justice

The Righteous Wrath of God

19 “The Lord saw it and spurned them,
    because of the provocation of his sons and his daughters.
20 And he said, ‘I will hide my face from them;
    I will see what their end will be,
for they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.
21 They have made me jealous with what is no god;
    they have provoked me to anger with their idols.
So I will make them jealous with those who are no people;
    I will provoke them to anger with a foolish nation.
22 For a fire is kindled by my anger,
    and it burns to the depths of Sheol,
devours the earth and its increase,
    and sets on fire the foundations of the mountains.

23 “‘And I will heap disasters upon them;
    I will spend my arrows on them;
24 they shall be wasted with hunger,
    and devoured by plague
    and poisonous pestilence;
I will send the teeth of beasts against them,
    with the venom of things that crawl in the dust.
25 Outdoors the sword shall bereave,
    and indoors terror,
for young man and woman alike,
    the nursing child with the man of gray hairs.
26 I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
    I will wipe them from human memory,”
27 had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
    lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
    it was not the Lord who did all this.”’ – Deuteronomy 32:19-27 ESV

We love to talk about God’s love, mercy, and grace. And while these divine characteristics are essential to understanding His nature and bring us great comfort, they can also paint a rather one-dimensional image of God. An overemphasis of these positive aspects of God’s character can cause us to downplay His righteous anger and just judgment. This is one of the reasons so many people find such a disparity between the Old and New Testaments. They see conflicting images of God portrayed and choose the kind and compassionate God of the New Testament over the harsh and seemingly heartless God of the Old Testament.

But there is only one God, and He is unchanging in His nature. Yes, we may prefer to dwell on His more loving and father-like characteristics, but that does not mean He is incapable of displaying anger or dispensing harsh justice when necessary. And while the Old Testament is the primary place where this darker side of God’s character is displayed, it does not mean He has mellowed with time. Here are just a few reminders of God’s unchanging nature.

“For I the Lord do not change…” – Malachi 3:6 ESV

Of old you laid the foundation of the earth,
    and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you will remain;
    they will all wear out like a garment.
You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away,
    but you are the same, and your years have no end. – Psalm 102:25-27 ESV

And there countless passages in both the Old and New Testaments that reveal the righteous indignation of God.

“I, the LORD, will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their sin. I will crush the arrogance of the proud and humble the pride of the mighty.” – Isaiah 13:11 NLT

In the greatness of your majesty you overthrow your adversaries;
    you send out your fury; it consumes them like stubble. – Exodus 15:7 ESV

“Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. 9 And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.” – Ezekiel 7:8-9 ESV

But when he [Jesus] saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” – Matthew 3:7 ESV

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God's righteous judgment will be revealed. – Romans 2:5 ESV

And in this portion of the song given by God to Moses, the anger of God is clearly revealed.

“They have made me jealous…” – vs. 21

“…they have provoked me to anger.” – vs. 21

“…a fire is kindled by my anger…” – vs. 22

“…I will heap disasters upon them…” – vs. 23

“I will spend my arrows on them…” – vs. 23

“I will send the teeth of beasts against them…” – vs. 24

Not exactly the kind of sentiments you might find on a Hallmark card. These are clear expressions of God’s anger against the people of Israel and the tangible means by which He intends to manifest His indignation. He even goes so far as to say that He would have completely “cut them to pieces” and wiped them “from human memory” (Deuteronomy 32:26 ESV), but He knew their enemies would have taken credit for it.

God knew that, if He completely destroyed His people, their enemies would arrogantly assume that they were the ones responsible for Israel’s demise.

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

And God hates the prideful and arrogant as much as He does the unfaithful and spiritually adulterous. He was not about to give the pagan nations the pleasure of taking credit for something He had done. They were simply instruments in His hands, doing His bidding and acting as His servants. Neither Babylon or Assyria, whom God would use to punish His rebellious people, could take credit for their success. God would raise them up and use them to accomplish His divine will by meting out His just and righteous judgment against His chosen people.

And God points out that His anger was brought on by the actions of those whom He had redeemed and rescued from slavery. His own adopted children had spurned His love and thrown His mercy and grace back in His face through their unfaithfulness.

They stirred him to jealousy… – vs. 16

They sacrificed to demon… – vs. 16

You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you… – vs. 19

…and you forgot the God who gave you birth. – vs. 19

And God makes His damning assessment of His rebellious people.

“…they are a perverse generation,
    children in whom is no faithfulness.” – Deuteronomy 32:20 ESV

What God describes here is serial apostasy. This is not a case of the occasional failure to remain faithful, but of the habitual and willful refusal to follow God’s will. This song is revealing what will become Israel’s because of Israel’s faithlessness.

God will spurn them and hide His face from them. Why? Because that is exactly how they will treat Him. They will turn their backs on Him, choosing instead to worship false gods and demons. They will hide from Him, attempting to disguise their spiritual infidelity and mask their apostasy by feigning faithful adherence to His laws. And so, God will give them a taste of their own medicine. But when God hides His face, the consequences are devastating. When He spurns them, they will experience a form of loss they could have never imagined or anticipated.

God warns of disasters, hunger, plagues, and pestilence. He describes suffering caused by “the teeth of beasts” and “the venom of things that crawl in the dust” (Deuteronomy 32:24 ESV). He foretells of death brought on by the sword and arrows. And no one will be spared. Young men and women will suffer. The nursing child and the old man with gray hair will each endure the same fate. There will be no mercy shown and no grace given.

And while we might not like this image of God, we cannot assume it is somehow incorrect or inconsistent with His character. He is God. And He is fully righteous. All that He does is right, just, and good. In fact, the opening stanza of this poem declared the justice of God.

“The Rock, his work is perfect,
    for all his ways are justice.
A God of faithfulness and without iniquity,
    just and upright is he.” – Deuteronomy 32:4 ESV

He is not the one we should judge. He does not deserve our criticism and, most certainly, does not merit our disdain.

“They have dealt corruptly with him;
    they are no longer his children because they are blemished;
    they are a crooked and twisted generation.” – Deuteronomy 32:5 ESV

God had poured out His love, mercy, and grace upon the people of israel. He had redeemed and rescued them from captivity in Egypt. He had led them across the wilderness and put up with their repeated displays of ingratitude and constant bickering and complaining. He had brought them to the border of the land of promise and watched as they stubbonrly refused to enter in because they didn’t believe He would see them through.

And now, as the next generation stood at the very same border, preparing to enter into the land under the leadership of Joshua, God was informing them that their unfaithfulness would continue. They would conquer the land, but would never enjoy victory over their own apostasy. They would experience the power and presence of God, but would constantly turn their back on Him, seeking instead to give their affections to and place their hopes in false gods.

But God had long ago warned them about what He would do if they proved unfaithful.

“You must not bow down to them or worship them, for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God who will not tolerate your affection for any other gods. I lay the sins of the parents upon their children; the entire family is affected—even children in the third and fourth generations of those who reject me. But I lavish unfailing love for a thousand generations on those who love me and obey my commands.” – Exodus 20:5-6 NLT

We might not like reading about God’s anger. We may find His judgment difficult to understand or justify. But it is the righteous judgment of God that makes the grace and mercy of God so meaningful. The fact that God would spare a remnant of the people of Israel so He could send His Son as their Messiah, shows us just how loving He really is. If we do not understand how just God is in judging those who reject Him and rebel against Him, we will never fully appreciate the value of the mercy and grace He offers. God has chosen to provide justification in place of judgment. He has made a way for sinful men and women to enjoy exoneration rather than condemnation. He has made a way possible for those dead in their trespasses and sins to experience forgiveness and eternal life. And it was all made possible through the death, burial, and resurrection of His Son.

But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners. – Romans 5:8 NLT

It is not until we fully understand the justice of God’s wrath, that we will fully appreciate the joy of God’s love.

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

Protections For Man and Beast

1 “If there is a dispute between men and they come into court and the judges decide between them, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty, 2 then if the guilty man deserves to be beaten, the judge shall cause him to lie down and be beaten in his presence with a number of stripes in proportion to his offense. 3 Forty stripes may be given him, but not more, lest, if one should go on to beat him with more stripes than these, your brother be degraded in your sight.

4 “You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.

5 “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. 6 And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. 7 And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ 8 Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ 9 then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ 10 And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’” – Deuteronomy 25:1-10 ESV

It would be difficult to ignore the extreme specificity of many of these laws. Moses brings up a wide range of scenarios that deal with some of the most peculiar and particular situations imaginable. In these ten verses alone, he shifts from talking about just punishment for the guilty to the proper treatment of domesticated animals.  Then, seemingly out of nowhere, he brings up the law concerning levirate marriage.

While these three topics appear to have no common link to bind them together, they each fall under the overarching topic of justice. God demanded that His people live together in a society marked by justice and righteousness. It was essential that they treat one another well, exhibiting respect and reverence for every one of God’s chosen people, regardless of their social status or financial condition. God even placed a high regard on the ethical treatment of animals, expecting His people to care for them as exactly what they were: Blessings or gifts from His gracious hand.

In the case of a dispute between two individuals, they were instructed to go before the appointed judges and present their evidence. The judges were charged with acquiting the innocent and condemning the guilty. In prosecuting the case, if it was determined that the guilty party’s crime required a public beating as punishment, there were to be limits placed on the number of stripes delivered. The punishment must fit the crime. There was to be no abuse of the guilty through excessive discipline. In fact, Moses indicated that no more than 40 stripes or lashes were to be allowed. Obviously, this is dealing with crimes undeserving of capital punishment. But the guilty were to be justly tried, convicted, and disciplined for their crimes. But it was important that criminals not be degraded through excessive and unnecessary punishment. Even while meting out justice, the judges of Israel were expected to treat the guilty with dignity and respect.

At this point, Moses makes another one of his seemingly awkward transitions as he shifts his focus from dealing with criminals to the proper care of farm animals. Oxen played a vital role in the agrarian culture of the Israelites. In this case, they were used to tread the grain in order to separate the wheat from the husk. The basic idea was that, if the ox was forced to tread the grain, it should also be allowed to graze at it labored. Even animals should be treated fairly.

The apostle Paul would use this very law as an argument for the financial support of those who were called by God as ministers of the gospel.

For it is written in the Law of Moses, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain.” Is it for oxen that God is concerned? Does he not certainly speak for our sake? It was written for our sake, because the plowman should plow in hope and the thresher thresh in hope of sharing in the crop. If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more? – 1 Corinthians 9:9-12 ESV

He would bring this topic up again in his first letter to Timothy.

Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching. For the Scripture says, “You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,” and, “The laborer deserves his wages.” – 1 Timothy 5:17-18 ESV

According to Paul, the underlying principle behind this law had to do with fairness. A criminal was to be treated with dignity and respect, and so was a common farm animal. There was no place for abuse or mistreatment of man or beast.

In the third scenario, Moses brings up the case of a woman whose husband dies unexpectedly. This law deals with what has become known as the levirate marriage. This term comes from the Latin word levir, which refers to a husband’s brother. If a man died without having an heir, his widow could appeal to one of his unmarried brothers, requesting that he marry her. The purpose behind this union was to preserve the  deceased man’s legacy through the birth of a son who would bear his name.

It seems clear from the text that this regulation concerned two brothers who shared the same home. And since the Mosaic law prohibited polygamy, it would seem obvious that the brother of the deceased would have to be unmarried to fulfill his commitment to the widow. But if the man was unwilling to marry his dead brother’s wife, there was a process she was to follow. She was to take the matter before the elders of the city, who were then required to approach the reluctant brother and give him a second opportunity to do what was right and just. Should he persist with his refusal to marry her, the woman was required to  “go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face” (Deuteronomy 25:9 ESV). And this physical display of humiliation was to be accompanied by a verbal curse: “So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother's house” (Deuteronomy 25:9 ESV).

From that point forward, the brother would be forced to carry the reputation of one who refused to do the right thing. He had shown justice to his widowed sister-in-law. And this was a serious issue in the culture of that day, because a widowed woman was considered damaged goods. She would have a difficult time finding a husband and, in most cases, would end up living in poverty. So, for this brother to shirk his responsibility to perpetuate his brother’s name was a serious issue that could have dire consequences for the widow.

As with the other scenarios covered in this section, this is all about justice. God was extremely concerned about how His people treated one another. They were not free to do as they wished. Yes, the brother could refuse to marry his widowed sister-in-law, but not without consequences. A man could refuse to allow his ox to eat from the grain it was threshing, but this would be considered inhumane and limit the effectiveness of the animal.  A guilty man could be given more punishment than he deserved, but it would be unjust and, ultimately, non-productive.

God had His ways of doing things and He expected His people to abide by His will. If they did, it would go well with them. If they refused, they would have to reap the results of their stubbornness. Ultimately, all their behavior, whether good or bad, reflected back on God because they were His chosen people. They represented Him on earth and all that they did was intended to reflect His glory. Which is why Moses spent so much time addressing these highly specific situations that dealt with every area of daily life. Nothing is unimportant to 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

Laws Concerning Justice

14 “You shall not oppress a hired worker who is poor and needy, whether he is one of your brothers or one of the sojourners who are in your land within your towns. 15 You shall give him his wages on the same day, before the sun sets (for he is poor and counts on it), lest he cry against you to the Lord, and you be guilty of sin.

16 “Fathers shall not be put to death because of their children, nor shall children be put to death because of their fathers. Each one shall be put to death for his own sin.

17 “You shall not pervert the justice due to the sojourner or to the fatherless, or take a widow’s garment in pledge, 18 but you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this.

19 “When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work of your hands. 20 When you beat your olive trees, you shall not go over them again. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 21 When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, you shall not strip it afterward. It shall be for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. 22 You shall remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore I command you to do this.” – Deuteronomy 24:14-22 ESV

Over in the book of Amos, the prophet records some powerful and passionate words of indictment against the people of Israel, and they are from the lips of God Himself.

“I hate all your show and pretense—
    the hypocrisy of your religious festivals and solemn assemblies.
I will not accept your burnt offerings and grain offerings.
    I won’t even notice all your choice peace offerings.
Away with your noisy hymns of praise!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
Instead, I want to see a mighty flood of justice,
an endless river of righteous living.”– Amos 5:21-24 NLT

This message from the Almighty came hundreds of years after Moses and the Israelites had stood on the border of Canaan preparing to possess the land. Generations of their descendants would come after them, but they would fail to live according to all the rules and regulations Moses had so painstakingly taught to their forefathers.

God had desired for His people to obey His laws so that their lives might be marked by justice and righteous living. And that is what this section of Moses’ speech to the people of Israel is all about. He is calling them to practice justice and to display righteousness in their daily interactions with one another. As we have seen, community was and is important to God. He desires the His people conduct themselves in a way that reflects not only a love for Him but a love for one another. In fact, as the apostle John reminds us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” (1 John 4:20 ESV).

Even the great king, David expressed his understanding of God’s desire for unity among His people.

How wonderful and pleasant it is when brothers live together in harmony! – Psalm 133:1 NLT

In this section of Deuteronomy 24, Moses is going to discuss the poor and needy, the innocent, the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. In each case, he is addressing those within the community of Israel who represent the helpless or vulnerable among them. No Israelite was to take advantage of the less fortunate. And to help them refrain from doing so, Moses reminded them of their own history of suffering as slaves in Egypt.

“Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there; therefore I am commanding you to do all this.” – Deuteronomy 24:18 NLT

They were to never forget that their ancestors had been forced to make bricks without straw. They had been mercilessly and harshly treated by the Egyptians for more than four centuries. So, as they prepared to enter their own land, provided for them by God, they were to conduct themselves according to God’s laws, not according to worldly standards or some sin-saturated impulse based on selfish ambition.

