Posts Tagged 'Judgment'

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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The Minor Prophets, Part 3

All we know about the prophet Amos is what his book of prophecies tells us, which is precious little.

Amos was a herdsman living in the village of Tekoa. All day long he sat on the hillsides watching the sheep, keeping them from straying. (Amos 1:1 | TLB)

But Amos replied, “I am not really one of the prophets. I do not come from a family of prophets. I am just a herdsman and fruit picker.” (Amos 7:14 | TLB)

And that’s about it, as far as the Living Bible is concerned. This man Amos was not a prophet by training. He was just a herdsman who tended to his sheep and a fruit picker who looked after trees.. The man’s character and ideals were forged by the rough Judean wilderness in which he lived and worked.

Turning to another translation, verse 1 is slightly different:

The words of Amos, one of the shepherds of Tekoa—the vision he saw concerning Israel two years before the earthquake, when Uzziah was king of Judah and Jeroboam son of Jehoash was king of Israel. (Amos 1:1 | TNIV)

Amos’ prophetic word concerned Israel. This may refer to both Israel and Judah, but most scholars are convinced Amos is dealing with the Northern Kingdom. His work as a prophet took place during the reigns of Uzziah of Judah and Jeroboam of Israel. The mention of these two Kings tells us a little about the world in which Amos lived, the 8th century BC.

Historians tell us this time period was somewhat unique for both Kingdoms. During the late 7th century BC and early 8th century BC, Israel fell into a deep depression and was for all intents and purposes subjugated by a foreign power. Judah would have certainly collapsed had King Hezekiah not come to power to reverse it’s regression to ruin.

Yet at the same time, it was during this century that the “writing prophet” rose to prominence in both Israel and Judah. They came from very diverse backgrounds but they spoke and wrote with great authority. These men of God denounced the sinfulness and rebellion of their nations and wrote about the near and far futures. Their often stunning visions concerned both Jew and Gentile alike.

In spite of the horrible economic and spiritual shape of Israel and Judah, the 8th century BC brought a renewed sense of hope to each Kingdom. Israel’s subjugation to Damascus came to an end thanks to the Assyrians, who decimated Damascus in 802 BC. The political and religious problems that plagued Judah vanished when King Uzziah ascended to the throne. His rule saw Judah prosper both economically and spiritually.

Meanwhile, in Israel under Jeroboam II, Israel prospered along with Judah. Thanks to the sturdy leadership of both kings, Israel and Judah enjoyed a kind of second golden age, second only to the time of Solomon. But even as their economic well-being and national strength grew and brought about a sense of security to citizens, the internal, spiritual decay was eating both kingdoms alive. The biggest problem for both Israel and Judah was a long lasting, almost continual violation of the great covenant established by God at Mt. Sinai.

This was Amos’ world.

Judgment is inescapable

One day, in a vision, God told him some of the things that were going to happen to his nation, Israel. This vision came to him at the time Uzziah was king of Judah and while Jeroboam (son of Joash) was king of Israel-two years before the earthquake. This is his report of what he saw and heard: The Lord roared-like a ferocious lion from his lair-from his Temple on Mount Zion. And suddenly the lush pastures of Mount Carmel withered and dried, and all the shepherds mourned. (Amos 1:2 | TLB)

Amos means “burden,” and surely what he saw was a terrific burden. To make his burden even heavier was the fact that nobody wanted to hear it. Times were getting good. Both nations seemed to be roaring back to economic, military, and cultural strength in spite of their sin and rebellion. Here comes this shepherd with his talk of judgment from God. He was, to his people, all bark and no bite. As Longfellow observed,

Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceeding small; Though with patience He stands waiting, with exactness grinds He all.

Whether the people realized it or not, and whether they cared to acknowledge it or not, judgment from God was coming. Amos mentioned an earthquake that the people would have remembered. It wasn’t part of God’s judgment, but Amos brings it up as he begins his message of judgment. The people may not have been able to get their minds wrapped around a coming divine judgment, but they would remember how devastating that earthquake was! Assuming Amos gave this word around 762 BC, then Israel would have had 40 years to repent or face the onslaught of the Assyrians.

This is what the Lord God showed me in a vision: He was preparing a vast swarm of locusts to destroy all the main crop that sprang up after the first mowing, which went as taxes to the king. Then the Lord God showed me a great fire he had prepared to punish them; it had burned up the waters and was devouring the entire land. Then he showed me this: The Lord was standing beside a wall built with a plumb line, checking it with a plumb line to see if it was straight. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” I answered, “A plumb line.” And he replied, “I will test my people with a plumb line. I will no longer turn away from punishing. The idol altars and temples of Israel will be destroyed, and I will destroy the dynasty of King Jeroboam by the sword.”. (Amos 7:1, 4, 7 – 9 | TLB)

The coming judgment would prove to be unrelenting. In chapters 3 – 6, Amos gives the reasons for this judgment. Essentially the people had habitually ignored God’s covenants. God was a faithful partner, but they were not. In chapters 7 – 9, God describes the results of His judgment.

Before facing the Assyrians, Israel would first face a locust invasion unlike any other. Locusts figure prominently in the Minor Prophets, and while Israel faced dreadful locust invasions regularly, one was coming that would be unprecedented and it would be a mini-judgment foreshadowing a much greater one.

What’s worse than the locusts was the threat of fire, in verse 4. There would be an all-consuming fire that would hit the land. Amos interceded and the Lord relented.

In the third vision, Amos saw the Lord holding a plumb line in His hand. In the old days, a plumb line was used to make sure walls were built straight up and down. God would check the nation He built; the one that used to be true to plumb – straight up and down – but was now out of line and needed to be torn down. Unlike the other visions Amos saw, there was no recovering from this judgment and God would not relent. God’s people would soon find out the truthfulness of something Leonard Ravenhill wrote:

Our God is a consuming fire. He consumes pride, lust, materialism and other sins.

God can also be a wrecking ball; smashing down the walls we build around our little kingdoms.

Woeful life of a prophet

Amos was preaching a series of sermons to people who had no interest in hearing what he had to say. Even the religious leaders of his day despised the prophet.

But when Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, heard what Amos was saying, he rushed a message to Jeroboam, the king: “Amos is a traitor to our nation and is plotting your death. This is intolerable. It will lead to rebellion all across the land. He says you will be killed and Israel will be sent far away into exile and slavery.” Then Amaziah sent orders to Amos, “Get out of here, you prophet, you! Flee to the land of Judah and do your prophesying there! Don’t bother us here with your visions, not here in the capital where the king’s chapel is!” But Amos replied, “I am not really one of the prophets. I do not come from a family of prophets. I am just a herdsman and fruit picker. But the Lord took me from caring for the flocks and told me, ‘Go and prophesy to my people Israel.’ “Now, therefore, listen to this message to you from the Lord. You say, ‘Don’t prophesy against Israel.’ The Lord’s reply is this: ‘Because of your interference, your wife will become a prostitute in this city, your sons and daughters will be killed, and your land divided up. You yourself will die in a heathen land, and the people of Israel will certainly become slaves in exile, far from their land.'” (Amos 7:10 – 17 | TLB)

This group of verses interrupts Amos’ visions and they give us some interesting information about the prophet himself.

