to stand out from all the rest of the nations living in and around the land of Canaan. Their unique status as God’s chosen people placed upon them an obligation to live according to His will for them and that will was all-inclusive, covering every aspect of their lives. God made no allowance for compartmentalization. In other words, He left no area of daily life untouched or outside the pervue of His divine decrees. Everything about them was to reflect their unparalleled relationship with Him. From God’s perspective they were to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6 ESV) and “a people holy to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 14:21 ESV).

In this passage, we see Moses dealing with a topic that causes some unease and uncertainty for our modern and more enlightened sensibilities. He addresses the issue of slavery. But it’s important that we grasp the cultural context and understand the true nature of the kind of slavery being discussed. It’s easy for us to read this text and use our contemporary understandings of slavery to define what Moses is talking about. We conjure up images of slave ships and innocent people being ripped from their homes and forced into servitude and bondage against their wills. And while that form of slavery was widespread during the time in which the book of Deuteronomy was written, Moses is dealing with something different altogether.

As was seen in the previous verses, God had made provision for the needy among the Israelites. He had given the nation a series of commands designed to provide ongiong care for those who were suffering from any form of physical or financial need. And Moses had told them, “there will never cease to be poor in the land. Therefore I command you, ‘You shall open wide your hand to your brother, to the needy and to the poor, in your land’” (Deuteronomy 15:11 ESV).

One of the primary means by which a destitute individual could seek relief was by willingly offering themselves as a servant to one of their fellow Hebrews. It was a matter of economics and a question of survival. The individual in need took the initiative, offering their services in exchange for food and shelter. That’s how Moses describes it:

“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant…” – Deuteronomy 15:12 NLT

This was not a case of forced slavery, but voluntary servitude. This system provided an opportunity for the financially prosperous to help their less-fortunate brothers and sisters. But, like all well-intentioned welfare programs, this one could easily be abused. So, God set up conditions and parameters to guide the Israelites in their practice of this essential community assistance program. Moses informed the people that this servant/master relationship was to be governed by the sabbatical year. After six years of continual service, the one who had sold themselves into slavery was to be released.

“If a fellow Hebrew sells himself or herself to be your servant and serves you for six years, in the seventh year you must set that servant free.” – Deuteronomy 15:12 NLT

The covenant or agreement made between the two parties was absolved by the sabbatical year. For six years they had enjoyed a mutually beneficial arrangement whereby the destitute individual was able to live in relative comfort while their benefactor enjoyed the benefit of relatively low-cost labor. And this business-like arrangement helped to curtail the number of needy families within the Israelite community.

Even when the time of release came, the master was to bless his servant with a gift. They were not to simply cancel the contract and send their former servant out on their own. To do so would have forced the servant back into their original condition of poverty. So, to prevent that from happening, God required the master to “bless” their departing servant with a gift.

“When you release a male servant, do not send him away empty-handed. Give him a generous farewell gift from your flock, your threshing floor, and your winepress. Share with him some of the bounty with which the Lord your God has blessed you.” – Deuteronomy 15:13-14 NLT

They were to bless their former servant as they had been blessed by God: graciously and generously. And Moses reminded them that they were still on the upside in this exchange because they had enjoyed six years of drastically reduced labor costs while the servant had been in their employ.

“You must not consider it a hardship when you release your servants. Remember that for six years they have given you services worth double the wages of hired workers…” – Deuteronomy 15:18 NLT

And God provided another vital condition to this master/servant relationship. If the sabbatical year arrived, the servant could voluntarily choose to remain with his master. After six years, they could determine that the arrangement they had was preferable to starting out on their own and, as a result, they could offer to extend the original agreement.

“But suppose your servant says, ‘I will not leave you,’ because he loves you and your family, and he has done well with you. In that case, take an awl and push it through his earlobe into the door. After that, he will be your servant for life. And do the same for your female servants.” – Deuteronomy 15:16-17 NLT

Again, it is essential that we understand that voluntary nature of this transaction. No one is being forced into slavery. It is a mutually beneficial arrangement based on love and the well-being of both parties.

Ultimately, God was concerned about the integrity of His name. He had set apart the entire nation of Israel – including every man, woman, and child. His call was not based on economic status, gender, age, or social standing. The entire nation belonged to Him and thåe manner in which they treated one another was going to reflect on Him – either positively or negatively. So, He provided a range of regulations and rules to govern their corporate behavior. Nothing was left out. There was no secular-sacred split. God refused to turn a blind eye to any area of their lives. He expected and demanded complete dedication from His people. Their actions and attitudes mattered. And each and every Israelite was to be considered as a vital part of the family of God.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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God Has Been With You

1 “Then we turned and journeyed into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea, as the Lord told me. And for many days we traveled around Mount Seir. Then the Lord said to me, ‘You have been traveling around this mountain country long enough. Turn northward and command the people, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers, the people of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful. Do not contend with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread on, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. You shall purchase food from them with money, that you may eat, and you shall also buy water from them with money, that you may drink. For the Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing.”’ So we went on, away from our brothers, the people of Esau, who live in Seir, away from the Arabah road from Elath and Ezion-geber.

“And we turned and went in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. And the Lord said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.’ 10 (The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim. 11 Like the Anakim they are also counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim. 12 The Horites also lived in Seir formerly, but the people of Esau dispossessed them and destroyed them from before them and settled in their place, as Israel did to the land of their possession, which the Lord gave to them.) 13 ‘Now rise up and go over the brook Zered.’ So we went over the brook Zered. 14 And the time from our leaving Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the brook Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation, that is, the men of war, had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn to them. 15 For indeed the hand of the Lord was against them, to destroy them from the camp, until they had perished.” – Deuteronomy 2:1-15 ESV

Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ history, in an effort to remind his audience of all that had happened over the last four decades and prior to their arrival at the border of the land of promise.

