Don’t Do As They Do

29 “When the Lord, your God, cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same.’ 31 You shall not worship the Lord your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.

32  “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it. – Deuteronomy 12:29-32 ESV

Cultural assimilation was always going to be a threat to the Israelites, and Moses knew it. That’s why he spent so much time warning them to completely destroy the nations who occupied the land God was giving them. He was fully aware that the very presence of the Canaanites would cause a problem for the Israelites, tempting them to adapt and adopt their ways.

Even if the Israelites obeyed God’s commands and completely destroyed every last Canaanite living in the land, Moses knew that the vestiges of their culture would remain. The Israelites would find themselves living in cities and homes that had once belonged to the Canaanites, and the vestiges of their culture would be ubiquitous. That’s why Moses had warned the Israelites: “When you drive out the nations that live there, you must destroy all the places where they worship their gods—high on the mountains, up on the hills, and under every green tree. Break down their altars and smash their sacred pillars. Burn their Asherah poles and cut down their carved idols. Completely erase the names of their gods!” (Deuteronomy 12:2-3 NLT).

Any pagan altars that were left standing would act as magnets to the people of God, tempting them to see these former worship sites as somehow possessing divine power and sacred significance. And that would lead the Israelites to adopt these locations as their own and result in unacceptable worship of the one true God. And, once again, Moses went out of his way to ensure that the Israelites did nothing of the kind.

“Do not worship the Lord your God in the way these pagan peoples worship their gods. – Deuteronomy 12:4 NLT

While Moses would not have been familiar with the old saying, “curiosity killed the cat,” he would have certainly understood the gist of its meaning. There is pervasive propensity within humanity to take the easy road or, to put it another way, to go with the flow. The path God had prescribed for the Israelites was a radically different one and it required that they live according to a distinctive set of standards. Their God was not like any of the man-made gods worshiped by the Canaanites. He was holy, all-powerful, fully righteous, and sovereign over all. And, unlike an idol, God actually existed. He was not the figment of man’s imagination or the product of his creative abilities. God had made man, not the other way around.

But Moses had a firm grasp on human nature and understood just how susceptible his fellow Israelites would be to following the ways of the Canaanites. Which is why he warned them:

“Do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How do these nations worship their gods? I want to follow their example.’” – Deuteronomy 12:30 NLT

God was not going to tolerate any form of compromise when it came to their worship of Him. There would be no borrowing of pagan customs or worship styles. God was not going to allow the blending of pagan practices or the bending of His rules. There was nothing worth adapting or adopting from the Canaanite religions because they were marked by immorality and stood opposed to the very will of God.

“You must not worship the Lord your God the way the other nations worship their gods, for they perform for their gods every detestable act that the Lord hates.” – Deuteronomy 12:31 NLT

This wasn’t a matter of style. It was all about holiness. Moses made it very plain that the Canaanites were ungodly and unholy, having used their worship of their false gods to commit reprehensible and detestable acts that included offering their own children as human sacrifices to their god, Molech.

And, in spite of the warnings of Moses, the people of Israel would ignore his warnings and, rather than separating themselves from the pagan practices of the Canaanites, they would adopt and adapt their rituals as their own. In fact, hundreds of years later, Josiah, the king of Israel, would attempt to revive the worship of Yahweh by cleansing the land of its pagan shrines and reforming the immoral worship practices of the people.

The priests who had served at the pagan shrines were not allowed to serve at the Lord’s altar in Jerusalem, but they were allowed to eat unleavened bread with the other priests.

Then the king defiled the altar of Topheth in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, so no one could ever again use it to sacrifice a son or daughter in the fire as an offering to Molech. He removed from the entrance of the Lord’s Temple the horse statues that the former kings of Judah had dedicated to the sun. – 2 Kings 23:9-11 NLT

Long after the reigns of King David and his son, Solomon, the kingdom of Israel would be split into the northern and southern kingdoms, a result of the unfaithfulness of Solomon. He would end his reign as Israel’s king by setting up shrines to the false gods of his many wives and concubines. And, as punishment for his infidelity, God would divide his kingdom in half, creating the two nations of Israel and Judah. And a succession of kings would rule over each, most of whom continued to display an open disregard for God’s sovereignty and holiness.

The very thing Moses feared and had tried to prevent would end up taking place. Rather than eradicate the presence of the false gods of the Canaanites, the people of God would assimilate their pagan worship and ways. And the results would be devastating. Eventually, God would punish the unfaithfulness of the northern kingdom of Israel by sending the Assyrians to destroy their cities and take them back to their land as slaves. And the fall of Israel would be followed by the devastating destruction of Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah. This time, it would be King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian forces who would serve as God’s instruments of judgment. The city of Jerusalem would be ransacked, the temple of God would be destroyed, and the people would be cast from the land of promise and become slaves in the land of Babylon.

This would all be a result of their refusal to heed the warnings of Moses. He had plainly told them, “So be careful to obey all the commands I give you. You must not add anything to them or subtract anything from them” (Deuteronomy 12:32 NLT), but they would fail to take him seriously. Each succeeding generation would follow a path of religious compromise and cultural assimilation. Rather than remaining set apart and distinct from the nations around them, the Israelites would choose to blend in and borrow from the Canaanites. They would adapt and adopt and, in so doing, would seal their future fate.

Moses had said, “Don’t do as they do,” but the Israelites believed they knew better. Adapting and adopting made sense to them. There was no need to reinvent the wheel if they could simply borrow from the cultures around them. Accommodation would make assimilation that much easier – or so they thought. But their assumptions would be proven wrong. God demanded a people who were dedicated to standing out, not blending in. He had set them apart as His own, and He required that their lives reflect their status as His chosen people.

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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A History of Rebellion, Not Righteousness

 13 “Furthermore, the Lord said to me, ‘I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stubborn people. 14 Let me alone, that I may destroy them and blot out their name from under heaven. And I will make of you a nation mightier and greater than they.’ 15 So I turned and came down from the mountain, and the mountain was burning with fire. And the two tablets of the covenant were in my two hands. 16 And I looked, and behold, you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had made yourselves a golden calf. You had turned aside quickly from the way that the Lord had commanded you. 17 So I took hold of the two tablets and threw them out of my two hands and broke them before your eyes. 18 Then I lay prostrate before the Lord as before, forty days and forty nights. I neither ate bread nor drank water, because of all the sin that you had committed, in doing what was evil in the sight of the Lord to provoke him to anger. 19 For I was afraid of the anger and hot displeasure that the Lord bore against you, so that he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord listened to me that time also. 20 And the Lord was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him. And I prayed for Aaron also at the same time. 21 Then I took the sinful thing, the calf that you had made, and burned it with fire and crushed it, grinding it very small, until it was as fine as dust. And I threw the dust of it into the brook that ran down from the mountain.

22 “At Taberah also, and at Massah and at Kibroth-hattaavah you provoked the Lord to wrath. 23 And when the Lord sent you from Kadesh-barnea, saying, ‘Go up and take possession of the land that I have given you,’ then you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord your God and did not believe him or obey his voice. 24 You have been rebellious against the Lord from the day that I knew you.

25 “So I lay prostrate before the Lord for these forty days and forty nights, because the Lord had said he would destroy you. 26 And I prayed to the Lord, ‘O Lord God, do not destroy your people and your heritage, whom you have redeemed through your greatness, whom you have brought out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 27 Remember your servants, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Do not regard the stubbornness of this people, or their wickedness or their sin, 28 lest the land from which you brought us say, “Because the Lord was not able to bring them into the land that he promised them, and because he hated them, he has brought them out to put them to death in the wilderness.” 29 For they are your people and your heritage, whom you brought out by your great power and by your outstretched arm.’ – Deuteronomy 9:13-29 ESV

If the Israelites still harbored any remaining thoughts that they somehow deserved God’s good favor, Moses was about to deliver the crushing blow. He had made it clear that God was not giving them the land of Canaan because they deserved it, but because He was keeping the promise He had made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. And God was going to remove the Canaanites from the land because they were an evil and idolatrous people who desecrated the land with their unbridled immorality.

But Moses let the Israelites know that they were no better than the Canaanites. It was not as if they were a spiritually superior people who lived morally upright lives and had somehow earned the right to take possession of the land because of their faithfulness to God. No, it was quite the opposite, and Moses had already delivered the painfully truthful news that God’s provision of the land had nothing to do with their worthiness or righteousness.

“Know, therefore, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to possess because of your righteousness, for you are a stubborn people.” – Deuteronomy 9:6 ESV

They were stiff-necked and obstinate, stubbornly refusing to bow the knee to God and live according to His commands. And they had been that way from the beginning. Which is why Moses goes all the way back to Mount Sinai and the occasion when God gave the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel. He remembered that fateful well and looked back on it, not with nostalgia, but with a certain amount of anger and resentment at the way the people had treated God. Their actions that day had placed Moses in a very difficult position. He had found himself in the awkward place of having to mediate between a holy, angry God, and the very people he had helped to deliver from slavery in Egypt.