Amaziah was the chief priest at Bethel, which was one of the state-sanctioned sanctuaries established by Jeroboam when he split from Jerusalem. It was designed to copy the religious system of Judah (the Southern Kingdom) and bring stability to Israel (the Northern Kingdom). This priest had accused Amos of conspiracy, and I love his attitude. He declares that he “wasn’t a professional prophet,” hired to say things against the king, but just a man of humble circumstance who simply heeded the call of God.

Furthermore, he did not “conspire against” the king, as Amaziah as he had been charged. The prophet who condemns the evil is not the cause of the evil, or of the punishment that follows the evil, and Amos wasn’t the first prophet of God to be held responsible for the judgment to come. Evil king Ahab had his run-in with Elijah, and Elijah’s reply is classic:

So it’s you, is it?-the man who brought this disaster upon Israel!” Ahab exclaimed when he saw him. “You’re talking about yourself,” Elijah answered. “For you and your family have refused to obey the Lord and have worshiped Baal instead. (1 Kings 18:17, 18 | TLB)

The people hated him and his prophecies of judgements because they knew he was right and that God was indeed justified in taking action against them.

A sad end

That Israel’s days were numbered was obvious to Amos and other prophets. The people, though, high on a return to prosperity and military soundness had no interest in what Amos was saying and didn’t believe him. Here were people who grew up surrounded by the Word of God. In fact, any time they wanted to, they could return to their roots of pure faith. The Assyrians were at the door, but something something else – something unexpected – was about to befall Israel:

The time is surely coming,” says the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land-not a famine of bread or water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. Men will wander everywhere from sea to sea, seeking the word of the Lord, searching, running here and going there, but will not find it. Beautiful girls and fine young men alike will grow faint and weary, thirsting for the word of God. (Amos 8:11 – 13 | TLB)

These people who didn’t want to hear the Word of God one day would be UNABLE to hear the Word of God. God would give them their desire: A life without a single word from Him. The Assyrians would take away their homes, their jobs, their lands, and everything they held dear. God would remove His Word from their lives.

So it was that when they gave God up and would not even acknowledge him, God gave them up to doing everything their evil minds could think of. Their lives became full of every kind of wickedness and sin, of greed and hate, envy, murder, fighting, lying, bitterness, and gossip. (Romans 1:28, 29 | TLB)

It musn’t have been easy for Amost to preach sermons like he did to people he knew and grew up around. But it was God’s own word for them, nonetheless. And God’s Word is, after all, as sharp as a double-edged sword.

Jeremiah Was a Prophet, Part 2

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We can learn a lot from Jeremiah and his writings. Sure he lived in ancient times, but his words are just as relevant today as they were then. The names have changed, the nations have changed, and the times have changed, but man hasn’t. Looking at the actions of the Israelites, we see distorted previews of ourselves. We who enjoy the blessings of the Lord through a relationship with Jesus Christ aren’t too far removed from the Hebrews of old, who enjoyed the blessings of God yet continuously strayed from Him. Their backsliding serves as a stark, blatant warning to Christians today who think they can serve God and themselves at the same time; live with one foot in the Kingdom and one foot in the world. We can’t, any more than Jeremiah’s could.

God’s people forsake Him, Jeremiah 2:4 – 13; 22:1 – 5

Scholars seem pretty sure that what Jeremiah wrote in chapters 2 – 6 was written during the reign of Josiah and during the great religious revival that took place during those years. All the prophecies and sermons Jeremiah delivered during this time showed that in spite of outward appearances, he saw a very deep-seated problem with his people. Some of his messages seem to be addressed to the northern kingdom of Israel, others to his own kingdom of Judah, but the theme is the same, and expressed best in verse two of chapter two –

This is what the Lord says: “‘I remember the devotion of your youth, how as a bride you loved me and followed me through the wilderness, through a land not sown.’” (Jeremiah 2:2 NIV)

Ah yes, even God had His “good old days.” To Him, the “good old days” were the days when His people actually loved Him and depended on Him. It’s a little odd that God’s “good old days” were actually years of wandering and privation in the wilderness for Israel. The best years, in God’s estimation, were the years when Israel was so bad off they depended on Him for everything, even their daily bread, or manna. It was in the desert that they were, more or less, forced to rely on Him for everything, and He had no rivals for their affection and devotion.

It’s like that, more often than not for Christians. We are closest to God, not when our bank accounts and pantries are full to overflowing, but when we feel hard pressed from all sides because it is during those times that we, just like the Israelites before us, are forced to look to God and trust Him. How much easier would be for us is we just trusted Him all the time, not just during the hard times!

“’Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest; all who devoured her were held guilty, and disaster overtook them,’” declares the Lord. (Jeremiah 2:3 NIV)

In those “good old days” under the leadership of Moses, Israel was holy. Israel was holy, not because they were a nation of Mother Theresa’s or of pious old people, but because she belonged completely and unreservedly to Him. That’s the definition of holiness, by the way. It’s not your actions that make you holy, it’s that you (like Israel before you) have been “separated” from the rest of the population to God for a sacred purpose. Because of that relationship, of course, your actions will necessarily change. But the separation comes first, not the other way around.

That idyllic relationship didn’t last long at all.

“What fault did your ancestors find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves. (Jeremiah 2:5 NIV)

Under the covenant relationship, Israel had it good; they enjoyed God’s richest blessings, including His divine, supernatural protection. But something happened to disrupt that relationship. It was a covenant relationship, which may not make a lot of sense to us, but we can understand a marriage covenant. It’s the same idea. Israel broke faith with God by running after other gods – they were committing spiritual adultery. The real stinging indictment in verse five points to the fault of Israel, not with God. God did nothing wrong. They did. Israel left Him; Israel strayed; Israel broke the covenant and because of that, Israel suffered: they became as worthless as the idols they worshipped.

“My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13 NIV)

Jeremiah was a prophet, but here he sounds more like a lawyer, summing up his charges: Judah’s sin was a two-pronged one: they rejected the truth and accepted error. The pagan nations surrounding them had committed only one sin – idolatry, but Judah had far exceeded them in disobedience as they actively rebelled against God and renounced His word in order to serve false, made up gods that didn’t even exist.

The metaphor of cisterns is all the more powerful when you take into consideration that Palestine is an arid, desert land. How rational would it be for people to stray from a source of water that provides free, flowing, fresh water to an area of the desert where there is no water? That’s what the Israelites had done by straying from God, and it was irrational, just like all sin is irrational.

Cruising ahead to chapter 22, the prophet makes a case about the leadership of Judah.

