God and Iniquity, Part 4

Iniquity is an awful thing. Sure, it’s sin, but it’s the worst possible of all sins. We all sin. We may be redeemed, but we still struggle with sin. We live in it. It’s all around us. In a million different ways, every minute of every day of our lives we are exposed to sin. Whether we hear it or see it. And whether we like it or not, it influences how we think, feel, and act. That’s why we most of the time we aren’t ever aware that we are sinning until it’s too late. It’s as though we can’t help ourselves – that’s not an excuse, just an explanation. Iniquity is different. You have to out of your way to commit an iniquity. You plan to do it. You scheme to do it. And when at last you’ve done the deed, you hide it; you do your best to make sure nobody finds out. Unlike your run-of-the-mill, garden variety sin, you have the power to not commit an iniquity.

But of course, God knows all about your iniquities. As we’ve discovered, He not only knows about them, He reveals them. They are always right in front of Him. And you are stained with the guilt of your iniquities.

Is there any hope? Fortunately for us, there is.

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied ; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. (Isaiah 53:5, 6, 11 | TNIV)

Context

As far as the majority of Bible scholars is concerned, the content of Isaiah 53 really begins back in 52:13.

See, my servant will act wisely ; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him—his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness—so he will sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand. (Isaiah 52:13 – 15 | TNIV)

This is God the Father talking about “his servant.” We Christians view all the “Servant” passages in Isaiah as finding their ultimate fulfillment in Jesus Christ. In these verses here, we get a glimpse into how the Father viewed His Son and His Son’s mission on earth.

God’s view

The first thing God draws attention to is the Son’s wisdom; His belief that Jesus Christ will act wisely. And He did. The wisdom of the Son was completely self-denying. He made all the right decisions that would put Him on the Cross. But Jesus Christ possesses all the wisdom needed to deal with man’s greatest problem: Sin. And what looked like foolishness to onlookers, was in fact wisdom on display.

He was beaten beyond recognition. People who saw Him were appalled and disgusted with the appearance of this so-called Messiah. And yet, as the Lord says, Jesus Christ “sprinkled many nations.” That’s an interesting phrase that is probably lost most of us today. It has the idea of a Jewish ceremony involving purification and the forgiveness of sins. Even as it appeared as though the Son of God was dying and helplessly nailed to a cross, He was acting in complete wisdom and in complete harmony with His Father’s will, obtaining the forgiveness of sins for people that hitherto was never available to them.

We don’t talk a lot about the wisdom of the Son of God, but a long time after Isaiah wrote what he did about the issue, the apostle Paul tackled it like this:

Where are the wise? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. (1 Corinthians 1:20 – 25 | TNIV)

Christians would do well to remember what both Isaiah and Paul wrote. It applies to our time as much as it did to theirs. Too many believers don’t have the confidence they should have in their faith, their Scriptures, or their Savior. There is no equivalence at all between man’s wisdom and God’s.

Man’s view

From God, we move to the astonishment of those who came to believe in the Savior. But it was hard fought belief.

Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? (Isaiah 53:1 | TNIV)

Bible scholars love to debate who the “we” here is. Jews or Gentiles? Maybe both, since “the arm of the Lord” has embraced all people. Anybody who found Jesus has wondered in astonishment of a couple of things. First, we who love Jesus find hard to believe why so many don’t! “Who has believed our message,” indeed! Apparently few have!  Yet God in His great love and compassion has embraced all sinners who need saving. Why do so many people miss Jesus? It’s because He’s the unexpected Savior. Just read how Isaiah described Him in these verses.

He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. (Isaiah 53:2 – 3 | TNIV)

Jesus didn’t come in power and glory. He came as one of us. Just an average guy who could feed 5,000 people with almost no food, walk on water, raise the dead, and change the weather. But Jesus wasn’t what people were looking for and He isn’t what people are looking for today. The great sadness is that people of every generation are looking for the same things: peace, happiness, contentment, security, love, and acceptance. But what they don’t know is that all those things are found only in once person: Jesus Christ.

Jesus Christ became a “man of suffering” because He became one of us, and suffering marks the human condition. Living the life He did and hanging on the Cross, Jesus experienced, if only for the briefest moments in eternity, what it is like to be one of us: lonely, sad, abandoned, betrayed, and suffering alone.

Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. (Isaiah 53:4 | TNIV)

We tend to focus on the first part of that verse, but it’s the second half that is the most telling: “…we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted.” In other words, we saw everything Jesus went through, but we got it wrong. We didn’t understand what we were seeing. And most people today still don’t. People today still don’t understand Jesus. They don’t get what He did for them, which is why when you share your faith them, more times than not you get a blank stare for your efforts.

But you understand what Jesus did for you. He didn’t have any pain, until He felt yours. He never suffered, until He began to feel your suffering.

The facts

But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5, 6 | TNIV)

The first four verses are basically what believers think about Jesus. Beginning with verse 5 are the facts. Let’s take a closer look.

Pierced for our transgressions. This simple phrase is really the basis of a wonderful theological doctrine: vicarious expiation. The English “pierced” comes from a Hebrew term meholal which means “pierced,” “transfixed,” or “bored through.” He was nailed – nailed for our pesha, our transgressions, which were our devious, deviant rebellions. The pain was all His, because of the sin that was all ours.

Crushed for our iniquities. Jesus Christ was shattered for our “inborn crookedness.” The Hebrew, medhukkdh, means “pulverized,” “crushed,” or “shattered,” and awonoth means not only “iniquities” but “twisted and perverted crookedness.” Our iniquity is basically our perverse, persistent, hopeless addiction to doing the things that hurt God, ourselves, and others. Our secret sins.

Punishment that brought us peace. The word “punishment” means “disciplined.” Can you imagine? That Man on the cross was being disciplined so that we could experience peace! What a wondrous thing that Jesus did for us. All that He went through on the cross – all the violence and pain resulted in peace for you and me.

By his wounds we are healed. This phrase is far more controversial than it should be. The natural way to read this is that what Jesus went through on the cross provided physical healing for us. I don’t necessarily disagree with that, but there was physical healing before Jesus was crucified. Peter, over in the New Testament, gives us a divinely inspired interpretation of this phrase:

When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. “He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Peter 2:23, 24 | TNIV)

It seems that Peter links this healing to the wounds caused by sin. And while you and I get all get all hung up on the notion that cancer or heart disease or a broken bone are the worst things that can befall a human being, the Bible teaches something very different. Sin, and what sin does to people – individuals and their relationships with others – is far worse than any physical problem you could think of. That’s not that we shouldn’t pray for sick people; the Bible says we should! But we shouldn’t minimize the devastating effects sin has on us. Your iniquities and sins are what put Christ on the Cross. He dealt decisively with sin, in wisdom and in full possession of all of His faculties, and once and for all freed man from his enslavement to sinning day after day, after relentless day, so that potentially every human being could enjoy peace with God, with his fellow man, and with himself.

Unfortunately, rarely do we human beings ever do what’s best for us.

We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:6 | TNIV)

Again, these are the facts. Man prefers his own way to God’s way. He has transferred his allegiance to a god of his own making, fulfilling his own will and desires, leaning on his own intellect and innate talents, proving he is wholly selfish. This is sinful man’s ongoing iniquity. This is humanity’s common guilt.  That’s the folly of the human race.

As we wrap up this study, the last phrase of verse 6 is haunting and continues to reverberate down the corridor of time: “…the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” Understand what that means, and you’ll understand the depth of God’s love. Ross Price, in his wonderful commentary on Isaiah, sums it up perfectly:

God became the Suffering Servant, provided the vicarious atonement, and bore, in His Son, the iniquities of the world. Since then, vicarious pain has been life’s highest decoration. God does not punish the righteous with the wicked (Gen. 18: 25). He accepts the suffering of the righteous for the wicked (Mark 10: 45).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

God and Iniquity, Part 3

Iniquity is a sin, but it’s the worst possible of all sins. It’s deliberately twisting God’s will and God’s commands in such a way as to do what you want to do, not what He wants you to do. It’s scheming and plotting to commit a sin that you try to hide from everybody.

So far in our study of God and Iniquity, we discovered that no matter how hard we try, God not only finds out our iniquities, but He exposes them.

And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found. (Genesis 44:16 | TNIV)

And in a very disturbing verse, we learned that our iniquities are always in God’s view.

