blessing

Truly Blessed

2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:

3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.

8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” – Matthew 5:2-12 ESV

Jesus wastes no time. Once the crowd has taken their seats in front of Him, He jumps right into His lecture, and begins with what has come to be known as the “beatitudes.”  This portion of His message derives its name from the repetitive use of the word “blessed” that appears at the beginning of each line. The Greek word for blessed in the original text of Matthew’s gospel is makarios. In the Latin Vulgate, the word is beati, which is derived from the Latin beatitudo/beatus. Therefore, the name of this section of Jesus’ message became known as “The Beatitudes.”

In order to fully understand what Jesus was saying, we must know what He meant by using the word “blessed.”  There is no doubt that it has a positive connotation. To be blessed was a good thing. But what kind of blessing did Jesus have in mind? We tend to use the word quite loosely and indiscriminately. Perhaps you’ve heard someone say something like, “He’s been blessed with good genes” or “Grandchildren are such a blessing.” From our perspective, we can be blessed by good health, a new job, a strong constitution, a loving spouse, and good friends.

Even in Jesus’ day, the word carried the connotation of being “supremely blest; by extension, fortunate, well off” (“G3107 - makarios - Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible. Web. 21 Apr, 2017). The problem we face in reading The Beatitudes is applying our definition or understanding of what it means to be blessed and missing out on what Jesus was actually saying. Our natural tendency, just like the 1st-Century Jews sitting in Jesus’ audience that day, is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Our natural tendency is to think that the blessings to which He refers are purely physical in nature and apply to our personal prosperity and happiness. But Jesus had something far more significant in mind.

Warren Wiersbe states that the blessing to which Jesus referred is “an inner satisfaction and sufficiency that does not depend on outward circumstances for happiness.” So, while we might connote blessing with personal prosperity and a lack of problems, Jesus was speaking of something entirely different. The root idea behind blessing is approval. God does not bless that which He does not approve. If you take the full context of Jesus’ message, it becomes clear that He is teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven and the character of those who belong to it. In essence, He is teaching about justification; how to be made right or approved by God. In the very next section, Jesus will bring up the Mosaic law. Why? Because for the Jews in His audience, the Law had always been the sole requirement for attaining a right standing with God. It was through the keeping of the Law that man attempted to gain God’s approval or blessing.

All the way back in the book of Deuteronomy, we have recorded the words spoken by Moses to the people of Israel on behalf of God.

“Now listen! Today I am giving you a choice between life and death, between prosperity and disaster. For I command you this day to love the Lord your God and to keep his commands, decrees, and regulations by walking in his ways. If you do this, you will live and multiply, and the Lord your God will bless you and the land you are about to enter and occupy.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-16 NLT

They were to live in obedience to the commands of God. If they did so, they would be blessed by God. If they refused to do so, they would be cursed. In the previous chapter, Moses made clear just what the blessing He promised would entail.

“You are standing here today to enter into the covenant of the Lord your God. The Lord is making this covenant, including the curses. By entering into the covenant today, he will establish you as his people and confirm that he is your God, just as he promised you and as he swore to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” – Deuteronomy 29:12-13 NLT

By obeying God, they would enjoy the approval and presence of God. They would know what it was like to have His protection and to experience His provision. The curses would be the result of having lost that relationship. But the Jews had ended up placing a higher value on the material blessings they enjoyed than on God’s approval. The idea that the God of the universe approved of them was less important to them than the personal prosperity they enjoyed as God’s people. And this misunderstanding of the blessing of God had resulted in them turning the Law into a means to an end. They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy. He had become nothing more to them than a conduit to more important things: health, happiness, material goods, crops, children, peace, long life, or whatever else they desired.

They tried to keep the Law in an effort to keep God happy, so that He would keep blessing them with the things that kept them happy.

So, here comes Jesus, preaching a radically different message of what it means to be truly blessed by God. And what He said must have rocked the world of His listeners. Much to their shock and dismay, He tied the blessing of God to such things as poverty, mourning, meekness, deprivation, and persecution. He talked about heavenly rewards versus earthly ones. He commanded His listeners to rejoice when they were persecuted, to turn the other cheek when they were slapped, to willingly go the second mile, to love their enemies, and to give to those who ask to borrow, expecting no payment in return.

None of this would have made sense to His listeners. None of it would have sounded the least bit appealing. In the mind of the average Jew, it was the wealthy who were blessed by God, while the sick and the lame were cursed by God. They believed material prosperity was a sign of God’s blessing, so poverty must be a curse.

But what Jesus says in this passage turns the tables on that kind of thinking. A great deal of His message is in direct contradiction to their skewed understanding of the Law and what they believed was necessary to be right with God. They tied proof of righteousness (a right relationship with God) to outward signs of His blessing. But Jesus was going to blow up that presupposition. He was going to go to the heart of the issue – literally. Because Jesus was out to change the hearts of men. With His coming, the days were finished when men would be able to judge their righteousness based on outward evidence.

God looks at the heart. And Jesus came to die so that men’s hearts might be redeemed, and their behavior radically changed. What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

What Jesus describes in this passage is a new way of living, based not on human effort, but on divine empowerment.

He is speaking to a pre-cross crowd, explaining to them a post-cross reality. He knows something to which they are oblivious. He recognizes that all He is saying to them is not only impossible for them to understand, but impossible to pull off until He has died, been resurrected, and the Holy Spirit comes. His words are preparatory in nature. He is expanding on His previous message of “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2 ESV).

Things were about to change. The Messiah had come. The Savior of the world was in their midst. And the means by which men might be made right with God, permanently and perfectly, had finally arrived. But before anyone could accept what Jesus had come to provide, they would have to recognize their need. And Matthew later records Jesus’ offer of the Great Invitation:

“Come to me, all of you who are weary and carry heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30 NLT

The Sermon on the Mount is not intended to be a new list of laws, rules, and requirements for people to follow in order to gain God’s approval. It is a glimpse into the lifestyle of those who will find their approval by God through faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. It is a pre-cross explanation of how right behavior will flow from having a right relationship with God made possible by the sacrificial death of Jesus for the sins of mankind. The key message behind the Sermon on the Mount is the approval of God. And Jesus is in the process of helping His audience understand that right behavior stems from having a right relationship with God, not the other way around.

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

Faithful to the End

18 And of Zebulun he said,

“Rejoice, Zebulun, in your going out,
    and Issachar, in your tents.
19 They shall call peoples to their mountain;
    there they offer right sacrifices;
for they draw from the abundance of the seas
    and the hidden treasures of the sand.”

20 And of Gad he said,

“Blessed be he who enlarges Gad!
    Gad crouches like a lion;
    he tears off arm and scalp.
21 He chose the best of the land for himself,
    for there a commander’s portion was reserved;
and he came with the heads of the people,
    with Israel he executed the justice of the Lord,
    and his judgments for Israel.”

22 And of Dan he said,

“Dan is a lion’s cub
    that leaps from Bashan.” – Deuteronomy 33:18-22 ESV

Zebulun and Issachar were sons of Jacob by Leah, and their allotments of land in Canaan shared a common border. So, Moses addresses these two tribes with a combined blessing.

Moses refers to Zebulun “going out” and Issachar “in your tents.” It seems that one tribe would become traders, going out in ships and returning with foreign goods and profits from their journeys. Yet the tribe of Issachar would remain in their tents, living a more agrarian and settled life.

But with their location between the Mediterranean Sea and the Sea of Galilee, they would “draw from the abundance of the seas.” And Zebulun, in particular, would benefit greatly from its access to Sidon. They would eventually establish commercial links to the Phoenicians, and become profitable traders all along the Mediterranean coastline.

In his blessing of Zebulun, Jacob had prophesied of the tribe’s close association with the sea.

“Zebulun shall dwell at the shore of the sea;
    he shall become a haven for ships,
    and his border shall be at Sidon.” – Genesis 49:13 ESV

It is important to note that the land the tribe of Zebulun occupied would become part of region known as Galilee. And the book of Isaiah predicts that the day would come when Zebulun and its neighboring tribe, Naphtali, would experience days of darkness and despair. They, along with the other tribes of the northern kingdom, would be conquered by the Assyrians and taken into captivity. But God had good news for them.

Nevertheless, that time of darkness and despair will not go on forever. The land of Zebulun and Naphtali will be humbled, but there will be a time in the future when Galilee of the Gentiles, which lies along the road that runs between the Jordan and the sea, will be filled with glory.

The people who walk in darkness
    will see a great light.
For those who live in a land of deep darkness,
    a light will shine. – Isaiah 9:1-2 NLT

Out of the land of Galilee would come the long-awaited Messiah. God would send His Son as the light of the world, piercing the darkness of sin and offering a means by which fallen mankind could be restored to a right relationship with Himself.

Concerning Issachar, Jacob had seen his son’s occupation as a laborer, working the land and, as Moses later put it, benefiting from “the hidden treasures of the sand.” But Jacob also predicted the future Issachar and his brothers would experience as slaves of the Assyrians.

“Issachar is a strong donkey,
    crouching between the sheepfolds.
He saw that a resting place was good,
    and that the land was pleasant,
so he bowed his shoulder to bear,
    and became a servant at forced labor.” – Genesis 49:14-15 ESV

When it came to his son, Gad, Jacob had little to say.

“Raiders shall raid Gad,
    but he shall raid at their heels.” – Genesis 49:19 ESV

It seems that Gad, a relatively small tribe, would find itself under constant attack by marauding bands of brigands and opportunists. We know from Judges 1, that none of the tribes were successful in removing the Canaanites from the land. So, there were always remnants of these enemies wandering throughout the land, wreaking havoc on unsuspecting villages and towns belonging to the Israelites. And because Gad as relatively small, they were an easy target. But Jacob predicted that the descendants of Gad would give as well as they took.

Moses adds another element to his blessing of the tribe of Gad, by recognizing God’s blessing of them. They were awarded “the best of the land” – a reference to the land of Gilead on the eastern side of the Jordan. Long before the people of Israel crossed the border into Canaan, the tribes of Gad, Manassah, and Reuben had requested to settle the rich pasture land lying outside the land of promise. And Moses gave them permission to do so as long as they agreed to help the remaining tribes conquer and settle the land of Canaan. They did so and were awarded the land of Gilead as their inheritance. Moses honors them for the commitment to keep their word.

“…he came with the heads of the people,
    with Israel he executed the justice of the Lord,
    and his judgments for Israel.” – Deuteronomy 33:21 ESV

When Jacob blessed his son, Dan, he paints a rather disconcerting image of his future. He describes him as a judge of his people, but also as a serpent or poisonous snake.

“Dan shall judge his people
    as one of the tribes of Israel.
Dan shall be a serpent in the way,
    a viper by the path,
that bites the horse’s heels
    so that his rider falls backward.
I wait for your salvation, O Lord.” – Genesis 49:16-18 ESV

The book of Judges clarifies this rather conflicting image by telling us, “Now in those days Israel had no king. And the tribe of Dan was trying to find a place where they could settle, for they had not yet moved into the land assigned to them when the land was divided among the tribes of Israel” (Judges 18:1 NLT).

They had been allotted land in Canaan and, while it was small in size, it was very fertile. But, like all the other tribes, Dan had failed to drive out the Canaanites and so they never fully occupied the land given to them by God.

The Amorites pressed the people of Dan back into the hill country, for they did not allow them to come down to the plain. – Judges 1:34 ESV

So, rather than obeying the command of God, they decided to search for other lands in which to settle. They set out five spies who came back with a report of a possible spot for resettlement.

So the five men went on to the town of Laish, where they noticed the people living carefree lives, like the Sidonians; they were peaceful and secure. The people were also wealthy because their land was very fertile. And they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby. – Judges 18:7 NLT

This news prompted the Danites to send 600 men to attack Laish and take the land as their own. But on the way, they decided to steal a Levite who was serving in the household of an Israelite named Micah. We know from the text, that Micah had employed this Levite to serve as his personal priest and that Micah and his neighbors were idolatrous. When the Danites stole the young Levite, they also took the false gods Micah worshiped, which cause he and his neighbors to chase down the Danites and beg for their return.

Then, with Micah’s idols and his priest, the men of Dan came to the town of Laish, whose people were peaceful and secure. They attacked with swords and burned the town to the ground. There was no one to rescue the people, for they lived a great distance from Sidon and had no allies nearby. This happened in the valley near Beth-rehob.

Then the people of the tribe of Dan rebuilt the town and lived there. They renamed the town Dan after their ancestor, Israel’s son, but it had originally been called Laish. – Judges 18:27-29 NLT

Years later, God would divide the kingdom of Israel in two, creating Judah in the south and Israel in the north. The Danites would play a huge part in the eventual fall of the northern kingdom of Israel. In 1 Kings 12:25-33, we have the account of King Jeroboam who, fearing that the citizens of the northern kingdom would travel to Jerusalem in the south in order to worship God, decided to erect two altars in the north of Dan. Not only that, he erected a golden calf at each location, creating his own false gods and an entire religious system of his own design.

Interestingly enough, all Moses had to say about Dan was “Dan is a lion’s whelp, That leaps forth from Bashan” (Deuteronomy 33:22 NLT). Bashan was located near Laish, the town that the Danites conquered and occupied. The description of Dan as a lion’s whelp or cub is intended to portray that tribe as impetuous and undisciplined. It lacks wisdom and the skills acquired by age and experience. The Danites would steal land not given to them by God. They would steal a Levite and make him their personal priest, something God never commanded. And, on top of all that, they would steal idols and set them up as their gods. Eventually, under the poor leadership of Jeroboam, they would create their own religion and erect their own altars to false gods, leading to their eventual judgment by God.

Each of these tribes, Zebulun, Issachar, Gad, and Dan, had been set apart by God as His own. But they had all failed to live up to God’s standards. They had proven to be unfaithful, disbelieving, and disobedient. But even their wickedness would not keep God from displaying His faithfulness. Out of the darkness of Zebulun a great light would shine. The book of John records the arrival of this great light in the form of Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. – John 1:9-13 ESV

Even though darkness reigned, the light penetrated the darkness. Even though the tribes of Israel proved unfaithful, God proved Himself to be faithful to keep His word.

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 Sovereign Hand of God

12 Of Benjamin he said,

“The beloved of the Lord dwells in safety.
The High God surrounds him all day long,
    and dwells between his shoulders.”

13 And of Joseph he said,

“Blessed by the Lord be his land,
    with the choicest gifts of heaven above,
    and of the deep that crouches beneath,
14 with the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
15 with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
16 with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.
May these rest on the head of Joseph,
    on the pate of him who is prince among his brothers.
17 A firstborn bull—he has majesty,
    and his horns are the horns of a wild ox;
with them he shall gore the peoples,
    all of them, to the ends of the earth;
they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Deuteronomy 33:12-17 ESV

A quick comparison between the blessings given by Jacob to his 12 sons and those given by Moses to the 12 tribes of Israel reveal some interesting differences. For instance, Jacob referred to his youngest son, Benjamin, as a ravenous wolf who plunders his enemies at night.

“Benjamin is a ravenous wolf,
    devouring his enemies in the morning
    and dividing his plunder in the evening.” – Genesis 49:27 NLT

Yet, Moses seems to refer to the tribe of Benjamin as “the beloved of the Lord.” But the words of Moses can and have been translated in two different ways. The New English Translation renders verse 12 as follows:

“Of Benjamin he said:
The beloved of the Lord will live safely by him;
he protects him all the time,
and the Lord places him on his chest.” – Deuteronomy 33:12 NET

The New American Standard Version takes a similar approach.

