Judah

The God Behind the Blessing

6 “Let Reuben live, and not die,
    but let his men be few.”

7 And this he said of Judah:

“Hear, O Lord, the voice of Judah,
    and bring him in to his people.
With your hands contend for him,
    and be a help against his adversaries.”

8 And of Levi he said,

“Give to Levi your Thummim,
    and your Urim to your godly one,
whom you tested at Massah,
    with whom you quarreled at the waters of Meribah;
9 who said of his father and mother,
    ‘I regard them not’;
he disowned his brothers
    and ignored his children.
For they observed your word
    and kept your covenant.
10 They shall teach Jacob your rules
    and Israel your law;
they shall put incense before you
    and whole burnt offerings on your altar.
11 Bless, O Lord, his substance,
    and accept the work of his hands;
crush the loins of his adversaries,
    of those who hate him, that they rise not again.” – Deuteronomy 33:6-11 ESV

Moses begins his pronouncement of blessings on the 12 tribes with Reuben. This is in keeping with Reuben’s position as the first-born son of Jacob. And Moses seems to echo the sentiments of Jacob when he bestowed the following blessing on Reuben hundreds of years earlier:

“Reuben, you are my firstborn, my strength,
    the child of my vigorous youth.
    You are first in rank and first in power.
But you are as unruly as a flood,
    and you will be first no longer.
For you went to bed with my wife;
    you defiled my marriage couch.” – Genesis 49:3-4 NLT

Reuben had sinned against his father and against God, having slept with his father’s concubine Bilhah. This was a crime punishable by death, and yet, Reuben was allowed to live. But as the words of Jacob reveal, Reuben and his descendants would pay for dearly for his sin. The Reubenites would be one of three tribes who asked for and receive land on the east side of the Jordan, choosing to settle outside the land of promise. In time, they would lose their prestige, fading in prominence and number. It is interesting to note that the tribe of Reuben produced no judges, prophets, or rulers. In spite of his sin, Reuben was allowed to live, but his descendants would never enjoy fulness of life.

Moses deviates from Jacob’s order of blessings by skipping over the tribes of Simeon and Levi and focusing on Judah. And Moses’ blessing, while shorter in length, contains some of the same thoughts as those expressed by Jacob. Both men saw Judah as the preeminent tribe among the 12. Jacob had predicted Judah’s rise to prominence, describing his son as a young lion that grabs its enemies by the neck. Jacob mentions the king’s scepter and the ruler’s staff, symbols of power and authority, and states that from this tribe will come one to whom these things rightfully belong.

“Judah, your brothers will praise you.
    You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
    All your relatives will bow before you.
Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
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 his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.
He ties his foal to a grapevine,
    the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth are whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:8-12 NLT

This prophetic statement concerns the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ. Jesus was born of the tribe of Judah and was a descendant of King David. The scepter and the ruler’s staff belong to Him. And in John’s vision of Jesus recorded in the book of Revelation, he describes Jesus as “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (Revelation 5:5 ESV). Obviously, the tribe of Judah would play a significant role in God’s plan of redemption for the world. It would be through this tribe that the Savior would come. And Moses, seeming to understand the future significance of this tribe, pronounces a blessing, asking God to protect and provide for them.

The great king David would come from the tribe of Judah. And it would be he who elevated the nation of Israel to greatness, establishing them as a major political and military force in that region of the world. And after God eventually divided the kingdom of Israel in half, the southern portion would take on the name of Judah, further enhancing this tribe’s prominence among the 12.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Levi, and he has much more to say about this tribe than Jacob did. Not only that, his words concerning Levi are much more positive than those of Jacob.

“Simeon and Levi are two of a kind;
    their weapons are instruments of violence.
May I never join in their meetings;
    may I never be a party to their plans.
For in their anger they murdered men,
    and they crippled oxen just for sport.
A curse on their anger, for it is fierce;
    a curse on their wrath, for it is cruel.
I will scatter them among the descendants of Jacob;
    I will disperse them throughout Israel.” – Genesis 49:5-7 NLT

Jacob had a reason to be upset with these two sons. They had brought shame to the house of Jacob by their deceitful treatment of the Hivites. The story is a complicated one, but involves the rape of their sister, Dinah, by “Shechem the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land” (Genesis 34:2 ESV). Rather than seeking revenge for the rape of his daughter, Jacob determined to make a treaty with the Hivites, agreeing to allow intermarriage between their two nations, in direct violation of God’s command. Jacob’s sons demanded that Jacob require the circumcision of all the males among the Hivites as part of the agreement. When the Hivites had agreed and followed through on their commitment to be circumcised, Levi and Simeon “took their swords and came against the city while it felt secure and killed all the males” (Genesis 34:25 ESV). And rather than bless them, Jacob had issued a curse, predicting their ultimate dispersal among the rest of the tribes of Israel. And little did he know, that is exactly what would happen. But not as he suspected.

The book of Exodus records a seminal event in the history of Israel. Moses had been on Mount Sinai receiving the Ten Commandments from God when he received the news from God that things were not going well back in the camp of Israel. Moses descended the mountain only to find the people of Israel reveling before the golden calf they had constructed in his absence. While he had been on Sinai receiving God’s law, the people had been in the valley worshiping a false god they had made with their own hands. After destroying the idol they had made, Moses turned his anger against the people of Israel.

So he stood at the entrance to the camp and shouted, “All of you who are on the Lord’s side, come here and join me.” And all the Levites gathered around him.

Moses told them, “This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says: Each of you, take your swords and go back and forth from one end of the camp to the other. Kill everyone—even your brothers, friends, and neighbors.” The Levites obeyed Moses’ command, and about 3,000 people died that day.

Then Moses told the Levites, “Today you have ordained yourselves for the service of the Lord, for you obeyed him even though it meant killing your own sons and brothers. Today you have earned a blessing.” – Exodus 32:26-29 NLT

The tribe of Levi stepped up and used their swords to defend the integrity of God’s name and mete out His justice and judgment against all those who had participated in the idolatry and spiritual adultery. And as a result of their efforts, the Levites were set apart for the service of the Lord. They would become the priestly order, tasked with representing the rest of the tribes before the Lord and for the care and transport of the tabernacle. And when the nation of Israel conquered the land of Canaan, the Levites would not be given land as an inheritance but would be given cities scattered throughout the tribes of Israel, in fulfillment of Jacob’s words.

The Levites had used treachery and deceit to repay the Hivites for the rape of their sister, but they had been motivated by a desire to avenge her mistreatment. They had also stood opposed to the treaty their father had made with the Hivites, knowing that it was improper for them to intermarry with these uncircumcised pagans. But while their hearts had been in the right place, they had taken matters into their own hands and violated the treaty their father had made. Yet, hundreds of years later, God would redeem the Levites, raising them up and using them to serve as His agents of judgment against their own brothers and sisters.

And Moses blesses them for their role as God’s intercessors. They had been used by God to avenge His holy name and mete out His judgment against the wicked at Sinai. And they had been set apart as priests, teaching Israel God’s laws, and offering sacrifices on their behalf so that they might remain in a right standing with God. At Sinai, the Levites had shed the blood of their brothers and sisters in order to assuage the righteous anger of God. But in the tabernacle, they would spill the blood of innocent bulls and goats, pouring it out as a sacrifice to God on behalf of the sins of the people.

From the days of Jacob to the time of Moses, God was working behind the scenes,  orchestrating events in such as a way that every blessing bestowed by each man would be fulfilled. But these blessings were not the words of men. They were the Spirit-inspired will of God. Neither Moses or Jacob fully understood the full import of their words or the exact nature of their outcome. But God did. He was and is sovereign over all. And while the tribe of Reuben would settle outside the land of promise, they would assist the rest of the tribes in conquering and possessing their inheritance. And God would raise up the tribe of Judah, allowing them to produce the future Messiah, the Savior of the world. The Levites, while cursed by their father for their deceit, would be redeemed by God and used to carry His tabernacle, communicate His law, and care for the spiritual needs of His people.

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

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

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

When All Is Lost, God Is Near

28 “For they are a nation void of counsel,
    and there is no understanding in them.
29 If they were wise, they would understand this;
    they would discern their latter end!
30 How could one have chased a thousand,
    and two have put ten thousand to flight,
unless their Rock had sold them,
    and the Lord had given them up?
31 For their rock is not as our Rock;
    our enemies are by themselves.
32 For their vine comes from the vine of Sodom
    and from the fields of Gomorrah;
their grapes are grapes of poison;
    their clusters are bitter;
33 their wine is the poison of serpents
    and the cruel venom of asps.

34 “‘Is not this laid up in store with me,
    sealed up in my treasuries?
35 Vengeance is mine, and recompense,
    for the time when their foot shall slip;
for the day of their calamity is at hand,
    and their doom comes swiftly.’
36 For the Lord will vindicate his people
    and have compassion on his servants,
when he sees that their power is gone
    and there is none remaining, bond or free.
37 Then he will say, ‘Where are their gods,
    the rock in which they took refuge,
38 who ate the fat of their sacrifices
    and drank the wine of their drink offering?
Let them rise up and help you;
    let them be your protection!’” Deuteronomy 32:28-38 ESV

Israel had enemies. From their days of captivity in Egypt to their journey to the promised land, the people of God had found themselves opposed by foreign nations. Even on the eastern side of the borders of Canaan they had been forced to fight the forces of  Og and Sihon, two Amorite kings who had refused to allow the Israelites to pass through their land. But God gave the Israelites victory over these enemies, allowing the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and Manasseh to settle there.

And there would be plenty of other enemies on the other side of the Jordan, once the Israelites crossed over and began their conquest of the land of Canaan. There would always be enemies of God and His people. And the song God had given to Moses to teach to the people of Israel contained foreboding warnings about future enemies who would defeat the Israelites and take them captive. They would be used by God to punish the Israelites for their persistent and unrepentant rebellion against Him.

But God had a message for these nations. Rather than understand their role as His divine instruments of judgment, they would take credit for the conquest of God’s people, even bragging about their victory and robbing God of glory.

“Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.” – Deuteronomy 32:27 ESV

But God had news for these arrogant and pride-filled upstarts.

“…they are a nation void of counsel,
    and there is no understanding in them.
If they were wise, they would understand this;
    they would discern their latter end!” – Deuteronomy 32:28-29 ESV

God describes them as clueless. When the day came and they defeated the people of God, they would consider their conquest the byproduct of their own military prowess. These two nations, Assyria and Babylon, would each enjoy unprecedented success, conquering much of the known world and being used by God to punish His rebellious people. Assyria would conquer the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 BC. And 136 years later, in 586 BC, the Babylonians would conquer and destroy the city of Jerusalem, leaving the temple of God in ruins.

But God points out the obvious. The only explanation for the future success of the Assyrians and Babylonians would be because God ordained it. The eventual fall of the Israelites would be because “their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had given them up” (Deuteronomy 32:30 ESV). Neither the Assyrians or Babylonians would be  able to take credit for the destruction of God’s people. It would be the work of God’s hand, not the result of their superior military strength.

The enemies of Israel would find their victories to be a walk in the park, with one of their soldiers giving chase to 1,000 Israelites, and two putting 10,000 to flight. In other words, their battles would be ridiculously lopsided. But, strange as it may seems, the reason behind their success would be the God of Israel.  And God lets them know that their gods would be no match for Him.

For their rock is not as our Rock;
    our enemies are by themselves. – Deuteronomy 32:31 ESV

They were on their own. Their false gods would prove powerless before God Almighty because they were lifeless. And after self-congratulating themselves for having defeated the forces of Israel, these two nations would find themselves having to answer to God for their actions. Why? Because these pagan nations were no better than Sodom and Gomorrah. They were equally as wicked, like vines branching off of the original plant and producing the same evil fruit.

And God reveals that He already has plans in store for them. He is going to use them to punish His rebellious children, but then He is going to repay them for their involvement.

“I will get revenge and pay them back
at the time their foot slips;
for the day of their disaster is near,
and the impending judgment is rushing upon them!” – Deuteronomy 32:35 NLT

These nations will destroy Samaria and Jerusalem. They will enslave the citizens of Israel and Judah. But they will have to answer to God for their actions. And, one day, God will turn the tables, reversing the fortunes of Israel and extending once again His mercy, grace, and love.

The Lord will judge his people,
and will change his plans concerning his servants;
when he sees that their power has disappeared,
and that no one is left, whether confined or set free. – Deuteronomy 32:36 NLT

Just when things look like they can’t get any worse, God will step in and rescue His chosen people. He will remember and redeem them. He will redeem them from captivity yet again. And He will mock the mighty nations of Assyria and Babylon, challenging them to seek help and hope from their false gods.

“Where are their gods,
the rock in whom they sought security,
who ate the best of their sacrifices,
and drank the wine of their drink offerings?
Let them rise and help you;
let them be your refuge!” – Deuteronomy 32:37-38 NLT

And their calls for help will go unheard and unheeded because their gods are false. The Assyrians and Babylonians would one day find themselves on the wrong end of the world-domination game. They would become the conquered rather than the conqueror. Their 15-minutes of fame would come to an abrupt and ignominious end. Because their false gods would fail to rise up, rescue them, and provide refuge for them. But Israel would experience the gracious hand of God Almighty. Right when their strength is gone and all hope is lost, their God will show up, and He “will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Deuteronomy 32:36 ESV).

Don't Do As They Do

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

32  “Everything that I command you, you shall be careful to do. You shall not add to it or take from it.” – Deuteronomy 12:29-31 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

You Did Not Believe

19 “Then we set out from Horeb and went through all that great and terrifying wilderness that you saw, on the way to the hill country of the Amorites, as the Lord our God commanded us. And we came to Kadesh-barnea. 20 And I said to you, ‘You have come to the hill country of the Amorites, which the Lord our God is giving us. 21 See, the Lord your God has set the land before you. Go up, take possession, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has told you. Do not fear or be dismayed.’ 22 Then all of you came near me and said, ‘Let us send men before us, that they may explore the land for us and bring us word again of the way by which we must go up and the cities into which we shall come.’ 23 The thing seemed good to me, and I took twelve men from you, one man from each tribe. 24 And they turned and went up into the hill country, and came to the Valley of Eshcol and spied it out. 25 And they took in their hands some of the fruit of the land and brought it down to us, and brought us word again and said, ‘It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us.’

26 “Yet you would not go up, but rebelled against the command of the Lord your God. 27 And you murmured in your tents and said, ‘Because the Lord hated us he has brought us out of the land of Egypt, to give us into the hand of the Amorites, to destroy us. 28 Where are we going up? Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there.”’ 29 Then I said to you, ‘Do not be in dread or afraid of them. 30 The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, 31 and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.’ 32 Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God, 33 who went before you in the way to seek you out a place to pitch your tents, in fire by night and in the cloud by day, to show you by what way you should go.” – Deuteronomy 1:19-33 ESV

Moses continues his recitation of Israel’s history in an attempt to remind the next generation of their heritage of sin and rebellion against God. He wanted this younger group of Israelites to understand that the reason they were the newly designated conquerors of the land of Canaan was because their mothers and fathers had refused to do what God had commanded them to do. If the previous generation had done what they were supposed to do, these young people would have grown up in the land of Canaan rather than wandering around the wilderness. They would have enjoyed all the blessings and benefits that God had promised. But their parents had disobeyed God. And Moses makes it very clear that their disobedience was a byproduct of their disbelief. They didn’t believe God.