This is what the Lord says: “Go down to the palace of the king of Judah and proclaim this message there…” (Jeremiah 22:1 NIV)

The book of Jeremiah isn’t always chronological, but thematic. Jeremiah’s sermons and prophecies aren’t necessarily grouped by dates but by themes. So, jumping ahead to chapter 22, we read some interesting things that concerned the prophet. Back in chapter 32 he railed against the nation as a whole. But you can’t separate a nation from those who lead it. A nation rises or sinks to the level of those who are leading it, be they kings, prime ministers, or presidents. Our prophet wrote these words during the reign of King Zedekiah, the last king of Judah. But who was he, and where did he come from?

When Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian army invaded Judah in 597, they took King Jehoiachin captive along with some 10,000 of the land’s best and brightest. The youngest son of Josiah, a loser by the name of Mattaniah, was placed on the throne by Nebuchadnezzar, who changed the kid’s name to Zedekiah. Think about that for a minute. Why would Nebuchadnezzar do that? It’s because he had no interest in killing people. All he wanted was to build his empire by accumulating the property of other nations, and by putting kings of his choice on their thrones. That way he would be the global ruler over all manner of nations and kingdoms. Judah could have lived at peace with Neduchadnezzar, except Zedekiah was loyal to Nebuchadnezzar in word only and eventually joined in a revolt against Babylon. This was the political cause for the Babylonian invasion of Judah, which led to Jerusalem’s fall. But the spiritual cause of the fall of Judah is the subject of the whole book of Jeremiah: the rebelliousness of God’s people. Jeremiah’s people couldn’t be loyal to God, even though being loyal to Him would have meant eternal blessings, and they couldn’t even be loyal to Nebuchadnezzar, which would have meant temporal blessings! These people were rotten to the very core of their being. The root of rebellion ran so deep it was part of their national fabric.

Jeremiah’s word to Zedekiah was a simple one:

Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the foreigner, the fatherless or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood in this place. (Jeremiah 22:3 NIV)

Sure, he was a puppet king, but Zedekiah was still king of a kingdom, as shrinking as it was. And he had a responsibility to care for his people and treat his citizens rightly and justly. Obviously, the kings of Judah were notorious for taking advantage of their people. That displeased God. The very least the king should have treated his people with respect.

There were four groups of people that King Zedekiah needed to protect. First, “the one who has been robbed.” That’s a large group. People got robbed all the time, and justice needed to be exercised on their behalf. But people during this time had been robbed by the Babylonians, especially robbed of their sons, if they were talented and smart. The second group, “the fatherless,” were men of Judah who had been killed in battle or taken captive, who left families behind that needed to be looked after, not taken advantage of. Another group was “the widow.” Her property didn’t need to be taken by the government as tax payments or taken by other family members. Widows needed to treated fairly and justly. But who were these foreigners? Modern politicians want us to believe they were illegal aliens, migrant workers, or refugees. During Jeremiah’s time, there were many kinds of foreigners in Judah, including people from Babylon who had been relocated to Judah just as some people from Judah had been relocated to other nations within the greater Babylonian empire. Those strangers needed to be protected and not taken advantage of or persecuted. The leaders of Judah, especially King Zedekiah, would have been blessed and Judah would have prospered if they had done what Jeremiah had told them to do. But, even as Jeremiah told them what to do, he also indicated that the die had been cast –

“People from many nations will pass by this city and will ask one another, ‘Why has the Lord done such a thing to this great city?’ And the answer will be: ‘Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and have worshiped and served other gods.’” (Jeremiah 22:8, 9 NIV)

God’s call to return

The end was in sight, but God was still interested in the souls of His people. Ultimately, the Israelites would be vindicated, but until then, only judgment was coming. In the midst of judgment, though, God was calling His people to return to Him.

“Return, faithless people,” declares the Lord, “for I am your husband. I will choose you—one from a town and two from a clan—and bring you to Zion. Then I will give you shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding.” (Jeremiah 3:14, 15 NIV)

God always wants “faithless” people to return to Him. The “faithless,” or “backsliders,” refer to both Israel and Judah. God has plans for His people. God is sure that His people will learn their lesson and in time they will be ready to follow Him and serve Him. He said as much in 29:10 – 11 –

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

But it’s not just the Israelites who God has plans for. He has plans for all His people, from all time, from any nation.

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:6 – 10 NIV)

Some Messianic Prophecies, Part 1

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To be a Jew, living under the Law was, to say the least, burdensome. If you somehow managed to keep all the laws, the blessings would be wondrous. But many and varied were the curses that awaited those who broke any parts of the Law. In Deuteronomy 79 and 28, no less than 18 curses are listed. Of significance is this one in the New Testament:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (Galatians 3:13 TNIV)

Why is this verse so significant? Jesus Christ was “hung on a pole” or a cross, and He became a curse for us and He took upon Himself the curse and therefore the punishment for all our transgressions – for all our sins. He paid our sin debt; He redeemed us – saved us – from the curse of the Law and the wrath of God. Without the work of Christ, you and I would be hopelessly snared in labyrinth of laws no human being could hope to keep; we would be forever subjected to “curse of the law” for our entire lives.

God gave His people the Law, not make life hard for them, but to show them the impossibility of living a righteous life by simply trying to keep a set of rules and regulations. His people needed to acknowledge – to own up to the fact – that their means of salvation must exist outside of themselves. It’s not like God was keeping that means of salvation a secret. The coming of a Messiah had been prophesied for generations upon generations. In fact, a lot of Christians are astounded to find out that the very first prophecy concerning the coming of Christ is found back in the earliest chapters of the very first book of the Old Testament! God had barely finished creating the material universe when He gave the first hint that a Messiah would come.

Let’s take a look at that early Messianic prophecy, and some others. We’ll learn that God had been planning the redemption of mankind for a long, long time.

The Seed of the woman

In the Hebrew Bible, the very first word of the text is bereshit, which is translated, “in the beginning.” That phrase has become the title of the first book of the Hebrew Bible and our Old Testament, “Genesis,” or “origin,” or “source.” We can thank the translators of the Greek Old Testament for shortening the title down from “In the beginning” to “Genesis,” a much cooler title.

Genesis records the beginning or origin of many things, including the universe, our earth, human beings, the first cities and nations, and sin. It also records the very first prophecy.

And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel. (Genesis 3:15 TNIV)

That’s God talking, and that’s the first prophecy. Let’s check out the context so it makes some sense.

