sovereignty of God

All According to Plan

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah,
    weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
    she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” – Matthew 2:13-18 ESV

After having spent more than three years of his life with Jesus, Matthew had come to believe in two things: The Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah and the providence of God. Over time, he had come to recognize that Jesus was the fulfillment of all that the prophets had written concerning long-awaited “anointed one” of God.

Matthew would have remembered the words of Jesus, spoken at the synagogue in Nazareth immediately after He had read the following passage from the scroll containing the writings of Isaiah:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
– Luke 4:18-19 ESV

Jesus had read from Isaiah 61:1-2, a text that the Jews in His audience would have known carried Messianic implications. And when He had finished, He had sat down and stated: “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21 ESV).

Jesus had boldly claimed to be the fulfillment of this passage. He was the anointed one of God, who possessed the Spirit of God and had been sent on a mission by God. And more than three years later, after Jesus had died and resurrected, He had suddenly appeared to two of His disciples on the road to Emmaus. Once they recognized Him as their risen Lord, Jesus had provided them with insight into His Messianic pedigree.

…beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. – Luke 24:27 ESV

Those disciples had returned to Jerusalem, where they shared the news of Jesus’ resurrection with the rest of the disciples, including Matthew. And Luke records that Jesus suddenly appeared in their midst and said to them:.

“These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. – Luke 24:44-45 ESV

Matthew fully believed that Jesus was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. But he also believed that God had been working providentially in the life of Jesus from the moment of His birth to the final minutes of His life on the cross. Nothing had happened that God had not ordained and providentially orchestrated, including the arrival of the Magi and the sinister reaction of Herod to the news of the birth of Israel’s new king.

All of the events surrounding Jesus’ incarnation were planned by God from eternity past. He was not operating in a reactionary mode, responding to events as they happened or forced to alter His plans based on the whims of men. Nothing was a surprise to God. There was never a moment when He was caught off guard or found Himself having to come up with plan B. 

Matthew had come to recognize that every detail concerning Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection had been providentially planned by God. Even the flight of Joseph, Mary, and their newborn son to Egypt had been part of God’s divine strategy. Matthew records that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, warning him in advance that Herod had evil intentions for their son.

“Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” – Matthew 2:13 ESV

Joseph had done as the angel commanded, taking his young wife and newborn son to Egypt in order to escape the wrath of Herod. And we know from the following verses, that the threat had been real, because Herod had all the male children under the age of two murdered, in a vain attempt to eliminate any potential threat to his throne.

But Herod’s plan would fail. He would prove unsuccessful in his efforts to kill the rightful heir to David’s throne. In fact, according to the Jewish historian, Josephus, Herod would die a painful and miserable death. Even Luke records that Herod would be “eaten by worms” (Acts 12:23 ESV).

But Jesus would find refuge in Egypt, much like the people of Israel had done hundreds of years earlier. Jacob and his family had also turned to Egypt when faced with a famine in the land of Canaan. And 400 years later, God would lead the people of Israel out of Egypt and return them to the land of Canaan. And the prophet Hosea would later record the news of God’s providential rescue of His people from their captivity in Egypt.

When Israel was a child, I loved him,
    and out of Egypt I called my son. – Hosea 11:1 ESV

Matthew uses this very same Old Testament passage to illustrate how Jesus was the ultimate fulfillment of what happened when God had returned His “son” from Egypt. Jesus would return from a distant land “to proclaim good news to the poor…to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, (and) to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

When God had led the people of Israel out of Egypt, He had done so in fulfillment of His promise to Abraham. He had plans to return them to the land of Canaan, which He was going to give them as an inheritance. He had promised to give Abraham a land, a seed, and a blessing. But while the Israelites finally made it to the land and eventually occupied it, they had never fully lived up to God’s expectations for them. They had proved disobedient and unfaithful. But God was still going to bless the nations through the “seed” of Abraham. And Jesus was the fulfillment of that promise. The apostle Paul made this point perfectly clear when he wrote:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. – Galatians 3:13-16 ESV

God would once again call “the seed” of Abraham out of Egypt, but this time the blessing would come to the Gentiles. Jesus would do what the Jews had failed to do. He would live in perfect obedience to the will of God, carrying out His commands and accomplishing His will. And there was nothing Herod the Great or his son and successor, Herod Antipas, could do to thwart the plans of the sovereign God. Jesus would not only return from Egypt, but He would also survive childhood, grow to be a man, and begin His earthly ministry just as God had sovereignly ordained. All according to the divine plan and in keeping with on God’s predetermined timeline. 

