Working On the Sabbath

13 Now the man who had been healed did not know who it was, for Jesus had withdrawn, as there was a crowd in the place. 14 Afterward Jesus found him in the temple and said to him, “See, you are well! Sin no more, that nothing worse may happen to you.” 15 The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had healed him. 16 And this was why the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath. 17 But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.”

18 This was why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God. John 5:13-18 ESV

A man, who had been paralyzed for 38 years, suddenly found himself physically whole and able to walk. In a rather bizarre encounter by the Pool of Bethesda, a complete stranger had approached him and asked if he wished to be healed. This rather blunt question had only reminded the man of his complete inability to enter the pool when the waters were stirred. He was an invalid, with no one to assist him in his time of need. But to his complete surprise, the stranger demanded. “Get up, take up your bed, and walk” (John 5:8 ESV). And John records that “at once the man was healed, and he took up his bed and walked” (John 5:8 ESV).   

One of the significant facts concerning this story is that the man who was restored to health was totally ignorant of the identity of the one who had healed him. He had no idea who Jesus was and, from John’s description of the event, it would appear that the man didn’t really care. His only concern was that he had once been lame but now he could walk.

And when the Pharisees confronted him for carrying his bedroll and breaking the prohibition against doing work on the Sabbath, he had blamed the stranger.

But he answered them, “The man who healed me, that man said to me, ‘Take up your bed, and walk.’ – John 5:11 ESV

In a sense, the man was excusing his actions by saying, “I was just doing what I was told to do.” And when the religious leaders demanded to know the name of the one who had told him to violate the Sabbath, the man pleaded ignorance. Jesus had simply disappeared into the crowd, having never identified Himself to the man.

This entire miracle appears to have been done in secret. No one seems to have witnessed what had taken place. The religious leaders make no reference to the healing. John mentions no reaction from the crowd. And the man who was healed had no idea that he had just met the Messiah.

While the miracle had been significant, John’s real emphasis seems to be that it had occurred on the Sabbath. This entire encounter has less to do with belief or faith than it has to do with Jesus’ divine authority. By healing the man’s long-term illness, Jesus displayed His authority over the physical world. But by performing this miracle on the Sabbath, Jesus proved His divine authority over even the law. Jesus was not in violation of the law because, as God, He was its author. He knew the true intent behind each commandment found in the law. And while the religious leaders were guilty of turning God’s law into a legalistic and restrictive set of regulations based on their own interpretations, the Son of God was fully aware of its original meaning and purpose.

Jesus would later condemn the religious leaders of Israel for demanding strict adherence to the law while neglecting and ignoring the very heart behind the law.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are careful to tithe even the tiniest income from your herb gardens, but you ignore the more important aspects of the law—justice, mercy, and faith. You should tithe, yes, but do not neglect the more important things.” – Matthew 23:23 NLT

The religious leaders had made the law all about earning favor with God through outward expressions of obedience. But, in doing so, they had missed the point. As the apostle Paul later pointed out, the law had been given not just to regulate man’s behavior, but to expose his problem with sin.

Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions… – Galatians 3:19 BSB

Therefore no one will be justified in His sight by works of the law. For the law merely brings awareness of sin. – Romans 3:20 BSB

This entire encounter between Jesus and the paralyzed man had been intended as a lesson about sin and man’s need of a Savior. Remember, when Jesus had first found the man, he had been lying by the pool, paralyzed and totally incapable of bringing about his own healing. His illness had left him incapacitated and unable to follow the rules required to experience the healing qualities found in the waters of the pool. He needed help. And Jesus had appeared on the scene, offering him the help he so desperately needed. But notice that Jesus did not help the man get into the pool. The water would not be the source of the man’s healing. It would come from Jesus Himself.

And when Jesus later encountered the man in the temple, Jesus gave him some interesting instructions.

“Look, you have become well. Don’t sin any more, lest anything worse happen to you.” – John 5:14 NET

Jesus seems to link the man’s illness to sin. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that Jesus was inferring that the man had been paralyzed as a form of divine punishment for some past sin he had committed. Jesus’ point seems to be that a life of sin has consequences. The very existence of sickness, disease, and suffering in the world is due to the pervasive presence of sin. And by demanding that the man abstain from committing any further sins, Jesus was requiring the impossible. This unredeemed man could no more refrain from sinning than he could have helped himself enter the waters of the Pool of Bethesda. He was in need of a Savior.

While this man had been freed from his physical paralysis, he still remained spiritually paralyzed by the debilitating presence of sin. He could walk, but he still lacked the capacity to walk in newness of life. He remained condemned by sin, even though he had met “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 ESV).

This man seems to have been completely satisfied with what He had received from Jesus: His physical healing. He shows no interest in who Jesus was or how He had pulled off his healing. Receiving the ability to walk had been his life-long dream. It had been the reason for his presence at the Pool of Bethesda that day. Yet, while he had received his heart’s desire, he was still missing what he really needed: Salvation from sin and release from the condemnation of death.

Eventually, the man discovered Jesus’ name and reported it to the religious authorities. And John makes it clear that these men had no interest in the miracle Jesus had performed. The man’s healing meant nothing to them. They were only concerned with the fact that Jesus had violated the Sabbath prohibition against work. From their legalistic perspective, He was nothing more than a common law-breaker.

But Jesus answered them, “My Father is working until now, and I am working.” – John 5:17 ESV

This rather enigmatic statement from Jesus did nothing to pacify their anger with Him. It only infuriated them further. In their minds, by declaring Himself to be the Son of God, Jesus was claiming to be divine. And that was the unpardonable sin of blasphemy, a crime worthy of death.

Yet, Jesus was simply stating that His actions were in keeping with the will of God. He was only doing what He had been sent to do. To the Pharisees, the Sabbath was all about rest or cessation from work. But for Jesus, even the Sabbath was a day reserved for doing the will and the work of God. There was no rest when it came to accomplishing God’s plan of redemption. The original intent of the Sabbath had been to remind the people of Israel of their complete dependence upon God. By taking one day out of seven and ceasing from any form of labor, they would recognize that God was their provider. He would meet all their needs, even when they were restricted from providing any assistance.

But the Jews had turned the day of rest into a day of duty and a form of works. Rather than resting in the providence and provision of God, they put their hope in their ability to “work” at resting. By fastidiously keeping God’s command to cease from all labor on the Sabbath, they were earning their way into His good graces. They were not looking to God to provide for their needs. They were depending upon their own acts of righteousness as demonstrated by their strict, over-the-top adherence to His law.

And sadly, John reveals that the religious leaders failed to recognize that the Lord of Sabbath was standing in their midst. They firmly and angrily rejected Jesus’ claim to be on equal standing with God. And their frustration with Jesus turned into a firm resolve to see Him put to death.

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

But As For Me

1 Woe is me! For I have become
    as when the summer fruit has been gathered,
    as when the grapes have been gleaned:
there is no cluster to eat,
    no first-ripe fig that my soul desires.
The godly has perished from the earth,
    and there is no one upright among mankind;
they all lie in wait for blood,
    and each hunts the other with a net.
Their hands are on what is evil, to do it well;
    the prince and the judge ask for a bribe,
and the great man utters the evil desire of his soul;
    thus they weave it together.
The best of them is like a brier,
    the most upright of them a thorn hedge.
The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come;
    now their confusion is at hand.
Put no trust in a neighbor;
    have no confidence in a friend;
guard the doors of your mouth
    from her who lies in your arms;
for the son treats the father with contempt,
    the daughter rises up against her mother,
the daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law;
    a man’s enemies are the men of his own house.
But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
    I will wait for the God of my salvation;
    my God will hear me.
– Micah 7:1-7 ESV

Serving as one of God’s prophets could be a difficult and thankless task. You were required to faithfully deliver God’s message, condemning His people for their sin and calling them to repentance. And few of the prophets were welcomed with open arms or receptive ears. In most cases, they were despised for their efforts and often, physically abused for attempting to save the people from the coming judgment of God.

These men were not automatons, heartless robots who mindlessly mouthed the words of God. They were not devoid of feeling and they received no joy in having to call out their brothers and sisters for their apostasy and spiritual adultery.

And as Micah begins to wrap up the book that bears his name, he shares his own sense of heartache and despair as he assesses the situation in Judah. He describes the current spiritual condition among his people as fruitless. It’s a scene of barrenness, with not a single cluster of grapes or a solitary fig to be found. Rather than enjoying the blessings of God and the spiritual abundance He had promised, they are living in a time of spiritual famine. They are reaping the God-ordained consequences for their disobedience. He had warned them what would happen if they failed to keep His commands.

“You will plant much but harvest little, for locusts will eat your crops. You will plant vineyards and care for them, but you will not drink the wine or eat the grapes, for worms will destroy the vines. You will grow olive trees throughout your land, but you will never use the olive oil, for the fruit will drop before it ripens.” – Deuteronomy 28:38-40 NLT

The psalmist paints a very different picture, describing how God had uprooted the people of Israel from Egypt and replanted them in the land of Canaan. He had greatly blessed and prospered them, facilitating and cultivating their growth into a mighty nation.