If they had a hired servant, they were to pay them their wages – in full and on time. And Moses emphasizes the worker who is poor and dependent upon his daily wages for survival. The disadvantaged are always easy to oppress. They have not recourse and no one to stand in their corner to support them. But Moses wanted the people of Israel to know that God was an advocate for the needy. He would see that they received justice, one way or another. Which is why Moses warned the Israelites to treat their poorer servants fairly, “Otherwise he will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will be guilty of sin” (Deuteronomy 24:15 NLT). 

And while on the topic of sin and guilt, Moses turns his attention to the proper administering of justice for sin.  A father was not to be held responsible for the sins committed by one of his adult children.  And no child was to be punished for the sins of his father. This would be a form of revenge, rather than justice. The guiltless and innocent would be suffering unjustly and unnecessarily. Each individual was to be held accountable for their own sins. And you can see why this law would be necessary. If a case came up where the perpetrator of a crime could not be found and punished, it would be tempting for the victim to demand that a someone pay the criminal’s sin debt. But this would not result in a just and righteous outcome. Instead, it would cause the innocent to suffer unjustly.

And justice was to be a high priority among the people of Israel because it was important to God. Which is why Moses told them, “You must not pervert justice due a resident foreigner or an orphan…” (Deuteronomy 24:17 NLT). And to make sure they understood what he meant by justice, Moses gave the example of someone taking a widow’s garment as collateral on a loan. You don’t punish the innocent and you don’t take advantage of the helpless. These kinds of things were not to be done among God’s people. It was unacceptable behavior.

The Israelites were always going to have the poor and needy among them, and this group would be made up of fellow Israelites as well as immigrants from other nations. And in a nation with no welfare system, it was necessary that the people understand their role in the care for the less fortunate among them. And one of the ways in which God provided for the needs of the poor was through the annual harvest.  As God blessed His people with abundant crops, they were to share their bounty with the less fortunate among them. So, each harvest, when the Israelites reaped their fields, any sheaves of grain that were inadvertently left behind were to remain there as gifts to the poor. And when they went to gather olives or grapes, they were commanded to leave some of the produce behind as a gift for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow. God had promised to bless them with plenty of crops as long as they remained faithful to Him. And when He blessed them, He expected them to share that blessing with the less fortunate among them. And, once again, Moses used their former status as slaves in Egypt as a source of motivation.

According to the prophet, Amos, God wanted “to see a mighty flood of justice, an endless river of righteous living.” He greatly desired that His people display His righteousness through their interactions with one another. They were His chosen possession and He had set them apart from all the other nations on earth so that they might model what true righteousness and justice looks like. The greatest sacrifice the people of Israel could make would be to give up their rights for one another. They could prove their love for God by selflessly loving the less fortunate among them. They could display their honor and reverence for God by willingly and eagerly dispensing justice to all those around them. The prophet, Micah reiterates the words recorded by Amos, reminding God’s people of their responsibility to act as agents of justice in this world.

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
    and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
    and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:6-8 ESV

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

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

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

Hear and Fear

14 “You shall not move your neighbor’s landmark, which the men of old have set, in the inheritance that you will hold in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

15 “A single witness shall not suffice against a person for any crime or for any wrong in connection with any offense that he has committed. Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established. 16 If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, 17 then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days. 18 The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, 19 then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst. 20 And the rest shall hear and fear, and shall never again commit any such evil among you. 21 Your eye shall not pity. It shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot.” – Deuteronomy 19:14-21 ESV

Hear and fear. I love that phrase. It’s simple and succinct, yet speaks volumes. And its simplicity contains the entire essence of all that Moses is trying to tell the people of Israel. When reading books of the Bible that contain iterations of the Mosaic law, we tend to view them as nothing more than a compendium of rules and requirements placed upon the people of Israel by God.  Too often, we find these lists of laws to be tedious, woefully out-of-date, and of no value in our 21st-Century Christian context.

And that somewhat dismissive attitude causes us to miss the divine principle that undergirds each and every one of these imperatives given by God. These commands were never intended to be seen as rules just for the sake of having rules. As the apostle Paul wrote, “the law itself is holy, and its commands are holy and right and good” (Romans 7:12 NLT).

We have no cities of refuge, and we are not in violation of God’s law because of that fact. But we are expected to practice the divine principles that God infused into His command concerning cities of refuge. The designation of six special cities as places where those guilty of involuntary manslaughter could seek refuge was intended to ensure that justice took precedence over vengeance. In a nation where there was no police force, no established governmental structure, a limited judicial system, and a tendency toward the practice of vigilante-style justice, God provided the cities of refuge as a protective measure. And in doing so, He was promoting justice and the practice of mercy over unbridled and unwarranted retribution.

Every human being should care about those things because they are what God cares about. As the prophet Micah so aptly stated it, “He has told you, O man, what is good,
and what the Lord really wants from you: He wants you to promote justice, to be faithful, and to live obediently before your God” (Micah 6:8 NLT).

When reading the following phrase: “You shall not move your neighbor's landmark,” it can be easy to dismiss it as non-applicable to our current context. So, we dismiss it. But what was the principle contained within this divine prohibition? Was it just an arbitrary law restricting the moving of boundary markers, or was there something of greater import hidden within the law?

In the ancient world, land was at a premium and considered of great value. In a predominantly agrarian culture, land was one of the most valuable assets a man could own. It became a part of his identity. So, of someone clandestinely moved a marker that determined the boundary of a man’s land, it was an act of stealing. But not just his land – his value, worth, and identity. And when you consider that all of the land of Canaan had been divided up by God and apportioned to the various tribes, you begin to understand that there is an even more significant crime taking place here than that of land grabbing. It was a violation of God’s divine will.

In verses 15-21, Moses outlines the regulations concerning the use of witnesses in a civil dispute. This could apply to a case of someone accused of moving a boundary marker, or a Moses states, “any crime or for any wrong.”

The rule was simple. “Only on the evidence of two witnesses or of three witnesses shall a charge be established” (Deuteronomy 19:15 ESV). One witness would not suffice, because that would result in a stalemate, with one man’s word pitted against another. Again, don’t miss what is behind all of this. It has less to do with the crime committed than the means by which an accusation is to be leveled. God is putting safeguards in place to prevent false accusations that could result in inequitable or unjust outcomes.

In verse 16, Moses refers to “a malicious witness.” The Hebrew word is chamac, and it most often gets translated as “violent.” This is an individual who has evil intent. He is a false witness or a liar whose underlying motivation is to do harm to another. And Moses provides very specific instructions concerning this type of situation.

“If a malicious witness arises to accuse a person of wrongdoing, then both parties to the dispute shall appear before the Lord, before the priests and the judges who are in office in those days.” – Deuteronomy 19:16-17 ESV

It’s noteworthy that Moses refers to the accuser as a malicious witness even before the case has been heard by the authorities. For this person to level an accusation without the requisite second witness would have been an indication that his intent was evil. He had no corroborating witness to support his claim. You see this law played out in the trial of Jesus before the Sanhedrin. The religious leaders were desperate to find at least two witnesses who could level the same charge against Jesus that might warrant a call for His execution.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were trying to find false testimony against Jesus so that they could put him to death. But they did not find anything, though many false witnesses came forward. – Matthew 26:59-60 NLT

And Matthew goes on to record that the Sanhedrin was finally able to get two of these false witnesses who collaborated their story and gave the chief priests and religious leaders what they had been looking for.

Finally two came forward and declared, “This man said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.’” – Matthew 26:60 NLT

The witness of a single man was insufficient. And a man who could find no one else to collaborate his accusation was most likely a false witness. So, the accuser and the accused were to be brought before the authorities who were tasked to hear the facts of the case and make a judgment.

“The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” – Deuteronomy 19:18-19 ESV

Again, we have to consider the underlying principle behind all of these rules. Moses had provided the Israelites with God’s prescribed means for settling disputes among them, and He had told them undergirding principle behind it: Justice.

“You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:18-20 ESV

God wasn’t interested in judgment for judgment’s sake. He wanted righteous judgment. He demanded that justice be served. There was no place for false witnesses and maliciously motivated legal cases among His people. Moses had made it perfectly clear: “Justice, and only justice, you shall follow.”

Which brings us back to those three simple words: Hear and fear. All of these rules and regulations were intended to orchestrate and regulate the lives of the Israelites but, more than that, they were meant to instruct the people of Israel about the nature of their God. He was just, holy, and righteous in all His ways. He was set apart and distinct in nature. And He had called His chosen people to reflect the nature of His character by keeping His carefully crafted commands.

“Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the Lord your God. Keep my statutes and do them; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.” – Leviticus 20:7-8 ESV

God had set the Israelites apart as His own possession. And, in a sense, God had placed boundary markers around them, designed to restrict and regulate their behavior. Those commands or markers were God-ordained and not up for negotiation. But the people of Israel would find themselves constantly tempted to move God’s boundary markers, in a vain attempt to increase their own inheritance. When a man chooses to violate the commands of God, it is because He has determined that God is not just. He has concluded that God is holding out on him, denying him what is rightfully his. And his kind of behavior is unacceptable among God’s people. It reveals a heart that does not truly know and understand the unwavering, never-changing justness and righteousness 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

 

 

 

Rules For Life and Death

1 “When the Lord your God cuts off the nations whose land the Lord your God is giving you, and you dispossess them and dwell in their cities and in their houses, 2 you shall set apart three cities for yourselves in the land that the Lord your God is giving you to possess. 3 You shall measure the distances and divide into three parts the area of the land that the Lord your God gives you as a possession, so that any manslayer can flee to them.

4 “This is the provision for the manslayer, who by fleeing there may save his life. If anyone kills his neighbor unintentionally without having hated him in the past— 5 as when someone goes into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and his hand swings the axe to cut down a tree, and the head slips from the handle and strikes his neighbor so that he dies—he may flee to one of these cities and live, 6 lest the avenger of blood in hot anger pursue the manslayer and overtake him, because the way is long, and strike him fatally, though the man did not deserve to die, since he had not hated his neighbor in the past. 7 Therefore I command you, You shall set apart three cities. 8 And if the Lord your God enlarges your territory, as he has sworn to your fathers, and gives you all the land that he promised to give to your fathers— 9 provided you are careful to keep all this commandment, which I command you today, by loving the Lord your God and by walking ever in his ways—then you shall add three other cities to these three, 10 lest innocent blood be shed in your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance, and so the guilt of bloodshed be upon you.

11 “But if anyone hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and attacks him and strikes him fatally so that he dies, and he flees into one of these cities, 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there, and hand him over to the avenger of blood, so that he may die. 13 Your eye shall not pity him, but you shall purge the guilt of innocent blood from Israel, so that it may be well with you.” – Deuteronomy 19:1-13 ESV

God cares. That’s an extremely important theological insight that we too often overlook. Deism is a theological theory which views God as distant and disengaged from the world He created. He is seen as the creator, but He takes a hands-off approach when it comes to the management of His creation, allowing mankind the autonomy to determine its own fate.

But as this passage will clearly reveal, this view of God is far from biblical. The image of God gleaned from a reading of the Scriptures is quite different. He is not the giant clockmaker in the sky who wound up His creation and then left it to slowly wind its way into oblivion. No, the God of the Bible is fully engaged with His creation, and He is intimately involved in the lives of those who worship Him.

This section of the book of Deuteronomy contains a series of admonitions from Moses to the people of Israel, as he attempts to prepare them for their conquest of the land of Canaan. Much of what he is telling them is repetitive in nature. He is simply reminding them of their God-ordained responsibilities and challenging them to take the commands of God seriously. Because God cares. Their actions and attitudes matter to God. The way they live their lives is important to God because they are His representatives on this earth, bearing His name and intended to bring Him glory.

So, Moses reminds the Israelites that, upon entering the land of Canaan that God had given them as an inheritance, they were to set apart six cities within the territory as places of refuge. Even before they had stepped over the border into the land and fought their first battle, God provided a system designed to prevent the shedding of innocent blood.

God knew His people well, and He was fully aware that their sinful dispositions would cause them to engage in a wide range of unacceptable behaviors. That is why He had provided them with His law as a black-and-white compendium of rules to live by. He had also given them the sacrificial system as a means of receiving atonement for the sins they would inevitably commit. Again, because He cared for them.

And, when it came to the topic of murder, God had been quite specific.

“Whoever strikes someone so that he dies must surely be put to death. But if he does not do it with premeditation, but it happens by accident, then I will appoint for you a place where he may flee. But if a man willfully attacks his neighbor to kill him cunningly, you will take him even from my altar that he may die.” – Exodus 21:12-14 NLT

God was and is opposed to murder, the taking of innocent life. But He provided His people with much-needed legal clarification establishing the difference between premeditated murder and involuntary manslaughter. An important factor behind all of this was the law of retribution or what has come to be known as lex talionis. The familiar phrase, “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” is wrapped up in this law, and it was part of the Israelite justice system as outlined in the Mosaic Law.

But if there is serious injury, then you will give a life for a life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise. – Exodus 21:23-25 NLT

The principle behind this system of justice was that the punishment must match the crime. It involved the concept of just retribution and was to be administered under a strict judicial system designed to see to it that proper steps were taken to ensure justice was meted out. Lex talionis was never intended to be some kind of vigilante justice system where people took the law into their own hands.

So, in the case of murder, God provided the Israelites with a way to keep them from following one form of injustice with another. As the saying says, accidents happen. God knew that there were going to be those occasions where life was taken unintentionally. He even gave an example.

“Suppose he goes with someone else to the forest to cut wood and when he raises the ax to cut the tree, the ax head flies loose from the handle and strikes his fellow worker so hard that he dies. The person responsible may then flee to one of these cities to save himself.” – Deuteronomy 19:15 NLT

No premeditation. No malice. But according to lex talionis, the relatives of the one murdered could demand a life for a life. They could seek retribution. They were even responsible by law to see that the life of their relative was avenged. But God was determined to keep His people from allowing their passion for justice to result in an even greater sin.

“You must not shed innocent blood in your land that the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, for that would make you guilty.” – Deuteronomy 19:10 NLT

The cities of refuge were set apart by God for the expressed purpose of providing a safe-haven for anyone who happened to commit involuntary manslaughter. It was going to happen, and God made provision for it. He knew His people well enough, and He loved them enough to provide them with a well-designed system for ensuring that justice was done.

God was not and still is not some distant deity, unconcerned, and uninvolved in the daily affairs of life. He is a God who cares and who intimately interacts with His creation. The level of detail involved in His law reveals just how well God knew the people of Israel. He left nothing up to chance. Even the cities of refuge are an illustration of just how deeply God cares about His people. He knew that His laws, while just, righteous, and holy, could be twisted and abused by His people. So, He provided clarification and installed safeguards to ensure that one sin did not lead to another. Life is important to God, which is why He provided a law against murder. But God also puts a high priority on justice. Those committing premeditated murder were to be dealt with quickly and severely.

But God’s justice is always balanced by His desire for mercy. So, He made provision for those who found themselves guilty of shedding innocent blood accidentally. Ultimately, this was all about the integrity of God’s name. The people of Israel were His chosen people, responsible for acting as His representatives on earth. And their actions would either glorify or bring shame to His reputation. Which is why He left nothing up to chance. He cared enough to create a plan for any and all scenarios the Israelites might encounter along the way. And Moses told them the motivation behind God’s actions: “so that it may go well with you” (Deuteronomy 19:13 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

 

 

 

Righteous Judgment. Perverted Judgment.