“May the beloved of the Lord dwell in security by Him,
Who shields him all the day,
And he dwells between His shoulders.”

In these translations, the “beloved of the Lord” is clearly not a reference to Benjamin, but to somone or something else. It could be speaking of the tribe of Judah, the tribe from which the Messiah would come. Recall the words of Jacob’s blessing to his son, Judah.

“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.” – Genesis 49:10 NLT

The term, “the beloved of the Lord” could also be a reference to Jesus Himself. But it is seems more likely that the tribe of Judah is the focus of Moses’ words. These two tribes, Benjamin and Judah would enjoy close ties, even sharing a common border in the land of Canaan.

The first allotment of land went to the clans of the tribe of Benjamin. It lay between the territory assigned to the tribes of Judah and Joseph. – Joshua 18:11 NLT

Years later, when God split the kingdom of Israel in half, the two tribes of Judah and Benjamin would form the new southern kingdom of Judah. And the larger, more powerful tribe of Judah would provide protection for its smaller neighbor and ally. The territory alloted to Benjamin also contained the city of Jerusalem, which would become the capital of Judah, later known as the city of David, and the place where Solomon built the temple of God.

Jacob predicted that his son, Benjamin, would produce a people who were warlike and reknowned for their success in battle. But the book of Judges reveals that the Benjamites would eventually use their propensity for battle in a civil war against the other 11 tribes of Israel. It would end in their defeat at the hands of their brothers.

And the Lord defeated Benjamin before Israel, and the people of Israel destroyed 25,100 men of Benjamin that day. All these were men who drew the sword. So the people of Benjamin saw that they were defeated. – Judges 20:35-36 ESV

These were dark days for the tribe of Benjamin and for the people of God, with the 21st chapter of the book of Judges closing with the sobering words:

In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes. – Judges 21:25 ESV

But the first king of Israel came from the tribe of Benjamin, a man named Saul, who would prove to be a great warrior, but a lousy king. And God would eventually reject him as king, replacing him with a man after His own heart, a man named David. And David, from the tribe of Judah, and Jonathan, the son of Saul from the tribe of Benjamin, would become the closest of friends. So, we see this bound between these two tribes lived out over time. And eventually, the apostle Paul would come from the tribe of Benjamin.

“I myself am an Israelite, a descendant of Abraham, a member of the tribe of Benjamin.” – Romans 11:1 ESV

This small tribe would play a significant role in the history of Israel, for both good and bad. But God would use them to accomplish His divine will for His people and for the world. From this somewhat irrelevant tribe would come Saul, the first king of Israel. But hundreds of years later, there would come another Saul, the one known as the apostle Paul, whom God would use to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world. And all because Paul would have his life transformed by an encounter with Jesus, the Son of God and a member of the tribe of Judah.

Next, Moses turns his attention to the tribe of Joseph. He was the son Jacob thought had been killed by wild animals, but later discovered had been sold into slavery by his own brothers. Jacob and Joseph were reunited in Egypt, where Joseph had become a powerful ruler in the kingdom of Pharaoh. And Joseph was able to use his authority to provide protection and provision for his family when the were forced to flee from the famine taking place in Canaan. So, Jacob held a special place in his heart for Joseph, as revealed in the words of the blessing he pronounced over him.

“Joseph is a fruitful bough,
    a fruitful bough by a spring;
    his branches run over the wall.
The archers bitterly attacked him,
    shot at him, and harassed him severely,
yet his bow remained unmoved;
    his arms were made agile
by the hands of the Mighty One of Jacob
    (from there is the Shepherd, the Stone of Israel),
by the God of your father who will help you,
    by the Almighty who will bless you
    with blessings of heaven above,
blessings of the deep that crouches beneath,
    blessings of the breasts and of the womb.
The blessings of your father
    are mighty beyond the blessings of my parents,
    up to the bounties of the everlasting hills.
May they be on the head of Joseph,
    and on the brow of him who was set apart from his brothers.” – Genesis 49:22-26 ESV

Moses picks up on Jacob’s high honor of Joseph, referring to him as “him who is prince among his brothers” (Deuteronomy 33:16 ESV). And when Moses speaks of Joseph, he clarifies that he is really addressing the tribes of the two sons of Joseph, Ephraim and Manasseh. Eventually, the name Ephraim would become closely associated with the ten tribes that comprised the northern kingdom of Israel. Just as Joseph was “set apart from his brothers” (Deuteronomy 49:26 ESV), Ephraim, Manasseh, and the other eight tribes would be set apart from Judah and Benjamin, dividing the once unified nation in two.

Moses pronounces a blessing on Joseph and his descendants, calling on God to provide them with “the choicest gifts of heaven above” (Deuteronomy 33:13 ESV) and:

“the choicest fruits of the sun
    and the rich yield of the months,
with the finest produce of the ancient mountains
    and the abundance of the everlasting hills,
with the best gifts of the earth and its fullness
    and the favor of him who dwells in the bush.” – Deuteronomy 33:14-16 ESV

God would continue to bless Joseph’s descendants, providing them with good land and and an abundance of blessings. But they would prove to be rebellious and spiritual unfaithful to God. They would turn their backs on God by worshiping false gods of their own making. And yet, they would enjoy great success and grow in number.

“…they are the ten thousands of Ephraim,
    and they are the thousands of Manasseh.” – Genesis 49:17 ESV

God would bless them, in spite of them. But the day would come when God would punish them for their sins, bringing judgment upon them in the form of the Assyrian army and allowing them to be defeated and deported as slaves. God would reward the descendants of Joseph for their forefather’s faithfulness while living in Egypt. But, eventually, He would punish them for their own unfaithfulness while living in the land of promise.

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 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

Heart and Soul

13 “And if you will indeed obey my commandments that I command you today, to love the Lord your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, 14 he will give the rain for your land in its season, the early rain and the later rain, that you may gather in your grain and your wine and your oil. 15 And he will give grass in your fields for your livestock, and you shall eat and be full. 16 Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them; 17 then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.

18 “You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. 19 You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. 20 You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, 21 that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth. 22 For if you will be careful to do all this commandment that I command you to do, loving the Lord your God, walking in all his ways, and holding fast to him, 23 then the Lord will drive out all these nations before you, and you will dispossess nations greater and mightier than you. 24 Every place on which the sole of your foot treads shall be yours. Your territory shall be from the wilderness to the Lebanon and from the River, the river Euphrates, to the western sea. 25 No one shall be able to stand against you. The Lord your God will lay the fear of you and the dread of you on all the land that you shall tread, as he promised you.” – Deuteronomy 11:13-25 ESV

Moses continues to make this a matter of the heart. While he has repeatedly addressed the need for the Israelites to obey God and he does so again in this section of his address, he will not allow them to practice a form of obedience that is mere form and function, yet devoid of faith and love.

Moses provides them with a conditional clause, designed to drive home the non-negotiable role of love in their relationship with God. In the New English Translation, verse 13 reads this way:

“…if you pay close attention to my commandments that I am giving you today and love the Lord your God and serve him with all your mind and being…”

Notice the two parts to this conditional clause. First, Moses calls them to “pay close attention” to the commandments of God. The Hebrew word Moses used is shama`, and it is most often translated as “hear,” but it carries the idea of obedience. They were to listen carefully to all the commands that Moses had shared with them but, more importantly, they were to hear and obey.

But Moses ties their hearing and obeying to a second non-negotiable expectation. Their obedience was to be accompanied by a love for God that manifested itself in service to Him. In other words, the proof of their obedience would be willing service to God that flowed from the heart. And that service would influence their entire character, including their “mind and being.”

The English Standard Version renders those two words as “heart and soul.” The first is from the Hebrew word, lebab, and it has to do with the inner man. It was believed to be the seat of the senses, affections, and emotions of the mind. The Hebrew word, nephesh, which the ESV translates as “soul,” had to do with man’s essence. According to the NET Bible study notes, “Old Testament anthropology equated the ‘soul’ with the person himself.” The soul represented man’s being or very existence. A soul-less man would be a lifeless man.

Moses is calling the people to obey the commands of God, but to do so out of love for God. That love was was to permeate their whole persona –  heart and soul, mind and being. And this is not the first time Moses had issued this call. Chapter six provides an earlier, yet no less emphatic version of this very same message.

“You must love the Lord your God with your whole mind, your whole being, and all your strength.” – Deuteronomy 6:5 NET

The ESV reads, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might.”

Moses was calling for complete and total commitment to God. They were to put every fiber of their being into their relationship with God. And, if they did, there would be very positive consequences. Remember, Moses used a conditional clause, an if-then statement, to drive home his call to love and obey. He told them that “if” they would obey, love, and serve God with all their heart, soul, and strength, “then” God would reward them with His unparalleled blessings.

“…then he will send the rains in their proper seasons—the early and late rains… – vs. 14 (NLT)

He will give you lush pastureland for your livestock, and you yourselves will have all you want to eat.” – vs. 15 (NLT)

There would be tangible benefits to their loving obedience to God. The covenant between God and Israel was conditional. It was going to require their unwavering allegiance and heartfelt obedience to His will for them. They were not free to live in the land of promise according to their own terms. God had set them apart as His own, and He fully expected them to live accordingly. And Moses made it painfully clear what would happen if they didn’t.

“…then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and he will shut up the heavens, so that there will be no rain, and the land will yield no fruit, and you will perish quickly off the good land that the Lord is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 11:17 ESV

Remember, the covenant was conditional. If they obeyed, they would experience God’s blessings. But if not, the outcome would be dramatically different:. No rain. No fruit. No future in the land. And this negative outcome would all begin with their unfaithfulness to God. “Take care lest your heart be deceived, and you turn aside and serve other gods and worship them…” (Deuteronomy 11:16 ESV).

Again, notice the emphasis on the heart. The heart would be the primary point of failure. If they truly loved God with all their heart, soul, and strength, there would be little risk of them being deceived. But half-hearted love for God and a partial commitment to His will leaves plenty of room for unfaithfulness. The enemy always attacks at the greatest point of weakness. And anyone whose heart is not fully committed to God will find himself an easy target for temptation. Which is why James wrote:

Temptation comes from our own desires, which entice us and drag us away. These desires give birth to sinful actions. And when sin is allowed to grow, it gives birth to death. – James 1:14-15 NLT

If our relationship with God is based solely on rule-keeping, it won’t be long before we find ourselves resenting all the restrictive regulations He has placed upon us. That’s why an understanding of His love for us is so crucial if we are going to obey Him with all our heart, soul, and strength. Legalism is the byproduct of a loveless relationship with God. As we begin to question His love for us, our love for Him diminishes, and the result is loveless, lifeless rule-keeping. The heart is not in it. Obedience without the heart is legalism. And heartless legalism will ultimately lead to spiritual infidelity.

Moses knew that the people of Israel faced a real danger of falling away from God. He had seen it before, and he was anxious to prevent them from making the same mistake their forefathers had made. So, he provided them with a stern, but loving warning:

“So commit yourselves wholeheartedly to these words of mine. Tie them to your hands and wear them on your forehead as reminders. Teach them to your children. Talk about them when you are at home and when you are on the road, when you are going to bed and when you are getting up. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates…” – Deuteronomy 11:18-20 NLT

He called them to an all-out, no-holds-barred commitment to keeping the commands he had shared with them. This was to be a community-wide affair, where every man, woman, and child was educated in the ways of God. The entire nation of Israel was to commit itself to God, with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.

“Be careful to obey all these commands I am giving you. Show love to the Lord your God by walking in his ways and holding tightly to him.” – Deuteronomy 11:22 NLT

They were to prove their love for God by faithfully keeping the commands of God. And if they did, then God would bless them.

Then the Lord will drive out all the nations ahead of you… – vs. 23 (NLT)

Wherever you set foot, that land will be yours. – vs 24 (NLT)

Your frontiers will stretch from the wilderness in the south to Lebanon in the north, and from the Euphrates River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. – vs. 24 (NLT)

No one will be able to stand against you… – vs. 25 (NLT)

God would do His part. But He required that they live in obedience to His will. Yet, God was not demanding legalistic adherence to a set of religious rules and standards. He was calling on His chosen people to respond in loving submission to His will because of His unwavering love and care for them. He wanted their obedience to be based on a trust in His faithfulness, not simply a fear of His anger. He wanted them to obey, not because they hoped He would bless them, but because He already had blessed them.

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

 

 

 

Love, Bless, and Multiply

7 It was not because you were more in number than any other people that the Lord set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples, 8 but it is because the Lord loves you and is keeping the oath that he swore to your fathers, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt. 9 Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, 10 and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face. 11 You shall therefore be careful to do the commandment and the statutes and the rules that I command you today.

12 “And because you listen to these rules and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love that he swore to your fathers. 13 He will love you, bless you, and multiply you. He will also bless the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, your grain and your wine and your oil, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock, in the land that he swore to your fathers to give you. 14 You shall be blessed above all peoples. There shall not be male or female barren among you or among your livestock. 15 And the Lord will take away from you all sickness, and none of the evil diseases of Egypt, which you knew, will he inflict on you, but he will lay them on all who hate you. 16 And you shall consume all the peoples that the Lord your God will give over to you. Your eye shall not pity them, neither shall you serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.” – Deuteronomy 7:7-16 ESV

Moses desperately desired that the people of Israel come to understand just how much God loved them. And this radical, unfathomable love was totally undeserved. They had done nothing to earn the favor of God and, yet, He had chosen them as His own. It had not been their spiritual superiority or strength and size as a nation that had caused  God to single them out and shower them with His love and attention. No, according to Moses, they had been “the smallest of all nations!” (Deuteronomy 7:7 NLT). In fact, when God called Abram, they had not even existed as a nation. They had come into being because of the love, mercy, and will of God. They existed because God had promised Abraham, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation…” (Genesis 12:1-2 ESV)

And God had kept that promise to Abraham.  The book of Genesis records the fateful day when the family of Jacob (Israel) sought to escape a famine in Canaan by seeking refuge in Egypt where Jacob’s son, Joseph, had become the second-highest-ranking official in the land.

The total number of Jacob’s direct descendants who went with him to Egypt, not counting his sons’ wives, was sixty-six. In addition, Joseph had two sons who were born in Egypt. So altogether, there were seventy members of Jacob’s family in the land of Egypt. – Genesis 46:26-27 NLT

But by the time the people of Israel were delivered from Egypt some 400 years later, God had transformed that family of less than 100 into a massive nation that numbered in the millions. We know from Exodus 12:37, that when the people began their journey from Egypt to the land of promise, that “There were about 600,000 men, plus all the women and children.” This would have been able-bodied men of adult age and qualified to fight in the army. So, if you factor in young men, women, and children, the number of Israelites who left Egypt could have been as high as 2.4 million people. God had clearly kept His promise to Abraham. And Moses drove home that point.

“…it was simply that the Lord loves you, and he was keeping the oath he had sworn to your ancestors. That is why the Lord rescued you with such a strong hand from your slavery and from the oppressive hand of Pharaoh, king of Egypt.” – Deuteronomy 7:8 NLT

God hadn’t just rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt, He had transformed them into one of the largest people groups in that corner of the world. It was because of their sheer numbers that Pharaoh had begun to persecute and enslave them.

Eventually, a new king came to power in Egypt who knew nothing about Joseph or what he had done. He said to his people, “Look, the people of Israel now outnumber us and are stronger than we are. We must make a plan to keep them from growing even more. If we don’t, and if war breaks out, they will join our enemies and fight against us. Then they will escape from the country.”