You brought us from Egypt like a grapevine;
    you drove away the pagan nations and transplanted us into your land.
You cleared the ground for us,
    and we took root and filled the land.
Our shade covered the mountains;
    our branches covered the mighty cedars.
We spread our branches west to the Mediterranean Sea;
    our shoots spread east to the Euphrates River. – Psalm 80:8-11 NLT

Yet the psalmist goes on to reveal the sad outcome of Israel’s disobedience.

But now, why have you broken down our walls
    so that all who pass by may steal our fruit?
The wild boar from the forest devours it,
    and the wild animals feed on it. – Psalm 80:12-13 NLT

Micah is writing before the actual fall of Judah and Jerusalem. What he describes in these verses is the scene taking place around him as he completes his prophetic message and awaits the coming judgment of God. And you can sense his deep despair through the hyperbolic, overly-exaggerated he employs.

The godly people have all disappeared;
    not one honest person is left on the earth. – Micah 7:2 NLT

From Micah’s vantage point, the land of Judah appears to have been completely overrun by the godless and the unrighteous. Everywhere he looks he sees the indisputable evidence of their wickedness. And he is unrelenting in his assessment of his countrymen, describing them as murderers who have developed an uncanny capacity to commit evil with both hands. They can sin equally well with either their right or their left hand. In other words, they have no limits or restrictions on their sinfulness.

The officials and judges use their positions to demand bribes. Those with influence and power distort justice for their own advantage. The standard for righteousness has fallen so low that Micah describes the best among them as nothing more than briars and thorn bushes. In other words, they’re worthless.

And Micah warns that “The day of your watchmen, of your punishment, has come” (Micah 7:4 ESV). God’s punishment was eminent and the watchmen stationed on the walls of Jerusalem would soon be declaring the arrival of the Babylonian army. And with their arrival, the wicked within the walls of the city would be thrown into confusion and dismay, wondering how this terrible tragedy could be happening to them. Those who had rejected Micah’s call to repentance would soon be calling out in despair, begging God to rescue them from the very judgment He had warned was coming.

The people of Judah had refused to trust Micah and his message from God. So, he warns them that now the time has come when they will no longer be able to trust anyone.

Don’t trust anyone—
    not your best friend or even your wife!
For the son despises his father.
    The daughter defies her mother.
The daughter-in-law defies her mother-in-law.
    Your enemies are right in your own household! – Micah 7:5-6 NLT

It will be every man and woman for themselves. In fear and desperation, people will turn on one another. The abuse described in verses 2-4 will become widespread and impossible to escape. The Babylonians will lay siege to the city, slowly starving the residents within its walls and producing an atmosphere of civil unrest and rampant self-preservation. And we have ample descriptions of just how badly things eventually got inside Jerusalem.

So the city was besieged till the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. On the ninth day of the fourth month the famine was so severe in the city that there was no food for the people of the land. – 2 Kings 25:2-3 ESV

The prophet Jeremiah provides a vivid portrait of the suffering that took place within the city of Jerusalem during the Babylonian siege.

The parched tongues of their little ones
    stick to the roofs of their mouths in thirst.
The children cry for bread,
    but no one has any to give them.

The people who once ate the richest foods
    now beg in the streets for anything they can get.
Those who once wore the finest clothes
    now search the garbage dumps for food. – Lamentations 4:4-5 NLT

Their skin sticks to their bones;
    it is as dry and hard as wood.

Those killed by the sword are better off
    than those who die of hunger.
Starving, they waste away
    for lack of food from the fields. – Lamentations 4:8-9 NLT

Things were bad in Judah, and they were only going to get worse. The stubbornness of the people was going to result in the judgment of God, and it would be unrelenting and, ultimately, unbearable. Their refusal to hear and obey Micah’s call to repentance would cost them dearly. The years of fruitfulness they had enjoyed as a result of God’s grace would be replaced with decades of barrenness and spiritual famine.

And yet, in the midst of all the apostasy and spiritual adultery, Micah is able to remain committed to his God. He maintains his hope in the saving power of God Almighty.

But as for me, I will look to the Lord;
    I will wait for the God of my salvation;
    my God will hear me. – Micah 7:7 ESV

Micah may have felt like he was surrounded by wickedness and devoid of spiritual companionship, but he knew he was not alone. God was with him. And while no one else seemed willing to wait upon the Lord, Micah was going to place his hope in God, waiting confidently for His salvation. When Micah looked around him, all he saw was evidence of faithlessness. But when he looked up, he saw a faithful, covenant-keeping God who was committed to finishing what He started, doing what He promised, and answering the cries of His repentant 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

The Righteous Acts of God

1 Hear what the Lord says:
Arise, plead your case before the mountains,
    and let the hills hear your voice.
Hear, you mountains, the indictment of the Lord,
    and you enduring foundations of the earth,
for the Lord has an indictment against his people,
    and he will contend with Israel.

“O my people, what have I done to you?
    How have I wearied you? Answer me!
For I brought you up from the land of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
    Aaron, and Miriam.
O my people, remember what Balak king of Moab devised,
    and what Balaam the son of Beor answered him,
and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal,
    that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” – Micah 6:1-5 ESV

There is a certain disequilibrium to the content of Micah’s book. One minute he is describing the glorious future God has in store for the people of Israel. Then, he suddenly shifts his focus back to the more pressing and much less pleasant topic of their pending judgment. This constant fluctuation in the mood of his message seems intended to create an imbalance in the minds of his audience. Their future would be bleak and yet, blessed. It would contain their much-deserved judgment but also their undeserved redemption and restoration. Micah seems determined to remind them of just how much their God longed to bless them. And one day, in the distant future, He would. But first, their repeated and unrepentant acts of wickedness would force God to curse them. They had been warned, but they failed to listen.

Now, after describing God’s future restoration of a remnant of His people, Micah returns to the more pressing problem of their guilt and pending judgment. He wants them to know that God is angry with them. This same God who plans to preserve, protect, and redeem a remnant of them has some strong words of condemnation to level against them.

Micah portrays a courtroom scene where Israel is the defendant, the mountains and hills serve as the jury, and God acts as the prosecuting attorney. The ancient mountains and hills are not unbiased members of the jury. Having stood for centuries, they had been silent observers of God’s faithfulness and Israel’s unrelenting spiritual apostasy. If anything, the “enduring foundations of the earth” (Micah 6:2 ESV), would be able to validate and vindicate God’s indictment of His rebellious people.

God begins His opening arguments with a series of questions:

“O my people, what have I done to you?
    How have I wearied you? Answer me! – Micah 6:3 ESV

He demands an explanation for their actions. He wants to know what their excuse is for treating Him with contempt and dishonor. What had He done to deserve such disdain and disrespect? But God doesn’t wait for their answer because they don’t have one. In fact, He immediately provides a list of His accomplishments on their behalf.

“…I brought you up from the land of Egypt
    and redeemed you from the house of slavery,
and I sent before you Moses,
    Aaron, and Miriam…” – Micah 6:4 ESV

God rewinds the clock and returns them to their days as slaves in Egypt, reminding them of the role He had played in their deliverance. He had been the one to redeem them. He had set them free from their 400 years of slavery and servitude. God had raised up leaders to guide them out of Egypt and all the way to the land of promise. The people of Israel owed their very existence to God. Everything that had happened in their past had been His doing. That included His protection of them during their journey from Egypt to Canaan. Along the way, they encountered enemies who would have destroyed them, but God had intervened. He had proven His faithfulness by guaranteeing their safety and security.

God recounts the time when He had protected them from the efforts of Balaam to curse them. In this particular instance, King Balak of Moab had secured the services of Balaam, a seer, and commanded him to pronounce a curse on the people of Israel.

“Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed.” – Numbers 22:5-6 ESV

The people of Israel had made it all the way to the plains located on the eastern side of the Jordan River, just outside the land of promise. And they were completely oblivious to King Balak’s plans to curse and defeat them. But God had been watching out for them. And while they camped in the plains of Moab, oblivious to the sinister plot against them, God had stepped in and thwarted the plans of King Balak and Balaam.

Three separate times Balak had demanded that Balaam curse the people of Israel. And in all three cases, God forced Balaam to bless them instead. What Balak meant for evil, God had used for good. And the king of Moab was not happy with the outcome. Yet, when he confronted Balaam about his failure to curse the people of Israel, the seer could only say:

“Did I not tell your messengers whom you sent to me, ‘If Balak should give me his house full of silver and gold, I would not be able to go beyond the word of the Lord, to do either good or bad of my own will. What the Lord speaks, that will I speak’?” – Numbers 24:12-13 ESV

All of this had taken place without the people of Israel even knowing their lives were in danger. They had been ignorant of Balak’s plans and Balaam’s repeated attempts to curse them. And they had not known that God was working behind the scenes, orchestrating events in such a way that His chosen people were blessed and not cursed.