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. – Galatians 4:4-5 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

The God Behind the Blessing

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

7 And this he said of Judah:

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

8 And of Levi he said,

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

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

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

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

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

“Judah, your brothers will praise you.
    You will grasp your enemies by the neck.
    All your relatives will bow before you.
Judah, my son, is a young lion
    that has finished eating its prey.
Like a lion he crouches and lies down;
    like a lioness—who dares to rouse him?
The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants,
until the coming of the one to whom it belongs,
    the one whom all nations will honor.
He ties his foal to a grapevine,
    the colt of his donkey to a choice vine.
He washes his clothes in wine,
    his robes in the blood of grapes.
His eyes are darker than wine,
    and his teeth are whiter than milk.” – Genesis 49:8-12 NLT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God Has Been With You

1 “Then we turned and journeyed into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea, as the Lord told me. And for many days we traveled around Mount Seir. 2 Then the Lord said to me, 3 ‘You have been traveling around this mountain country long enough. Turn northward 4 and command the people, “You are about to pass through the territory of your brothers, the people of Esau, who live in Seir; and they will be afraid of you. So be very careful. 5 Do not contend with them, for I will not give you any of their land, no, not so much as for the sole of the foot to tread on, because I have given Mount Seir to Esau as a possession. 6 You shall purchase food from them with money, that you may eat, and you shall also buy water from them with money, that you may drink. 7 For the Lord your God has blessed you in all the work of your hands. He knows your going through this great wilderness. These forty years the Lord your God has been with you. You have lacked nothing.”’ 8 So we went on, away from our brothers, the people of Esau, who live in Seir, away from the Arabah road from Elath and Ezion-geber.

“And we turned and went in the direction of the wilderness of Moab. 9 And the Lord said to me, ‘Do not harass Moab or contend with them in battle, for I will not give you any of their land for a possession, because I have given Ar to the people of Lot for a possession.’ 10 (The Emim formerly lived there, a people great and many, and tall as the Anakim. 11 Like the Anakim they are also counted as Rephaim, but the Moabites call them Emim. 12 The Horites also lived in Seir formerly, but the people of Esau dispossessed them and destroyed them from before them and settled in their place, as Israel did to the land of their possession, which the Lord gave to them.) 13 ‘Now rise up and go over the brook Zered.’ So we went over the brook Zered. 14 And the time from our leaving Kadesh-barnea until we crossed the brook Zered was thirty-eight years, until the entire generation, that is, the men of war, had perished from the camp, as the Lord had sworn to them. 15 For indeed the hand of the Lord was against them, to destroy them from the camp, until they had perished.” – Deuteronomy 2:1-15 ESV

Moses continues his recounting of the Israelites’ history, in an effort to remind his audience of all that had happened over the last four decades and prior to their arrival at the border of the land of promise.

Moses seems to have at least two objectives in giving this impromptu history lesson. First, he wants to remind his audience of what happens when God’s people prove unfaithful and disobedient. There will be consequences. More than 40 years had passed and the nation of Israel was just now preparing to cross over into the land that God had promised to Abraham. But the delay was Israel’s fault, not God’s. They had been to this very same spot before, but had refused to take God at His word and trust that He would give them victory over their enemies. So, He had sentenced them to 40-years confinement in the wilderness. But, in a sense, it was a life sentence, because that entire generation died in the wilderness, having been forbidden from every stepping foot in the land of promise. And Moses is out to ensure that the offspring of those unfaithful rebels do not repeat the same mistake

But there is a second point that Moses is trying to make and it is of even greater importance. He wants this new generation of Israelites to recognize and appreciate the faithfulness of God. In spite of all that the nation had done to offend God by refusing to trust and obey Him, He was still going through with His promise to give them the land of Canaan as an inheritance. Here they were, 40 years later, and poised to enter the very same land their fathers and mothers had turned their backs on. And it was all because their God was faithful.

So, as Moses tells the story of Israel’s long and somewhat meteoric relationship with God, he comes to another chapter in which God’s faithfulness can be seen. But this time, it is a bit less obvious. In these verses, Moses describes Israel’s journey around Mount Seir and into the regions of Edom and Moab. To us, those two names mean nothing, but to an Israelite, they would have carried a special significance. Edom was the land given by God to Esau, the older brother of Jacob. And Moab was the land occupied by the descendants of Lot, the nephew of Abraham.

The book of Genesis records the story of Jacob and Esau, the two twin boys born to Isaac and Rebekah. While the two boys were still in Rebekah’s womb, God had decreed that Jacob, who would exit the womb after his brother, was to receive the blessing of the firstborn. God, according to His sovereign will and in keeping with His divine plan for mankind, made the decision to choose Jacob over Esau. It made no sense from a human perspective and seemed to go against all accepted protocols concerning the firstborn and the inheritance. But God, who is just and right in all He does, had a good reason for His actions. And the prophet Malachi puts God’s decision in very black and white terms. Addressing the people of Israel, the descendants of Jacob, God said:

“This is how I showed my love for you: I loved your ancestor Jacob, but I rejected his brother, Esau, and devastated his hill country. I turned Esau’s inheritance into a desert for jackals.” – Malachi 1:2-3 NLT

The apostle Paul picks up this story in his letter to the Romans and expands on its significance.

For God had promised, “I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.”

This son was our ancestor Isaac. When he married Rebekah, she gave birth to twins. But before they were born, before they had done anything good or bad, she received a message from God. (This message shows that God chooses people according to his own purposes; he calls people, but not according to their good or bad works.) She was told, “Your older son will serve your younger son.” In the words of the Scriptures, “I loved Jacob, but I rejected Esau.”

Are we saying, then, that God was unfair? Of course not! For God said to Moses,

“I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.” – Romans 9:9-15 NLT

Neither Malachi or Paul are insisting that God literally hated Esau. The point is that, in comparison to His treatment of Jacob and his descendants, God’s actions toward Esau appear hostile. He had chosen to bless one and not the other. And yet, God still gave Esau and his descendants land. And God would not allow the Israelites, the descendants of Jacob, to have any of the land He had given to Esau.