So the Egyptians made the Israelites their slaves. – Exodus 1:8-11 NLT

But God had thwarted the plans of Pharaoh, by miraculously delivering the people of Israel from their bondage and leading them all the way to the land of promise. And Moses wanted the people to fully comprehend the amazing nature of their very existence and the unbelievable reality of God’s love for them.

“Understand, therefore, that the Lord your God is indeed God. He is the faithful God who keeps his covenant for a thousand generations and lavishes his unfailing love on those who love him and obey his commands.” – Deuteronomy 7:9 NLT

They were not to take God’s love lightly. It was essential that they not assume they had somehow earned His love and merited His favorable treatment of them. God’s love for them was an expression of His faithfulness. He had kept the promise He had made to Abraham, and all that He had done for the people of Israel up until that point was God being God. God is love and, by keeping His covenant, He was displaying His loving nature to not only the Israelites, but the rest of the world.

But while God is love, He is also righteous, holy, and just. And, because He is faithful, He takes covenant-making seriously. He keeps His covenants, and He fully expects those who covenant with Him to do the same. That included Israel.

So, back at Mount Sinai, when God had given His commandments to the people of Israel, He had told them:

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

And when Moses had delivered God’s message to the people, they had responded:

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

They had agreed to keep the covenant God had made with them. And now, more than 40 years later, Moses was reminding them that God still expected them to keep that commitment. And he warned them that failure to do so would be catastrophic.

“…he does not hesitate to punish and destroy those who reject him. Therefore, you must obey all these commands, decrees, and regulations I am giving you today.” – Deuteronomy 7:10-11 NLT

The covenant God had made with Israel was conditional in nature. In other words, if they wanted to enjoy God’s continued blessings, they were going to have to keep their end of the agreement. They had promised to do everything God had commanded and He was going to hold them to their word. And if they did, He would bless them. In fact, Moses told them, “You will be blessed above all the nations of the earth” (Deuteronomy 7:14 NLT).

And the blessings of God would manifest themselves in tangible and practical ways. They would be prolific, continuing to grow in number as they enjoyed God’s blessing of fertility. Even their flocks and herds would multiply under God’s loving hand. Barrenness would be non-existent and sickness would be virtually eliminated. None of the plagues they witnessed in Egypt would ever afflct them. God would protect and preserve them. But when it came to the occupants of the land of Canaan, God expected the Israelites to destroy them all, removing every single one of their false gods as they did so. God had set apart Israel as His own. He had deemed them to be holy. And He had set apart the land of Canaan as well. It was His land now and His people were to treat it with honor and reverence. Just as God would not tolerate unholiness among His people, they were not to tolerate the presence of unholiness in His land.

Just a few chapters later, Moses will clarify for the people of Israel why God expected them to remove all the nations from the land of Canaan.

“…it is because of the wickedness of the other nations that he is pushing them out of your way. It is not because you are so good or have such integrity that you are about to occupy their land. The LORD your God will drive these nations out ahead of you only because of their wickedness.” – Deuteronomy 9:4-5 NLT

And Moses will go on to drop a bombshell on the people of Israel, brutally informing them, “God is not giving you this good land because you are good, for you are not—you are a stubborn people” (Deuteronomy 9:6 NLT).

The whole reason God wanted the land cleared of all the wicked who occupied it was because He knew that the presence of wickedness in the land would cause His chosen people to become unfaithful. Which is why Moses told them, “You must destroy all the nations the Lord your God hands over to you. Show them no mercy, and do not worship their gods, or they will trap you” (Deuteronomy 7:16 NLT).

God wanted to love, bless, and multiply His chosen people. But they were going to have to remain faithful to Him. He would not tolerate their disobedience of His law or their failure to keep the covenant they had made with Him. He was loving, but He was also holy, just, and righteous. He had proven His love for them. Now, He was demanding that they respond in loving obedience to Him.

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

 

 

 

Burden and Strife

9 “At that time I said to you, ‘I am not able to bear you by myself. 10 The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven. 11 May the Lord, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times as many as you are and bless you, as he has promised you! 12 How can I bear by myself the weight and burden of you and your strife? 13 Choose for your tribes wise, understanding, and experienced men, and I will appoint them as your heads.’ 14 And you answered me, ‘The thing that you have spoken is good for us to do.’ 15 So I took the heads of your tribes, wise and experienced men, and set them as heads over you, commanders of thousands, commanders of hundreds, commanders of fifties, commanders of tens, and officers, throughout your tribes. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, ‘Hear the cases between your brothers, and judge righteously between a man and his brother or the alien who is with him. 17 You shall not be partial in judgment. You shall hear the small and the great alike. You shall not be intimidated by anyone, for the judgment is God’s. And the case that is too hard for you, you shall bring to me, and I will hear it.’ 18 And I commanded you at that time all the things that you should do.” – Deuteronomy 1:9-18 ESV

Moses is standing on the edge of the land of Canaan, addressing the next generation of Israelites who have arrived at the border and are facing the prospect of have to do what their predecessors had failed to do: Enter the land.

As part of his speech to the people, Moses recounts their journey from Mount Sinai, where God had made His covenant with them. It was there that God had given them His law and had instructed them, “Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:5 ESV).

Unlike the covenant God had made with Abraham concerning the land, this covenant, sometimes referred to as the Mosaic Covenant, was bilateral and conditional. In other words, it was a covenant that required a commitment from both parties. Each had to keep their end of the agreement. If the people obeyed God’s law, He would bless them. They would be His chosen possession. But if they failed to obey, there would be serious ramifications. 

And Moses subtly reminds them that God had kept His covenant commitment to Abraham. He had promised to make of Abraham a great nation and all they had to do was look around for the proof of God’s faithfulness.

“The Lord your God has multiplied you, and behold, you are today as numerous as the stars of heaven.” – Deuteronomy 1:10 ESV

God had greatly prospered them. In fact, in the opening verses of the book of Exodus, Moses provides the historical context that when Jacob and his family had fled to Egypt to escape the famine in Canaan, there had been seventy of them. But by the time Joseph had died and God sent Moses to deliver the people from their captivity in Egypt, we’re told that “the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them” (Exodus 1:7 ESV).

The faithfulness of God to keep His covenant commitment to Abraham was clearly visible in the sheer number of Israelites who stood before Moses that day. He reminded them that their God had kept His word and had made them exceedingly fruitful. So much so, that the people in Canaan feared the people of Israel, even before they set foot in the land. When Joshua eventually sent two spies to reconnoiter the city of Jericho, a resident of the city confessed to them:

“I know that the Lord has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you. For we have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea before you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, to Sihon and Og, whom you devoted to destruction. And as soon as we heard it, our hearts melted, and there was no spirit left in any man because of you, for the Lord your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath.” – Joshua 2:9-11 ESV

God had multiplied them. He had delivered them from captivity. He had led them across the wilderness; feeding, clothing, and protecting them along the way. And He had given them victories over their enemies on the east side of the Jordan. Now, it was time to cross over and take possession of the land.

But there was a problem. God’s blessing had become a burden for Moses. There were so many of them, that he was overwhelmed. But it wasn’t their numbers that was the cause of his headaches. It was their tendency to whine and complain. In fact, Moses put it even extremely blunt terms: “But you are such a heavy load to carry! How can I deal with all your problems and bickering?” (Deuteronomy 1:12 NLT).

This had been a problem from day one. Ever since Moses had led the people out of Egypt, they had displayed a strong propensity to express their displeasure. They complained about anything and everything – from the manna and quail God miraculously supplied for food to the man God had provided to lead them. And Moses reminded them that there had been a day when his father-in-law had given him some wise counsel. He had advised Moses to “choose from the people capable men, God-fearing, men of truth, those who hate bribes, and put them over the people as rulers of thousands, rulers of hundreds, rulers of fifties, and rulers of tens” (Exodus 18:21: NLT). And Moses had done just that.

But while the people had agreed with the decision made by Moses, it’s clear that they continued to grumble and dispute. Even with the appointment of additional judges, there were too many disputes to handle. And this speaks volumes regarding the spiritual state of the people of Israel. They were a disgruntled people because they were a disobedient people. 

Jesus summed up the entire law with the following statement: “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40 NLT).

The people of Israel were failing to live up to the law of God. They were not loving Him or loving one another. They were too busy disputing and disagreeing with one another. And their lack of love for one another was a reflection of their lack of love for God. The apostle John put it this way: “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a fellow believer, that person is a liar; for if we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see?” (1 John 4:20 NLT).

Moses had clearly and repeatedly  communicated God’s expectations. But he was so busy handling disputes and disagreements among the people that he had been forced to appoint additional “referees” to deal with the volume of issues taking place. How in the world were they going to possess the land if they couldn’t even get along with one another? What good were their formidable numbers going to be against their enemies if they couldn’t even stop from fighting among themselves?

The promised land lay before them. But their greatest obstacle wasn’t going to be the occupants of the land. It was going to be the members of their own faith community. What God had intended as a blessing, they had turned into a burden. Rather than enjoying the camaraderie of godly community, they experienced conflict and strife. And, instead of Moses spending his time leading the people in battle against their enemies, he was wasting his time solving disputes among brothers. 

And, as we’ll see, the track record of God’s people was far from stellar. There were other issues that Moses will raise as he recaps the less-than-flattering history of Israel to this point. The promised land lay spread before them but a litany of broken promises lay behind them. Were they ready to change? Were they prepared to obey God and keep His commands? He was faithful. But would they be?

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

 

 

 

Glory to God

4 They shall build up the ancient ruins;
    they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
    the devastations of many generations.

5 Strangers shall stand and tend your flocks;
    foreigners shall be your plowmen and vinedressers;
6 but you shall be called the priests of the Lord;
    they shall speak of you as the ministers of our God;
you shall eat the wealth of the nations,
    and in their glory you shall boast.
7 Instead of your shame there shall be a double portion;
    instead of dishonor they shall rejoice in their lot;
therefore in their land they shall possess a double portion;
    they shall have everlasting joy.

8 For I the Lord love justice;
    I hate robbery and wrong;
I will faithfully give them their recompense,
    and I will make an everlasting covenant with them.
9 Their offspring shall be known among the nations,
    and their descendants in the midst of the peoples;
all who see them shall acknowledge them,
    that they are an offspring the Lord has blessed.

10 I will greatly rejoice in the Lord;
    my soul shall exult in my God,
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation;
    he has covered me with the robe of righteousness,
as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress,
    and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.
11 For as the earth brings forth its sprouts,
    and as a garden causes what is sown in it to sprout up,
so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise
    to sprout up before all the nations. – Isaiah 61:4-11 ESV

As God’s servant, Jesus will be the means by which He brings about the future redemption and restoration of His people, Israel. While God would be forced to punish Israel and Judah for their rebellion against Him, He promised through Isaiah that a day was coming when the tables would turn and His anger with them would be replaced with His favor being poured out upon them. And just as Jesus was the mechanism through which God brought salvation to the world, Jesus, as the Jewish Messiah, will be the one to redeem God’s chosen people. The apostle Paul assured the predominantly Gentile recipients of his letter to the church in Rome:

Once, you Gentiles were rebels against God, but when the people of Israel rebelled against him, God was merciful to you instead. Now they are the rebels, and God’s mercy has come to you so that they, too, will share in God’s mercy. – Romans 11:30-31 NLT

God will extend His mercy to the people of Israel, in spite of their blatant rejection of His Son at His first advent. In fact, Paul makes it clear that the rejection of Jesus by the Jews is what led God to show merch on the Gentiles. Jesus had come to His own, but His own received Him not (John 1:11). And yet, God has not turned His back on the people of Israel. In fact, Paul points out that God is only waiting “until the full number of Gentiles comes to Christ” (Romans 11:25 NLT). Evidently, God has a specific number of Gentiles that He has ordained for salvation, and when that full number has been achieved, He will turn His attention to His chosen people. This is not to say that Jews cannot and have not come to faith in Christ since His death and resurrection. Many have and many more will. But it is indicating that God has a specific plan for Israel as a nation. And Paul points out that, for the time being, “Some of the people of Israel have hard hearts” (Romans 11:26 NLT). But when God deems the time to be right, He will focus His mercy and favor on His chosen people. “And so all Israel will be saved” (Romans 11:26 NLT).

In this chapter, Isaiah provides us with some insights into what will happen when that time comes. And he uses terms like, “build up,” “raise up,” and “repair” that speak of the restorative nature of this coming day. The once devastated land of Israel will be brought back to a state of beauty and vitality. Isaiah describes strangers tending the flocks of Israel, illustrating the irenic state of affairs that will mark the world. Even Israel’s former enemies will serve them willingly and gladly. There will be no fear of harm or men will live free from the threat of war or hostility. These foreign nations will refer to the people of Israel as “ the priests of the Lord” and view them the ministers of God. The people of Israel will find themselves fulfilling the role had always longed for them. They will be lights to the nations. They will be His ambassadors.

And God will replace the shame and dishonor they once knew with honor and prosperity. For the first time in their long and storied history with God, they will know everlasting joy. It will not be a fleeting, ethereal joy that changes depending upon which direction the winds of adversity blow. No, this will be a permanent, never-ending joy.

But why will God do all these things for unrighteous Israel? What possible reason could He have for showering this rebellious and stubborn people with His mercy and favor? Because He loves justice and hates robbery and wrong. God will do the right thing because He is a righteous God. He will restore things back to the way they began before the fall took place. And He will remove all remnants of evil that manifests itself in robbery and wrongdoing. Sin will be eliminated and righteousness, elevated. And He will do it on behalf of His people, Israel. His undeserved blessing of His chosen people will get the attention of the nations. They will marvel at the grace He extends to the people of Israel and “will realize that they are a people the Lord has blessed” (Isaiah 61:9 NLT).

And Isaiah states that “The Sovereign Lord will show his justice to the nations of the world” (Isaiah 61:11 NLT). But how will God do that? By dressing His people “with the clothing of salvation” and draping them “in a robe of righteousness” (Isaiah 61:10 NLT). He will shower His people with His unmerited favor and display His justice by keeping the covenant promise He has made to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. God will do the right thing and the nations will sit up and take notice. And the result will be that “Everyone will praise him!” (Isaiah 61:11 NLT). Every Jew and every Gentile will honor God for who He is and what He has done. His faithfulness will be on display. His unwavering love will be there for all to see. God will redeem the seemingly irredeemable. He will restore His wandering sheep to His fold. He will bring healing to the sick and hope to the helpless and hopeless.

As Isaiah so descriptively puts it: “so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to sprout up before all the nations” (Isaiah 61:11 ESV). God will use His once rebellious people, Israel, to display His righteousness to the nations. The world will stand back and watch as God accomplishes a redemptive miracle among His people, transforming them from a dry spiritual wasteland to a rich and fertile valley overflowing with righteousness and justice.

Isaiah used this metaphor of fruitfulness earlier on in this same letter, comparing God’s future restoration of Israel like rain falling on the crops of a field.

“The rain and snow come down from the heavens
    and stay on the ground to water the earth.
They cause the grain to grow,
    producing seed for the farmer
    and bread for the hungry.
It is the same with my word.
    I send it out, and it always produces fruit.
It will accomplish all I want it to,
    and it will prosper everywhere I send it.
You will live in joy and peace.
    The mountains and hills will burst into song,
    and the trees of the field will clap their hands!
Where once there were thorns, cypress trees will grow.
    Where nettles grew, myrtles will sprout up.
These events will bring great honor to the Lord’s name;
    they will be an everlasting sign of his power and love.” – Isaiah 55:10-15 NLT

God will get all the glory because God will be the one who does all the work. And even the Gentile nations will recognize the hand of God and give honor and praise to the name 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

Starved for Attention.