Eventually, the people of Israel had crossed the Jordan River, on their way to conquer the land of Canaan and secure their inheritance. And God recalls that momentous occasion when the people of Israel left their camp in Shittim, on the east side of the Jordan, crossed the river on dry ground, and set up their new camp in Gilgal on the west side of the river. The book of Joshua records the miraculous nature of that crossing and its spiritual significance for the Israelites.

“For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” – Joshua 4:23-24 ESV

Effectively, God answers His own questions. What had He done to them? He had delivered, protected, and guided them. How had He wearied them? By asking them to fulfill their end of the covenant agreement. They had to walk across the Jordan River on dry ground. They had to obey His commands to enter the land and defeat its occupants so that they might enjoy the inheritance He had promised them. But everything He had asked them to do had been so that He might bless them. And God makes it clear that all of His actions on their behalf had been for one reason:

“…that you may know the righteous acts of the Lord.” – Micah 6:5 ESV

God had repeatedly and consistently proven Himself to be righteous. But they had proven themselves to be unrighteous, ungrateful, unholy, and undeserving of His grace and goodness. And, as a result, He was going to “contend” with them. The Hebrew word Micah used is yakach, and it means “to judge or decide.” God was not going to sit back and idly watch as His people continued to respond to His faithfulness with acts of unfaithfulness. He had repeatedly shown them His righteous acts. He had demonstrated for them just how righteous He was and He had always expected His chosen people to respond with acts of righteousness.

But as we will see in the following verses, God was expecting more from His people than some form of religious performance art. He was not interested in watching them continue to go through the motions, perfunctorily performing their religious duties but with no passion or conviction. When God had said, “You must be holy because I, the LORD, am holy” (Leviticus 20:26 NLT), He had meant it. He had set them apart from all the other nations of the earth so that they might reflect His character through their daily lives. God had made it perfectly clear that their status as His chosen people was intended to reflect His glory as their God.

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

They enjoyed the unique privilege of being His special treasure, but this undeserved position came with indisputable responsibilities. And, as the following verses will make clear, God’s people had failed to live up to God’s requirements.

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

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

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

An Aversion to the Truth

“Do not preach”—thus they preach—
    “one should not preach of such things;
    disgrace will not overtake us.”
Should this be said, O house of Jacob?
    Has the Lord grown impatient?
    Are these his deeds?
Do not my words do good
    to him who walks uprightly?
But lately my people have risen up as an enemy;
you strip the rich robe from those who pass by trustingly
    with no thought of war.
The women of my people you drive out
    from their delightful houses;
from their young children you take away
    my splendor forever.
10 Arise and go,
    for this is no place to rest,
because of uncleanness that destroys
    with a grievous destruction.
11 If a man should go about and utter wind and lies,
    saying, “I will preach to you of wine and strong drink,”
    he would be the preacher for this people!
Micah 2:6-11 ESV

Micah was especially adept at using wordplay to drive home a point. In this section, he turns his attention to those who were begging him to give up his message of doom and gloom. Micah compares their words to a constant “dripping” of water.  He uses the Hebrew word, nataph, which means “to drop” or “drip.” It is not the normal word used for prophetic speech.

To the people of Judah, Micah’s prophecies concerning God’s pending judgment were like a steady and tireless trickle of water. He never stopped pointing out their sins and warning them of God’s anger. So, they responded in kind, persistently “dripping” their demand: “Don’t prophesy like that. Such disasters will never come our way!” (Micah 2:6 NLT).

These people wrongly assumed that if they could silence the messenger, the problem would go away. They failed to recognize the seriousness of their problem or to acknowledge their guilt and desperate need for confession and repentance. The idea that God would punish them was unfathomable to them. After all, they were His chosen people, the offspring of Abraham. He had promised to provide for and protect them. He had made a binding covenant with them, agreeing to bless and prosper them. But they had failed to remember that their covenant agreement with God had been bilateral in nature. It had come with conditions that God had communicated in the form of several if-then statements that outlined the behavioral requirements on Israel.

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, [then] the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God.” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT

“But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, [then] all these curses will come and overwhelm you.” – Deuteronomy 28:5 NLT

God had done His part. He had blessed them abundantly. They were living in the land of Canaan, which God had provided as their inheritance. Under the reigns of David and Solomon, they had experienced significant expansion of their borders, followed by a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity.

Solomon’s dominion extended over all the kingdoms west of the Euphrates River, from Tiphsah to Gaza. And there was peace on all his borders. During the lifetime of Solomon, all of Judah and Israel lived in peace and safety. And from Dan in the north to Beersheba in the south, each family had its own home and garden. – 1 Kings 4:24-25 NLT

Even after God split the kingdom in two because of the sins of Solomon, He had continued to provide kings for both Israel and Judah. And He had faithfully continued to send His prophets to call his rebellious people to repentance. But His “chosen” people had chosen to reject His messengers and His message. They preferred blessings over curses and good news over bad news. So, they ignored the warnings of Micah, choosing instead to believe that their unique relationship with God was going to protect them from harm. But Micah had news for them.

Should you talk that way, O family of Israel?
    Will the Lord’s Spirit have patience with such behavior?
If you would do what is right,
    you would find my words comforting. – Micah 2:7 NLT

Simply refusing to accept the reality of God’s judgment against them was not going to make it go away. Wishful thinking was not an antidote for what ailed them. God was demanding repentance and a return to faithful obedience to His commands. That is why Micah insists that if they would simply do “what is right” they could once again experience the blessings of God.

“…if you obey the Lord your God:

Your towns and your fields
    will be blessed.
Your children and your crops
    will be blessed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be blessed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be blessed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be blessed.” – Deuteronomy 28:2-6 NLT

But their tendency had always been toward disobedience rather than obedience.  And Micah supports this assertion by providing evidence of their most-recent sinful behavior.

Yet to this very hour
    my people rise against me like an enemy!
You steal the shirts right off the backs
    of those who trusted you,
making them as ragged as men
    returning from battle. – Micah 2:8 NLT

Micah provides damning proof of their ongoing violation of God’s law. He accuses the people of Judah of taking advantage of their fellow citizens in order to line their own pockets. Yet, God had warned against such practice.

“If you take your neighbor’s cloak as security for a loan, you must return it before sunset. This coat may be the only blanket your neighbor has. How can a person sleep without it? If you do not return it and your neighbor cries out to me for help, then I will hear, for I am merciful.” – Exodus 22:26-27 NLT

And Micah was far from finished. He had more evidence of their ungodly and unlawful treatment of one another.

You have evicted women from their pleasant homes
    and forever stripped their children of all that God would give them. – Micah 2:9 NLT

Greed, avarice, and an insatiable appetite for more drove their actions. And, once again, their behavior was in direct violation of God’s laws.

“You must not exploit a widow or an orphan. If you exploit them in any way and they cry out to me, then I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will blaze against you, and I will kill you with the sword. Then your wives will be widows and your children fatherless.” – Exodus 22:22-24 NLT

Interestingly enough, this is the exact charge Jesus leveled against the Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders of His day.

“…they shamelessly cheat widows out of their property and then pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be more severely punished.” – Mark 40 NLT

Jesus went on to condemn the hypocritical conduct of the self-righteous religious leaders of Israel and He warned them of them that their actions would have consequences.

“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” – Matthew 23:27-28 NLT

And Micah had bad news for the people of his day.

Up! Begone!
    This is no longer your land and home,
for you have filled it with sin
    and ruined it completely. – Micah 2:10 NLT

They took great pride in their status as God’s chosen people, but they had failed to live up to their calling. They too were like whitewashed tombs, pristine in their outward appearance, but filled with the death and decay of sin. They still offered their sacrifices at the temple. They kept up with all the prescribed religious rituals and observances. But they failed to do what God had deemed as good, just, and right.

They would rather look good than do good. They would rather appear righteous than actually be righteous. And Micah saw through all their pretense and religious posturing. In fact, he knew that their tireless pursuit of pleasure and personal comfort made them suckers for any message that validated their lifestyle of sin.

Suppose a prophet full of lies would say to you,
    “I’ll preach to you the joys of wine and alcohol!”
That’s just the kind of prophet you would like! – Micah 2:11 NLT

And this tendency to seek out prophets, pastors, and teachers who will accommodate and even encourage godless behavior is always a danger for the people of God. The apostle Paul warned Timothy of this very problem.

For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. – 2 Timothy 4:3 NLT

Micah was preaching the truth but the people of Judah did not want to hear it. They wanted someone to tell them what they wanted to hear. They were looking for validation, not condemnation. They wanted approval and a promise of God’s blessing, not a call to repentance and a warning of God’s judgment.