18 “You shall appoint judges and officers in all your towns that the Lord your God is giving you, according to your tribes, and they shall judge the people with righteous judgment. 19 You shall not pervert justice. You shall not show partiality, and you shall not accept a bribe, for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of the righteous. 20 Justice, and only justice, you shall follow, that you may live and inherit the land that the Lord your God is giving you.

21 “You shall not plant any tree as an Asherah beside the altar of the Lord your God that you shall make. 22 And you shall not set up a pillar, which the Lord your God hates.” – Deuteronomy 16:18-22 ESV

Reliable leadership is essential for a family, a religious community, a company or a nation. Without proper leadership, you end up with chaos and confusion, which ultimately leads to anarchy. So, as Moses continues to outline God’s holy expectations for the people of Israel, he begins to focus his attention on the vital role and responsibility of leadership within their community. Yes, God was their final authority, but He had established a hierarchy of leadership, delegating certain responsibilities to others, like Moses, whom He would hold accountable for the welfare of His people.

As God’s chosen people, the nation of Israel was expected to reflect His character, both on an individual and corporate basis. Each family within the community was to operate according to God’s commands, with children honoring their parents and father’s and mother’s leading their children in the ways of the Lord. Every member of the community was expected to keep the sabbath holy. They were each obligated to obey the commands of God and live in unity as the people of God. But every organization, no matter how large or small, needs effective leadership to survive and thrive.

So, Moses provided them with God’s plan for overseeing what would quickly become a rapidly expanding populace scattered throughout the land of Canaan.

“Appoint judges and officials for yourselves from each of your tribes in all the towns the Lord your God is giving you…” – Deuteronomy 16:18 NLT

Once the tribes began to conquer and settle the land, the once-unified nation would find itself dispersed into 12 different communities separated by distance and requiring localized leadership. One man would not be able to oversee such an extensive and far-spread domain. Even during the days of the kings of Israel, there would be a need for delegated power dispersed throughout the kingdom in order to assure proper application and enforcement of the king’s wishes.

But in these early days of Israel’s existence, they were to be a theocracy living under the authority of God, their sovereign Lord and King. He was to be their final authority in all things. And He would appoint men to serve as His representatives, leading and judging the people on His behalf and according to His divine will. But the day was going to come when the people of Israel expressed their weariness with God’s way of doing things. They would reject His divinely appointed leaders and demand to have a king just like all the other nations. In other words, they would jettison the governing model of a theocracy for a human monarchy, which would eventually devolve into an oligarchy.

The book of 1 Samuel records the fateful day when the people of Israel issued their demand for a king, and God made clear that they were really rejecting Him as their King.

Then all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah and said to him, “Behold, you are old and your sons do not walk in your ways. Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations.” But the thing displeased Samuel when they said, “Give us a king to judge us.” And Samuel prayed to the Lord. And the Lord said to Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them.” – 1 Samuel 8:4-7 ESV

But at this point in the book of Deuteronomy, the people were still preparing to enter the land. They found themselves in need of God’s help, so they were still willing to allow Him to lead. But God knew that it would only be a matter of time before they required more hands-on leadership. So, He commanded Moses to have the people appoint or elect judges and officials who would provide localized leadership within their various land allotments.

These men would provide a vital role, exercising their divinely-appointed authority to provide wise judgment and ensure righteous justice within the various tribes. But this was not be the first time this form of delegated authority had been seen in Israel. All the way back in the days when they were traveling from Egypt to the land of Canaan, Moses had instituted a similar program, under the wise counsel of his father-in-law, Jethro.

Jethro had witnessed Moses attempting to single-handedly trying to mete out judgment and justice for the people. His son-in-law was spending all day, everyday, listening to the cares and concerns of the people and trying to provide wise counsel and direction. But Jethro saw that this was unsustainable, so he gave Moses a bit of sage advice.

“This is not good!” Moses’ father-in-law exclaimed. “You’re going to wear yourself out—and the people, too. This job is too heavy a burden for you to handle all by yourself. Now listen to me, and let me give you a word of advice, and may God be with you. You should continue to be the people’s representative before God, bringing their disputes to him. Teach them God’s decrees, and give them his instructions. Show them how to conduct their lives. But select from all the people some capable, honest men who fear God and hate bribes. Appoint them as leaders over groups of one thousand, one hundred, fifty, and ten. They should always be available to solve the people’s common disputes, but have them bring the major cases to you. Let the leaders decide the smaller matters themselves. They will help you carry the load, making the task easier for you. If you follow this advice, and if God commands you to do so, then you will be able to endure the pressures, and all these people will go home in peace.” – Exodus 18:17-23 NLT

And this is exactly what Moses is directing the people to do. But he provides an important caveat, telling the people that the men they choose as leaders were to “judge the people with righteous judgment” (Deuteronomy 16:18 ESV). Not only that, they were to “never twist justice or show partiality” (Deuteronomy 16:19 NLT).

God was looking for righteous and just men. He wanted individuals who would reflect His character and uphold His divine expectations for justice and mercy. God was not going to put up with any form of corruption, such as the acceptance of bribes. There would be no room for partiality or favoritism. These men were to be impartial and fair, representing each of the people under their care equitably and justly. And Moses made it clear that their adherence to God’s requirements would bring His blessings.

“Let true justice prevail, so you may live and occupy the land that the Lord your God is giving you.” – Deuteronomy 16:20 NLT

God has a strong dislike for lousy leadership. He holds those in positions of authority to a high standard and expects them to take their responsibilities seriously, approaching their roles with a soberness that is influence by a healthy fear of His holiness.

And these men were not just responsible for settling civil disputes. They were to guard against any kind of idolatry among the people of Israel. Unfaithfulness to God was the greatest temptation the people were going to face. Their personal disputes and disagreements would prove miniscule and pointless when compared with their failure to remain faithful to God. So, Moses warns these leaders to watch out for any kind of idolatrous activity among the people. If they saw it, they were to deal with it immediately. God expected these men to deliver righteous judgment among His people and He demanded that they dispense equitable justice. But more importantly, God required His leaders to require holiness and faithfulness from the people. These men would be acting as representatives of God. And, as such, they were expected to love what He loves and hate what He hates. They were to judge according to God’s standards, not their own. They were to mete out God’s brand of justice, not their own. And if they did, God would bless the nation. 

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

 

 

 

God Will

15 The Lord saw it, and it displeased him
    that there was no justice.
16 He saw that there was no man,
    and wondered that there was no one to intercede;
then his own arm brought him salvation,
    and his righteousness upheld him.
17 He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak.
18 According to their deeds, so will he repay,
    wrath to his adversaries, repayment to his enemies;
    to the coastlands he will render repayment.
19 So they shall fear the name of the Lord from the west,
    and his glory from the rising of the sun;
for he will come like a rushing stream,
    which the wind of the Lord drives.

20 “And a Redeemer will come to Zion,
    to those in Jacob who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord.

21 “And as for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouth of your offspring, or out of the mouth of your children’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from this time forth and forevermore.” – Isaiah 59:15-21 ESV

The people of Judah were between a rock and a hard place. They were guilty of sinning against a holy God and were suffering the consequences. And their sinful state left them incapable of doing anything about their condition. They were like blind men groping around in darkness, with no sense of where they were or what to do. Even the prophet’s calls to repent were met by deaf ears and a stubborn determination to continue living their lives just as they had for centuries. In fact, they had fooled themselves into believing that they were righteous because they still made a vain attempt to keep maintain the religious rites and rituals of their faith. But their hearts were not in it.  They were simply going through the motions.

And while they demanded justice and deliverance from God, their lives were marked by injustice and the misuse of their rights that resulted in their abuse of the weak and helpless among them. It was so bad, that Isaiah pictures God looking down from heaven and was far from happy with what He saw.

The Lord looked and was displeased
    to find there was no justice.
He was amazed to see that no one intervened
    to help the oppressed. – Isaiah 59:15-16 NLT

The spiritual state of affairs in Judah had reached an all-time low. And while there were those in the country, like Isaiah, who remained faithful to God, the reality was that the vast majority of the people were living in open rebellion to Him.

This indictment against the spiritual condition of Judah is echoed in the words of God recorded by the prophet Ezekiel. It is yet another case revealing the the divine disappointment of God with the state affairs among His chosen people.

“I looked for someone who might rebuild the wall of righteousness that guards the land. I searched for someone to stand in the gap in the wall so I wouldn't have to destroy the land, but I found no one.” – Ezekiel 22:30 NLT

God could find no one to stand in the gap. He could find no one practicing justice and intervening on behalf of the oppressed. And it wasn’t as if God had not made His requirements known to them. The prophet Micah had declared the expectations of God quite plainly and succinctly.

O people, the LORD has told you what is good, and this is what he requires of you: to do what is right, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8 NLT

The prophet Jeremiah, speaking on behalf of God, had said virtually the same thing.

This is what the LORD says: Be fair-minded and just. Do what is right! Help those who have been robbed; rescue them from their oppressors. Quit your evil deeds! Do not mistreat foreigners, orphans, and widows. Stop murdering the innocent! – Jeremiah 22:3 NLT

And Hosea had recorded the words of God expressing His expectations of His people.

I want you to show love, not offer sacrifices. I want you to know me more than I want burnt offerings. – Hosea 6:6 NLT

But sadly, there was no one in Judah willing to do what God wanted. They were all busy living according to their own agendas and  pursuing their own selfish passions and desires. Justice was nowhere to be found. Love of self had replaced love for others.

But God was not willing to allow things to remain as they were. While there was no one to step in the gap and rebuild the walls of righteousness, He was not content to leave things in that sorry state. And Isaiah describes God’s determination to do what no man was willing to do.

…then his own arm brought him salvation,
    and his righteousness upheld him. – Isaiah 59:16 ESV

God was not going to accept the status quo. He was not about to leave His chosen people in a state of helplessness and hopelessness. What is important to see here is that God was about to intervene on behalf of the weak. The people of Judah, while guilty of their sin, were helpless to do anything about it. They were incapable of living in keeping with the laws of God. They were unable to obey the commands of God. And they were helplessly succumbing to the attacks of the enemy. So, God determined to enact His form of divine justice and intercede for them. And Isaiah describes God as a warrior preparing for battle.

He put on righteousness as a breastplate,
    and a helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on garments of vengeance for clothing,
    and wrapped himself in zeal as a cloak. – Isaiah 59:17 ESV

The result will be justice in the form of God repaying each and every oppressor of Judah for their mistreatment of God’s people.

He will repay his enemies for their evil deeds.
    His fury will fall on his foes.
    He will pay them back even to the ends of the earth. – Isaiah 59:18 NLT

God will leave no sin unpunished. Every inequity will be dealt with and the justice of God will once again be established in the land. If God could not find a man to rebuild the walls of righteousness, He would do it Himself. If He could not find a single individual to dispense justice, He would take care of it.

And when all is said and done, the world will fear the name of the Lord and give Him glory. It will be painfully obvious that God has done something great and totally beyond the capabilities of mere men. This passage is obviously prophetic in nature, speaking of an event sometime in Judah’s future. And it was fulfilled in part with the coming of Jesus. God sent His Son into the world in order to redeem the world from its slavery to sin and the condemnation of death that came as a result of their rebellion against God. But the Jews rejected their Messiah, eventually demanding that He be crucified. But God is not done with His chosen people. There is a day coming when He will fulfill all that Isaiah has recorded in this chapter.

God will put on righteousness as a breastplate, and a helmet of salvation on his head; he will put on garments of vengeance for clothing, and wrap himself in zeal as a cloak.” And He will bring justice to the land of Israel and to His people. He will restore His helpless and hopeless people to a right relationship with Him, doing for them what they were incapable of doing for themselves.

“The Redeemer will come to Jerusalem
    to buy back those in Israel
who have turned from their sins,”
    says the Lord. – Isaiah 59:20 NLT

And the result of all this will be a radically new relationship between God and His chosen people. He will deliver them from their rebellion and restore them to prominence as His people. And He provides them with the following promise as a guarantee of His faithfulness and an encouragement to trust Him – even now.

“My Spirit will not leave them, and neither will these words I have given you. They will be on your lips and on the lips of your children and your children’s children forever. I, the Lord, have spoken!” – Isaiah 59:21 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

A Faulty Foundation.

14 Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers,
    who rule this people in Jerusalem!
15 Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement,
when the overwhelming whip passes through
    it will not come to us,
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
16 therefore thus says the Lord God,
“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
    a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
    ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’
17 And I will make justice the line,
    and righteousness the plumb line;
and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
    and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”
18 Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
    and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through,
    you will be beaten down by it.
19 As often as it passes through it will take you;
    for morning by morning it will pass through,
    by day and by night;
and it will be sheer terror to understand the message. – Isaiah 28:14-19 ESV

In this section, God calls the leaders of Judah, “scoffers.” The Hebrew word is latsown, and it is used in the book of Proverbs to refer to the worst kind of fool. This individual is one who shows frivolous contempt for what is good and right.

“Scoffer” is the name of the arrogant, haughty man
    who acts with arrogant pride. – Provers 21:24 ESV

From their place of power in the capital city of Jerusalem, these men derided God and His prophet, making light of any threats of pending judgment. In fact, they were bold enough to shake their fist in the face of God, bragging about their ability to thwart any plan He may have for their destruction.

“We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement,
when the overwhelming whip passes through
    it will not come to us,
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter.” – Isaiah 28:15 ESV

While it is doubtful that this represents the exact words of these men, it conveys the heart behind their actions. They were convinced that they could make an alliance with a nation like Egypt and save themselves from the threat of the Assyrians. They were proud of their clever plans to gain the assistance and protection of other nations, having used lies and deception to accomplish their goals. 

But what they didn’t realize was that they had really made a pact with death and the grave. They had unknowingly sealed their own fates and those of the people of Judah. Their attempts to save themselves had actually doomed the entire nation. 

And yet, in spite of their arrogant and prideful scorning of God and His call to repentance, Isaiah announces that God has a plan for the nation.

“Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
    a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
    ‘Whoever believes will not be in haste.’” – Isaiah 28:16 ESV

God speaks in the past-tense, indicating that He had already done something significant in Jerusalem that would long-lasting implications on the fate of the people of God. While the leaders of Jerusalem were busy making pacts with foreign nations that would seal their doom, God had laid a massive foundation stone on which the future fate of the nation would rest. A cornerstone was a massive hand-carved rock that was used to establish the orientation of the entire foundation of a structure. Every other stone was aligned with it, ensuring that the foundation was sure and the remainder of the structure rested on a solid, reliable base of support. 

And while the people of Judah most likely missed the significance of God’s statement, the New Testament authors did not. Peter, in speaking about Jesus as the living stone, rejected by men, actually quotes from this passage in Isaiah.  

As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. For it stands in Scripture:

“Behold, I am laying in Zion a stone,
    a cornerstone chosen and precious,
and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.”

So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe,

“The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the cornerstone,”

and

“A stone of stumbling,
    and a rock of offense.”

They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do. – 1 Peter 2:4-8 ESV

Jesus was and is the cornerstone. And God revealed to the people of Judah that it had been His plan all along to send His Son as their Savior and Messiah. It would be on Him that the future hopes of Judah, Israel and the nations of the world would rest. As Paul makes clear, even the Gentiles who placed their faith in Christ were building on the foundation established by God in Jesus Christ.