Moses seems to have at least two objectives in giving this impromptu history lesson. First, he wants to remind his audience of what happens when God’s people prove unfaithful and disobedient. There will be consequences. More than 40 years had passed and the nation of Israel was just now preparing to cross over into the land that God had promised to Abraham. But the delay was Israel’s fault, not God’s. They had been to this very same spot before, but had refused to take God at His word and trust that He would give them victory over their enemies. So, He had sentenced them to 40-years confinement in the wilderness. But, in a sense, it was a life sentence, because that entire generation died in the wilderness, having been forbidden from every stepping foot in the land of promise. And Moses is out to ensure that the offspring of those unfaithful rebels do not repeat the same mistake

But there is a second point that Moses is trying to make and it is of even greater importance. He wants this new generation of Israelites to recognize and appreciate the faithfulness of God. In spite of all that the nation had done to offend God by refusing to trust and obey Him, He was still going through with His promise to give them the land of Canaan as an inheritance. Here they were, 40 years later, and poised to enter the very same land their fathers and mothers had turned their backs on. And it was all because their God was faithful.

So, as Moses tells the story of Israel’s long and somewhat meteoric relationship with God, he comes to another chapter in which God’s faithfulness can be seen. But this time, it is a bit less obvious. In these verses, Moses describes Israel’s journey around Mount Seir and into the regions of Edom and Moab. To us, those two names mean nothing, but to an Israelite, they would have carried a special significance. Edom was the land given by God to Esau, the older brother of Jacob. And Moab was the land occupied by the descendants of Lot, the nephew of Abraham.

The book of Genesis records the story of Jacob and Esau, the two twin boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. While the two boys were still in Rebekah’s womb, God had decreed that Jacob, who would exit the womb after his brother, was to receive the blessing of the firstborn. God, according to His sovereign will and in keeping with His divine plan for mankind, made the decision to choose Jacob over Esau. It made no sense from a human perspective and seemed to go against all accepted protocols concerning the firstborn and the inheritance. But God, who is just and right in all He does, had a good reason for His actions. And the prophet Malachi puts God’s decision in very black and white terms. Addressing the people of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, God said:

“This is how I showed my love for you: I loved your ancestor Jacob, but I rejected his brother, Esau, and devastated his hill country. I turned Esau’s inheritance into a desert for jackals.” – Malachi 1:2-3 NLT

The apostle Paul picks up this story in his letter to the Romans and expands on its significance.

For God had promised, “I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” – Romans 9:9-15 NLT

Neither Malachi or Paul are insisting that God literally hated Esau. The point is that, in comparison to His treatment of Jacob and his descendants, God’s actions toward Esau appear hostile. He had chosen to bless one and not the other. And yet, God still gave Esau and his descendants land. And God would not allow the Israelites, the descendants of Jacob, to have any of the land He had given to Esau.

“You will pass through the country belonging to your relatives the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. The Edomites will feel threatened, so be careful. Do not bother them, for I have given them all the hill country around Mount Seir as their property, and I will not give you even one square foot of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:4-5 NLT

God was faithful to Esau and his descendants. He had given them land and had obviously blessed them with food and water, because the people of Israel were able to buy provisions from the Edomites. It’s interesting to note that, all these generations later, God was sovereignly using the descendants of Esau to meet the needs of the descendants of Jacob. God had strategically placed the Edomites right where they were so that they could play a role in helping the Israelites reach the inheritance God had promised them.

Moses goes on to record that the Israelites left Edom and headed for the land of Moab. Once again, God warned the Israelites, “Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land” (Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT).

Here we have yet another example of God’s faithfulness and, to understand it, we have to turn back to the book of Genesis. Lot was the nephew of Abraham, the father of the Israelite nation. Lot had accompanied Abraham from Ur and had settled in the land of Canaan. In fact, at one point Abraham had allowed Lot to take his pick of all the land and the book of Genesis records:

Lot chose for himself the whole Jordan Valley to the east of them. He went there with his flocks and servants and parted company with his uncle Abram. So Abram settled in the land of Canaan, and Lot moved his tents to a place near Sodom and settled among the cities of the plain. – Genesis 13:11-12 NLT

Lot picked “the fertile plains of the Jordan Valley in the direction of Zoar” and we’re told that “The whole area was well watered everywhere, like the garden of the Lord or the beautiful land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10 NLT). 

But Lot didn’t stay in the fertile plains for long. He ended up settling in the city of Sodom, a place of great wickedness. And when God eventually decided to destroy Sodom and its sister city of Gomorrah, He allowed Lot to escape with his two daughters. And after their narrow escape, Lot and his daughters settled in a cave. But fearing that their family line was doomed to die out, Lot’s two daughters, who must have been heavily influenced by their time in Sodom, came up with a plan to get their father drunk and have sex with him, so they could prolong their clan. And the book of Genesis records the outcome of their immoral decision.

When the older daughter gave birth to a son, she named him Moab. He became the ancestor of the nation now known as the Moabites. When the younger daughter gave birth to a son, she named him Ben-ammi. He became the ancestor of the nation now known as the Ammonites. – Genesis 19:37-38 NLT

Now, here were the descendants of Abraham, the uncle of Lot, getting ready to pass through the land occupied by the descendants of Lot. And Moses makes a point to stress that this portion of the land had been occupied by “A race of giants called the Emites.” And Moses goes out his way to stress that these people were “as strong and numerous and tall as the Anakites, another race of giants” (Deuteronomy 2:10 NLT).

Don’t miss the significance of what Moses is saying. Back in chapter one, he pointed out that the first time the Israelites reached the edge of the land of Canaan, they had refused to enter because they said, “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there” (Deuteronomy 1:28 ESV).  God had used the Edomites to rid Anakites from the land east of Canaan, but the Israelites had failed to believe that God could do the same thing for them. In a sense, Moses is pointing out that God had faithfully used the descendants of Esau to help prepare the way for the descendants of Jacob.

This whole portion of Moses’ story is meant to stress the faithfulness of God. Everything that had happened in Israel’s long history had been the work of God – all the way back to the days of Abraham and Lot and Jacob and Esau. God had been sovereignly orchestrating every single incident in order to set up this moment in time. And Moses wanted the next generation to recognize that God was with them and had been with them all along. He was and is faithful.