Thou hast set our iniquities before thee, our secret sins in the light of thy countenance. (Psalm 90:8 | KJV)

This time, we’re going to look another aspect of our iniquity. The verse comes from the prophet Jeremiah:

No amount of soap or lye can make you clean. You are stained with guilt that cannot ever be washed away. I see it always before me, the Lord God says. (Jeremiah 2:22 | TLB)

God not only sees our “guilt” or iniquity, but this verse explains why He does: It stains us. In some way, our iniquities mark us so that when the Lord looks at us, He sees them. As is usually the case with a verse in Scripture, there is a lot going on in Jeremiah 22 that explains this verse, so let’s take a peek at a sad day in the life of God’s people.

Background

Israel was in bad shape spiritually by the time this prophecy was given. The purpose of God’s Word here in chapter 2 was to explain why Israel was in such deplorable condition: Israel has always wandered away from God and their children are just as bad and just as guilty.

Jeremiah was called by God to be a prophet in chapter 1 and here in chapter 2 he gets his first job:

Go and shout this in Jerusalem’s streets: This is what the Lord says! I remember how eager you were to please me as a young bride long ago, how you loved me and followed me even through the barren deserts. (Jeremiah 2:2 | TLB)

Israel’s perplexing behavior

For the next eight chapters, Jeremiah’s sermons are recorded for us. Some of these sermons were preached in the streets, others in and around the Temple. These were powerful sermons, and Jeremiah’s series starts out with “the good old days.” Israel started out faithful and true, like a young bride utterly devoted to her new husband. She was led by and followed the Lord throughout their wilderness wanderings. During those years, God’s people had never strayed out of their close relationship with God – no idolatry whatsoever. Those were hard years for them, yet they were the best years of their covenant relationship with Jehovah.

But those were the “good old days.” It’s not like that anymore and God, poetically, comes across like the befuddled spouse:

O Israel, says the Lord, why did your fathers desert me? What sin did they find in me that turned them away and changed them into fools who worship idols? (Jeremiah 2:4, 5 | TLB)

Of course, God knows why, but He wants His people to come to the correct conclusion on their own. In God’s reckoning, He had done so many good things for them; they had received so many blessings – beginning with their freedom from the Egyptians – that God couldn’t conceive of how they could possibly “cheat on Him.” It’s not that they had left Him, it’s that Israel had added other gods to worship alongside the true God. Rabbi Joshua Joseph Heschel wrote this about this passage:

What a sublime paradox for the Creator of heaven and earth to implore the people so humbly.

In the minds of the people, they hadn’t abandoned their God. They still went to the Temple to worship and participated in all the offerings, sacrifices, and holy days. But they “expanded” their religious beliefs to include those of the surrounding pagan cultures. They had embraced the some of the practices and some of the gods of these godless people. They added to their worship of Jehovah the worship of lesser gods.

Even their priests cared nothing for the Lord, and their judges ignored me; their rulers turned against me, and their prophets worshiped Baal and wasted their time on nonsense. (Jeremiah 2:8 | TLB)

So it wasn’t just the “people in the pews” that had taken up with false gods, but the religious leaders – priests and judges – were fiddling with paganism, as were the rulers of the land.

But I will not give you up-I will plead for you to return to me and will keep on pleading; yes, even with your children’s children in the years to come! (Jeremiah 2:9 | TLB)

Now, that’s devotion! God’s never going to give up on His people. But this verse is also a statement of indictment. God wouldn’t let them go, and He would use all the tools at His disposal to bring them back, including punishment.

Why not just let Israel go? It was because their idolatry was unnatural; it was like an illness. Now, it was perfectly natural for pagan nations get involved in sick, perverse, and deviant lifestyles brought on by the worship of false gods, but it wasn’t at all natural for God’s people to live like that.

Look around you and see if you can find another nation anywhere that has traded in its old gods for new ones-even though their gods are nothing. Send to the west to the island of Cyprus; send to the east to the deserts of Kedar. See if anyone there has ever heard so strange a thing as this. And yet my people have given up their glorious God for silly idols! The heavens are shocked at such a thing and shrink back in horror and dismay. (Jeremiah 2:10 – 12 | TLB)

God’s people had been called to a higher standard of life, based on their covenant relationship with God. They had made a promise to be markedly different from other cultures. And even though they had broken their end of the covenant by adopting many of the detestable practices of these cultures, God wasn’t going to break His end of the covenant. He would do all He could to woo His people back.

God is challenging His people to look at other nations around the world and compare their actions to those of the other nations. Sure, those other nations were worshiping false gods and their cultures were depraved, but God’s people were worse because they had exchanged their glory – that would be their faith in Jehovah – for worthless idols. In other words, at least those other cultures were faithful in their devotion to their false gods, but Israel had become a pathetic loser because they couldn’t be faithful to their true God. Psalm 106 tells us that predilection to unfaithfulness began very early on – just after He miraculously delivered them from their slavery in Egypt:

For they preferred a statue of an ox that eats grass to the glorious presence of God himself. Thus they despised their Savior who had done such mighty miracles in Egypt and at the Red Sea. (Psalm 106:19 – 22 | TLB)

Their actions made no sense, but then rarely does sin make sense. Here, Israel had frittered away the One who was everything to them because He had done everything for them and in return the false gods gave them precisely nothing.

For my people have done two evil things: They have forsaken me, the Fountain of living waters; and they have built for themselves broken cisterns that can’t hold water! (Jeremiah 2:13 | TLB)

Reading those verses, you can see that as far as the believer is concerned, iniquity – which is what we’re seeing here – isn’t normal; it’s aberrant in the life of a believer. It’s like a mental illness, where the afflicted one harms himself, thinking it’s a good thing. Would any sane person do what Israel did: exchange a jug that holds water for a broken one?

Israel’s pathetic state

God sees Israel’s state as truly pathetic. Yes, the people had willingly corrupted themselves, but verse 14 has a tinge of terrible sadness about it:

Why has Israel become a nation of slaves? Why is she captured and led far away? (Jeremiah 2:14 | TLB)

That’s how God saw His people now. He redeemed them to be a free people – free in every way – yet because of the iniquity of their hearts they had become slaves once again; easy pickings for foreign nations. What kind of illness makes a person who had been enjoying freedom and liberty choose servitude to other people? It boggled God’s mind. Instead of simply being led by Him, Israel had entered into horrible allegiances with Egypt to the south and Assyria to the north. They shouldn’t have, but they did so willingly.

And you have brought this on yourselves by rebelling against the Lord your God when he wanted to lead you and show you the way! (Jeremiah 2:17 | TLB)

Like idolatry, dependence on foreign powers instead of trusting in the Lord had always been a snare to God’s people. Both Hosea and Isaiah had opposed foreign alliances. Time and time again, both Israel and Judah had political aligned themselves with pagan nations and time and again these allegiances ended badly for both nations. Tragically, they never learned the lessons their own experiences had taught them! Even today each generation seems compelled to suffer untold agony because it has learned nothing from God’s actions in history. Does that make sense? Of course not. But, as I have said before, sin makes no sense.

God’s people are better than this, and that’s the point of this verse:

I had planted you like a choice vine of sound and reliable stock. How then did you turn against me into a corrupt, wild vine? (Jeremiah 2:21 | TNIV)

Israel had started out so well! No other nation in the history of the world had been founded by God Himself! Only Israel. And yet she descended into what amounted to a nasty, gangly weed in the garden of God.

The power of Iniquity

And that’s the background of the verse that began this article:

Although you wash yourself with soap and use an abundance of cleansing powder, the stain of your guilt is still before me,” declares the Sovereign Lord. (Jeremiah 2:22 | TNIV)

Notice the action in this verse. God is speaking in a poetic fashion, but we all know what the Lord is getting at. The people knew they had done wrong and were continuing to do wrong, and that’s why they were washing themselves with soap and cleansing powder. The significant phrase is “you wash yourself.” In other words, they knew full-well the extent of their iniquity, and that made them guilty, but instead of reaching out to the Lord in repentance and asking for forgiveness, they foolishly thought they could scrub themselves clean. That’s the absolute height of human arrogance right there! In their sick, deluded state, they assumed that if they paid Jehovah lip service and went through the motions their faith dictated, that they were free the rest of the time to heap iniquity upon iniquity upon iniquity  because they could simply toss God His due. The apostle Paul later wrote this:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? Or don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. (Romans 6:1 – 4 | TNIV)

Of course, Paul’s audience was different from that of Jeremiah. Paul was writing to born again Christians in the Roman church. He was writing to people who had been set free from their bondage to sin; to people who had pledged to live for and serve Jesus Christ. Maybe the two audiences weren’t so different after all, separated only by the passing of many centuries. The issues that plagued Israel are the same ones that continue to plague the church: Worldliness and compromise of the faith. Trying to live on both sides of salvation’s fence. How many Christians do exactly what these ancient Hebrews did? Live like pagans all week long, then go to church on Sunday to assuage the guilt of their iniquities. How many churches have become so worldly and their theology so worldly that you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart from any other club or organization in town?