…you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. – Ephesians 2:19-22 ESV

God had chosen to use the people of Israel as the means by which He would bring salvation to the world. He would send His Son into the world, born as a Jew into the lineage of King David. Jesus would not be born as an Egyptian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Canaanite, or Philistine. He would be born a Hebrew, to an obscure couple from the backwater town of Nazareth and He would make His entrance into the world in the unimpressive town of Bethlehem. And yet, He would be the cornerstone on which the fate of Israel and the nations of the world would rest. 

God states that all who believe in this cornerstone will “not make haste.” They won’t be in a hurry to flee from danger or run from the threat of pending doom. They will rest in the promise of God. They will find His foundation sure, steady and reliable. But the people of Judah were not resting in God. They were unwilling to rely on His plan of salvation. Instead, they were running around trying to make alliances with everyone else but God. So, He warns them:

“I will test you with the measuring line of justice
    and the plumb line of righteousness.
Since your refuge is made of lies,
    a hailstorm will knock it down.
Since it is made of deception,
    a flood will sweep it away.” – Isaiah 28:17 NLT

God uses the imagery of a builder’s tools to convey His point. He will measure whether the people of Judah are aligned with the cornerstone. He will determine whether they fall in line with the righteousness and justice He had established for them as a nation. And He will find that they fail to measure up. So, He will tear them down so that He might one day rebuild on that solid foundation.

“I will cancel the bargain you made to cheat death,
    and I will overturn your deal to dodge the grave.
When the terrible enemy sweeps through,
    you will be trampled into the ground.
Again and again that flood will come,
    morning after morning,
day and night,
    until you are carried away.” – Isaiah 28:18-19 NLT

Rather than building on righteousness and justice, they had erected a rickety structure that relied on lies and falsehood as its foundation. And when the storms of destruction came, it would fall.

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 Wildfire of Wickedness.

18 For wickedness burns like a fire;
    it consumes briers and thorns;
it kindles the thickets of the forest,
    and they roll upward in a column of smoke.
19 Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts
    the land is scorched,
and the people are like fuel for the fire;
    no one spares another.
20 They slice meat on the right, but are still hungry,
    and they devour on the left, but are not satisfied;
each devours the flesh of his own arm,
21 Manasseh devours Ephraim, and Ephraim devours Manasseh;
    together they are against Judah.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
    and his hand is stretched out still.

1 Woe to those who decree iniquitous decrees,
    and the writers who keep writing oppression,
2 to turn aside the needy from justice
    and to rob the poor of my people of their right,
that widows may be their spoil,
    and that they may make the fatherless their prey!
3 What will you do on the day of punishment,
    in the ruin that will come from afar?
To whom will you flee for help,
    and where will you leave your wealth?
4 Nothing remains but to crouch among the prisoners
    or fall among the slain.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
    and his hand is stretched out still. – Isaiah 9:18-10:4 ESV

Mankind has a natural proclivity to rationalize the presence of sin. We either deny it exists or downplay its impact. And in doing so, we ignore the inherent danger of its existence. Sin is nothing short of rebellion against God’s will concerning man’s relationship with Him, but also with one another. When God gave His commandments, they had a vertical and horizontal aspect to them. They were intended to regulate man’s relationship with God, but also with the rest of creation, especially other men who had been made in God’s image. 

God was not just interested in men showing Him honor and extending to Him the glory He deserved. He wanted them to treat one another with justice. And He wanted us to keep all His commandments, not just those that covered our relationship with Him.

And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him. – 1 John 2:3-4 ESV  

And John went on to clarify that keeping the commandments of God included all those commands that had to do with our relationships with our fellow men.

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. – 1 John 2:9-11 ESV

And Isaiah warned the people of Judah and Israel that their failure to keep the commands of God were going to bring the judgment of God. Their refusal to treat God as holy and to treat their brothers and sisters with dignity, was going to result in devastation.

The land will be blackened
    by the fury of the Lord of Heaven’s Armies.
The people will be fuel for the fire,
    and no one will spare even his own brother. – Isaiah 9:19 NLT

The people were going to find themselves turning on one another in a vain attempt to survive the judgment God would unleash on them. But this would simply be a more intense manifestation of their normal treatment of one another. Because of their disregard for God and their disrespect for one another, God would allow them to literally devour one another.

They will attack their neighbor on the right
    but will still be hungry.
They will devour their neighbor on the left
    but will not be satisfied.
In the end they will even eat their own children. – Isaiah 9:20 NLT

When the Assyrians attacked, it would become every man for himself.

Manasseh will feed on Ephraim,
    Ephraim will feed on Manasseh,
    and both will devour Judah. – Isaiah 9:21 NLT

Tribes would turn against their fellow tribes. Brothers would abuse brothers. All because they had failed to love God and love one another. The people of Judah and Israel had a track record of abuse, and Isaiah leveled some stinging indictments against them:

What sorrow awaits the unjust judges
    and those who issue unfair laws.
They deprive the poor of justice
    and deny the rights of the needy among my people.
They prey on widows
    and take advantage of orphans. – Isaiah 10:1-2 NLT

From the top-down, they were all guilty of practicing injustices of all kinds. They took advantage of the weak and defenseless. They failed to care for the helpless and hopeless. And in doing so, they were violating the expressed will of God.

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? – Micah 6:8 ESV

To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice. – Proverbs 21:3 ESV

Righteousness, justice, kindness, mercy. These things were missing among the people of God. Because they had forsaken God, they no longer had a heart for God and their own hearts failed to reflect the character of God. They had turned way from Him and were now turning on one another. And their unjust and unrighteous behavior was going to bring down on them God’s righteous wrath in the form of the Assyrian army.

What will you do when I punish you,
    when I send disaster upon you from a distant land?
To whom will you turn for help?
    Where will your treasures be safe? – Isaiah 10:3 NLT

Israel had determined to put all their hope in their alliance with the Syrians. But they would prove to be no help when the Assyrians showed up. The nation of Judah had placed their faith in their alliance with the Assyrians. But they would soon discover that the fall of their northern neighbor at the hands of their ally would be far from good news. They would also suffer because of their failure to trust God. They too would endure the judgment of God because of their refusal to live in obedience to God.

But as bad as it would get, the end of God’s righteous wrath would not yet be exhausted.

You will stumble along as prisoners
    or lie among the dead.
But even then the Lord’s anger will not be satisfied.
    His fist is still poised to strike. – Isaiah 10:4 NLT

This should give us some idea of just how much God hates sin. He doesn't overlook it or excuse it. He doesn’t make light of it. In fact, Isaiah describes the devastating nature of sin in very stark terms.

This wickedness is like a brushfire.
    It burns not only briers and thorns
but also sets the forests ablaze.
    Its burning sends up clouds of smoke. – Isaiah 9:18 NLT

Sin is deadly. It may start small, but it spreads quickly and leaves a path of devastation in its wake. Like an out-of-control wildfire, it destroys everyone and everything in its path. Which is why God is obligated to deal with it in such a powerful manner. We may excuse it, rationalize it, minimize or deny it, but God cannot and will not.

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

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

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

What Will God Find?

1 Let me sing for my beloved
    my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
2 He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

3 And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
4 What more was there to do for my vineyard,
    that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?

5 And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
6 I will make it a waste;
    it shall not be pruned or hoed,
    and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
    that they rain no rain upon it.

7 For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
    but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
    but behold, an outcry! – Isaiah 5:1-7 ESV

With the opening of chapter five, Isaiah takes a slightly unusual tact. He describes God as his lover. This song, as it would have appeared to Isaiah’s original audience, starts off innocently enough. It simply appears as if Isaiah is describing God in affectionate terms, like a bride describing her groom or a wife, her husband. Isaiah portrays God as having planted a vineyard. This required great effort on His part, including the preparation of the soil by removing any and all rocks, as well as the tilling of the ground to make it ready for the planting of the vines. The hill on which God planted His vineyard was fertile ground, perfect for bearing choice grapes. 

And God, fully expecting an abundant harvest, built a watchtower to protect His crops and a winepress in which to process the grapes. But then, the song takes an unexpected twist. Instead of yielding grapes suitable for making fine wine, the vineyard produced wild, sour-tasting grapes. The fruit was not what God had planned or expected. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Suddenly, the voice of the speaker switches from Isaiah to God Himself. He personally addresses the people of Jerusalem and Judah, asking them to make a judgment on the scenario Isaiah had just described. What else could God have done? He had taken all the appropriate steps and done all the right things to ensure a positive outcome. But rather than good grapes, the vineyard had delivered worthless sour grapes. It had produced fruit, but the wrong kind of fruit. And God asks the people of Judah. “Why?

But they can answer, God tells them what He is going to do to His precious vineyard.

“I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it.” – Isaiah 5:5-6 NLT   

God will personally punish His vineyard, destroying the protective walls He had erected. Wild animals, once kept at bay by God, will have full access to the vineyard, trampling it down and treating it with disdain. Once a cultivated garden, it will become a wild and uninviting place, full of wild vines producing even more sour grapes, surrounded by briers and thorns, and devoid of the rain water that grapes require.

As suddenly as before, the voice of the speaker switches back to Isaiah. Just in case his audience has missed the point of his song, he lets them know that they are the vineyard of God. They were to have been “his pleasant planting” but had turned out to be nothing but sour grapes, totally worthless for producing wine. 

The fruit they had produced, while plentiful, was ineffectual. It had no redeeming value and was good for nothing. The prophet Ezekiel painted a bleak picture of a vine that failed to produce proper fruit.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, of all the woody branches among the trees of the forest, what happens to the wood of the vine? Can wood be taken from it to make anything useful? Or can anyone make a peg from it to hang things on? No! It is thrown in the fire for fuel; when the fire has burned up both ends of it and it is charred in the middle, will it be useful for anything? Indeed! If it was not made into anything useful when it was whole, how much less can it be made into anything when the fire has burned it up and it is charred?” – Ezekiel 15:1-5 NLT 

The wood of a vine has only one purpose and value: To produce grapes. Beyond that, it has no worth. It doesn’t even make a good fire, because it burns too quickly to do any good. And this was God’s assessment of Judah. He had done everything He could do to make them fruitful and useful. He had done all the work and all they had to do was yield the right kind of fruit. But instead, they had produced sour grapes.

Asaph penned a psalm that reflects God’s treatment of His vineyard.

You uprooted a vine from Egypt;
you drove out nations and transplanted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took root,
and filled the land.
The mountains were covered by its shadow,
the highest cedars by its branches.
Its branches reached the Mediterranean Sea,
and its shoots the Euphrates River.
Why did you break down its walls,
so that all who pass by pluck its fruit? – Psalm 80:8-12 NLT

God had done great things for the people of Israel. He had chosen them and made of them a great nation. He had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and transplanted them to the fertile land of promise. He had provided them with judges, prophets, and kings. He had given them His law to let them know what righteous living looked like and the sacrificial system to provide atonement when they failed to live up to that law. He had made them prolific and powerful. He had showered them with His favor and had extended to them His mercy – time and time again. But they had proven unfaithful and unsuccessful at producing the kind of fruit He expected.

While they should have produced lives marked by justice, they were better known for their oppressive and unjust treatment of one another. And as Isaiah has already made clear to them, God will hold the leaders of Judah responsible.

The Lord will enter into judgment
    with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
    the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” – Isiah 3:14 ESV

God demanded justice and righteousness of His people and it began with the leadership. Justice has to do with meting out the right sentence in a judicial case. It is assuring that the right judgment is made. Later on, in this same chapter, Isaiah will point out what injustice looks like:

What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. – Isaiah 5:20 NLT

Righteousness has to do with behavior. It is about doing the right thing – that which God demands. Isaiah will later describe a righteous person as:

The one who lives uprightly
and speaks honestly;
the one who refuses to profit from oppressive measures
and rejects a bribe;
the one who does not plot violent crimes
and does not seek to harm others… – Isaiah 33:15 NLT

Right judgments and right behavior. That was the kind of fruit God expected, but instead He had found His people producing nothing more than sour grapes. Their judgments were bitter and more like wild grapes than the cultivated fruit of God. Their lives were marked by ungodly behavior rather than the sweet-tasting, life-producing wine that results from God’s careful craftsmanship.

We all produce fruit. But the question is whether the fruit we produce is the byproduct of God’s gracious cultivation or the wild grapes of a flesh-controlled life.

For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. – Galatians 5:17-23 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 Just God.

I have heard a message from the Lord,
    and an envoy has been sent among the nations:
“Gather yourselves together and come against her,
    and rise up for battle!
For behold, I will make you small among the nations,
    despised among mankind.
The horror you inspire has deceived you,
    and the pride of your heart,
you who live in the clefts of the rock,
    who hold the height of the hill.
Though you make your nest as high as the eagle's,
    I will bring you down from there,
declares the Lord.

“Edom shall become a horror. Everyone who passes by it will be horrified and will hiss because of all its disasters. As when Sodom and Gomorrah and their neighboring cities were overthrown, says the Lord, no man shall dwell there, no man shall sojourn in her. Behold, like a lion coming up from the jungle of the Jordan against a perennial pasture, I will suddenly make him run away from her. And I will appoint over her whomever I choose. For who is like me? Who will summon me? What shepherd can stand before me? Therefore hear the plan that the Lord has made against Edom and the purposes that he has formed against the inhabitants of Teman: Even the little ones of the flock shall be dragged away. Surely their fold shall be appalled at their fate. At the sound of their fall the earth shall tremble; the sound of their cry shall be heard at the Red Sea. Behold, one shall mount up and fly swiftly like an eagle and spread his wings against Bozrah, and the heart of the warriors of Edom shall be in that day like the heart of a woman in her birth pains.” – Jeremiah 49:14-22 ESV

Edom’s destruction was inevitable and unavoidable. God was going to deal them a fatal blow that would leave them permanently eliminated as a nation. They would suffer a fate similar to that of the sinful cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. While those two cities experienced supernatural destruction in the form of fire and burning sulfur falling from the sky, the cities of Edom would fall to the sword as the Babylonians swept through their land. Their fortified cities, well-protected by their seemingly impregnable locations on the cliff tops, would eventually succumb to the relentless pressure of Nebuchadnezzar’s forces.

“You live in a rock fortress
    and control the mountain heights.
But even if you make your nest among the peaks with the eagles,
    I will bring you crashing down,”
    says the Lord. – Jeremiah 49:16 NLT

There was not going to be any place of safety or seclusion from God’s wrath. They could hide, but God would find them. They could place their hope and trust in their fortified cities, but they would prove worthless against the sovereign will of God. And God makes it clear that He will be the one behind the fall of Edom.

“I will come like a lion from the thickets of the Jordan,
    leaping on the sheep in the pasture.
I will chase Edom from its land,
    and I will appoint the leader of my choice.
For who is like me, and who can challenge me?
    What ruler can oppose my will?” – Jeremiah 49:19 NLT

Who can stand against God? Who is capable of withstanding His judgment when it comes? In the face of God’s discipline and overwhelming power, the pride and arrogance of man is exposed for what it is: Weak and pathetic. Even the most powerful kings are nothing when compared to the God of the universe. The most secure and well-protected cities cannot stand the onslaught of a God whose will has called for their destruction. A legion of false gods will prove to be no match for Yahweh, the Lord of Hosts.