“You will pass through the country belonging to your relatives the Edomites, the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. The Edomites will feel threatened, so be careful. Do not bother them, for I have given them all the hill country around Mount Seir as their property, and I will not give you even one square foot of their land.” – Deuteronomy 2:4-5 NLT

God was faithful to Esau and his descendants. He had given them land and had obviously blessed them with food and water, because the people of Israel were able to buy provisions from the Edomites. It’s interesting to note that, all these generations later, God was sovereignly using the descendants of Esau to meet the needs of the descendants of Jacob. God had strategically placed the Edomites right where they were so that they could play a role in helping the Israelites reach the inheritance God had promised them.

Moses goes on to record that the Israelites left Edom and headed for the land of Moab. Once again, God warned the Israelites, “Do not bother the Moabites, the descendants of Lot, or start a war with them. I have given them Ar as their property, and I will not give you any of their land” (Deuteronomy 2:9 NLT).

Here we have yet another example of God’s faithfulness and, to understand it, we have to turn back to the book of Genesis. Lot was the nephew of Abraham, the father of the Israelite nation. Lot had accompanied Abraham from Ur and had settled in the land of Canaan. In fact, at one point Abraham had allowed Lot to take his pick of all the land and the book of Genesis records:

Lot chose for himself the whole Jordan Valley to the east of them. He went there with his flocks and servants and parted company with his uncle Abram. So Abram settled in the land of Canaan, and Lot moved his tents to a place near Sodom and settled among the cities of the plain. – Genesis 13:11-12 NLT

Lot picked “the fertile plains of the Jordan Valley in the direction of Zoar” and we’re told that “The whole area was well watered everywhere, like the garden of the Lord or the beautiful land of Egypt” (Genesis 13:10 NLT). 

But Lot didn’t stay in the fertile plains for long. He ended up settling in the city of Sodom, a place of great wickedness. And when God eventually decided to destroy Sodom and its sister city of Gomorrah, He allowed Lot to escape with his two daughters. And after their narrow escape, Lot and his daughters settled in a cave. But fearing that their family line was doomed to die out, Lot’s two daughters, who must have been heavily influenced by their time in Sodom, came up with a plan to get their father drunk and have sex with him, so they could prolong their clan. And the book of Genesis records the outcome of their immoral decision.

When the older daughter gave birth to a son, she named him Moab. He became the ancestor of the nation now known as the Moabites. When the younger daughter gave birth to a son, she named him Ben-ammi. He became the ancestor of the nation now known as the Ammonites. – Genesis 19:37-38 NLT

Now, here were the descendants of Abraham, the uncle of Lot, getting ready to pass through the land occupied by the descendants of Lot. And Moses makes a point to stress that this portion of the land had been occupied by “A race of giants called the Emites.” And Moses goes out his way to stress that these people were “as strong and numerous and tall as the Anakites, another race of giants” (Deuteronomy 2:10 NLT).

Don’t miss the significance of what Moses is saying. Back in chapter one, he pointed out that the first time the Israelites reached the edge of the land of Canaan, they had refused to enter because they said, “The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven. And besides, we have seen the sons of the Anakim there” (Deuteronomy 1:28 ESV).  God had used the Edomites to rid Anakites from the land east of Canaan, but the Israelites had failed to believe that God could do the same thing for them. In a sense, Moses is pointing out that God had faithfully used the descendants of Esau to help prepare the way for the descendants of Jacob.

This whole portion of Moses’ story is meant to stress the faithfulness of God. Everything that had happened in Israel’s long history had been the work of God – all the way back to the days of Abraham and Lot and Jacob and Esau. God had been sovereignly orchestrating every single incident in order to set up this moment in time. And Moses wanted the next generation to recognize that God was with them and had been with them all along. He was and is faithful.

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 Doesn’t Need Our Approval or Advice

1 Thus says the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus,
    whose right hand I have grasped,
to subdue nations before him
    and to loose the belts of kings,
to open doors before him
    that gates may not be closed:
2 “I will go before you
    and level the exalted places,[
a
I will break in pieces the doors of bronze
    and cut through the bars of iron,
3 I will give you the treasures of darkness
    and the hoards in secret places,
that you may know that it is I, the Lord,
    the God of Israel, who call you by your name.
4 For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen,
I call you by your name,
    I name you, though you do not know me.
5 I am the Lord, and there is no other,
    besides me there is no God;
    I equip you, though you do not know me,
6 that people may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.
7 I form light and create darkness;
    I make well-being and create calamity;
    I am the Lord, who does all these things.

8 “Shower, O heavens, from above,
    and let the clouds rain down righteousness;
let the earth open, that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit;
    let the earth cause them both to sprout;
    I the Lord have created it.

9 “Woe to him who strives with him who formed him,
    a pot among earthen pots!
Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’
    or ‘Your work has no handles’?
10 Woe to him who says to a father, ‘What are you begetting?’
    or to a woman, ‘With what are you in labor?’”