While Moses had been on the mountaintop receiving the Ten Commandments from God, his fellow Israelites, with the help of his brother, Aaron, had been busy worshiping a false god they had crafted out of gold. During the 40 days that Moses had been on top of the mountain, they had begun to question everything about their circumstances. And they had somehow forgotten the incredible demonstration of God’s power they had witnessed as His glory had descended upon Mount Sinai.

Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently.  As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. – Exodus 19:17-19 NLT

There was no doubt that God was there. His presence was unmistakable. His power was on display. And even when Moses ascended the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, the fire never died down, and the smoke remained. The mountain never ceased to shake. And yet, the people became unimpressed and unwilling to wait to see what God was going to say to His servant, Moses. Tired of waiting, they took matters into their own hands.

When the people saw how long it was taking Moses to come back down the mountain, they gathered around Aaron. “Come on,” they said, “make us some gods who can lead us. We don’t know what happened to this fellow Moses, who brought us here from the land of Egypt.” – Exodus 32:1 NLT

And it was that fateful decision that Moses recalled.

“So while the mountain was blazing with fire I turned and came down, holding in my hands the two stone tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. There below me I could see that you had sinned against the Lord your God. You had melted gold and made a calf idol for yourselves.” – Deuteronomy 9:15-16 NLT

Notice what Moses says: “So while the mountain was blazing with fire….” The presence of God was still visible. God had not gone anywhere. And Moses was descending the mountain holding the very commandments of God, “inscribed with the terms of the covenant.”

“Now if you will obey me and keep my covenant, you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And the people had eagerly and enthusiastically agreed to the conditions of the covenant, giving their word that they would obey

“We will do everything the Lord has commanded.” – Exodus 19:8 NLT

But that commitment had not lasted long. Before Moses could make it back down the mountain, the people had turned their backs on God. They had come up with the bright idea to make their own gods. And when Moses had seen what had taken place in his absence, he was filled with surprise and anger.

“How quickly you had turned away from the path the Lord had commanded you to follow!” – Deuteronomy 9:16 NLT

They had been in the early days of their journey from Egypt to the promised land and had already chosen to forsake God. And Moses, sensing the anger of God against His people, had chosen to intercede with God on their behalf. He began a 40-day fast, during which time he sought to persuade God to refrain from wiping out the people of Israel for their wickedness.

“I feared that the furious anger of the Lord, which turned him against you, would drive him to destroy you. But again he listened to me.” – Deuteronomy 9:19 NLT

God spared the people and even allowed Aaron to live, in spite of the role he had played in the peoples’ rebellion. God showed mercy. He showered the people with His undeserved favor. And it all goes back to the covenant He had made with Abraham. God had made two promises to Abraham. One was that He would make of Abraham a great nation. The second was that He would bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. And so, God was going to keep His covenant commitment, not because of the Israelites, but in spite of them.

And Moses reminded the people that Mount Sinai had not been an aberration. It was just one of many occasions in which the people of Israel displayed their stubbornness and rebellion. Moses recalled Taberah, Massah, and Kibroth-hattaavah – three other less-than-flattering moments from Israel’s not-so-distant past that illustrated their propensity to rebel against God. And he brought up that infamous day at Kadesh-barnea, when the first generation of Israelites had refused to enter the promised land, causing God to send them into the wilderness where they would die as punishment for the rebellion.

Moses had pleaded with God to spare them. He had appealed to God’s covenant faithfulness.

“Please overlook the stubbornness and the awful sin of these people, and remember instead your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 9:27 NLT

But notice that Moses did not offer up a single example of Israel’s worthiness or righteousness. What they deserved was God’s wrath. Moses knew that. So he appealed to God’s unwavering faithfulness to keep His commitments. He had promised to make of Abraham a great nation, and He had fulfilled that promise. But God had also promised to bless all the nations of the earth through Abraham. And that promise had not yet been fulfilled. But, in time, it would be. And God would continue to bless the people of Israel, not because they deserved it, but because He was going to use them as the means by which He brought the solution to man’s sin problem into the world. And the apostle Paul wrote of this coming fulfillment of the promise God made to Abraham.

God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. – Galatians 3:16 NLT

God was going to bring to earth the source of true righteousness, and He would do it through a people marked by unrighteousness. God would eventually offer the sole means of salvation through a people who deserved His wrath. He would bring about redemption through a nation that would eventually murder its own redeemer.

The people of Israel had a long history of rebellion, not righteousness; but God would eventually make righteousness available through them in the form of His Son, the sinless Savior of the world.

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 Just Judgment of God

Their appearance is like the appearance of horses,
    and like war horses they run.
As with the rumbling of chariots,
    they leap on the tops of the mountains,
like the crackling of a flame of fire
    devouring the stubble,
like a powerful army
    drawn up for battle.

Before them peoples are in anguish;
    all faces grow pale.
Like warriors they charge;
    like soldiers they scale the wall.
They march each on his way;
    they do not swerve from their paths.
They do not jostle one another;
    each marches in his path;
they burst through the weapons
    and are not halted.
They leap upon the city,
    they run upon the walls,
they climb up into the houses,
    they enter through the windows like a thief.

10 The earth quakes before them;
    the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.
11 The Lord utters his voice
    before his army,
for his camp is exceedingly great;
    he who executes his word is powerful.
For the day of the Lord is great and very awesome;
    who can endure it? Joel 2:4-11 ESV

In these verses, Joel provides additional details concerning the coming day of the Lord. It will feature another invasion of alien forces, but this time it will not be locusts, but a foreign army. Yet, Joel uses imagery to describe this invading force that sounds eerily similar to the locust infestation the people of Judah had just endured. You can almost imagine the locusts “devouring the stubble” (Joel 2:5 ESV). His description of the enemy soldiers climbing “up into the houses” and entering “through the windows like a thief” must have brought back unsettling memories of the millions of disgusting locusts invading their villages and homes.

But this time, the enemy was going to be made up of men armed with swords, marching in endless columns, and riding in chariots of iron. And, like the locusts, they would be driven by a primal urge to devour and destroy everything in their path. And there is nothing anyone can do to stop them. Which is why Joel describes the people as being in a state of anguish with their faces white with fear. The armies of Judah will prove inadequate against this massive enemy onslaught. Any attempt to defend the city of Jerusalem will fail, as “they burst through the weapons and are not halted” (Joel 2:8 ESV). 

Joel is describing a scene that is meant to instill fear in the hearts of the people. And he purposefully uses language that is intended to remind his audience of all that they have just endured. But this judgment will be far greater in intensity, and the damage will far exceed the loss of grain and grapes. When the locusts had finally disappeared, they left behind a land devoid of crops. But when the invading army that shows up on the day of the Lord is finished, the land of Judah will be like a ghost town, free of human life. Those who are not slain by the sword will be taken captive.

And Joel wants his audience to know that this invasion will be God’s doing. The army that shows up will be His army, and they will be accomplishing His divine will.

The Lord is at the head of the column.
    He leads them with a shout.
This is his mighty army,
    and they follow his orders. – Joel 2:11 NLT

God had used similar language when addressing the people of Judah through the mouth of the prophet Jeremiah.

“…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 25:9 ESV

God is sovereign over all. And He is fully capable of using anything He has created to accomplish His will, including pagan armies and foreign dignitaries. In fact, the prophet Isaiah provides another message from God, where He warns Babylon of their coming destruction at the hands of yet another foreign power.

“Raise a signal flag on a bare hilltop.
    Call up an army against Babylon.
Wave your hand to encourage them
    as they march into the palaces of the high and mighty.
I, the Lord, have dedicated these soldiers for this task.
    Yes, I have called mighty warriors to express my anger,
    and they will rejoice when I am exalted.” – Isaiah 13:2-3 NLT

The sovereign God of the universe has the entire world at His disposal. He can accomplish His will by any means He deems necessary. And His use of unrighteous kings and ungodly armies does not make God unholy. His ways are always right, and His judgments are blameless. Even Daniel, one of the Jews who found himself living in exile in Babylon after the fall of the city of Jerusalem, commented on the righteousness of God in light of Judah’s rebellion against Him.

To you, O Lord, belongs righteousness, but to us open shame, as at this day, to the men of Judah, to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to all Israel, those who are near and those who are far away, in all the lands to which you have driven them, because of the treachery that they have committed against you. – Daniel 9:7 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah provides further insight into Judah’s treachery and God’s righteous response to it.

For they have rejected the law of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies;
    they have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
That is why the Lord’s anger burns against his people,
    and why he has raised his fist to crush them.
The mountains tremble,
    and the corpses of his people litter the streets like garbage.
But even then the Lord’s anger is not satisfied.
    His fist is still poised to strike! – Isaiah 5:24-25 NLT

And Isaiah goes on to describe how the Lord will mete out His anger against His rebellious children.