You know the story well; the story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace. The Devil, embodied as a snake or serpent, slithered into the Garden of Eden, tempted Eve to sin, she did, and in turn she tempted Adam, to sin. He did, and when God found out, here’s how He responded:

But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?” (Genesis 3:9 TNIV)

In fact, God asked the first human pair a series of four questions in all. When God asks questions, it’s usually not a good sign for the one being asked those questions. These are the questions:

• Where are you? (verse 9)
• Who told you that you were naked? (verse11)
• Have you eaten from the tree? (verse 11)
• What is this you have done? (verse 13)

Of course, as human beings are wont to do, both Adam and Eve blamed others for their sin. She blamed the serpent, Adam blamed Eve but ultimately he blamed God:

The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” (Genesis 3:12 TNIV)

It doesn’t take a theologian to know that blaming God for anything is a terrible idea. Adam’s words drip with irony. Eve was God’s idea:

The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.” (Genesis 2:18 TNIV)

Adam’s pathetic excuse for his sin shows just how far he had fallen in such a short span of time. Adam saw God’s good and compassionate gift as the source of all his trouble.

In passing judgment, God issued a series of curses that would effect all of creation. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the whole universe was spoiled simply because of Adam and Eve’s sin.

For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:20, 21 TNIV)

The curses on the snake, the woman, and the man are brief. We are told the briefest details with not a peep from Adam, Eve, or snake. We have no idea what they thought. Oddly enough, the two people and the snake are not depicted so much as individuals involved in a personal crises, but are seen more as representatives. In fact, Adam and Eve’s story is not so much their story but ours – the story of all mankind. These two people are seen as the head of human race and the snake as something else that will dog the steps of every human being down through the time until this first prophecy is fulfilled.

In this prophecy, we read about “the bruised heel” of the coming Messiah. The promised Savior would be, and in fact was, the “Seed of the woman,” but He was also divine – the God-man. This Messiah, this Holy Seed, would bruise the serpent’s head – He would once and for all conquer sin. The serpent, Satan, would bruise the heel of the Savior, on the Cross, where He died, freeing all men from the curse of sin. John Borger:

God has defeated Satan through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.

That’s putting it simply, but truthfully. Jesus Christ would be the promised “Seed of the woman.”

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about : His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:18 – 21 TNIV)

That’s the Christmas Story – the story we all know. It’s the story of the virgin birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Matthew refers to Him as the Messiah, which would have been natural since Matthew wrote His Gospel to show Jesus was the legitimate Messiah – the long awaited Savior.

But Jesus was also the promised Seed of the woman. So what’s very interesting about Matthew’s Gospel is that, contrary to Jewish tradition, he includes four women in his genealogy. That was unheard of in this time. The men were important, not the women. But to Matthew, four women were so important they had to be mentioned by name. Tamar was an adulteress. Ruth wasn’t even a Jew, she was a Moabitess. Rahab was a prostitute. And Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, have been stolen from him by David. The two things that unite these four women are highly questionable sexual activities and childbearing.

But Jesus was the Seed of the woman. By mentioning these four women, Matthew shows us two things: First, God uses all kinds of people, in this case women, even those who are obviously imperfect, in carrying out His plans.  And second, we see the absolute solidarity of Jesus with sinful humanity. Jesus came to sinful man in order to break the hold sin had on their lives and to break down the walls between God and all human beings. But to do those things, Jesus had to be born “the Seed of the woman.”

The blessing of Abraham

Moses, in writing the book of Genesis, covered some 1600 years of human history in the first six chapters. But he took 14 chapters to go through the 175 years of Abraham’s family history. Why? It’s because with Abraham and his descendants, God’s plan of redemption is made known. It all started with one man, continuing through his family and the nation that descended from it. Ultimately, from this one man, from this one family, from this one nation, would come the Messiah, completing the plan of redemption begun back in Genesis 3.

The Lord had said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. 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 12:1 – 3 TNIV)

If we look at Abraham’s call within the context of the book of Genesis, we see something simply amazing. By placing his call after the scattering of the nations at Babylon in the previous chapter, we realize that Abraham’s call is God’s gift of salvation in the midst of judgment. Furthermore, the account of Abraham’s call and blessing is not unlike an earlier account of a similar gift of salvation in the midst of judgment: the conclusion of the Flood. Abraham, like Noah before him, marks a new beginning – another chance for mankind.

Abraham is one of the most outstanding men of the ancient world. So important is Abraham that he is honored by the three largest world religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Before his name changed to Abraham, he was known as Abram, which means “exalted father.”  The idea of a “new beginning” as God’s plan of blessing mankind is repeated over and over again throughout the story of Abraham and his family. But it’s also mentioned as far back as the days of creation:

God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground. ” (Genesis 1:28 TNIV)

And here:

Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth.” (Genesis 9:1 TNIV)

The great promise given to Abraham and his descendants is just a restatement of God’s original promise back in Genesis 1. In a sense, Abraham is a new Adam, and the seed of Abraham is the “second Adam,” and new mankind. Those who bless Abraham, God will bless. Those who curse Abraham, God will curse. The way of life and blessing, once marked by two trees, is now marked by identification with Abraham and his seed.
But, who is Abraham’s seed, anyway? At the end of Genesis, we are given a clue:

“Judah, your brothers will praise you; your hand will be on the neck of your enemies; your father’s sons will bow down to you. You are a lion’s cub, Judah; you return from the prey, my son. Like a lion he crouches and lies down, like a lioness—who dares to rouse him? The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he to whom it belongs shall come and the obedience of the nations be his. He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes. His eyes will be darker than wine, his teeth whiter than milk. (Genesis 49:8 – 12 TNIV)

Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of this prediction from Jacob. This little prophecy in Genesis meant that beyond the tribes of Israel, the people of the world would become obedient to the One who was come to come. He was the final Seed of the woman.

Daniel: Belshazzar’s Last Chance

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Daniel 5

 

Belshazzar the king invited a thousand of his officers to a great feast where the wine flowed freely.  (Daniel 5:1  TLB)

It was the party to end all parties!  And these big parties weren’t all that unusual.  In Babylon, Assyria, and Persia, these massive banquets served a very important political purpose in that they showed the glory of the king.  Belshazzar, a controversial figure in history, was a would-be successor (actually the second line after Nabonidus, the husband of one of Nebuchadnezzar’s daughters) to Nebchadnezzar, so we know that the events described in this chapter took place long after the events of the previous chapters.  The book of Daniel was never written to be a book of history, so frequently decades may come between chapters as Daniel simply lifts, from Babylonian history, a page here and a page there to show how God dealt with the leaders of this Empire.