11 Thus says the Lord,
    the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him:
“Ask me of things to come;
    will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?[
b
12 I made the earth
    and created man on it;
it was my hands that stretched out the heavens,
    and I commanded all their host.
13 I have stirred him up in righteousness,
    and I will make all his ways level;
he shall build my city
    and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,”
    says the Lord of host
s. – Isaiah 45:1-13 ESV

God doesn’t do things the way we might expect. And later on, in the book of Isaiah, God will explain His sometimes confusing and frustrating way of doing things.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.”
– Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV

Yet, we find it so easy to judge God and question His methodology and the logic behind His actions. From our perspective, it can sometimes appear as if He has not thought things through. His timing seems off to us. We deem His decision-making ability as questionable and, at times, objectionable.

And, in this passage, we find God providing the people of Judah some insights into His efforts on their behalf. He has already dropped the bombshell of a report that He is going to use the Babylonians to destroy their capital city and its glorious temple. Then, King Nebuchadnezzar is going to take a good portion of the citizens of Jerusalem into captivity in Babylon. That bit of news had to have left the people of Judah reeling and wondering about the character of their God.

Then, as if to make His actions even more disconcerting and perplexing, God opens up this section by referring to the king of Persia as His “anointed.” This is a designation typically reserved for the king of Israel, the high priest, or in reference to the Messiah. But here, God calls this pagan king His anointed one. The Hebrew word is mashiyach, and it is derived from the root word, mashach, which refers to the consecrating or setting apart of someone or something for a specific task by the anointing with oil.

We see this action displayed in the life of King David, when God sent the prophet Samuel to the house of Jesse, in order to find the one who would replace Saul as the king of Israel. God commanded Samuel to “invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you which of his sons to anoint for me” (1 Samuel 16:3 NLT). When David, the youngest of Jesse’s sons appeared before the prophet, God said, “This is the one; anoint him” (1 Samuel 16:12 NLT). And then we read:

So as David stood there among his brothers, Samuel took the flask of olive oil he had brought and anointed David with the oil. And the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David from that day on. – 1 Samuel 16:13 NLT

But why would God use a word, typically used to designate divine consecration, to refer to a pagan king? Because God was letting the people of Judah know that Cyrus had been set apart by God for a very specific and special purpose. He will take Cyrus by the hand and open doors before him so that he can subdue nations. God even makes a promise to this Persian king.

“I will go before you, Cyrus,
    and level the mountains.
I will smash down gates of bronze
    and cut through bars of iron.
And I will give you treasures hidden in the darkness—
    secret riches.
I will do this so you may know that I am the Lord,
    the God of Israel, the one who calls you by name.”
– Isaiah 45:2-3 NLT

Just imagine how all of this sounded to the people of Judah. These words are reminiscent of the promises God had made to the people of Israel before they entered the land of Canaan. They sound like something God would have said to David as he prepared to take the throne of Israel. But to hear God speak them to a pagan king? That had to have left their heads spinning.

And just to make sure the people of Judah understood that Cyrus was God’s chosen instrument, He states that He has called Cyrus by name, even though Cyrus does not know Him. Even before Cyrus was born and long before he ascended to the Persian throne, God had consecrated Cyrus for this purpose. And God explains why He did so.

“For the sake of my servant Jacob,
    and Israel my chosen.”
– Isaiah 45:4 ESV

This was all about the people of God. They were the focus of God’s divine intentions. He had a plan in place for them and it included the use of this pagan king and his kingdom. Just as God would use King Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian kingdom to punish the people of Judah, He would use King Cyrus and his Persian empire to restore His people to their land. These powerful and seemingly autonomous kings were actually nothing more than instruments in the hands of God Almighty. Daniel 2:21 states: “He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars” (Daniel 2:21 NLT).

Multiple times in this passage, God emphasizes Cyrus’ ignorance of His existence by stating, “though you do not know me” (Isaiah 55:4, 5 ESV). But by using Cyrus to achieve His divine ends, God desired to reveal to the world that He alone is God.

“…that people may know, from the rising of the sun
    and from the west, that there is none besides me;
    I am the Lord, and there is no other.”
– Isaiah 45:6 ESV

The sovereignty of human kings is subject to the sovereignty of God. He rules and reigns and, ultimately, all answer to Him.

The king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord; he guides it wherever he pleases. – Proverbs 21:1 NLT

And God assures His people that He alone can “create the light and make the darkness.” He is the only one who can “send good times and bad times” (Isaiah 45:7 NLT). Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus were nothing more than instruments in the hands of God. Their will was subject to His. And in Psalm 2, the psalmist warns the kings of the earth:

Now then, you kings, act wisely!
    Be warned, you rulers of the earth!
Serve the Lord with reverent fear,
    and rejoice with trembling.
Submit to God’s royal son, or he will become angry,
    and you will be destroyed in the midst of all your activities—
for his anger flares up in an instant.
    But what joy for all who take refuge in him!
– Psalm 2:10-12 ESV

But God doesn’t just reign over the kings of the earth. He controls all of creation. And as proof that He alone can send the good times, God commands the clouds to “rain down righteousness” (Isaiah 45:8 ESV). He commands the earth to open, “that salvation and righteousness may bear fruit” (Isaiah 45:8 ESV). God can use kings and creation to do His bidding. He has the ability to bless His children however and through whomever He desires.

And not He turns His attention to His chosen people, warning them to not allow their lack of understanding to cause them to question His methods or integrity.