The thing is this, however. Nobody can wash away their own iniquities – not Jeremiah’s people and not people today. You can’t do enough good deeds or enough acts of contrition to purge away your guilt – God sees it and He’s offended by it. Your iniquities have stained you and God is the One with the stain remover. Not you. Not your priest or minister. Only God.

That’s why Christians are to strive toward being perfect. Not that you stand a snowball’s chance of actually being perfect on this side of Heaven, mind you. But in the striving, you will be bending your will to God’s will; you’ll be living in fear of offending Him by your behavior; you’ll be so busy praying and seeking direction and power to live right, and then your mind will finally and at last be shed of its habitual way of thinking and before you know it, you will be a mentally sound member of the Body of Christ, living in God’s grace and blessing and being a blessing to others.

 

 

 

 

God and Iniquity, Part 2

Last time, we defined “iniquity” as the worst of all sins. It’s a deliberate twisting and bending of God’s law and God’s will to suit you. It’s scheming to commit a sin. And the first thing we learned is that God has a habit of revealing your iniquity. In other words, you can’t hide any sin, least of all your iniquity, from God.

Here’s another shocking bit of information regarding your iniquity:

You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. (Psalm 90:8 | TNIV)

Think about that the next time you’re fiddling around with something or some behavior you know goes against the Lord’s will. Can you imagine how offensive it must be; having your iniquities sitting there, in front of God, not going away?

Background of the psalm

Psalm 90 is an honest psalm – a look at how temporary and transient man’s life is. It’s a hard look at living life under the wrath of God.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness…. (Romans 1:18 | TNIV)

All human beings are living under the wrath of God, which is to say that we are living on a sinful and sin-cursed planet, and we witness God’s displeasure with man’s sinful ways every minute of every day. Sickness, disease, war, hunger, poverty, death, are all the inevitable results of a world stuck on the wrong side of the Almighty. Psalm 90 was written from that perspective.

Most versions of the Bible add this subscription, which is not part of the inspired text:

A prayer of Moses, the man of God

Since these little titles in some of the psalms aren’t part of the original texts, they’re interesting to consider but may or may not be accurate. Psalm 90 may or may not have been written wholly or in part by “Moses the man of God,” but it’s similarity to Deuteronomy 33, which Moses did write, is obvious. Bible scholars who come down on the side of Moses’ authorship point to the overall antiquity of this psalm. It’s old. It’s an ancient piece of literature.

Regardless of who wrote it, Psalm 90 is a magnificent psalm. English philosopher and writer, Isaac Taylor, thought so highly of this psalm that he wrote:

It is perhaps the most sublime of human compositions, the deepest in feeling, the loftiest in theological conception, the most magnificent in its imagery.

The sovereignty of God, verses 1 – 6

The psalm begins in a way that, if you believe Moses wrote it, makes sense for a man who didn’t really have a place to live for half of his life.

Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. (Psalm 90:1 | TNIV)

Moses and Israel, after leaving the land of Egypt, wandered around the desert for 40 years. In all that time, as nomads, they kept moving – trudging across the trackless desert in search of a promise given generations ago. This psalm begins and ends with a declaration that God is “the Lord.” The Hebrew is Adonai, the Creator and Ruler of all there is. God had made the universe, and in Him God’s people find protection. He is constant. God can be depended upon to be “dwelling place” for all generations.

Not only is God the Creator and a dependable Source of protection, His love is eternal – without beginning and without end.

Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. (Psalm 90:2 | TNIV)

God the loving Father has made the planet man lives on. Just think about the care with which God made the perfect home for His masterpiece of creation; a person created in His very own image. When you stop and consider yourself and the world around you, you’ll come to the same conclusion the psalmist did: From all eternity, there is God. Wherever you look to the past, He is there, working in the history of man. He’s all around you today; He’s the “dwelling place” where you can find protection. And God is in the future. These first two verses give us powerful images of our God as the Creator, the Sustainer of our lives, the ultimate “Safe Place” for Christians, and the One who is dependable because He has been so from eternity past.

And then there’s this:

You turn people back to dust, saying, “Return to dust, you mortals.” A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death—they are like the new grass of the morning: In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered. (Psalm 90:3 – 6 | TNIV)

Compared to the greatness of God, man is little more than dust. As great a creation man is, even as he bears the image of his Creator, he is weak and subject to the Eternal God. Man doesn’t like the implication of this group of verses, but the fact is, it is God and God alone who has power over His creation, not man. The thought that man thinks he can alter what God has created is beyond arrogance! If you’ve visited the many “ghost towns” that litter the coal fields, you’ll see what I mean. Nature reclaims the monuments of man. Man is transient and so are his works, as great as he thinks they may be.

In comparison to the eternity of God, man is like a blade of grass. It’s there one moment, gone the next. Even the famous Methuselah, a man who managed to live an astounding 969 years, just 31 shy of a thousand, is viewed by God as transient. Time means nothing to God, and yet time means everything to man. We never have enough of it, we run out of it, and it slips by faster and faster the older you get. Yet one more indication of how temporary man really is. Willem VanGemeren, who has written numerous books about the Old Testament, including a superb commentary on the psalms, made a powerful observation on this fact:

Each human being is a drop in the giant stream of time.

Dealing with God’s wrath

We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. (Psalm 90:7 – 10 | TNIV)

Here is it – living under God’s wrath. This sounds like a piece of poetry, yet it perfectly describes the life of all people living under and dealing with God’s wrath. All people, even Christians, are in the same predicament, though believers have a hope that non-believers don’t. We are all having to deal with God’s wrath even as we go about our daily lives. Doctor’s appointments, aches and pains, the funeral of a loved one, natural disasters, all these things and more are evidence that we are constantly facing the wrath of God.

Just look at how insightful the psalmist was. He knows that even our anxieties are evidence of God’s judgment! He uses the phrase, “terrified by your indignation,” but the context shows us that we are “terrified” of life and death and everything in between.

That gets us to verse 8, which is terrifying in its implications. Our “iniquities” and our “secret sins” are always in God’s view. No wonder man is terrified. He should be. God’s wrath is always His moral response to our disobedience. God’s isn’t normally in a bad mood. He’s not a grouchy, angry, miserable deity. God is love, but when man disobeys His law, then God has a moral right to impose His wrath. He made the rules, after all. Man may think he’s in charge, but Psalm 90 declares another truth. God is in charge. Many years later, the apostle Paul wrote about this:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings and birds and animals and reptiles. (Romans 1:18 – 23 | TNIV)

Paul wrote than man is without excuse, and knowing that our “iniquities” and “secret sins” are not only known by God but He has to keep looking at them, man is rightly terrified about dying and what is waiting for him. God sees man’s “iniquities,” his despicable acts of bad behavior, hidden from public view. And man’s “secret sins,” the things man thinks he’s “gotten away with,” are no secret to God. God is rightfully angry with His creation as man acts in ways completely contrary to how he KNOWS he should be acting.

And verse 10 is almost too painful to read. It states the obvious, but it’s still hard to read. Everybody knows that 70 or 80 years are all most of us will get. Maybe a few more or less. Maybe a few more if we eat food that even rabbits don’t like, avoid all the good food and all those wonderful glutens that make life worth while, and take up jogging, but in the end, that old Grim Reaper will get us. The psalmist wrote that in the end, after all our years, we will go out in a moan. That’s about it, isn’t it? We moan because we know, deep down in our heart of hearts, it’s because of sin that we come to an end.