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

 

 

 

Making An Impact

31 And he went down to Capernaum, a city of Galilee. And he was teaching them on the Sabbath, 32 and they were astonished at his teaching, for his word possessed authority. – Luke 4:31-32 ESV

39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!” – Mark 15:39 ESV

We have already examined the fact that man was made in the image of God, but sin has marred that image, making it impossible for man to bear the likeness of God as originally intended. Yet, the Bible explains that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, became a man just like Adam, “being born in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:7 ESV). The author of Hebrews tells us: “Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death” (Hebrews 2:14 NLT).

And, as a man, Jesus became “the visible image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 NLT). The apostle John, referring to Jesus, states that “No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:18 ESV). Jesus became the consummate human model of the divine, living His life in such a way that His Father’s character was perfectly displayed for all to see. But Jesus wasn’t simply a man attempting to act in god-like ways, He was the God-man, 100-percent human and 100-percent divine. He was literal God in literal human flesh. The apostle John put it this way:

In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. He existed in the beginning with God. God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son. – John 1:1-5, 14 ESV

Jesus was God in the flesh. The Latin word, incarnātus, from which we derive our English word, incarnate, literally means “to make into flesh.” The term, incarnation, refers to Jesus’ coming to earth in the form of an infant son born to Mary through the Holy Spirit. This miraculous union between divinity and humanity allowed Jesus to demonstrate how man was always intended to live, in unbroken fellowship with God the Father and in perfect obedience to His will.

Jesus did what no other man had ever been able to do before: Live a sinless life that demonstrated the manner in which all men had been intended to bear the image of God. And His actions and words are recorded in the Gospels, providing us with a primer on the sanctified life. His life is provided as a model for what it means to be a child of God, filled with and empowered by the Spirit of God. He is the icon of godliness and the one to whom we look for guidance and inspiration for godly living.

The two verses that opened this post are meant to provide two different occasions where Jesus modeled the Christ-life for us. One involves His teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum. Luke records that the audience in the synagogue that day “were astonished at his teaching” because He spoke with authority. His words carried weight and demanded a response. He wasn’t simply sharing His opinion or quoting the insights of others. He spoke authoratatively, as one who was confident in what He had to say. He spoke truth. And He was confident in doing so because His source was God the Father. Jesus had made it clear that His words were those of God.

“I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.” – John 8:28 ESV

Jesus operated according to the will of His Father. Everything He said and did was ordained by God.

“I can do nothing on my own. As I hear, I judge, and my judgment is just, because I seek not my own will but the will of him who sent me.” – John 5:30 ESV

This is what it means to bear the image of God. It is to reflect His character by doing His will and, by doing so, to model what it means to be His child. When Jesus spoke that day in the synagogue, the people were amazed at His words because He spoke the words of God. He delivered the message of God. But that message wasn’t always well received. The Pharisees refused to hear what Jesus had to say.

“I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.” – John 8:42-45 ESV

Jesus spoke for God. He knew the will and the words of God, and He wasn’t afraid to share what He knew with others. That is what it means to bear God’s image. It is to be His hands and feet, acting in ways that reflect His will, but it is also to be His messenger, declaring His truth even to those who do not want to hear it.

The second verse is found in the story of Jesus’ death. Having watched Jesus suffer and die on the cross, a lone Centurion was brought to a place of faith by all that He had seen Jesus endure. He had witnessed Jesus being beaten and abused, and had probably taken part in the proceedings. He had seen Jesus being humiliated, tortured, and brutally crucified, but had never heard Jesus utter a single word in anger. This man had witnessed exactly what the prophet Isaiah had predicted

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. – Isaiah 53:7 ESV

The apostle Peter records, “He did not retaliate when he was insulted, nor threaten revenge when he suffered. He left his case in the hands of God, who always judges fairly” (1 Peter 2:23 NLT).

Jesus bore the image of God the Father, and He did so flawlessly. He obeyed perfectly, even to the point of submitting Himself to death on a cross, all so He could accomplish the will of His Father. And that is what we have been asked to do. We have been chosen by God to be His ambassadors on this earth, bearing His message to a lost and dying world. Paul encourages us to “Live clean, innocent lives as children of God, shining like bright lights in a world full of crooked and perverse people” (Philippians 2:15 NLT).

Peter tells us, “Be careful to live properly among your unbelieving neighbors. Then even if they accuse you of doing wrong, they will see your honorable behavior, and they will give honor to God when he judges the world” (1 Peter 2:12 NLT). Jesus modeled the sanctified life for us. He provided us with a living example of what it means to live set apart to God. From its humble beginnings in Bethlehem to its final minutes on the cross, His life brought glory and honor to God. The Jews in the synagogue had been amazed at the authority of His words. The centurion had been blown away by the conduct of Jesus as He suffered and died.

Jesus bore the image of God wherever He went and in all that He did. People couldn’t help but notice that this man was different. They didn’t always like what they saw or heard, but they couldn’t ignore the fact that Jesus was different. By living His life according to the will of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus made an impact on the lives of all with whom He came into contact. At one point in Jesus’ earthly ministry, He miraculously healed a paralized man, and Matthew records, “Fear swept through the crowd as they saw this happen. And they praised God for giving humans such authority” (Matthew 9:8 NLT).

Jesus, the image-bearer, made an impact wherever He went. And so should we.

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., Caro l Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

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

 

Keep On Keeping On

18 Yes, and I will rejoice, 19 for I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance, 20 as it is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. 22 If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. 23 I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. 24 But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. 25 Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy in the faith, 26 so that in me you may have ample cause to glory in Christ Jesus, because of my coming to you again. Philippians 1:18-26 ESV

Paul opens this section by reconfirming his determination to rejoice in his circumstances. While news of his imprisonment had been disconcerting to the believers in Philippi, For Paul it was just another God-ordained opportunity to spread the gospel. And if others were attempting to take advantage of his situation by filling the role of messenger is his absence, so be it. As long as Christ was being lifted up, he was perfectly okay with it all, even if some of these people were motivated by envy and not a sincere love for the lost.