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

They may not like God is doing, but they have no right to question His motivation. And God asks them: “Do you question what I do for my children? Do you give me orders about the work of my hands?” (Isaiah 45:11 NLT). He is the creator of the universe and they are in no position to demand that He provide them with an explanation for His actions. And, as if drawing the conversation to an abrupt close, God announces:

“I will raise up Cyrus to fulfill my righteous purpose,
    and I will guide his actions.
He will restore my city and free my captive people—
    without seeking a reward!
    I, the Lord of Heaven’s Armies, have spoken!”
– Isaiah 45:13 ESV

God was going to do what He deemed best. He wasn’t seeking their input or asking for their buy-in. Their approval of His methods was not His concern. He had far greater plans in store for them than they were aware of. He had a long-term strategy in place that far outweighed their desire for immediate comfort and their present happiness.

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

Free To Sin.

9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people:

“‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
10 Make the heart of this people dull,
    and their ears heavy,
    and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
    and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
    and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:
“Until cities lie waste
    without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
    and the land is a desolate waste,
12 and the Lord removes people far away,
    and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
13 And though a tenth remain in it,
    it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
    whose stump remains
    when it is felled.”
The holy seed is its stump. – Isaiah 6:9-13 ESV

When God had asked, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?,” Isaiah had quickly responded, “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8 ESV). And now, Isaiah receives his marching orders from God. His task would not prove easy, because his audience would not prove receptive to the message God had given him. He would challenge them to listen carefully and look closely, but it would be to no avail, for they would fail to understand what he had to say or learn anything from the things they saw. 

In other words, they would continue on in their stubbornness. And that trait would last for generations, all the way into the first century A.D., when Jesus attempted to persuade the Jewish people that He was their long-awaited Messiah. But John records that the people of Jesus’ day also proved to be stubbornly resistant to the call to repent, even quoting Isaiah in his indictment of the people:

But despite all the miraculous signs Jesus had done, most of the people still did not believe in him. This is exactly what Isaiah the prophet had predicted:

“Lord, who has believed our message?
    To whom has the Lord revealed his powerful arm?”

But the people couldn’t believe, for as Isaiah also said,

“The Lord has blinded their eyes
    and hardened their hearts—
so that their eyes cannot see,
    and their hearts cannot understand,
and they cannot turn to me
    and have me heal them.” – John 12:37-40 NLT

The idea of God blinding the eyes and hardening the hearts of His people so that they will not respond to Isaiah’s message sounds unfair to many of us. It sounds as if God is forcing them to reject His call to repentant and leaving them no chance of restoration. This passage raises the uncomfortable and controversial debate over the sovereignty of God and the free will of man. As human beings, we take our free will quite seriously. We demand the right to do what we want to do, without any outer control or unwanted manipulation. But from a theological perspective, there really is no such thing as “free” will.

The apostle Paul reminds all believers of their pre-salvation condition:

Once you were dead because of your disobedience and your many sins. You used to live in sin, just like the rest of the world, obeying the devil—the commander of the powers in the unseen world. He is the spirit at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. All of us used to live that way, following the passionate desires and inclinations of our sinful nature. By our very nature we were subject to God’s anger, just like everyone else. – Ephesians 2:1-3 NLT

Then, in his letter to the Colossians, he adds:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. – Colossians 2:13 NLT

Notice what Paul says. Satan is at work in the hearts of those who refuse to obey God. He controls their thoughts and actions. He influences their decision-making and manipulates every aspect of their lives. That does not mean that all that they do is evil all the time, but it does mean that nothing they do is considered righteous in the eyes of God. Isaiah will put it this way:

We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. – Isaiah 64:6 NLT

And Paul will expand on that thought:

No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one is seeking God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one. – Romans 3:10-12 NLT

And Paul was simply quoting the great king, David, the man after God’s own heart.

They are corrupt, and their actions are evil;
    not one of them does good!

God looks down from heaven
    on the entire human race;
he looks to see if anyone is truly wise,
    if anyone seeks God.
But no, all have turned away;
    all have become corrupt.
No one does good,
    not a single one! – Psalm 53:1-3 NLT

Man is not free to do whatever he wants to do. He is controlled by his own sin nature and heavily influenced by Satan, the “father of lies.” Jesus made this point perfectly and painfully clear when speaking to a crowd of His fellows Jews:

For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies. So when I tell the truth, you just naturally don’t believe me! – John 8:44-45 NLT

And Paul adds that Satan plays a vital role in man’s stubborn refusal to hear the gracious message of God to repent.

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don't believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don't understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

So, this idea of free will is really a misconception. Between man’s inherent sin nature and Satan’s control, no one is truly free to do what he or she wants to do. Apart from the saving work of Jesus Christ, all men are slaves to sin. They are not free to do as they wish. Yes, they make decisions every day and appear to be making choices that are the direct result of their own will, but they are NOT free to do righteousness – at least a righteousness that meets God’s exacting standard. Their best choices made on their best day are still viewed as filthy rags by a holy God.