He will send a signal to distant nations far away
    and whistle to those at the ends of the earth.
    They will come racing toward Jerusalem.
They will not get tired or stumble.
    They will not stop for rest or sleep.
Not a belt will be loose,
    not a sandal strap broken.
Their arrows will be sharp
    and their bows ready for battle.
Sparks will fly from their horses’ hooves,
    and the wheels of their chariots will spin like a whirlwind.
They will roar like lions,
    like the strongest of lions.
Growling, they will pounce on their victims and carry them off,
    and no one will be there to rescue them.
They will roar over their victims on that day of destruction
    like the roaring of the sea.
If someone looks across the land,
    only darkness and distress will be seen;
    even the light will be darkened by clouds. – Isaiah 5:26-30 NLT

Because of their unholy behavior, God will use Judah’s unholy enemies to punish them. Like Adam and Eve banned from the garden due to their rejection of God’s word, the people of Judah would be expelled from the land of promise because they had rejected His law. He had set them apart as His own possession and had called them to live holy lives.

You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy. I have set you apart from all other people to be my very own. – Leviticus 20:26 NLT

You have been set apart as holy to the LORD your God, and he has chosen you from all the nations of the earth to be his own special treasure. – Deuteronomy 14:2 NLT

But rather than living in a way that illustrated their status as God’s chosen people, they had chosen to assimilate with and follow the example of the pagan nations around them. They fell in love with the world. And their love affair with the world led them to conduct themselves like an unfaithful wife, giving their affection and attention to false gods.

So, God warns them of coming judgment. And it will come in two phases. There will be a more immediate judgment that shows up in the form of the Babylonian army. But there is another judgment that lies in the distant future and will take place at the end of the age. God knows His people. And as the sovereign God of the universe, He is well aware that they will continue to be unfaithful to Him. Which is why He has a future day of restoration planned for them.

But in the meantime, He is going to call them to repentance. He is going to offer them a second chance.

“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
   and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster. – Joel 2:12-13 ESV

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

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

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

 

Your Maker Is Your Husband

1 “Sing, O barren one, who did not bear;
    break forth into singing and cry aloud,
    you who have not been in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
    than the children of her who is married,” says the Lord.
“Enlarge the place of your tent,
    and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out;
do not hold back; lengthen your cords
    and strengthen your stakes.
For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left,
    and your offspring will possess the nations
    and will people the desolate cities.

“Fear not, for you will not be ashamed;
    be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced;
for you will forget the shame of your youth,
    and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more.
For your Maker is your husband,
    the Lord of hosts is his name;
and the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer,
    the God of the whole earth he is called.
For the Lord has called you
    like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
    says your God.
For a brief moment I deserted you,
    but with great compassion I will gather you.
In overflowing anger for a moment
    I hid my face from you,
but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
    says the Lord, your Redeemer.

“This is like the days of Noah to me:
    as I swore that the waters of Noah
    should no more go over the earth,
so I have sworn that I will not be angry with you,
    and will not rebuke you.
10 For the mountains may depart
    and the hills be removed,
but my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
    and my covenant of peace shall not be removed,”
    says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

11 “O afflicted one, storm-tossed and not comforted,
    behold, I will set your stones in antimony,
    and lay your foundations with sapphires.
12 I will make your pinnacles of agate,
    your gates of carbuncles,
    and all your wall of precious stones.
13 All your children shall be taught by the Lord,
    and great shall be the peace of your children.
14 In righteousness you shall be established;
    you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear;
    and from terror, for it shall not come near you.
15 If anyone stirs up strife,
    it is not from me;
whoever stirs up strife with you
    shall fall because of you.
16 Behold, I have created the smith
    who blows the fire of coals
    and produces a weapon for its purpose.
I have also created the ravager to destroy;
17     no weapon that is fashioned against you shall succeed,
    and you shall refute every tongue that rises against you in judgment.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
    and their vindication from me, declares the Lord.” Isaiah 54:1-17 ESV

This chapter speaks of the coming blessings of God, made possible by the suffering servant of God. The content of these verses is directed at the people of Judah and is intended to encourage their hope and trust in God, even in the midst of their present circumstances. God has clearly shown them that He has a long-term plan for them. While they would suffer because of their rebellion against Him, they would not be completely or permanently abandoned by Him. And, He comforts them by guaranteeing His commitment to them.

“For a brief moment I abandoned you,
    but with great compassion I will take you back.
In a burst of anger I turned my face away for a little while.
    But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,”
    says the Lord, your Redeemer. – Isaiah 54:7-8 NLT

It is interesting to note that, in the 17 verses that make up this chapter, God is referred to by a range of different names. He is called their “Maker,” the one who fashioned them out of nothing. Their very existence was His doing. And not only had God given life to each and every Hebrew, He had created the nation of Israel to which they belonged.  And then He had made them His wife. He had betrothed Himself to the people of Israel. We see the language of the marital covenant reflected in Exodus 19 when God called them into a special relationship with Him.

“‘And now, if you will diligently listen to me and keep my covenant, then you will be my special possession out of all the nations, for all the earth is mine, and you will be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you will speak to the Israelites.” – Exodus 19:5-6 NLT

And the people had responded to His proposal by declaring, “All that the Lord has commanded we will do!” (Exodus 19:8 NLT). And yet, the bride would prove to be unfaithful. She would not keep the covenant she made with her Husband. In fact, God later indicts His wife, accusing her of adultery.

“If a man divorces his wife
and she leaves him and becomes another man’s wife,
he may not take her back again.
Doing that would utterly defile the land.
But you, Israel, have given yourself as a prostitute to many gods.
So what makes you think you can return to me?”
says the Lord. – Jeremiah 3:1 NET

And yet, just a few verses later, God calls on His bride to do just that.

“Return, O faithless children, declares the Lord; for I am your master.” – Jeremiah 3:14 ESV

The Hebrew word translated as “master” was actually used as a play on words. It is ba`al, and you can see its similarity to the name of the pagan God, Baal. But what is even more significant is that the Hebrew word ba`al can be translated as “husband.” God was Israel’s master because of His role as their husband. And, as their husband, God had remained faithful to His covenant promises. He had not wandered or committed spiritual adultery. He had not chosen another bride. And the text goes on to explain why. Because He is the “Lord of hosts” and “the Holy One of Israel” (Isaiah 54:5 ESV). He is mighty in power and morally pure. This is what made His decision to wed Israel all that more remarkable. And it is because He is the Lord of hosts and the Holy One of Israel that He will keep His covenant promises to them.

The book of Deuteronomy emphasizes the unique relationship between God and the people of Israel.

For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure, His covenant wife.

“The Lord did not set his heart on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other nations, for you were the smallest of all nations! Rather, it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 7:6-8 NLT

Israel had not been more beautiful. The had not come with a sizeable dowry. There was no benefit to God in this relationship. He wed Himself to her because of the promise He had made to Abraham.

“I will confirm my covenant with you and your descendants after you, from generation to generation. This is the everlasting covenant: I will always be your God and the God of your descendants after you.” – Genesis 17:7 NLT

God, Israel’s faithful Husband, would become their kinsman-Redeemer, buying her back out of her slavery, which had happened as a result of her infidelity. This strange relationship between God and the people of Israel is outlined in the book of Hosea, where the prophet is told by God to marry a prostitute and bear children with her. Then, when Hosea’s wife proves unfaithful and falls back into prostitution and, eventually, becomes enslaved, Hosea is commanded by God to redeem her from her slavery.

And God will use this real-life scenario to illustrate His relationship with the people of Israel. He even uses the wordplay mentioned earlier, cleverly revealing the uncomfortable similarity between ba`al (husband) and Baal (a false god).

“And in that day, declares the Lord, you will call me ‘My Husband,’ and no longer will you call me ‘My Baal.’ For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be remembered by name no more.” – Hosea 2:16-17 ESV

The day was going to come when Israel would no longer confuse their true Master or husband with the false gods of the pagan nations. They would no longer prostitute themselves to a host of other gods, breaking their covenant promise with their one true Husband. Why? Because God would call them back. He would restore them.

For the Lord has called you
    like a wife deserted and grieved in spirit,
like a wife of youth when she is cast off,
    says your God. – Isaiah 54:6 ESV

And God confirms this commitment when He tells them: “my steadfast love shall not depart from you, and my covenant of peace shall not be removed” (Isaiah 54:10 ESV). And verses 11-17 contain an amazing account of how God will bless His wayward wife, showering her with gifts and His goodness, all in spite of her unfaithfulness.