How we should respond

Well, we can’t stay in this depressed state! So thank the Lord the psalmist kept on scribbling:

If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due. Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:11, 12 | TNIV)

Praying for wisdom is the proper response when you know you are living under God’s wrath, when you’re trying to deal with His anger, and when you know your life isn’t your own; that you aren’t guaranteed the next moment. You need wisdom. You need to know how to live the best life you can given the limited number of days you have been granted. It’s not an accident that “fear of God” is linked to “wisdom” here. They’re frequently linked together throughout the Psalms and the Proverbs.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the Holy One is understanding. (Proverbs 9:10 | TNIV)

There’s nothing wrong with a healthy fear of God and of His anger toward your sin. You can be a born again, blood-bought child of God, and though your sins have been and will be forgiven, God still sees your bad behavior that causes Him to be angry. You’re a fool if you have no fear of that. So pray for wisdom, so that you will know how to live in such a way as to be pleasing to God.

Prayer for God’s mercy

In light of God’s Sovereignty and of His complete right over this world and over you, mercy is what you need from the Lord. He should be angry, but experiencing His mercy would be better.

Relent, Lord! How long will it be? Have compassion on your servants. Satisfy us in the morning with your unfailing love, that we may sing for joy and be glad all our days. Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us, for as many years as we have seen trouble. May your deeds be shown to your servants, your splendor to their children. (Psalm 90:13 – 16 | TNIV)

This short but powerful prayer has three simple components. First, the psalmist would love to experience God’s favor once again. In the strictest context, the people of Israel were suffering self-inflicted wounds, but they were still God’s servants. How many of you are having to deal with your own self-inflicted wounds caused by your iniquities and secret sins? But if you are child of God, you remain so. God never abandons His child, even as that child is tending to his self-inflicted wounds. Mercy is what is needed.

Second, the psalmist wants to experience joy again. Having to live in a sinful world while maintaining your integrity is hard enough, but when you stumble from time to time and have to scramble to regain your uprightness is enough to rob you of your joy. Nobody wants to be miserable, yet once you are in that run it’s hard to jump out of it. Real joy and gladness comes from the love of God.

Lastly, the psalmist longs for a continual flow of God’s blessings. Wouldn’t you ask for that, too? Isn’t it better to constantly experience God’s love through His blessings than to experience it once in a blue moon? The psalmist’s request is well founded and it’s a request you should be making, too. Realizing that it is from God that all good things flow, why not ask Him to keep the spigot of blessings open?

In the end, though, what God’s people really need is God’s favor – His blessing on their work.

May the favor of the Lord our God rest on us; establish the work of our hands for us—yes, establish the work of our hands. (Psalm 90:17 | TNIV)

Yes, as the Teacher observed, life is vanity, but we’re all stuck here for our 70 or 80 years. We’re temporary, transient beings whose destiny in hands of another. We need to acknowledge that, as the psalmist did. We need to see that we need God’s favor; we need His blessings because, after all, they make life bearable. No, in fact, they make life wonderful. You and I as believers in and followers of Jesus Christ have the advantage of those who aren’t. God will establish the work of our hands; He will bless us and our work and He will make our lives amount to something.

God and Iniquity, Part 1

We hear a lot about sin. Not that we do much about it, mind you. But we hear a lot about it. What we don’t hear a lot about is something called iniquity. It’s used well over 200 times in the Old Testament and often it’s mentioned along with sin.

Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation. (Exodus 34:7 | KJV)

The word translated “iniquity” is a Hebrew words that looks like this: avon. And it refers to something that is “bent, twisted or distorted.” An iniquity is a bending, or a twisting or a distortion of God’s law. In the hierarchy of bad behavior, “iniquity” is the worst of all. It’s worse than sin; worse than a transgression. It’s the deliberate planning and scheming to do that which is opposed what God wants. Take a look at now a modern translation translates Exodus 34:7 –

maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:7 | NIV84)

“Rebellion” is a deliberate turning away from the direction God wants you to be going in. That’s a good picture of what “iniquity” is all about. Of course, “sin” is rebellion too, but it’s different.

Sin

One of the best definitions of “sin” is found in a letter the apostle John wrote:

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness. (1 John 3:4 | NIV84)

You may think that sounds a lot like a sin – breaking God’s law – and you wouldn’t be wrong. But it’s worse than that. While every iniquity is sin, there are degrees of punishment for sin and some sins are worthy of greater punishment than others. For example, if you read about God’s law in the Old Testament, if a person commits adultery, their punishment was death. But if a person stole something, the punishment wasn’t nearly as severe.

A classic verse about “sin” is what king David thought about it:

Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me. (Psalms 51:5 | NIV84)

At first glance, that looks ridiculous. How could an unborn baby be sinful? He hasn’t done anything yet! But that’s not what sin is all about. Think of “sin” as not necessarily something a person does but rather the state he is in. A sin can be an action, but it’s what every human being is. He is a sinner by default. In the Old Testament, “sin” comes from a Hebrew word that means “missing the mark” or “falling short.” By now you’re likely thinking of a rather famous New Testament verse about “falling short.”

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…(Romans 3:23 | NIV84)

So “sin” is a lawlessness but it’s also part of who every human being is – he isn’t living up to God’s standard.

Transgression

Back in Exodus 34:7, the word “transgression” is mentioned along with sin and iniquity. It’s also mentioned in Psalm 32:5 –

Then I acknowledged my sin to you and did not cover up my iniquity.I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord”–and you forgave the guilt of my sin. Selah. (Psalms 32:5 | NIV84)

Those three things – sin, iniquity, and transgression – form the unholy trinity of evil. Like iniquity, a transgression is a sin; it’s the breaking of one of God’s laws. It’s an act, not a state. For example. When you’re out driving around and you drive 60 miles per hour in a 25 mile per hour zone, you are transgressing a law of man. There’s nothing bad about going 60 miles per hour, but when you go against a posted law and do it, you’re transgressing a law. You’ll be punished accordingly, and if you change your driving habits, you’ll never be punished again.

So if you look at what David wrote in Psalm 32:5, knowing the difference between the three members of the trinity of evil, you can see what David was getting at. Jack Wellman brilliantly sums it up like this:

David said he will confess (means agree with) his transgressions (his willful acts of disobedience) to the Lord, and God will forgive the iniquity (his bending, twisting, and distorting of the law that grew in the degrees worthy of greater punishment), of his sin (the transgressions of God’s law).

Over the net few weeks, I’d like to take a closer look at the relationship God has with our iniquities. Let’s begin with the fundamental fact that God finds them. Like it or not, we can’t anything from Him, let alone our iniquities.

And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found. (Genesis 44:16 | KJV)

Famine

It all started with seven skinny cows. You’ll recall that Joseph, the brother who had been sold into Egyptian slavery by his brothers, had risen to the heights of Egyptian polity because the Lord had given the Pharaoh a dream of an impending famine. The poor guy couldn’t make heads or tales of this crazy dream involving these ugly, skinny cows, but Joseph could:

Seven years of great abundance are coming throughout the land of Egypt, but seven years of famine will follow them. Then all the abundance in Egypt will be forgotten, and the famine will ravage the land. The abundance in the land will not be remembered, because the famine that follows it will be so severe. The reason the dream was given to Pharaoh in two forms is that the matter has been firmly decided by God, and God will do it soon. (Genesis 41:29-32 | NIV84)

Well, what’s a Pharaoh to do with information like that? Again, young Joseph had a solution:

Let Pharaoh appoint commissioners over the land to take a fifth of the harvest of Egypt during the seven years of abundance. They should collect all the food of these good years that are coming and store up the grain under the authority of Pharaoh, to be kept in the cities for food. This food should be held in reserve for the country, to be used during the seven years of famine that will come upon Egypt, so that the country may not be ruined by the famine. (Genesis 41:34-36 | NIV84)

What Pharaoh couldn’t possibly know, and what Joseph didn’t understand yet, was that this whole famine – a famine that would impact a large portion of the Middle East – was for the sole purpose of reuniting Joseph with his family. Can you imagine? The lengths that God will go to in an effort to make things right and accomplish His great purposes always astounds me.

Power

From prison to pinnacle in a few verses! That’s the way it is with the Lord sometimes.