While Belshazzar was drinking, he was reminded of the gold and silver cups taken long before from the Temple in Jerusalem during Nebuchadnezzar’s reign and brought to Babylon. Belshazzar ordered that these sacred cups be brought in to the feast, and when they arrived, he and his princes, wives, and concubines drank toasts from them to their idols made of gold and silver, brass and iron, wood and stone.  (Daniel 5:2—4  TLB)

Obviously, Belshazzar had absolutely no respect for God.  In contrast, at least Nebuchadnezzar had enough respect for the God of Israel to place the Temple articles in a safe place.  But young Belshazzar had no respect; he was full of pride and arrogance, and he apparently knew better:

So Daniel was rushed in to see the king. The king asked him, “Are you the Daniel brought from Israel as a captive by King Nebuchadnezzar?  I have heard that you have the spirit of the gods within you and that you are filled with enlightenment and wisdom.   (Daniel 5:13, 14  TLB)

So Belshazzar was in a bad spot.  He knew the truth, at least in part, yet he barged ahead anyway, doing what he knew was wrong.  Using those sacred vessels was just plain wrong and it was that expression of pride and arrogance and blasphemy that caused his downfall.  In the exact same hour of this ultimate expression of hubris, judgment came and sheer terror pierced his heart.  Belshazzar will forever stand as a solemn warning to those who willingly sin against the light.

1.  His opportunity

And you, his successor, O Belshazzar—you knew all this, yet you have not been humble.  (Daniel 5:22  TLB)

What did Belshazzar already know?  He knew of Nebuchadnezzar’s insanity and what brought it on, yet he did not profit from that knowledge.  He was a proud and profane man, determined to live as he pleased without paying heed to the past.  He knew all about his great-grandfather’s humbling experience, yet went right on making the exact same sinful mistakes Nebuchadnezzar did, only worse.  This was Belshazzar’s “golden opportunity” to get it right; to avoid the pitfalls of ruination.  But he didn’t take it.

How many believers today are just as bad as Belshazzar?  Many of us sin out of ignorance—we are literally “overcome” by sin before we know it.  Such is the sinful condition.  But how many are guilty of sinning against the truth?  Those that do so live in the darkness of sinful pleasure knowingly instead of in the light of God’s glorious salvation.  They know the truth, but choose the lie.  For believers that live like Belshazzar, it’s only a matter of time before those unintended consequences catch up with them.  Sin always carries consequences in this world and judgment in the next.  It’s not too late, though, to make it right.

2.  His guilt

For you have defied the Lord of Heaven and brought here these cups from his Temple; and you and your officers and wives and concubines have been drinking wine from them while praising gods of silver, gold, brass, iron, wood, and stone—gods that neither see nor hear nor know anything at all. But you have not praised the God who gives you the breath of life and controls your destiny!  (Daniel 5:23  TLB)

This is a curious verse.  After all he had done, and remembering Belshazzar was a pagan, we wonder how Daniel could expect him to “praise the God who gives…the breath of life and controls…destiny.”  In spite of Belshazzar’s sinful state and depraved nature, he was still created in the image of God and that image, as marred as it may have been, was indelibly stamped on his soul.  Even though he was a complete pagan, this fact alone demanded that Belshazzar acknowledge God in his life.  However, as is plain, he willfully turned a blind eye and deaf ear to the spiritual lessons of Nebuchadnezzar’s seven year bout of insanity.

In fact, as if to show how defiant he could be, Belshazzar went way, way beyond his great-grandfather’s pride and arrogance.  He committed sacrilege of the highest order and therefore, his doom was sealed.

Young Belshazzar had a chance but failed to take it.

3.  His failure

you have been weighed in God’s balances and have failed the test.  (Daniel 5:27  TLB)

It was God who did the weighing, and this weighing process may have taken years.

Jehovah is kind and merciful, slow to get angry, full of love.  He is good to everyone, and his compassion is intertwined with everything he does.  (Psalm 145:8, 9  TLB)

This idea of being weighed and found wanting would have been familiar to Belshazzar.  The Egyptian Book of Dead said that human beings were weighed in balances after death to determine whether their sins outweighed their good deeds.  But the Bible doesn’t teach anything like that.

But now God has shown us a different way to heaven—not by “being good enough” and trying to keep his laws, but by a new way (though not new, really, for the Scriptures told about it long ago). Now God says he will accept and acquit us—declare us “not guilty”—if we trust Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, by coming to Christ, no matter who we are or what we have been like.   Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal…  (Romans 3:21—23  TLB)

Salvation is NEVER determined by our actions, good or bad.  However, men will be weighed by God to determine degrees of reward or punishment.

Quit acting so proud and arrogant!  The Lord knows what you have done, And he will judge your deeds.  (1 Samuel 2:3  TLB)

Character is formed through a lifetime of decisions and actions.  We know that Belshazzar’s fate was fair and just; God’s balances are always just because He alone knows the thoughts and intents of the human heart.  For his whole life, Belshazzar had been weighed by God, and he was found wanting.  He came up short in every department.  Belshazzar remained unmoved and uninfluenced by all of God’s providential dealings with him.

4.  His doom

That very night Belshazzar, the Chaldean king, was killed, and Darius the Mede entered the city and began reigning at the age of sixty-two.  (Daniel 5:30, 31  TLB)

In a stroke of poetic justice, at the height of this raucous party, the Medes had penetrated the outer walls of Babylon and breached the city.  Gobryas, leader of  the Median army, lead his troops into the inner city where the grand palace was located.  The Greek historian, Xenophon, records for us that Gobryas and his men had penetrated deep into the city before anybody even knew they were there.

In the night of his greatest glory, Belshazzar was slain.  He had been weighed and found wanting and his judgment came swiftly.  Lust, unbelief, and indifference can’t shield anybody from the overwhelming power of rejected truth.

Belshazzar’s fate will be shared with all those who, like him, have been weighed and found wanting.  God judges according to HIS scales, not ours, and He has a warning for us:

Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal…  (Romans 3:23  TLB)

Not one of us is able to measure up to God’s standard.  Unbelievers are not on trial today; they are already lost.  But God is making them a generous offer:  the offer of salvation.  God gave Belshazzar a chance at life, but Belshazzar rejected God’s offer and he was slain.

Darius the Mede assumed the throne; he became ruler of the kingdom of silver.  This was a big surprise for the Babylonians; their’s was to be an eternal kingdom.  But God has a plan and His plan is not dependent on what we think.  Babylon came to a sudden end.  Before the people knew was going on, they had a new king and were part of a new kingdom.  Years before all this happened, Isaiah had prophesied the fall of Babylon:

This is God’s message concerning Babylon: Disaster is roaring down upon you from the terrible desert, like a whirlwind sweeping from the Negeb.  I see an awesome vision: oh, the horror of it all! God is telling me what he is going to do. I see you plundered and destroyed. Elamites and Medes will take part in the siege. Babylon will fall, and the groaning of all the nations she enslaved will end. (Isaiah 21:1, 2  TLB)

God has a plan for this world and for you.  There are thunderclouds of God’s judgments gathering around all those who have been weighed and found wanting.  But they gather slowly.  When the storm breaks, though, it will be sudden and terrible and there will be no escape.