While the peoples of Israel and Judah were currently experiencing affliction, all as a result of their unfaithfulness to God, Isaiah assures them that a day was coming when they would be redeemed and restored by God. And the imagery in these verses portrays a beautifully restored and repopulated city of Jerusalem. The walls, battlements, and foundations are described as being made of precious stones. The city is filled with children who are being instructed in the ways of the Lord. It will be a time of great peace, free from oppression and fear. This seems to coincide with the New Jerusalem, as seen by the apostle John and described in the book of Revelation.

“Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a great, high mountain, and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.” – Revelation 19:9-11 ESV

Jerusalem becomes the symbol of the bride, the nation of Israel. It will be the home where God will dwell with His people. But more important than the physical description of the city is the description of its two primary occupants:

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. – Revelation 19:22-23 ESV

Isaiah 54 is a prophetic promise outlining God’s intentions toward His covenant wife, Israel. At the time at which Isaiah penned this chapter, Israel and Judah were barren, desolate, afflicted, and facing more of the same. But God was reassuring them that He would remain faithful. He would be unwavering in His marital vows, even to the point of redeeming His wayward wife out of captivity and restoring her to a right relationship with Himself. And God closes the chapter with His personal guarantee to do all that He has promised.

“This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord
    and their vindication from me, declares the Lord.” – Isaiah 54:17 ESV

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

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

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

Have I No Power to Deliver?

1 Thus says the Lord:
“Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce,
    with which I sent her away?
Or which of my creditors is it
    to whom I have sold you?
Behold, for your iniquities you were sold,
    and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.
Why, when I came, was there no man;
    why, when I called, was there no one to answer?
Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem?
    Or have I no power to deliver?
Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea,
    I make the rivers a desert;
their fish stink for lack of water
    and die of thirst.
I clothe the heavens with blackness
    and make sackcloth their covering.”
Isaiah 50:1-3 ESV

The first three verses of chapter 50 continue the theme established in the preceding chapter. God knows that when the people of Judah find themselves in captivity in Babylon, they will accuse Him of abandonment. He addresses His children, the people of Judah, as if they are already in exile, and He defends Himself against their charges of forsaking their mother, Israel. He had not divorced her and sent her away – even though He had every right to do so. She had been unfaithful to Him. She had committed spiritual adultery against Him, not once, but repeatedly. And He had not sold her into slavery in order to pay a debt. God owes no man anything. He is obligated to no one.

This was not a case of God having grown discontent with His wife, Israel, and jettisoning her for a younger, more loving spouse. He makes it very clear to His children that their captivity was their own fault. It was their sins that had caused God to do what He had done.

“No, you were sold because of your sins.
    And your mother, too, was taken because of your sins.” – Isaiah 50:1 NLT

When the inevitable consequences of their repeated sins against God finally came to fruition, the people of Judah would be quick to blame God. They would see themselves as the innocent victims, having been abandoned by their heavenly Father. But God would have none of it. He would not allow them to deny their own guilt and cast dispersions on His character and integrity.

And what makes Judah’s sin so egregious is that they had been warned by God, repeatedly. He had sent His prophets, like Isaiah and Jeremiah to call them to repentance. And they had the northern kingdom of Israel as living proof of what happens when God’s people remain stubbornly unwilling to heed His warnings and return to Him. The northern tribes of Israel had rejected God’s calls to repent and had suffered the consequences.

When Josiah was king of Judah, the Lord said to me, “Jeremiah, you have no doubt seen what wayward Israel has done. You have seen how she went up to every high hill and under every green tree to give herself like a prostitute to other gods. Yet even after she had done all that, I thought that she might come back to me. But she did not. Her sister, unfaithful Judah, saw what she did. She also saw that I gave wayward Israel her divorce papers and sent her away because of her adulterous worship of other gods. Even after her unfaithful sister Judah had seen this, she still was not afraid, and she too went and gave herself like a prostitute to other gods. Because she took her prostitution so lightly, she defiled the land through her adulterous worship of gods made of wood and stone. In spite of all this, Israel’s sister, unfaithful Judah, has not turned back to me with any sincerity; she has only pretended to do so,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 3:8-10 NLT

Israel had been conquered by the Assyrians, had its capital city of Samaria plundered, and its people taken as captives to Nineveh. And the people of Judah had watched all this happen, but had remained unmoved and unimpressed by God’s judgment against their brothers and sisters. They continued to forsake God and pursue false gods. And al the while, they attempted to fool God into believing that they remained faithful by going through the motions of religious ritual and outward law keeping. But it was all a facade, intended to deceive God into believing that they remained devoted and sincere.

And God accuses them of ignoring His many calls to repent.

“Why was no one there when I came?
    Why didn’t anyone answer when I called?” – Isaiah 50:2 NLT

Isn’t it interesting how, when we find ourselves in trouble, we immediately call out to God for rescue. Yet, when we are living in sin and enjoying the temporal pleasures that sin offers, He calls out to us, and we ignore Him. He pleads with us to repent and return to Him, but we are too enamored with the false sense of joy and contentment that a lifestyle of sin provides.

That God did not prevent the fall of Judah had nothing to do with a lack of power on His part. He could have, but He chose not to. And He reminds them that His power is unlimited.

“For I can speak to the sea and make it dry up!
    I can turn rivers into deserts covered with dying fish.
I dress the skies in darkness,
    covering them with clothes of mourning.” – Isaiah 50:3 NLT

All of this is reminiscent of the story of Job, the man of God who found himself having lost everything – his children, his health and all his wealth. He was under intense emotional, physical and spiritual attack, wrestling with trying to understand the why behind his condition. And he stated:

“If only I knew where to find God,
    I would go to his court.
I would lay out my case
    and present my arguments.” – Job 23:3-4 NLT

Job was anxious for an opportunity to plead his case before God. All his friends had accused him of being a sinner suffering the obvious consequences of God’s anger. But Job had pleaded innocence, persistently claiming that he done nothing deserving of his fate. And he was convinced that, if he could just have a hearing before God, he would receive a fair trial and a just decision.

“Then I would listen to his reply
    and understand what he says to me.
Would he use his great power to argue with me?
    No, he would give me a fair hearing.
Honest people can reason with him,
    so I would be forever acquitted by my judge.” – Job 23:5-7 NLT

But Job felt like God was nowhere to be found. He claimed, “I go east, but he is not there. I go west, but I cannot find him” (Job 23:8 NLT). God seemed hidden and concealed and yet, Job was able to say:

“But he knows where I am going.
    And when he tests me, I will come out as pure as gold.
For I have stayed on God’s paths;
    I have followed his ways and not turned aside.
I have not departed from his commands,
    but have treasured his words more than daily food.” – Job 23:10-12 NLT

The people of Judah could make no such claim. They were guilty as charged and fully deserved the punishment they had received. Job had suffered greatly, but had done nothing to deserve it. And yet, despite his innocence, he knew that casting blame on God was not the answer. In fact, he wrote, “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding” (Job 28:28 NLT).

Had the people of Judah only understood the reality of that thought. But they had no fear of God. In spite of what had happened to Israel, they continued to emulate the sins of Israel, forsaking God for lifeless idols made by human hands. They practiced deceit and lived a lie. They ignored God’s laws and violated His calls for justice and righteousness. They turned their backs on the very one who had the power to deliver them. And they would suffer the consequences for their sins.

But what about innocent Job? He had done nothing to deserve his sorrowful circumstances. What did God do for Him?

…the Lord restored his fortunes. In fact, the Lord gave him twice as much as before! Then all his brothers, sisters, and former friends came and feasted with him in his home. And they consoled him and comforted him because of all the trials the Lord had brought against him. And each of them brought him a gift of money and a gold ring. So the Lord blessed Job in the second half of his life even more than in the beginning. – Job 42:10-12 NLT

God blessed and restored him. And, amazingly, that was exactly what God planned to do for the rebellious nation of Judah. He would bless and restore them. Yes, they would suffer for their sins. They would pay the price for their disobedience. But God, the faithful, covenant-keeping God, would redeem them from their captivity and restore them to the land of promise. Despite the gravity of their circumstances, His hand was not shortened, and His power to redeem was not diminished in any way. And the day will  come when the people of Judah and Israel will acknowledge God just as Job did.

“I had only heard about you before,
    but now I have seen you with my own eyes.
I take back everything I said,
    and I sit in dust and ashes to show my repentance.” – Job 42:5-6 NLT

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

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

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

God Is Faithful.

In that day their strong cities will be like the deserted places of the wooded heights and the hilltops, which they deserted because of the children of Israel, and there will be desolation.

10 For you have forgotten the God of your salvation
    and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge;
therefore, though you plant pleasant plants
    and sow the vine-branch of a stranger,
11 though you make them grow on the day that you plant them,
    and make them blossom in the morning that you sow,
yet the harvest will flee away
    in a day of grief and incurable pain.