When the 12 men who had been sent to spy out the land had returned, they had good news and bad news. They unanimously agreed that the land was rich and bountiful, just as God had said. They had even brought back samples of the fruit as proof and declared, “It is a good land that the Lord our God is giving us” (Deuteronomy 1:25 ESV). But there was a second part to their report. The land was filled with fruit, but it was also overflowing with enemies, a fact the spies made painfully clear.

“The people of the land are taller and more powerful than we are, and their towns are large, with walls rising high into the sky! We even saw giants there—the descendants of Anak!” – Deuteronomy 1:28 ESV

The spies provided physical proof of the land’s fruitfulness, but they also shared personal testimony as its inherent dangers. There were giants in the land! And the fortified cities had walls that reached to the sky! Now, it’s easy for us to write this off as a case of obvious hyperbole, but that’s not how the Israelites viewed it. They were terrified by what they heard. They believed the words of the spies and it produced a growing sense of panic.

“The Lord must hate us. That’s why he has brought us here from Egypt—to hand us over to the Amorites to be slaughtered. Where can we go?” – Deuteronomy 1:27-28 NLT

God had set them free from their captivity in Egypt, miraculously bringing a series of judgments against the Egyptians in the form of ten devastating plagues. The final plague, the death of the firstborns, had caused Pharaoh to release the Israelites, but he quickly changed his mind and sent his troops to recapture them and bring them back. But God had defeated the army of Pharaoh at the Red Sea. Then God had led the people of Israel through the wilderness, caring for their every need and providing them with His law. But when they had come to the edge of the long-awaited promised land, they too had a change of heart. The news of well-armed giants and skyscraper fortifications caused them to disbelieve the promise of God. God had clearly told them that He would assist them in capturing the land. It would be His doing.

“See, I am going to make a covenant before all your people. I will do wonders such as have not been done in all the earth, nor in any nation. All the people among whom you live will see the work of the Lord, for it is a fearful thing that I am doing with you.

“Obey what I am commanding you this day. I am going to drive out before you the Amorite, the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Perizzite, the Hivite, and the Jebusite.” – Exodus 34:10-11 NLT

He had promised to fight for them and alongside them. Notice that God had not promised a lack of enemies in the land. He never said they would just walk into the land without a fight. He promised victory, not a lack of opposition. But rather than take God at His word, they listened to the majority opinion of the spies. Which had caused Moses to plead with them to remember the promise of God and reconsider their decision.

“Don’t be shocked or afraid of them! The Lord your God is going ahead of you. He will fight for you, just as you saw him do in Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 1:29-30 NLT

This scene brings to mind another encounter recorded on the pages of Scripture, where God’s people found themselves dealing with fruit and an enemy. All the way back in the beginning, as described in the book of Genesis, we see Adam and Eve faced with a decision to believe God or to listen to an opposing view that contradicted the command of God. On this occasion, the enemy took the form of a serpent, not an army filled with giants. And rather than a cluster of grapes from the land of Canaan, Adam and Eve were presented with the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And it was obviously tempting, because the Genesis account records that Eve saw and she ate.

When the woman saw that the tree produced fruit that was good for food, was attractive to the eye, and was desirable for making one wise, she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. - Genesis 3:6 NLT

But it wasn’t just the tempting nature of the fruit that caused Eve to eat. It was the lies of the enemy. And he began by causing Eve to doubt to doubt the word of God by subtly twisting what God had said.

“Is it really true that God said, ‘You must not eat from any tree of the orchard’?” – Genesis 3:1 NLT

When the woman had attempted to correct the enemy’s words, clearly relating that God had promised death as a punishment for disobedience, Satan essentially called God a liar and a deceiver.

“Surely you will not die, for God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will open and you will be like divine beings who know good and evil.” – Genesis 3:4-5 NLT

He caused Eve to doubt the word of God, which led to disbelief in the promise that God had made. And the disbelief eventually manifested itself in disobedience.

…she took some of its fruit and ate it. She also gave some of it to her husband who was with her, and he ate it. – Genesis 3:6 NLT

The decision of Adam and Eve to doubt God led to their disobedience of God. And their disobedience led to their banishment from the presence of God. They had started life in the garden, but found themselves on the outside looking in. The Israelites had been standing on the outside looking into the promised land, but God had promised that it was theirs for the taking, if they would only take Him at His word and enter in.

But, like Eve, the Israelites refused to believe what God had said. God had not promised a lack of enemies in the land or a conflict-free conquest of the land. He had promised to go before them and to fight for them. He had assured them of victory, not a lack of war.

From the minute they had left Egypt, God had proven Himself faithful and more than capable of caring for them. He had gone before them, fought on behalf of them, and provided food and clothing for them. And yet, Moses points out, that despite all of God’s loving care and concern, they doubted Him, which caused them to disbelieve Him, and eventually to disobey Him.

“But even after all he did, you refused to trust the Lord your God, who goes before you looking for the best places to camp, guiding you with a pillar of fire by night and a pillar of cloud by day.” – Deuteronomy 1:32-33 NLT

They had “rebelled against the command of the Lord your God and refused to go in” (Deuteronomy 1:26 NLT). And now, 40 years later, Moses was watching a new generation facing the very same circumstance and wondering how they would respond. Would they believe and obey?  Or, like their parents, would they allow their circumstances to doubt the word of God, disbelieve the promises of God, and disobey the command of God?

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

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

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

 

 

 

The Valley of Decision

9 Proclaim this among the nations:
Consecrate for war;
    stir up the mighty men.
Let all the men of war draw near;
    let them come up.
10 Beat your plowshares into swords,
    and your pruning hooks into spears;
    let the weak say, “I am a warrior.”

11 Hasten and come,
    all you surrounding nations,
    and gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
12 Let the nations stir themselves up
    and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
    all the surrounding nations.

13 Put in the sickle,
    for the harvest is ripe.
Go in, tread,
    for the winepress is full.
The vats overflow,
    for their evil is great.

14 Multitudes, multitudes,
    in the valley of decision!
For the day of the Lord is near
    in the valley of decision.
15 The sun and the moon are darkened,
    and the stars withdraw their shining.

16 The Lord roars from Zion,
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
    and the heavens and the earth quake.
But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
    a stronghold to the people of Israel. – Joel 3:9-16 ESV

This entire section contains a call to the nations of the earth to prepare for war. The day of the Lord is coming and it will include an epic battle of unparalleled size and scope – like nothing the world has ever seen before. It will involve all the nations of the world, but rather than fighting against one another, they will join forces against God and His people.

The scene Joel depicts is set far into the future, but it grows closer with each passing day. This is not a description of some battle from history-past, but a prophecy concerning the coming day of the Lord and, more specifically, the conflict that will take place in the valley of Jehoshaphat. Since there is no valley by that name in the region around Judah, this appellation is likely a reference to the battle God fought on behalf of King Jehoshaphat and the nation of Judah. In that conflict, God miraculously defeated the enemies of Judah, without them having to shoot a single arrow or throw a solitary spear. The victory was completely His doing. He judged the nations who had risen up against Judah and blessed His people in doing so.

In these verses, the Valley of Jehoshaphat becomes the valley of decision. This will be a place where God will pass judgment on the unregenerate nations of the earth by sending His Son to defeat them in battle. And God states that He “will sit to judge all the surrounding nations” (Joel 3:12 ESV). God the Father will watch as His Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords returns to earth in order to complete the redemptive plan of God.

But what Joel is depicting is the moments leading up to this decisive battle. In fact, he calls out to God, “Bring down your warriors, O Lord” (Joel 3:11 ESV). And he issues a call to the nations, challenging them to “stir themselves up and come up to the Valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:12 ESV). It is there that God will mete out His judgment on the nations. He will harvest the grapes and tread them in the winepress of His wrath. This is an image of God gathering up the overripe grapes (sinful men) and crushing them (judging them). We see this same imagery used in the book of Revelation, when John is given a vision of God’s pending judgment of the world.

Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, “Put in your sickle, and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.” So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped. – Revelation 14:14-16 ESV

And later on in the same book, John records yet another vision, revealing the second coming of Christ to judge the nations.

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. – Revelation 19:15 ESV

And the prophet Isaiah gives us a description of Jesus after the battle in the valley of decision is complete.

Why is your apparel red,
    and your garments like his who treads in the winepress?

“I have trodden the winepress alone,
    and from the peoples no one was with me;
I trod them in my anger
    and trampled them in my wrath;
their lifeblood spattered on my garments,
    and stained all my apparel.
For the day of vengeance was in my heart,
    and my year of redemption had come.” – Isaiah 63:2-4 ESV

This future battle is also known as the Battle of Armageddon, which will take place at the end of the seven years of the Tribulation. Jesus Christ will return to earth and do battle with the nations of the earth which will have joined forces against Him, under the leadership of Antichrist. Once again, the apostle John was given a vision of this battle, and he recorded it in the book of Revelation.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. His eyes are like a flame of fire, and on his head are many diadems, and he has a name written that no one knows but himself. He is clothed in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God. And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 ESV

Joel describes the winepresses as full and the vats as overflowing, because the sin of the people is great. In Revelation, John puts it this way: “the harvest of the earth is fully ripe” (Revelation 14:15 ESV) and “its grapes are ripe” (Revelation 14:18 ESV). John uses two different words that are both translated as “ripe” in English, but they carry different meanings in Greek. The first is xērainō, and it means “dried up” or “withered.” It describes grain that has been left in the field too long. It is of no value. The second word, used in reference to grapes, is akmazō and it means, “fully ripe.” It actually describes grapes that are overripe or about to burst. Both words are used to illustrate the unredeemable nature of mankind because they are literally bursting with sin.

Joel describes some amazing meteorological events accompanying this battle. He states that the sun and moon will become darkened and the stars will cease to shine. Himself Jesus echoed these words when He told His disciples:

“Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” – Matthew 24:29 ESV

The Tribulation will be marked by incredible atmospheric disturbances and never-before-seen cosmic signs as God brings His final judgments upon the earth. The book of Revelation describes seas turning to blood, mountains, and islands disappearing, 100-pound hailstones falling from the sky, and long periods of darkness. And while many find these signs and wonders difficult to believe and write them off as nothing more than literary metaphors and spiritual symbolism, there is no reason for us to reject their authenticity. For God, nothing is impossible. And since we are talking about the final days of the earth, it would only make sense that God is going to reveal His power in unprecedented ways during those days.

Yes, the picture Joel paints is unbelievable.

The Lord roars from Zion,
    and utters his voice from Jerusalem,
    and the heavens and the earth quake. – Joel 3:16 ESV

But faith requires belief in the improbable and impossible. And Joel calls on the people of Judah to trust in the Lord. He challenges them to believe in the One who can do the unbelievable and perform the impossible.

But the Lord is a refuge to his people,
    a stronghold to the people of Israel. – Joel 3:16 ESV

God was on their side. And while their immediate future did not look particularly good, they could trust that God had a plan in place that would include His eventual redemption and restoration of them. As the prophet had told the people of Judah hundreds of years earlier when they were facing a similarly bleak future, the people living in Joel’s day could rest in the faithfulness of the Lord.

You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem. – 2 Chronicles 20:17 ESV

God has a way of seeing His people through the valleys. He shows up in our darkest moments and rescues us when we are helpless and hopeless. And our enemies stand no chance against the God of the universe. They can turn their plowshares into swords, and their pruning hooks into spears. They can declare, “I am a warrior.” But they will prove to be nothing more than withered grain and overripe grapes in the hand of the Lord.

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

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

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

 

Do Not Be Afaid

1 “For behold, in those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, 2 I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. And I will enter into judgment with them there, on behalf of my people and my heritage Israel, because they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, 3 and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.

4 “What are you to me, O Tyre and Sidon, and all the regions of Philistia? Are you paying me back for something? If you are paying me back, I will return your payment on your own head swiftly and speedily. 5 For you have taken my silver and my gold, and have carried my rich treasures into your temples. 6 You have sold the people of Judah and Jerusalem to the Greeks in order to remove them far from their own border. 7 Behold, I will stir them up from the place to which you have sold them, and I will return your payment on your own head. 8 I will sell your sons and your daughters into the hand of the people of Judah, and they will sell them to the Sabeans, to a nation far away, for the Lord has spoken.” – Joel 3:1-8 ESV

As chapter three opens, Joel is continuing his description of “the day of the Lord,” providing further detail regarding the activities surrounding that future period of time. Not only will God bring undeserved restoration to His chosen people, in keeping with His covenant promises to them, but He will bring well-deserved judgment upon the nations – all those who remain unrepentant and unaccepting of His gracious offer of salvation through faith in His Son.

Joel delivers a two-part message from God Almighty, stating, “I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem“ and “I will gather all the nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat” (Joel 3:1-2 ESV). And God makes it perfectly clear what He has in store for the nations: “I will enter into judgment with them there” (Joel 3:2 ESV). And the reason for His judgment is two-fold. It will be because these nations rejected Him as God, but also because they abused the people of God.

Back in the book of Genesis, we have recorded the covenant promise made by God to Abraham: “I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3 ESV). Now, centuries later, God is assuring the people of Judah that He is going to keep that promise and fully fulfill it during the day of the Lord. Even during Joel’s day,, there were nations that stood opposed to Judah. The Assyrians had invaded the northern kingdom of Israel, destroying their capital city of Samaria and taking thousands of their people captive. And the Assyrians had also invaded the land of Judah, conquering dozens of their cities and villages, while killing and enslaving thousands of their citizens as well. And God has already warned Judah that the Babylonians will be showing up at some point to destroy the city of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple to Yahweh. And the Babylonians will humiliate thousands of Jerusalem’s most prominent citizens by taking them back to Babylon as lowly slaves.

Yet, God assures the people of Judah that He will one day restore their fortunes and pay back all these nations for the way they treated His chosen people. And He doesn’t mince words or leave anything to the imagination when describing their crimes against his people.

“…they have scattered them among the nations and have divided up my land, and have cast lots for my people, and have traded a boy for a prostitute, and have sold a girl for wine and have drunk it.” – Joel 3:2-3 ESV

Joel describes God’s future judgment against these guilty nations as taking place in the valley of Jehoshaphat. While there is no valley known by that name found in or around Jerusalem, it would seem that this is meant to be a reminder to an event that took place earlier in Judah’s history. Jehoshaphat was the fourth king of Judah, and he was considered a good king, “because he walked in the earlier ways of his father David. He did not seek the Baals, but sought the God of his father and walked in his commandments, and not according to the practices of Israel” (2 Chronicles 17:3-4 ESV). He even instituted a series of religious reforms, removing the false gods and sending out men to teach the people of Judah the Law of God. 