Paul knew that any success he had enjoyed in his ministry had not been because of his powers of persuasion, but it had been due to the power of the gospel. In writing to the believers in Thessalonica, Paul reminded them of the treatment he and Silas had suffered in Philippi because of their preaching of the gospel. Not long after their arrival in Philippi, they had cast a demon out of a young slave girl. With the exorcism of the demon, she lost her ability to act as a fortune teller for her masters and they lost a much-needed source of revenue. In an act of revenge, they grabbed Paul and Silas and dragged them before the magistrates of the city, where the two men were severely beaten and thrown in jail. And Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that all of this had taken place just prior to his arrival in their town.

You yourselves know, dear brothers and sisters, that our visit to you was not a failure. You know how badly we had been treated at Philippi just before we came to you and how much we suffered there. Yet our God gave us the courage to declare his Good News to you boldly, in spite of great opposition. So you can see we were not preaching with any deceit or impure motives or trickery.

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. Never once did we try to win you with flattery, as you well know. And God is our witness that we were not pretending to be your friends just to get your money! As for human praise, we have never sought it from you or anyone else. – 1 Thessalonians 2:1-6 NLT

In spite of all that had happened in Philippi, Paul and his companions declared the Good News boldly in Thessalonica, even in the face of opposition. And they did so, not for money or the praise of men, but to please God as His faithful messengers. So, Paul was not concerned with the motives of others. As long as they were preaching salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, he was satisfied and could rejoice. Paul had never been in the ministry for what he could get out of it. For him, it was a calling, not a job. And He never saw himself as this gifted spokesman for God using his talents to further the Kingdom of God. He even describes himself as nothing more than a fragile clay jar containing the great treasure of the gospel message (2 Corinthians 4:7). And he wrote to the Corinthian believers, reminding them that their conversions were due to the power of the Spirit, not his own eloquence.

When I first came to you, dear brothers and sisters, I didn’t use lofty words and impressive wisdom to tell you God’s secret plan. For I decided that while I was with you I would forget everything except Jesus Christ, the one who was crucified. I came to you in weakness—timid and trembling. And my message and my preaching were very plain. Rather than using clever and persuasive speeches, I relied only on the power of the Holy Spirit. I did this so you would trust not in human wisdom but in the power of God. – 1 Corinthians 2:1-5 NLT

But as Paul writes to the Philippian believers from his house arrest in Rome, he shares with them the tremendous internal conflict he was having. It had nothing to do with a fear of death. He knew that was a possible outcome of his pending trial before Nero and he was perfectly at peace with that. In fact, he flatly stated, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1:23 ESV). He saw death as a reward, not a punishment. But he also struggled with the desire to continue his ministry among them. As much as he longed to be with the Lord, he felt that his work on Christ’s behalf was far from over. In fact, he told the Philippians, “I am convinced that I will remain alive so I can continue to help all of you grow and experience the joy of your faith” (Philippians 1:25 NLT).

One thing motivated Paul’s actions and attitudes – bringing glory to the name of Christ. If he could do that through deliverance from prison and a continuation of his ministry, so be it. But if his trial resulted in a death sentence, he saw that as a gracious deliverance by God from this sin-marred world. When all was said and done, Paul simply wanted to honor Christ in all that he did, which is why he stated, “I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die” (Philippians 1:20 NLT).

Paul was not making much of himself. He was not bragging about his superior spirituality or attempting to set himself up as some icon of righteousness and religious virtue. He was attempting to encourage the believers in Philippi to share the same perspective on life that he had. He didn’t view his arrest and imprisonment as a setback or a sign of God’s disfavor with him. He sincerely believed that it was all a part of God’s will for his life. By maintaining his focus on Christ and trusting in the will of God for his life, Paul had “learned to be content whatever the circumstances” (Philippians 4:11 NLT). So, he was able to say, “I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation” (Philippians 4:12 NLT).

He knew that the Philippian believers were facing their own set of difficulties. They were going to have struggles in their faith journey, just as Paul had. And Paul wanted them to stay strong, to remain committed to the cause of Christ, and to see the sovereign hand of God in all that happened in and around their lives.

Paul was convinced that he was going to be released and that he would one day see them again. But in the meantime, he wanted to encourage them to keep on keeping on. Later on in this letter, Paul writes these powerful words of testimony and encouragement.

I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us… – Philippians 3:14 NLT

Then he follows up this statement of personal conviction and commitment with a call for them to follow his lead.

Dear brothers and sisters, pattern your lives after mine, and learn from those who follow our example. – Philippians 3:17 NLT

And in the following verses, Paul will provide the Philippians with specific details concerning the conduct of all those who claim heavenly citizenship as God’s children.

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

Reason to Rejoice

12 I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, 13 so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. 14 And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear.

15 Some indeed preach Christ from envy and rivalry, but others from good will. 16 The latter do it out of love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. 17 The former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely but thinking to afflict me in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice. Philippians 1:12-18 ESV

One of the truly amazing things about Paul is his attitude of selflessness and total lack of self-obsessiveness. While he held the title of apostle and had been hand-picked by Jesus Christ Himself, Paul never saw himself as better than those to whom he ministered. He knew he was a leader and took seriously the responsibilities that came with his position. It was as if he lived by the counsel given to elders in the church by the apostle Peter.

Care for the flock that God has entrusted to you. Watch over it willingly, not grudgingly—not for what you will get out of it, but because you are eager to serve God. Don’t lord it over the people assigned to your care, but lead them by your own good example. – 1 Peter 5:2-3 NLT

But unlike the average elder, Paul had responsibility for a much larger and geographically dispersed flock. He had helped plant churches throughout Asia, Galatia, Macedonia, and Achaia. And even though he was writing this letter while under house arrest in Rome, he didn’t make it all about himself. In fact, his focus is clearly on those to whom he is writing. And he seems to be aware that they were upset over news of his imprisonment and pending trial in Rome. But rather than milk their sympathy and make it all about his less-than-ideal circumstances, he assured them that everything was okay. He attempted to assuage their concerns over his well-being by giving them a rather up-beat appraisal of his situation.