“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” – Matthew 6:16-18 ESV

After having provided His listeners with a model for how to pray, Jesus turns His attention to the topic of fasting. In order for us to understand what Jesus is trying to say about fasting, it’s essential that we understand its role in their cultural context. Otherwise, we will try to apply our modern understanding of fasting and miss the intended application. For us, fasting is probably a rather foreign concept. Most fasting we hear about seems to be tied to dieting and weight loss. And fasting has also become a popular form of cleansing the body of toxins for health reasons. But that is not what Jesus is talking about. In Jesus’ day fasting was a religious rite practiced in conjunction with a particular feast day or religious festival. For instance, fasting was a regular part of the yearly celebration of the Day of Atonement.

Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord. And you shall not do any work on that very day, for it is a Day of Atonement, to make atonement for you before the Lord your God. For whoever is not afflicted on that very day shall be cut off from his people. – Leviticus 23:26-29 ESV

The phrase, “afflict yourselves” is a reference to fasting. The people were to fast or deny themselves their normal intake of food, while at the same time, presenting a food offering to the Lord. Fasting, in this case, was intended to be an expression of one’s complete dependence upon God. But it was also a way of focusing your attention solely upon God. Rather than seeking your sustenance from food, you were to turn to God to meet your needs. It was a spiritual exercise that was usually accompanied by prayer and the confession of sins (1 Samuel 7:5-6). Fasting was not done for its potential health benefits or cleansing properties. While it may have had beneficial side effects, fasting was meant to focus one’s attention on God, not self. In fact, fasting was, at its core, a denial of self.

But once again, the Jews had managed to turn fasting into an external show of self-righteous piety and religious one-upmanship. And this had been going on for some time. God had confronted the Israelites regarding their false view of fasting before. He had spoken harsh words to them through the prophet Isaiah.

“Shout with the voice of a trumpet blast.
    Shout aloud! Don’t be timid.
Tell my people Israel of their sins!
Yet they act so pious!
They come to the Temple every day
    and seem delighted to learn all about me.
They act like a righteous nation
    that would never abandon the laws of its God.
They ask me to take action on their behalf,
    pretending they want to be near me.
‘We have fasted before you!’ they say.
    ‘Why aren’t you impressed?
We have been very hard on ourselves,
    and you don’t even notice it!’

“I will tell you why!” I respond.
    “It’s because you are fasting to please yourselves.
Even while you fast,
    you keep oppressing your workers.
What good is fasting
    when you keep on fighting and quarreling?
This kind of fasting
    will never get you anywhere with me.
You humble yourselves
    by going through the motions of penance,
bowing your heads
    like reeds bending in the wind.
You dress in burlap
    and cover yourselves with ashes.
Is this what you call fasting?

Do you really think this will please the Lord?

“No, this is the kind of fasting I want:
Free those who are wrongly imprisoned;
    lighten the burden of those who work for you.
Let the oppressed go free,
    and remove the chains that bind people.
Share your food with the hungry,
    and give shelter to the homeless.
Give clothes to those who need them,
    and do not hide from relatives who need your help.” – Isaiah 58:1-7 NLT

So, when Jesus confronts the Jews in His audience with their false concept of fasting, He is simply reiterating the concerns of His Father. Once again, He refers to “the hypocrites,” a clear reference to the Pharisees and religious leaders. They had taken fasting, a form of self-denial and self-humiliation, and turned it into a means of self-promotion. They fasted to get noticed. They fasted to garner the praise of men, not confess their sins before God. This was not the kind of fasting God desired. He wanted fasting that came from the heart. He wanted them to deny themselves the sins they so deeply enjoyed committing. In the case of the Isaiah passage, God expected the Jews to free the wrongly imprisoned, to lighten the burdens of their workers, to let the oppressed go free and remove the chains that held people bound. While they were busy wearing sack clothe and denying themselves food in an attempt to get God’s attention, they were also busy practicing all kinds of moral and ethical injustices. And God was not impressed.

For the Jews in Jesus’ audience, their problem was even worse. The kind of fasting they were exposed to was not even intended to get God’s attention. It was aimed at men. Jesus accuses them of trying “to look miserable and disheveled so people will admire them for their fasting” (Matthew 6:16 NLT). Fasting had become all about the outward impression it left on those around you. But throughout His message, Jesus has been talking about those who are approved by God. And just as we have seen in the Isaiah passage, God does not approve of fasting that is done from wrong motives or in a hypocritical manner.

Like any spiritual discipline, fasting can be abused. It can also be misunderstood and used for the wrong reasons. Reading the Bible is a good thing. But we can make Bible reading a badge of honor and a means by which we show others just how spiritual we really are. The same thing can be said of prayer, Scripture memory, Bible study and giving. These spiritual disciplines can be twisted and misused, becoming nothing more than outward signs of piety that do not reflect the true condition of the heart. It was King David who wrote these powerful words after having been convicted by the prophet Samuel about his affair with Bathsheba.

For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. – Psalm 51:16-17 ESV

The external practice of offering sacrifices meant nothing if the heart remained unchanged and unrepentant. Fasting that was merely an outward show done to convince others of our spirituality, will never impress God. He sees our hearts. He knows our motives. And Jesus says that if you fast to garner the praise of men, you will get the reward you seek, but you won’t have the approval of God. You won’t know what it means to be blessed by God. Like the Jews in Isaiah’s day, you will find yourself saying, “I have fasted before you! Why aren’t you impressed?”

Seeking the praise of men is a dangerous game to play. It means we value their opinions over that of God. We care more about their perceptions of us than we do about how God sees us. And Jesus warns us that if the reward we seek through our acts of spiritual discipline is the praise of men, we will get exactly what we want, but no more. Let’s bring it into a modern context. If I tell others I am fasting in order to impress them with my spirituality, but my real intent is to lose weight, I may impress my friends and drop a few pounds, but I will not gain favor with God. But if I truly want to deny myself something for the sake of humbling myself before God, Jesus would recommend that I do it in secret. He would tell me to hide what I am doing from others, because they don’t need to know. I don’t need to advertise my fast, because God sees my heart. I don’t need to tell others how much I read my Bible or how many Scripture verses I have memorized. God knows and that is all that matters. But it is important to remember that God also knows my motives. He knows why I read my Bible and memorize Scripture. If I do these things while ignoring sin in my life, I am nothing more than a hypocrite, a play-actor. I am attempting to cover up my sin by doing righteous things. But God wants a broken and contrite heart. Listen to the words of God spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“Remove the heavy yoke of oppression.
    Stop pointing your finger and spreading vicious rumors!
Feed the hungry,
    and help those in trouble.
Then your light will shine out from the darkness,
    and the darkness around you will be as bright as noon.
The Lord will guide you continually,
    giving you water when you are dry
    and restoring your strength.
You will be like a well-watered garden,
    like an ever-flowing spring.
Some of you will rebuild the deserted ruins of your cities.
    Then you will be known as a rebuilder of walls
    and a restorer of homes.” – Isaiah 58:9-12 NLT

Fasting should be an outward expression of what is in our heart. If our hearts are prideful and self-focused, our fasting will end up being done for our own glory, not God’s. If our hearts are broken, humble and dependent upon God and His mercy, our fasting will be done for His glory and His approval, not the praise of men. God knows our heart and He will reward us according to the intention of our heart. Our Father who sees in secret with reward us.

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 Stone of Witness.

14 “Now therefore fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. 15 And if it is evil in your eyes to serve the Lord, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

16 Then the people answered, “Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods, 17 for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed. 18 And the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.”

19 But Joshua said to the people, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, then he will turn and do you harm and consume you, after having done you good.” 21 And the people said to Joshua, “No, but we will serve the Lord.” 22 Then Joshua said to the people, “You are witnesses against yourselves that you have chosen the Lord, to serve him.” And they said, “We are witnesses.” 23 He said, “Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” 24 And the people said to Joshua, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey.” 25 So Joshua made a covenant with the people that day, and put in place statutes and rules for them at Shechem. 26 And Joshua wrote these words in the Book of the Law of God. And he took a large stone and set it up there under the terebinth that was by the sanctuary of the Lord. 27 And Joshua said to all the people, “Behold, this stone shall be a witness against us, for it has heard all the words of the Lord that he spoke to us. Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” 28 So Joshua sent the people away, every man to his inheritance. Joshua 24:14-28 ESV

Joshua was nearing the end of his life and, therefore, the end of his tenure as Israel’s spiritual leader. He had enjoyed a long and successful career after having assumed the mantel of leadership from Moses. During his rule, the people had finally crossed over the Jordan River and entered the land of promise. He had led them in their very first victory over the inhabitants of the land as they destroyed the city of Jericho. And he had followed God’s lead and dealt with the sin of Achan that had prevented the people from defeating the much-smaller city of Ai. In battle after battle, Joshua had been there, leading the way and fighting alongside the people of God. He had overseen the apportioning of the land between the 12 tribes, ensuring that each of the tribes received their fair share of the inheritance promised by God to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And all along the way, he had repeatedly reminded the people of their need to remain faithful to God. God demanded obedience and had forbidden them to intermarry with the inhabitants of the land. Why? Because He knew that they would end up worshiping their false gods. And there were plenty of false gods in abundance among the nations living in the land of promise.

So, as Joshua neared the end of his life, he felt compelled to provide his people with one last challenge. He calls them to “fear the Lord and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness” (Joshua 24:14 ESV). He used two very important Hebrew words to describe the character of their service to God: tamiym and 'emeth. The first word has to do with the idea of wholeness or entirety. It is translated as “integrity” in this passage, but might be better understood as “wholeheartedness.” It carries the idea of bringing the entirety of your being to the matter – no compartmentalization. In other words, Joshua was calling the people to serve God with a “whole” heart. No hidden affections for other gods. No undisclosed love affairs with the things of this world. Jesus would one day put this concept into words that we can readily and easily understand.

37 “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the great and first commandment.” – Matthew 22:37-38 NLT

The prophet Jeremiah would later record the words of God, calling His people to this idea of tamiym.

13 “When you seek me in prayer and worship, you will find me available to you. If you seek me with all your heart and soul, 14 I will make myself available to you,’ says the Lord.” – Jeremiah 29:13-14 NLT

But along with wholeheartedness, Joshua emphasized their need for 'emeth. This Hebrew word has to do with “truth” or, better yet, “faithfulness.” It carries the idea of stability or continuity of character. It is faithfulness displayed over the long-haul. Joshua was calling the people to a long-term, unending commitment of their entire lives to God. This was to include every area of their lives for the entire length of their lives – both as individuals and as the corporate community of God.

And we should not miss the significance of Joshua’s next challenge to the people of Israel:

“Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:14 ESV

Their life-long commitment to wholeness of heart and holiness of character was going to have to start with a turning away from the false gods of Egypt to which they were still clinging. Even after all that God had done for them, there were those within the community of Israel who were holding on to their false gods. And Joshua was demanding that they let them go – once and for all. It is impossible to be wholehearted in your love for God if you have a heart that is divided in its affections. Joshua knew that the divided allegiance produced by the presence of false gods would ultimately lead the people away from the one true God. They would become half-hearted in their love and short-term in their commitment to Him.

And Joshua placed himself as a model of spiritual integrity and truth, claiming his allegiance to God.

“…as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” – Joshua 24:15 ESV

He was verbally committing himself and his family to serve God alone. He was placing a stake in the ground and declaring his unwavering, undivided allegiance to God. And the people responded with enthusiastic agreement, shouting, “we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God” (Joshua 24:18 ESV). Good answer. Right answer. But was it a truthful answer? Did they really mean what they were saying or were they simply responding based on the excitement of the moment? Only time would tell.

And Joshua seems to have had his doubts about not only the sincerity of their answer, but also the potentiality of their follow-through. He boldly predicted, “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God. He is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions or your sins” (Joshua 24:19 ESV). Joshua seemed to have realized that the people were making their commitment to serve God with their whole hearts throughout their whole lives, in ignorance. They failed to recognize their own insufficiency to pull this off. Joshua was simply reminding them that what God was calling them to do was impossible – on their own. They would not be able to pull it off on their own strength, any more than they could have conquered the land of Canaan without God’s help. They were completely dependent upon God for everything, including the capacity to remain faithful and true to Him.

Joshua warned them that if they failed to keep their commitment to God, they would find themselves on the receiving end of His wrath and judgment. The God who had done so much to bless and prosper them would turn against them. But, once again, the people responded unanimously and enthusiastically, “No, but we will serve the Lord” (Joshua 24:21 ESV).

Then Joshua makes an interesting and highly revealing statement to the people of Israel:

“Then put away the foreign gods that are among you, and incline your heart to the Lord, the God of Israel.” – Joshua 24:23 ESV

It’s as if Joshua was challenging their commitment. He was demanding that they prove their enthusiastic verbal commitment with a realistic display of action. Words would not be enough. God would not tolerate lip-service. He wanted wholehearted devotion. God would later accuse the people of Israel of the very thing Joshua feared.

"These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

And it’s interesting to note that the response of the people was another verbal expression of commitment, but without any form of visible action. They simply stated, “The Lord our God we will serve, and his voice we will obey” (Joshua 24:24 ESV). Again, the right answer was given, but it was lacking any tangible evidence of sincerity. So, Joshua took their verbal commitment and gave it a visual expression. He set up a stone, a witness stone, that would be a constant, timeless reminder of the commitment they had made to God that day. The stone would serve several purposes. First, it would act as a memorial commemorating the day they had renewed their covenant commitment to God. On the very same spot where Abraham had first built an altar to God after having arrived in the land of Canaan, they were setting up a stone to remind them of their expressed faith to God. But the stone would also serve as a witness against them, silently testifying of their unanimous commitment to serve God alone. Joshua made this point perfectly clear.

“Therefore it shall be a witness against you, lest you deal falsely with your God.” – Joshua 24:27 ESV

And the chapter ends with each of the tribes returning to their respective inheritance. They had made a verbal commitment to God. They had solemnly sworn to rid themselves of their false gods and to serve the Lord alone. They had made it to the land of promise. They had conquered many of the inhabitants of the land and were enjoying the fruit of their labors and the results of God’s blessings. God had been faithful to them. He had kept His covenant commitments to them. But would they remain true to their word? Would they serve Him alone? Would their lives be marked by wholehearted love and devotion over the whole length of their days? Only time would tell. 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

Don’t Say I Didn’t Warn You.

1 A long time afterward, when the Lord had given rest to Israel from all their surrounding enemies, and Joshua was old and well advanced in years, 2 Joshua summoned all Israel, its elders and heads, its judges and officers, and said to them, “I am now old and well advanced in years. 3 And you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you. 4 Behold, I have allotted to you as an inheritance for your tribes those nations that remain, along with all the nations that I have already cut off, from the Jordan to the Great Sea in the west. 5 The Lord your God will push them back before you and drive them out of your sight. And you shall possess their land, just as the Lord your God promised you. 6 Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left, 7 that you may not mix with these nations remaining among you or make mention of the names of their gods or swear by them or serve them or bow down to them, 8 but you shall cling to the Lord your God just as you have done to this day. 9 For the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day. 10 One man of you puts to flight a thousand, since it is the Lord your God who fights for you, just as he promised you. 11 Be very careful, therefore, to love the Lord your God. 12 For if you turn back and cling to the remnant of these nations remaining among you and make marriages with them, so that you associate with them and they with you, 13 know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive out these nations before you, but they shall be a snare and a trap for you, a whip on your sides and thorns in your eyes, until you perish from off this good ground that the Lord your God has given you.