“The earth will shake with the noise of Edom’s fall,
    and its cry of despair will be heard all the way to the Red Sea.” – Jeremiah 49:21 NLT

As has been the case with God’s oracles against Egypt, Philistia, Moab and Ammon, He makes it clear that the people of Edom will be defenseless before Him. They will have no chance. They will have no hope. The will of God and the word of God will be fulfilled – just as He has said. And that should be a source of encouragement to the remnant of the people of Judah. While they themselves had suffered greatly at His hands, they should find comfort in knowing that God was going to pay back all those who had turned their backs on Judah, or who had taken advantage of their predicament. In spite of the unfaithfulness of Judah, God was still watching out for them. He was still holding all of their enemies accountable, and meting out the justice they deserved.

All of this was part of God’s plan.

“Listen to the Lord’s plans against Edom
    and the people of Teman.
Even the little children will be dragged off like sheep,
    and their homes will be destroyed.” – Jeremiah 49:20 NLT

Yes, His plan involved death and destruction. Many would suffer, including innocent children. But the sin of men has always had consequences. Rebellion against God has always carried a stiff price. And when we choose to ignore His will and His Word, there will always be ramifications. And while we may sometimes feel that the wicked get away with murder, both literally and figuratively, God is always watching. He is fully aware of what is going on. Nothing escapes His all-seeing gaze. And even if we may sense that He is ignorant of what is going on or simply indifferent to the wickedness taking place in the world, God is all-knowing and has a plan for dealing with all those who live in disobedience to His will or set themselves up as enemies of His people.

I said to myself, "In due season God will judge everyone, both good and bad, for all their deeds." – Ecclesiastes 3:17 NLT

God will judge us for everything we do, including every secret thing, whether good or bad. – Ecclesiastes 12:14 NLT

It was King David who wrote so eloquently concerning the justice righteous judgment of God.

God is my shield,
    saving those whose hearts are true and right.
God is an honest judge.
    He is angry with the wicked every day.

If a person does not repent,
    God will sharpen his sword;
    he will bend and string his bow.
He will prepare his deadly weapons
    and shoot his flaming arrows.

The wicked conceive evil;
    they are pregnant with trouble
    and give birth to lies.
They dig a deep pit to trap others,
    then fall into it themselves.
The trouble they make for others backfires on them.
    The violence they plan falls on their own heads.

I will thank the Lord because he is just;
    I will sing praise to the name of the Lord Most High. – Psalm 7:10-17 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

Pray For Us!

Zedekiah the son of Josiah, whom Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon made king in the land of Judah, reigned instead of Coniah the son of Jehoiakim. But neither he nor his servants nor the people of the land listened to the words of the Lord that he spoke through Jeremiah the prophet.

King Zedekiah sent Jehucal the son of Shelemiah, and Zephaniah the priest, the son of Maaseiah, to Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “Please pray for us to the Lord our God.” Now Jeremiah was still going in and out among the people, for he had not yet been put in prison. The army of Pharaoh had come out of Egypt. And when the Chaldeans who were besieging Jerusalem heard news about them, they withdrew from Jerusalem.

Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah the prophet: “Thus says the Lord, God of Israel: Thus shall you say to the king of Judah who sent you to me to inquire of me, ‘Behold, Pharaoh's army that came to help you is about to return to Egypt, to its own land. And the Chaldeans shall come back and fight against this city. They shall capture it and burn it with fire. Thus says the Lord, Do not deceive yourselves, saying, “The Chaldeans will surely go away from us,” for they will not go away. For even if you should defeat the whole army of Chaldeans who are fighting against you, and there remained of them only wounded men, every man in his tent, they would rise up and burn this city with fire.’” Jeremiah 37:1-10 ESV

Fast-forward about 18 years. Chapter 37 chronicles events that take place almost two decades after those recorded in chapter 36. Zedekiah is now the king of Judah and the Babylonians, referred to as the Chaldeans, are laying siege to Jerusalem. Jehoiachin (Coniah), the son of Jehoiakim, took the throne after his father, but only lasted three months before he surrendered to King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon and was taken captive. Then, Nebuchadnezzar replaced him with his uncle, Mattaniah, whose name was changed to Zedekiah.

The king of Babylon took him prisoner in the eighth year of his reign and carried off all the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king's house, and cut in pieces all the vessels of gold in the temple of the Lord, which Solomon king of Israel had made, as the Lord had foretold. He carried away all Jerusalem and all the officials and all the mighty men of valor, 10,000 captives, and all the craftsmen and the smiths. None remained, except the poorest people of the land. And he carried away Jehoiachin to Babylon. The king's mother, the king's wives, his officials, and the chief men of the land he took into captivity from Jerusalem to Babylon. And the king of Babylon brought captive to Babylon all the men of valor, 7,000, and the craftsmen and the metal workers, 1,000, all of them strong and fit for war.  – 2 Kings 24:12-16 ESV

Jehoiachin’s surrender was costly. It not only meant his own captivity and deportation, but that of his mother, wives and all his chief officials. On top of that. the Babylonians plundered the palace and the temple; and took thousands of leading citizens of Jerusalem back to Babylon as slaves.

Jehoiachin’s uncle, Zedekiah became a vassal of Nebuchadnezzar, answering directly to the Babylonian king and commanded to pay an annual tribute tax. In the face of the ongoing presence of the Babylonians in Judah and the knowledge that God had predicted the fall and destruction of Jerusalem, Zedekiah sent two emissaries to plead with Jeremiah to pray to God on the nation’s behalf. But this time, Zedekiah would have been well aware of God’s predictions of the coming fall of the nation and the less-than-pleasant end that Zedekiah would face. 

Thus says the Lord: Behold, I am giving this city into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire. You shall not escape from his hand but shall surely be captured and delivered into his hand. You shall see the king of Babylon eye to eye and speak with him face to face. And you shall go to Babylon. – Jeremiah 34:2-3 ESV

Of course, this prophecy doesn’t sound so bad, but the actual way it all panned out paints a much more bleak and painful image.

Since the city was surrounded by the Babylonians, they waited for nightfall. Then they slipped through the gate between the two walls behind the king’s garden and headed toward the Jordan Valley.

But the Babylonian troops chased the king and caught him on the plains of Jericho, for his men had all deserted him and scattered. They took him to the king of Babylon at Riblah, where they pronounced judgment upon Zedekiah. They made Zedekiah watch as they slaughtered his sons. Then they gouged out Zedekiah’s eyes, bound him in bronze chains, and led him away to Babylon. – 2 Kings 25:4-7 NLT

But in spite of God’s warnings against Zedekiah, he refused to repent. Instead, he asked the prophet to pray for he and the nation. He wanted to God’s forgiveness without showing any signs of repentance. He wanted God to show grace and mercy, while he and the people were unwilling to show any signs of true heart change. Part of what seems to have motivated Zedekiah’s request for prayer was the presence of the Egyptians. It seems that he had made a deal with the Egyptians to help bail them out of trouble. In the book of 2 Kings, we read that: “Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon” (2 Kings 24:20 NLT). But while Zedekiah had high hopes that God might use the Egyptians to buy relief from the onslaught of the Babylonians, it was not to be. God gave him bad news:

“Pharaoh’s army is about to return to Egypt, though he came here to help you. Then the Babylonians will come back and capture this city and burn it to the ground.” – Jeremiah 37:7-8 NLT

Zedekiah’s trump card was about to turn and run. They would prove to be no help. And God was not going to rescue them from all that He had predicted would happen. God wasn’t interested in Zedekiah’s request for help, because Zedekiah had not plans to repent. Zedekiah and the people may have been high-fiving one another when the Babylonians vacated their camps outside the walls. They may have excitedly assumed that the worst was over. But they were wrong.

“Do not fool yourselves into thinking that the Babylonians are gone for good. They aren’t! Even if you were to destroy the entire Babylonian army, leaving only a handful of wounded survivors, they would still stagger from their tents and burn this city to the ground!” – Jeremiah 37:9-10 NLT

They couldn’t pray away the Babylonians. Begging God to change His mind wasn’t going to cut it as long they refused to change their ways. They were essentially asking God to repent, to change His mind about destroying them, when they were the ones in the wrong. I am reminded of the response God gave to King Solomon on the day that the temple of God was dedicated. He told the people of Israel:

“At times I might shut up the heavens so that no rain falls, or command grasshoppers to devour your crops, or send plagues among you. Then if my people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sins and restore their land. My eyes will be open and my ears attentive to every prayer made in this place. For I have chosen this Temple and set it apart to be holy—a place where my name will be honored forever. I will always watch over it, for it is dear to my heart.” – 2 Chronicles 7:13-16 NLT

Notice what God wants: Humility that reflects an awareness of their guilt and their need for God’s forgiveness; and a turning to Him and away from their sin. THEN, God will hear, forgive and restore. Prayer without humility, a seeking of God and a rejection of sin is pointless and powerless. Those prayers will not be heard or answered. And what is amazing is that Zedekiah and the people of Judah, who had refused to listen to one thing that God had said to them through Jeremiah, had the audacity to expect God to hear their requests to spare 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≠≠

He Will Satisfy the Weary Soul.

Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: “Once more they shall use these words in the land of Judah and in its cities, when I restore their fortunes:

“‘The Lord bless you, O habitation of righteousness,
    O holy hill!’

And Judah and all its cities shall dwell there together, and the farmers and those who wander with their flocks. For I will satisfy the weary soul, and every languishing soul I will replenish.”

At this I awoke and looked, and my sleep was pleasant to me.

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will sow the house of Israel and the house of Judah with the seed of man and the seed of beast. And it shall come to pass that as I have watched over them to pluck up and break down, to overthrow, destroy, and bring harm, so I will watch over them to build and to plant, declares the Lord. In those days they shall no longer say:

“‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes,
    and the children's teeth are set on edge.’

But everyone shall die for his own iniquity. Each man who eats sour grapes, his teeth shall be set on edge.  Jeremiah 31:24-30 ESV

God continues to speak of the future restoration of Judah. Their fortunes were going to change dramatically. Just a few chapters earlier we read of God’s pronouncement of Judah’s demise for their unfaithfulness:

“I will pursue them with sword, famine, and pestilence, and will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a curse, a terror, a hissing, and a reproach among all the nations where I have driven them.” – Jeremiah 29:18 ESV

Their sins would be punished and, as a result, they would become “an object of damnation, horror, contempt, and mockery” (NLT). The nations that watched their fall from God’s grace would stand by ridiculing and cursing them. The once mighty nation of Judah would no longer be a threat to them. But God promises that a day is coming when that scenario will change drastically. Rather than the curses of its enemies, the streets of Judah will resound with the blessings of its people once again.

“The Lord bless you, O righteous home, O holy mountain!” – Jeremiah 31:23 NLT

Curses will be turned to blessing. The weary will find rest and satisfaction. Joy will replace sorrow. But why? What will have changed to make all this come about? This won’t all come about just because the people get to return to the land from their exile in Babylon. In fact, when they did eventually return from captivity, they found a land filled with destruction. The city of Jerusalem was empty and its walls and once-great structures were lay in ruins. Even fourteen years after the first wave of exiles returned under the leadership of Ezra and Zerubbabel, Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and found that little had changed.

I went out by night by the Valley Gate to the Dragon Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King's Pool, but there was no room for the animal that was under me to pass. – Nehemiah 2:13-14 ESV

The walls had yet to be rebuilt. The city was still not occupied. They would eventually complete the walls and repopulate the city, but the glory days of Judah and Jerusalem would still remain a memory. All of this was because of their sin and rebellion against God.

How the faithful city
    has become a whore,
    she who was full of justice!
Righteousness lodged in her,
    but now murderers. – Isaiah 1:21 ESV

So what was going to change to make Judah a place of blessing and hope? God was going to restore their fortunes. And notice what the words of those living in the land at that time will use to describe the city of Jerusalem: “habitation of righteousness”. God will return righteousness to the land. Justice will once again reign. And the prophet Isaiah describes how that will happen.

Look, a king will promote fairness;
officials will promote justice.
Each of them will be like a shelter from the wind
and a refuge from a rainstorm;
like streams of water in a dry region
and like the shade of a large cliff in a parched land.
Eyes will no longer be blind
and ears will be attentive.
The mind that acts rashly will possess discernment
and the tongue that stutters will speak with ease and clarity.
A fool will no longer be called honorable;
a deceiver will no longer be called principled. – Isaiah 32:1-5 NLT

The Messiah will rule and reign in Jerusalem. The Son of God will take His place on the throne of David, bringing justice and righteousness back to the land. When the people arrived back in Judah after their return from exile, something was missing. They were still the same rebellious and stubborn people that went into exile in the first place. Their hearts had not changed. Their allegiance to God had not increased over time. They found themselves back in the land, but without a king and with no real hope for the future. But in this passage, God is giving Jeremiah a glimpse into what is coming. And when he woke up from his sleep where this vision appeared to him, he was well rested and satisfied. 

God had given Jeremiah renewed hope. The day was coming when God would bless the lands of Judah and Israel by making the people and the livestock fruitful. They would multiply and fill the land once again. The barrenness left in the wake of the Babylonian siege would be replaced with abundance. God promises Jeremiah that “in the past I deliberately uprooted and tore down this nation. I overthrew it, destroyed it, and brought disaster upon it. But in the future I will just as deliberately plant it and build it up” (Jeremiah 31:28 NLT). God’s choice of words would have had a special impact on Jeremiah, because they were reminiscent of what He had said to the prophet on the day He called him.

“Look, I have put my words in your mouth!
Today I appoint you to stand up
    against nations and kingdoms.
Some you must uproot and tear down,
    destroy and overthrow.
Others you must build up
    and plant.” – Jeremiah 1:9-10 NLT

Jeremiah had been given the unenviable task of bringing God’s message of destruction to the people of Judah. Rarely did he get to build up and plant. His was predominantly a message of doom and gloom. But now God was giving him a glimpse into what the distant future held for the people of Judah and Israel. The bad news was going to be followed by unbelievable good news.

In that day, justice will take place because the Messiah will rule. There will be no more injustice and unrighteousness flowing down from the throne. The King of kings and Lord of lords will serve up justice. Everyone will be responsible for their own sins. There would be no passing the buck or placing blame. There was a popular proverb in Jeremiah’s day that said, “The parents have eaten sour grapes, but their children’s mouths pucker at the taste” (Jeremiah 31:29 NLT). It was basically a way for one generation to blame their suffering on the sins of their ancestors. This sentiment is expressed in the book of Lamentations:

Our forefathers sinned and are dead,
but we suffer their punishment. – Lamentations 5:7 NLT

And while the people of Judah could easily point their fingers at the previous generations and accuse them of causing their suffering, the day was coming when each person would have to be accountable for their own sins. Even during the ministry of Jeremiah, he had warned the people that they were responsible for their own sins. They couldn’t blame their troubles on their parents and grandparents. God had made that point perfectly clear.

“When you tell these people about all this, they will undoubtedly ask you, ‘Why has the Lord threatened us with such great disaster? What wrong have we done? What sin have we done to offend the Lord our God?’ Then tell them that the Lord says, ‘It is because your ancestors rejected me and paid allegiance to other gods. They have served them and worshiped them. But they have rejected me and not obeyed my law. And you have acted even more wickedly than your ancestors! Each one of you has followed the stubborn inclinations of your own wicked heart and not obeyed me.” – Jeremiah 16:10-12 NLT

Once again, God reminds Jeremiah and the people that a day is coming when perfect justice will rule in the land. “All people will die for their own sins—those who eat the sour grapes will be the ones whose mouths will pucker” (Jeremiah 31:30 NLT). In this future state of Israel, things will be radically different. God seems to be indicating that sin will be rare in this future kingdom. There will not be the mass rejection of Him as had taken place in Israel for generations. The book of Ezekiel contains God’s promise to give the people of Israel new hearts and a new desire to serve Him.