And Micah will close out this section with a reminder that God will one day restore His people. He will bless them once again. But in the meantime, the plan of God called for judgment. Their sins must be punished. Their rebellion again Him must be dealt with and their disobedience of His law must bear the appropriate consequences.

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

Judge, Jury, and Executioner

Hear, you peoples, all of you;
    pay attention, O earth, and all that is in it,
and let the Lord God be a witness against you,
    the Lord from his holy temple.
For behold, the Lord is coming out of his place,
    and will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth.
And the mountains will melt under him,
    and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
    like waters poured down a steep place.
All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem?
Therefore I will make Samaria a heap in the open country,
    a place for planting vineyards,
and I will pour down her stones into the valley
    and uncover her foundations.
All her carved images shall be beaten to pieces,
    all her wages shall be burned with fire,
    and all her idols I will lay waste,
for from the fee of a prostitute she gathered them,
    and to the fee of a prostitute they shall return. Micah 1:2-7 ESV

Like a prosecutor in a court case, Micah is going to present damning evidence against the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. These two nations came into existence after God divided Israel as punishment for the idolatry of King Solomon.

Then he said to Jeroboam, “Take ten of these pieces, for this is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: ‘I am about to tear the kingdom from the hand of Solomon, and I will give ten of the tribes to you! But I will leave him one tribe for the sake of my servant David and for the sake of Jerusalem, which I have chosen out of all the tribes of Israel. For Solomon has abandoned me and worshiped Ashtoreth, the goddess of the Sidonians; Chemosh, the god of Moab; and Molech, the god of the Ammonites. He has not followed my ways and done what is pleasing in my sight. He has not obeyed my decrees and regulations as David his father did.”’ – 1 Kings 11:31-33 NLT

Jeroboam was one of Solomon’s officials and he would be used by God to lead a rebellion against the king, convincing 10 of the 12 tribes to align with him and form the northern kingdom of Israel. Solomon would maintain control over his own tribe, Judah, as well as the tribe of Benjamin. Both Solomon and Jeroboam would be followed by a succession of different kings who would rule over the two kingdoms. And the majority of these men would continue to lead the chosen people of God to serve the false gods of the Canaanite nations. This idolatry and apostasy is the basis of Micah’s message.

So, he calls all the nations of the earth to act as jurors in the trial of God’s people.

Let all the people of the world listen!
    Let the earth and everything in it hear. – Micah 1:2 NLT

And the star witness in this divine courtroom drama will be God Himself.

The Sovereign Lord is making accusations against you;
    the Lord speaks from his holy Temple. – Micah 1:2 NLT

Interestingly enough, God had predicted this moment in time. Even before the people of Israel had ever set foot in the land of promise, God had warned that they would be unfaithful to Him and worship other gods. So, He dictated the words of a song to Moses and instructed him to teach it to the people of Israel in order that they might never forget what would happen if they disobeyed and deserted Him.

“So write down the words of this song, and teach it to the people of Israel. Help them learn it, so it may serve as a witness for me against them. For I will bring them into the land I swore to give their ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey. There they will become prosperous, eat all the food they want, and become fat. But they will begin to worship other gods; they will despise me and break my covenant. And when great disasters come down on them, this song will stand as evidence against them, for it will never be forgotten by their descendants. I know the intentions of these people, even now before they have entered the land I swore to give them.” – Deuteronomy 31:19-21 NLT

Since Moses had been warned by God that his time on earth was drawing to a close, He took this lengthy “song” and gave it to Joshua, with instructions to keep it in a safe place.

“Take this Book of Instruction and place it beside the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord your God, so it may remain there as a witness against the people of Israel. – Deuteronomy 31:26 NLT

And the “Book of Instruction” had remained beside the Ark of the Covenant within the Holy of Holies of God’s temple all during the reigns of David and Solomon. Even as Micah penned the words of this book, the “song” God had given to Moses was safely ensconced in the inner sanctum of the temple, its words acting as a witness against both Israel and Judah.

Micah describes God leaving His heavenly throne room and making His way to earth, where He will provide personal testimony against His ungrateful and unfaithful people. Isaiah used similar imagery to describe God’s divine judgment of His people.

The Lord takes his place in court
    and presents his case against his people.
The Lord comes forward to pronounce judgment
    on the elders and rulers of his people… – Isaiah 3:13-14 NLT

And Micah warns that God’s arrival will be anything but ordinary.

…the mountains will melt under him,
    and the valleys will split open,
like wax before the fire,
    like waters poured down a steep place. – Micah 1:4 ESV

This imagery is intended to get the attention of the residents of Judah and Israel. Their all-powerful God, the one they had abandoned for false gods, was about to make Himself known in ways that would prove His power and guarantee their destruction. For generations, they had acted as if God did not exist or as if He was unconcerned with their behavior. They had flagrantly flaunted their idolatry in His face and gotten away with it. They had repeatedly committed spiritual adultery with no ill effects. But Micah wanted them to know that their God had run out of patience. He was leaving His throne room in heaven and descending to earth to pronounce judgment against them.

And just in case the people might wonder why God would bother to leave heaven and come all the way to earth, Micah provides them with the answer.

All this is for the transgression of Jacob
    and for the sins of the house of Israel.
What is the transgression of Jacob?
    Is it not Samaria?
And what is the high place of Judah?
    Is it not Jerusalem?
– Micah 1:5 ESV

Micah’s reference to Israel as “Jacob” was intended as a not-so-subtle reminder of the rebellious background of the patriarch for whom they were named. The book of Genesis records the early years of Jacob, portraying him as a manipulative, scheming individual who spent years trying to do things his way, rather than trust in God’s will for his life. And it was only when Jacob came to an end of himself and decided to submit his life to God, that he received a new name and a divine promise of fruitfulness.

“Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.” So he called his name Israel. And God said to him, “I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body.” – Genesis 35:10-11 ESV

By referring to the northern kingdom of Israel as “Jacob,” Micah is linking them to the rebellious years of their patriarch’s life. They had more in common with the earlier version of Jacob than they did with his post-name-change behavior.

And Samaria, the capital city of Israel, had become the epicenter of idolatry and unfaithfulness for the entire nation. The same thing was true for Jerusalem, the capital of the southern kingdom of Judah. In spite of the presence of the temple of God, the city of Jerusalem had become home to shrines and high places for a pantheon of false gods. Both of these cities had become icons for the wickedness of their respective nations.

For the people of Judah and Israel, these capital cities were representative of their wealth, power, and prestige. They were filled with gold, precious gems, beautiful buildings, and the trappings of their own success. But God was about to turn these man-made symbols of self-importance into piles of rubble and ashes.

“So I, the Lord, will make the city of Samaria
a heap of ruins.
Her streets will be plowed up
for planting vineyards.
I will roll the stones of her walls into the valley below,
exposing her foundations.
All her carved images will be smashed.
All her sacred treasures will be burned.
These things were bought with the money
earned by her prostitution,
and they will now be carried away
to pay prostitutes elsewhere.” –
Micah 1:6-7 NLT

God wasn’t just coming down from heaven to offer testimony against Judah and Israel, He was showing up as their judge, jury, and executioner. Their fate was already sealed. God had already told them what would happen if they failed to worship Him alone. He had dictated the words of the song to Moses and they cried out from the Holy of Holies, condemning the people of God for their unfaithfulness. The Israelites may have forgotten the lyrics, but God had not.

All the symbols of Samaria’s success were about to be destroyed. The walls of the city would be toppled. Its streets would be plowed up and turned into fields. All the statues and idols erected to her many false gods would be smashed and burned. And the wealth amassed through their use of temple prostitutes cleverly disguised as “priestesses,” would become loot for the invading forces of the Assyrians.

Judgment was coming. And the Judge of the universe was leaving His judgment seat in heaven to ensure that their crimes receive the condemnation they deserve.

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

Dark Days Ahead

1 The word of the Lord that came to Micah of Moresheth in the days of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah, which he saw concerning Samaria and Jerusalem. Micah 1:1 ESV

This book opens up with an introduction to its author, Micah, whose name means “Who is like Yahweh.” Micah, as will be revealed from the content of his book, was a prophet of God. As is true with many of the other prophets of God, there are few details provided concerning his identity or background. We are simply told that he is from Moresheth, a town also known as Moresheth-Gath, located roughly 25 miles southwest of Jerusalem in the southern kingdom of Judah.

Like all the other prophets whose books were included in the canon of Scripture, Micah was a divinely-appointed spokesman for the God of Israel. He had been hand-picked by God for his role and given a message from the Almighty to deliver to the southern kingdom of Judah during the reigns of three successive kings: Jothan, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. This would have made Micah a contemporary of Isaiah, a much more familiar and famous prophet, who also served as God’s spokesman to Judah. In the north, the people of Israel were assigned Amos and Hosea as their divine messengers.