…what makes us think that we can escape if we are indifferent to this great salvation announced by the Lord Jesus himself and passed on to us by those who heard him speak?  (Hebrews 2:3  TLB)

 

 

 

 

JEREMIAH, PART 1

Jeremiah 1:1—10

In 70 AD, Jerusalem was utterly destroyed and its inhabitants scattered to the four corners of the world; the result of a terrible judgment of the Jews’ rejection of the Messiah. But this wasn’t the first time God judged His people, nor was it the first time the Holy City was destroyed. In 586 BC, Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians and most of Judah’s population was carried off as captives. For a century Mount Zion was little more than a wasteland, inhabited by a variety people; some Jews left behind by Nebuchadnezzar’s army, other people from other countries destroyed by the mighty Babylonians wandered around, settling in and around what was once Jerusalem. What an odd assortment of misfits; a rag-tag-band of fugitives, that now called the Holy City home.

Yet a scant century later, a remnant of exiles returned to what was left of Jerusalem, eventually rebuilding the city and the Temple. But the glory and splendor that was Mount Zion never returned. It won’t be until the dawn of the Millennial Age that the world will see that splendor and magnificence again.

The books the prophet Jeremiah wrote are key in understanding what happened in 586 BC, for they were composed just prior to and during Jerusalem’s destruction. They give us a glimpse into what his world was like and provide key historical data of the period. As Jeremiah’s book comes to an end, so does the very last remnant of what had been David and Solomon’s magnificent 12-tribe kingdom. Reading this part of Hebrew history brings to mind T.S. Eliot’s The Hollow Men—

This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but a whimper.

The book called “Jeremiah” is one of five books in the Old Testament we call “The Major Prophets.” They are “major” because of their length. The book of Lamentations, also written by Jeremiah, is quite short, but it is part of the Major Prophets because it serves a kind follow-up to Jeremiah’s main book of prophecy. The shorter prophetic books—and there are many of them—form “The Minor Prophets,” again because of their brevity, not because they are any less unimportant than the Majors.

Though written in the sixth century BC, the books of Jeremiah are vitally important to those of us living in the 21st century. Though ancient, they paint a picture of a society frighteningly similar to ours. Today is a troubling time of sin and complacency, very much like Jeremiah’s day. Apostasy and hypocrisy are seen in seen in ever increasing frequency, just as in Judah of old. The balance of power among the nations was shifting in the sixth century BC, and today nations once thought unshakable are teetering on the brink of economic and moral collapse. Preachers of righteousness are in short supply today; and during Jeremiah’s day, nobody wanted to hear the truth of God’s Word, either.

It becomes painfully obvious as we read the book of Jeremiah that nations rise and fall, not of their own accord, but according to God’s plan. Our destiny as a people in not in our hands, but in God’s. We are living in the last days, and during these last days the message of Jeremiah is timely and inescapable. Jeremiah is sad book to read, not just because it was written during an extraordinarily sad time for God’s people, but because it forces its readers to confront the state of their own lives before the righteous demands of God. But at the same time, the book of Jeremiah is a book of hope that teaches believers that there are better days ahead; there is a Savior coming and a New Covenant is on the horizon. Jeremiah teaches us that for those who hold fast to their faith and serve God to the best of His ability, there is always hope!

As we begin our study of Jeremiah’s great book, we need to look at the man himself. Jeremiah, like the other Old Testament prophets, knew nothing of human ordination. He did not attend a seminary, take ordination exams, and sit before a denominational examination committee before he began his ministry. He also didn’t rush headlong into it. In fact, Jeremiah often shrank from the message he was compelled to preach. But in this, he was in good company! Moses offered God the lame excuse that he wasn’t eloquent enough to preach and Isaiah famously exclaimed that he was a man of “unclean lips” after God called Him to preach. Jeremiah said:

“Ah, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” (Jeremiah 1:6)

The great voices for God of the Old Testament were no different than believers today who so often get all tongue-tied as they try to share their faith. Take heart, though, out of our weakness, God ordains strength.

1. Jeremiah’s Call, 1:5

Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations. 

Jeremiah was born in the small village of Anathoth, about two miles from Jerusalem, in 648 BC. He lived in and his ministry spanned tumultuous times spiritually, politically, and economically. He preached from the days of Judah’s last righteous King (Josiah) to Judah’s last actual King (Zedekiah). He lived long enough to see Jerusalem burned to the ground. All during his life and ministry, Jeremiah came to learn a profound truth: all events on earth, good or bad, are under God’s sovereign control. It is He, not kings or armies, that govern human history.

This sovereign God is also a personal God, and when Jeremiah was about 20 years old, God called him to be a prophet. In fact, in a personal conversation with Jeremiah, God told him that Jeremiah was created and “set apart” before he was born to be a prophet. What a stunning verse: he was called before he was created; set apart before he was even born! God had a plan for Jeremiah just as He has a plan for all of us.

Why did God choose Jeremiah? What was there about this man that set him apart from all others? We aren’t told. God didn’t explain it to Jeremiah and as far as we know Jeremiah never figured it out. God has a sovereign will that makes complete sense to Him, even if it doesn’t to us. Our part is to respect God’s sovereignty, not deny it or frustrate it. We don’t have to understand it to hear it and obey it. Jesus said this:

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. (John 10:27)

Notice Jesus said His sheep “listen” to His voice; we don’t always understand completely what He’s saying! We listen and we follow in faith. We should never worry about God’s sovereignty as it concerns us and our destiny:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. (Romans 8:29)

When it came to serving God, Jesus never failed. And neither will you if go with God’s flow for your life!

2. Jeremiah’s excuse, 1:6

“Ah, Sovereign Lord,” I said, “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.”

Like most excuses God hears from any of His children, Jeremiah’s was just as pathetic. Since when is a 20 year old a child? To Jeremiah, he was highly unfit to be a prophet. He came from a small village, born to a humble priest. But in a humorous turn, Hilkiah named his son “Jeremiah,” which literally means “Whom Jah [God] Appoints.” He certainly lived up to his name! God appointed Jeremiah to be a prophet. He didn’t ask Jeremiah or check with him to make sure he had the proper education and credentials! Clearly it is God who does the calling, not any man or organization.

Jeremiah, though he felt under prepared, would come to learn a valuable lesson: our sufficiency is NOT in ourselves but in God:

Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. (2 Corinthians 3:5)

3. Jeremiah’s Commission, 1:7

But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, ‘I am only a child.’ You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you.”

Though Jeremiah felt inadequate and inexperienced, God knew his man better than he knew himself. Rarely does any of us have an accurate picture of ourselves; God does and it’s His opinion that counts. Verse 7 is a rebuke, make no mistake about it. Jeremiah has ONE master and ONE purpose in his life: to go where he is sent and to speak what God wants him to speak.

Jeremiah’s mission was clear, but he needed some encouragement:

Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you and will rescue you,” declares the Lord. (vs. 8)

When anybody declares the unadulterated Word of God, they will face opposition from all quarters. Jeremiah had much to fear, but God would be with him through it all. It is better to obey God and face trouble in this world than to cave into the demands of this world and face a disappointed God! At a young age, Jeremiah learned a lesson he would carry with him for a lifetime: God’s is always with those who serve Him.