“I will cleanse you of your filthy behavior. I will give you good crops of grain, and I will send no more famines on the land. I will give you great harvests from your fruit trees and fields, and never again will the surrounding nations be able to scoff at your land for its famines. Then you will remember your past sins and despise yourselves for all the detestable things you did.” – Ezekiel 36:29-31 NLT

No passing blame. No denial of culpability. The people, whose hearts have been softened by God, will own their own sin and repent. They will take full responsibility for their rebellion against God. And their future behavior will be righteous, not rebellious. Their relationship with God will be marked by fidelity, not adultery. God will satisfy the weary soul, restore joy to sorrowful, and replace the life of sinfulness with that of righteousness.

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≠≠

Your Wounds I Will Heal.

“For thus says the Lord:
Your hurt is incurable,
    and your wound is grievous.
There is none to uphold your cause,
    no medicine for your wound,
    no healing for you.
All your lovers have forgotten you;
    they care nothing for you;
for I have dealt you the blow of an enemy,
    the punishment of a merciless foe,
because your guilt is great,
    because your sins are flagrant.
Why do you cry out over your hurt?
    Your pain is incurable.
Because your guilt is great,
    because your sins are flagrant,
    I have done these things to you.
Therefore all who devour you shall be devoured,
    and all your foes, every one of them, shall go into captivity;
those who plunder you shall be plundered,
    and all who prey on you I will make a prey.
For I will restore health to you,
    and your wounds I will heal,
declares the Lord,
because they have called you an outcast:
    ‘It is Zion, for whom no one cares!’

“Thus says the Lord:
Behold, I will restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob
    and have compassion on his dwellings;
the city shall be rebuilt on its mound,
    and the palace shall stand where it used to be.
Out of them shall come songs of thanksgiving,
    and the voices of those who celebrate.
I will multiply them, and they shall not be few;
    I will make them honored, and they shall not be small.
Their children shall be as they were of old,
    and their congregation shall be established before me,
    and I will punish all who oppress them.
Their prince shall be one of themselves;
    their ruler shall come out from their midst;
I will make him draw near, and he shall approach me,
    for who would dare of himself to approach me?
declares the Lord.
And you shall be my people,
    and I will be your God.”

Behold the storm of the Lord!
    Wrath has gone forth,
a whirling tempest;
    it will burst upon the head of the wicked.
The fierce anger of the Lord will not turn back
    until he has executed and accomplished
    the intentions of his mind.
In the latter days you will understand this. – Jeremiah 30:12-24 ESV

Their guilt was great. Their sins were flagrant. And their pain was incurable and their suffering, unbearable. The people of Israel found themselves under the hand of God, enduring their well-deserved punishment for their rebellion against Him as their God. He had chosen them and made them His own. He had blessed them and provided for and protected them for generations. He had given them the land of Canaan as their very own possession. He had made them powerful and influential. And in return, they had turned their backs on Him, sharing their affections with false gods and willingly disobeying the covenant they had made with Him. So, God was simply fulfilling what He had said He would do if they broke their part of the covenantal agreement.

“Look! I have set before you today life and prosperity on the one hand, and death and disaster on the other. What I am commanding you today is to love the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, and to obey his commandments, his statutes, and his ordinances. Then you will live and become numerous and the Lord your God will bless you in the land which you are about to possess. However, if you turn aside and do not obey, but are lured away to worship and serve other gods, I declare to you this very day that you will certainly perish! You will not extend your time in the land you are crossing the Jordan to possess.” – Deuteronomy 30:15-18 NLT

Long before the people of Israel entered the land of Canaan, they had show a propensity to disobey God. Just months after being set free from captivity in Egypt, they had constructed the golden calf and were worshiping it in place of Yahweh, their deliverer. And years later, after 40 years of leading these people through the wilderness, Moses gave them a short speech from his deathbed.

“For I know that after I die you will totally corrupt yourselves and turn away from the path I have commanded you to walk. Disaster will confront you in the days to come because you will act wickedly before the Lord, inciting him to anger because of your actions.” – Deuteronomy 31:29 NLT

Not exactly a rousing vote of confidence. But he would be proven right. And that is exactly the place where the people of Judah find themselves as Jeremiah speaks the words of God to them concerning their current state of affairs. Things were bad. But God lets them know why they are suffering so greatly.

“I have had to punish you
    because your sins are many
    and your guilt is great.” – Jeremiah 30:15 NLT

But God has good news for them. In spite of their unfaithfulness, God was going to show them favor. He was going to shower them with His blessings once again. But not because they deserved it.

“I will give you back your health
    and heal your wounds,” says the Lord. – Jeremiah 30:17 NLT

He was going to bring them back from captivity and restore their fortunes. He was going to bring joy to the land of promise once more. Jerusalem would be rebuilt. The king’s palace would be restored. The people of God would once again occupy the city of God. And much of this was fulfilled when the people of Judah were allowed to return from captivity in Babylon after 70 years in exile. But this would prove to be a partial fulfillment of God’s promise. Because there is a portion of this prediction that has yet to take place.

“They will have their own ruler again,
    and he will come from their own people.
I will invite him to approach me,” says the Lord,
    “for who would dare to come unless invited?
You will be my people,
    and I will be your God.” – Jeremiah 30:21-22 NLT

Israel has no king. There is no descendant of David sitting on the throne of Israel. But God has promised that it will happen. That day is coming. And this King will once again sit on the throne of David, fulfilling the promise that God had made to David generations before.

“And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.” – 2 Samuel 7:16 ESV

The prophet Isaiah provides further insight into the nature of this descendant of David who will sit on His throne and rule from Jerusalem.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
    and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
    there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
    to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
    from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. – Isaiah 9:6-7 NLT

The amazing thing about all of this is that God was going to bless the people of Israel in spite of them, not because of them. They did not deserve His blessings. They had done nothing to earn His favor. But the apostle Paul reminds us that, as believers in Jesus Christ, and recipients of His grace and mercy made possible through His Son’s death on the cross, we too were undeserving. In fact, we were once enemies of God.

You were his enemies, separated from him by your evil thoughts and actions. – Colossians 1:21 NLT

…our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies… – Romans 5:10 NLT

And in his gospel account of the life of Jesus, Luke provides us with an encounter that Jesus had in the synagogue in His hometown of Nazareth.

When he came to the village of Nazareth, his boyhood home, he went as usual to the synagogue on the Sabbath and stood up to read the Scriptures. The scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where this was written:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    for he has anointed me to bring Good News to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim that captives will be released,
    that the blind will see,
that the oppressed will be set free,
   and that the time of the Lord’s favor has come.”

He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the attendant, and sat down. All eyes in the synagogue looked at him intently. Then he began to speak to them. “The Scripture you’ve just heard has been fulfilled this very day!” – Luke 4:16-21 NLT

Jesus was and is the Messiah of Israel. He is the descendant of David. And He is the one who will one day fulfill the promises of God revealed to the people of God through Jeremiah. One day, Jesus is going to restore the fortunes of Israel and Judah. He is going to return to earth as the King of Israel. He is going to reign from David’s throne located in Jerusalem, the city of God. He will bring healing to Israel. He will give sight to the spiritually blind. He will grant freedom to those trapped in slavery to sin. He will release those burdened by oppression and weighed down by sin and guilt. And He will rule with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.

In the meantime, Jeremiah reminds the people of Judah and Israel:

Look! The Lord’s anger bursts out like a storm,
    a driving wind that swirls down on the heads of the wicked.
The fierce anger of the Lord will not diminish
    until it has finished all he has planned.
In the days to come
    you will understand all this. – Jeremiah 30:23-24 NLT

One day they will understand. That is why God had Jeremiah put all these words on a scroll. He wanted them recorded for posterity. So that one day, the people of God could look back and be reminded that all that had happened had been the divine will of God Almighty. Their punishment and their ultimate restoration were all the result of the goodness, grace and mercy 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

Justice and Mercy.

“And to the house of the king of Judah say, ‘Hear the word of the Lord, O house of David! Thus says the Lord:

“‘Execute justice in the morning,
    and deliver from the hand of the oppressor
    him who has been robbed,
lest my wrath go forth like fire,
    and burn with none to quench it,
    because of your evil deeds.’”

“Behold, I am against you, O inhabitant of the valley,
    O rock of the plain,
declares the Lord;
you who say, ‘Who shall come down against us,
    or who shall enter our habitations?’
I will punish you according to the fruit of your deeds,
declares the Lord;
    I will kindle a fire in her forest,
    and it shall devour all that is around her.” – Jeremiah 21:11-14 ESV

God gave Jeremiah a message to deliver to the king of Judah. Actually, it was addressed to the house of David, signifying that this was intended for any and all kings who sat on the throne of David. They were to be men who administered justice, just as God does. They were to operate on His behalf, dispensing justice and mercy to the people of God. They were to care for the oppressed and needy, to protect the innocent and punish the wicked. God had ordained them to stand in His place, holding positions of power and authority, but doing so in righteousness and holiness. These men, like David, Solomon, Josiah, and Zedekiah, were to have been icons of virtue. They occupied their places of authority because God had made it possible. But they were to have represented His desires and mirrored His character.

As for the Rock, his work is perfect,
for all his ways are just.
He is a reliable God who is never unjust,
he is fair and upright. – Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT

The King in his might loves justice.
    You have established equity;
you have executed justice
    and righteousness in Jacob.
Exalt the Lord our God;
    worship at his footstool!
    Holy is he! – Psalm 99:4-5 ESV

Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob,
    whose hope is in the Lord his God,
who made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and all that is in them,
who keeps faith forever;
    who executes justice for the oppressed,
    who gives food to the hungry.

The Lord sets the prisoners free;
   the Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down;
    the Lord loves the righteous.
The Lord watches over the sojourners;
    he upholds the widow and the fatherless,
    but the way of the wicked he brings to ruin. – Psalm 146:5-9 ESV

But the kings of Judah were not the only ones whom God expected to dispense justice. Through the prophet Micah, He had given the people of God a clear indication of His expectation of them.

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?” – Micah 6:6-8 ESV

For God, the sacrifices and offerings they made to Him meant nothing if those who made them did not do justice, love kindness and walk in humility before Him. Going through the motions of offering sacrifices to God were meaningless if your daily actions did not reflect a love for Him as evidenced by your love for His people. The apostle John is quite blunt about those who claim to love God but fail to love others. “If someone says, ‘I love God,’ but hates a Christian brother or sister, 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). And in His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave a similar admonition. “So if you are presenting a sacrifice at the altar in the Temple and you suddenly remember that someone has something against you, leave your sacrifice there at the altar. Go and be reconciled to that person. Then come and offer your sacrifice to God” (Matthew 5:23-24 NLT).

What good did it do to offer sacrifices to God if you were living out of step with His will? God wanted to see a change in their behavior. He wanted more than just ritualistic obedience. He wanted to see behavior in keeping with their faith. And when His people showed justice and mercy to one another, they were living as He would have them live. They were acting as His children, giving outward evidence of their relationship with Him as His sons and daughters.

But the kings of Judah had failed to obey God’s command. They had not dispensed justice. They had not cared for the oppressed. And their disobedience had been infectious, spreading throughout the nation and creating an epidemic of injustice among the people. So, God warned them, “my anger will burn like an unquenchable fire because of all your sins” (Jeremiah 21:12 NLT). The pride and arrogance of the people had become unbearable and God could no longer allow it to increase. They had become cocky, believing that their great walled city, occupying a prominent place on Mount Zion, was impenetrable and unconquerable. They believed they were divinely protected from defeat because they were God’s people living in the city that bore God’s name and held God’s temple. “No one can touch us here. No one can break in here” (Jeremiah 21:13 NLT).

But God had news for them. He said, “I myself will punish you for your sinfulness” (Jeremiah 21:14 NLT). He would personally oversee their destruction. And while idolatry and immorality would be major contributing factors to their demise, it was really a case of their injustice and refusal to care for the poor and needy that sealed their fate. They had become an overly religious people, but lacked a tangible expression of having been changed by their religion. They worshiped all kinds of gods, but failed to love their fellow men. Their lives did not reflect the character of God. They didn’t love like He loved. They failed to show mercy as He did. They refused to dispense justice to the poor, needy and oppressed. And their failure to do so led to their ultimate destruction by God.

It was the great king David who wrote:

“With the merciful you show yourself merciful;
with the blameless man you show yourself blameless;
with the purified you deal purely,
and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous.
You save a humble people,
but your eyes are on the haughty to bring them down.” – 2 Samuel 22:26-28 ESV

God expects His people to emulate His ways. They are to express His character and reflect His heart in the way they live their lives. As His children, we are His representative on this earth, modeling and exhibiting His love, grace, mercy and justice to all those around us. We are to love others as we have been loved. We are to show mercy to others as He has shown mercy to us. We are to love justice as He does. Because we are His children.

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

Things Get Weird.

Thus says the Lord to me, “Go and buy a linen loincloth and put it around your waist, and do not dip it in water.” So I bought a loincloth according to the word of the Lord, and put it around my waist. And the word of the Lord came to me a second time, “Take the loincloth that you have bought, which is around your waist, and arise, go to the Euphrates and hide it there in a cleft of the rock.” So I went and hid it by the Euphrates, as the Lord commanded me. And after many days the Lord said to me, “Arise, go to the Euphrates, and take from there the loincloth that I commanded you to hide there.” Then I went to the Euphrates, and dug, and I took the loincloth from the place where I had hidden it. And behold, the loincloth was spoiled; it was good for nothing.

Then the word of the Lord came to me: “Thus says the Lord: Even so will I spoil the pride of Judah and the great pride of Jerusalem. This evil people, who refuse to hear my words, who stubbornly follow their own heart and have gone after other gods to serve them and worship them, shall be like this loincloth, which is good for nothing. For as the loincloth clings to the waist of a man, so I made the whole house of Israel and the whole house of Judah cling to me, declares the Lord, that they might be for me a people, a name, a praise, and a glory, but they would not listen.

“You shall speak to them this word: ‘Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, “Every jar shall be filled with wine.”’ And they will say to you, ‘Do we not indeed know that every jar will be filled with wine?’ Then you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will fill with drunkenness all the inhabitants of this land: the kings who sit on David's throne, the priests, the prophets, and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And I will dash them one against another, fathers and sons together, declares the Lord. I will not pity or spare or have compassion, that I should not destroy them.’” –  Jeremiah 13:1-14 NLT

As if things weren’t already bad enough for Jeremiah, now God commands him to do something pretty bizarre, and it will be the first of a series of strange directives given to him by God. Jeremiah is told to buy a linen loincloth and put it on. Now, this is odd enough just from the standpoint that God is telling Jeremiah what to wear, but it nature of the item of clothing that makes this particularly odd. The Hebrew word is 'ezowr and it referred to a “waist-cloth, the innermost piece of clothing” (“H232 - ‘ezowr - Strong’s Hebrew Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It has been rendered a number of different ways by various Bible translation, including “girdle”, “waistband”, “waistcloth”, “sash”, “belt”, and “loincloth”. The bottom line was that was a personal piece of clothing, an undergarment as we might say. It was worn close to the skin and out of sight from anyone else’s view. It was an intimate, personal piece of clothing. And God has Jeremiah purchase a new linen loincloth and wear it. Then, Jeremiah was instructed to “go to the Euphrates and hide it there in a cleft of the rock” (Jeremiah 13:4 ESV). There has been much debate over the years as to exactly where Jeremiah was instructed by God to hide the garment. The issue is the Hebrew word Pĕrath, which is translated here as “Euphrates”, and refers to the great river that flowed through the land of Babylon. If this is where God told Jeremiah to hide the loincloth, it would have required a 700-mile, round-trip journey to accomplish the task. And Jeremiah would have been required to make that long trek twice. Others believe that the word, “Perath” actually refers to a place known as Parah, not far from Jeremiah’s hometown. Regardless of where Jeremiah ended up going, he was told to hide the loincloth. And the important thing to note is that nowhere in all of this strange exchange between Jeremiah and God, did the prophet ever question the wisdom or instructions of God. He just did what he was told. And some time later, after the linen loincloth had had time to succumb to the elements, God instructed Jeremiah to go back and retrieve it. When he did, he discovered that it was ruined. The text tells us the garment was “was spoiled; it was good for nothing” (Jeremiah 13:7 ESV). The delicate fabric had rotted and decayed. The garment was useless. And that was God’s whole point.