Micah’s commission from God lasted through the reigns of three consecutive kings, and during that time great changes took place in Judah. Jotham succeeded his father, Uzziah, to the throne. According to the book of 2 Kings, Jotham began to rule the people of Judah while his father was still king.

He [Uzziah] did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his father, Amaziah, had done. But he did not destroy the pagan shrines, and the people still offered sacrifices and burned incense there. The Lord struck the king with leprosy, which lasted until the day he died. He lived in isolation in a separate house. The king’s son Jotham was put in charge of the royal palace, and he governed the people of the land. – 2 Kings 15:3-5 NLT

The explanation for Uzziah’s leprosy is given in the book of 2 Chronicles.

But when he [Uzziah] had become powerful, he also became proud, which led to his downfall. He sinned against the Lord his God by entering the sanctuary of the Lord’s Temple and personally burning incense on the incense altar. Azariah the high priest went in after him with eighty other priests of the Lord, all brave men. They confronted King Uzziah and said, “It is not for you, Uzziah, to burn incense to the Lord. That is the work of the priests alone, the descendants of Aaron who are set apart for this work. Get out of the sanctuary, for you have sinned. The Lord God will not honor you for this!”

Uzziah, who was holding an incense burner, became furious. But as he was standing there raging at the priests before the incense altar in the Lord’s Temple, leprosy suddenly broke out on his forehead. When Azariah the high priest and all the other priests saw the leprosy, they rushed him out. And the king himself was eager to get out because the Lord had struck him. So King Uzziah had leprosy until the day he died. He lived in isolation in a separate house, for he was excluded from the Temple of the Lord. His son Jotham was put in charge of the royal palace, and he governed the people of the land. – 2 Chronicles 26:16-21 NLT

Uzziah’s actions reveal what is going to become a growing problem in Judah. The kings will continue to lead the people away from God, compromising their convictions and replacing the will of God with their own. Upon his father’s death, Jotham was crowned king and he followed in his father’s footsteps.

Jotham did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight. He did everything his father, Uzziah, had done. But he did not destroy the pagan shrines, and the people still offered sacrifices and burned incense there. – 2 Kings 15:34-35 NLT

While Jotham is recognized for a few noteworthy accomplishments, his reign was marked by unfaithfulness to God, resulting in divine punishment for his actions.

In those days the Lord began to send King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Israel to attack Judah. – 2 Kings 15:37 NLT

Upon his death, Jotham was succeeded by his son, Ahaz, who proved to be one of the most wicked kings in Judah’s long history.

Ahaz son of Jotham began to rule over Judah in the seventeenth year of King Pekah’s reign in Israel. Ahaz was twenty years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem sixteen years. He did not do what was pleasing in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done. Instead, he followed the example of the kings of Israel, even sacrificing his own son in the fire. In this way, he followed the detestable practices of the pagan nations the Lord had driven from the land ahead of the Israelites. He offered sacrifices and burned incense at the pagan shrines and on the hills and under every green tree. – 2 Kings 16:1-4 NLT

Ahaz was able to pack a lot of apostasy into his short, four-year reign, even shuttering the doors of the temple to prevent any sacrifices to or worship of God.

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

And, as a result of the growing apostasy in Judah, God brought judgment upon them in the form of the Israelites, Amareans, Edomites, and Philistines. And all of this was in keeping with the warning God had communicated to the people of Israel through Moses, generations earlier.

“The Lord will cause you to be defeated by your enemies. You will attack your enemies from one direction, but you will scatter from them in seven! You will be an object of horror to all the kingdoms of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 28:25 NLT

“You will be oppressed and robbed continually, and no one will come to save you.” – Deuteronomy 28:29 NLT

“If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. You will be left hungry, thirsty, naked, and lacking in everything.” – Deuteronomy 28:47-48 NLT

During Micah’s tenure as a prophet, he had to stand back and watch as all of these curses from God began to fall upon the people of Judah. And yet, he continued to faithfully proclaim God’s words of warning and His call to repentance. From his vantage point in Judah, he could witness the devastation taking place to the north, in the kingdom of Israel. He would live to see the fall of Israel and the destruction of their capital of Samaria at the hands of the Assyrians in 722 B.C. He would also be around two decades later when the Assyrians invaded Judah under the reign of King Sennacherib.

As a prophet, Micah had a God-given responsibility to point out the sins of his people. He was charged by God with delivering a message that contained warnings of destruction for continued disobedience and the promise of restoration if they would only turn back and obey. Micah is going to expose the dangerous and deadly nature of idolatry while pleading with the people of Judah to recognize the awesome attributes of their God covenant-keeping God.

While this book is filled with grim images and depressingly dire descriptions of God’s pending judgment, there are also surprisingly bright glimpses into God’s future restoration of His people. In spite of their wickedness and unfaithfulness, God would remain committed to keeping the promises He had made to Abraham and David.

The days ahead would be dark, but God had a bright future planned for His people.

Now many nations have gathered against you.
    “Let her be desecrated,” they say.
    “Let us see the destruction of Jerusalem.”
But they do not know the Lord’s thoughts
    or understand his plan. – Micah 4:11-12 NLT

Even during Micah’s lifetime, he would live to enjoy a brief period of revival under the reign of King Hezekiah, the son of Ahaz.

He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his ancestor David had done. – 2 Chronicles 29:2 NLT

This young man would prove to be a good and godly king, instituting a series of important reforms designed to restore the nation’s commitment to Yahweh. He would reopen and repair the temple. He called the Levites to renew their God-given responsibility to lead the people spiritually, requiring them to purify the temple and reinstitute the sacrificial system. And his efforts bought the nation of Judah time.

In all that he did in the service of the Temple of God and in his efforts to follow God’s laws and commands, Hezekiah sought his God wholeheartedly. As a result, he was very successful. – 2 Chronicles 31:21 NLT

Hezekiah was living proof that, if the nation would only return to God, He would bless them. The wars, invasions, and military defeats that marked the reign of Ahaz would be replaced by deliverance at the hand of God. Hezekiah’s godly leadership would bring about a much-needed respite, providing the nation with the spiritual guidance they so desperately needed.

But, as we will see, Micah’s book is going to reveal what will prove to be an underlying spirit of rebellion among God’s people. One man will not be able to restore them to faithfulness. Hezekiah could make sweeping regulatory changes and require acts of outward obedience from his people, but he could not change the condition of their hearts.

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 God You Can Count On

1 A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet, according to Shigionoth.

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy. Habakkuk 3:1-2 ESV

Habakkuk has heard from God. The Almighty has provided the prophet with an assurance that Babylon will receive a just sentence for its role in the judgment of Judah. Yes, they will be used by God to bring about the divine discipline of God’s chosen people, but the Babylonians will also fall under His divine wrath for every act of aggression and subjugation they enact against Judah.

And with this assurance from God, Habakkuk begins to sing another tune – literally. This closing chapter is written in the form of a psalm or song. It is a prayer of praise in the form of a poem that was most likely put to music so that it could be sung by the people of God. The phrase, “according to Shigionoth” may be a reference to the melody that was to accompany Habakkuk’s words. The singular form of the Hebrew word is found in the introduction to Psalm 7, a psalm of David.

A Shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.

But the Hebrew root word, shagah, provides some insight into what Habakkuk may have in mind with his prayer of praise to God. It means “to err, wander, go astray (morally), to sin through ignorance.” In David’s psalm, faced with apparent accusations of guilt from the lips of someone named Cush, he declares his innocence and asks God to either acquit or convict him.

O Lord my God, if I have done wrong
    or am guilty of injustice,
if I have betrayed a friend
    or plundered my enemy without cause,
then let my enemies capture me. – Psalm 7:3-5 NLT

He goes on to ask God for vindication and protection.

Declare me righteous, O Lord,
    for I am innocent, O Most High! – Psalm 7:8 NLT

He appeals to God as the one who “judges the nations” (Psalm 7:8 NLT).

God is my shield,
    saving those whose hearts are true and right.
God is an honest judge.
    He is angry with the wicked every day. – Psalm 7:10-11 NLT

And David is convinced that God will judge him fairly and eventually, fully vindicate him.

I will thank the Lord because he is just;
    I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High. – Psalm 7:17 NLT

It seems likely that Habakkuk’s song carries the same idea. Nowhere does he claim the nation of Judah to be innocent, but he does seem to appeal to God as a righteous judge who will one day vindicate His people. Having heard from God regarding the future judgment of Babylon, Habakkuk shares his intense longing to see that day come. He is expressing his belief that God will prove Himself faithful by fulfilling every promise He has made regarding Judah’s eventual vindication through Babylon’s destruction.

Habakkuk begins his song with a statement of wonder and praise for God’s remarkable reputation. As a prophet of God, he had been exposed to the very words of God, hearing firsthand what Yahweh had planned for Judah’s future. And it left him in a state of awe and amazement.