14 “And now I am about to go the way of all the earth, and you know in your hearts and souls, all of you, that not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. 15 But just as all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the Lord will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the Lord your God has given you, 16 if you transgress the covenant of the Lord your God, which he commanded you, and go and serve other gods and bow down to them. Then the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you.” – Joshua 23:1-16 ESV

Years have passed. Joshua has been in leadership over Israel for quite some time and is coming to the end of his life. And like his predecessor, Moses, Joshua feels compelled to give the people under his care one last word of instruction. He probably remembered well the words spoken to him by Moses when the mantel of leadership had been transferred.

7 “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. 8 It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:7-8 ESV

And Joshua had seen that promise fulfilled. He had watched God work and was able to say to his people, “you have seen all that the Lord your God has done to all these nations for your sake, for it is the Lord your God who has fought for you” (Joshua 23:3 ESV). They had possessed the land, but not without the help of God. He had fought for them and had routed their enemies before them. But, even all these years later, there was still more work to be done. There were still more enemies to conquer and land to possess. But Joshua simply passed on to the people what he had heard from Moses:

Therefore, be very strong to keep and to do all that is written in the Book of the Law of Moses, turning aside from it neither to the right hand nor to the left. – Joshua 23:6 ESV

Nothing had changed. Even after all the years that had passed, God was still in control and His demand for obedience and faithfulness still held. He had proven Himself to be trustworthy and true to His word. He had exhibited His power, time and time again. And Joshua reminded them, “the Lord has driven out before you great and strong nations. And as for you, no man has been able to stand before you to this day” (Joshua 23:9 ESV). So, any nations that remained would prove to be no problem. But Joshua knew his people well. After decades of leading the people of Israel, he had come to know their strengths and weaknesses. He was well aware of their shortcomings and the possibility that, after all these years, they could still end up turning their backs on God. So, like a loving father, he warned his sin-prone children.

11 So be very careful to love the Lord your God. 12 “But if you turn away from him and cling to the customs of the survivors of these nations remaining among you, and if you intermarry with them, 13 then know for certain that the Lord your God will no longer drive them out of your land. Instead, they will be a snare and a trap to you, a whip for your backs and thorny brambles in your eyes, and you will vanish from this good land the Lord your God has given you. – Joshua 23:11-13 NLT

Joshua knew that love for God had to be expressed in obedience to God. Lip-service was not going to cut it. The prophet Isaiah would later record the words of God, spoken in accusation against the future descendants of this very group of people listening to Joshua’s final charge.

"These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. And their worship of me is nothing but man-made rules learned by rote.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

Joshua had a sneaky suspicion that his people were going to constantly struggle with faithfulness. He knew that the remaining presence of the unconquered Canaanites in the land was going to be a constant problem, because of their false gods. He also knew that there was going to be a temptation for the people of Israel to compromise their convictions and disobey the expressed will of God by intermarrying with the Canaanites, rather than destroying them. But Joshua warned that accommodation could bring condemnation. Making concessions would only make things worse, not better. God was not going to tolerate any decision on their part to do His will their way.

It’s interesting to note that Joshua was passing on to the people the very same words God had spoken to him years earlier, when the mantel of leadership had become his.

6 Be strong and courageous, for you shall cause this people to inherit the land that I swore to their fathers to give them. 7 Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law that Moses my servant commanded you. Do not turn from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go.” – Joshua 1:6-7 ESV

Those words had been proven true. Joshua believed them, because he had seen them fulfilled in his own lifetime. He had learned the value of obedience and faithfulness. He wanted the people he left behind to remain true to God and His Word. And why wouldn’t he? As he reminded them, “not one word has failed of all the good things that the Lord your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed” (Joshua 23:14 ESV). God had been faithful to them, so why in the world would they ever choose to disobey His commands? But Joshua understood human nature. And he was very familiar with his own sin nature. Covenant faithfulness was always in jeopardy because of the presence of indwelling sin. The presence of God’s law was not enough to cause obedience. In fact, the apostle Paul would later write of his own experience with the law of God.

7 I would not have known sin except through the law. For indeed I would not have known what it means to desire something belonging to someone else if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing the opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of wrong desires. For apart from the law, sin is dead. – Romans 7:7-8 NLT

Paul knew that the law could not prevent sin. It could only reveal it. Which he made perfectly clear in his letter to the Galatians.

Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. – Galatians 3:19 NLT

God had forbidden intermarriage with the Canaanites, but here was Joshua warning them once again not to do just that. Why? Because he knew that they were prone to do what God had told them not to do. God’s ban on intermarriage was meant to be a protection. It was to keep his people from worshiping false gods and turning their backs on Him, the one true God. He was trying to protect them from experiencing His wrath. As God, He is obligated by His very nature, to punish sin. He cannot and will not tolerate unfaithfulness. His holiness and righteousness will not allow Him to do so. Compromise is not an option for God.

But we know how this story ends. The book of Judges and the history of the kings of Israel, recorded in the books of 1st and 2nd Samuel and 1st and 2nd Kings, remind us of Israel’s failure to keep God’s commands. In spite of Joshua’s warning, they would prove to unfaithful. They would intermarry. They would make compromises and concessions. They would worship false gods and turn their backs on the one true God. And the prophetic words of Joshua would come to pass: “the anger of the Lord will be kindled against you, and you shall perish quickly from off the good land that he has given to you” (Joshua 23:16 ESV).

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

Our Good God.

1 The allotment of the people of Joseph went from the Jordan by Jericho, east of the waters of Jericho, into the wilderness, going up from Jericho into the hill country to Bethel. 2 Then going from Bethel to Luz, it passes along to Ataroth, the territory of the Archites. 3 Then it goes down westward to the territory of the Japhletites, as far as the territory of Lower Beth-horon, then to Gezer, and it ends at the sea.

4 The people of Joseph, Manasseh and Ephraim, received their inheritance.

5 The territory of the people of Ephraim by their clans was as follows: the boundary of their inheritance on the east was Ataroth-addar as far as Upper Beth-horon, 6 and the boundary goes from there to the sea. On the north is Michmethath. Then on the east the boundary turns around toward Taanath-shiloh and passes along beyond it on the east to Janoah, 7 then it goes down from Janoah to Ataroth and to Naarah, and touches Jericho, ending at the Jordan. 8 From Tappuah the boundary goes westward to the brook Kanah and ends at the sea. Such is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Ephraim by their clans, 9 together with the towns that were set apart for the people of Ephraim within the inheritance of the Manassites, all those towns with their villages. 10 However, they did not drive out the Canaanites who lived in Gezer, so the Canaanites have lived in the midst of Ephraim to this day but have been made to do forced labor.

1 Then allotment was made to the people of Manasseh, for he was the firstborn of Joseph. To Machir the firstborn of Manasseh, the father of Gilead, were allotted Gilead and Bashan, because he was a man of war. 2 And allotments were made to the rest of the people of Manasseh by their clans, Abiezer, Helek, Asriel, Shechem, Hepher, and Shemida. These were the male descendants of Manasseh the son of Joseph, by their clans.Joshua 16:1-17:2 ESV

The author now addresses the inheritance of the descendants of Joseph, the son of Jacob who had been sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt. In spite of Joseph’s ill-treatment by his brothers, God blessed Joseph, sovereignly ordaining his rise to the second highest position of power in the land. It would be Joseph who would be used by God to preserve the lives of his father and brothers when they were forced to turn to Egypt for aid when a famine struck the land of Canaan. When his brothers discovered that Joseph, who they had long considered as dead, was Pharaoh’s right-hand man, they were petrified. But Joseph had assured them that God had divinely orchestrated every event in his life for a much greater purpose.

7 “And God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God. He has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.” – Genesis 45:7-8 ESV

And later on, Joseph reconfirmed to his brothers his unwavering belief that God had been behind all that had taken place, so that each and every one of Jacob’s sons would remain alive.

“As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” – Genesis 50:20 ESV

God had made a commitment to Jacob, the father of Joseph and brothers, that He would bless him and give him many descendants who would love in the land of promise. And, on his deathbed, Jacob confirmed his belief in God’s promise, choosing to bless the two sons of Joseph, born to him in Egypt. In essence, Jacob adopted his two grandson’s making them his own and promising to give them a portion of the inheritance of the land.

1 After this, Joseph was told, “Behold, your father is ill.” So he took with him his two sons, Manasseh and Ephraim. 2 And it was told to Jacob, “Your son Joseph has come to you.” Then Israel summoned his strength and sat up in bed. 3 And Jacob said to Joseph, “God Almighty appeared to me at Luz in the land of Canaan and blessed me, 4 and said to me, ‘Behold, I will make you fruitful and multiply you, and I will make of you a company of peoples and will give this land to your offspring after you for an everlasting possession.’ 5 And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are. 6 And the children that you fathered after them shall be yours. They shall be called by the name of their brothers in their inheritance.’” – Genesis 48:1-6 ESV

More than four centuries later, the 12 tribes of Israel (the sons of Jacob) were in the land promised to Jacob by God. And Joshua was in the process of dividing the land between the tribes. And in keeping with Jacob’s promise to include Ephraim and Manasseh in the inheritance, Joshua awarded a large portion of the land to the descendants of these two men.

Throughout this story, the sovereign hand of God is clearly visible. Had not God prospered Joseph in the land of Egypt, miraculously orchestrating his rise to power, the remainder of his family would have died of starvation in Canaan. God’s original covenant, made to Abraham, was seemingly jeopardized by the sinful acts of Joseph’s brothers. They had sold Joseph into slavery because they were jealous of him. They knew he was their father’s favorite son, and it didn’t help that Joseph had shared with them the content of several dreams he had experienced. In those dreams, Joseph had seen his father, mother and brothers bowing down to him. And Joseph’s disclosure of that news hadn’t won him any favors with his brothers. But the dreams were actually God-given visions of what was to come. His father, mother and brothers did eventually bow down before him, recognizing him as a powerful ruler in Egypt and the arbiter of their fate.

God had remained faithful to His covenant with Abraham. He had also kept the commitment He had made to Jacob, allowing he and his sons to find salvation from the famine in Canaan, by providing them with rest in the land of Egypt. And all of this was in fulfillment of the prophecy He had made to Abraham hundreds of years earlier.

13 Then the Lord said to Abram, “Know for certain that your offspring will be sojourners in a land that is not theirs and will be servants there, and they will be afflicted for four hundred years. 14 But I will bring judgment on the nation that they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. 15 As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. 16 And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete.” – Genesis 15:13-16 ESV

God had ordained the famine in the land. He had pre-planned Joseph’s rise to power in Egypt. And He had orchestrated the 400-year period of exile in Egypt for the descendants of Jacob. Four generations of Israelites would live in the land of Egypt before God determined it was time for them to leave and inherit the land promised to Abraham. All of this was part of His divine plan. The timing was perfect. And it was all because God was willing to keep His covenant promises, in spite of the disobedience of His chosen people. The apostle Paul recognized the sovereign hand of God in his own life, and was able to see His will being accomplished through the ups and downs and the setbacks and seeming successes of life. Which is why he could write:

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. – Romans 8:28 ESV

The descendants of Joseph were provided with a place in the land of promise. They were given a portion of the inheritance among the brothers of Joseph who had sold him into slavery out of jealousy. What they had meant for evil, God had meant for good. What they had done in order to bring harm to their brother, God used to bring blessing to their brother’s sons and their descendants. God works all things together for good. 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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 God of Eternity.

1 But all this I laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God. Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him. 2 It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. 3 This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead. 4 But he who is joined with all the living has hope, for a living dog is better than a dead lion. 5 For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. 6 Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun. Ecclesiastes 9:1-6 ESV

There seems to be little doubt that Solomon believed in the sovereignty of God. He sincerely believed that the lives of all men were in the hands of God, whether they were righteous or wicked, good or bad. His view was that God acted as the divine arbiter over the fate of all, including their lives and inevitable deaths, leaving man no option but to make the most out of the days he had allotted to him by God. But this view of God’s sovereignty has a feel of resignation and resentment to it. He clearly states that “the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God”, but he doesn’t come across as all that pleased about it. In fact, he views this sovereignty as some kind of divine whim, where God metes out love and hate as He sees fit. Solomon almost paints it as some kind of arbitrary decision on God’s part, lacking any kind of reasoned explanation. He puts it this way:  “Whether it is love or hate, man does not know; both are before him” (Ecclesiastes 9:1 ESV). In other words, from man’s earth-bound perspective, he can never know if God is going to show him favor or disfavor. If good things happen, it is the will of God. If bad things happen, it is the will of God. That appears to be his somewhat pessimistic conclusion regarding God’s sovereignty.

As far as Solomon can tell, all people share the same fate. They all die. And even while they remain alive, the all experience their fair share of ups and downs, blessings and curses, successes and failures. And he points out that it really doesn’t seem to matter how you live your life. He compares the righteous with the wicked, the good with those who commit evil, the ceremonially clean with the ceremonially impure, and finally, the one who offers sacrifices to God with the one who does not. The individuals represented by these polarized comparisons all face death at the end of their lives, and the sole factor determining the day of their death is God. And Solomon expresses his opinion about the matter, concluding, “This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that the same event happens to all” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Solomon saw death as some kind of divine exclamation period at the end of man’s life sentence, ending any hope of experiencing joy and fulfillment. And it was that belief that led him to write: “a living dog is better than a dead lion” (Ecclesiastes 9:4 ESV). From his perspective, it was better to remain alive, even if you had to struggle with the apparent injustices of life. Solomon clearly saw life as preferable to death.

Solomon has made it clear that this life can be difficult and meaningless. Here, he states, “the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live” (Ecclesiastes 9:3 ESV). Men do evil things. They commit acts of violence on one another. They oppress and abuse one another. And yet, Solomon would prefer to put up with all that than face the final day of death. Because, as far as he can see, that day has a finality to it. “For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten” (Ecclesiastes 9:5 ESV). Do you see how he views death? He sees it as an end, almost as a form of divine penalty doled out by God on all who have ever lived. It’s as if he’s saying that life is this hit or miss, futility filled existence, completely dictated by God, and then it suddenly comes to a screeching, abrupt end – all based on God’s divine determination. It’s no wonder he preferred life over death. For him, whatever existed beyond the grave was unattractive and undesirable. As far as he could tell, the destiny that awaits us on the other side of death was unknowable and, therefore, unwelcome. Concerning those who die: “Their love and their hate and their envy have already perished, and forever they have no more share in all that is done under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 9:6 ESV).

Those are the words of a man who sees this life as the only source of meaning, purpose and fulfillment. In fact, Solomon seemed to believe that the only way God could bless human beings was through the physical pleasures associated with life on this planet. He saw man’s identity completely tied to his earthly existence. All rewards were relegated to this life and this plane of existence. There was nothing beyond the grave. And it is that world view that dictates the decision making of just about every person who occupies this planet – unless they have a relationship with Jesus Christ. Yes, there are other religions that teach an afterlife where there are rewards. But Christianity is particularly future-oriented, placing the real emphasis of mankind’s existence not on this world, but on the one to come. Our reward awaits us in eternity, not on this earth. That does not mean God withholds blessings from His children while they remain alive, but that His greatest reward is yet to come. The words of Jesus, spoken in His sermon on the mount, confirm this.