But Jehoshaphat made an alliance with Ahab, the wicked king of Israel, and agreed to go into battle alongside the Israelites against the Syrians. Even though a prophet of God warned that this battle would prove to be a total route, Jehoshaphat and Ahab went ahead with their plans and lost. Not only that, Ahab was killed. And Jehoshaphat received a rebuke from God.

“Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Because of this, wrath has gone out against you from the Lord. Nevertheless, some good is found in you, for you destroyed the Asheroth out of the land, and have set your heart to seek God.” – 2 Chronicles 19:2-3 ESV

But not long after this, Jehoshaphat received news that an alliance of nations was preparing to come against them. Having heard this news, the king assembled the people and prayed to God for His help, and He responded by miraculously routing the enemies of Judah. The book of 2 Chronicles provides further insight into the activities of God surrounding that eventful day.

“Listen, all Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem and King Jehoshaphat: Thus says the Lord to you, Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed at this great horde, for the battle is not yours but God’s. Tomorrow go down against them. Behold, they will come up by the ascent of Ziz. You will find them at the end of the valley, east of the wilderness of Jeruel. You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem.’ Do not be afraid and do not be dismayed. Tomorrow go out against them, and the Lord will be with you.” – 2 Chronicles 20:15-17 ESV

God promised to fight for them. He would judge their enemies on their behalf, and the people of Judah would not have to lift a finger. In fact, they showed up the next day and found a valley filled with dead enemies and the spoil of battle.

When Judah came to the watchtower of the wilderness, they looked toward the horde, and behold, there were dead bodies lying on the ground; none had escaped. When Jehoshaphat and his people came to take their spoil, they found among them, in great numbers, goods, clothing, and precious things, which they took for themselves until they could carry no more. They were three days in taking the spoil, it was so much. On the fourth day they assembled in the Valley of Beracah, for there they blessed the Lord. Therefore the name of that place has been called the Valley of Beracah to this day. – 2 Chronicles 20:24-26 ESV

The word “Beracah” means blessing. From Judah’s perspective, this valley became a reminder of God’s grace, mercy and blessing. But the valley was a place of judgment for the enemies of Judah. Interestingly enough, the name “Jehoshaphat” means “God has judged.” So, the valley in which God brought about a victory over the enemies of Judah, became a place of both blessing and judgment.

This same scene is going to occur on the coming day of the Lord. God will once again judge and destroy Judah’s enemies, while at the same time blessing His chosen people. And God addressed the Phoenicians and the Philistines, singling them out for their treatment of His people. But these two nations seem to be used as stand-ins for all the other nation of all time who have mistreated the people of God. And He warns that He is going to reward the people of Judah and Israel, but pay back their enemies for all that they have done.

As God promised the people of Judah in Jehoshaphat’s day, He will be with the people of Israel in that future day. “You will not need to fight in this battle. Stand firm, hold your position, and see the salvation of the Lord on your behalf, O Judah and Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 20:17 ESV). God will bless, and God will judge. And His people have no reason to fear.

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

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

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

 

In Those Days

28 “And it shall come to pass afterward,
    that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh;
your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
    your old men shall dream dreams,
    and your young men shall see visions.
29 Even on the male and female servants
    in those days I will pour out my Spirit.

30 “And I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. 31 The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. 32 And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the Lord has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the Lord calls. – Joel 2:28-32 ESV

With the content of these verses, the message Joel is delivering on behalf of God fast forwards to the end times. In the original Hebrew text, verses 28-32 are actually arranged as a separate chapter in the book of Joel. That arrangement further designates this part of the message and accentuates it as being distinct from the rest. The Hebrew text opens up with the words, “Now it will be after this.” Sometime after the events recorded in the rest of chapter two, God is going to do something radically and dramatically different.

Joel refers to this future time period as “those days” and “the great and awesome day of the Lord.” These will not be your run-of-the-mill, ordinary kind of days. They represent a period on the earth that will be marked by extraordinary, never-before-seen events. What Joel describes in these verses are supernatural, one-of-a-kind occurrences that represent the final phase of God’s grand redemptive plan for His chosen people, the Jews, and for the rest of mankind and the created universe.

In the preceding verses, Joel has described how God poured out His judgment on the people of Judah in the form on locusts. And God has warned that He is going to pour out even worse judgment in the form of an invading army. Now, God tells them that a day is coming when He will pour out something quite different: His Spirit.

“I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…” – Joel 2:28 ESV

In place of His righteous and just judgment, God will pour out His Spirit. The prophet Ezekiel records a very similar message from God, providing greater detail as to what this divine outpouring will look like.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:22-27 NLT

The prophet Zechariah provides further proof that this outpouring will be reserved for the people of Israel. And part of its purpose will be to open their eyes to the true nature of Jesus as their Messiah. They rejected Him the first time He came to earth, but when He arrives the second time, their response will be quite different.

“Then I will pour out a spirit of grace and prayer on the family of David and on the people of Jerusalem. They will look on me whom they have pierced and mourn for him as for an only son. They will grieve bitterly for him as for a firstborn son who has died.” – Zechariah 12:10 NLT

This future period of time which Joel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah describe, represent the great day of the Lord when Jesus returns to earth as the King of kings and Lord of lords. This will take place at the end of the seven years of Tribulation. And while His return will signal the final destruction of all those on earth who have refused to honor God as the one true God and have rejected Jesus Christ as their only source of salvation, God will extend mercy to a remnant of His people. And this group will be made up of what will likely be millions of Jews who will come to faith during the dark days of the Tribulation. God will redeem 144,000 Jews who will become His evangelists during the Tribulation, and they will lead countless others to faith in Christ, including Gentiles (Revelation 7:1-8). We know from the book of Revelation that there will be a large number of these Tribulation saints martyred by Antichrist. John is given a vision of them standing before the throne of God in heaven.

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” – Revelation 7:8-10 ESV

And John is told who these individuals are.

“These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” – Revelation 7:14 ESV

But in this message given by Joel, the emphasis is on the Jews. God has a special plan in place for His chosen people. Joel envisions God’s grace being poured out on His undeserving children, and it will fall on men and women, the young and old, and even slaves. And it will be accompanied by prophecy, dreams, and visions. This is meant to distinguish this as a time of unprecedented spiritual awakening marked by a pervasive presence of miraculous signs and wonders. Rather than one man speaking on behalf of God, countless young children will be declaring His truth. Even the old will communicate on behalf of God, declaring messages He has given them in the form of dreams. Young men, not recognized for their wisdom, will be given visions by God intended to communicate His word to the entire community. All of this will be the result of God’s powerful presence among His people. As the prophet Ezekiel recorded, God has promised that one day He will reveal Himself to them in unprecedented fashion.

“And I will not hide my face anymore from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, declares the Lord God.” – Ezekiel 39:29 ESV

In these coming days, God will reveal Himself in unprecedented ways. Not the least of which will be in the form of His resurrected and returned Son. The emphasis of these verses is not on the miraculous things the people will be able to do, but on the presence of God that makes it all possible. The prophet Jeremiah recorded yet another promise of God concerning this coming day.'

“I will give them hearts that recognize me as the LORD. They will be my people, and I will be their God, for they will return to me wholeheartedly.” – Jeremiah 24:7 NLT

And the apostle John heard a similar message concerning the day when God and His Son will take up permanent residence among His people.

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them.” – Revelation 21:3 NLT

But before all of this happens, God will bring final judgment on the earth.

“I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” – Joel 2:30-31 ESV

But during those days of final judgment, God will still be showing grace and mercy on fallen mankind, offering the gift of salvation to any who will receive it.

And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved. – Joel 2:32 ESV

These verses are full of reminders of God’s power, faithfulness, patience, covenant faithfulness, love, mercy, and grace. In spite of all that the people of Judah had done to disobey His commands and dishonor His name, He would keep His covenant promises to them. And even during the dark days of the Tribulation, when mankind will stubbornly refuse to turn to God in repentance, even in the face of His unrelenting judgment, He will save some.

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

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

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

 

I Will Restore

18 Then the Lord became jealous for his land
    and had pity on his people.
19 The Lord answered and said to his people,
“Behold, I am sending to you
    grain, wine, and oil,
    and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
    a reproach among the nations.

20 “I will remove the northerner far from you,
    and drive him into a parched and desolate land,
his vanguard into the eastern sea,
    and his rear guard into the western sea;
the stench and foul smell of him will rise,
    for he has done great things.

21 “Fear not, O land;
    be glad and rejoice,
    for the Lord has done great things!
22 Fear not, you beasts of the field,
    for the pastures of the wilderness are green;
the tree bears its fruit;
    the fig tree and vine give their full yield.

23 “Be glad, O children of Zion,
    and rejoice in the Lord your God,
for he has given the early rain for your vindication;
    he has poured down for you abundant rain,
    the early and the latter rain, as before.

24 “The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.
25 I will restore to you the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.

26 “You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
27 You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.” – Joel 2:18-27 ESV

In these verses. Joel communicates a much-needed message of hope to the people of Judah. It begins with the word, “Then….” Joel appears to be writing from a vantage point where he looking back and recollecting the response of God to the solemn assembly of the peoples, their mourning and fasting, and their cries of sorrow for their sin. But it could also be true, that Joel is speaking of future events, recording what God will do if and when the people truly repent. The problem of interpreting the first two verses of this section hangs on the Hebrew perfect verbs used by Joel. They can be translated into English as either past or future verbs. So, it is somewhat difficult to determine exactly which perspective Joel is writing from. But the context and the content of the chapter provide us with insight into the timing of God’s message.

God had already brought devastation to the land via the locust plague. He has warned the people of Judah that a great army is coming from the north that will make the destruction of the locusts pale in comparison. And He has called the people to turn to Him in repentance. Now, God assures them that, if they return to Him with all their heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and if they rend their hearts and not their garments (Joel 2:12), He will show them pity. Why? Because “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:14 ESV).

And God tells them exactly what He is going to do, if and when they do repent.

“Behold, I am sending to you
    grain, wine, and oil,
    and you will be satisfied;
and I will no more make you
    a reproach among the nations.” – Joel 2:18 ESV

There appear to be two different aspects to God’s promise. The first has to do with the damage done by the locusts. This entire section is full of references to horticulture. God mentions grain, wine, oil, pastures, fields, trees, and vines. He refers to threshing floors full of grain and vats overflowing with wine and oil. It is a picture of abundance and blessing that stand in stark contrast to the conditions described in chapter 1. There, Joel painted a much bleaker image depicting barren vines, stripped fig trees, dried up fields, and fruitless harvests.

Chapter one describes the justified consequences of the peoples’ rebellion against God. Chapter two, verses 18-27 describe the mercy and grace of God in response to true, heartfelt repentance. God had brought His divine judgment upon the people of Judah, and He had warned that more was to come – if they refused to repent. But here He is telling them what the fruit of repentance looks like.

“The threshing floors shall be full of grain;
    the vats shall overflow with wine and oil.” – Joel 2:24 ESV

God is assuring them He has the capacity to restore all that had been destroyed.

“I will restore to you the years
    that the swarming locust has eaten,
the hopper, the destroyer, and the cutter,
    my great army, which I sent among you.” – Joel 2:25 ESV

The key to their restoration was their repentance. All that prevented them from enjoying the manifold blessings of God was their willingness to return to Him in humility and contrition. He wasn’t looking for some kind of mock sorrow or insincere statement of remorse or regret. God wanted true repentance, marked by a rejection of their formal lifestyle of sin and a child-like submission to the will and ways of God. Hundreds of years earlier, God had told them exactly what they were to do if He  “shut up the heavens so that no rain falls, or command grasshoppers to devour your crops, or send plagues among you” (2 Chronicles 7:13 ESV).

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

But notice the phrase, “seek my face.” The Hebrew word baqash carries the idea of desire. It conveys a sense of longing and a willingness to continue seeking until you find what it is you desire. It was God’s desire that they desire Him more than anything else. More than their overflowing vats of wine, fields full of ripe grain, fine clothes, comfortable homes, and yes, false gods.

God had communicated a similar message to the people of Judah through the prophet Jeremiah.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the LORD. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope. In those days when you pray, I will listen. If you look for me wholeheartedly, you will find me. I will be found by you,” says the LORD. – Jeremiah 29:11-14 NLT

Again, don’t miss the conditional nature of God’s promise. “If you look for me wholeheartedly” or with all your heart. God wasn’t interested in a form of repentance that looked more like regret and a veiled attempt to escape His discipline. He wanted them to want Him more than they wanted relief from judgment. He wanted them to desire Him more than they desired His blessings. Their wholehearted seeking was to be for Him, not for what they could get from Him.

But there is a second part to God’s promise. Not only will He restore their land to fruitfulness. He promises that He will “remove the northerner far from you, and drive him into a parched and desolate land, his vanguard into the eastern sea, and his rear guard into the western sea” (Joel 2:20 ESV). In other words, their repentance will result in the removal of the threat of foreign invasion. Remember, God had told them that “he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13 ESV). He has the power to do whatever He chooses to do. But His relenting was directly tied to their repenting.

All of this had to have sounded like great news to the people of Judah. And it got even better. God promised them great days ahead.

“You shall eat in plenty and be satisfied,
    and praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has dealt wondrously with you.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.
You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel,
    and that I am the Lord your God and there is none else.
And my people shall never again be put to shame.” – Joel 2:26-27 ESV

Two times God promises that they will never again be put to shame. The pain, suffering, humiliation, and feelings of having been abandoned by Him will never be felt again. But has this promise been fulfilled? Even a cursory glance at the history of Israel reveals that they have a long association with shame. The army from the north did eventually show up and destroy their capital, demolish the temple, and take their people captive. And over the centuries, the Jewish people have experienced their share of shame, humiliation, sorrow, and subjugation at the hands of foreign enemies.

But God promises them that He has plans for them. And as Jeremiah recorded,  “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope…” (Jeremiah 29:11 NLT). God was offering them restoration and rejuvenation – if they would repent. But He also promised future redemption, even if they didn’t. God knew His people well. And He was fully aware that true repentance on their part was not going to happen. Therefore, His judgment would come. The Babylonians would show up, the kingdom would fall, and the people would be taken captive.

God had warned them to repent, but they won’t. But He had promised to restore, and He will. And, as we will see, God promise of restoration will include more than just the people of Judah, because He says,  “I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…” (Joel 2:28 ESV).

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

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

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

 

Godly Sorrow

12 “Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
    “return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
13  and rend your hearts and not your garments.”
Return to the Lord your God,
    for he is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love;
    and he relents over disaster.
14 Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
    for the Lord your God?