“This shows how I will rot away the pride of Judah and Jerusalem. These wicked people refuse to listen to me. They stubbornly follow their own desires and worship other gods. Therefore, they will become like this loincloth—good for nothing!” – Jeremiah 13:9-10 NLT

Talk about an object lesson. This one spoke volumes. This intimate, highly personal garment, which Jeremiah had worn next to his own body, was now ruined, unrecognizable and completely worthless. It would no longer serve the original purpose for which it was created and bought. And God makes the connection quite clear.

“As a loincloth clings to a man’s waist, so I created Judah and Israel to cling to me, says the Lord. They were to be my people, my pride, my glory—an honor to my name. But they would not listen to me.” – Jeremiah 13:11 NLT

The people of Israel and Judah, the Hebrews, had been God’s chosen possession. They had enjoyed a personal and intimate relationship with Him. Like no other nation on the planet, they had been graced with the undeserved status as God’s children. But they had squandered that relationship, turning their backs on the very one who had chosen them. And now, God was going to remove them and hide them in the cleft of the rock, by the river Euphrates. They were going to be conquered by the Babylonians and taken captive. There they would “rot” away, suffering as slaves and no longer enjoying their intimate relationship with God Almighty. All because they had refused to listen to God.

Next, God moves from talking about linen loincloths to jars of wine. God tells Jeremiah to instruct the people of Judah to fill their wine jars with wine. And, of course, God knew that the people would respond sarcastically that they knew the wine jars were meant to hold wine. In other words, they would reject God’s command as unnecessary. They knew better. But God tells them that they didn’t know anything at all. They were missing the point.

“No, this is what the Lord means: I will fill everyone in this land with drunkenness—from the king sitting on David’s throne to the priests and the prophets, right down to the common people of Jerusalem. I will smash them against each other, even parents against children, says the Lord. I will not let my pity or mercy or compassion keep me from destroying them.” – Jeremiah 13:13-14 NLT

God was going to fill His people with the wine of His wrath. Just as wine jars were meant to hold wine, His people had shown that they were meant to hold His judgment. They would become like staggering drunks, inflicting harm on one another. And while God would still have compassion on them, He was not going to let it hinder His justice. They were not going to get away with their behavior. Their rebellion would be dealt with, once and for all. And the saddest part of it all, was that they had willingly given up their intimate connection with God and sacrificed their position as His chosen people, in exchange for idolatry and autonomy. Rather than submit to His will, they had chosen to live according to their own. Unwilling to accept the role He had chosen for them, they had decided to do things their way, and the result would be their own destruction. Like a ruined, worthless loincloth, they would lose their significance and value.

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

Just and Justified.

Woe is me because of my hurt!
    My wound is grievous.
But I said, “Truly this is an affliction,
    and I must bear it.”
My tent is destroyed,
    and all my cords are broken;
my children have gone from me,
    and they are not;
there is no one to spread my tent again
    and to set up my curtains.
For the shepherds are stupid
    and do not inquire of the Lord;
therefore they have not prospered,
    and all their flock is scattered.

A voice, a rumor! Behold, it comes!—
    a great commotion out of the north country
to make the cities of Judah a desolation,
    a lair of jackals.

I know, O Lord, that the way of man is not in himself,
    that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps.
Correct me, O Lord, but in justice;
    not in your anger, lest you bring me to nothing.

Pour out your wrath on the nations that know you not,
    and on the peoples that call not on your name,
for they have devoured Jacob;
    they have devoured him and consumed him,
    and have laid waste his habitation. – Jeremiah 10:19-25 ESV

In the opening lines of this section of chapter 10, Jeremiah speaks on behalf of the people, expressing the dismay they will express at the coming destruction. He personifies the nation of Judah as a nomad whose tent has been torn down and his children, lost. He has no one to help him rebuild his home and he has no idea where his children might be. Understandably, he is distraught and filled with grief. But he realizes that there is nothing he can do about it. He must simply endure the pain.

But Jeremiah blames the religious and political leaders, those men who had been tasked with shepherding the people of Judah. He describes them as stupid and accuses them of refusing to seek the Lord. They led the people according to their own wisdom, rather than trusting and obeying the word of God. Their failure was imminent and they would be held responsible by God for the moral decay and inevitable destruction of His people. But that did not mean the people were guiltless and innocent before God. They had allowed themselves to be misled because they wanted to be. Their leaders were simply telling them what they wanted to hear and setting an example they were more than willing to follow. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, the apostle Paul addressed the problem of allowing bad leadership to infect and influence the church.

Don’t be fooled by those who say such things, for “bad company corrupts good character.” Think carefully about what is right, and stop sinning. For to your shame I say that some of you don’t know God at all. – 1 Corinthians 15:33-34 NLT

There were evidently so-called leaders in the church in Corinth who were denying the doctrine of the resurrection. They were teaching that this life is all there is, and encouraged the people to “feast and drink, for tomorrow we die!” (1 Corinthians 15:32 NLT). In other words, there is not afterlife, so grab all the gusto you can in this one. That kind of message was popular because it appealed to man’s base desire for pleasure and self-gratification. But Paul warned the believers in Corinth to consider carefully before following the advice of these individuals. He wanted them to do what was right, not what was most appealing. Paul would also warn Timothy about this problem, telling his young protege, “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4 NLT).

Telling people what they want to hear may make you popular, but it won’t win you any brownie points with God. Along with the crowds, you’ll end up attracting the judgment of God. And judgment was coming on the leaders and the people of Judah. The Babylonian invasion was looming. And this led Jeremiah to offer up to God a personal prayer of repentance. Even though he was God’s prophet and had faithfully fulfilled his duty to deliver God’s message to the people, he knew he was not without guilt. He was one of the people of Judah. They all shared in the responsibility of their corporate sins against God. So, Jeremiah pleaded with God to correct them, but not in anger. He didn’t ask God to refrain from bringing judgment, but begged Him to be gentle.

I know, Lord, that our lives are not our own.
    We are not able to plan our own course.
So correct me, Lord, but please be gentle.
    Do not correct me in anger, for I would die. – Jeremiah 10:23-24 NLT

But Jeremiah also asked God to judge the Babylonians. He fully understood that God was going to use this pagan nation to discipline the people of Judah, but Jeremiah wanted to know that God would also bring judgment upon them for what they were about to do to His people. As a citizen of Judah, Jeremiah was willing to accept the judgment of God and suffer the consequences for their unfaithfulness. He knew God would be just in His judgment and perfectly justified in bringing it. But He also appealed to God’s sense of justice when it came to those whom God would use to mete out His judgment. Jeremiah simply wanted to know that God would do the right and just thing when it came to the Babylonians. And near the end of the book that bears his name, Jeremiah receives a message from God letting him know that the Babylonians will one day face a judgment of their own.

This is what the Lord says:
“I will stir up a destroyer against Babylon
    and the people of Babylonia.
Foreigners will come and winnow her,
    blowing her away as chaff.
They will come from every side
    to rise against her in her day of trouble.” – Jeremiah 51:1-2 NLT

The Babylonians would be judged by God as well. God would eventually raise up the Medes, who would defeat the formally indestructable Babylonians. And God will remind Jeremiah:

“For the Lord of Heaven’s Armies
    has not abandoned Israel and Judah.
He is still their God,
    even though their land was filled with sin
    against the Holy One of Israel.” – Jeremiah 51:5 NLT

God can be counted on to do the just and right thing. He is always right in all His ways.

The LORD is righteous in all his ways… – Psalm 145:17 ESV

God's way is perfect. All the LORD's promises prove true. – Psalm 18:30 NLT

He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT

Therefore, the LORD has brought upon us the disaster he prepared. The LORD our God was right to do all of these things, for we did not obey him. – Daniel 9:14 NLT

Destruction was coming on Judah. They deserved it. The judgment of God was justified and He would be proven righteous in every action He took against Judah. He would also be just in His dealings with Babylon. While His ways may not seem to make sense to us or appeal to our sense of fairness, we have no right to question His motive or means. He is the sovereign God of the universe who not only has the right to deal with His creation as He sees fit, He is righteous in all that He does. He will not sin because He cannot sin. He is holy in all that He does. And His will for mankind is not based on a whim or subject to emotional instability on His part. He is not driven by His emotions or susceptible to sinful reactions. He can be trusted to do the right thing each and every time and in each and every circumstance.

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

Filling A Void.

After this Absalom got himself a chariot and horses, and fifty men to run before him. And Absalom used to rise early and stand beside the way of the gate. And when any man had a dispute to come before the king for judgment, Absalom would call to him and say, “From what city are you?” And when he said, “Your servant is of such and such a tribe in Israel,” Absalom would say to him, “See, your claims are good and right, but there is no man designated by the king to hear you.” Then Absalom would say, “Oh that I were judge in the land! Then every man with a dispute or cause might come to me, and I would give him justice.” And whenever a man came near to pay homage to him, he would put out his hand and take hold of him and kiss him. Thus Absalom did to all of Israel who came to the king for judgment. So Absalom stole the hearts of the men of Israel. 2 Samuel 15:1-6 ESV

There are many things we could say about Absalom - many of them negative. But he was anything but impatient. He had spent two full years plotting his revenge against Amnon. Then he had spent three years living in self-imposed exile in Geshur, waiting to see what his father would do in reaction to his murder of Amnon. When David finally agreed to allow Absalom to return, he waited another two years, confined to his home, because his father refused to either pardon or punish him. And as we will see in the next section of chapter 15, Absalom will bide his time for another four years, quietly and patiently plotting his next move. Yes, Absalom was patient. He was willing to wait. But all the while he waited, he used the time to his advantage and was far from idle.

After David had restored him to favor, Absalom got busy. He had become well aware of a flaw in his father’s leadership abilities. He had personally experienced David’s predilection to procrastination and inaction. He had also been the beneficiary of David’s reluctance to enact justice as God’s appointed judge of Israel. And as Absalom made his way around the capital of Jerusalem, interfacing with the people of Israel, he became more and more convinced that his father‘s weaknesses could be exploited to his own advantage. Absalom was an ambitious young man who had shown his willingness to take matters into his own hands. When David had done nothing to punish Amnon for his rape of Tamar, Absalom had stepped in. When Joab had refused to respond to his repeated requests for an audience with David, he got Joab’s attention by having his barley fields set on fire. Absalom was a doer. He was driven and determined. And when he saw the flaw in David’s armor, he determined to strike a blow.

But Absalom was also cunning and clever. He would have made a great politician. He didn’t personally attack David or expose his weaknesses to the press. He simply began a quiet campaign to win over the hearts of the people. He slowly and subtly created doubt and suspicion in their minds regarding David’s leadership over them and love for them. First of all, he began a carefully crafted publicity campaign. He had been out of sight for five years, so it was important that he establish an image with the people. And the first thing he did was come up with plan to portray himself as a leader. It didn’t hurt that he was good looking.

Now Absalom was praised as the most handsome man in all Israel. He was flawless from head to foot. – 2 Samuel 14:25 NLT

And he was a family man.

He had three sons and one daughter. His daughter’s name was Tamar, and she was very beautiful. – 2 Samuel 14:27 NLT

Now, all he needed was the trappings of success. So he bought himself some wheels.

Absalom bought a chariot and horses, and he hired fifty bodyguards to run ahead of him. – 2 Samuel 15:1 NLT

Next, he took his show on the road. And what a sight he made each morning when he arrived at the city gate. Nobody would have missed his arrival or wondered who he was. This was Absalom, son of the king. He was handsome, apparently successful and, on top of that, he was a man of the people. You see, Absalom knew that the key to successfully running the nation was to win over the hearts of the people. So he devised a plan to do just that. His strategy of going to the city gate each morning was brilliant. It was at the city gate that all business was conducted and justice dispensed. The people would come there to have their disputes mediated and complaints heard. David was to have his appointed judges and rulers ready to hear from his people and help with their problems. But evidently, David had been lax in providing the judgment and justice a growing city required. And the people were not happy. The crowds gathered each day, expecting justice, but walked away with their expectations unmet. So Absalom exploited the situation.

His arrival each day would not have gone unnoticed. And he went out of his way to ensure that the people saw him as not only a person of power and influence, but a man who cared about their needs. The text tells us, “When people brought a case to the king for judgment, Absalom would ask where in Israel they were from…” (2 Samuel 15:2 NLT). He would listen to their problem and then he would assure them, “You’ve really got a strong case here! It’s too bad the king doesn’t have anyone to hear it. I wish I were the judge. Then everyone could bring their cases to me for judgment, and I would give them justice!” (2 Samuel 15:3-4 NLT). Like the serpent in the garden, Absalom sowed seeds of doubt and led the people to question the care and concern of David for their needs. Without attacking David directly, Absalom undermined his father’s credibility with the people. After all, Absalom was there at the gate. He was talking and listening directly to the people. Where was David? Was he too busy to take care of his people? Was he too good to show up at the gate and listen to the problems facing the citizens of his kingdom?

Absalom was sly. He was crafty. And he was coldly calculating in all that he did. When the people began to see him as someone who cared and who might be willing to assist them with their needs, they would treat him with honor and respect, bowing down before him. But Absalom did the unthinkable and unexpected. Instead of allowing the people to honor him as some kind of dignitary, he would embrace them in his arms, treating them as his equal. And his ploy worked. 

Absalom did this with everyone who came to the king for judgment, and so he stole the hearts of all the people of Israel. – 2 Samuel 15:6 NLT

An interesting side note in all of this is found in the book of Deuteronomy. There we find a somewhat obscure law regarding what to do with a rebellious son. And the fascinating thing about this law is where it was to be enacted: At the city gate.

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.” – Deuteronomy 21:18-21 ESV

So, here we have Absalom, the king’s son, who has already murdered his brother, now plotting the overthrow of his father’s kingdom. And where is he attempting sow the seeds of doubt that will later blossom into the fruit of rebellion? The city gate. The very place where Absalom should have been brought to have his crime against Amnon judged and his execution enacted, was where he would begin his rebellion against David.