19 “Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. 20 Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. 21 Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be. – Matthew 6:19-21 NLT

The apostle Paul had a future-oriented mindset. He had his eyes set on his future reward, his glorification that was tied to the return of Christ.

13 …but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us. – Philippians 3:13-14 NLT

The author of Hebrews also provides us with powerful words of encouragement, using Jesus as an example of the way in which we should live while we exist on this earth.

1 Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a huge crowd of witnesses to the life of faith, let us strip off every weight that slows us down, especially the sin that so easily trips us up. And let us run with endurance the race God has set before us. 2 We do this by keeping our eyes on Jesus, the champion who initiates and perfects our faith. Because of the joy awaiting him, he endured the cross, disregarding its shame. Now he is seated in the place of honor beside God’s throne. – Hebrews 12:1-2 NLT

Jesus suffered. He knew what it was like to endure rejection and ridicule, injustice and oppression. He even endured the pain of the cross, knowing that it was all part of God’s divine will for His life. It was a necessary part of the redemptive plan God had put in place before the foundation of the world. Jesus ran His life’s race with endurance, keeping His eyes focused on the will of God and the future reward of God. And now He sits in the place of honor beside God’s throne.

And the apostle Paul would have us remember that, as followers of Jesus Christ, we face a similar reward.

1 For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. 2 We grow weary in our present bodies, and we long to put on our heavenly bodies like new clothing. 3 For we will put on heavenly bodies; we will not be spirits without bodies. 4 While we live in these earthly bodies, we groan and sigh, but it’s not that we want to die and get rid of these bodies that clothe us. Rather, we want to put on our new bodies so that these dying bodies will be swallowed up by life. 5 God himself has prepared us for this, and as a guarantee he has given us his Holy Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 5:1-5 NLT

Regardless of what Solomon believed, there is something beyond the grave. Not only does an afterlife exist, it holds blessings beyond anything we can imagine. The pain, suffering, oppression, and injustice in this life that Solomon has so eloquently described, will not exist in the next one. For those who place their faith in Jesus Christ, eternity awaits and a life free from pain, suffering, sin, sorrow, and the looming threat of death. John writes of this wonderful reality in his letter to the seven churches.

3 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. 4 He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” – Revelation 21:3-4 NLT

Solomon was a wise man, but he reveals his inability to comprehend the ways of God. Over the years, he had developed an earth-based, temporal perspective that limited the sovereignty of God to the here and now. He saw life as end all, which determined his obsession with experiencing all that life had to offer. And when he couldn’t find what he was looking for in this life, he deemed it all meaningless, like chasing the wind. But he failed to see that God had much more in store. The best was yet to come.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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 Can’t Take It With You.

12 So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly. For what can the man do who comes after the king? Only what has already been done. 13 Then I saw that there is more gain in wisdom than in folly, as there is more gain in light than in darkness. 14 The wise person has his eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness. And yet I perceived that the same event happens to all of them. 15 Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. 16 For of the wise as of the fool there is no enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise dies just like the fool! 17 So I hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me, for all is vanity and a striving after wind.

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. 22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun? 23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.

24 There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God, 25 for apart from him who can eat or who can have enjoyment? 26 For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striving after wind. Ecclesiastes 2:12-26 ESV

I’m sure there was a day when Solomon was fun to be around, but at this point in his life, he comes across as a pessimistic, old curmudgeon who has long lost the capacity to smile. He isn’t even a glass-half-empty kind of guy. His glass is bone dry and his temperament is dark and depressing. But he still has his wisdom and the ability to see things that many of us tend to miss. He also recognized his responsibility as the “preacher” or speaker in the assembly, to share his somewhat somber life lessons with others. Which is the whole reason he took the time to write this book.

Solomon seemed to believe that his role as king, equipped with virtually unlimited resources, unbridled autonomy, and unparalleled wisdom, placed him in a unique position to investigate the true meaning of life. So, he did. And he did so with all his heart, expending a great deal of time, money and energy in his pursuit. In fact, Solomon will repeatedly refer to his heart throughout the book of Ecclesiastes. He mentions it no less than eight times in this chapter alone.

I said in my heart, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” – vs 1

I searched with my heart how to cheer my body with wine—my heart still guiding me with wisdom… – vs 3

I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. – vs 10

Then I said in my heart, “What happens to the fool will happen to me also. Why then have I been so very wise?” And I said in my heart that this also is vanity. – vs 15

So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun… – vs 20

For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity. – vs 23

While Solomon talks a great deal about the pursuit of pleasure, the accumulation of possessions, and his many accomplishments and acquisitions, the real focus of his attention is his own heart. Everything he did in life was meant to fill the void in his heart. He focused on external remedies in an attempt to address an internal problem. But he discovered that they were all like mist, fleeting and ephemeral. They brought temporary relief and short-lived satisfaction, but could never address his real problem: The state of his own heart.

Solomon even viewed his own wisdom, given to him by God, as an insufficient and inadequate resource for addressing his heart problem. As far as he could see, he could spend a lifetime using his wisdom to accomplish great good and for achieving noble goals, but when he died, he would leave it all behind, never knowing if his successor would be wise or a fool.

18 I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, 19 and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. – Ecclesiastes 2:18-19 ESV

All his accomplishments, regardless of how significant or praise-worthy would be left for someone else to do with as he wished. His wealth, possessions, palace, even his concubines, would become the possession of someone else.

20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun, 21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. – Ecclesiastes 2:20-21 ESV

And Solomon’s conclusion was “This also is vanity and a great evil.” Now, what we must realize is that Solomon is not downplaying the significance of hard work or achievement. he is not suggesting that we simply avoid work altogether, refusing to waste our limited time on this earth in a vain pursuit of material things we will simply be forced to leave behind. Solomon seems to be addressing the need to live life with a recognition that our time on this earth is limited and we have little to no control over our own destiny. That is why he spent such a great deal of time in chapter one focusing on the inevitability of life lived under the sun. Generation after generation comes and goes, and the only thing that remains is the earth itself. The sun rises and sets, in a never-ending cycle, and man disappears from the face of the earth in a similar manner, but never to be seen again.

All of this led Solomon to conclude: “So I decided there is nothing better than to enjoy food and drink and to find satisfaction in work” (Ecclesiastes 2:24 NLT). Again, we have to be careful when interpreting the meaning behind Solomon’s words. They can come across as defeatist in tone. He sounds like a man who has thrown up his hands in despair and resigned himself to simply endure life until he dies. But notice what he says: “I realized that these pleasures are from the hand of God. For who can eat or enjoy anything apart from him?” (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25 NLT). This is one of the few times Solomon has mentioned God up until this point. But he recognizes that the joy and pleasures of life are a gift from God, to be enjoyed and appreciated. Solomon is not a fatalist, proposing that we simply give up and fill up our lives with the mindless pursuit of pleasure. He is a realist, who is attempting to share his painful life lessons with others, preaching the message of finding enjoyment in the things God has graciously given to mankind. We are to enjoy them, but not worship them. We are to experience pleasure from them, but not make them the source of our pleasure. 

Whatever is good and perfect comes down to us from God our Father, who created all the lights in the heavens. He never changes or casts a shifting shadow. – James 1:17 NLT

In his commentary on the book of Ecclesiastes, Derek Kidner shares a powerful insight into Solomon’s message, revealing that the danger we all face is the temptation to worship the gifts more than the Giver, to seek satisfaction from the things of life, instead of the Creator of life.

“. . . in themselves, and rightly used, the basic things of life are sweet and good. Food, drink and work are samples of them, and Qoheleth will remind us of others [cf. 9:7-10; 11:7-10]. What spoils them is our hunger to get out of them more than they can give; a symptom of the longing which differentiates us from the beasts, but whose misdirection is the underlying theme of this book.” – Derek Kidner, The Message of Ecclesiastes: A Time to Mourn, and a Time to Dance

Solomon ends this chapter with what he believes to be an insight into the ways of God.

26 God gives wisdom, knowledge, and joy to those who please him. But if a sinner becomes wealthy, God takes the wealth away and gives it to those who please him. This, too, is meaningless—like chasing the wind. – Ecclesiastes 2:26 NLT

Solomon believed that God was a rewarder of those who pleased Him. He shared the commonly held view of his day that God blessed those who were faithful to Him, even taking what belonged to the wicked and giving it to the godly. According to this way of thinking, all the rewards of a life lived well were to be enjoyed in this life. We get our rewards now. And for Solomon, this came across as just another example of the futility of life. If you work hard, it really didn’t matter, because God could simply take what was yours and give it to someone else He deemed more worthy. But Solomon failed to recognize what the author of Hebrews made clear in his letter.

And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. – Hebrews 11:6 NLT

Yes, God rewards those who believe in Him and who seek to draw near to them. But that reward has little to do with this life. It involved the life to come. While God may bless us in this life, and allow us to enjoy all the pleasures that come with life, our greatest reward lies in the distant future. Solomon had lost sight of that fact, and had immersed himself in a never-ending pursuit of significance and satisfaction in this life. And his sad and misguided conclusion was “This also is vanity and a striving after wind.”

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001

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

Bless Like It.

8 Finally, all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. 9 Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing. 10 For

“Whoever desires to love life
    and see good days,
let him keep his tongue from evil
    and his lips from speaking deceit;
11 let him turn away from evil and do good;
    let him seek peace and pursue it.
12 For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their prayer.
But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.” – 1 Peter 3:8-12 ESV

Peter continues his address about attitudes and relationships. Keep in mind, he is still talking to those who are in Christ and attempting to get them to see that their new relationship with God as their Father should produce a change in their behavior. He started by addressing one of the most difficult relationships, the one between a slave and his master. Then, Peter turned his attention to husbands and wives, and, more specifically, the relationship between a believing and non-believing spouse. These kinds of relationship are going to make it difficult to live out your faith consistently and without falling back into your old sinful habits. Peter made this quite clear in the opening section of his letter.

So you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better then. – 1 Peter 1:14 NLT

And Peter has already provided them with more than enough motivation for their new actions and attitudes.

You were cleansed from your sins when you obeyed the truth, so now you must show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters. Love each other deeply with all your heart. – 1 Peter 1:22 NLT

So, now he addresses the larger pool of relationships to which his readers must turn their attention and apply his admonitions. But he focuses on the relationships they have with one another as believers. His interest at this point is on the way each Christian should treat his brothers and sisters in Christ.

Finally, all of you should be of one mind. Sympathize with each other. Love each other as brothers and sisters. Be tenderhearted, and keep a humble attitude. – 1 Peter 3:8 NLT

First, he tells them to be of one mind. The Greek word he uses is homophrōn, and it means “harmonious” or “like-minded”. It comes from two other words that mean “together” and “understanding”. They are to share a mutual understanding of one another as fellow citizens of the Kingdom of God. They share an inheritance as God’s children. They are brothers and sisters. And Peter gives them concrete examples of what this one-mindedness should look like. They should sympathize with one another. This carries the idea of compassion and understanding that shows up in the form of care and concern for those around you. Paul puts it this way:

15 Be happy with those who are happy, and weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with each other. Don’t be too proud to enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don’t think you know it all! – Romans 12:15-16 NLT

There is no place for individualism in the body of Christ. As Paul states in Galatians 6:2, we are to “bear one another’s burdens.” True sympathy requires empathy, an ability to vicariously relate to the feelings of another – their pain, sorrow, hurts and heartaches. The apostle Paul, using the example of the human body to illustrate the unique union of believers within the body of Christ, states, “If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:26 NLT). We are in this together. We are, as Peter put it earlier, sojourners and exiles, but we are not alone. We are joined together by God to all our other fellow exiles, and living our lives together in this inhospitable land. And Peter describes us as “living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple” (1 Peter 2:5 NLT) – all stacked together by the Master Builder, in order to create a home for His Spirit.

Peter also tells his readers to love like brothers. He uses the Greek word, philadelphos, which refers to the love shared between two blood brothers. There is to be a closer connection between two siblings than between two strangers. There is a common bond between two brothers that is not present in any other relationship. And Peter is calling the believers to whom he is writing into a deeper relationship with the ones with whom they share a spiritual kinship with Christ. Because they have been cleansed from their sins by placing their faith in Christ, they were to “show sincere love to each other as brothers and sisters”, and Peter had told them to  “Love each other deeply with all your heart” (1 Peter 1:22 NLT).

They were to have tender hearts. The Greek word Peter uses is a strange one. It literally means “good bowels.” Before you let your mind run to the races, keep in mind that the readers of Peter’s letter would have understood this word to refer to the seat of the emotions. It is a word that expresses compassion, sympathy, and tenderheartedness. Paul uses the same word in his letter to the believers in Ephesus.

31 Get rid of all bitterness, rage, anger, harsh words, and slander, as well as all types of evil behavior. 32 Instead, be kind to each other, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, just as God through Christ has forgiven you. – Ephesians 4:31-32 NLT

Too often, we have no feelings for our brothers and sisters in Christ. We have a coldness toward them, treating them more like strangers than as our spiritual relatives. James paints a vivid picture of what a lack of tenderheartedness looks like in the body of believers.

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it. – James 4:1-2 The Message

Finally, Peter tells his readers to have humble minds. This is a call to humility that shows up in a willingness to esteem others as more important than ourselves. Paul put it well.

Are your hearts tender and compassionate? 2 Then make me truly happy by agreeing wholeheartedly with each other, loving one another, and working together with one mind and purpose.

3 Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. 4 Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. – Philippians 2:1-4 NLT

There is no place for pride within the body of Christ. There is no reason to think of ourselves as better than anyone else, because we were all sinners who were saved by the grace of God. None of us were chosen for our goodness or inherent righteousness. We are each recipients of God’s undeserved, unearned grace. So, there is no reason for us to see ourselves as somehow better or of greater worth than anyone else in the family of God.

The next thing Peter writes is even more difficult to accept.

Don’t repay evil for evil. Don’t retaliate with insults when people insult you. Instead, pay them back with a blessing. That is what God has called you to do, and he will grant you his blessing. – 1 Peter 3:9 NLT

Our natural tendency is to seek revenge, to demand justice, and to get even. We are wired to lash out and to defend ourselves at all costs, whether the threat is to our physical well-being or to our reputation. But Peter tells us to bless instead of retaliate. We are to bless as we have been blessed. And Peter isn’t making this stuff up. He got it from a reliable source: Jesus Himself.

28 Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. 29 If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. 30 Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. 31 Do to others as you would like them to do to you. – Luke 6:29-31 NLT

And Paul would also echo the words of Jesus, when he wrote, “Bless those who persecute you. Don’t curse them; pray that God will bless them” (Romans 12:14 NLT). And Paul wasn’t saying this in terms of our relationships with unbelievers. He was writing to Christians. Just a few verses earlier he wrote, “Don’t just pretend to love others. Really love them. Hate what is wrong. Hold tightly to what is good. Love each other with genuine affection, and take delight in honoring each other” (Romans 12:9-10 NLT). That is exactly the message Peter is trying to convey. And to drive home his point, Peter follows up his words with a quote that comes from Psalm 34.