15 Blow the trumpet in Zion;
    consecrate a fast;
call a solemn assembly;
16 gather the people.
Consecrate the congregation;
    assemble the elders;
gather the children,
    even nursing infants.
Let the bridegroom leave his room,
    and the bride her chamber.

17 Between the vestibule and the altar
    let the priests, the ministers of the Lord, weep
and say, “Spare your people, O Lord,
    and make not your heritage a reproach,
    a byword among the nations.
Why should they say among the peoples,
    ‘Where is their God?’” – Joel 2:12-17 ESV

The locusts have come and gone. But the threat of invasion and annihilation at the hands of a massive foreign army still looms on the horizon. News of this pending disaster had left the people of Judah demoralized and in fear of their lives. So, God takes the opportunity to call them to repentance. He has already called for a sacred assembly, a gathering of the people for the purpose of fasting and mourning.

Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
    wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
    O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
    are withheld from the house of your God.

Consecrate a fast;
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord. – Joel 1:13-14 ESV

Even the priests were to have exchanged their robes for sackcloth. And since the locusts had left no grain or wine to offer as sacrifices, the people were to offer up their tears and prayers of contrition instead.  God, in His omniscience, had seen this day coming. Hundreds of years earlier, when Solomon had completed construction of the temple, he had gathered the people of Israel for a special dedication ceremony. And, in response to Solomon’s prayer of dedication, God had responded with a promise. Notice the details found in God’s response:.

“When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command the locust to devour the land, or send pestilence among my people, if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.” – Deuteronomy 7:14-15 ESV

The locusts had devoured just as God had commanded them to do. Now, it was the peoples’ turn to respond. Judgment had come, but were they ready to turn to God in humility and contrition? Better yet, were they prepared to reject their sinful lifestyles and return to God’s original call to holiness? Long before the people of Israel ever set foot in the land of Canaan,  God had called them to live according to His commands, a clearly articulated legal code of conduct that would set them apart from every other nation on earth. But their faithful adherence to His commands would not only distinguish them from the rest of mankind, but it would also bring God’s blessings. God had given them His word, communicating it through Moses, their deliverer and leader.

“If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully keep all his commands that I am giving you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations of the world. You will experience all these blessings if you obey the Lord your God:

Your towns and your fields
    will be blessed.
Your children and your crops
    will be blessed.
The offspring of your herds and flocks
    will be blessed.
Your fruit baskets and breadboards
    will be blessed.
Wherever you go and whatever you do,
    you will be blessed.

“The Lord will conquer your enemies when they attack you. They will attack you from one direction, but they will scatter from you in seven!

“The Lord will guarantee a blessing on everything you do and will fill your storehouses with grain. The Lord your God will bless you in the land he is giving you.

“If you obey the commands of the Lord your God and walk in his ways, the Lord will establish you as his holy people as he swore he would do. Then all the nations of the world will see that you are a people claimed by the Lord, and they will stand in awe of you.” – Deuteronomy 28:9-10 NLT

But God’s promise of blessing had been accompanied by a set of curses. If the people failed to obey God’s commands, there would be ramifications. Disobedience would bring divine discipline.

“But if you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and do not obey all the commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come and overwhelm you.” – Deuteronomy 28:15 NLT

And God had provided them with graphic details concerning the nature of the curses they would have to endure. He had also left no doubt about the cause of the curses when they came.

“If you refuse to listen to the Lord your God and to obey the commands and decrees he has given you, all these curses will pursue and overtake you until you are destroyed. These horrors will serve as a sign and warning among you and your descendants forever. If you do not serve the Lord your God with joy and enthusiasm for the abundant benefits you have received, you will serve your enemies whom the Lord will send against you. You will be left hungry, thirsty, naked, and lacking in everything. The Lord will put an iron yoke on your neck, oppressing you harshly until he has destroyed you.” – Deuteronomy 28:45-48 NLT

Now, generations later, the people of Judah experiencing first-hand the unpleasant consequences of their refusal to obey God. And this was not a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. He had endured centuries of unfaithfulness on the part of His chosen people. But His patience had run out. He would no longer allow His people to drag His name through the mud and destroy His reputation by their rebellious behavior.

But God does give them an opportunity to repent and return. It was not too late. Yet, don’t miss the conditions He establishes for them.

“return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; and rend your hearts and not your garments…” – Joel 2:12-13 ESV

God’s focus was on the inner condition of their hearts, not any outward signs of remorse or regret they might display. He knew that the judgment they were having to endure might cause them to beg for His forgiveness, hoping for relief from the pain and suffering. He was well aware that any sorrow they expressed over their sin might be nothing more than regret, not true repentance. The apostle Paul points out the difference between what he calls godly sorrow and worldly sorrow.

For the kind of sorrow God wants us to experience leads us away from sin and results in salvation. There’s no regret for that kind of sorrow. But worldly sorrow, which lacks repentance, results in spiritual death. – 2 Corinthians 7:10 NLT

Expressing their sorrow for their sin was not going to be enough. Fasting, mourning, and weeping were not to be seen as some kind of magic, get-out-of-jail-free card. Their heart had to be in it and behind it. Regret over sin is not the same as regret over the loss of a relationship with God. Which is why God says, “Return to the Lord your God.” This was all about their broken relationship with Him. They had abandoned Him. They had turned their back on Him. And God wanted them to return because they longed for Him. Running from pain and suffering is not the same thing as running to God.

The people of Judah had made a habit out of running from one false god to another. They were fickle and unfaithful. And God wanted them to return to Him because they longed for Him. To come to God just to get something from God is not an expression of love. It reveals a mindset that views God as some kind of Genie in a bottle, who exists to do our bidding and to fulfill our wishes.

But God is “is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love” (Joel 2:13 ESV) to those who return to Him wholeheartedly. The interesting thing to note is that God desires their return to Him, whether He relents from judgment or not. Yes,  He does offer them the hope of relief, but He does not guarantee it.

Who knows whether he will not turn and relent,
    and leave a blessing behind him,
a grain offering and a drink offering
    for the Lord your God? – Joel 2:14 ESV

Again, the goal of their repentance was to escape the pain and suffering they were having to endure. They deserved all that was happening to them. It was the righteous judgment of God for their rebellion against Him. But the point is that, along with God’s judgment, they had lost their ability to commune with Him. Their sin had separated them from God and His blessings. The blessings of God are not the point. It is the presence of God that should be the heartfelt desire of every believer. Loss of communion with Him should be our greatest fear, not the thought of judgment from Him. 

It is essential that we see that restoration to a right relationship with God is to be our highest priority. God tells them that if they return to Him in true repentance, one of the blessings they may receive is “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God.” The locusts had made these offerings impossible. But God was willing to restore them if the people would only restore their commitment to Him. The blessings of God are to be secondary to a restored relationship with God.

This entire chapter is about the people being made right with God. Joel has called the entire community to gather together and to express their desire to return to God. And the focus behind their fasting, mourning, and weeping is not to be the relief of their suffering, but the glory of God’s name.

“Spare your people, Lord!
    Don’t let your special possession become an object of mockery.
Don’t let them become a joke for unbelieving foreigners who say,
    ‘Has the God of Israel left them?’” – Joel 2:17 NLT

A truly repentant heart will express a longing for the glory of God. It will communicate a deep desire to be restored to a right relationship with God, not just escape from the judgment of God.

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

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

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

 

The Just Judgment of God

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…behold, I will send for all the tribes of the north, declares the LORD, and for Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant, and I will bring them against this land and its inhabitants, and against all these surrounding nations. I will devote them to destruction, and make them a horror, a hissing, and an everlasting desolation.” – Jeremiah 25:9 ESV

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Cast Out of Eden

1 Blow a trumpet in Zion;
    sound an alarm on my holy mountain!
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,
    for the day of the Lord is coming; it is near,
2 a day of darkness and gloom,
    a day of clouds and thick darkness!
Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains
    a great and powerful people;
their like has never been before,
    nor will be again after them
    through the years of all generations.

3 Fire devours before them,
    and behind them a flame burns.
The land is like the garden of Eden before them,
    but behind them a desolate wilderness,
    and nothing escapes them.–
Joel 2:1-3 ESV

The nation of Judah was still reeling from the devastating impact of a locust plague. Their crops and vineyards had been destroyed, leaving them on the verge of starvation. Even the herds and flocks in the fields had been left wandering in search of food. And the priests found themselves with no grain or wine to use as offerings to God in the temple. As a result, Joel had called the people to assemble for a national day of mourning and fasting, and had warned them, “cry out to the Lord. Alas for the day!
For the day of the Lord is near, and as destruction from the Almighty it comes” (Joel 1:14-15 ESV).

Joel was demanding that the people repent of their sins and warning them failure to do so would result in further judgment from God. If they thought the locusts were bad, they were in for a very unpleasant surprise. In these verses Joel describes a second of judgment that was headed their way, and he refers to it as “the day of the Lord.” This phrase is found throughout the prophetic books of the Old Testament and is typically used to refer to the final phase of God’s redemptive plan for the world. The day of the Lord will entail the final judgments of God against all mankind, but also the fulfillment of His promises to Israel. It will include the period known as the Great Tribulation, when God will pour out a series of devastating judgments on the world and its inhabitants, but also the second coming of Christ, when He will defeat the enemies of God and set up His millennial kingdom on earth.

For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    has a day of reckoning.
He will punish the proud and mighty
    and bring down everything that is exalted. – Isaiah 2:12 NLT

For see, the day of the Lord is coming—
    the terrible day of his fury and fierce anger.
The land will be made desolate,
    and all the sinners destroyed with it. – Isaiah 13:9 NLT

The day is near when I, the Lord,
    will judge all godless nations!
As you have done to Israel,
    so it will be done to you.
All your evil deeds
    will fall back on your own heads. – Obadiah 15

As was often the case with these proclamations of pending doom, the prophets were communicating a two-phase judgment. The first phase would take place in the not-so-distant future. It would come in the form of the Assyrian or Babylonian armies, and end in the defeat and subjugation of the people of God. But these prophecies had a second and much more distant aspect to their meaning. They were speaking of events that still wait to be fulfilled. And this is true of Joel’s words as well.

Joel warns the people of Judah to sound an alarm. They were to blow the shofar or ram’s horm as a warning signal to the nation, declaring the arrival of an enemy army. Joel wants the people to feel a sense of urgency. This was not to be viewed as a remote possibility, but as a divine reality. He warns them that “the day of the Lord is coming; it is near” (Joel 2:1 ESV). He is trying to convey as sense of imminence and immediacy. They can’t afford to ignore his warning or to assume the sound of the shofar is a false alarm.

Joel breaks the news that “a great and powerful people” were headed their way. And their numbers would be so great that they would shroud the land like a blackness. In fact, he states that “their like has never been before, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations” (Joel 2:2 ESV). This was not a case of prophetic hyperbole. Joel isn’t crying wolf or trying to elicit a response by exaggerating the circumstances. He is a prophet of God proclaiming the word of God. 

What makes the writings of men like Joel, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, and Zechariah so fascinating is that they provide us with proof of God’s Word. He speaks and things happen. He provides His prophets with insights into future events and those things take place, just as He predicted. God never issues idle threats concerning coming judgment. He doesn’t bluff about His hatred for sin and His determination to punish His people for their rebellion. The day of the Lord is coming. God will repay all men for the evil deeds and will fulfill every promise He has made concerning His blessings and curses.

In the following verses, Joel will describe the arrival of a mighty army, using words and phrases meant to remind the people of Judah of the most recent insect invasion they had experienced. But this time, it would be armies made up of men, not arthropods. Rather than facing crop-consuming locusts, the people of Judah would become the victims of human enemies who destroy all who stand in their way. Where the insect hordes had devastated the land of God, the human army will destroy the people of God.

It is interesting to note that Joel describes the land as being like the garden of Eden prior to the coming judgment. But when it is all over, the land will be a desolate wilderness. This description is intended to reflect a spiritual reality, not a physical one. The garden of Eden was a beautiful, God-created place of perfect peace, where Adam and Eve enjoy unbroken fellowship with their Maker. But when sin entered into the scene, the guilty pair were cast out of the garden and denied access to God’s presence. They lost their right to enjoy God’s provision and presence. And instead of being blessed by God, they found themselves under His curse.

That is point Joel seems to be making. The land had already been devastated by the locusts. The fields were empty of produce and the trees and vines had been stripped bare of fruit. But it was still Edenic, because God was there. They still enjoyed the presence of God. Yet, Joel warns, the day was coming when the garden-like nature of Judah would be turned into a wilderness, devoid of the fruit of God’s power and presence. God would even resort to their removal from His land of promise, sending them into captivity in Babylon.

God is serious about sin, and He holds His people responsible for their actions. Adam and Eve had known the rules, but they had chosen to disobey them. And they suffered the consequences. The people of Judah knew what God expected of them, but they had chosen to reject His will for their own. And now, they too would suffer the consequences. The day of the Lord was coming. Judgment was inevitable and inescapable. But as we will see, God’s warning of pending judgment is always accompanied by a call to repentance.  He longs to see His people turn away from their sin and rebellion and return to Him in humility and contrition. 

All the way back at the dedication of the temple constructed by Solomon, God had promised the people of Israel:

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

That is always the heart of God. He longs to hear from His people and it is His heart’s desire to provide healing for them. But the peace of Eden will not abide the presence of sin. God requires holiness from His creation. And yet, He is going to offer the people of Judah an opportunity to return to Him in humble contrition, acknowledging their sin and their need for forgiveness and restoration.

“…return to me with all your heart,
with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;
    and rend your hearts and not your garments.” – Joel 2:12-13 ESV

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

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

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

 

A Thirst For God

13 Put on sackcloth and lament, O priests;
    wail, O ministers of the altar.
Go in, pass the night in sackcloth,
    O ministers of my God!
Because grain offering and drink offering
    are withheld from the house of your God.

14 Consecrate a fast;
    call a solemn assembly.
Gather the elders
    and all the inhabitants of the land
to the house of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to the Lord.

15 Alas for the day!
For the day of the Lord is near,
    and as destruction from the Almighty[c] it comes.
16 Is not the food cut off
    before our eyes,
joy and gladness
    from the house of our God?

The seed shrivels under the clods;
    the storehouses are desolate;
the granaries are torn down
    because the grain has dried up.
18 How the beasts groan!
    The herds of cattle are perplexed
because there is no pasture for them;
    even the flocks of sheep suffer.

19 To you, O Lord, I call.
For fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness,
and flame has burned
    all the trees of the field.
20 Even the beasts of the field pant for you
    because the water brooks are dried up,
and fire has devoured
    the pastures of the wilderness. – Joel 1:13-20 ESV

The consequences of sin are not always self-evident. They don’t always show up at the point the sin is being committed. But in due time, the sinner always reaps what he sows. We can attempt to hide our sin or act like it never happened, but it will eventually get exposed. As God warned the tribes of Reuben and Gad, “be sure your sin will find you out” (Numbers 32:23 ESV).