So, God tells Isaiah:

“Harden the hearts of these people.
    Plug their ears and shut their eyes.
That way, they will not see with their eyes,
    nor hear with their ears,
nor understand with their hearts
    and turn to me for healing.”
– Isaiah 6:10 NLT

He will tell them the truth, but they will refuse to hear of accept it. The very act of delivering the message of God will result in their rejection of God. And they will be doing what they want to do. It will be their choice. But they will not be able to hear, believe and repent. That is a work of God. The prophet, Isaiah, records what is necessary for sinful man to respond to the gracious message offered by God. It requires the divine assistance of God.

“And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations.” – Ezekiel 36:26 NLT

And God goes on to let them know that this is not something they deserve or have earned.

“But remember, says the Sovereign Lord, I am not doing this because you deserve it. O my people of Israel, you should be utterly ashamed of all you have done!” – Ezekiel 36:32 NLT

The people of Judah had a long track record of disobeying God. This was not a knee-jerk reaction on God’s part. He had exhibited extreme patience for many generations. But the the had come for their sins to be punished. He could not and would not overlook their rebellion against Him.

But Isaiah asks God how long the people will display their stubborn resistance to his message. And God tells him.

“Until their towns are empty,
    their houses are deserted,
    and the whole country is a wasteland;
until the Lord has sent everyone away,
    and the entire land of Israel lies deserted.
If even a tenth—a remnant—survive,
    it will be invaded again and burned.
But as a terebinth or oak tree leaves a stump when it is cut down.” – Isaiah 6:11-13 NLT

Judgment was coming. Destruction was going to take place. Their cities would be destroyed and their people taken captive. But, there some good news amidst all the doom and gloom. God will spare a remnant – a tenth – who will survive. After all the destruction and devastation, a stump will remain. And God reveals that “Israel’s stump will be a holy seed” (Isaiah 6:13 NLT).

Even after the fall of Judah and Jerusalem, and the deportation of the people to Babylon, a remnant would be allowed to return 70 years later. They would rebuild the city and the temple. The people would once again occupy the land given to them by God. And generations later, in the land of Judah, a baby boy would be born. He would be that holy seed. And Isaiah describes him just a few chapters later.

Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—
    yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
    the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
    the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. – Isaiah 11:1-2 NLT

God had plans for His people. Yes, He was going to judge them, but the day is coming when He will restore them. From them would come the “holy seed” – the descendant of David, who would offer His life as an atonement for the sins of mankind. And the day is coming when He will restore the fortunes of the people of Israel, once and for all. Jesus Himself lets us know what He has planned.

“Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.…I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.…Surely I am coming soon.” – Revelation 22:12-13, 16, 20 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 Sovereign Work of God.

1 The second lot came out for Simeon, for the tribe of the people of Simeon, according to their clans, and their inheritance was in the midst of the inheritance of the people of Judah. 2 And they had for their inheritance Beersheba, Sheba, Moladah, 3 Hazar-shual, Balah, Ezem, 4 Eltolad, Bethul, Hormah, 5 Ziklag, Beth-marcaboth, Hazar-susah, 6 Beth-lebaoth, and Sharuhen—thirteen cities with their villages; 7 Ain, Rimmon, Ether, and Ashan—four cities with their villages, 8 together with all the villages around these cities as far as Baalath-beer, Ramah of the Negeb. This was the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Simeon according to their clans. 9 The inheritance of the people of Simeon formed part of the territory of the people of Judah. Because the portion of the people of Judah was too large for them, the people of Simeon obtained an inheritance in the midst of their inheritance.

10 The third lot came up for the people of Zebulun, according to their clans. And the territory of their inheritance reached as far as Sarid. 11 Then their boundary goes up westward and on to Mareal and touches Dabbesheth, then the brook that is east of Jokneam. 12 From Sarid it goes in the other direction eastward toward the sunrise to the boundary of Chisloth-tabor. From there it goes to Daberath, then up to Japhia. 13 From there it passes along on the east toward the sunrise to Gath-hepher, to Eth-kazin, and going on to Rimmon it bends toward Neah, 14 then on the north the boundary turns about to Hannathon, and it ends at the Valley of Iphtahel; 15 and Kattath, Nahalal, Shimron, Idalah, and Bethlehem—twelve cities with their villages. 16 This is the inheritance of the people of Zebulun, according to their clans—these cities with their villages.

17 The fourth lot came out for Issachar, for the people of Issachar, according to their clans. 18 Their territory included Jezreel, Chesulloth, Shunem, 19 Hapharaim, Shion, Anaharath, 20 Rabbith, Kishion, Ebez, 21 Remeth, En-gannim, En-haddah, Beth-pazzez. 22 The boundary also touches Tabor, Shahazumah, and Beth-shemesh, and its boundary ends at the Jordan—sixteen cities with their villages. 23 This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Issachar, according to their clans—the cities with their villages.

24 The fifth lot came out for the tribe of the people of Asher according to their clans. 25 Their territory included Helkath, Hali, Beten, Achshaph, 26 Allammelech, Amad, and Mishal. On the west it touches Carmel and Shihor-libnath, 27 then it turns eastward, it goes to Beth-dagon, and touches Zebulun and the Valley of Iphtahel northward to Beth-emek and Neiel. Then it continues in the north to Cabul, 28 Ebron, Rehob, Hammon, Kanah, as far as Sidon the Great. 29 Then the boundary turns to Ramah, reaching to the fortified city of Tyre. Then the boundary turns to Hosah, and it ends at the sea; Mahalab,[a] Achzib, 30 Ummah, Aphek and Rehob—twenty-two cities with their villages. 31 This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Asher according to their clans—these cities with their villages.