“If you want to enjoy life
    and see many happy days,
keep your tongue from speaking evil
    and your lips from telling lies.
Turn away from evil and do good.
    Search for peace, and work to maintain it.
The eyes of the Lord watch over those who do right,
    and his ears are open to their prayers.
But the Lord turns his face
    against those who do evil.” – 1 Peter 3:10-12 NLT

Notice the emphasis on the tongue. To bless literally means to speak well of someone. But they must be words that come from the heart. They are not to be hypocritical or fake. They are not to come out as some form of false flattery. It is one thing to keep your tongue from speaking evil, but it is another thing altogether to speak well and have it come from your heart. That is why Jesus said, “the words you speak come from the heart—that’s what defiles you” (Matthew 15:18 NLT). And in His list of defiling actions and attitudes that flow from the heart, He included evil thoughts, lying and slander. And He placed them right alongside murder, adultery, sexual immorality and theft. Our words are an expression of our heart. And to speak falsehood – kind-sounding words that are actually backed by hate-filled thoughts – is to do evil and not good. Yet, Peter calls us to bless because we have been blessed. We are to be a blessing to others, because we have received the blessing of God, His undeserved, unmerited grace and favor in the form of salvation made possible through the death of His Son. And Peter would have us continually reflect on the example provided to us by Christ.

21 For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. 23 When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. – 1 Peter 2:21-23 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 Yellow Brick Road of Disobedience.

At the end of ten days the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah. Then he summoned Johanan the son of Kareah and all the commanders of the forces who were with him, and all the people from the least to the greatest, and said to them, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your plea for mercy before him: If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I relent of the disaster that I did to you. Do not fear the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid. Do not fear him, declares the Lord, for I am with you, to save you and to deliver you from his hand. I will grant you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and let you remain in your own land. But if you say, ‘We will not remain in this land,’ disobeying the voice of the Lord your God and saying, ‘No, we will go to the land of Egypt, where we shall not see war or hear the sound of the trumpet or be hungry for bread, and we will dwell there,’ then hear the word of the Lord, O remnant of Judah. Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: If you set your faces to enter Egypt and go to live there, then the sword that you fear shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt, and the famine of which you are afraid shall follow close after you to Egypt, and there you shall die. All the men who set their faces to go to Egypt to live there shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. They shall have no remnant or survivor from the disaster that I will bring upon them.

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: As my anger and my wrath were poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so my wrath will be poured out on you when you go to Egypt. You shall become an execration, a horror, a curse, and a taunt. You shall see this place no more. The Lord has said to you, O remnant of Judah, ‘Do not go to Egypt.’ Know for a certainty that I have warned you this day that you have gone astray at the cost of your lives. For you sent me to the Lord your God, saying, ‘Pray for us to the Lord our God, and whatever the Lord our God says, declare to us and we will do it.’ And I have this day declared it to you, but you have not obeyed the voice of the Lord your God in anything that he sent me to tell you. Now therefore know for a certainty that you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go to live.” Jeremiah 42:7-22 ESV

Johanan and the people had asked Jeremiah to seek the will of God concerning whether they should stay in Judah and face the wrath of King Nebuchadnezzar over the murder of the man he had appointed as governor, or should they hightail it to Egypt. They had assured the prophet that they would do whatever God told them to do. So, ten days later, Jeremiah came back with the new from God. And it is not what they had been expecting or desiring to hear. He let them know, in no uncertain terms, that God wanted them to stay right where they were, and God communicates His message with two if-then conditional statements. The first described what would happen if they obeyed His will and stayed in the land.

If you will remain in this land, then I will build you up and not pull you down; I will plant you, and not pluck you up; for I relent of the disaster that I did to you.” – Jeremiah 42:10 ESV

Obedience would bring the blessing of God. Rather than punish them, He would protect them, even preventing the king of Babylon from seeking revenge against them. They would no longer have to fear Nebuchadnezzar. God Almighty would stand in the gap and act as a shield of protection for them. There was no need to run and seek shelter in Egypt, because they had God on their side. But God knew their hearts and so, He gave them the second scenario.

“Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: If you set your faces to enter Egypt and go to live there, then the sword that you fear shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt, and the famine of which you are afraid shall follow close after you to Egypt, and there you shall die.” – Jeremiah 42:15-16 ESV

They had a choice to make. They could obey God and live, or they could disobey God and take their chances in Egypt. But if they chose option B, they would discover that Egypt would make a lousy savior. Their problems would follow them there, because there is no escape from the wrath of God. It was King David who wrote:

Where can I go to escape your spirit?
Where can I flee to escape your presence?
If I were to ascend to heaven, you would be there.
If I were to sprawl out in Sheol, there you would be.
If I were to fly away on the wings of the dawn,
and settle down on the other side of the sea,
even there your hand would guide me,
your right hand would grab hold of me.
If I were to say, “Certainly the darkness will cover me,
and the light will turn to night all around me,”
even the darkness is not too dark for you to see,
and the night is as bright as day;
darkness and light are the same to you. – Psalm 139:7-12 NLT

Of course, David meant his words as a positive statement regarding God’s inescapable presence. He took comfort in the fact that there was no place where God was not present and His not all-pervasive. But for Johanan and the remnant of the people of Judah, they would find out that there was no escape from God judgment for disobedience. God had ordained the fall of Judah and He had chosen to use Nebuchadnezzar to do it. He had also told the people of Judah on numerous occasions, that it was His will that those who were left behind after the fall of Jerusalem were to stay in the land and remain under the submission of the Babylonians. What they didn’t realize was that God had a purpose behind His command. He intended the Babylonians to provide the remnant, in their weakened and vulnerable state, with protection from the mightiest nation on the planet. Their conquerors would become their defenders. But in order to enjoy that divinely ordained protection, the people of Judah would have to choose to remain under Babylonian rule. They would have to trust God and give up their desire to run from what they perceived as a threat on their lives.

But God knew what was going to happen, and He didn’t need His omniscience to come to that conclusion. He had seen this scenario played out time and time again with His people. He was well-acquainted with their hearts and their propensity to do things their own way. He even told them what they were probably thinking:

“We will not stay here; instead, we will go to Egypt where we will be free from war, the call to arms, and hunger.” – Jeremiah 42:13-14 NLT

Notice the rationale behind their decision. Freedom from war, the end of conscription of their young men for war, and no more hunger and starvation as a result of war. They viewed their escape to Egypt as a panacea for all their perceived problems. But the yellow brick path of disobedience never leads to the Emerald City. Choosing to disobey the will of God never ends well. It may seem appealing and, even logical, but it will always result in disappointment and disillusionment. Remember what happened to Johan when he refused to do what God commanded him to do? He was to take God’s offer of repentance to the people living in the city of Ninevah. But rather than obey God, Jonah chose to get on a boat and head in the opposite direction. And how did that work out for him? He ended up in a storm, getting thrown overboard, swallowed by a large fish, and thrown up on the beach. On top of all that, he ended up doing God’s will anyway. And what is fascinating about the story of Jonah is that the fish was actually the means of Jonah’s salvation, not a punishment from God. God sent the fish to keep Jonah from drowning, and Jonah reflects his awareness of this fact in his own words:

“You threw me into the deep waters,
into the middle of the sea;
the ocean current engulfed me;
all the mighty waves you sent swept over me.
I thought I had been banished from your sight,
that I would never again see your holy temple!
Water engulfed me up to my neck;
the deep ocean surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
I went down to the very bottoms of the mountains;
the gates of the netherworld barred me in forever;
but you brought me up from the Pit, O Lord, my God.” – Jonah 2:3-6 NLT

As Jonah sank into the depths of the sea, he called out to God to save him, and God sent the fish to do just that. The fish was his means of escape. Yes, he had to remain three days and three nights in the belly of the fish, but his life was spared. And, as a result, he was able to heed God’s second call to go to Ninevah and, this time, he went.

Johanan and the people of Judah had their answer from God. Now, the question was what they were going to do with it. How would they respond? Jeremiah seemed to already know, because he flatly told them:

“You said, ‘Just tell us what the Lord our God says, and we will do it!’ And today I have told you exactly what he said, but you will not obey the Lord your God any better now than you have in the past. So you can be sure that you will die from war, famine, and disease in Egypt, where you insist on going.” – Jeremiah 42:20-22 NLT

They weren’t going to listen. They were not going to obey. They had already made up their minds and had the maps and provisions for their journey to Egypt pre-prepared. They probably had their bags packed. And it wouldn’t be long before they were on their way, following the yellow brick road of disillusionment and false hope. This should bring to mind a warning God gave to the people of Judah earlier in this very same book.

This is what the LORD says: “Stop at the crossroads and look around. Ask for the old, godly way, and walk in it. Travel its path, and you will find rest for your souls. But you reply, ‘No, that’s not the road we want!’” – Jeremiah 6:16 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

 

Not This Way!

When Israel saw Joseph’s sons, he said, “Who are these?” Joseph said to his father, “They are my sons, whom God has given me here.” And he said, “Bring them to me, please, that I may bless them.” Now the eyes of Israel were dim with age, so that he could not see. So Joseph brought them near him, and he kissed them and embraced them. And Israel said to Joseph, “I never expected to see your face; and behold, God has let me see your offspring also.” Then Joseph removed them from his knees, and he bowed himself with his face to the earth. And Joseph took them both, Ephraim in his right hand toward Israel’s left hand, and Manasseh in his left hand toward Israel’s right hand, and brought them near him. And Israel stretched out his right hand and laid it on the head of Ephraim, who was the younger, and his left hand on the head of Manasseh, crossing his hands (for Manasseh was the firstborn). And he blessed Joseph and said,

“The God before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked,
    the God who has been my shepherd all my life long to this day,
the angel who has redeemed me from all evil, bless the boys;
    and in them let my name be carried on, and the name of my fathers Abraham and Isaac;
    and let them grow into a multitude in the midst of the earth.”

When Joseph saw that his father laid his right hand on the head of Ephraim, it displeased him, and he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. And Joseph said to his father, “Not this way, my father; since this one is the firstborn, put your right hand on his head.” But his father refused and said, “I know, my son, I know. He also shall become a people, and he also shall be great. Nevertheless, his younger brother shall be greater than he, and his offspring shall become a multitude of nations.” So he blessed them that day, saying,

“By you Israel will pronounce blessings, saying, ‘God make you as Ephraim and as Manasseh.’”

Thus he put Ephraim before Manasseh. Then Israel said to Joseph, “Behold, I am about to die, but God will be with you and will bring you again to the land of your fathers. Moreover, I have given to you rather than to your brothers one mountain slope that I took from the hand of the Amorites with my sword and with my bow.” – Genesis 48:8-22 ESV

God’s ways are not our ways. He does not operate according to and is not restricted by our human notions of fair play, social etiquette, customs or traditions. God does not have to do things the way we think they should be done. He is not afraid to offend our sense of decorum or proper procedures. His will is greater than our wishes. His divine plan is far more important than our need for maintaining the status quo.

Jacob had just told Joseph that he was going to adopt his two sons and make them his heirs. “And now your two sons, who were born to you in the land of Egypt before I came to you in Egypt, are mine; Ephraim and Manasseh shall be mine, as Reuben and Simeon are” (Genesis 48:5 ESV). So when Joseph brought his two sons to their grandfather to receive their official adoption and blessing, he had certain expectations about how things were going to go down. The placement of the two boys on the knees of Jacob was part of the Ancient Near Eastern adoption ceremony. Joseph was transferring his two sons to the care of Jacob and officially making them his father’s heirs. Then things got interesting and a bit off-script for Joseph. When he brought his two sons to stand before Jacob to receive their blessings, he had them positioned so that Jacob’s right hand would be on Manasseh, the first-born, and his left hand on Ephraim, the second-born. But when Jacob reached out his hands, he crossed his arms and placed his right hand on the head of Ephraim and his left hand on the head of Manasseh. Joseph was appalled. This was not according to protocol. It was not how things were supposed to happen. Jacob had screwed up. And Joseph was not happy.

When Joseph saw that his father placed his right hand on Ephraim’s head, it displeased him. So he took his father’s hand to move it from Ephraim’s head to Manasseh’s head. Joseph said to his father, “Not so, my father, for this is the firstborn. Put your right hand on his head.” – Genesis 48:17-18 NLT

Joseph most likely blamed his father’s gaff on old age and diminished eyesight. Verse ten tells us that Jacob’s eyes were “dim with age.” So Joseph attempted to switch his father’s hand and correct what was an obvious oversight. But Jacob refused, saying, “I know, my son, I know. He too will become a nation and he too will become great. In spite of this, his younger brother will be even greater and his descendants will become a multitude of nations” (Genesis 48:19 NLT). Jacob’s crossed hands had not been the result of poor eyesight or age-induced dementia. It had been the will of God. This was yet another example of God choosing the younger over the elder.

Abraham had two sons. His firstborn was Ishmael, born to him by his wife’s handmaiden. But when Abraham asked God to fulfill His promise through Ishmael, God said:

“No—Sarah, your wife, will give birth to a son for you. You will name him Isaac, and I will confirm my covenant with him and his descendants as an everlasting covenant. As for Ishmael, I will bless him also, just as you have asked. I will make him extremely fruitful and multiply his descendants. He will become the father of twelve princes, and I will make him a great nation. But my covenant will be confirmed with Isaac, who will be born to you and Sarah about this time next year.” – Genesis 17:19-21 NLT

When Isaac’s wife, Rachel, was pregnant with twin sons, God told her:

“The sons in your womb will become two nations. From the very beginning, the two nations will be rivals. One nation will be stronger than the other; and your older son will serve your younger son.” – Genesis 25:23 NLT

Esau, the eldest of the two, would serve Jacob, the younger.Even in Jacob’s own family, he had elevated Joseph ahead of all his brothers, showing him special favor. It was this favoritism that ended up causing Joseph’s brothers to hate him and sell him into slavery. Then Jacob simply replaced Joseph with Benjamin, the son born to him in his old age.

God doesn’t explain Himself. He doesn’t provide us with an explanation of His actions. While cultural protocol called for the blessing to fall on the firstborn, God was choosing to do things differently. He had a different agenda and was using out-of-the-ordinary means to accomplish His divine will. God would have us remember: “

“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord. “And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine. For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT

Look, God is greater than we can understand. – Job 36:26 NLT

Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways! – Romans 11:33 NLT

The ways of God may be incomprehensible at times, but they are always reliable. His methodology may leave us perplexed, but never disappointed. He may appear to be suffering from poor eyesight or early onset dementia, but in time, we will discover that His ways and thoughts are higher than ours. His hands were crossed for a reason. His blessing only appeared to be off target. God knows what He is doing – all the time and in every circumstance.

We may not understand God’s ways right now, but we will in time. We may not appreciate His methods for the moment, but He will be proven right and righteous. Our sense of fair play may get offended, but He will be proven just and good. Saying, “Not this way!” to God is not only presumptuous, it’s dangerous.

“What sorrow awaits those who argue with their Creator. Does a clay pot argue with its maker? Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying, ‘Stop, you're doing it wrong!’ Does the pot exclaim, ‘How clumsy can you be?’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

May we learn to say as Jesus did, “not my will, but yours, be done” (Luke 22:42 ESV).

 

Food For Thought.

Now there was no food in all the land, for the famine was very severe, so that the land of Egypt and the land of Canaan languished by reason of the famine. And Joseph gathered up all the money that was found in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, in exchange for the grain that they bought. And Joseph brought the money into Pharaoh’s house. And when the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, “Give us food. Why should we die before your eyes? For our money is gone.” And Joseph answered, “Give your livestock, and I will give you food in exchange for your livestock, if your money is gone.” So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses, the flocks, the herds, and the donkeys. He supplied them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year. And when that year was ended, they came to him the following year and said to him, “We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent. The herds of livestock are my lord’s. There is nothing left in the sight of my lord but our bodies and our land. Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we with our land will be servants to Pharaoh. And give us seed that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.”