And the people of Judah were experiencing the painful consequences of their sin against God, in the form of the devastating aftermath of the locust infestation that had left their land devoid of fruit and grain. For generations, they had thought they had gotten away with their repeated rebellion against God, but their sin had found them out. He had been watching and waiting. Now, judgment had come and they had no grain to make bread and no grapes with which to produce wine. And, on top of that, they had no way of offering the grain and drink offerings required as part of the sacrificial system established by Yahweh.

So, Joel calls on the priests of God to put on sackcloth, lament, and wail. Rather than wearing their priestly robes and offering sacrifices on behalf of the people, they were to spend their nights in sorrow, “Because grain offering and drink offering are withheld from the house of your God” (Joel 1:13 ESV). Joel addresses them as “ministers of the altar” and “ministers of my God,” clearly pointing out how they had abdicated their responsibility as the spiritual leaders of Judah. They were to have led the nation in the worship of God, bringing the sins of the people before the altar and helping to restore them to a right relationship with God.

When God had set apart the tribe of Levi to assist Aaron with the duties associated with the tabernacle, He had told them, “They shall guard all the furnishings of the tent of meeting, and keep guard over the people of Israel as they minister at the tabernacle” (Numbers 3:8 ESV). The priests in Joel’s day had failed to keep guard over the people. They had stood back and watched as the people disobeyed and dishonored God by their sinful behavior. Yes, they continued to offer their grain and drink offerings. They kept bringing their sacrifices and fulfilling all the feast days and festivals. But their hearts were not in it. God’s feelings regarding the outward obedience of His people were made quite clear in His words recorded by the prophet Isaiah.

“What makes you think I want all your sacrifices?”says the LORD.

“I am sick of your burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fattened cattle. I get no pleasure from the bloodof bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to worship me, who asked you to parade through my courts with all your ceremony. Stop bringing me your meaningless gifts; the incense of your offerings disgusts me! As for your celebrations of the new moon and the Sabbath and your special days for fasting—they are all sinful and false. I want no more of your pious meetings.” – Isaiah 1:11-13 NLT

God was fed up. He had had enough. So, He demands that the priests assemble all the people at the temple and declare a nationwide fast and period of mourning.

Announce a time of fasting;
    call the people together for a solemn meeting.
Bring the leaders
    and all the people of the land
into the Temple of the Lord your God,
    and cry out to him there. – Joel 1:14 NLT

The Hebrew word used for this kind of gathering is `atsarah, and it was typically used to refer to an assembly of the people for the keeping of a feast or festival. But there would be no feasting at this assembly. It was a fast, a willing abstaining from food on order to focus all their attention on God. And they were already experiencing a forced fast because there was no bread to eat or wine to drink. As is self-evident, this was not going to be a joyous occasion. They were expected to cry out to God in confession and repentance, placing themselves at His mercy and hoping that He will show them grace.

And Joel doesn’t want them to miss the seriousness of this occasion. He describes the time in which they live as “the day of the Lord.” And he points out that “Our food disappears before our very eyes. No joyful celebrations are held in the house of our God” (Joel 1:16 ESV). They are under divine judgment and its effects are all around them.

The seeds die in the parched ground,
    and the grain crops fail.
The barns stand empty,
    and granaries are abandoned. – Joel 1:17 NLT

Even the animals in the fields are experiencing the consequences of Judah’s sin and God’s judgment. The pastures are barren and the flocks are starving. In all of this, Joel seems to be pointing out how Judah’s sin was impacting not only the economy, but the sacrificial system. Not only was there no grain or wine for use in the offerings, the herds and flocks that would have been the source of sacrifices were suffering from starvation. The entire sacrificial system, designed to provide forgiveness from sin and a restored relationship with God, was struggling for its existence. Joel describes the flock of sheep as suffering, but the Hebrew word he uses is 'asham, which means “to suffer punishment due to guilt.” Even the sheep, which were the primary means of substititionary atonement for the sins of the people, were suffering as if guilty. Their lack of adequate food had made them unfit for sacrifice.

These were dark days. And it wasn’t because of the locusts. It was because of sin. And the judgment against Judah’s sin had not stopped with the devouring by the locusts. Joel describes fire as having scorched the fields, leaving any remnant of grain completely wiped out. And, on top of that, the brooks had dried up, leaving the animals in the fields searching for anything to slack their thirst.

The imagery of animals desperately seeking for something to slack their thirst is meant to picture the spiritual state of the people of Judah. They are dying spiritually, and in need of someone to quench their unbearable thirst for satisfaction. And, through the prophet Isaiah, God offers them an invitation.

“Come, everyone who thirsts,
    come to the waters;
and he who has no money,
    come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
    without money and without price.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
    and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good,
    and delight yourselves in rich food.” – Isaiah 55:1-12 ESV

The situation is desperate, but are the people of Judah? Are they ready to give up their wicked ways and turn to God? Has the devastation of the locusts left them ready to seek God and serve Him faithfully? Time will tell. But Joel warns them that things are going to get worse before they get better. If they don’t repent, the day of the Lord will come. He is offering to quench their spiritual thirst and alleviate their suffering, but they must confess their sin and return to Him in humility and contrition.

Again, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, reminding the people of Judah what it was He wanted from them. And His words reveal the choice that the people of Judah had to make.

“But this is the one to whom I will look:
    he who is humble and contrite in spirit
    and trembles at my word.

“He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man;
    he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog's neck;
he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig's blood;
    he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
    and their soul delights in their abominations.” – Isaiah 66:2-3 ESV

 

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

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

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

 

Cut Off and Dried Up

5 Awake, you drunkards, and weep,
    and wail, all you drinkers of wine,
because of the sweet wine,
    for it is cut off from your mouth.
6 For a nation has come up against my land,
    powerful and beyond number;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
    and it has the fangs of a lioness.
7 It has laid waste my vine
    and splintered my fig tree;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
    their branches are made white.

8 Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth
    for the bridegroom of her youth.
9 The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
    from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
    the ministers of the Lord.
10 The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes.

11 Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil;
    wail, O vinedressers,
for the wheat and the barley,
    because the harvest of the field has perished.
12 The vine dries up;
    the fig tree languishes.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple,
    all the trees of the field are dried up,
and gladness dries up
    from the children of man. – Joel 1:5-12 ESV

The relentless waves of locusts have come and gone, leaving a lunar-like landscape in their wake. The land of Judah has been stripped bare of all vegetation as these voracious insects devoured every plant in their path.  Joel paints a grim picture of the aftermath of their devastating destruction, describing the grape vines as being “laid waste,” the fig trees as “splintered,” the fields as “destroyed,” and the trees of the field as “dried up.” And he calls on the people of Judah to mourn their loss. In fact, he addresses several distinctly different groups of individuals, in an obvious effort to show the non-discriminatory nature of the locust judgment.

First, he speaks to the drunkards (Hebrew: shikkowr), those who spend their days intoxicated by the fruit of the vine. These individuals were going to find the days ahead especially difficult to endure. While they would survive in the short-term, living off the surplus of wine from the last harvest, the day would come when the shelves at the local convenience store would be bare, and the storage vats would be dry. Suddenly, the drunks would find themselves with nothing to drink, and no way to satisfy their insatiable desire for wine-fueled escape. It will be a rude and unpleasant wake-up call, like an alcoholic having to go cold-turkey.

Joel compares the overwhelming numbers of the locusts to that of a vast human army “powerful and beyond number.” But he describes their capacity to devour and destroy as being like the teeth and fangs of a lion.  Then, Joel provides a graphic description of the devastating consequences of this vast army’s destructive power.  And he uses the voice of God to portray the scene.

It has destroyed my grapevines
    and ruined my fig trees,
stripping their bark and destroying it,
    leaving the branches white and bare. – Joel 1:7 NLT

This judgment from God has impacted the land of God. The land of promise, provided by God to the people of Judah, has had to suffer because of their sin. It was His grapevines that had been stripped bare, and the fig trees that were stripped of their bark and left with fruitless branches had been His property. The sins of mankind always impact the creation of God. Even the original fall left the created order under a curse. The apostle Paul describes creation as groaning under that curse, awaiting its re-creation at the return of Christ.

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:20-22 NLT

Next, Joel turns his attention to the priests. The loss caused by the locust infestation was going to make a very different impact on their lives. Joel describes the “grain offering and the drink offering” as being “cut off from the house of the Lord” (Joel 1:9 ESV). With the fields left stripped bare and the vines devoid of fruit, there would be no grain or wine to use in the sacrificial system. Like a gasoline-powered engine with no fuel to fill its tank, the temple rituals would grind to a halt, leaving the priests with nothing to do, but mourn.

The fields are ruined,
    the land is stripped bare.
The grain is destroyed,
    the grapes have shriveled,
    and the olive oil is gone. – Joel 1:10 NLT

No grain for the grain offering. No wine for the drink offering. No olive oil for the lamps. All the way back during the days of the exodus from Egypt, God had provided the people of Israel with instructions regarding the importance of grain, wine, and oil in the sacrificial system He had instituted.

“These are the sacrifices you are to offer regularly on the altar. Each day, offer two lambs that are a year old, one in the morning and the other in the evening. With one of them, offer two quarts of choice flour mixed with one quart of pure oil of pressed olives; also, offer one quart of wine as a liquid offering. Offer the other lamb in the evening, along with the same offerings of flour and wine as in the morning. It will be a pleasing aroma, a special gift presented to the Lord.” – Exodus 29:38-41 NLT

And notice what Moses says. These offerings of wine, oil, and grain were “a special gift presented to the Lord.” The Jews were to present these offerings to the Lord, in obedience to His commands, but also in appreciation for His goodness and grace. The apostle Paul used the drink offering as a way to describe his commitment to live his life in obedience to the cause of Christ.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. – Philippians 2:17 ESV

Because of their sins, the people of Judah had brought the judgment of God on themselves. But their disobedience wasn’t going to impact them alone. It would rob God of the glory and honor He deserved.

Finally, Joel addresses the farmers and the vine-growers. With no grain or grapes to harvest, they would have plenty of time to weep and mourn. Joel uses the Hebrew word, yabesh, and it is translated as “ashamed.” But it can mean “to dry up” or “to wither away.” Joel seems to be saying that the barren fields and fruitless vines would act as a visual representation of the spiritual condition of God’s people. They were dried up and withered. They were spiritually fruitless and non-productive.

Don’t miss the picture Joel is painting. The farmers have no grain to harvest. The vine-growers have not grapes with which to produce wine. As a result, the drunks have no wine with which to get drunk. But the people have no wine or grain to offer up to God. Not only can the drunks not sin, but the people can’t effectively find forgiveness for their sins. And the priests, whose primary job was to act as “the ministers of the Lord,” would find themselves with no role to play. Rather than wearing robes of righteousness and presenting offerings of thankfulness to God, they would be wearing the sackcloth associated with mourning and weeping tears of sorrow and regret.

And Joel summarizes the situation, revealing that the destruction of the locusts had been all-encompassing in its scope.

The grapevines have dried up,
    and the fig trees have withered.
The pomegranate trees, palm trees, and apple trees—
    all the fruit trees—have dried up.
    And the people’s joy has dried up with them. – Joel 1:12 NLT

Virtually every living thing had been impacted by the judgment of God as manifested in the locust plague.  Grapes, figs, pomegranates, palms, apples, and all other fruit trees were destroyed. But, more significantly, so was the joy of the people. As the crops had withered, so had the joy of the people. The Hebrew word for “joy” that Joel used is sasown, and it could be used to speak of gladness, rejoicing, or “the oil of gladness“ that was used in times of celebration. The people of Judah had no reason to rejoice or celebrate. Their sins had brought the judgment of God. And while the primary target of God’s judgment had nature itself, the people would feel the consequences.  And in the book of isaiah, the prophet speaks of “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2), describing a future day when God will restore joy and gladness to His rebellious people. 

…to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. – Isaiah 61:3 ESV

Sin always brings death and destruction. It always results in sorrow. Ultimately, it prevents mankind from giving God the glory and honor He deserves. And, as this passage so powerfully illustrates, it leaves the people of God spiritually barren and fruitless, dried up and devoid of joy. 

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

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

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

 

A Message from the Lord

1 The word of the Lord that came to Joel, the son of Pethuel:

2 Hear this, you elders;
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
    or in the days of your fathers?
3 Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
    and their children to another generation.

4  What the cutting locust left,
    the swarming locust has eaten.
What the swarming locust left,
    the hopping locust has eaten,
and what the hopping locust left,
    the destroying locust has eaten. – Joel 1:1-4 ESV

As the name of the book implies, its author was an individual known as Joel. His name means “Yahweh is God,” so it would be easy to assume that his parents were faithful Israelites who raised their young son to worship the deity who had chosen the descendants of Abraham to be His prized possession. We know little about Joel, except for the name of his father, Pethuel. Joel did not come from a well-known or influential family. He had no apparent pedigree or status as a religious leader among his people. He simply introduces himself as “Joel, the son of Pethuel.”

The significant thing about Joel is not his name or his background, but the message he delivered. Even more importantly, it is the one who gave Joel the message that provides this book any weight and makes Joel someone worth giving the time of day.  He claims to be delivering “the word of the Lord.” 

The Hebrew word translated as “Lord” is actually the tetragrammaton YHWH. The ancient Hebrew language in which the book of Joel was written used only consonants and no vowels. So, the name of God was written with the four letters: YHWH. When translating the Hebrew text to English, the name of God has been translated as Jehovah, Yahweh, or as it is here, Lord. The ancient Hebrews held God’s name in such high regard that they refused to speak it out loud, even when reading the Scriptures. So, when they came to a passage where the tetragrammaton YHWH was found, they would substitute the word Adonai (“Lord”).

Joel is establishing from the outset that his message has been given to him by Yahweh, the God of the Jews. And it would appear from the context of the book’s content that God’s message is directed primarily at the southern kingdom of Judah. Determining a date for when Joel penned this message is difficult and has been hotly debated over the centuries. The disagreements all revolve around the period known as the exile – referring to the time when the southern kingdom of Judah was defeated by Babylonians, and the walls of Jerusalem were breached and the city destroyed. The city and its beautiful temple, built by King Solomon were ransacked by Nebuchadnezzar’s army in 586 B.C. And it is around this year that the debate regarding the dating of the book of Joel swirls.

Basing their discussions around the exile or the time in which the people of Judah were taken captive to Babylon, some argue for an early pre-exilic dating, while others defend a mid-pre-exilic timeline. Still others promote a late pre-exilic date. But the one thing they all share in common is the pre-exilic designation. In other words, they all believe that Joel wrote his book before the nation of Judah fell, and its people were taken captive to Babylon. But there is a fifth opinion out there that puts the date of the writing of Joel after the exile, designating it as being post-exilic in terms of its timing.