I have heard all about you, Lord.
    I am filled with awe by your amazing works. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

But, as a Hebrew, Habakkuk had also been raised on a steady diet of the stories of God’s intervention in the lives of His people. He had heard the creation story, the account of the flood and the preservation of Noah and his family. He had been told the story of God’s call of Abraham’s and the promise to make of him a great nation. As a child, he would have been exposed to all the stories about Joseph and the sons of Jacob in Egypt. The account of God’s amazing redemption of His people and their exodus out of Egypt would have been very familiar to him. The conquering of the land of promise, the rise of King David, the greatness of Solomon, the division of the kingdom, and the historical record of all the kings of Judah and Israel would have been well known to him. And through all those accounts, Habakkuk would have recognized the “amazing works” of God and been blown away by His power and persevering patience with His less-than-faithful people.

Unlike David, Habakkuk could not appeal to God based on a claim of Judah’s innocence. There was no way he could ask God to vindicate them because they were undeserving of His judgment. He knew full well that the people of Judah were guilty. In fact, he had begun his book with the admission that things had gotten so bad in Judah, that the wicked outnumbered the righteous.

So, Habakkuk looked to God’s well-established track record of showing up and delivering His people in times of trouble.

In this time of our deep need,
    help us again as you did in years gone by. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

Sadly, this was not the first time Judah had been faced with difficult circumstances. There had been countless other occasions when the people of God had found themselves faced with insurmountable odds and the potential for a devastating outcome. But Habakkuk knew that God had intervened on behalf of His people. He had repeatedly rescued them from their predicaments, graciously restoring them and providing them with yet another undeserved opportunity to prove their faithfulness to Him. And Habakkuk longed to see God do the same thing in his day.

But Habakkuk recognizes that the people of Judah were fully deserving of all that God was about to do to them. They stood guilty and condemned before a holy God. So, he appeals to God’s covenant faithfulness and track-record of extending undeserved mercy.

…in your anger, remember your mercy. – Habakkuk 3:2 NLT

It seems likely that Habakkuk would have been familiar with the content of the prayer prayed by Solomon at the dedication of the newly constructed temple. King Solomon had begun his prayer with a statement concerning God’s faithfulness: “O Lord, God of Israel, there is no God like you in all of heaven above or on the earth below. You keep your covenant and show unfailing love to all who walk before you in wholehearted devotion” (1 Kings 8:23 NLT).

But Solomon knew that he and his people were prone to unfaithfulness. He was concerned that their behavior would fail to live up to the terms of God’s covenantal agreement with them. So, he began describing potential scenarios in which the nation might violate their covenant commitment and stand guilty before God. And he petitioned God: “May you always hear the prayers I make toward this place. May you hear the humble and earnest requests from me and your people Israel when we pray toward this place” (1 Kings 8:29-30 NLT). 

Solomon was appealing to God’s faithfulness because he knew there was little likelihood that the people of Israel would keep their end of the bargain. And when they failed to do so, He wanted to know that God would still intervene on their behalf. Solomon even included a worst-case scenario in which the people of Israel found themselves defeated and living in exile as a result of their disobedience to God.

“If your people Israel are defeated by their enemies because they have sinned against you, and if they turn to you and acknowledge your name and pray to you here in this Temple, then hear from heaven and forgive the sin of your people Israel and return them to this land you gave their ancestors. – 1 Kings 8:33-34 NLT

Solomon knew that the only hope that Israel had for their present protection and future restoration was to be found in God alone. And Habakkuk echoed that same sentiment. He was appealing to his awe-inspiring, grace-bestowing, miracle-working God. And he greatly desired that God would continue to season His righteous anger with mercy. It was all the hope that the people of God had left. They had forsaken God. They had proven themselves incapable of living in faithful obedience to their covenant with God. And unless God showed them mercy, their future would be dark, and any hope of restoration, dim.

The words of the prophet, Jeremiah, written in the book of Lamentations, seem to indicate the heart behind Habakkuk’s prayer.

The thought of my suffering and homelessness
    is bitter beyond words.
I will never forget this awful time,
    as I grieve over my loss.
Yet I still dare to hope
    when I remember this:

The faithful love of the Lord never ends!
    His mercies never cease.
Great is his faithfulness;
    his mercies begin afresh each morning.
I say to myself, “The Lord is my inheritance;
    therefore, I will hope in him!” – Lamentations 3:19-24 NLT

God’s mercies are new every morning. Like the sun that shows up like clockwork at the start of each new day, God’s mercies never fail to arrive when needed. His faithfulness is unfailing. His love is unwavering. And, therefore, our hope in Him should be constant and abiding.

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 Lunacy of Idolatry

18 “What profit is an idol
    when its maker has shaped it,
    a metal image, a teacher of lies?
For its maker trusts in his own creation
    when he makes speechless idols!
19 Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
    to a silent stone, Arise!
Can this teach?
Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver,
    and there is no breath at all in it.
20 But the Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth keep silence before him.” Habakkuk 2:18-20 ESV

In this final “woe,” God deals with the ubiquitous problem of idolatry. Ever since the Fall, mankind had been on a virtual binge, seeking for comfort, guidance, provision, and protection from anything and everything other than their creator God. In the opening chapter of Romans, Paul portrays this wholesale abandonment of God by fallen humanity in stark terms.

Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn’t worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. As a result, their minds became dark and confused. Claiming to be wise, they instead became utter fools. And instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. – Romans 1:21-23 NLT

They traded the truth about God for a lie. So they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! – Romans 1:25 NLT

Man, made in the image of God, was wired for worship. Adam and Eve had been created by God to have unbroken fellowship with Him. Their lives were intended to bring Him glory through their faithful obedience to His creation mandate.

Then God said, “Let us make human beings in our image, to be like us. They will reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the livestock, all the wild animals on the earth, and the small animals that scurry along the ground.”

So God created human beings in his own image.
    In the image of God he created them;
    male and female he created them.

Then God blessed them and said, “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the earth and govern it. Reign over the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, and all the animals that scurry along the ground.” – Genesis 1:26-28 NLT

But because of their decision to disobey God by eating the fruit of the one tree He had forbidden, any further access into His presence was denied, and the focal point of their worship was lost. And it didn’t take long before sin had so marred the image of God in man, that the Almighty determined to wipe them from the face of the earth.

The Lord observed the extent of human wickedness on the earth, and he saw that everything they thought or imagined was consistently and totally evil. So the Lord was sorry he had ever made them and put them on the earth. It broke his heart. And the Lord said, “I will wipe this human race I have created from the face of the earth.” – Genesis 6:5-7 NLT

Yet, God had chosen to spare Noah and his family, allowing them to begin the process of repopulating the earth again.

And you, be fruitful and multiply, increase greatly on the earth and multiply in it.”  – Genesis 9:7 ESV

And, obviously, Noah and his family were successful in fulfilling God’s creation mandate. They were fruitful and refilled the earth. But their fruitfulness was accompanied by ever-increasing faithlessness. According to the apostle Paul, the nations of the earth developed a perverse penchant for substitute gods, choosing to replace the one true God with deities of their own making. And it wasn’t long before their decision to displace God resulted in rampant godlessness.

Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness, sin, greed, hate, envy, murder, quarreling, deception, malicious behavior, and gossip. They are backstabbers, haters of God, insolent, proud, and boastful. They invent new ways of sinning, and they disobey their parents. They refuse to understand, break their promises, are heartless, and have no mercy. They know God’s justice requires that those who do these things deserve to die, yet they do them anyway. Worse yet, they encourage others to do them, too. – Romans 1:29-32 NLT

And yet, God, in His grace and mercy, chose to begin again. He chose a single man, Abraham, and promised to make of him a great nation. This man’s descendants would become God’s treasured possession on whom He would pour out His blessings and with whom He would make an everlasting covenant.

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God…” – Deuteronomy 28:1-2 NLT

But one of the primary criteria associated with God’s covenant commitment with the descendants of Abraham would be their refusal to worship any other gods.

“You must not have any other god but me. You must not make for yourself an idol of any kind or an image of anything in the heavens or on the earth or in the sea. You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods.” – Exodus 20:3-5 NLT

And yet, generations after the death of Abraham, his progeny would have proven their inability to keep their end of the agreement. The nation which had been set apart by God as His own would have established an unprecedented track record of spiritual infidelity. And by the time Habakkuk penned the words of the book that bears his name, the apostasy of God’s people would have become untenable and unforgivable.

The whole reason God was sending the Babylonians against the people of Judah was due to their unfaithfulness. And God had chosen to use an idolatrous nation to bring His judgment upon His idolatrous children. The people of Judah, like their northern kin in Israel, had made a habit of worshiping false gods. So, God was going to fulfill His promise to discipline them for their disobedience. He would do to them exactly as Moses had warned generations earlier.