32 The sixth lot came out for the people of Naphtali, for the people of Naphtali, according to their clans. 33 And their boundary ran from Heleph, from the oak in Zaanannim, and Adami-nekeb, and Jabneel, as far as Lakkum, and it ended at the Jordan. 34 Then the boundary turns westward to Aznoth-tabor and goes from there to Hukkok, touching Zebulun at the south and Asher on the west and Judah on the east at the Jordan. 35 The fortified cities are Ziddim, Zer, Hammath, Rakkath, Chinnereth, 36 Adamah, Ramah, Hazor, 37 Kedesh, Edrei, En-hazor, 38 Yiron, Migdal-el, Horem, Beth-anath, and Beth-shemesh—nineteen cities with their villages. 39 This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Naphtali according to their clans—the cities with their villages.

40 The seventh lot came out for the tribe of the people of Dan, according to their clans. 41 And the territory of its inheritance included Zorah, Eshtaol, Ir-shemesh, 42 Shaalabbin, Aijalon, Ithlah, 43 Elon, Timnah, Ekron, 44 Eltekeh, Gibbethon, Baalath, 45 Jehud, Bene-berak, Gath-rimmon, 46 and Me-jarkon and Rakkon with the territory over against Joppa. 47 When the territory of the people of Dan was lost to them, the people of Dan went up and fought against Leshem, and after capturing it and striking it with the sword they took possession of it and settled in it, calling Leshem, Dan, after the name of Dan their ancestor. 48 This is the inheritance of the tribe of the people of Dan, according to their clans—these cities with their villages.

49 When they had finished distributing the several territories of the land as inheritances, the people of Israel gave an inheritance among them to Joshua the son of Nun. 50 By command of the Lord they gave him the city that he asked, Timnath-serah in the hill country of Ephraim. And he rebuilt the city and settled in it.

51 These are the inheritances that Eleazar the priest and Joshua the son of Nun and the heads of the fathers' houses of the tribes of the people of Israel distributed by lot at Shiloh before the Lord, at the entrance of the tent of meeting. So they finished dividing the land. Joshua 19:1-51 ESV

 

This is a long chapter that contains seemingly insignificant information that is of little use to us as 21st-Century Christians. There are plenty of details regarding the borders of the various land allotments and the names of cities located within those lands, but there appears to be no theological or doctrinal insights we can glean from the passage and apply to our daily lives. It is what I tend to call a “skip-over” passage – one of those sections of Scripture, like the genealogies found in the gospels, that prompt us to skip over them rather than waste time wading through their apparently unimportant content. But their very inclusion in the Scriptures begs the question: Why are they there? If, as the Bible states, “All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives” (2 Timothy 3:16 NLT), why did the Holy Spirit inspire the authors of the Scriptures to include passages like this? What is remotely useful in this passage and how can it teach us what is true?

In this chapter we have the allocation of land to the remaining seven tribes. The major tribes have been taken care of, including Judah, Manasseh, and Ephraim. And the smaller, but far from insignificant tribe of Benjamin has also received its allotment. But there are seven tribes remaining, many of which we know little or nothing about. The names of Simeon, Asher, Zebulun, Napthali, Dan, and Issachar may be familiar to us, but most of us would be hard-pressed to provide any pertinent information regarding these tribes if pressed to do so. And yet, they represent the rest of the nation of Israel. They are the descendants of the sons of Jacob and, as such, they are the rightful heirs of the promises made by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The land is as much theirs as it is Judah’s or the sons of Joseph. In Genesis 49:1-27, we have recorded the words of Jacob as he lie on his deathbed and pronounces his blessings upon each of his 12 sons. And when he was done, the text provides us with the following summary statement:

All these are the twelve tribes of Israel. This is what their father said to them as he blessed them, blessing each with the blessing suitable to him. – Genesis 49:28 ESV

Each of Jacob’s sons received a blessing that was appropriate for them, and when it came time to disperse to each of them their allotment of land in Canaan, they each received what God deemed right. It is important to remember the process that was used to discern the allotment of land. Joshua had sent out three representatives from each of the seven tribes, charging them with the task of conducting a survey of the remaining territory. They were to divide the land into seven sections and then the decision as to which tribe received what land would be determined by God, using lots.

“And you shall describe the land in seven divisions and bring the description here to me. And I will cast lots for you here before the Lord our God.” – Joshua 18:6 ESV

And after having followed Joshua’s instructions, the men returned with a map containing a detailed survey of the seven tracts of land, “and Joshua cast lots for them in Shiloh before the Lord. And there Joshua apportioned the land to the people of Israel, to each his portion” (Joshua 18:10 ESV). There was no arguing or fighting over who got what land. It was a decision determined by God. And Proverbs 16:33 clearly reflects the belief of the Jews that the casting of lots was anything but a game of chance.