12 Ah, the thunder of many peoples;
    they thunder like the thundering of the sea!
Ah, the roar of nations;
    they roar like the roaring of mighty waters!
13 The nations roar like the roaring of many waters,
    but he will rebuke them, and they will flee far away,
chased like chaff on the mountains before the wind
    and whirling dust before the storm.
14 At evening time, behold, terror!
    Before morning, they are no more!
This is the portion of those who loot us,
    and the lot of those who plunder us. – Isaiah 17:9-14 ESV

Long before God gave this oracle against Israel and Syria, He had freed the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt and led them to the land of Canaan, the land He had promised to give to Abraham and his descendants. Then, under the leadership of Joshua and with the help of God, the people had taken the land. Years later, as Joshua neared the end of his life, he had called the people together, and God reminded them of what He had done for them.

“When you crossed the Jordan River and came to Jericho, the men of Jericho fought against you, as did the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. But I gave you victory over them. And I sent terror ahead of you to drive out the two kings of the Amorites. It was not your swords or bows that brought you victory. – Joshua 24:11-12 NLT

God gave them victories over their enemies. This rag-tag group of people who had spent 40 years crossing the wilderness, had arrived in Canaan with little in the way of weapons and no formal military training. But, with God on their side, they were virtually invincible. Their very presence in the land terrified those who lived there. But God made it clear that it wasn’t their weapons that brought them success, it was Him. In fact, He went on to tell them:

“I gave you land you had not worked on, and I gave you towns you did not build—the towns where you are now living. I gave you vineyards and olive groves for food, though you did not plant them.” – Joshua 24:13 NLT

This statement by God is extremely crucial to understanding the oracle spoken by God through Isaiah against the people of Israel. Notice what God told their ancestors. He had literally given them entire cities and towns they had played no part in building. He had provided them with lush vineyards and orchards, fully cultivated and fruitful, that they had not tilled, planted or cared for. It had all been a gift from God.

But the people of Israel had poor memories. It had been a long time since Joshua and the people had conquered the land of Canaan. And the people had forgotten all that God had done for them. Which is exactly what God had warned them would happen before they crossed the Jordan and entered the land under the leadership of Moses.

“When you have eaten your fill, be sure to praise the Lord your God for the good land he has given you. But that is the time to be careful! Beware that in your plenty you do not forget the Lord your God and disobey his commands, regulations, and decrees that I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 8:10-11 NLT

God went on to warn the people not to become prideful, thinking that they had been the key to their own success. It was He who had freed them from captivity. He is the one who had led them through the wilderness, feeding and clothing them. He had provided them with water, manna and quail to eat. And Moses told them exactly why God had done all this for them.

“He did all this so you would never say to yourself, ‘I have achieved this wealth with my own strength and energy.’ Remember the Lord your God. He is the one who gives you power to be successful, in order to fulfill the covenant he confirmed to your ancestors with an oath.” – Deuteronomy 8:17-18 NLT

But even by the time Joshua was nearing the end of his life and attempting to motivate the people of Israel to keep on trusting God, he knew that they had begun to forget the one who had done so much for them. Which is why he delivered to them a stirring challenge.

“So fear the Lord and serve him wholeheartedly. Put away forever the idols your ancestors worshiped when they lived beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt. Serve the Lord alone. But if you refuse to serve the Lord, then choose today whom you will serve. Would you prefer the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates? Or will it be the gods of the Amorites in whose land you now live? But as for me and my family, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:14-15 NLT

But fast-forward to the days of Isaiah. Here in the divine oracle leveled against the people of Israel, God reveals that they had long ago forgotten Him.

For you have forgotten the God of your salvation
    and have not remembered the Rock of your refuge. – Isaiah 17:10 ESV

And notice what is provided as evidence of their forgetfulness. They were planting and sowing. They were cultivating and caring for the vineyards and orchards they had created. And the text mentions them sowing “the vine-branch of a stranger.” They had been importing grape vines from outside the area. The vines God had given them were not enough. They wanted more. They were no longer relying on God for their needs. They had become self-sufficient and confident in their own ability to provide for their own needs. But God warns them:

They may sprout on the day you set them out;
    yes, they may blossom on the very morning you plant them,
but you will never pick any grapes from them.
    Your only harvest will be a load of grief and unrelieved pain. – Isaiah 17:11 NLT

Their efforts would appear to be fruitful and profitable, but they would lack long-term sustainability. The harvest they reaped would not be what they expected. Rather than plump grapes and delicious olives, they would harvest grief and pain. And it would come in the form of a mighty nation that would deluge them like a flood.

And yet, God promises that He “will silence them, and they will run away. They will flee like chaff scattered by the wind, like a tumbleweed whirling before a storm” (Isaiah 17:13 NLT). In spite of Israel’s refusal to trust God, He would spare them. Israel was guilty of forsaking God, but He woult not forsake them. Because He has plans for them.

Eventually, Israel fell to the Assyrians. God allowed them to be taken into captivity. So, it would be easy to question how tne promise found in this passage was fulfilled. Did God keep His word? Isaiah 37 lets us know that God did fulfill His promise. When Sennacherib and the Assyrians came against Jerualem, God spared the city by providing a miraculous victory over the enemy. Once again, God did for the people of Israel what they could not have done for themselves.

“And this is what the Lord says about the king of Assyria:

“‘His armies will not enter Jerusalem.
    They will not even shoot an arrow at it.
They will not march outside its gates with their shields
    nor build banks of earth against its walls.
The king will return to his own country
    by the same road on which he came.
He will not enter this city,’
    says the Lord.
‘For my own honor and for the sake of my servant David,
    I will defend this city and protect it.’” – Isaiah 37:33-35 NLT

When the Assyrians woke up the next morning, they discovered 185,000 dead comrades, killed by an angel of God. So, Sennacherib and his troops abandoned their siege and returned home, leaving Jerusalem unscathed. And it was God who provided the victory.

But there is another day coming, when God will provide an even greater victory over the enemies of Israel. It is recorded in the book of Revelation. We are told of a day when God will send His Son back to earth to defeat Satan and all those who have joined him in his ill-fated rebellion against God and the people of God. He will fail. The godless nations will fall. And God will restore His holy people, the nation of Israel.

“We give thanks to you, Lord God, the Almighty,
    the one who is and who always was,
for now you have assumed your great power
    and have begun to reign.
The nations were filled with wrath,
    but now the time of your wrath has come.
It is time to judge the dead
    and reward your servants the prophets,
    as well as your holy people,
and all who fear your name,
    from the least to the greatest.
It is time to destroy
    all who have caused destruction on the earth.” – Revelation 11:17-18 NLT

God 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

In That Day…

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: 11 “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!”

18 In that day the Lord will whistle for the fly that is at the end of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria. 19 And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures.

20 In that day the Lord will shave with a razor that is hired beyond the River—with the king of Assyria—the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.

21 In that day a man will keep alive a young cow and two sheep, 22 and because of the abundance of milk that they give, he will eat curds, for everyone who is left in the land will eat curds and honey.

23 In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns. 24 With bow and arrows a man will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns. 25 And as for all the hills that used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns, but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread.  – Isaiah 7:10-25 ESV

King Ahaz of Judah had a decision to make. Would he allow his fear of the alliance between Israel and Syria to get the best of him? Would the foreboding circumstances he faced force him to take matters into his own hands? Or would he trust the word of God?

God had already assured Ahaz, “This invasion will never happen; it will never take place” (Isaiah 7:7 NLT). But God also knew that Ahaz was not buying it, so He offered to provide Ahaz with a sign as proof.

“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” – Isaiah 7:11 ESV

God challenged Ahaz to make his request as difficult as he possibly could, using the depth of Sheol and the height of heaven as the two extremes. And yet, surprisingly, Ahaz refused to take God up on his offer. He rather piously states, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test” (Isaiah 7:12 ESV). At first glance, Ahaz’ statement appears to portray him as a God-honoring Jew who was expressing his confident faith in Yahweh. But the truth is, Ahaz had already made plans to form an alliance with Assyria. He had come up with his own solution to the problem of the alliance between Israel and Syria. And his pious-sounding refusal to put God to the test fooled no one, including Isaiah.

“Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.” – Isaiah 7:13-14 ESV

Ahaz was testing the patience of God. This most-recent display of faithlessness and his ongoing lifestyle of unrighteousness demanded a response from God. But Isaiah makes it clear that the poor leadership of Ahaz was going to bring judgment against the “house of David.” In other words, Ahaz’s godless actions would have dire ramifications on the entire Davidic dynasty.

And yet, right in the middle of Isaiah’s indictment of Ahaz and the house of David, he expresses a line that has become very familiar to us.

Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

This very same statement was quoted by the angel who appeared to Joseph in a dream.

“Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel (which means, God with us).” – Matthew 1:20-23 ESV

Notice that the angel referred to Joseph as a son of David. He was born into the line of David, as the opening verses of Matthew 1 make clear. And even though Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, he would become his adoptive father, making Jesus his legal heir and also a legal descendant of David. But the gospel of Luke traces the lineage of Jesus through Mary, making Him a descendant of David by blood.