“The Lord will exile you and your king to a nation unknown to you and your ancestors. There in exile you will worship gods of wood and stone! – Deuteronomy 28:36 NLT

If they wanted to continue to worship false gods, Yahweh would make sure they had every opportunity – but not in the land that He had graciously provided for them. They would find themselves exiled in a foreign land, surrounded by pagan gods and powerful enemies.

And this final woe points directly at the primary problem going on in Judah. God’s chosen people were guilty of spiritual adultery. They had “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:23 ESV). Or, as the New Living Translation puts it, “…instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles.”

God reveals the sheer idiocy behind their decision to replace Him with man-made gods.

“Woe to him who says to a wooden thing, Awake;
    to a silent stone, Arise!” – Habakkuk 2:19 ESV

Their decision to substitute the one true God with gods of their own creation was ludicrous. It made no sense. And God sarcastically portrays the stupidity of their decision.

“What good is an idol carved by man,
    or a cast image that deceives you?
How foolish to trust in your own creation—
    a god that can’t even talk! – Habakkuk 1:18 NLT

“To speechless stone images you say,
    ‘Rise up and teach us!’
    Can an idol tell you what to do?
They may be overlaid with gold and silver,
    but they are lifeless inside. – Habakkuk 1:19 NLT

This is not the first and only time God had exposed the ridiculous nature of Judah’s idolatry. He had also spoken through Isaiah, clearly denunciating and debunking the veracity and value of idols.

The idol makers encourage one another,
    saying to each other, “Be strong!”
The carver encourages the goldsmith,
    and the molder helps at the anvil.
    “Good,” they say. “It’s coming along fine.”
Carefully they join the parts together,
    then fasten the thing in place so it won’t fall over. – Isaiah 41:6-7 NLT

How foolish are those who manufacture idols.
    These prized objects are really worthless.
The people who worship idols don’t know this,
    so they are all put to shame.
Who but a fool would make his own god—
    an idol that cannot help him one bit? – Isaiah 44:9-10 NLT

The person who made the idol never stops to reflect,
    “Why, it’s just a block of wood!
I burned half of it for heat
    and used it to bake my bread and roast my meat.
How can the rest of it be a god?
    Should I bow down to worship a piece of wood?” – Isaiah 44:19 NLT

Only a fool would fail to recognize the obvious absurdity of idolatry.

The poor, deluded fool feeds on ashes.
    He trusts something that can’t help him at all.
Yet he cannot bring himself to ask,
    “Is this idol that I’m holding in my hand a lie?” – Isaiah 44:20 NLT

And yet, here was the nation of Judah facing the very real prospect of having another idolatrous nation invade their borders and destroy their cities and towns. They were poor, deluded fools who had put their hope and trust in pieces of wood and stone. These lifeless and utterly helpless icons of man’s arrogant pride would prove to be unreliable when the judgment of God fell.

Later on, in the book of Isaiah, God issues a tongue-in-cheek challenge to the people of Judah. They could put their trust in their false gods, but the outcome of their efforts would prove less-than-successful.

“Let’s see if your idols can save you
    when you cry to them for help.
Why, a puff of wind can knock them down!
    If you just breathe on them, they fall over!
But whoever trusts in me will inherit the land
    and possess my holy mountain.” – Isaiah 57:13 NLT

And God points out to Habakkuk that the man-made, lifeless gods the people of Judah had chosen to worship were no substitute for Him.

“But the Lord is in his holy temple;
    let all the earth keep silence before him.” – Habakkuk 2:20 ESV

God was not some elf-on-a-shelf, made from human hands and carried from one place to another. He was “the Lord,” Jehovah, “the existing one.” And He was in His holy temple, looking down on His disobedient and unfaithful people, and preparing to unleash His righteous indignation upon them.

The God of the universe is a jealous God who will not share His glory with anyone or anything. He will not put up with the worship of false gods. Yes, He will tolerate this behavior for a time, patiently putting up with the fickleness and unfaithfulness of fallen humanity. But the day is coming when He will eliminate all the false gods manufactured by fallen men. And all the earth will stand before Him in reverent awe and stunned silence.

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 Ways of God

1 The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw. Habakkuk 1:1 ESV

This rather obscure little Old Testament book has an equally obscure author. We know very little about Habakkuk, other than his role as a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah during the days before the nation was judged by God, defeated by the Babylonians, and sent into exile. Thus, he is what is known as a pre-exilic prophet. His primary job was to warn God’s people of His pending judgment and to call them to repentance.

The book is comprised of a unique combination of poetry and prose, revealing Habakkuk as a poet as well as a prophet. And, like all the other prophets of God, Habakkuk was not intended to be the focus of the book that bears his name. He was a spokesman for God Almighty, tasked with delivering His divine warning of imminent judgment against God’s chosen people for their sins against Him.

It seems likely that Habakkuk prophesied during the reign of King Jehoiakim (609-598 B.C.). His prophetic ministry covered a period of time when Judah was in a steep spiritual decline following the death of Josiah, the great reformer king. Josiah was one of the few kings of either Israel or Judah who proved faithful to God. When he had ascended to the throne of Judah, he inherited a spiritually bankrupt legacy passed down by his father Manasseh.

Manasseh…did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. – 2 Kings 21:1-2 ESV

He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. – 2 Kings 21:6 ESV

Manasseh turned the people of Judah against God, erecting shrines and high places to false gods all throughout the nation. He even placed “the carved image of Asherah that he had made he set in the house of which the Lord” (2 Kings 21:7 ESV). On top of that, Manasseh followed the practices of the pagan nations, instituting child sacrifice as a part of their worship. He was so wicked that the author of 2 Kings states, “Manasseh led them astray to do more evil than the nations had done whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel” (2 Kings 21:9 ESV).

And God pronounced His judgment against Manasseh, warning that his behavior was going to have dire consequences.

Because Manasseh king of Judah has committed these abominations and has done things more evil than all that the Amorites did, who were before him, and has made Judah also to sin with his idols, therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Jerusalem and Judah such disaster that the ears of everyone who hears of it will tingle. And I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria, and the plumb line of the house of Ahab, and I will wipe Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. And I will forsake the remnant of my heritage and give them into the hand of their enemies, and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies, because they have done what is evil in my sight and have provoked me to anger, since the day their fathers came out of Egypt, even to this day.” – 2 Kings 21:11-15 ESV

Eventually, Manasseh died and his son, Amon took his place on the throne. He followed in his father’s footsteps, continuing his legacy of idolatry and apostasy. But his reign was shortlived, lasting only two years before he was assassinated by his own servants. He was succeeded by his son Josiah who, at the age of eight, was given the responsibility of leading a nation who had turned its back on God. But for the next 31 years, Josiah would prove to be a royal anomaly, leading the nation of Judah in a period of unprecedented spiritual renewal and revival.

…he did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left. – 2 Kings 22:2 ESV

Josiah instituted a series of reforms designed to restore the nation’s allegiance to Yahweh. He ordered repairs to the much-neglected temple. He recommitted the nation to keep the law of God. He razed all the high places and pagan shrines dedicated to the false gods of the Canaanites. And finally, he reinstituted the annual celebration of Passover. These initiatives set Josiah apart from all his predecessors, establishing him as an example of faithfulness and righteousness.

Before him there was no king like him, who turned to the Lord with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to all the Law of Moses, nor did any like him arise after him. – 2 Kings 23:25 ESV

But despite all of his efforts, Josiah’s reforms made little impact on the hearts of the people of Judah. God knew that nothing had really changed and His plans for dealing with the sins of Manasseh remained unaltered because the people remained unfaithful.

Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him. – 2 Kings 23:26 ESV

Josiah was eventually killed in combat by Egyptian forces and replaced as king by his son Jehoahaz. But his reign would last only three months before Neco, the Pharaoh of Egypt, removed him from power and replaced him with his brother, Jehoiakim. For the next 11 years, Jehoiakim would rule over Judah, emulating his father’s evil ways and continuing the nation’s downward spiritual spiral. All the reforms of Josiah would be neglected and the idolatrous practices of Manasseh would be restored.

he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to all that his fathers had done. – 2 Kings 23:37 ESV

And it was during this dark period of Judah’s history that Habakkuk received his prophetic call from God. It was accompanied by the rise of the nation of Babylon, a powerful pagan people who were slowly replacing the Assyrians as the force to be reckoned with in the region. While the Assyrians had already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel and taken a large contingent of their people into captivity, they would soon find their 15-minutes of fame coming to an abrupt end. In 605 B.C., the Babylonians defeated a combined army of Egyptians and Assyrians at the battle of Carchemish, establishing themselves as the major power in the ancient Near East. The book of 2 Kings reveals that the Babylonians soon relegated Judah’s status in the region as that of a vassal state.