“…what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel.” – Philippians 1:12 ESV

Basically, Paul assured them that “it’s all good!” There was nothing for them to worry about because God had His hands all over Paul’s circumstances. And Paul even seems to brag that everybody in the Emperor’s Imperial Guard was now aware that Paul was in prison because of His faith in Christ. It’s important to remember that the whole reason Paul was in Rome was because he had been accused of bringing a Gentile into the restricted area of the temple, and in doing so, violating Jewish religious laws. This was a crime worthy of death. And Paul had appealed for a hearing before Caesar because he knew he would never get a fair trial in Jerusalem, where the Jewish religious leaders were out to get him.

So, when Paul states that even the Roman guards had figured out that his imprisonment was due to Jesus Christ, it was because he had been busy sharing Christ with each and every guard he met. In the book of Acts, Luke records, “When we arrived in Rome, Paul was permitted to have his own private lodging, though he was guarded by a soldier” (Acts 28:16 NLT). In other words, Paul was under 24-hour watch, with a litany of Roman soldiers taking turns to guard him. And you can only imagine how Paul took advantage of this captive audience to relate the good news of Jesus Christ. As a result, the gospel was spreading throughout the Imperial Guard and the court of Nero.

From Paul’s perspective, as long as Jesus Christ was lifted up, that was all that mattered. And he was stoked that his imprisonment had actually emboldened the believers in Rome to step up their game and increase their influence over the pagan culture in Philippi. He joyfully related that, “because of my imprisonment, most of the believers here have gained confidence and boldly speak God’s message without fear” (Philippians 1:14 NLT).

And Paul revealed that he was unconcerned and unaffected by the news that there were others preaching the gospel in his absence. In fact, he was glad to hear it. Yes, he realized that there were some who were doing it for the wrong reasons. He describes them as being motivated by envy and rivalry. These individuals were jealous of Paul and his notoriety. They saw him as competition and were taking advantage of his incarceration to elevate themselves to positions of power and prominence. But, as long as the gospel was being shared, Paul was joyous, not jealous. He also knew that there were others who preached the gospel with pure motives, and he rejoiced in their work as well.

“…the message about Christ is being preached either way, so I rejoice.” – Philippians 1:18 NLT

Remember the context. Paul is under house arrest in Rome. He is under 24-hour guard and facing a trial before Nero, the Roman Emperor and a notorious enemy of the followers of the Way, or Christians. It had been several years since Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem and his hearings before the local authorities on trumped up charges.

He had no idea what the future held for him. But he will later allude to the only two options that seemed possible: Acquital or death.

“For I fully expect and hope that I will never be ashamed, but that I will continue to be bold for Christ, as I have been in the past. And I trust that my life will bring honor to Christ, whether I live or die. For to me, living means living for Christ, and dying is even better. But if I live, I can do more fruitful work for Christ. So I really don’t know which is better. I’m torn between two desires: I long to go and be with Christ, which would be far better for me. But for your sakes, it is better that I continue to live.” – Philippians 1:20-24 NLT

And Paul was willing to accept either outcome. If God chose to release Paul, the apostle would simply return to his work of sharing the gospel just as he had been doing. But if the divine decision required Paul to die, he would do so gladly, fully believing that “to die is gain.” But Paul’s main concern seems to be for the Philippian believers. He wants them to be encouraged, not discouraged. He doesn’t want them to worry about him or to lose sleep over the possible failure of the gospel. Paul’s imprisonment was not going to bring the spread of the good news to a screeching halt. There were other messengers.

And Paul wanted the believers in Philippi to know that they too had a job to do. His forced absence should motivate and mobilize them, not lead to despair and defeat.

“Above all, you must live as citizens of heaven, conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Good News about Christ. – Philippians 1:27 NLT

Paul gave a similar charge to the believers living in Colossae.

“We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.” – Colossians 1:9-10 NLT

Imprisonment was not an impediment for Paul. He saw it as just one more way to spread the gospel to those who desperately needed to hear it, including Roman guards. And Paul didn’t want the Philippian believers to let his incarceration to cause them consternation. As far as Paul was concerned, it was all part of God’s will and part of the divine plan to spread the gospel around the world. And, as long as Jesus Christ was being proclaimed, Paul had more than enough reason to rejoice – even while under house arrest.

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 Suffering Servant

1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors. Isaiah 53:1-12 ESV

This is, arguably, one of the most significant chapters in the entire Bible. It actually extends from verse 13 of the previous chapter and provides an amazing portrait of the suffering servant: Jesus Christ. Chapter 53 of Isaiah is quoted by the New Testament authors more than any other section of Scripture. And you can see why they aligned themselves with this remarkable section of God’s Word, because in it is contained the quinticential description of Jesus as the suffering servant of God.

For anyone familiar with the New Testament account of Jesus’s life, it would be difficult to read this chapter in Isaiah and not see a clear and compelling portrait of the Jesus and His crucifixion. He is described as being marred in appearance, despised, rejected, pierced, crushed, wounded, oppressed, afflicted, and burdened with the sins of mankind. The amount of detail provided in these verses is difficult to fathom, when you consider that Isaiah penned these words more than seven centuries before Jesus appeared on the scene.

The descriptions of Jesus in this passage are far from flattering. He is portrayed as a yowneq, which is the Hebrew word for a small shoot or suckling. It refers to a small sprout that appears after a tree has been cut down. It is an unexpected shoot that appears out of nowhere in dry ground because of the presence on an unseen root. Isaiah referred to this aspect of Jesus earlier in his book.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. – Isaiah 11:1 ESV

In that chapter, Isaiah describes Jesus, the shoot, as having power and authority. He will come as a conquering King, not a suffering servant.

…and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
    and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
    and faithfulness the belt of his loins. – Isaiah 11:4-5 ESV

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

In that day the Lord will extend his hand yet a second time to recover the remnant that remains of his people. – Isaiah 11:10-11 ESV

But the Jesus of Isaiah 53 is quite different. The Jesus who came to earth as a man, in His incarnate form, was anything but beautiful and physically impressive. In fact, Isaiah says, “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him” (Isaiah 53:2 NLT). He didn’t have a charismatic personality, come from an influential family or wield  a lot of power.  Born in relative obscurity in the town of Bethlehem, Jesus spent His childhood in the backwater town of Nazareth. He was the adopted son of a lowly tradesman, and spent the early years of His adulthood living at home and working alongside His father.