So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?” (Hebrews 13:6)

There is no way the darkness of this world can overtake any believer while the light of God’s presence is in him!

4. Jeremiah’s equipment, 1:9

Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said to me, “Now, I have put my words in your mouth.”

Whom God calls, God equips! This divine touch, which the prophet Isaiah also experienced, serves as a kind foreshadow of the tongues of fire that touched the believers gathered in the Upper Room in Acts. His “touch” and His “words” are vitally connected. With a divine command comes a divine enabling! Jeremiah needed power as all believers need power in order to fulfill God’s purpose for them.

God put His Words in Jeremiah’s mouth, which is very poetic way of saying God would simply speak through His prophet. Now, that sounds great, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to become a preacher if God personally said, “I will put my words in your mouth?” As they say, however, the Word of God is a double-edged sword, and in Jeremiah’s case, more so! God’s Words in Jeremiah’s mouth were almost exclusively words of doom, gloom, and destruction. Through most of Jeremiah’s ministry, God’s Word was hard to speak and even harder to hear.

5. Jeremiah’s work, 1:10

“See, today I appoint you over nations and kingdoms to uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.”

Gloomier words cannot be found anywhere: uproot and tear down, destroy and overthrow. That is not an encouraging message to give or hear. Yet, this was Jeremiah’s message from God. Yes, sometimes God’s Word is a big pill to swallow. Sometimes God’s Word is difficult and seemingly not very helpful or positive. It is, nonetheless, God’s Word.

In Jeremiah’s case, destructive work had to be performed before the constructive work could begin: build and plant. A garden must be weeded before it can be seeded! Sin always has to be be dealt with and put away before godly character can be established in a person. This is as true in the case of a nation as it is of the individual. God is about judge Jerusalem because they had been rejecting Him for years and years. God would restore them in time, but first, they had to be broken. It is the good and pure heart that produces good fruit. Jeremiah could preach and preach, sowing the Word everywhere, but if there were no pure hearts to receive it, no good fruit could be produced. This was the situation in Jerusalem. Hearts were not ready to receive the “good” Word of God. Those hard, dry hearts needed to be tilled up like fallow ground, cleaned out and made ready to receive what God wanted to give. In short, the people needed to be either broken or destroyed before God would be able to do anything in His people.

God gave His people every chance. Jeremiah preached for decades, warning them to get right. And he wasn’t alone; other prophets were preaching the same message! Sadly, the die had been cast. Hard hearts make for deaf ears. But God did His part in making sure Jeremiah would proclaim His Word.

The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ. (2 Corinthians 10:4, 5)

A SURVEY OF THE MINOR PROPHETS, Part 7

The remains of one of Nineveh's defenders. Photo David Stronach.

Nahum, Habakkuk

Choices. We all have to make choices. Sometimes we make wise choices, other times our choices are really our mistakes. But no matter, good choice or bad, there are always consequences to face and deal with.

The minor prophets declared a conditional message to their listeners: God’s judgment is never the final word; it can be averted if the people make the right choice: repentance. Whenever anybody chooses to accept God’s mercy, their whole life changes for the better. God’s generous offer of mercy, if ignored, won’t help because judgment is inevitable.

1. God’s power to avenge, Nahum 1:1—9

Nahum provides an interesting parallel to the book of Jonah. Each deals with the great city of Nineveh. However, the book of Jonah is really about the prophet himself. Nahum, though, reveals nothing personal about the prophet beyond his name. “Nahum” is a name that appears only one time in the Old Testament, in the superscription of the book. His name appears one time in the New Testament as part of the genealogy of Joseph in Luke 3:25. “Nahum” means “comfort” or “consolation.”

Though we know nothing about the man, his sermon to Nineveh has survived the centuries because it teaches us something very significant about about God’s mercy and His judgment.

a. The fury of the Lord, vs. 1—6

A prophecy concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum the Elkoshite. (vs. 1)

This superscription was probably added by an editor for the purpose of identification. The “prophecy” is sometimes called “a burden” in some translations. That’s a good word; sometimes the Word of the Lord is a burden. Sometimes it’s not all sunshine happiness. This is especially true concerning this “burden” about Nineveh, the capital of Assyria.

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD takes vengeance and is filled with wrath. The LORD takes vengeance on his foes and vents his wrath against his enemies. (vs. 2)

Those are pretty strong words directed at Nineveh. Why did God feel this way about the Assyrians? The name “Assyria” comes from “Asshur,” who was a descendant of Shem (Genesis 10:22). Asshur and his kin eventually settled in the land between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

Ancient history has a lot to say about these people, and none of it is good. Every time we read about the Assyrians in both sacred and secular history. they are pictured as cruel, savage, and warlike people with a deep-seated desire to conquer and dominate as much territory as possible. They were known for flaying captives and wall-papering pillars with their skins. They would bury captives alive, impaling others on posts, gouging out eyes, cutting off hands, feet, noses, and ears. Young children were burned alive. These and other atrocities caused the Assyrians to be feared for centuries in the ancient Near East.

Verse 2 indicates how God felt about these people. They faced certain doom, not because the Assyrians were so evil, but because God is so holy. God’s perfect nature demands that He punish sin because the nature of sin demands that it receive punishment. God must oppose evil, wherever it is found. And Nineveh was overflowing with it.

The LORD is slow to anger but great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet. (vs. 3)

This could be considered the key verse of this book. The apostle Paul proclaimed the same message to the Romans:

So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment? Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, forbearance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (Romans 2:3—5)

b. The end for Nineveh, vs. 7—9

God is all-powerful, but He does not remain unmoved by the decisions of people. This group of verses is comforting to God’s people but a warning to those who ignored God’s mercy.

Nahum’s ministry occurred some 150 years after Jonah’s. Immediately following Jonah’s ministry, Nineveh did a complete about-face. They repented and forestalled God’s promised judgment. But by Nahum’s time, they were a rotten as ever.

Here is a powerful lesson: each generation needs its own revival. No individual believer, church, or religious movement can survive on yesterday’s blessings. Human nature always bends away from God towards sin; that’s why every generation needs to seek God for fresh outpourings of His Spirit.

Whatever they plot against the LORD he will bring to an end; trouble will not come a second time. (verse 9)

The prophet directly addresses the Assyrian leaders, and informs them that they don’t have a prayer if they come against God. This is it, as far as Nineveh was concerned. The great city would not be given a second chance. Why not? Nineveh had crossed an invisible line that only God can see. This does not mean that God’s grace could not reach them a second time, but that they could no longer reach it.

Halzi Gate excavation. Excavating skeletons in the gateway dating from the destruction of Nineveh. 7 May 1990.

2. A cry for righteous judgment, Habakkuk 1:1—6

Here is another prophet we know next to nothing about. His name is mentioned here, and nowhere else in the Bible. There are two things that distinguish Habakkuk from other Old Testament prophets. First is what we read in verse 1:

The prophecy that Habakkuk the prophet received.