It seems that many who hold to the post-exilic view do so because they reject the prophetic nature of the book. In other words, because Joel’s message contains what appear to be predictions of Judah’s destruction at the hands of the Babylonians, he must have written it after the fact. Therefore, it is not really a book of prophecy, but a book of reflection, written in retrospect. Yet, one of the main themes in the book is the sovereignty of God. It is not meant to be a looking back at what God has done, but a revelation of what God is going to do. God is delivering through Joel a message of judgment against the nation of Judah for their unfaithfulness. They had repeatedly broken their covenant with Him, and now He was warning them what was going to happen as a result. If you adopt the post-exilic dating, the calls to repentance found in the book seem out of place and even unjust on God’s part, because if the people have already been taken captive and restored to the land, there is no opportunity or need for their repentance.

So, it would make much more sense to see this book as having been written before the fall of Jerusalem. It is prophetic in nature, containing God’s message for the people of Judah, warning of His coming judgment, calling them to repentance, and assuring them of His mercy should they do so.

But Joel opens his book with a stern message directed at the leaders, but intended for the ears of each and every citizen of Judah.

Hear this, you elders;
    give ear, all inhabitants of the land!
Has such a thing happened in your days,
    or in the days of your fathers?
Tell your children of it,
    and let your children tell their children,
and their children to another generation. – Joel 1:2-3 ESV

The land of Judah had suffered from a devastating wave of successive locust infestations. Joel describes what appear to be four different kinds of locusts: cutting locusts, swarming locusts, hopping locusts, and destroying locusts. But it is likely that he is only trying to illustrate that the destruction took place over time, with the locusts doing increasing degrees of damage with each successive infestation.

And Joel poses the question, “Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers?” This is a rhetorical question requiring no response. The answer is obviously, “No.” This was devastation on never-before-seen scale and Joel wants his readers to not miss the significance of what they have just experienced. They were to spread the word and retell the story for generations to come. And this command from Joel reflects the words of Psalm 78.

O my people, listen to my instructions.
    Open your ears to what I am saying,
    for I will speak to you in a parable.
I will teach you hidden lessons from our past—
    stories we have heard and known,
    stories our ancestors handed down to us.
We will not hide these truths from our children;
    we will tell the next generation
about the glorious deeds of the Lord,
    about his power and his mighty wonders. – Psalm 78:1-4 NLT

They were not to hide the glorious deeds of the Lord from their children. And in this case, Joel commands them to tell their children about the judgments of God as well. And the Psalmist goes on to provide the rationalization behind this disclosure of God’s power and mighty wonders.

   …teach them to their children,
so the next generation might know them—
    even the children not yet born—
    and they in turn will teach their own children.
So each generation should set its hope anew on God,
    not forgetting his glorious miracles
    and obeying his commands.
Then they will not be like their ancestors—
    stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful,
    refusing to give their hearts to God. – Psalm 78:5-8 NLT

God’s people are to paint a clear and comprehensive picture of Him. He is not one-dimensional and is not to be presented in a lopsided or incomplete manner. God is love, but His wrath cannot be overlooked or ignored. He is holy and righteous and stands in opposition to all that is unholy and unrighteous. God blesses, but He also curses. His rewards can come in both positive and negative forms, depending upon the actions of the one He is rewarding. Sin brings His condemnation and judgment. Obedience brings blessing.

Joel is issuing a stern wake-up call, demanding that the people of Judah assess their circumstances and recognize that hand of Almighty God. They could allow the devastating judgment they had just endured to draw them back to God, or they could grow “stubborn, rebellious, and unfaithful, refusing to give their hearts to God.”

The choice was theirs. But Joel will spend the next three chapters calling on the people of Judah to wake up and smell the coffee. He will plead with them to repent and return. He will warn of future judgment to come should they refuse. The message he was delivering was from the Lord, and it would be best if they listened.

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

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

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

They Shall Declare My Glory

15 “For behold, the Lord will come in fire,
    and his chariots like the whirlwind,
to render his anger in fury,
    and his rebuke with flames of fire.
16 For by fire will the Lord enter into judgment,
    and by his sword, with all flesh;
    and those slain by the Lord shall be many.

17 “Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the Lord.

18 “For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory, 19 and I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. And they shall declare my glory among the nations. 20 And they shall bring all your brothers from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, on horses and in chariots and in litters and on mules and on dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their grain offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. 21 And some of them also I will take for priests and for Levites, says the Lord.

22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth
    that I make
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
    so shall your offspring and your name remain.
23 From new moon to new moon,
    and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the Lord.

24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” Isaiah 66:15-24 ESV

After 66 chapters, it would be easy to assume that the entire book of Isaiah is all about the nation of Judah. And while they are one of the main topics of the book and the key recipient of it the messages contained in it, they are not its primary focus. God is.

All throughout the book, Isaiah has communicated the glory and greatness of God. What set the people of Judah apart was their God. He was the reason they were a nation in the first place. He had called Abraham out of Ur and made from him a great nation consisting of descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. The whole purpose behind Isaiah writing the book that bears his name was to express God’s glory and expose the guilt of the people of Judah for refusing to reflect that glory to the nations. They were to have been a living, breathing witness to the rest of the world of what it looks like to live in unbroken fellowship with God Almighty. But they had failed. Instead of bringing glory to the name of God through submission to His will and obedience to His commands, they had displayed an open disregard for His holiness and greatness by pursuing false gods. They had profaned the name of God by their actions and, while God was obligated to punish them, He was still determined to protect the integrity of His reputation by remaining committed to the covenant He had made with them.

Throughout this book, the glory of God is juxtaposed to the sinfulness of humanity. And the divided kingdoms of Judah and Israel are highlighted as glaring examples of mankind’s stubborn rejection of God’s revealed glory. He had chosen, rescued, led, protected, and provided for them. He had given them His law as a guideline for living in relationship with Him and one another. He had provided them with the sacrificial system as a means of receiving forgiveness for the times they inevitably failed to live up to His law. And each time God displayed His power among them, showered His grace and unmerited favor on them, and maintained His covenant commitment to them, He was revealing His glory. But rather than responding in gratitude and with a renewed determination to remain faithful to Him, the peoples of Judah and Israel had continued to treat God’s glory with disdain and indifference.

So, the book of Isaiah tells us what God intends to do. It reveals His plans regarding His disobedient children and the rest of mankind who live in open rebellion to Him. While the punishment of Judah is a major theme of the book, the future restoration of Judah and Israel is given far more significance. And the primary point behind their restoration will be the glory of God. Isaiah has already told us what will happen in that day.

And you will say in that day:

“Give thanks to the Lord,
    call upon his name,
make known his deeds among the peoples,
    proclaim that his name is exalted.

“Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously;
    let this be made known in all the earth.
Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion,
    for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.” – Isaiah 12:4-6 ESV

Notice that God is the main focus of these verses. He will receive thanks. It is His deeds that will be made known. His name will be exalted. Praises will be sung to Him and about Him. Because He alone is great. God’s restoration of His people will not go unnoticed by the rest of the world. They will recognize His glory and greatness as He displays His covenant faithfulness. But they will also see and experience His glory in the form of His judgment. As Isaiah has made clear, the day is coming when God will reveal His glory as He metes out justice to the nations.

“My mercy and justice are coming soon.
    My salvation is on the way.
    My strong arm will bring justice to the nations.
All distant lands will look to me
    and wait in hope for my powerful arm.
Look up to the skies above,
    and gaze down on the earth below.
For the skies will disappear like smoke,
    and the earth will wear out like a piece of clothing.
The people of the earth will die like flies,
    but my salvation lasts forever.
    My righteous rule will never end!” – Isaiah 51:5-6 NLT

Again, don’t miss the emphasis of these verses: My mercy and justice. My salvation. My strong arm. My righteous rule. It will all be about God and His glory. In fact, verse 18 of this chapter clearly states that the focus of all that happens in the end times will be the glory of God.

“For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory…”

The Hebrew word translated “glory” is kabowd and it literally means “heaviness.” But it is primarily used to refer to weight or significance of something or someone. Used of God, it is an expression of His greatness, magnificence, and majesty. God’s glory is what sets Him apart as the one true God. Isaiah 43:7 tells us that we were made for God’s glory. In other words, our very existence points back to His majesty as the Creator-God. The psalmist tells us that “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1 ESV). The apostle Paul reminds us that, as believers, we are vessels of clay in which the very glory of God is contained (2 Corinthians 4:7).

God is all about His glory, and He can reveal His glory in a variety of ways. In fact, all that He does reveals His glory. When He saves, He received glory. When He judges, He is glorified. When He displays His righteous indignation against sinful mankind, the glory of His character is revealed. God’s merciful and gracious gift of His Son as payment for the sins of man is a manifestation of His glory. And Jesus told His followers that, when they bear fruit, “This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:8 NLT).

So, back to the closing verses of Isaiah 66. What does any of this have to do with God’s glory? God talks about coming in fire and rendering His anger in fury. He describes His judgment as resulting in the deaths of many. In fact, the very last verse in the entire book states:

“And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.” – Isaiah 66:24 ESV

And while that description may leave us feeling a bit discomfited, we must not overlook the reality that it too reveals the glory of God. He is going to deal with rebellious mankind once and for all. And less we think that God is being a bit too harsh, we have to remember that He has been extending grace and mercy to the nations for centuries. He has been showing great patience for generations. But the day is coming when His patience will run out and His righteous judgment will be poured out. And, as the book of Revelation reveals, when the period of the Tribulation comes and God begins to His final judgments upon humanity, the vast majority of them will refuse to repent.

Everyone was burned by this blast of heat, and they cursed the name of God, who had control over all these plagues. They did not repent of their sins and turn to God and give him glory. – Revelation 16:9 NLT

…and they cursed the God of heaven for their pains and sores. But they did not repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. – Revelation 16:11 NLT

And yet, notice what God is going to do. Isaiah reveals that there is a day coming when God will display His glory in yet another way. He will send messengers to all those whom He spares from judgment, giving them a second and final chance to see and experience His glory in the form of salvation.

“I will perform a sign among them. And I will send those who survive to be messengers to the nations—to Tarshish, to the Libyans and Lydians (who are famous as archers), to Tubal and Greece, and to all the lands beyond the sea that have not heard of my fame or seen my glory. There they will declare my glory to the nations. – Isaiah 66:19 NLT

God will be glorified as He redeems and restores a remnant of His rebellious people, Israel. But He will also be glorified when He spares and saves a portion of sinful mankind. And the outcome of all God’s activities in those days will be the worship of Him.

“All humanity will come to worship me
    from week to week
    and from month to month.” – Isaiah 66:23 NLT

And the apostle John provides us with a marvelous description of that day, when God and His Son will rule over all the earth and their glory will fill the earth.

No longer will there be a curse upon anything. For the throne of God and of the Lamb will be there, and his servants will worship him. And they will see his face, and his name will be written on their foreheads. And there will be no night there—no need for lamps or sun—for the Lord God will shine on them. And they will reign forever and ever. – Revelation 22:3-5 NLT

We shall declare His glory.

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

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

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

What Are You Waiting For? Rejoice!

7 “Before she was in labor
    she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her
    she delivered a son.
8 Who has heard such a thing?
    Who has seen such things?
Shall a land be born in one day?
    Shall a nation be brought forth in one moment?
For as soon as Zion was in labor
    she brought forth her children.
9 Shall I bring to the point of birth and not cause to bring forth?”
    says the Lord;
“shall I, who cause to bring forth, shut the womb?”
    says your God.

10 “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her,
    all you who love her;
rejoice with her in joy,
    all you who mourn over her;
11 that you may nurse and be satisfied
    from her consoling breast;
that you may drink deeply with delight
    from her glorious abundance.”

12 For thus says the Lord:
“Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river,
    and the glory of the nations like an overflowing stream;
and you shall nurse, you shall be carried upon her hip,
    and bounced upon her knees.
13 As one whom his mother comforts,
    so I will comfort you;
    you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
14 You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice;
    your bones shall flourish like the grass;
and the hand of the Lord shall be known to his servants,
    and he shall show his indignation against his enemies. – Isaiah 66:7-14 ESV

As the book of Isaiah comes to a close, we see God attempting to assure His chosen people that they reason to hope. In spite of all that was presently taking place around them and the judgment God had promised to bring on them, they had reason to rejoice. Because God was not going to forget them. He would not completely abandon them. And to drive home His point, God reminds them of just how quickly they had become a nation. He describes Zion as a pregnant woman. Zion is synonymous with Jerusalem, the city of God, and Mount Zion is where the city of Jerusalem is located.

So, in verse seven, God describes Zion as having given birth to a son. But in verse eight He clarifies that the son is representative of a nation or people. And the birth of this nation was extremely quick and relatively free from pain. Like a woman who gives birth before her labor pains start, the nation of Israel came on the scene in a relatively short period of time and without a great deal of emotional or physical travail. This does not mean that the nation of Israel had a pain-free path to becoming a major force in that area of the world. They fought many battles and faced a variety of enemies, but God brought them to power and prominence in a relatively short period of time. It was His doing and, therefore, it was a miracle.

And yet, here they were facing the very real threat of destruction at the hands of the Babylonians. God had clearly told them that their city would be defeated, their temple destroyed, and their people deported to Babylon as captives. Which is why God reminds them that what He did once, He could do again.

“Would I ever bring this nation to the point of birth
    and then not deliver it?” asks the Lord.
“No! I would never keep this nation from being born,”
    says your God. – Isaiah 66:9 NLT

Yes, they were going to fall to the Babylonians and they would be removed from the land. But God was promising to return them to the land. They would be reborn as a nation. And while this prophecy would be fulfilled in part when the remnant returned to Judah under the leadership of Ezra and Zerubbabel, then later under Nehemiah, there is much about God’s promise that remains unfulfilled.

While a remnant did return to Judah and Jerusalem after 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the nation of Israel has never experienced anything remotely similar to the former glory it enjoyed under the reigns of David and Solomon. There is no king in Jerusalem. And, while the Jewish people once again live in the land of promise and occupy the city of Jerusalem, they are surrounded by enemies and under constant threat of attack. Yet, God tells the people of Judah in Isaiah’s day to “Rejoice with Jerusalem! Be glad with her, all you who love her and all you who mourn for her” (Isaiah 66:10 NLT). What a strange thing to say to a people who are facing inevitable defeat and deportation. Why would God tell them to rejoice over a city that is facing destruction? Because He has plans in store for the city and the nation of which they were unaware. And He outlines the nature of those plans in two short verses.

“I will give Jerusalem a river of peace and prosperity.
    The wealth of the nations will flow to her.
Her children will be nursed at her breasts,
    carried in her arms, and held on her lap.
I will comfort you there in Jerusalem
    as a mother comforts her child.” – Isaiah 66:12-13 NLT

This is where the as-yet nature of this promise can be seen. He promises peace and prosperity. He describes a day when the nations will flow to Jerusalem to honor her, not destroy her. And it is clear that these things have not yet taken place. They remain unfulfilled. But just as Zion gave birth to a nation once before, it will experience another miraculous and pain-free delivery of God’s covenant people. In a remarkably short period of time, God will repopulate Zion with His people and when they see it happen, they will rejoice. In fact, God says, “Everyone will see the Lord’s hand of blessing on his servants – and his anger against his enemies” (Isaiah 66:14 NLT). 