And even when Jesus began His earthly ministry, He would do so without a lot of fanfare or noteriety. And while He received the glowing endorsement of His Heavenly Father at the commencement of His ministry, things did not end well for Him. Isaiah describes Him as “despised and rejected—a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief” (Isaiah 53:3 NLT). During the 3-1/2 years of His earthly ministry, Jesus encountered far more rejection than He did acceptance. The Jewish religious leaders hated Him with a passion. The majority of the Jewish nation, while enamored with His miracles and amazed by His teaching, would end up rejecting His claims to be their long-awaited Messish.

And Isaiah fast-forwards into the closing days of Jesus’ earthly existence, describing events associated with His eventual trials and crucifixion. Speaking in the past-tense, Isaiah says the suffering servant, “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4 ESV). The Jewish people believed that Jesus died for His own sins. He was accused by the Pharisees of blasphemy because He had claimed to be God. And the Jews “thought his troubles were a punishment from God” (Isaiah 53:4 NLT). But Isaiah clears up the confusion, declaring that Jesus “was pierced for our rebellion, crushed for our sins. He was beaten so we could be whole. He was whipped so we could be healed” (Isaiah 53:5 NLT). Don’t miss the significance of this verse. It was written hundreds of years before Jesus was even born and yet, it perfectly describes the details associated with the crucifixion of Jesus.

And, just in case we miss his point, Isaiah stresses that Jesus died because of our sins, not His own.

Yet the Lord laid on him
    the sins of us all. – Isaiah 53:6 ESV

Men were the ones guilty of straying from God, walking away from His love and faithfulness. And yet, Jesus was the one who died in their place. And like an innocent sheep being led to the slaughter, Jesus didn’t utter a word in His own defense. Mark describes the fulfillment of this prophecy in his gospel account.

Then the high priest stood up before the others and asked Jesus, “Well, aren’t you going to answer these charges? What do you have to say for yourself?” But Jesus was silent and made no reply. – Mark 14:60-61 NLT

Jesus would end up unjustly condemned, sentenced to death, and stripped of life, without a single descendant. His life was cut short, having done nothing to deserve the death He suffered. And He would suffer the ignominy of having to be buried in a borrowed tomb. The gospel writers provide us with the fulfillment of this prophecy when they describe Joseph of Arimathea asking Pilate for the right to bury the body of Jesus in his own tomb.

And Isaiah delivers the amazing part of this entire story. The death of the suffering servant was all the plan of God Almighty. It had been the will of God from the very beginning.

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him – Isaiah 53:10 ESV

None of what happened to Jesus took place outside the divine will of God. It had all been a part of His sovereign plan. God had a method to His seeming madness. What Isaiah is describing had to have sounded farfetched and difficult to understand from the perspectives of the Jews in his audience. Why in the world would God do something so heinous to His own servant? What could be remotely redeeming about any of this? And the answer would be, “Everything.” The suffering servant would eventually recognize the wisdom behind God’s plan.

When he sees all that is accomplished by his anguish,
    he will be satisfied.
And because of his experience,
    my righteous servant will make it possible
for many to be counted righteous,
    for he will bear all their sins. – Isaiah 53:11 ESV

One of the truly amazing things about this passage is its undeniable accuracy. So much of what we read in these verses was fulfilled in the life and ministry of Jesus. He lived out these verses to the smallest detail. And because of His obedience to the will of God, Jesus was exalted.

I will give him the honors of a victorious soldier,
    because he exposed himself to death.
He was counted among the rebels.
    He bore the sins of many and interceded for rebels. – Isaiah 53:12 NLT

Jesus hung on the cross, bracketed by the two “rebels” who were crucified on either side of Him. And Jesus went to that cross willingly, not begrudgingly. The apostle Paul describes what happened because of Jesus’ willing submission to His Father’s redemptive plan for mankind.

…he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:8-11 NLT

The people of Judah were facing the prospect of some intense suffering, all as a part of God’s will concerning them. And God wants them to realize that this plan was to be embraced, not rejected. Like the suffering servant, they were to trust God for their future and submit to His will. If they would only listen, they would be exalted at just the right time. God’s will for Jesus included suffering and, eventually, death. But it also included exaltation and glory. God always has a purpose behind His actions. And while the people of Judah were having a difficult time understanding why God was bringing His judgment on them, He wanted them to rest in His sovereign will for them.

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

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

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

A False Sense of Security

1 Come down and sit in the dust,
    O virgin daughter of Babylon;
sit on the ground without a throne,
    O daughter of the Chaldeans!
For you shall no more be called
    tender and delicate.
Take the millstones and grind flour,
    put off your veil,
strip off your robe, uncover your legs,
    pass through the rivers.
Your nakedness shall be uncovered,
    and your disgrace shall be seen.
I will take vengeance,
    and I will spare no one.
Our Redeemer—the Lord of hosts is his name—
    is the Holy One of Israel.

Sit in silence, and go into darkness,
    O daughter of the Chaldeans;
for you shall no more be called
    the mistress of kingdoms.
I was angry with my people;
    I profaned my heritage;
I gave them into your hand;
    you showed them no mercy;
on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy.
You said, “I shall be mistress forever,”
    so that you did not lay these things to heart
    or remember their end.

Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures,
    who sit securely,
who say in your heart,
    “I am, and there is no one besides me;
I shall not sit as a widow
    or know the loss of children”:
These two things shall come to you
    in a moment, in one day;
the loss of children and widowhood
    shall come upon you in full measure,
in spite of your many sorceries
    and the great power of your enchantments.

10 You felt secure in your wickedness;
    you said, “No one sees me”;
your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray,
and you said in your heart,
    “I am, and there is no one besides me.”
11 But evil shall come upon you,
    which you will not know how to charm away;
disaster shall fall upon you,
    for which you will not be able to atone;
and ruin shall come upon you suddenly,
    of which you know nothing.

12 Stand fast in your enchantments
    and your many sorceries,
    with which you have labored from your youth;
perhaps you may be able to succeed;
    perhaps you may inspire terror.
13 You are wearied with your many counsels;
    let them stand forth and save you,
those who divide the heavens,
    who gaze at the stars,
who at the new moons make known
    what shall come upon you.