So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for all the Egyptians sold their fields, because the famine was severe on them. The land became Pharaoh’s. As for the people, he made servants of them from one end of Egypt to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had a fixed allowance from Pharaoh and lived on the allowance that Pharaoh gave them; therefore they did not sell their land.

Then Joseph said to the people, “Behold, I have this day bought you and your land for Pharaoh. Now here is seed for you, and you shall sow the land. And at the harvests you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four fifths shall be your own, as seed for the field and as food for yourselves and your households, and as food for your little ones.” And they said, “You have saved our lives; may it please my lord, we will be servants to Pharaoh.” So Joseph made it a statute concerning the land of Egypt, and it stands to this day, that Pharaoh should have the fifth; the land of the priests alone did not become Pharaoh’s. – Genesis 47:13-26 ESV

God had originally told Abraham, “through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18 NLT). While that promise was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ through His message of salvation for all people, we see it partially fulfilled in the life of Joseph, Abraham’s great-grandson. As the seven-year famine took its toll on the surrounding lands, the people found themselves forced to come to Egypt for grain. During the preceding seven years, when the land was still fruitful, Joseph had set in place a program to store up as much grain as possible, in preparation for the coming famine.

During the seven years of abundance the land produced large, bountiful harvests. Joseph collected all the excess food in the land of Egypt during the seven years and stored it in the cities. In every city he put the food gathered from the fields around it. Joseph stored up a vast amount of grain, like the sand of the sea, until he stopped measuring it because it was impossible to measure. – Genesis 41:47-49 NLT

In time, the people found that they had exhausted all their money buying grain from Pharaoh’s storehouses, but the famine was far from over. So they resorted to exchanging their land and their freedom for food. Eventually, Joseph would provide seed to the people, but enforce a 20 percent tax on all food produced in the land. And when all was said and done, the people would actually thank Joseph for what he had done. “You have saved our lives! You are showing us favor, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves” (Genesis 47:25 NLT).

There is no mention of Jacob and his family in these verses. They were living in the land of Goshen – “the best of all the land of Egypt” (Genesis 45:20 ESV). And it is important to remember that, because they were shepherds, Pharaoh had put them in charge of his own flocks and herds. He had told Joseph, “Let them settle in the land of Goshen, and if you know any able men among them, put them in charge of my livestock” (Genesis 47:6 ESV). So as the famine increased, the people were forced to trade in their livestock in exchange for grain. “So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for their horses, the livestock of their flocks and herds, and their donkeys. He got them through that year by giving them food in exchange for livestock.” (Genesis 47:17 NLT). The sons of Jacob found themselves extremely busy. They were the official shepherds of Pharaoh and he would have been paying them well to care for his growing menagerie of animals. So while it seems that Pharaoh is the one receiving all the benefits of Joseph’s famine-relief plan, his own family was being sustained and blessed at the same time. The opening lines of the book of Exodus tells us, “In time, Joseph and all of his brothers died, ending that entire generation. But their descendants, the Israelites, had many children and grandchildren. In fact, they multiplied so greatly that they became extremely powerful and filled the land” (Exodus 1:6-7 NLT). The very famine that had forced them to flee from Canaan had resulted in the extraordinary expansion of their numbers. As the people of Egypt were exhausting all their money and possessions buying grain from Pharaoh, the Israelites “were fruitful and multiplied greatly” (Genesis 47:27 ESV). They were being blessed by God.

All of this should make us stop and consider the ways of God. If we would have been alive during that day and part of the family of Jacob, it is likely that we would have doubted God’s goodness by questioning His allowance of the famine. We might have complained about having to be upended and relocated to a foreign land. We most likely would have found reason to gripe about how much work we were having to do because of all the livestock being put under our care. And we might have even felt a tinge of jealousy as we watched Pharaoh AND Joseph get inordinately wealthy as the people of the land suffered. But in doing so, we would have have missed the point. We would have failed to see the mysterious ways of God in the seeming difficulties of life.

The family of Jacob was being blessed by God – in the midst of a famine. They were expanding in numbers as the Egyptians were selling off all they had and offering themselves as slaves to Pharaoh. This was the sovereign hand of God at work. It was the will of God being worked out in real life as He fulfilled His promises to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And through all the difficulties surrounding the famine, God was setting up the perfect scenario to bring about His plan to make of Abraham a great nation and to give him the land of Canaan as his possession. God’s ways are not our ways and they never will be, and that should always be food for thought.

Spiritual Success and Satan’s Seduction.

Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance. And after a time his master’s wife cast her eyes on Joseph and said, “Lie with me.” But he refused and said to his master’s wife, “Behold, because of me my master has no concern about anything in the house, and he has put everything that he has in my charge. He is not greater in this house than I am, nor has he kept back anything from me except you, because you are his wife. How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” And as she spoke to Joseph day after day, he would not listen to her, to lie beside her or to be with her.

But one day, when he went into the house to do his work and none of the men of the house was there in the house, she caught him by his garment, saying, “Lie with me.” But he left his garment in her hand and fled and got out of the house. And as soon as she saw that he had left his garment in her hand and had fled out of the house, she called to the men of her household and said to them, “See, he has brought among us a Hebrew to laugh at us. He came in to me to lie with me, and I cried out with a loud voice. And as soon as he heard that I lifted up my voice and cried out, he left his garment beside me and fled and got out of the house.” Then she laid up his garment by her until his master came home, and she told him the same story, saying, “The Hebrew servant, whom you have brought among us, came in to me to laugh at me. But as soon as I lifted up my voice and cried, he left his garment beside me and fled out of the house.” – Genesis 39:6b-18 ESV

Though having been sold into slavery by his brothers, Joseph must have considered himself blessed of God to have ended up in the home of Potiphar. He appeared to be a kind and gracious master who saw Joseph’s potential for leadership and rewarded him by putting Joseph in charge of his entire household. It had not escaped Potiphar’s notice that everything Joseph did was blessed by the hand of Joseph’s God, and since Joseph was a slave and all that he did was done on behalf of his master, Potiphar was the beneficiary of all the blessings. But in the midst of all of Joseph’s success, trouble was brewing, in the form of Potiphar’s wife. 

At the end of verse six, Moses relates a seemingly out-of-place bit of information regarding Joseph’s appearance. “Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance” (Genesis 39:6b ESV). But this little descriptor plays a significant part in helping to explain what happens next. It seems that Joseph had not escaped the notice of Potiphar’s wife, but it had nothing to do with his household management skills. She was attracted to Joseph’s attractiveness. He was more than likely about 20-years old at this point in the story, and his master’s wife wanted more from Joseph than he was prepared to give. She was about to use full-court pressure and all her feminine wiles on Joseph in an attempt to seduce him. We know this was an attack of the enemy because for Joseph to give in to the temptation would have been a sin against his God. Joseph knew that to commit any form of sexual immorality was forbidden, especially adultery. The enemy has long used sexual sin as a primary means of bringing down God’s people. It is one of the primary appeals to the weakness of the flesh that has proven to be the most successful for him. The Proverbs of Solomon repeatedly warn about this very thing.

For the lips of an immoral woman are as sweet as honey,
    and her mouth is smoother than oil.
But in the end she is as bitter as poison,
    as dangerous as a double-edged sword. – Proverbs 5:3-4 NLT

Stay away from her!
    Don’t go near the door of her house!
If you do, you will lose your honor
    and will lose to merciless people all you have achieved. – Proverbs 5:8-9 NLT

Drink water from your own well—
    share your love only with your wife.
Why spill the water of your springs in the streets,
    having sex with just anyone?
You should reserve it for yourselves.
    Never share it with strangers. – Proverbs 5:15-17 NLT

Can a man scoop a flame into his lap
    and not have his clothes catch on fire?
Can he walk on hot coals
    and not blister his feet?
So it is with the man who sleeps with another man’s wife.
    He who embraces her will not go unpunished.
– Proverbs 6:27-29 NLT

The passage tells us that “day after day” she tempted Joseph. We can only conjecture the kind of pressure she put on this young man to get what she wanted. But the Proverbs gives us an idea of the kinds of things she probably said.

“Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
    let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home;
    he has gone on a long journey;
he took a bag of money with him;
    at full moon he will come home.” – Proverbs 7:18-20 NLT

The warning is clear, stay away from her. Run for your life. Her seductive-sounding promises are lies that will only result in death.

Don’t let your hearts stray away toward her.
    Don’t wander down her wayward path.
For she has been the ruin of many;
    many men have been her victims.
Her house is the road to the grave.
    Her bedroom is the den of death. – Proverbs 7:25-27 NLT

And Joseph repeatedly spurned her advances, knowing that to give in to her would be to dishonor his master and to disobey his God. “How then can I do this great wickedness and sin against God?” (Genesis 39:9 ESV). Joseph could have rationalized his circumstances and convinced himself that it was only fair that he take what was offered to him. After all, he had been treated unfairly and had never asked to be placed in this situation to begin with. What harm could he do by satisfying his own physical desires? But Joseph knew that his actions would have consequences. He knew that to commit adultery with Potiphar’s wife would be a sin against God, even though it would be years before the written moral law of God would be given at Mount Sinai. Joseph knew in his heart would God would have him do. So he refused to give in to the temptation and ran for his life. 

It was William Congreve who penned the now famous words:

Heav’n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn’d,
Nor Hell a Fury, like a Woman scorn’d.

Potiphar’s wife was a woman scorned and she was furious. So much so, that she accused Joseph of attempted rape. Suddenly, Joseph found himself falling from favored status again. And it involved yet another one of his garments. In the earlier part of his story, his brothers took his torn and bloodied robe to his father and presented it as proof of Joseph’s death. In this case, Potiphar’s wife held out Joseph’s discarded garment as proof of Joseph’s supposed indiscretion. And in both cases, Joseph ended up imprisoned though innocent of any wrong doing.

Contrary to the popular opinion in some Christian circles, doing what God deems right does not guarantee that nothing will go wrong. Obedience does nothing to prevent opposition. Faithfulness to God will usually result in the a full-frontal assault from the enemy. Spiritual success will almost always elicit spiritual warfare. Joseph’s presence in Egypt had not escaped the notice of Satan. The blessings of God on Joseph’s life and the subsequent success he experienced in Potiphar’s household were threats to Satan’s rule. He did not want or need a faithful follower of God stirring up the pot in the god-suturated, yet God-less realm of Egypt. So Joseph could expect more of the same. But he could also expect God to continue His work in and around his life – regardless of the circumstances in which he found himself.

 

The Blessing and the Battle.

Now Joseph had been brought down to Egypt, and Potiphar, an officer of Pharaoh, the captain of the guard, an Egyptian, had bought him from the Ishmaelites who had brought him down there. The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, and he was in the house of his Egyptian master. His master saw that the Lord was with him and that the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had. From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph's sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field. So he left all that he had in Joseph’s charge, and because of him he had no concern about anything but the food he ate. – Genesis 39:1-6 ESV

The story of Joseph is picked back up in chapter 39 after a brief, but sordid look into the domestic difficulties of his brother, Judah. The last thing we were told about Joseph in chapter 37 was that, upon arrival in Egypt, he had been sold to an Egyptian military officer, a captain of Pharaoh’s guard. Chapter 38 reveals that life was going on “as usual” for Joseph’s brothers. They acted as if nothing had ever happened, knowing full well that their younger brother was now most likely a slave in Egypt. But Judah is provided as an example of just what was going on in the lives of Joseph’s brothers while he was suffering the painful outcome of their intense hatred for him. While they had rid themselves of Joseph, their lives were going to be far from easy. And their decision-making capabilities would continue to be far from stellar. Judah ended up marrying a Canaanite woman, with whom he had three sons. Er, the firstborn, would be put to death by God for his wickedness. Onan, Er’s brother, refused to provide his widow with an heir, choosing to “spill his seed on the ground” rather than impregnate her. So God killed him as well. Judah promised Tamar, the widow, that he would give her to his youngest son when he was of age. But Judah never kept his promise. So Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute and tricked Judah into having sex with her. The result was a pregnancy and, ultimately, the birth of two twin sons, Perez and Zerah. Judah’s life had been far from a fairy tale after the dreamer was gone. It had turned into a nightmare.

But meanwhile, Joseph had gone from favored son to the life of a slave living in a foreign country, far from home. Yet four times in this chapter, Moses uses the phrase, “The Lord was with Joseph” (Genesis 39:2 ESV). Even though he was many miles from home and had been rejected by his own brothers, Joseph was far from alone. The very One who had given him the dreams was with him and was going to see that those dreams became reality. It is interesting to note that chapter 38 provides a glimpse of Judah, choosing to live outside the will of God by selling his brother into slavery and then marrying a Canaanite, a pagan who did not worship Yahweh. He would suffer greatly for his choices. Yet Joseph, who had been treated unfairly by his brothers and sold into slavery, was well within the will of God and would enjoy His divine favor – even hundreds of miles away from his family and home. Living obediently within the will of God is always the safest place for His children to be. Joseph was going to discover the joy of discovering that God’s presence and blessings are not limited by time or space. Distance is not a difficulty for God. Joseph may have been miles from home, but His God was right beside him.

And God’s presence in Joseph’s life was far more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. It manifested itself in tangible, practical ways. Moses tells us, “the Lord caused all that he did to succeed in his hands. So Joseph found favor in his sight and attended him, and he made him overseer of his house and put him in charge of all that he had” (Genesis 39:3-4 ESV). God’s favor on Joseph showed up in the form of blessings on his life and those blessings flowed out, impacting the lives of all those around Joseph. Potiphar ended up getting far more than he had bargained for when he had purchased Joseph at the slave market. He had bought a slave, but little did he know that what he really got was a servant of God. 

The blessing of God on Joseph’s life is an ongoing theme in this story. And it goes all the way back to the original promise that God had made to Abraham when He had called him out of Ur. “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3 ESV). While we know that this promise was ultimately fulfilled in Jesus Christ, a descendant of Abraham, it was also partially fulfilled in Joseph. In a real way, Joseph had been cursed by his own brothers. He was a descendant of Abraham and yet had been treated as nothing more than property, sold into slavery for 20 shekels of silver. He had been betrayed by his own, just as Jesus would be centuries later. Judas would be paid 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus to the Jewish religious leaders. And yet, Joseph’s betrayal by his brothers would result in blessings on him and on all those around him. And as we will see as the story unfolds, God was going to utilize the forsaken and forgotten Joseph to fulfill His promise to make of the descendants of Abraham a great nation.

God extended favor to Joseph and Potiphar was a beneficiary of those divine blessings. As a result, he made Joseph the overseer of his entire household. “From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field” (Genesis 39:5 ESV). But where God blesses, the enemy wants to bring destruction. Jesus said of Satan, “The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy” (John 10:10a NLT). Satan is always out to destroy the servants of God. He wants to turn God’s blessings into curses. And Satan will use everything and everyone he can to counter God’s good intentions in the lives of His children. While we live on this earth, we will always find God’s good favor directly opposed by the enemy’s evil intentions. God gave Joseph dreams. Satan gave Joseph’s brothers visions of revenge and retribution. God showed Joseph favor. Satan will use Potiphar’s wife to show Joseph unwanted attention. The hand of God on the life of one of His children will always bring the hatred of the enemy. The favor of God will always solicit the full brunt of Satan’s fury and his spiritual forces. “For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty power” (Ephesians 6:12 NLT).