The scene being described here is eschatological in nature. It involved end-times events what remain as-yet unfulfilled. But God is promising His people that they will happen. Their inevitability is assured and, therefore, even the people of God in Isaiah’s day had reason to rejoice. The prophet Jeremiah records the words of God assuring His people of His intentions to restore them. In a sense, they will be born again, all according to His grace and mercy.

“Nevertheless, the time will come when I will heal Jerusalem’s wounds and give it prosperity and true peace. I will restore the fortunes of Judah and Israel and rebuild their towns. I will cleanse them of their sins against me and forgive all their sins of rebellion. Then this city will bring me joy, glory, and honor before all the nations of the earth! The people of the world will see all the good I do for my people, and they will tremble with awe at the peace and prosperity I provide for them.” – Jeremiah 33:6-9 NLT

Three times in this passage God says, “I will….” He promises to heal, restore, rebuild, cleanse, and forgive. And He describes a day when the city of Jerusalem and the people of Israel will once again bring Him joy, glory, and honor. And Isaiah recorded similar words of promise earlier in his book.

The Lord will comfort Israel again
    and have pity on her ruins.
Her desert will blossom like Eden,
    her barren wilderness like the garden of the Lord.
Joy and gladness will be found there.
    Songs of thanksgiving will fill the air. – Isaiah 51:3 NLT

And Isaiah’s words were not wishful thinking, but were based on the promise of God.

“My mercy and justice are coming soon.
    My salvation is on the way.
    My strong arm will bring justice to the nations.
All distant lands will look to me
    and wait in hope for my powerful arm.” – Isaiah 51:5 NLT

And Isaiah is so convinced of God’s faithfulness, that he pleads with Him to fulfill His promise sooner than later.

Wake up, wake up, O Lord! Clothe yourself with strength!
    Flex your mighty right arm!
Rouse yourself as in the days of old
    when you slew Egypt, the dragon of the Nile.
Are you not the same today,
    the one who dried up the sea,
making a path of escape through the depths
    so that your people could cross over? – Isaiah 51:9-10 NLT

He knew, based on past history, that God was fully capable of doing all that He had promised. It was just a matter of when He would do what He said He would do. And as far as Isaiah was concerned, He wanted God to fulfill His promises in his own lifetime. But, whether Isaiah lived to see God’s promises fulfilled, he was convinced they would happen just as God had said they would.

Those who have been ransomed by the Lord will return.
    They will enter Jerusalem singing,
    crowned with everlasting joy.
Sorrow and mourning will disappear,
    and they will be filled with joy and gladness. – Isaiah 51:9-11 NLT

While the fulfillment of these promises has not yet happened, the rejoicing should already be taking place. All those who have placed their hope in the reality of a living, all-powerful God should find reason to rejoice in the promises of God. While He has done great things and His past exploits are deserving of our praise, there is much that remains yet to be done. But God is faithful. He is a covenant-keeping God who never fails to do what He has promised to do. And with all that He has said He will do clearly articulated for us by Isaiah, we have more than enough reason to rejoice – even now.

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

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

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

No Place For Pride

1 Thus says the Lord:
“Heaven is my throne,
    and the earth is my footstool;
what is the house that you would build for me,
    and what is the place of my rest?
2 All these things my hand has made,
    and so all these things came to be,
declares the Lord.
But this is the one to whom I will look:
    he who is humble and contrite in spirit
    and trembles at my word.

3 “He who slaughters an ox is like one who kills a man;
    he who sacrifices a lamb, like one who breaks a dog’s neck;
he who presents a grain offering, like one who offers pig’s blood;
    he who makes a memorial offering of frankincense, like one who blesses an idol.
These have chosen their own ways,
    and their soul delights in their abominations;
4 I also will choose harsh treatment for them
    and bring their fears upon them,
because when I called, no one answered,
    when I spoke, they did not listen;
but they did what was evil in my eyes
    and chose that in which I did not delight.”

5 Hear the word of the Lord,
    you who tremble at his word:
“Your brothers who hate you
    and cast you out for my name’s sake
have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified,
    that we may see your joy’;
    but it is they who shall be put to shame.

6 “The sound of an uproar from the city!
    A sound from the temple!
The sound of the Lord,
    rendering recompense to his enemies!” – Isaiah 66:1-6 ESV

As human beings, we tend to put a lot of significance in those things that we have made with our own hands. We take great pride in our achievements. We boast in our accomplishments.  In short, we celebrate our own success. And there is no better example of this kind of self-exaltation than the pride-filled words of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon.

“Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” – Daniel 4:30 ESV

And it’s interesting to note that Nebuchadnezzar’s beautiful city was located in the same area where Nimrod and his followers had attempted to disobey God and build a city for themselves, complete with a huge construction project as a permanent monument to their own self-importance and significance. 

“Come, let’s build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens so that we may make a name for ourselves.” – Genesis 11:4 NLT

But there plans were contrary to God’s will and He confused their language and scattered them to the four winds. And before the sound of his own pride-filled voice had died away, Nebuchadnezzar would receive some ego-diminishing news straight from God’s throne room in heaven.

“It is hereby announced to you, King Nebuchadnezzar, that your kingdom has been removed from you! You will be driven from human society, and you will live with the wild animals. You will be fed grass like oxen, and seven periods of time will pass by for you before you understand that the Most High is ruler over human kingdoms and gives them to whomever he wishes.” – Daniel 4:31-32 NLT

Which brings us back to Isaiah 66. God opens up this section of His address to the people of Judah with the reminder: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool” (Isaiah 66:1 ESV). He was reminding His covenant people that He was the sovereign ruler over all, including them. He was the King and all glory and honor was due to Him and no one and nothing else. And yet, God exposes a pride problem among His people. They were guilty of placing far too much value on the temple they had built for Him. It had become the symbol of their own significance. They treated it like a box they had built in which to contain the God of the universe. And yet, as God had said in response to King David’s plan to build the temple:

Thus says the Lord: Would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving about in a tent for my dwelling. In all places where I have moved with all the people of Israel, did I speak a word with any of the judges of Israel, whom I commanded to shepherd my people Israel, saying, “Why have you not built me a house of cedar?” – 2 Samuel 7:5-7 ESV

God didn’t need or ask for a temple to be built. What He desired was a people who would worship and obey Him. As the prophet Samuel had told David’s predecessor: “Obedience is better than sacrifice, and submission is better than offering the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15:22 NLT). But the Jews had become enamored with their temple. Its very presence among them gave them a false sense of security and an over-confident belief in their own spirituality. They had come to value the temple they had created more than the Creator for whom they had built it.

So, God gives them a stark reminder of His criteria for measuring spirituality.

“But this is the one to whom I will look:
    he who is humble and contrite in spirit
    and trembles at my word.” – Isaiah 66:2 ESV

Notice that God looks for humility and contriteness in His people. But what do these two words mean? The Hebrew word translated “humble” means “poor, afflicted, humble, wretched.” It conveys the idea of need and abject dependence. But it also reveals an awareness that the one who is humble fully recognizes his or her condition. There is no false sense of pride or arrogance about them. The word translated “contrite” means “stricken” or “smitten” and seems to indicate the reason for the individual’s lowly condition. It provides the “why” behind their humble estate. They have been brought low by some circumstance of life and their condition has left them a clear sense of need. Which is why God describes them as trembling at His word.

A humble or poor person has nothing to bring to God. They are in no condition to offer the God of the universe anything and they recognize it. A contrite or stricken person understands that any suffering they experience is deserved. Even their righteous deeds are little more than filthy rags to a holy God. As sinners, they understand that they deserve little more than judgment from God. Which is why they tend to turn to God in fear and trembling, treating Him with the honor He deserves. They desire to do what He commands them to do.

But the people of Judah put a lot of stock in their keeping of the various religious rituals associated with their temple worship. God mentions the slaughter of an ox, the sacrifice of a lamb, and the offering of grain and frankincense. But then He turns around and labels these so-called acts of worship as little more than murder, animal cruelty, abomination and idol worship. In other words, even worship, when done in pride and with an attitude of self-righteousness, is unacceptable to God. 

Yes, they were keeping God’s commands by offering the appropriate sacrifices at the proper times and according to the temple calendar. But God says, “they did what was evil in my eyes and chose that in which I did not delight” (Isaiah 66:4 ESV). Even their adherence to His commands concerning sacrifices was tainted by their refusal to live in submission to Him in the rest of their lives. They were disobedient and disingenuous. And so, God warns them what is going to happen next.

“I will send them great trouble—
    all the things they feared.” – Isaiah 66:4 NLT

But don’t miss the reason behind God’s declaration of judgment. He says that when He had called, they had refused to answer. When He spoke, they had failed to listen. Instead, He says, “They deliberately sinned before my very eyes and chose to do what they know I despise” (Isaiah 66:4 ESV).

And to make matters worse, these very same people mocked the faithful remnant of God. These prideful and pompous individuals turned their anger and arrogance on those who had chosen to remain obedient to and reliant upon God. In their hatred for these faithful few, the majority of the people of Judah chose to cast them out of their midst. They wanted nothing to do with them. But God assures His remnant that justice is coming. He will bring shame to all those who stand pridefully opposed to Him and who treat the faithful with contempt. God was going to bring judgment on the people of Judah in the form of vengeance on behalf of all those who were humble and contrite.

God was going to humiliate the non-humble. He was going to strike down the non-contrite. Their religious play-acting was not going to save them. Their pride in their own achievements and over-confidence in their self-righteous activities were not going to protect them from the wrath of God. They were missing the one thing God was looking for: Humility. And James, in the letter that bears his name, reminds us that God “gives greater grace.” And then James goes on to remind us that God’s grace is reserved for the humble. “Therefore it says, ‘God opposes the proud, but he gives grace to the humble.’ So submit to God” (James 4:5-6 NLT).

Submit to God. There is the key. But submission requires an admittance of God’s superiority and our own inferiority. He is greater and more glorious and fully deserves our humble and contrite submission to His will. And when we come to Him in humility, we receive His grace – free of charge and fully apart from any merit on our part.

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

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

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

New and Improved

17 “For behold, I create new heavens
    and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered
    or come into mind.
18 But be glad and rejoice forever
    in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
    and her people to be a gladness.
19 I will rejoice in Jerusalem
    and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping
    and the cry of distress.
20 No more shall there be in it
    an infant who lives but a few days,
    or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
    and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
21 They shall build houses and inhabit them;
    they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
22 They shall not build and another inhabit;
    they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
    and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
23 They shall not labor in vain
    or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the Lord,
    and their descendants with them.
24 Before they call I will answer;
    while they are yet speaking I will hear.
25 The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
    the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
    and dust shall be the serpent's food.
They shall not hurt or destroy
    in all my holy mountain,”
says the Lord. – Isaiah 65:17-25 ESV

As we saw in yesterday’s blog, God gave the faithful remnant of Judah His assurance that they could expect Him to do something new. And here He gets specific. He tells them that the day is coming when He will create new heavens and a new earth. While this statement most likely left the people of Judah scratching their heads in wonder, it would have reminded them of the very first verse in the first chapter of the first book of the Pentateuch: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1 ESV). Their God, the one who created earth and heavens as they knew it, was going to re-create all things. And the point seems to be that the same power used to form the universe out of nothing was behind the promise to do a new thing for them. If God could create the universe ex nihilo, literally, out of nothing, and He had plans to create an all-new heavens and earth, then fulfilling His promises to the faithful remnant would prove to be no problem.

God assures His people that one day He will replace the old, sin-damaged universe with something new and pristine, and there will be no longing for what used to be.  God is going to make all things new, including the city of Jerusalem and the heart of every person who lives in it. The apostle John describes the vision he was given of this new Jerusalem.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. – 21:1-2 NLT

And the prophet Ezekiel records the promise concerning God’s renovation or recreation of the hearts of His people.

“And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.

“And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:26-28 NLT

This news was meant to bring joy to the people of Judah. As they faced the prospect of a coming invasion by Babylon, their hopes for the future looked bleak. But God was letting them know that He had a much better plan in store for them. He knew something they didn’t know. He had insights into their future to which they were blind and oblivious. And His pronouncement concerning the recreation of the heavens and earth, the city of Jerusalem, and the hearts of His people, was meant to encourage them. He wanted them to know that He was in full control of their fate and that they had reason to rejoice, rather than to despair.

God describes a day when there will be no more sorrow or tears. The painful results of living in a fallen and sin-fractured world will be non-existent. Infant mortality rates will rise dramatically because babies will no longer die just days after birth due to disease. Rather than experiencing premature and unexpected deaths, people will live to ripe old ages. In fact, God states that the average lifespan will be “like the days of a tree” (Isaiah 65:22 ESV). And people will live their extended lives in homes they have built and harvest grapes from the vineyards they have planted, without any fear of invasion from outside forces. 

No longer will they have to fear that all their hard work will be in vain. There will be no enemies to confiscate their goods or plunder their property.  And the older generation won’t have to worry about the next one squandering their inheritance through misfortune or misbehavior. God’s blessing will span the generations.

For they are people blessed by the Lord,
    and their children, too, will be blessed. – Isaiah 65:23 NLT

Think about the sheer magnitude of this promise. It means that there will never be another occasion for anyone to write or read the following words:

And there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel. – Judges 2:10 ESV

When God states that they will be His people, and He will be their God,” He means it. And He gives them an example of what that new relationship will look like.

“I will answer them before they even call to me.
    While they are still talking about their needs,
    I will go ahead and answer their prayers!” – Isaiah 65:24 NLT

No more broken fellowship due to sin. No more unanswered prayers because of unfaithfulness and infidelity. They will enjoy the same kind of unhindered fellowship with God that Adam and Eve experienced in the garden before the fall. The entire creative order will be restored to its former pre-fall glory, with even the animosity between animals and mankind removed.

But all of this amazing imagery begs the question: When will all of this take place? It is easy to deduce that what God is describing here remains as yet unfulfilled. We still live in the same fallen world and experience all the pain and suffering that accompanies it. The descendants of the peoples of Judah and Israel live in the land of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, but it is safe to say that they don’t experience the things promised in these verses. They are surrounded by enemies and plagued by the constant threat of attack. In his commentary on the book of Isaiah, Franz Delitzsch states:

But to what part of the history of salvation are we to look for a place for the fulfillment of such prophecies as these of the state of peace prevailing in nature around the church, except in the millennium? (Franz Delitzsch, Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah).