Once again, we see David’s failure to act decisively coming back to haunt him. We must ask ourselves why it was so easy for Absalom to win over the hearts of the people. Had they become disgruntled and disenchanted with all of David’s well-publicized moral failings? There is little doubt that rumors regarding David’s affair with Bathsheba had gotten out. Most likely, the news of Uriah’s death had spread and the questions regarding the circumstances surrounding his death would have been many. The whole situation with Amnon and Tamar would not have gone unnoticed by the people of Jerusalem. The murder of the king’s son by his brother would have been headline news. And the very fact that Absalom had returned and seemed to be doing quite well for himself had not escaped the notice of the people. There is also the likelihood that David was too busy with affairs of state to effectively listen to and address the needs of his people. It was probably about this time that David was busying himself with the construction of his palace and a place to house the Ark of the Covenant. He was also making preparations and plans for the future construction of the temple. David was a busy man. But had he become too busy to care for his own people? This reminds us that David had been called by God to “shepherd My people Israel” (2 Samuel 5:2). But somewhere along the way, David had begun to lose the respect of his sheep. They had wandered and were easy prey for someone as crafty and cunning as Absalom. David had left a void and Absalom was more than willing to fill it. The sheep were hungry for justice and Absalom was prepared to feed them right from his hand and win their hearts.

 

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

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

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

God Takes Sin Seriously.

Now Joab the son of Zeruiah knew that the king's heart went out to Absalom. And Joab sent to Tekoa and brought from there a wise woman and said to her, “Pretend to be a mourner and put on mourning garments. Do not anoint yourself with oil, but behave like a woman who has been mourning many days for the dead. 3 Go to the king and speak thus to him.” So Joab put the words in her mouth.

When the woman of Tekoa came to the king, she fell on her face to the ground and paid homage and said, “Save me, O king.” And the king said to her, “What is your trouble?” She answered, “Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. And your servant had two sons, and they quarreled with one another in the field. There was no one to separate them, and one struck the other and killed him. And now the whole clan has risen against your servant, and they say, ‘Give up the man who struck his brother, that we may put him to death for the life of his brother whom he killed.’ And so they would destroy the heir also. Thus they would quench my coal that is left and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth.”

Then the king said to the woman, “Go to your house, and I will give orders concerning you.” And the woman of Tekoa said to the king, “On me be the guilt, my lord the king, and on my father’s house; let the king and his throne be guiltless.” The king said, “If anyone says anything to you, bring him to me, and he shall never touch you again.” Then she said, “Please let the king invoke the Lord your God, that the avenger of blood kill no more, and my son be not destroyed.” He said, “As the Lord lives, not one hair of your son shall fall to the ground.”

Then the woman said, “Please let your servant speak a word to my lord the king.” He said, “Speak.” And the woman said, “Why then have you planned such a thing against the people of God? For in giving this decision the king convicts himself, inasmuch as the king does not bring his banished one home again. We must all die; we are like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be gathered up again. But God will not take away life, and he devises means so that the banished one will not remain an outcast. Now I have come to say this to my lord the king because the people have made me afraid, and your servant thought, ‘I will speak to the king; it may be that the king will perform the request of his servant. For the king will hear and deliver his servant from the hand of the man who would destroy me and my son together from the heritage of God.’ And your servant thought, ‘The word of my lord the king will set me at rest,’ for my lord the king is like the angel of God to discern good and evil. The Lord your God be with you!” – 2 Samuel 14:1-17 ESV

More than three years had passed since Absalom had arranged and carried out the murder of his half-brother, Amnon, as revenge for raping his sister, Tamar. Absalom had fled, knowing he was guilty and deserving of death. He had lived in exile in the land of Geshur the entire time and, while David thought about him every day, he did nothing to mete out justice for what his son had done. And this whole sordid affair would have been well known to all the people of Israel. It would have been common knowledge that one of the king’s sons had raped his half-sister and had then been murdered by her brother. They would have been well aware of Absalom’s exile and the rumor mills would have been busy with all kinds of gossip and speculation.

That’s when Joab, the king’s friend and military commander decided to take action. He determined that it would be in the best interest of the kingdom for David to allow Absalom to return. We are not told why Joab felt compelled to do this. But there is no indication that any of his efforts had the blessing of God. Nowhere in the passage do we hear of him seeking or receiving a word from God. This would appear to have been his own idea and the fruit it would eventually would seem to bear evidence that it was no within God’s will.

When Joab saw how much David longed for Absalom, he concocted a plan to try and convince David to forgive and forget. Perhaps remembering how Nathan the prophet had used a story to trick David into confessing his sin with Bathsheba, Joab came up with a similar strategy. He hired a woman to tell a completely fabricated story to David that entailed the murder of her son by his brother. Her clansmen wanted to put the second son to death for having murdered his brother, but she described herself to David as a widow with no other sons to protect or provide for her. The living son was her last hope. If he was put to death, she would be helpless and hopeless. Her story, while somewhat similar to that of Absalom and Amnon, had some glaring differences. Absalom’s murder of Amnon had not been in the heat of an argument and the result of uncontrolled passion. In other words, his was not a case of unpremeditated murder. He had planned it for over two years. His murder of Amnon had been calculated and carefully orchestrated. And the execution of Absalom for the murder of his brother would not have left David destitute and alone. He was the king. And technically, in spite of what Joab said, Absalom was not the heir to the throne. Amnon would have been, but he had been killed. Next in line would have been Chileab, David’s second-born son (2 Samuel 3:3). And little did Joab know that God had already made a determination to make Solomon the next king of Israel. But Joab did what he thought was best. He believed that by getting David to allow Absalom to return, things would get back to normal in the kingdom.

But the thing we must remember when reading this story is that God had already given His will concerning matters of this nature. In the book of Numbers we find His divine provision for those who commit murder by accident. God established six cities of refuge, designed as places where the guilty could go for safety until their case could be judged appropriately. But God had made it clear that acts of premeditated murder were not covered.

But if someone strikes and kills another person with a piece of iron, it is murder, and the murderer must be executed. Or if someone with a stone in his hand strikes and kills another person, it is murder, and the murderer must be put to death. Or if someone strikes and kills another person with a wooden object, it is murder, and the murderer must be put to death. The victim’s nearest relative is responsible for putting the murderer to death. When they meet, the avenger must put the murderer to death. So if someone hates another person and pushes him or throws a dangerous object at him and he dies, it is murder. Or if someone hates another person and hits him with a fist and he dies, it is murder. In such cases, the avenger must put the murderer to death when they meet. – Numbers 35:16-21 NLT

Absalom deserved death, but Joab was determined to get the king to grant him a pardon. And his reasoning, passed on to David by the woman, would be that this would be best for the kingdom. He even suggests that it would be what God would want. “Certainly we must die, and are like water spilled on the ground that cannot be gathered up again. But God does not take away life; instead he devises ways for the banished to be restored.” (2 Samuel 14:14 NET). She appealed to God’s mercy and love. She emphasized His forgiveness. But in doing so, she painted a one-dimensional view of God, conveniently leaving out His justice and holiness. God cannot overlook sin. He cannot turn a blind eye to the sins of men and simply pardon them without doing something about them. There would be a day coming when God would provide permanent forgiveness for sins of all kinds. But it would be at the cost of His own Son’s life. Payment had to be made. The author of Hebrews reminds us, “For without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22 NLT).

Joab wanted everything back to the way it was. He was willing to overlook the sins of Absalom, if it would get David back to being his old self. This whole scene was the brain child of Joab, and was intended to get David to overlook the guilt of his son and allow him to return home with no justice having been served. David, seemingly susceptible to a good story, would give in to the woman’s tale and her plea for David to allow Absalom to be restored. This decision, like so many of David’s, would come back to haunt him. He did not seek God’s will in the matter, but went with his gut. It seems that the woman, armed with the words of Joab, knew exactly what was needed to get to David’s heart. He longed for Absalom and was just looking for an excuse to bring him home. He didn’t want to mete out justice, which is why he had left Absalom living in the land of his maternal grandfather for three years. Now, David seemed to have a viable reason for doing what he had wanted to do all along – absolve Absalom of guilt. But God had not forgotten what Absalom had done. And contrary to the wise woman’s words, God does take away life. He had taken the life of David’s newborn son because of his sin with Bathsheba. God had taken the life of Achan and his entire family for bringing sin into the camp (Joshua 7). God is a just and holy god. He is righteous and always does what is right. David could forgive and forget Absalom’s sin, but God could not and would not.

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 Complexity of Sin.

Just then the servants of David arrived with Joab from a raid, bringing much spoil with them. But Abner was not with David at Hebron, for he had sent him away, and he had gone in peace. When Joab and all the army that was with him came, it was told Joab, “Abner the son of Ner came to the king, and he has let him go, and he has gone in peace.” Then Joab went to the king and said, “What have you done? Behold, Abner came to you. Why is it that you have sent him away, so that he is gone? You know that Abner the son of Ner came to deceive you and to know your going out and your coming in, and to know all that you are doing.”

When Joab came out from David’s presence, he sent messengers after Abner, and they brought him back from the cistern of Sirah. But David did not know about it. And when Abner returned to Hebron, Joab took him aside into the midst of the gate to speak with him privately, and there he struck him in the stomach, so that he died, for the blood of Asahel his brother. Afterward, when David heard of it, he said, “I and my kingdom are forever guiltless before the Lord for the blood of Abner the son of Ner. May it fall upon the head of Joab and upon all his father’s house, and may the house of Joab never be without one who has a discharge or who is leprous or who holds a spindle or who falls by the sword or who lacks bread!” So Joab and Abishai his brother killed Abner, because he had put their brother Asahel to death in the battle at Gibeon. - 2 Samuel 3:22-30 ESV

Sin is simple to commit. For most of us, it comes far easier than we would like. We can find ourselves committing sins as the result of the slightest temptation. But the ramifications of sin are rarely simple or easy. Sins can be addictive and habit-forming, with one leading to another, then another. And our own sins can lead others to sin. That happens to be the case in these verses concerning David, Abner and Joab. David, in his desire to have Michal, his first wife, returned to him, made an unwise decision that was non-sanctioned by God. In exchange for Michal and the allegiance of the rest of the tribes of Israel, DAvid made an alliance with Abner, the former commander-in-chief of Saul’s army. This was the very same man who had convinced Saul’s son, Ish-bosheth, to claim the throne as the rightful heir of Saul. Abner, without God’s counsel of approval, appointed Ish-bosheth king of the Benjaminites and all the other tribes of Israel. In doing so, he stood against not only David, but God, who had chosen David to be Saul’s replacement. Abner did not do what he did in ignorance, because he had told the elders of Israel:

“For some time past you have been seeking David as king over you. Now then bring it about, for the Lord has promised David, saying, ‘By the hand of my servant David I will save my people Israel from the hand of the Philistines, and from the hand of all their enemies.’” – 2 Samuel 3:16-17 ESV

His decision to make Ish-bosheth king of Israel was an act of rebellion, against the God-ordained choice of David as king. And yet, David, in his desire to get his wife back and in hopes of solidifying the kingdom, made an agreement with Abner.

When Joab, a commander in David’s army, returned from battle with his troops, he heard the news of what David had done and was shocked. He even confronted David, saying, “What have you done? What do you mean by letting Abner get away? You know perfectly well that he came to spy on you and find out everything you’re doing!” (2 Samuel 3:24-25 NLT). Joab was not only appalled by David’s naiveté, but with his insensitivity to what Abner had done to his brother, Asahel. From Joab’s point of view, David should have been seeking to punish Abner for murder, not making alliances with him. And it’s interesting to note that Abner, upon leaving David’s company, made his way to Hebron, a city of refuge. God had commanded that the Israelites establish six cities of refuge within the promised land.

When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, designate cities of refuge to which people can flee if they have killed someone accidentally. These cities will be places of protection from a dead person’s relatives who want to avenge the death. The slayer must not be put to death before being tried by the community.  – Numbers 35:10-12 NLT

Notice the very important qualifier: “if they have killed someone by accident.” This had not been the case in Abner’s killing of Asahel. He had run Asahel through with the butt-end of a spear. There was nothing about it that had been accidental. And yet, Abner, knowing that Joab would be seeking vengeance for the death of his brother, sought refuge in Hebron. Once again, our sins have a way of not only expanding, but of infecting those around us. David’s lust for Michal, who had remarried and was therefore off limits for David, caused him to make an unwise allegiance with Abner. Rather than punish him for his murder of Asahel, David rewarded him with freedom. Which then caused Joab to take matters into his own hands. He did what David had been unwilling to do. And what he did was in keeping with the commands of God. Consider carefully what God had said about the matter:

But if he struck him down with an iron object, so that he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. And if he struck him down with a stone tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. 18 Or if he struck him down with a wooden tool that could cause death, and he died, he is a murderer. The murderer shall be put to death. The avenger of blood shall himself put the murderer to death; when he meets him, he shall put him to death. And if he pushed him out of hatred or hurled something at him, lying in wait, so that he died, or in enmity struck him down with his hand, so that he died, then he who struck the blow shall be put to death. He is a murderer. The avenger of blood shall put the murderer to death when he meets him. – Numbers 35:16-21 ESV

Abner deserved death for what he had done, not a get-out-of-jail-free card from the king. Joab did what David should have done. But in his life, David showed a disinclination to deal with those whose actions deserved judgment. When Amnon raped his half-sister, Tamar, David did nothing to punish him. When Absalom, Tamar’s brother, arranged for the murder of Amnon, David did nothing. Years later, after David had allowed Absalom to return to Jerusalem, unpunished, Absalom fomented a rebellion against his own father. And what did David do? He abandoned the city. He gave up. He walked away.

It’s interesting to note that, if David believed what Joab did to Abner was wrong, he did nothing about it. Rather than punish Joab, he pronounced a curse on he and his family, saying:

“Joab and his family are the guilty ones. May the family of Joab be cursed in every generation with a man who has open sores or leprosy or who walks on crutches or dies by the sword or begs for food!” – 2 Samuel 3:29 NLT

David placed all the blame of Joab. He distanced himself from what had just happened. This was probably great political policy, since David was attempting to establish his kingdom, and he feared the reactions of the Benjaminites when they heard of Abner’s death. But David’s curse on Joab appears to be completely uncalled for and without divine authorization. Abner had been a traitor and a murderer. He had led a rebelli0n against the God-ordained king of Israel. Rather than face capture, he had brutally murdered his pursuer, Asahal. And according to the command of God, he deserved death. In fact, David had violated the very word of God by making his agreement with Abner. In essence, he had allowed Abner to buy his way out of his guilt. Listen to what God has to say about that:

Also, you must never accept a ransom payment for the life of someone judged guilty of murder and subject to execution; murderers must always be put to death. And never accept a ransom payment from someone who has fled to a city of refuge, allowing a slayer to return to his property before the death of the high priest. – Numbers 35:31-32 NLT

The truly fascinating thing about all of this will be David’s reaction to the death of Abner. How much of it is based on political posturing, we will never know. Was David simply attempting to win over the northern tribes by assuring them of his love for Abner? Only David and God know for sure. But suffice it to say that David showed far more sadness over the death of Abner than he did of Asahel, one of his own men, who had been murdered by Abner. There is no record of David having mourned Asahel’s death. No tears were shed. No memorial service was held. And yet, we will see David go out of his way to memorialize and eulogize the death of a traitor and a murderer.

Sin has a way of growing, like a cancer. Unchecked, it can spread, infecting our life and destroying our spiritual health. Not only that, it can contaminate those around us. It is never simple or easily controlled. We may think we have a handle on our sin and are able to manage it, but we are deluded and naive. Sin is dangerous and deadly. And when we attempt to apply logic to our sins in order to rationalize our behavior, we run the risk of opening the door to additional and even more deadly forms of rebellion against God.

The apostle John gives us some sobering counsel regarding the sin in our lives:

If we claim we have no sin, we are only fooling ourselves and not living in the truth. But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness. If we claim we have not sinned, we are calling God a liar and showing that his word has no place in our hearts. – 1 John 1:8-10 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