So, in the middle of this confrontation with King Ahaz, Isaiah makes a prophetic pronouncement about the coming Messiah, who would be a descendant of King David. And while Ahaz was doubting the very presence and power of God, the future Messiah would be represent the very presence of God, thus His name: “God with us.”

But while this prophecy would have an obvious future fulfillment in the birth of Jesus, it must have had a more contemporary manifestation. Isaiah describes the meager diet of the child. By the time he is old enough to know right from wrong, he will be eating curds and honey, the diet of the poor and destitute. And will be the result of some catastrophic event.

…before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted… – Isaiah 7:16 ESV

Isaiah predicts a time when Syria and Israel will no longer be a threat. Their lands will be desserted. And this will be a result of the Assyrian’s conquest of the land. But this will leave the land of Judah struggling with food shortages as well. In 733-32 B.C., just a year or two after this prophecy was made, the Assyrians would invade Syria and Israel. The very nation with whom Ahaz had determined to make an alliance, would be used by God to bring judgment against Israel and Judah. Ahaz and his people would also feel the brunt of Assyria’s military might. This supposed ally, in whom Ahaz had placed his trust, would prove to be anything but trustworthy.

Isaiah warns Ahaz that the future judgment of God was going to be worse than what He had done when He split the kingdom in two after Solomon’s failure to remain faithful. And it would come in the form of the king of Assyria, the very one Ahaz had chosen to trust instead of God.

The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria! – Isaiah 7:14 ESV

The following verses record Isaiah’s description of the coming judgment. He repeatedly uses the phrase, “in that day.” This is a clear warning that there was a time ordained by God when He would call forth judgment on Judah. Isaiah uses the metaphor of bees and flies, one representing Assyria and the other, Egypt. Judah would find itself infested by troops coming from the north and the south. They would invade the land in great numbers.

Isaiah portrays the king of Assyria as a barber who will shave all the hair from the bodies of the people of Judah. This portrays the coming humiliation of Judah at the hands of the Assyrians. For a Jew to have his head shaved would be a horrifying and humiliating experience. It was a sign of subjugation and slavery.

Things would become so bad that, rather than huge herds of sheep and cattle, the average Jew would be happy to have a young cow and a couple of sheep. And he will have to content himself with eating curdled milk and honey in order to survive. It will be a time marked by great need and a sparsity of food.

And rather than vineyards filled with abundant grapes, their fields will be filled with briers and thorns. Rather than hoeing and planting, men will be relegated to hunting for wild life. The once fruitful land will become desolate and the domain of grazing livestock.

The words of Isaiah carry a bleak message. But nestled in the midst of all the doom and gloom is God’s promise of Immanuel. The judgment of God is always accompanied by the grace and mercy of God. He would bring judgment against Judah, but there was a day coming when He would send His Son to be the Messiah and Savior. Ahaz had proven to be unfaithful, but God would keep His covenant promises.

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

Misplaced Trust.

1 For behold, the Lord God of hosts
    is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah
support and supply,
    all support of bread,
    and all support of water;
the mighty man and the soldier,
    the judge and the prophet,
    the diviner and the elder,
the captain of fifty
    and the man of rank,
the counselor and the skillful magician
    and the expert in charms.
And I will make boys their princes,
    and infants shall rule over them.
And the people will oppress one another,
    every one his fellow
    and every one his neighbor;
the youth will be insolent to the elder,
    and the despised to the honorable.

For a man will take hold of his brother
    in the house of his father, saying:
“You have a cloak;
    you shall be our leader,
and this heap of ruins
    shall be under your rule”;
in that day he will speak out, saying:
“I will not be a healer;
    in my house there is neither bread nor cloak;
you shall not make me
    leader of the people.”
For Jerusalem has stumbled,
    and Judah has fallen,
because their speech and their deeds are against the Lord,
    defying his glorious presence.

For the look on their faces bears witness against them;
    they proclaim their sin like Sodom;
    they do not hide it.
Woe to them!
    For they have brought evil on themselves. – Isaiah 3:1-9 ESV

Like every other prophet of God, Isaiah was tasked with calling the people of God back to Him. He was to warn them of God’s pending judgment, an unavoidable outcome unless they repented of their unfaithfulness and returned to Him. And just two chapters into the book, we have seen God’s present more than enough evidence of Judah’s guilt. His punishment of them is not a matter of if, but when. And as chapter two revealed, there will be a now/not yet aspect to God’s judgment. They will experience His wrath in the immediate future, but also in a far-distant “day to come.”

Chapter two also ended with a summation of Judah’s problem. They had put their trust in men, rather than God. Even their worship of false gods was essentially a trust in men, because idols are nothing more than the result of man’s imagination and creativity.

Their land is filled with idols;
    they bow down to the work of their hands,
    to what their own fingers have made. – Isaiah 2:8 ESV

But the day was coming when they would rid themselves of all their fabricated gods.

In that day mankind will cast away
    their idols of silver and their idols of gold,
which they made for themselves to worship. – Isaiah 2:20 ESV

God was out to destroy their love affair with man. He is a jealous God who will share not share His peoples’ affection with anyone or anything else. Yet, the people of Judah loved worshiping man and the works of his hands – from the precious metals he mined to the fortified walls he built. From his hand-crafted gods to his beautifully crafted ships and cities.

God was going to hit them where it hurt. He was going to attack the very things in which they had placed their hope, faith, and trust. And He would start with their sources of sustenance.

…the Lord God of hosts
    is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah
support and supply,
    all support of bread,
    and all support of water… – Isaiah 3:1 ESV

They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, and there is a lot of truth to that old maxim.Our physical appetites drive much of our behavior. They can have a powerful influence over our lives. Think about the Israelites as they journeyed from Egypt to the promised land. When they got thirsty or hungry, they grumbled and complained against Moses. They demanded a solution to their problem and even threatened to return to Egypt.

“…there we sat around pots filled with meat and ate all the bread we wanted. But now you have brought us into this wilderness to starve us all to death.” –Exodus 16:3 NLT

Even when God had met their need for food and provided them with manna from heaven, the people reached a point where God’s provision was not enough.

“Oh, for some meat!” they exclaimed. “We remember the fish we used to eat for free in Egypt. And we had all the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions, and garlic we wanted. But now our appetites are gone. All we ever see is this manna!” – Numbers 11:4-6 NLT

Our physical appetites can be powerful and highly influential, causing us to turn away from God. The apostle Paul addressed this important issue with his young protege, Timothy.

Yet true godliness with contentment is itself great wealth. After all, we brought nothing with us when we came into the world, and we can’t take anything with us when we leave it. So if we have enough food and clothing, let us be content. – 1 Timothy 6:6-8 NLT

But the people of Judah didn’t share Paul’s outlook. So, God was going to take away those things on which they relied for their existence. And He wasn’t going to stop with food. He would also remove their leadership.

the mighty man and the soldier,
    the judge and the prophet,
    the diviner and the elder,
the captain of fifty
    and the man of rank,
the counselor and the skillful magician
    and the expert in charms. – Isaiah 3:2-3 ESV

They were guilty of placing more trust in man than they did in God. Having failed to recognize these individuals as gifts from and representatives of God, they were placing all their hope in them. So, God would take them away. And when the Babylonians eventually defeated Judah, these were the very people that King Nebuchadnezzar took as slaves.

He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land. – 2 Kings 24:14 ESV

And the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, 7,000, and the craftsmen and the metal workers, 1,000, all of them strong and fit for war. – 2 Kings 24:16 ESV

God would leave Judah without their leaders. All the wisest and oldest of their men would be taken captive, leaving “boys their princes” and virtual “infants” ruling over them (Isaiah 3:3). The result of this lack of seasoned leadership would be chaos.

People will oppress each other—
    man against man,
    neighbor against neighbor.
Young people will insult their elders,
    and vulgar people will sneer at the honorable. – Isaiah 3:5 NLT

The people of Judah were going to learn what life was like without God-ordained and God-provided leadership. These men were to have been representatives of God, not His replacements. And things were going to get so bad and qualified leaders so rare, that people would appoint men to rule over them based on some pretty sketchy qualifications.

“Since you have a coat, you be our leader!
    Take charge of this heap of ruins!” – Isaiah 3:6 NLT

People will become desperate for someone to lead them. But, even then, they will fail to turn to God. Instead, they will seek out unqualified and incapable men who lack the wisdom and resources to do anything about their sorrowful condition.

“No! I can’t help.
I don’t have any extra food or clothes.
    Don’t put me in charge!” – Isaiah 3:7 NLT

And this pitiful situation was coming on the people of Judah because they had chosen to place their trust in something other than God. Their actions displayed an open disregard for God.