So Pharaoh said to Joseph, “I hereby put you in charge of the whole land of Egypt.” Then Pharaoh took his signet ring from his finger and put it on Joseph’s finger. He dressed him in robes of fine linen and put a gold chain around his neck. He had him ride in a chariot as his second-in-command, and men shouted before him, “Make way!” Thus he put him in charge of the whole land of Egypt. (Genesis 41:41-43 | NIV84)

Joseph’s rule over Egypt was very successful. The seven years of extreme prosperity resulted in tons and tons and tons of produce being carefully stored away against the coming famine. During this time, two sons were born to Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim.

While Egypt was ready to face the famine, Canaan wasn’t. Apparently word spread among the people of the eastern Mediterranean that food could be bought in Egypt.

When Jacob learned that there was grain in Egypt, he said to his sons, “Why do you just keep looking at each other?” He continued, “I have heard that there is grain in Egypt. Go down there and buy some for us, so that we may live and not die.” (Genesis 42:1-2 | NIV84)

These brothers of Joseph were a supine, useless lot with no ambition and even less initiative. But they made the journey. It had been some 20 hears since Joseph had seen them. He recognized them but they were clueless about him. Of course, now Joseph was no longer a young, gangly teen. He was grown man, around 40 years of age, dressed professionally and clean shaven. And Joseph wasn’t a fool. He knew his brothers. He would take this occasion to test them. Over the course of two visits, Joseph treated his brothers very, very harshly. His purpose in this test was to see if his brothers had changed in the intervening two decades. Joseph demanded that if the brothers ever needed to come back to buy more food, they would have to bring Benjamin with them. He was the youngest and stayed back home with Jacob.

The famine ravaged on, and it was time to go back to Egypt to buy some more food. Jacob didn’t want Benjamin to go, but he reluctantly gave in and this time he sent his whole brood to Egypt for a supply of groceries. At first, Joseph treated his brothers royally, and especially young Benjamin.

When portions were served to them from Joseph’s table, Benjamin’s portion was five times as much as anyone else’s. So they feasted and drank freely with him. (Genesis 43:34 | NIV84)

Now it was time to test his brother’s intergrity. Had they changed? Or were they the same shiftless, scheming, good-for-nothing, no account fools that had beat him up and sold him into slavery? He had Benjamin falsely accused of purloining an expensive silver cup.

Then the steward proceeded to search, beginning with the oldest and ending with the youngest. And the cup was found in Benjamin’s sack. (Genesis 44:12 | NIV84)

Of course, Joseph arranged to have the cup put there for the purpose of the test. The punishment for this was death. What would these brothers do? Once before they were willing to sacrifice one of their own regardless of the pain it would cause their father. Would they do it again? Or had they changed. Apparently they had changed. The brothers refused to abandon Benjamin, and Judah, the very brother who was responsible for selling Joseph into slavery, stepped forward and in one of the most touching speeches in literature, offered his life for Benjamin’s. It’s not unimportant nor co-incidental that centuries later, a descendant of Judah would offer His life so that others could live.

And that’s the background to the verse that started this whole thing: Genesis 44:16 –

And Judah said, What shall we say unto my lord? what shall we speak? or how shall we clear ourselves? God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants: behold, we are my lord’s servants, both we, and he also with whom the cup is found. (Genesis 44:16 | KJV)

The sentence that we need to look at is this: “God hath found out the iniquity of thy servants.” The NIV84 translates it slightly differently: “God has uncovered your servant’s guilt.”

“Iniquity” involves “guilt,” but just what were the brothers guilty of? Think about that for a minute. They certainly weren’t guilty of stealing the cup! That was a trick. These brothers were guilty of nothing. Except for something they had done two decades earlier. Something they thought they had “gotten away with.” But in truth, nobody gets away with anything. God will always – always – uncover or “find out” a sinner’s iniquities. You can’t hide anything from God. Adam and Eve tried that. Earlier in the book of Genesis, we read this exchange after Adam and Eve sinned:

But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid. (Genesis 3:9-10 | NIV84)

And man has been hiding his iniquities – his sins – ever since. God knows what you  and I are guilty of, even if we have managed to hide our actions from everybody on earth. God knows and one day, all will be laid bare for the universe to see. God knows your iniquities and He uncovers them.

 

 

 

 

Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 6

The last major division of Ezekiel’s big book of Bible prophecy begins with chapter 33. From here to the end of the book, we’re reading full throttle, futuristic prophecies – glimpses of not only Israel’s future at the time they were given, but of our future. Specifically, we’ll be reading about the world during the Millennial reign of Christ. Historically, the prophecies given in this section were given after the fall of Jerusalem. It was a dark time for God’s people, so the messages of a final restoration represented hope and a promise from God that in spite of what was going to transpire over the next 70 years, Israel would, in God’s time, be restored in glory and permanence.

Jerusalem has fallen

It was December, 586 BC and Jerusalem had been in ruins for about three months. It took that long for a lone fugitive to reach Babylon with the news. His arrival in Babylon was predicted long before it happened:

Son of dust, on the day I finish taking from them in Jerusalem the joy of their hearts and their glory and joys-their wives and their sons and their daughters-on that day a refugee from Jerusalem will start on a journey to come to you in Babylon to tell you what has happened. And on the day of his arrival, your voice will suddenly return to you so that you can talk with him; and you will be a symbol for these people, and they shall know I am the Lord.”. (Ezekiel 24:25 – 27 | TLB)

This prophecy was fulfilled in Ezekiel 33:21, 22 –

In the eleventh year of our exile, late in December, one of those who escaped from Jerusalem arrived to tell me, “The city has fallen!” Now the hand of the Lord had been upon me the previous evening, and he had healed me so that I could speak again by the time the man arrived. (TLB)

In spite of the the worst news possible, all was not lost, and that’s Ezekiel’s main theme in chapters 33 – 39. In all, there are six separate messages, though all intertwined to produce a very positive and hopeful declaration that better days lay ahead and that ultimately a tremendous blessing awaits God’s people.

Recommissioning of Ezekiel

Chapter 33 begins with the prophet’s recommissioning. God is seen calling this man again to be a watchman over his people in exile:

So with you, son of dust. I have appointed you as a watchman for the people of Israel; therefore, listen to what I say and warn them for me. (Ezekiel 33:7 | TLB)

In those days, major cities had walls around them to keep foreign invaders out and a watchman was posted to keep watch and warn of coming danger. That was Ezekiel’s job, and it had been for decades. He took it seriously. And he was right to. His life depended on it.

But if the watchman sees the enemy coming and doesn’t sound the alarm and warn the people, he is responsible for their deaths. They will die in their sins, but I will charge the watchman with their deaths.’ “So with you, son of dust. I have appointed you as a watchman for the people of Israel; therefore, listen to what I say and warn them for me. When I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked man, you will die!’ and you don’t tell him what I say, so that he does not repent-that wicked person will die in his sins, but I will hold you responsible for his death. (Ezekiel 33:6 – 8 | TLB)

Fortunately, modern preachers and evangelists aren’t on the hook like Ezekiel was. Our job is not to “get results,” but to preach and teach the Word of God as effectively as we can; to warn our congregations and to encourage them. The number of people “coming forward” isn’t nearly as important as the number of people who listened, heard the message, and left the church changed in some way by that Word of God.

A question of equity, 33:20

Yet you are saying the Lord isn’t fair. But I will judge each of you in accordance with his deeds.”. (Ezekiel 33:20 | TLB)

Verse 20 is a verse that has likely crossed your mind when you read about nations being judged. Among the exiles in Babylon were some very godly people, men like Ezekiel, for example. Men and women who had never forsaken the Lord and who lived in obedience to the Scriptures, yet who were carried off to Babylon along with the rebellious and wicked people. It looked to these godly folks like God was being unfair.

We experience this kind of “unfairness” all the time. For example, the older you get the higher your life insurance premiums get, even if you are in perfect health. Your property insurance rates will be higher or lower based on things you have no control over, like who your neighbors are and where you live. We pay outrageously high taxes because our government spends the money they confiscate from us recklessly. The fact is, when you age the risk of ill health increases and insurance rates go up for everybody in that age group. The same thing goes for your property insurance. And like it or not, you are identified with your nation – you pay higher taxes even if you’re careful how you spend your money because those over you aren’t.

The good people in Israel were suffering because they were part of a sinful nation under judgment. But God has, like He always has, a terrific comeback:

I will judge each of you in accordance with his deeds.