Habakkuk is one of the only prophets that is actually referred to as “the prophet.” This suggests that Habakkuk was recognized as a professional prophet.

Second, there is a verse Habakkuk wrote that appears no less than three times in the New Testament and it eventually became Martin Luther’s rallying cry and the watchword for the Reformation:

The just shall live by faith. (Habakkuk 2:4)

Habakkuk was a contemporary of the more famous Jeremiah, and this book is traditionally dated around 600 BC, not long before the Babylonian Captivity in 586 BC. So he ministered in and around Judah and this prophet was faced with with two big problems. This prophet was one of the few men with courage enough to wrestle and argue with God over the way God deals with man.

I will stand at my watch and station myself on the ramparts; I will look to see what he will say to me, and what answer I am to give to this complaint. (2:1)

The answer, of course, is to be found in 2:4b:

The just shall live by faith.

a. The burden of the prophet, vs. 1—4

Here is the cry of a frustrated believer: how long and why. This could well be the the single issue that plagues all believers: Why does God permit evil to continue among His own people—evils like, the iniquity, the injustice, the strife, and the contention? This is an old question, but a new one.

Times were tough for Habakkuk, and they were getting tougher. Things were about to come a head; violence was on the rise, the balance of power was shifting fast in the Middle East and the Babylonians were on the march. However, as the old saying goes, “one man plus God is always a majority.” Habakkuk went straight to the Top with His complaints.

b. A new world power, vs. 5, 6

God’s answer to his prophet is the comfort of assurance: “I am working.” But, here is an instance where God’s answer wasn’t quite what Habakkuk was expecting. God was indeed working, but it wasn’t among His people, it was among the heathen!

Notice, though, the onus is on God’s people to see Him working:

Look at the nations and watch—and be utterly amazed. (vs. 5a)

Sometimes God’s working isn’t all that obvious! Believers have to “look” for Him, and sometimes His hand is to be found working in the strangest of places, among the strangest of people.

God did not answer the “Why” part of Habakkuk’s question; He is sovereign and owes no man any explanation or apology. Besides, no human being is capable of understanding the mind of God. But God did speak to the prophet. Far from being insensitive to the plight of His people, God was in fact orchestrating it! In the darkest, most confusing hour for any believer, when we are apt to feel as though God has forsaken us, we should take comfort from God’s word to Habakkuk. God in no way ever loses control; regardless of what it may look like, God is always in command of the circumstances of our lives. It is our lack of perception that makes God look uncaring or uninvolved. God’s activity, though, is far-reaching. It extends from generation to generation. His work in our lives not only touches us, but reaches out to touch others.

3. Confidence in God’s sovereignty, 3:1,2; 16—19

This last chapter of Habakkuk is unique among the Minors. In fact, it’s not really part of his prophecy. We might call chapter three Habakkuk II, for it opens with a whole new superscription, like it was a whole new book:

A prayer of Habakkuk the prophet. On shigionoth. (vs. 1)

The “shigionoth” is a word of unknown origin and meaning, although is has something to do with music; perhaps an instrument or a type of song.

a. An urgent prayer, vs. 1, 2

What a change had taken place in Habakkuk’s life. From complaining to God and waiting for God to answer him, Habakkuk was brought to the place of real, abiding faith. He was an honest questioner of God and God honored him.

LORD, I have heard of your fame; I stand in awe of your deeds, LORD. Repeat them in our day, in our time make them known; in wrath remember mercy. (vs 2)

What God had revealed to Habakkuk drew the prophet closer to Him and allowed him to worship God anew. He had been given a glimpse into the inner workings of God’s mind. He had a peek of things to come, and what he saw filled him with fear. But the prophet’s fear was not fear of the future but reverential awe of God. God opened His mind to Habakkuk just a crack and the prophet was overcome with wonder.

His heart’s cry to God was based on what God had done in the past: repeat your deeds! What a great, simple prayer for revival! G.B. Williamson gives a wonderful outline of these two verses under the heading, “A Prayer for Revival.”

  • Revival in needed because sin in rampant, religion is decadent, and judgment is imminent, 1:4; 2:18—20;

  • The time of revival is NOW: in “our day, in our time”;

  • The way of revival is through prayer;

  • The hope of revival is in God’s mercy.

b. Remembering God’s power, vs. 16—19

After praising God for His past intervention, Habakkuk says,

I heard and my heart pounded, my lips quivered at the sound; decay crept into my bones, and my legs trembled. (vs 16)

This is why it is so important for believers to get to know God through the pages of Scripture. Prayer is vital, but a believer doesn’t get to know God through prayer. God has revealed Himself to us only through His Word. The closer we get to God, the more we get to know Him through His Word, the more aware of His awesome strength we become. A lot of things may draw us closer to God. Sometimes it’s praise and worship, other times we are literally pushed closer to Christ by adversity. It is during those times that the true believer sees in Him the One who is sufficient to meet every need. Time and again in the Bible we see this. God sustained Elijah when he had reached the end of his rope (1 Kings 19). When Paul faces stiff opposition in Corinth (Acts 18), it was God who was his constant source of help.

Habakkuk’s personal story as revealed in these verses reveals that faith was the prophet’s only ally; all he could was wait.

Yet I will wait patiently for the day of calamity to come on the nation invading us. (vs. 16b)

The threat of the Babylonians was real and Judah’s days were numbers, but all Habakkuk could do was to wait quietly. He waited for the end to come, but he had no fear. We learn something of the dynamics of fear from these verses. We fear things when we attribute to a person, a place, or a thing two important characteristics:

  • Almightiness—the power to take away another’s autonomy;

  • Impendency—the power to do another harm.

What we need to understand is that those things don’t belong to any human being; they belong to God. This Habakkuk understood, which is why he waited patiently for the end to come. His faith sustained him. He knew he rested under God’s protection.

God’s sovereignty is not a topic reserved for theological discussions. It is an important fact in the life of every Christian. We have been redeemed by God. We are His children and we belong to Him. We are of value to God. We are filled with His Holy Spirit, who makes us able servants. By means of God’s power working in our lives, we have the ability to withstand any and all circumstances that come our way.

Habakkuk’s experience is a good example for the modern believer. He may have had questions, perhaps even doubts, he saw things he didn’t like or understand, but he did not give into fatalism. He did not passively resign to what was to come. Even though he may had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach, Habakkuk had faith, and he had the courage to submit to the will of God and to exercise active dependence on Him.

Habakkuk wanted the people to sing his prophecy:

For the director of music. On my stringed instruments.

And why shouldn’t we sing what Habakkuk wrote? His head wasn’t in clouds, but he knew God and he had the kind of confidence in God that we all need. No matter what the outward circumstances of life may be, the just should simply live by faith. What Habakkuk found to be true, is still true today.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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