God is describing a future day that remains as yet unfulfilled. It will part of the Millennial Kingdom established by Jesus Christ when He returns to earth in His second coming. In that day, all that God has promised will be fulfilled. His Son will set up His Kingdom on earth, will He will reign from the throne of David in Jerusalem for a thousand years. And, as part of that Kingdom, a remnant of the people of Israel will return to the land and be restored to a right relationship with God, just as these verses have promised. But it is important to note that this future physical and literal manifestation of Christ‘s Kingdom will be the culmination of the spiritual aspect of His reign that began with His first advent.

When God invaded the darkness of this world through the incarnation, the Kingdom made its entrance into the world. Jesus was just as much the King then as He is now and will be when He returns. But His subjects, the Jewish people, rejected Him as their King. They refused to acknowledge Him as who He claimed to be, the Son of God and their long-awaited Messiah. But their rejection of Him did not in any way diminish the reality of His right to be King of kings and Lord of lords.

He rules and reigns in the hearts of all those who have placed their faith in Him as their sin substitute and Savior. It is true that those of us who call Him Lord do not always submit to Him as such. We don’t always allow Him to be the King of our lives. But when we do submit to His authority over our lives, we experience the blessings that come as a result. We enjoy the peace that comes with submission to His will. We experience the joy that accompanies obedience to His commands. We have the privilege of knowing, in part, what it will be like in those future days. We get to experience a foreshadowing of the promises yet to come. As the apostle Paul put it:

Now we see things imperfectly, like puzzling reflections in a mirror, but then we will see everything with perfect clarity. All that I know now is partial and incomplete, but then I will know everything completely, just as God now knows me completely. Three things will last forever—faith, hope, and love—and the greatest of these is love. – 1 Corinthians 13:12-13 NLT

All that God has described in these verses reflects the love of God. He has expressed His great love for mankind through the gift of His Son. And, one day, He will send His Son again, as a further and final expression of His love, renewing the world He has made and restoring mankind to a right relationship with Himself. And God punctuates His promise with the following statement:

“In those days no one will be hurt or destroyed on my holy mountain.
    I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Isaiah 65:25 NLT

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

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

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

The Faithful Few

8 Thus says the Lord:
“As the new wine is found in the cluster,
    and they say, ‘Do not destroy it,
    for there is a blessing in it,’
so I will do for my servants’ sake,
    and not destroy them all.
9 I will bring forth offspring from Jacob,
    and from Judah possessors of my mountains;
my chosen shall possess it,
    and my servants shall dwell there.
10 Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks,
    and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down,
    for my people who have sought me.
11 But you who forsake the Lord,
    who forget my holy mountain,
who set a table for Fortune
    and fill cups of mixed wine for Destiny,
12 I will destine you to the sword,
    and all of you shall bow down to the slaughter,
because, when I called, you did not answer;
    when I spoke, you did not listen,
but you did what was evil in my eyes
    and chose what I did not delight in.”

13 Therefore thus says the Lord God:
“Behold, my servants shall eat,
    but you shall be hungry;
behold, my servants shall drink,
    but you shall be thirsty;
behold, my servants shall rejoice,
    but you shall be put to shame;
14 behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart,
    but you shall cry out for pain of heart
    and shall wail for breaking of spirit.
15 You shall leave your name to my chosen for a curse,
    and the Lord God will put you to death,
    but his servants he will call by another name,
16 so that he who blesses himself in the land
    shall bless himself by the God of truth,
and he who takes an oath in the land
    shall swear by the God of truth;
because the former troubles are forgotten
    and are hidden from my eyes. – Isaiah 65:8-16 ESV

There is a lot of bad news in the book of Isaiah. It is filled with indictments regarding the sins of the people of Judah. And it contains warnings concerning God’s pending judgment for those sins. God was not going to allow their unfaithfulness and disobedience to go unpunished. As the holy and righteous God, His character would not allow Him to do so. But as the book comes to a close, God has some good news to convey to His chosen people.

The cluster of grapes to which God refers is meant to represent Judah. It contains both good grapes and bad ones. And while the bad grapes were essentially good for nothing, God vows to protect entire cluster in order to spare the remnant of good grapes that contain “new wine.” While the entire nation was guilty of open rebellion against God, there were those who had remained faithful. So, God vows not to destroy them all. He will show great patience in dealing with His people, refusing to eliminate those who have remained His servants.

“I will not destroy all Israel.
    For I still have true servants there.” – Isaiah 65:8 NLT

The few who have remained true to God will be rewarded by Him, because they have chosen not to give into the pressures to compromise their faith in God. While all their friends and neighbors were worshiping false gods, these faithful few will refuse to turn their backs on God. And just to make sure that we know how difficult that choice will be for them. God describes what they were up against. They were swimming against the prevailing current of their day. They were going against the popular perspective and risking everything to resist the moral sell-out of the majority. God speaks directly to the immoral majority:

“…the rest of you have forsaken the Lord
    and have forgotten his Temple,
and because you have prepared feasts to honor the god of Fate
    and have offered mixed wine to the god of Destiny…” – Isaiah 65:11 NLT

The crowd had long ago turned their backs on God, choosing to worship false gods with names like Gad, the Babylonian god of fortune, and Meni, the Babylonian god of fate or destiny. How ironic that these two gods were among the many idols the people of Jjudah worshiped. In doing so, they were displaying their hope that these false gods would somehow improve their fortunes and change their fate. While Yahweh had been pronouncing His coming judgment, the people of Judah were busy calling on gods whom they hoped would counter God’s will. But God throws cold water on their hopes for a positive outcome by telling them, “I will destine you to the sword” (Isaiah 65:12 ESV). He alone had control over their fortunes. He alone could determine their destiny. And it would not be pretty.

“…all of you shall bow down to the slaughter…” – Isaiah 65:12 ESV

Why? Because when God called, they refused to answer. When He spoke, they did not listen. Their lives were marked by doing the exact opposite of what God had called them to do. It was a case of blatant disobedience, not innocent ignorance. They knew that what they were doing was in direct violation of God’s commands. But they did it anyway.

And, in verses 13-16, God describes the dramatic contrast between His treatment of the faithful remnant and the disobedient majority. His servants would eat, drink, rejoice, and sing songs of joy. But the rest would starve, thirst, be put to shame, and experience unimaginable sorrow. And the actions of the unfaithful majority would leave an indelible stain on the name and reputation of israel. Isaiah tells them:

Your name will be a curse word among my people,
    for the Sovereign Lord will destroy you
    and will call his true servants by another name. – Isaiah 65:15 NLT

But this is not the first time this promise has been made. Back in chapter 62, God had told them that the day was coming when he would call them by a new name.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
    and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not be quiet,
until her righteousness goes forth as brightness,
    and her salvation as a burning torch.
The nations shall see your righteousness,
    and all the kings your glory,
and you shall be called by a new name
    that the mouth of the Lord will give. – Isaiah 62:1-2 ESV

We are not told what that name will be. But the sinful actions of the people of Israel will leave their name unusable. If you recall, the name Israel was given to Jacob after he had wrestled with God, and that new name meant, “God prevails.” And God would later reinforce that name change, telling Jacob, “no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name” (Genesis 35:10 ESV). Then God followed up these words with a statement designed to provide proper gravity to this name change.

“I am God Almighty: be fruitful and multiply. A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, and kings shall come from your own body. The land that I gave to Abraham and Isaac I will give to you, and I will give the land to your offspring after you.” – Genesis 35:11-12 ESV

Now, generations later, God was letting the descendants of Jacob know that He was going to keep that promise. Even after the northern kingdom of Israel had been taken into captivity into Assyrian and the southern kingdom was exiled into Babylon, God promises that he will one day reunify His people, creating a single kingdom over which one King will rule.

“Behold, I will take the people of Israel from the nations among which they have gone, and will gather them from all around, and bring them to their own land. And I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. And one king shall be king over them all, and they shall be no longer two nations, and no longer divided into two kingdoms.” – Ezekiel 37:21-22 ESV

In His revelation to John, Jesus said, “The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name” (Revelation 3:12 ESV). This will not be the old Jerusalem restored, but a brand new city that comes down from heaven. All will be new. In fact, we are told that God will create a new heaven and a new earth and John provides us with a description of it.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1-4 ESV

A new heaven. A new earth. A new city. A new name for the redeemed and restored remnant of God. The day is coming when God will put aside His anger and forget the evil of earlier days. The faithful few will enjoy the forgiveness of God and the incredible blessing of having their hearts made pure and new.

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

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

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

Here I Am!

1 I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me;
    I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, “Here I am, here I am,”
    to a nation that was not called by my name.
2 I spread out my hands all the day
    to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
    following their own devices;
3 a people who provoke me
    to my face continually,
sacrificing in gardens
    and making offerings on bricks;
4 who sit in tombs,
    and spend the night in secret places;
who eat pig’s flesh,
    and broth of tainted meat is in their vessels;
5 who say, “Keep to yourself,
    do not come near me, for I am too holy for you.”
These are a smoke in my nostrils,
    a fire that burns all the day.
6 Behold, it is written before me:
    “I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their lap
7     both your iniquities and your fathers’ iniquities together,
says the Lord;
because they made offerings on the mountains
    and insulted me on the hills,
I will measure into their lap
    payment for their former deeds.” –
Isaiah 65:1-7 ESV

Isaiah has prayed. Now, God responds. And the first thing God does is leave the people of Judah without excuse. Ever since the creation of the world, God has made Himself known to all mankind, not just the people of Israel.  The apostle Paul drives home this point in his letter to the Romans.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. – Romans 1:19-20 ESV

And Paul goes on to conclude, “So they are without excuse.” God revealed His invisible attributes to mankind, but they chose to worship the creation rather than its Creator. So, God would later reveal Himself to Abraham, calling him out of Ur and directing him to the land of Canaan. Abraham was given a greater revelation of God, beyond that which the rest of the world had enjoyed. And God even made a covenant with Abraham, promising to create from him a great nation, the people of whom would occupy the land of Canaan for generations. And God fulfilled that promise, and by the time Isaiah wrote the book that bears his name, the descendants of Abraham had been living in the land for centuries. But as we have seen, although God had continued to give His chosen people further revelations of Himself through His law and the sacrificial system, their behavior made it appear that they didn’t know Him at all.

And in the opening verse of this chapter, God indicates that He had a purpose behind His decision to make the nation of Israel His precious possession. When He had given them the law, God had told them that if they obeyed it, “you will be my own special treasure from among all the peoples on earth; for all the earth belongs to me. And you will be my kingdom of priests, my holy nation” (Exodus 19:5-6 NLT). Notice that they were to have been his own special treasure from among all the peoples of the earth.  They were to have been His priests, representing Him before all the peoples of the earth. They were to have been His holy, set-apart nation among all the people of the earth. In other words, they were to have been witnesses to the nations of what it looks like to have a right relationship with the Creator-God of the universe. 

But they had proven to be lousy priests and poor witnesses. Rather than bringing God glory by living holy lives, they had profaned His name among the nations, leaving God the job of reclaiming the glory His name deserves.

“I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them.” Ezekiel 36:23 ESV

And in verse one, God indicates that He has been calling out to the nations, “Here I am, here I am.” He has been extending an invitation to all the nations “not called by my name,” and the people of Israel had been His chosen means of communicating that message. The apostle Paul used this very passage to let the Gentile believers in Rome understand that God had always intended to use the people of Israel as His means of sharing His grace and mercy with the world. Paul will repeatedly quote from the book of Isaiah to build his case that God’s plan in choosing Israel had far greater implications than just their personal enjoyment of His blessings. God had something much grander in mind.

But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. But I ask, have the people of Israel actually heard the message? Yes, they have:

“The message has gone throughout the earth,
    and the words to all the world.”

But I ask, did the people of Israel really understand? Yes, they did, for even in the time of Moses, God said,

“I will rouse your jealousy through people who are not even a nation.
    I will provoke your anger through the foolish Gentiles.”

And later Isaiah spoke boldly for God, saying,

“I was found by people who were not looking for me.
    I showed myself to those who were not asking for me.”

But regarding Israel, God said,

“All day long I opened my arms to them,
    but they were disobedient and rebellious.” – Romans 10:16-21 NLT

Don’t miss the significance of what Paul is saying here. The very people whom God had chosen to be His means of reaching a lost world had to be constantly invited by God to come back to Him. Rather than doing what He had called them to do, they had proven to be disobedient and rebellious. And God describes their rebellion as anything but subtle. They flaunted it in His face, worshiping false gods right in front of Him. They had disregarded His laws concerning sacrifice, offering inappropriate and unclean gifts in unacceptable ways. They practiced necromancy, a form of divination through attempted communication with the dead. They were guilty of involvement in the occult and witchcraft. Their unholy actions had left them an unholy people, no longer set apart for God and no longer able to be His witnesses to a lost world.

All their religious activity will leave them feeling puffed and prideful. And while they will brag about their holiness, God describes them in less-than-flattering terms.

These people are a stench in my nostrils,
    an acrid smell that never goes away. – Isaiah 65:5 NLT

God finds all their religiosity repulsive. While He had been calling out to them with open arms, they had been embracing false gods and pursuing other loves. And the apostle Paul tells us what happens to all those who replace a personal relationship with God with religion.

They will act religious, but they will reject the power that could make them godly. – 2 Timothy 3:5 NLT

They were religious but lacked the one thing God was looking for: godliness. Their actions failed to reflect their status as His chosen people. So, God was obligated to punish them for their rebellion. He could not and would not allow them to continue to drag His name through the mud. Their disobedience demanded His divine discipline. And when God says, “Behold, it is written before me,” He is referring to the covenant He had made with them. There was a legally binding agreement between God and His people that spelled out their obligations and His. It clearly articulated what God expected of them and what He would do if they kept or broke their part of the covenant. And while they had failed to do what they said they would do, God would prove faithful to His covenant promise. He vows to bring upon them all the curses He had warned them about.

“I will not keep silent, but I will repay;
I will indeed repay into their lap
   both your iniquities and your fathers' iniquities together.” – Isaiah 65:6-7 ESV

It is important to remember that God had warned them what would happen if they failed to be His priests and His holy nation. He had let them know well in advance what the ramifications would be if they failed to be His witness to the nations. They would end up scattered among the nations, worshiping gods they never knew before.

For the Lord will scatter you among all the nations from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship foreign gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods made of wood and stone! There among those nations, you will find no peace or place to rest. And the Lord will cause your heart to tremble, your eyesight to fail, and your soul to despair. Your life will constantly hang in the balance. You will live night and day in fear, unsure if you will survive. – Deuteronomy 28:64-64 NLT

They would lose their witness. Their role as a light to the nations would fade because they had failed to remain faithful to the call of God. But as we have seen all along in the book of Isaiah, God would remain faithful to them because He had plans to bring salvation to the world through them. Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, would be born as a Jew and would become the Priest who lived a perfectly holy life and offered a perfectly holy sacrifice on behalf of the sins of all mankind.

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

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

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