Everybody will eventually stand before God and be judged according to how they lived. Christians will be judged, though they won’t lose their salvation. But the sinner has no claim on God whatsoever.

For the Lord is watching his children, listening to their prayers; but the Lord’s face is hard against those who do evil. (1 Peter 3:12 | TLB)

That sounds harsh, but all it means is that God owes the sinner nothing – no consideration – but He has bound Himself to His people, even when His people have been swept up in the wicked’s judgment. God is absolutely righteous and right to judge the sinner.

Separated from the Promised Land, 33:21 – 33

Even after the fall of Jerusalem, there were still some Jews living in the area. We call them “the remnant,” but they shouldn’t be confused with a future “remnant” of Jews that will re-possess the land. Here, this Jewish remnant, that was fortunate enough to escape deportation or death, honestly thought they had been done wrong by God.

Son of dust, the scattered remnants of Judah living among the ruined cities keep saying, ‘Abraham was only one man and yet he got possession of the whole country! We are many, so we should certainly be able to get it back!’ But the Lord God says: ‘You are powerless, for you do evil! You eat meat with the blood, you worship idols, and murder. Do you suppose I’ll let you have the land?’ (Ezekiel 33:24, 25 | TLB)

These arrogant people couldn’t believe that the Promised Land had been ripped from their possession; they honestly believed that they could defy God’s will and get it back. God’s Word to them was given as clear it He could give it: As long as they – the ill-named God’s people – continued to disobey the Mosaic Covenant, they would reap the judgment of that same Covenant, which was designed to bring about repentance and to prove that God was serious and real.

And they will be told, ‘Because the people of the land broke the contract made with them by Jehovah, the God of their ancestors, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt. For they worshiped other gods, violating his express command. That is why the anger of the Lord was hot against this land, so that all his curses (which are recorded in this book) broke forth upon them. In great anger the Lord rooted them out of their land and threw them away into another land, where they still live today!’. (Deuteronomy 29:25 – 28 | TLB)

Meanwhile, back in Babylon, God had some stern words for the exiles living there:

Son of dust, your people are whispering behind your back. They talk about you in their houses and whisper about you at the doors, saying, ‘Come on, let’s have some fun! Let’s go hear him tell us what the Lord is saying!’ So they come as though they are sincere and sit before you listening. But they have no intention of doing what I tell them to; they talk very sweetly about loving the Lord, but with their hearts they are loving their money. You are very entertaining to them, like someone who sings lovely songs with a beautiful voice or plays well on an instrument. They hear what you say but don’t pay any attention to it! But when all these terrible things happen to them-as they will-then they will know a prophet has been among them.”. (Ezekiel 33:30 – 33 | TLB)

That’s good advice for any preacher, by the way. Never believe your own press and rarely take compliments (or sometimes commitments) too seriously.

Two Shepherds, 34:1 – 31

Ezekiel was a “watchman,” and Israel’s so-called leaders were called “shepherds.” And the Lord isn’t at all happy with these “shepherds.”

Son of dust, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Say to them, ‘The Lord God says to you: Woe to the shepherds who feed themselves instead of their flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed the sheep? (Ezekiel 34:2 | TLB)

The leaders of Israel and Judah had, for generations, fed upon the flock instead of feeding the flock. They had exploited the people for their own gain rather than ruling in justice and caring for the the needs of the nation. The result of their shoddy leadership was disastrous:

So they were scattered, without a shepherd. They have become a prey to every animal that comes along. My sheep wandered through the mountains and hills and over the face of the earth, and there was no one to search for them or care about them. (Ezekiel 34:5, 6 | TLB)

Never underestimate the influence national leaders have on a nation. A nation rises or falls to the moral authority of its leadership. God’s solution? He will become their Shepherd!

For the Lord God says: “I will search and find my sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking for his flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places they were scattered in that dark and cloudy day. And I will bring them back from among the people and nations where they were, back home to their own land of Israel, and I will feed them upon the mountains of Israel and by the rivers where the land is fertile and good. Yes, I will give them good pasture on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in peace and feed in luscious mountain pastures. I myself will be the Shepherd of my sheep and cause them to lie down in peace,” the Lord God says. “I will seek my lost ones, those who strayed away, and bring them safely home again. I will put splints and bandages upon their broken limbs and heal the sick. And I will destroy the powerful, fat shepherds; I will feed them, yes-feed them punishment! “And as for you, O my flock-my people,” the Lord God says, “I will judge you and separate good from bad, sheep from goats. (Ezekiel 34:11 – 17 | TLB)

God will show no mercy to such evil leaders, but He has glorious plans for His people.

And I will set one Shepherd over all my people, even my Servant David. He shall feed them and be a Shepherd to them. “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my Servant David shall be a Prince among my people. I, the Lord, have spoken it. (Ezekiel 34:23, 24 | TLB)

This is a prophecy of the coming Messiah, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. Ezekiel is referring to the greater Son of David, his Descendant, the Messiah, promised in the Davidic covenant. He will restore the people of Israel to their land and will shepherd them as His very own. He will be their God and they will be His people. This will happen when Israel finally comes under the new covenant.

The day will come, says the Lord, when I will make a new contract with the people of Israel and Judah. It won’t be like the one I made with their fathers when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt-a contract they broke, forcing me to reject them, says the Lord. But this is the new contract I will make with them: I will inscribe my laws upon their hearts, so that they shall want to honor me; then they shall truly be my people and I will be their God. At that time it will no longer be necessary to admonish one another to know the Lord. For everyone, both great and small, shall really know me then, says the Lord, and I will forgive and forget their sins. (Jeremiah 31:31 – 34 | TLB)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 5

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Even though Ezekiel 24 and 25 form a continuous message, there is a distinct change in tone and topic from one chapter to the next. Just look at how each chapter begins:

In the ninth year, in the tenth month on the tenth day, the word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, record this date, this very date, because the king of Babylon has laid siege to Jerusalem this very day. (Ezekiel 24:1-2 | NIV84)

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face against the Ammonites and prophesy against them.” (Ezekiel 25:1-2 | NIV84)

The none too subtle change is this: The first 24 chapters of the book contain prophecies and sermons directed at the exiles from Judah now living and working in Babylon, of whom Ezekiel is one. The messages deal with the sinfulness of Judah and Israel and the coming devastating destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar. The overall theme of chapters 1 through 24 is that God will punish His rebellious people by taking away from them the Promised Land and forcing them to live in exile in Babylon for 70 years.

The next group of chapters, 25 through 33, deal with nations that surround Judah. A lot of people raise their eyebrows when they read this section of Ezekiel. That God will judge the godless is not surprising, but the reason is. In the backs of our minds, we assume people will be judged because they didn’t accept Christ as Savior. That’s true enough, but here we learn that whole nations will face severe judgement based on other criteria going back to this ancient verse that very few nations take seriously these days:

I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” (Genesis 12:3 | NIV84)

Each of the four nations Ezekiel speaks to historically mistreated Israel and disdained her, but especially now, at this time of her exile. The main theme in these chapters is this: God will be as faithful to punish these nations in keeping with His covenant with Abraham as He was faithful to punish Judah according to His covenant, the Mosaic covenant, with her.

But it gets even more interesting than that. This “judgment of the nations” would begin with the invasion of Babylon and continue until the end times, at which time Judah will possess these nations and the Lord will reign. This very long judgment is viewed as a single judgment which began with Nebuchadnezzar and will end with the second coming of Christ.

In one sense, Nebuchadnezzar is the hinge upon which the door of history swings. The poor, godless warrior never really understood that his actions formed a part of God’s will that continues to unfold to this very day. Joel, a minor prophet, wrote about this “judgement of the nations,” but he sees it as an end-times prophecy:

In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will enter into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, for they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land. They cast lots for my people and traded boys for prostitutes; they sold girls for wine that they might drink. (Joel 3:1-3 | NIV84)

You may wonder why God was and remains so concerned about nations, after all, nations aren’t permanent; they rise and fall; come and go. Here’s the thing that escapes an ego-centric generation: it’s not all about us, as individuals. In our time, we talk a great deal about having a “personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ,” and while that certainly is the basis of our salvation, our “personal God” is also the God all things and all people, whether they acknowledge Him or not. All things – even nations – exist because God allows them to. God’s will for a person or a nation will come to pass whether or not that person or nation co-operates with Him. A nation will be blessed or face certain punishment depending on how it treated it’s people, and especially how it treated God’s people. The judgement of the nations, beginning here in Ezekiel 25 and continuing until our Lord returns, is for the purpose of bringing all nations to the realization that God is who He always said He was: The only true God. As with Judah, judgement will be the only way these other nations could be made to acknowledge this eternal truth.

“Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity words that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear. They will say of me, ‘In the Lord alone are righteousness and strength.’ ”All who have raged against him will come to him and be put to shame. But in the Lord all the descendants of Israel will be found righteous and will exult. (Isaiah 45:22c-25 | NIV84)

Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army would be God’s instruments of judgment upon His people and all these nations. Every one of them would go into exile, as Judah did, for 70 years. Ezekiel wasn’t the only prophet to foresee this. Jeremiah did, too:

This whole country will become a desolate wasteland, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. (Jeremiah 25:11 | TNIV)

In Ezekiel’s list of “these nations,” there is one glaring omission: Babylon. This doesn’t mean Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon escape judgment. Not by a long shot. Again, from Jeremiah:

“But when the seventy years are fulfilled, I will punish the king of Babylon and his nation, the land of the Babylonians, for their guilt,” declares the Lord, “and will make it desolate forever. I will bring on that land all the things I have spoken against it, all that are written in this book and prophesied by Jeremiah against all the nations. They themselves will be enslaved by many nations and great kings; I will repay them according to their deeds and the work of their hands.” (Jeremiah 25:12 – 14 | TNIV)

Against Ammon, 25:1 – 7

Ammon wasn’t more evil than any other pagan nation was, but somebody had to be mentioned first, so Ezekiel began this group of people, of whom we know next to nothing. This nation would be punished because she rejoiced and gloated over the profaning of the Temple and the destruction of Judah.

Say to them, ‘Hear the word of the Sovereign Lord. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Because you said “Aha!” over my sanctuary when it was desecrated and over the land of Israel when it was laid waste and over the people of Judah when they went into exile…. (Ezekiel 25:3 | NIV84)

Essentially, Ammon was being accused by God of gloating over the misfortunes of Judah. The Ammonites clapped and stomped and rejoiced over what was going on to the people of Judah and the destruction of their land. The odd-looking word, “aha,” simply means the people chuckled when Nebuchadnezzar finally steam-rolled Jerusalem to the ground.

Their price for mocking God’s people:

…therefore I will stretch out my hand against you and give you as plunder to the nations. I will wipe you out from among the nations and exterminate you from the countries. I will destroy you, and you will know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 25:7 | NIV)

Against Moab, 25:8 – 11

Moab was a longtime enemy of Israel, going back to almost the beginning! Here’s God’s charge against them and His punishment:

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because Moab and Seir said, “Look, Judah has become like all the other nations,” therefore I will expose the flank of Moab, beginning at its frontier towns—Beth Jeshimoth , Baal Meon and Kiriathaim—the glory of that land.’” (Ezekiel 25:8, 9 | NIV)

What Moab did was far more severe than it may appear. First of all, Judah was never “like all the other nations.” It was divinely created by God Himself. There was nothing ordinary about Judah. Second, likening Judah to all the other fallen nations was really an insult to God, indicating that God wasn’t strong enough to protect His people. Essentially, Moab was laughing at God.

The punishment leveled at Moab was a manifestation of God’s promise to curse those who curse Israel.

Against Edom, 25:12 – 14

Another longtime enemy of Israel had been Edom. God’s accusation against them was really directed at their attitude of vengeance against Judah. That was an age-old attitude, dating back to the conflict between Jacob (Israel) and Esau (Edom). Edom had forever been resentful and vindictive and jealous of Israel. Their promised destruction would be swift and complete:

…therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will stretch out my hand against Edom and kill both man and beast. I will lay it waste, and from Teman to Dedan they will fall by the sword. (Ezekiel 25:13 | NIV)

The Minor Prophet Obadiah details the stern judgment against Edom and the city chiseled into the mountainside.

Against the Philistines

“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘Because the Philistines acted in vengeance and took revenge with malice in their hearts, and with ancient hostility sought to destroy Judah, therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am about to stretch out my hand against the Philistines, and I will wipe out the Kerethites and destroy those remaining along the coast. I will carry out great vengeance on them and punish them in my wrath. Then they will know that I am the Lord, when I take vengeance on them. ‘ ” (Ezekiel 25:15 – 17 | NIV)

The destruction of the Philistines was so complete and so literally fulfilled that liberal critics of the Bible find this particular prophecy hard to swallow. But it happened just as God, through Ezekiel, said it would.

Against Tyre and Sidon, 26:1 – 28:26

Tyre and Sidon weren’t nations but seacoast cities. They were long on trade and short compassion. They were merchants who didn’t care about anybody else as long they benefitted materially from their suffering. The end of Tyre serves as a stark example of what happens to a nation that loves money more than God. Arnold Toynbee, historian, believes materialism to be one of the major factors in the fall of nations. Modern America has far more in common with Tyre than we’d care to admit, with our obsession with things and consumerism. Johann Wolfgang Goethe was a German writer who, over 200 years ago, made this observation:

The spirit tends to take to itself a body.

He could have been talking about 21st century America, a nation concerned more about material things than anything else.

Sidon (28:20 – 23), though given a scant four verses, was probably a larger city than Tyre. Its punishment was frightening:

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, set your face against Sidon; prophesy against her and say: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: “ ‘I am against you, Sidon, and among you I will display my glory. You will know that I am the Lord, when I inflict punishment on you and within you am proved to be holy. I will send a plague upon you and make blood flow in your streets. The slain will fall within you, with the sword against you on every side. Then you will know that I am the Lord. (Ezekiel 28:20 – 23 | NIV)

Both disease and violence would overtake the city. But once again, note the purpose for God’s punishment: “Then you will know that I am the Lord.”

Though Sidon was punished, it was never completely destroyed as was Tyre, which was  located just a few miles away. Sidon exists to this very day; it is a thriving sea port city, while Tyre is completely gone. God has kept His eternal word. Tyre was destroyed and has never been rebuilt, yet after 2500 years, Sidon, though punished, is till here.

Restoration of Israel, 28:24 – 26

“ ‘No longer will the people of Israel have malicious neighbors who are painful briers and sharp thorns. Then they will know that I am the Sovereign Lord. “ ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When I gather the people of Israel from the nations where they have been scattered, I will be proved holy through them in the sight of the nations. Then they will live in their own land, which I gave to my servant Jacob. They will live there in safety and will build houses and plant vineyards; they will live in safety when I inflict punishment on all their neighbors who maligned them. Then they will know that I am the Lord their God. ‘ ” (Ezekiel 28:24 – 26 | NIV)

 

 

Random Studies in Ezekiel, Part 4

Right after God called Ezekiel to be a prophet, the Lord sequestered Ezekiel in his house and, amazingly, the newly minted prophet was not allowed to speak a word:

Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. He spoke to me and said: “Go, shut yourself inside your house. And you, son of man, they will tie with ropes; you will be bound so that you cannot go out among the people. I will make your tongue stick to the roof of your mouth so that you will be silent and unable to rebuke them, though they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:24 – 26 | NIV84)

What’s the deal with that? Why would God call Ezekiel to speak His Word, yet shut him up and shut him away from the people he was supposed to preach to? This section is really still part of Ezekiel’s call from his role as a priest to his new role as a prophet. It would be a difficult transition for the son of man to make. As a priest, Ezekiel would have had a series to duties to perform on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis. His was a ministry of repetition. But that would all change. Now, Ezekiel would have to learn how to continually submit to the God’s Word. The prophetic ministry was not a repetitive one; from now on, he would never act on his own but would only appear in public when God wanted him to and he would only speak those words God moved him to say. And lastly, he lost the ability to speak.

Reading that paragraph, we realize that there is a co-operation between God and man going on here. Ezekiel was told by God to seclude himself in the house, and Ezekiel complied. He willingly went along with the strange request. But then notice the use of the word “they.” Somebody will tie Ezekiel up. The “they” likely refers to the prophet’s family or friends. Being bound symbolized Ezekiel’s lifelong commitment to his new ministry. And then the Lord stopped Ezekiel from speaking.