14 Behold, they are like stubble;
    the fire consumes them;
they cannot deliver themselves
    from the power of the flame.
No coal for warming oneself is this,
    no fire to sit before!
15 Such to you are those with whom you have labored,
    who have done business with you from your youth;
they wander about, each in his own direction;
    there is no one to save you. – Isaiah 47:1-15 ESV

Now, God turns His attention to the Babylonians, referring to them repeatedly in this passage as the “daughter of the Chaldeans.” The Chaldeans were a nomadic people group who occupied the southern portion of Babylon, now known as southern Iraq. While the two names are sometimes used interchangeably, it seems interesting that God would choose to use the term, Chaldeans, in this passage. But chapter 47 lies in the middle of a section of Isaiah in which God is reassuring the people of Judah of not only His unique status as the one true God, but as their eventual redeemer. He has promised to judge them, by allowing Babylon to defeat and deport them. But He has also pledged to rescue and restore them one day. 

And their eventual return from the land of the Chaldeans bears important significance. If we go all the way back to the book of Genesis and God’s call of Abram, we discover that Abram was a Chaldean.

“Terah took Abram his son and Lot the son of Haran, his grandson, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram’s wife, and they went forth together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan.” – Genesis 11:31 ESV

Abram, whom God would later rename Abraham, was not a Jew. He was a Chaldean. And just a few chapters later in the book of Genesis, God confirms the fact that Abram was from the land of the Chaldeans.

“I am the Lord who brought you out from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land to possess.” – Genesis 15:7 ESV

God had promised to make of Abraham a great nation. And even though Abram and his wife Sarah were both advanced in years and she was barren, God had told him:

“Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” – Genesis 15:5 ESV

God had promised to give Abram and Sarah a child, and from that child would come many offspring, too numerous to count. And God also promised to provide Abram and his many descendants with a land of their own, the land of Canaan.

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God. – Genesis 17:4-8 ESV

And here in the book of Isaiah, God is once again reaffirming His commitment to redeem and restore His people. He will once again bring them out of the land of the Chaldeans and return them to the land He had given them. Only a remnant, a relatively small portion of the Jews would return from Babylon. But just as He had done with Abram, God would make of that remnant a great nation. He would bless them in spite of them.

And God would also avenge them. That is what this chapter is all about. God addresses the Babylonians and warns them of His coming judgment agains them. Yes, He will use them as His rod of discipline against the people of Judah. Nebuchadnezzar will act as God’s chosen instrument, performing the sovereign will of God. The prophet Jeremiah recorded this stinging indictment of God against His chosen people.

“Because you have not obeyed my words, behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.” – Jeremiah 25:8-9 ESV

But while Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians would end up doing the will of God, they would take advantage of the opportunity. Because He is all-knowing, God uses the past tense, addressing the Babylonians as if these events have already taken place.

“For I was angry with my chosen people
    and punished them by letting them fall into your hands.
But you, Babylon, showed them no mercy.
    You oppressed even the elderly.” – Isaiah 47:6 NLT

God knew, well in advance, what the Babylonians were going to do. He didn’t need to wait until the people of Judah got to Babylon to know that their captors would abuse and oppress them. And so, God already had His plans for retribution in place, even before King Nebuchadnezzar ever sent his first troops into the land of Judah.

And God reveals the root behind Babylon’s future actions: Their pride and arrogance. Their success would go to their head. They would end up seeing themselves as unequalled in power and indestructable. As if looking into the future and reading their minds, God reveals the heart behind their haughtiness.

“I will reign forever as queen of the world!” – Isaiah 47:7 NLT

I am the only one, and there is no other.
    I will never be a widow or lose my children.”
– Isaiah 47:9 ESV

No one sees me.” – Isaiah 47:10 NLT

You can sense the aura of self-adulation and self-sufficiency that permeates these statements. And the second one carries particular significance. Listen to what they say: “I am the only one, and there is no other.” That should have an eerily familiar ring to it. Back in chapter 46, we heard God make a very similar statement.

“I am God, and there is no other;
    I am God, and there is none like me.” – Isaiah 46:9 ESV

The Babylonians, who would only be doing the will of God as the instruments of God, would wrongly assume that they were like God. They would end up seeing themselves as all-powerful, invincible, and the sovereign rulers over the world. But they were in for a rude awakening. Their false sense of security would come face to face with the one true God. He describes them as lovers of pleasure who were secure in their wickedness. They would end up living their lives as if God was oblivious to them. And because they would fail to reflect on the consequences of their actions, God would bring His judgment against them.

“So disaster will overtake you,
    and you won’t be able to charm it away.
Calamity will fall upon you,
    and you won’t be able to buy your way out.
A catastrophe will strike you suddenly,
    one for which you are not prepared.” – Isaiah 47:11 NLT

Remember, this is all speaking of future events. God is predicting the eventual fate of the people of Babylon, long before they invaded Judah and defeated the city of Jerusalem. And this prophetic pronouncement was intended to remind the people of Judah that their God was the one and only God. There were no other gods. And the pride and arrogance of the Babylonians would stand no chance against the justice and righteous judgment of God. 

The false gods of the Babylonians would prove useless in the face of God’s vengeance. Their magicians, astrologers, and sorcerers would find themselves at a loss to explain what was happening and incapable of doing anything about it. And any nations the Babylonians might turn to for help in their time of need would end up ignoring them.

This entire passage is about the sovereignty of God. It is intended to remind the people of God that He is in control. The nations of the world are nothing more than instruments in His hands. Their power comes from Him. Their 15-minutes of fame is orchestrated and controlled by Him. They had no reason to become self-confident and secure in their ways. But neither did the people of Judah. And yet, they had become comfortable and complacent in their rebellion against God. They had become fat and happy, thinking that they could get away with anything because they were God’s chosen people. But, like the Babylonians, their false sense of security would eventually be exposed.

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

God Doesn’t Need Our Approval or Advice

1 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
    and to
loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
    that gates may not be closed:
“I will go before you
    and level the exalted places,
[a
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
    and cut through the bars of iron,
I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
    I name you, though you do not know me.
I am the Lord, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I equip you, though you do not know me,
that people may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
I form light and create darkness;
    I make well-being and create calamity;
    I am the Lord, who does all these things.