…they speak out against the Lord and refuse to obey him.
    They provoke him to his face. – Isaiah 3:8 NLT

And from God’s vantage point, He could see through their false piety and ritualistic religious observances. They were simply going through the motions. They had no real love for or fear of God.

They display their sin like the people of Sodom
    and don’t even try to hide it.
They are doomed!
    They have brought destruction upon themselves. – Isaiah 3:9 NLT

They deserved what they had coming to them. They had long ago lost any sense of moral responsibility. Their consciences had been seared by their constant exposure to false and faulty leadership. And, just a few chapters later, Isaiah will describe their spiritual condition in stark terms:

Those who call evil good and good evil are as good as dead,
who turn darkness into light and light into darkness,
who turn bitter into sweet and sweet into bitter. – Isaiah 5:20 NLT

By turning away from God, they had left themselves with no moral compass by which to navigate life. Even their leaders had forsaken God, so that no one was able to provide them with wise and godly guidance. And this lack of divine leadership had created a moral void and a perfect environment in which every man did what was right in his own eyes. And the prophet Jeremiah provides an apt description of what happens when men reject God as their sole source of sustenance and strength. Their consciences become seared and their capacity for righteous living becomes impossible.

Are they ashamed of these disgusting actions? Not at all–they don’t even know how to blush! – Jeremiah 8:12 NLT

God had made His expectations perfectly clear: His people were to have no other gods but Him (Exodus 20:3). And that included gods of wood and stone, as well as flesh and blood. They were to worship Him and Him alone. But they had failed to keep that law. It wasn’t that they had stopped believing in Him, it was that they had ceased trusting in Him. Over time, they had put their hope in the things He had provided, rather than in the Provider. They had ended up worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. And replacement gods not only fail to deliver, they always lead us away from the one true 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

In That Day…

 

For you have rejected your people,
    the house of Jacob,
because they are full of things from the east
    and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines,
    and they strike hands with the children of foreigners.
Their land is filled with silver and gold,
    and there is no end to their treasures;
their land is filled with horses,
    and there is no end to their chariots.
Their land is filled with idols;
    they bow down to the work of their hands,
    to what their own fingers have made.
So man is humbled,
    and each one is brought low—
    do not forgive them!
10 Enter into the rock
    and hide in the dust
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty.
11 The haughty looks of man shall be brought low,
    and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled,
and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.

12 For the Lord of hosts has a day
    against all that is proud and lofty,
    against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low;
13 against all the cedars of Lebanon,
    lofty and lifted up;
    and against all the oaks of Bashan;
14 against all the lofty mountains,
    and against all the uplifted hills;
15 against every high tower,
    and against every fortified wall;
16 against all the ships of Tarshish,
    and against all the beautiful craft.
17 And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled,
    and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low,
    and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
18 And the idols shall utterly pass away.
19 And people shall enter the caves of the rocks
    and the holes of the ground,
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty,
    when he rises to terrify the earth.

20 In that day mankind will cast away
    their idols of silver and their idols of gold,
which they made for themselves to worship,
    to the moles and to the bats,
21 to enter the caverns of the rocks
    and the clefts of the cliffs,
from before the terror of the Lord,
    and from the splendor of his majesty,
    when he rises to terrify the earth.
22 Stop regarding man
    in whose nostrils is breath,
    for of what account is he? – Isaiah 2:6-22 ESV

This is a book of prophecy and like all other prophetic books in the Bible, it has a now-not yet aspect to it. In other words, there are parts of the content of Isaiah that will have their fulfillment in the not-so-distant future. The people of Judah were going to experience first-hand the judgments God was warning them about. If they did not repent and return to the Lord, He would punish them for their rebellion against Him. And it would come in the lifetimes of the people to whom Isaiah’s book was addressed – his fellow citizens of Jerusalem and Judah.

But there is another aspect to these judgments that we must not overlook: Many of them are as yet unfulfilled. They have not taken place. Or they have taken place in part, but not completely. And the verses for today are a perfect example.

The key to determining whether a prophetic statement is of the now or not-yet variety, you must examine its content to see if it has already been fulfilled. This requires a careful study of Judah’s history as revealed in the rest of Scripture. It is usually quite easy to determine if a prophecy has been fulfilled or not. And for all those which predict events that remain unfulfilled, we must recognize that they fall into the not-yet category. They are outstanding and still pending.

But these two categories of prophetic statements from God are both based on the same criteria. The people of Judah had proven to be unfaithful to God. And He has already provided ample evidence of their guilt. Yet, these verses reiterate the actions of the people of Judah that have forced God to predict their pending doom – both near-term and distant.

Isaiah provides a reason for God’s rejection of His people.

“…they are full of things from the east and of fortune-tellers like the Philistines, and they strike hands with the children of foreigners.” – Isaiah 2:6 ESV

They had made alliances with pagan nations, against the expressed will of God. Not only that, they had begun to practice the false religions of those nations. And all the while, they had enjoyed increased prosperity and what appeared to be apparent blessings. Their land, the land of Judah, was filled with idols to false gods. The people whom God had chosen as His own, were bowing down to statues made with human hands. They were worshiping false gods that were lifeless and powerless, in place of the one true God: Yahweh.

Then, suddenly and somewhat surprisingly, Isaiah describes these rich and satisfied individuals as having been brought low.

So man is humbled,
    and each one is brought low—
    do not forgive them!” – Isaiah 2:9 ESV

But Isaiah seems to be emphasizing the predictable and inevitable outcome of a life of pride. The Scriptures are filled with admonitions and warnings against pride.

Pride goes before destruction,
and a haughty spirit before a fall. – Proverbs 16:18 ESV

The fear of the LORD is hatred of evil. Pride and arrogance and the way of evil and perverted speech I hate. – Proverbs 8:13 NLT

Isaiah knew that it was only a matter of time before God responded to the pride and arrogance of His people. God would not allow them to live in open rebellion forever. Their actions were going to bring the judgment of God. If they failed to humble themselves before God, He would humble them in His own way. Their behavior had brought shame to the name of God, something He had warned them not to do.

…you must not bring shame on the name of your God. I am the LORD. Leviticus 18:21 NLT

Like an adulterous wife, the nation of Judah had turned their back on a faithful, loving God, prostituting themselves to an assortment of false gods. And Isaiah warned them that God had had enough. They were going to find themselves hiding from the wrath to come.

Enter into the rock and hide in the dust from before the terror of the Lord,from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty. – Isaiah 2:10 ESV

And this is a perfect illustration of one of those now/not-yet prophetic statements. We know from recorded history, that Judah was eventually defeated by the Babylonians and a great many of their most prominent citizens were taken as slaves and transported to King Nebuchadnezzar’s capital city. They were humbled. They went from riches to poverty. From enjoying power and influence to experiencing the humiliating life of a slave.

But there is another aspect of this prophecy that is yet to be fulfilled. Did the people of Judah actually enter into the rock and hide in the dust in an attempt to escape the Babylonians? Possibly. But in the New Testament book of Revelation, we have an as-yet-unfulfilled aspect of this prophecy. It will take place during the days of the Tribulation.

Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” – Revelation 6:15-17 ESV

Here we have a picture of the people of Judah, along with the rest of mankind who will be living on the earth during the Tribulation, facing the wrath of the Lamb. And they will attempt to hide and caves and among the rocks, hoping to escape the judgment that is coming on the earth. And Isaiah describes what will happen on that day.

The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. – Isaiah 2:11 ESV

Notice his use of the phrase, “in that day.” Isaiah is predicting a specific moment in time when God will do something to bring low the pride and arrogance of sinful mankind.

For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up—and it shall be brought low. – Isaiah 2:12 ESV

And ten different times, Isaiah uses the word, “against.” On that day, God will bring His judgment against a variety of things.

against all that is proud and lofty

against all that is lifted up

against the cedars of Lebanon

against the oaks of Bashan

against all the lofty mountains

against all the uplifted hills

against every high tower

against every fortified wall

against all the ships of Tarshish

against all the beautiful craft

This list includes places far outside the borders of Judah. God seems to be predicting a more widespread judgment to come. Judah’s unfaithfulness would spread. Their failure to live in faithful a covenant relationship with God would end up impacting the entire world. They had been chosen by God to be a model to the nations of what it looks like for a people group to live in a righteous relationship with God Almighty. But they had failed. And over the centuries, they would continue to do so. And when God sent His Son to be their long-awaited Messiah, they would reject Him as well.

But Isaiah warns of a coming day when all men will be humbled before the wrath of God.

And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled, and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day. – Isaiah 2:17 ESV

Has this happened yet? No. The entire world lives in open rebellion against God, filled with pride and arrogance, determined to live as the masters of their own fates. And Isaiah goes on to point out that the day will come when these very same people throw away their false gods because of the judgment of the one true God.