• Ezekiel went along with God’s command;
• Ezekiel asked others to tie him up;
• God miraculously shut Ezekiel up.

The work of the Lord involves a co-operation between all the parties involved. Then there’s this fascinating verse that is very telling:

But when I speak to you, I will open your mouth and you shall say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says.’ Whoever will listen let him listen, and whoever will refuse let him refuse; for they are a rebellious house. (Ezekiel 3:27 | NIV84)

Take note of the doctrine of personal responsibility. People are free to accept the word of the Lord or not. God sends out the invitations, but it’s entirely up to those who received the invitation to open it up and accept it or not. God never forces anybody to do anything.

What happened to Ezekiel here is not unimportant for Christians to take notice of and take to heart. We as Christians, even though we know God’s way is the only way, have NO right on our own to criticize or condemn or pass judgment on anybody. We cannot set the standards for people to meet. That’s not our job. Rebuke and reproof are what the Lord does. It is only when people are obviously violating the will of God, and only when the Lord allows us, that we are permitted to speak out for Him against them. To speak up and be critical of others on our own may result in our reputations or even the reputation of the faith being mocked or derided. But if God calls us to speak out against an individual or even an entire culture, then we have no choice. However, everything we do or say must always be on His terms, not ours, and under His authority, not ours.

God in control

From the very beginning of his new ministry, Ezekiel needed to realize that he was no longer calling the shots in his life. God was.

The hand of the LORD was upon me there, and he said to me, “Get up and go out to the plain, and there I will speak to you.” (Ezekiel 3:22 | NIV84)

In that “plain” or valley, Ezekiel once again witnessed the glory of the Lord that had so moved him back in chapter one. He knew that he was in the very presence of the Lord, and once more we read this:

Then the Spirit came into me and raised me to my feet. (Ezekiel 3:24 | NIV84)

We read that phrase, “the Spirit came into me,” numerous times in this book, and it suggests that Ezekiel did not enjoy what all Christians enjoy: The abiding presence of the Lord in our lives. The Holy Spirit came and went with Ezekiel but since Jesus, the Holy Spirit comes and abides in the believer forever.

Also, notice the movement in this verse. Ezekiel was raised to his feet. We in the West view that movement differently than those who live in the East. For a king to invite a subject to stand in his presence meant that he had been accepted and that king was going to “do business” with him.

Prophecy in drama

Ezekiel builds a model!

Chapters 4 – 24 record the opening prophetic salvo of Ezekiel, and it’s directed at Jerusalem. Even though he’s in Babylon, there was free communication between where Ezekiel was and his old home town. At the time the events of these chapters occurred, Jerusalem was still standing; it would be a few years before Nebuchadnezzar rolled in to destroy it in 586 BC. In these prophecies – and they are all prophecies even though they may not look it – are many strange symbolic actions, as well as sermons, all delivered in the Name of God. In these twenty chapters are riddles, allegories, and pantomimes, all used as vehicles for the Word of God.

The first prophecy was a clay model of Nebuchadnezzar’s siege. Yes, a clay model.

Now, son of man, take a clay tablet, put it in front of you and draw the city of Jerusalem on it. Then lay siege to it: Erect siege works against it, build a ramp up to it, set up camps against it and put battering rams around it. Then take an iron pan, place it as an iron wall between you and the city and turn your face toward it. It will be under siege, and you shall besiege it. This will be a sign to the house of Israel.” (Ezekiel 4:1 – 3 | NIV84)

Now, you and I might find this a little odd. Here’s Ezekiel, prophet of God, playing with models. But to the people of the ancient near and middle east, acting out a message was not unusual. Theology of our time has been heavily influenced by many centuries of Plato’s influence of emphasizing highly abstract ideas over concrete actions, like the ones we see Ezekiel taking. Fortunately for us, God was not influenced by Plato. He came to us concretely in the Person of Christ and died on a real Roman cross and rose actually from the grave and ascended literally to Heaven and announced definitely that He would return visibly.

Here, Ezekiel is doing essentially the same thing with his little model. Think of the old Claymation TV shows and you’ll have an idea of what was going on here. Ezekiel probably built this large model in front of his house in the exile village of Tel-Abib. The exiles would have seen it as they passed by and the prophet would have explained what the model represented: The destruction of Jerusalem and the fact that sin cannot go unpunished. That’s really the big picture here; the sins of the city (the sins of the people of Jerusalem) were seen by God, committed against God, and therefore God would deal with those rebellious people. The sheer wickedness of Jerusalem, if you can imagine, didn’t abate with the first exile. It got worse:

Zedekiah was twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years. His mother’s name was Hamutal daughter of Jeremiah; she was from Libnah. He did evil in the eyes of the LORD, just as Jehoiakim had done. It was because of the LORD’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end he thrust them from his presence. (2 Kings 25:18 – 20 | NIV84)

None of what was about to happen to Jerusalem as portrayed by Ezekiel and his model should have come as a surprise to the exiles or the people who heard about it back home. It was promised by God of they dared broke His covenant.

They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the LORD your God is giving you. Because of the suffering that your enemy will inflict on you during the siege, you will eat the fruit of the womb, the flesh of the sons and daughters the LORD your God has given you. Even the most gentle and sensitive man among you will have no compassion on his own brother or the wife he loves or his surviving children, and he will not give to one of them any of the flesh of his children that he is eating. It will be all he has left because of the suffering your enemy will inflict on you during the siege of all your cities. The most gentle and sensitive woman among you—so sensitive and gentle that she would not venture to touch the ground with the sole of her foot—will begrudge the husband she loves and her own son or daughter the afterbirth from her womb and the children she bears. For she intends to eat them secretly during the siege and in the distress that your enemy will inflict on you in your cities. (Deuteronomy 25:52 – 57 | NIV84)

As Christians, we are not Israel. We aren’t the people whom Ezekiel had in mind when he built his tabletop model. But there are two verses in the New Testament that make it imperative we pay heed to Ezekiel’s words to his people:

Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature d will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. (Galatians 6:7, 8 | NIV84)

That’s right. For us, our enemy isn’t Babylon and Nebuchadnezzar, but the wages of sin – death. Our siege is accomplished by yielding to sin, trapping us. But in our case, we have God’s armor protecting us and He Himself is a strong refuge against it. And, unlike the iron plate that separated Ezekiel from this model of Jerusalem, God will never separate Himself from us.

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35 – 39 | NIV84)

Ezekiel bears their sin

If you thought building a model was odd behavior for a serious, grown man to engage in, how about this:

Then lie on your left side and put the sin of the house of Israel upon yourself. You are to bear their sin for the number of days you lie on your side. I have assigned you the same number of days as the years of their sin. So, for 390 days you will bear the sin of the house of Israel. “After you have finished this, lie down again, this time on your right side, and bear the sin of the house of Judah. I have assigned you 40 days, a day for each year. Turn your face toward the siege of Jerusalem and with bared arm prophesy against her. I will tie you up with ropes so that you cannot turn from one side to the other until you have finished the days of your siege.” (Ezekiel 4:4 – 8 | NIV84)

Again, this a drama was acted out to give the people a visual representation of God’s Word. This was a slow, long theatrical prophecy lasting a total of 430 days, 390 of those days representing 390 years of the Northern Kingdom’s punishment for their sin and rebellion and 40 days representing 40 years of Judah’s punishment for their sin. The total number of years – 430 – is significant for a couple of reasons. First, historically, 430 years is the length of time that the Israelites were held in Egypt (Exodus 12:40).

Second, the total of 430 years of punishment for sin looks forward, and is therefore prophetic in nature. It’s a fact that all numbering and dating in the book of Ezekiel begins with the captivity of Jehoiachin in 597 BC; 597 BC is like ground zero for all the dates in Ezekiel. When we number forward 430 years from 597 BC we get to 167 BC (approximately), which is the year the Maccabean revolt began and the Jews finally got back control of the Promised Land – Canaan; for the first time since 597 BC.

Dates and numbers are interesting, but there is a much deeper significance here. By the siege and fall of Jerusalem, both Israel and Judah will be punished for their years of the rebellion and stubbornness. Ezekiel, lying on his side, is the one bearing their sins symbolically, in anticipation of the time when another Son of Man – the divine Son of Man – comes to bear the sins of many on the Cross. Here is a slight glimmer of the vicarious, substitutionary suffering of Jesus Christ.

 


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