“Shower, O heavens, from above,
    and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
    let the earth cause them both to sprout;
    I the Lord have created it.

“Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
    a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
    or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
    or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”

11 Thus says the Lord,
    the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him:
“Ask me of things to come;
    will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?
12 I made the earth
    and created man on it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
    and I commanded all their host.
13 I have stirred him up in righteousness,
    and I will make all his ways level;
he shall build my city
    and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,”
    says the Lord of host
s. – Isaiah 45:1-13 ESV

God doesn’t do things the way we might expect. And later on, in the book of Isaiah, God will explain His sometimes confusing and frustrating way of doing things.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
– Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV

Yet, we find it so easy to judge God and question His methodology and the logic behind His actions. From our perspective, it can sometimes appear as if He has not thought things through. His timing seems off to us. We deem His decision-making ability as questionable and, at times, objectionable.

And, in this passage, we find God providing the people of Judah some insights into His efforts on their behalf. He has already dropped the bombshell of a report that He is going to use the Babylonians to destroy their capital city and its glorious temple. Then, King Nebuchadnezzar is going to take a good portion of the citizens of Jerusalem into captivity in Babylon. That bit of news had to have left the people of Judah reeling and wondering about the character of their God.

Then, as if to make His actions even more disconcerting and perplexing, God opens up this section by referring to the king of Persia as His “anointed.” This is a designation typically reserved for the king of Israel, the high priest, or in reference to the Messiah. But here, God calls this pagan king His anointed one. The Hebrew word is mashiyach, and it is derived from the root word, mashach, which refers to the consecrating or setting apart of someone or something for a specific task by the anointing with oil.

We see this action displayed in the life of King David, when God sent the prophet Samuel to the house of Jesse, in order to find the one who would replace Saul as the king of Israel. God commanded Samuel to “invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you which of his sons to anoint for me” (1 Samuel 16:3 NLT). When David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons appeared before the prophet, God said, “This is the one; anoint him” (1 Samuel 16:12 NLT). And then we read:

So as David stood there among his brothers, Samuel took the flask of olive oil he had brought and anointed David with the oil. And the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David from that day on. – 1 Samuel 16:13 NLT

But why would God use a word, typically used to designate divine consecration, to refer to a pagan king? Because God was letting the people of Judah know that Cyrus had been set apart by God for a very specific and special purpose. He will take Cyrus by the hand and open doors before him so that he can subdue nations. God even makes a promise to this Persian king.

“I will go before you, Cyrus,
    and level the mountains.
I will smash down gates of bronze
    and cut through bars of iron.
And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.”
– Isaiah 45:2-3 NLT

Just imagine how all of this sounded to the people of Judah. These words are reminiscent of the promises God had made to the people of Israel before they entered the land of Canaan. They sound like something God would have said to David as he prepared to take the throne of Israel. But to hear God speak them to a pagan king? That had to have left their heads spinning.

And just to make sure the people of Judah understood that Cyrus was God’s chosen instrument, He states that He has called Cyrus by name, even though Cyrus does not know Him. Even before Cyrus was born and long before he ascended to the Persian throne, God had consecrated Cyrus for this purpose. And God explains why He did so.

“For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen.”
– Isaiah 45:4 ESV

This was all about the people of God. They were the focus of God’s divine intentions. He had a plan in place for them and it included the use of this pagan king and his kingdom. Just as God would use King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian kingdom to punish the people of Judah, He would use King Cyrus and his Persian empire to restore His people to their land. These powerful and seemingly autonomous kings were actually nothing more than instruments in the hands of God Almighty. Daniel 2:21 states: “He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars” (Daniel 2:21 NLT).

Multiple times in this passage, God emphasizes Cyrus’ ignorance of His existence by stating, “though you do not know me” (Isaiah 55:4, 5 ESV). But by using Cyrus to achieve His divine ends, God desired to reveal to the world that He alone is God.

“…that people may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
– Isaiah 45:6 ESV

The sovereignty of human kings is subject to the sovereignty of God. He rules and reigns and, ultimately, all answer to Him.

The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord; he guides it wherever he pleases. – Proverbs 21:1 NLT

And God assures His people that He alone can “create the light and make the darkness.” He is the only one who can “send good times and bad times” (Isaiah 45:7 NLT). Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were nothing more than instruments in the hands of God. Their will was subject to His. And in Psalm 2, the psalmist warns the kings of the earth:

Now then, you kings, act wisely!
    Be warned, you rulers of the earth!
Serve the Lord with reverent fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
Submit to God’s royal son, or he will become angry,
    and you will be destroyed in the midst of all your activities—
for his anger flares up in an instant.
    But what joy for all who take refuge in him!
– Psalm 2:10-12 ESV

But God doesn’t just reign over the kings of the earth. He controls all of creation. And as proof that He alone can send the good times, God commands the clouds to “rain down righteousness” (Isaiah 45:8 ESV). He commands the earth to open, “that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit” (Isaiah 45:8 ESV). God can use kings and creation to do His bidding. He has the ability to bless His children however and through whomever He desires.

And not He turns His attention to His chosen people, warning them to not allow their lack of understanding to cause them to question His methods or integrity.

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

They may not like God is doing, but they have no right to question His motivation. And God asks them: “Do you question what I do for my children? Do you give me orders about the work of my hands?” (Isaiah 45:11 NLT). He is the creator of the universe and they are in no position to demand that He provide them with an explanation for His actions. And, as if drawing the conversation to an abrupt close, God announces:

“I will raise up Cyrus to fulfill my righteous purpose,
    and I will guide his actions.
He will restore my city and free my captive people—
    without seeking a reward!
    I, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, have spoken!”
– Isaiah 45:13 ESV

God was going to do what He deemed best. He wasn’t seeking their input or asking for their buy-in. Their approval of His methods was not His concern. He had far greater plans in store for them than they were aware of. He had a long-term strategy in place that far outweighed their desire for immediate comfort and their present happiness.



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

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