In that day mankind will cast away their idols of silver and their idols of gold. – Isaiah 2:20 ESV

Again, has this happened yet? No. Yet, Isaiah says three different times that they will “enter the caverns of the rocks and the clefts of the cliffs, from before the terror of the Lord, and from the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to terrify the earth” (Isaiah 2:21 ESV). God was going to punish Judah for their sins. They would end up in captivity in Judah. But that is only a small example of what God is going to do to all of mankind because of their rejection of Him. We should take the warnings against Judah seriously. But we should not see this as ancient history. God is warning Judah and the rest of the world that He will deal with sin. He is a holy God and He hates sin.

And Isaiah provides his readers with a timeless warning.

Stop regarding man in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he? – Isaiah 2:22 ESV

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

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

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

A Heart of Unfaithfulness.

“It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery. – Matthew 5:31-32 ESV

Jesus follows up his radical statements regarding lust and adultery with a clarification of what the law actually says about the topic of divorce. Once again, He opens His remarks with the words, “It was also said.” What follows was not intended to be a restatement of the law, but a clarification of what the law actually taught. Jesus is showing His audience, made up primarily of Jews, that they have misconstrued the meaning and intent of what was written in the book of Deuteronomy. Here are the actual words found in the Law of Moses:

When a man takes a wife and marries her, if then she finds no favor in his eyes because he has found some indecency in her, and he writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, and she departs out of his house, and if she goes and becomes another man’s wife, and the latter man hates her and writes her a certificate of divorce and puts it in her hand and sends her out of his house, or if the latter man dies, who took her to be his wife, then her former husband, who sent her away, may not take her again to be his wife, after she has been defiled, for that is an abomination before the Lord. And you shall not bring sin upon the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance. – Deuteronomy 24:1-4 ESV

Divorce was a problem in Israel. And the reason was because the people had been taught to minimize the moral aspect of divorce. Their interpretation of this passage from Deuteronomy centered solely on one thing: The certificate of divorce. In other words, they read this law and saw it as a license to divorce their wives. Now, it is important to realize that, in Israel’s ancient culture, women had no rights. They were not free to divorce their husbands. So this law was aimed at men. And it was not intended as some kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, providing men with an easy exit strategy from an unhappy marriage. But that is what it had become. Divorce had become common place. It was as simple as a written piece of paper, a certificate of divorce. There were no lawyers, courts, or judges involved. And the action was done with little or no thought to any spiritual or moral ramifications the decision might entail.

These verses are directly tied to the ones preceding them, where Jesus talked about adultery. Every Jew knew that adultery was wrong. But they had separated the idea of adultery from divorce, and Jesus wasn’t going to allow them to do so. Which is why He says, “I say that a man who divorces his wife, unless she has been unfaithful, causes her to commit adultery. And anyone who marries a divorced woman also commits adultery” (Matthew 5:32 ESV). In just a few short sentences, Jesus drops the hammer on the Jewish concept of divorce. All the way back in the book of Genesis, at the very point in time when God had made woman from the rib of man, He said, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh” (Genesis 2:24 ESV). God’s intention had been that a man and woman would be joined together as one, for life. There had been no provision for divorce. And, at a later point in Jesus’ ministry, this issue would be raised by the Pharisees, when they point-blank asked Him, “Should a man be allowed to divorce his wife?” (Mark 10:2 NLT). The passage makes it clear that they were attempting to trap Jesus with this question. It was designed to be a no-win scenario. If Jesus said a man was not allowed to divorce his wife, the crowds would turn on Him. A hard line view on marriage and divorce had gotten John the Baptist beheaded by Herod. So the Pharisees wanted to see what Jesus was going to say, and His response was simple, yet direct. He did what He was so often prone to do – He answered a question with a question: “What did Moses say in the law about divorce?” (Mark 10:3 NLT). And they responded, “Well, he permitted it. He said a man can give his wife a written notice of divorce and send her away” (Mark 10:4 NLT). Now, notice closely what Jesus says to them:

“He [Moses} wrote this commandment only as a concession to your hard hearts. But ‘God made them male and female’ from the beginning of creation. ‘This explains why a man leaves his father and mother and is joined to his wife, and the two are united into one.’ Since they are no longer two but one, let no one split apart what God has joined together.” – Mark 10:5-9 NLT

C. E. B. Cranfield, in his commentary of the Gospel of Mark, clarifies that the Deuteronomy passage to which Jesus refers…

…is a divine provision to deal with situations brought about by men’s sklerokardia [hardness of heart] and to protect from its worst effects those who would suffer as a result of it. – C. E. B. Cranfield, The Gospel According to Saint Mark

In other words, this was a concession, and not to be confused with some form of divine permission to divorce. It was intended to keep men from following up one sin with another. The certificate of divorce was a legal document that was based on one thing and one thing only: Some proof of “indecency” in the life of the wife. The Hebrew word used in the Deuteronomy passage had to do with actions related to indecency, shamefulness or dishonor. A man couldn’t just grow tired of his wife and send her packing. He wasn’t free to “fall out of love” with her and produce a piece of paper to get rid of her. There had to be moral reasons for him to divorce her. And, if he did divorce her, he had to deal with the moral ramifications of his decision. Jesus makes it perfectly clear, that unless the man’s wife was guilty of unfaithfulness, in the form of sexual immorality, he had no right to divorce her. If he did, he was causing her to commit adultery with the next man she married. Because, in God’s eyes, she and her first husband were still one. And if she did remarry and was given divorce papers a second time, the first husband was not free to remarry her, without being guilty of adultery as well. And any husband, after having divorced his wife, who decided to marry a woman who had also been divorced without proper cause, would be guilty of adultery.

Why is Jesus belaboring this point? What is the real issue He is addressing? It is faithfulness. It all gets back to the perception/reality problem. For the Jews, their perception regarding divorce was that divorce was possible under certain conditions. You just had to follow the rules. But with the help of the religious leaders, the rules had been redefined. Divorce had become an accepted norm. But Jesus was out to deal with reality. He blatantly countered that divorce results in adultery. Marriage was intended to be a covenant, a binding relationship between two people and sealed before before God Almighty. And Jesus clarifies the significance of that reality, when He says, “What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate” (Mark 10:9 ESV).

Divorce was never God’s intention for mankind. Marriage was designed to be a permanent union, creating a divine union between two individuals. Divorce is nothing less than a breaking of the marriage covenant. It’s an act of unfaithfulness. And God had stated that the only legitimate grounds for divorce would be based on unfaithfulness. And yet, He was not prescribing divorce as the solution to the problem of unfaithfulness. Jesus made it painfully clear that the only reason God made a provision for divorce. “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so” (Matthew 19:8 ESV).

One of the things God has always looked for in His people is faithfulness. God expected the people of Israel, as His chosen people, to remain faithful to Him. But He often accused them of spiritual adultery.

“Have you seen what she did, that faithless one, Israel, how she went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and there played the whore? And I thought, ‘After she has done all this she will return to me,’ but she did not return, and her treacherous sister Judah saw it. She saw that for all the adulteries of that faithless one, Israel, I had sent her away with a decree of divorce. Yet her treacherous sister Judah did not fear, but she too went and played the whore. Because she took her whoredom lightly, she polluted the land, committing adultery with stone and tree. Yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah did not return to me with her whole heart, but in pretense, declares the Lord.” – Jeremiah 3:6-10 ESV

Israel had a track record of unfaithfulness to God. They couldn’t keep from wandering after other “lovers.” And the whole point Jesus seems to be making is our unfaithfulness on a horizontal level is a reflection of our unfaithfulness on a vertical level. How are we to remain faithful to God if we can’t remain faithful to our spouse? Our lack of commitment reveals a heart problem, not a compatibility issue.

God’s greatest concern is man’s relationship with Him. Sinful man is divorced or separated from God. Unfaithfulness has created a barrier between man and God. All men and women have proven themselves unfaithful to God. We have gone after other lovers, pursued other gods, and sought other relationships to meet our needs and satisfy our desires. But God, in His grace and mercy, sent His Son as the means by which we might be restored to a right relationship with Him. He wants to end our spiritual adultery and put a stop to our unfaithfulness. And it will only take place if we allow Him to renew our hearts and redeem us from our love affair with sin, self and Satan.

Jesus is calling the people of God back to God. I love the way the apostle Paul puts it:

And all of this is a gift from God, who brought us back to himself through Christ. And God has given us this task of reconciling people to him. For God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, no longer counting people’s sins against them. And he gave us this wonderful message of reconciliation. So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” For God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ. – 2 Corinthians 5:18-21 NLT

A spirit of divorce permeated the people of Israel, and it was fueled by unfaithfulness. Their flippant attitude toward marriage and divorce was a sad reflection of their attitude toward God. They had been unfaithful to Him and were without remorse. But for those who would be citizens of God’s Kingdom, life was to be different. Their love for God and others was to be constant and consistent. But only the grace of God expressed in the sacrifice of His own Son would make that kind of love possible.

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