In his days, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up, and Jehoiakim became his servant for three years. Then he turned and rebelled against him. And the Lord sent against him bands of the Chaldeans and bands of the Syrians and bands of the Moabites and bands of the Ammonites, and sent them against Judah to destroy it, according to the word of the Lord that he spoke by his servants the prophets. Surely this came upon Judah at the command of the Lord, to remove them out of his sight, for the sins of Manasseh, according to all that he had done… – 2 Kings 24:1-3 ESV

Jehoiakim’s reign would last 11 years, with the final three years marked by subservience to the Babylonians. But long before the Babylonians came to prominence and power, God would use Habakkuk to warn of their coming.

For I am doing something in your own day,
    something you wouldn’t believe
    even if someone told you about it.
I am raising up the Babylonians,
    a cruel and violent people.
They will march across the world
    and conquer other lands. – Habakkuk 1:5-6 NLT

While Jehoiakim and the people of Judah were busy turning their backs on God, He was planning their judgment. And what God was going to do would come as a complete surprise to the people of Judah. They had no way of knowing about Babylon’s rise to power. In their minds, it was the Assyrians who were the major threat to their well-being. But God had something else in store. While they continued to place their hope and trust in false gods, Yahweh was planning His righteous retribution for their blatant violation of their covenant commitment to Him.

One of the things that the book of Habakkuk will reveal is the prophet’s struggle with God’s ways. He was commissioned to speak on God’s behalf, but he didn’t fully comprehend what it was that God was doing. Even as a prophet, he was confused as to why God would choose to use a pagan nation to punish the chosen people of God. To Habakkuk, the plans God had for Judah’s demise seemed unfair and uncharacteristic of His covenant commitment to them. While Habakkuk was fully aware of Judah’s wickedness, his national pride made it difficult for him to understand what God was doing. So, part of the book contains his questions to God. In fact, verse two opens up with the words, “O Lord, how long?”

But God wanted Habakkuk to know what Isaiah the prophet had come to understand.

Seek the Lord while you can find him.
    Call on him now while he is near.
Let the wicked change their ways
    and banish the very thought of doing wrong.
Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy on them.
    Yes, turn to our God, for he will forgive generously.

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
    “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
    so my ways are higher than your ways
    and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:6-9 NLT

Habakkuk may not have understood what God was doing, but he would eventually to learn to trust His ways.

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

Stubbornly Refusing to Repent

Jerusalem sinned grievously;
    therefore she became filthy;
all who honored her despise her,
    for they have seen her nakedness;
she herself groans
    and turns her face away.

Her uncleanness was in her skirts;
    she took no thought of her future;
therefore her fall is terrible;
    she has no comforter.
“O Lord, behold my affliction,
    for the enemy has triumphed!”

10 The enemy has stretched out his hands
    over all her precious things;
for she has seen the nations
    enter her sanctuary,
those whom you forbade
    to enter your congregation.

11 All her people groan
    as they search for bread;
they trade their treasures for food
    to revive their strength.
“Look, O Lord, and see,
    for I am despised.” – Lamentations 1:8-11 ESV

The city of Jerusalem fell because the kings of Israel failed. They had failed to lead the people in faithful obedience to the revealed will of God. While there had been a handful of godly kings who reigned over Judah, the nation’s latter years had been marked by men like Ahaz.

Ahaz was twenty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned sixteen years in Jerusalem. And he did not do what was right in the eyes of the Lord his God, as his father David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel. He even burned his son as an offering, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. And he sacrificed and made offerings on the high places and on the hills and under every green tree. – 2 Kings 16:2-4 ESV

Virtually every one of the kings who ruled over the northern kingdom of Israel had been wicked and idolatrous, leading their people to turn their backs on Yahweh and worship false gods instead. And, in time, the kings of Judah began to follow the lead of their northern counterparts, walking in the way of the kings of Israel. King Ahaz had even gone so far as to participate in child sacrifice, offering his own son as an offering to a false god.

At his death, Ahaz was succeeded by Hezekiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord” (2 Kings 18:3 ESV). He provided Judah with a welcome respite from the sins of his father, instituting a series of reforms that reversed the years of spiritual decline and unfaithfulness fostered by Ahaz. He removed all the idols and pagan shrines his father had erected.

He removed the high places and broke the pillars and cut down the Asherah. And he broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it (it was called Nehushtan). He trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel, so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him… – 2 Kings 18:4-5 ESV

But sadly, Hezekiah’s reign eventually came to an end, and he was followed by his 12-year-old son Manasseh, who quickly reversed all his father’s reforms.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, according to the despicable practices of the nations whom the Lord drove out before the people of Israel. For he rebuilt the high places that Hezekiah his father had destroyed, and he erected altars for Baal and made an Asherah, as Ahab king of Israel had done, and worshiped all the host of heaven and served them. And he built altars in the house of the Lord, of which the Lord had said, “In Jerusalem will I put my name.” And he built altars for all the host of heaven in the two courts of the house of the Lord. And he burned his son as an offering and used fortune-telling and omens and dealt with mediums and with necromancers. He did much evil in the sight of the Lord, provoking him to anger. – 2 Kings 21:2-6 ESV

And the pattern continued, with Manasseh’s son, Amon, following in his immoral footsteps.

And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, as Manasseh his father had done. He walked in all the way in which his father walked and served the idols that his father served and worshiped them. He abandoned the Lord, the God of his fathers, and did not walk in the way of the Lord. – 2 Kings 21:20-22 ESV

Amazingly, the downward trend was broken once again by Josiah, who “did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” (2 Kings 22:2 ESV). Josiah instituted a series of sweeping reforms intended to restore the nation’s allegiance to God. He repaired the long-neglected temple of God. He reinstituted the observance of the Mosaic law. He defiled the high places that were east of Jerusalem, to the south of the mount of corruption, which Solomon the king of Israel had built for Ashtoreth the abomination of the Sidonians, and for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. And he broke in pieces the pillars and cut down the Asherim and filled their places with the bones of men” (2 Kings 23:13-14 ESV).

But Josiah, for all his good intentions, was unsuccessful in changing the hearts of his people. And when his sons eventually ascended to the throne, the each “did what was evil in the sight of the Lord” (2 Kings 23:37 ESV). Jehoahaz, Jehoiakim, and Jehoiachin each had their opportunity to rule over Judah, but each failed to restore the hearts of the people to a right relationship with God. The pattern of spiritual adultery continued as the Babylonians stood poised to bring the judgment of God against His unfaithful people. And eventually, just as God had warned, the nation of Judah fell to the king of Babylon.

And Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to the city while his servants were besieging it, and Jehoiachin the king of Judah gave himself up to the king of Babylon, himself and his mother and his servants and his officials and his palace officials. The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign and carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king’s house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold. 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 24:11-14 ESV

Jerusalem had “sinned grievously” (Lamentations 1:8 ESV). And Jeremiah describes in somber tones the consequences of her sin.

The enemy has plundered her completely,
    taking every precious thing she owns.
She has seen foreigners violate her sacred Temple,
    the place the Lord had forbidden them to enter. – Lamentations 1:10 NLT

The very temple that Manasseh had filled with altars “for all the host of heaven” had been filled with Nebuchadnezzar’s troops, who pillaged the sacred site of all its gold, jewels, fabric, and sacred furniture.

The entire city had been left in ruins, its buildings and homes burned, its gates destroyed, and its walls full of gaping holes through which the Babylonians had entered the city. And the few who were not taken into captivity to Babylon were appalled and ashamed at the sorry state of the once-grand capital of their nation.

All who once honored her now despise her,
    for they have seen her stripped naked and humiliated. – Lamentations 1:8 NLT

And Jeremiah pulls no punches when describing the cause of Judah’s downfall.

She defiled herself with immorality
    and gave no thought to her future. – Lamentations 1:9 NLT

In the book that bears his name, Jeremiah records God’s indictment against His chosen people.

“You have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me? declares the LORD.” – Jeremiah 3:2 ESV

When the inevitable happened and the judgment of God came, the people had displayed surprise and dismay. They even called out to God, begging Him to rescue them from their predicament.

Now she lies in the gutter
    with no one to lift her out.
Lord, see my misery,” she cries.
    “The enemy has triumphed.” – Lamentations 1:9 NLT

Her people groan as they search for bread.
    They have sold their treasures for food to stay alive.
“O Lord, look,” she mourns,
    “and see how I am despised.” – Lamentations 1:11 NLT

But it was too little, too late. God had given them ample opportunity to reform their ways. He had given them godly kings like Hezekiah and Josiah, who had attempted to reform the hearts of the people and restore their commitment to Him. But the people had proven to be stubborn and committed to remaining unfaithful to God. Now they were suffering the consequences of their sins. But rather than acknowledge their guilt and humbly confess their sin to God, they remained stubbornly defiant. They were quick to inform God about how bad things were in Judah but unwilling to admit how badly they had sinned against Him.

But all the way back at the dedication of the temple Solomon had built for Him, God had told His people the key to getting HIs attention and to enjoying their restoration to a right relationship with Him.

“…if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land.”  – 2 Chronicles 7:14 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