The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD. – Proverbs 16:33 ESV

If you compare the blessings spoken by Jacob in Genesis 49 with the allotment of the land recorded in Joshua 19, you will see some slight differences. For instance, concerning his son, Zebulun, Jacob had said:

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

And yet, according to the allotment, the tribe of Zebulun ended up landlocked. The land located along the Mediterranean coast, including the city of Sidon, was actually given to the tribe of Asher. But in his Antiquities, the 1st-Century Jewish historian, Josephus wrote:

“The tribe of Zebulon’s lot included the land which lay as far as the Lake of Genesareth [Sea of Galilee], and that which belonged to Carmel and the sea [Mediterranean]”

There was evidently a certain amount of fluidity among the borders of the various tribes. Over time, the actual boundaries of their respective land allotments fluctuated. So, it is not so much that Jacob’s blessing was in error, as it reveals that God was in control of the timing and specifics of each tribe’s assignment of land. It seems that Jacob’s blessings had far more to do with the character of each of his sons and what he believed would be God’s future treatment of them. While he made vague references to the land, he was actually making a prophetic pronouncement regarding the future status of each son’s descendants. God would reward or punish each son according to his actions. And each son’s descendants would be impacted by how they had lived their lives. God’s determination of their land allotment would coincide with Jacob’s blessings, fully bringing about each and every word that Jacob had spoken.

This chapter, while a somewhat boring read, is a classic example of Scripture revealing the sovereign hand of God in the affairs of men. Jacob had 12 sons, and he had spoken 12 separate blessings over each one. Those 12 sons had descendants, who eventually made it to the land promised to Abraham by God. And those 12 tribes would be awarded their portion of the land according to the sovereign will of God. Not one tribe was left out. Each and every tribe received their fair share of the land, according to the divine will and wisdom of God. While lots were used to make the determination, this had not been a case of chance or blind luck. It was the result of the providential and predetermined will of God Almighty. And as 21st-Century Christians, we should be encouraged by the knowledge that our God was in control of every detail of the process that made the land of promise a reality for the people of Israel. Every tribe, from Judah to Issachar, received their allotment. They each were given their appropriate portion within the land that God had promised to Jacob. And the God who orchestrated every detail of this historic event is the same God who moves behind the scenes in our lives. He is in control, whether we feel like it or not. He is sovereign, whether we recognize it or not. Our God is not distant or detached, but intimately involved in the daily affairs of our lives.  

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

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

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

Shipwrecked, Snake-bit, and Sovereignly Spared.

39 Now when it was day, they did not recognize the land, but they noticed a bay with a beach, on which they planned if possible to run the ship ashore. 40 So they cast off the anchors and left them in the sea, at the same time loosening the ropes that tied the rudders. Then hoisting the foresail to the wind they made for the beach. 41 But striking a reef, they ran the vessel aground. The bow stuck and remained immovable, and the stern was being broken up by the surf. 42 The soldiers’ plan was to kill the prisoners, lest any should swim away and escape. 43 But the centurion, wishing to save Paul, kept them from carrying out their plan. He ordered those who could swim to jump overboard first and make for the land, 44 and the rest on planks or on pieces of the ship. And so it was that all were brought safely to land.

1 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god.

7 Now in the neighborhood of that place were lands belonging to the chief man of the island, named Publius, who received us and entertained us hospitably for three days. 8 It happened that the father of Publius lay sick with fever and dysentery. And Paul visited him and prayed, and putting his hands on him, healed him. 9 And when this had taken place, the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured. 10 They also honored us greatly, and when we were about to sail, they put on board whatever we needed. Acts 27:39-28:10 ESV

 

Paul was headed to Rome. While it would appear that his journey was the result of a decision made by the Roman governor, Festus, and in keeping with Paul’s own request for a trial before the emperor, Luke repeatedly insinuates that Paul’s trip was due to the sovereign will of God. Yes, the Romans were funding the trip and had provided the soldiers to accompany Paul all the way to Rome. The sailors were piloting the ship on which Paul was a passenger, but as we have already seen, they were far from in control of the situation, and completely unable to deal with the weather conditions hammering their ship. Until Paul had intervened and assured them of God’s sovereign plan to spare all their lives, they had been ready to abandon all hope of survival. The sailors had even tried to escape by using the lifeboat, but were prevented from doing so by the Roman soldiers. Through the words of an angel, God had made it clear to Paul that everyone would be spared, even though the ship would be lost.

Luke wants us to recognize that this entire affair, from Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem to his repeated hearings in Caesarea and his departure for Rome, had all been part of God’s divine plan for Paul’s life. None of this had happened by chance. And while everyone from the Jewish high priest, the Roman governor, King Agrippa, the centurion in charge of Paul’s safety, and the ship’s captain, thought they were in control, Luke repeatedly reveals that it was the sovereign God of the universe who was in charge of any and all things – from the wind and the waves to the decisions of men. As the angel had foretold, the ship carrying Paul eventually ran aground and began to break up. Everyone on board was forced to abandon ship and swim for shore. And while they had no idea where they were, God did. Upon reaching shore, waterlogged but safe, they discovered themselves to be on the island of Malta. And as the angel had predicted, not a soul had been lost. Every sailor, soldier, prisoner and passenger had been spared by God. What had appeared to be a hopeless ending to a very difficult and doomed journey, had ended in no loss of life. And the shipwrecked survivors found themselves surrounded by the caring citizens of Malta, who Luke describes as having showed them “unusual kindness.” They had built fires on the beach in an effort to warm the weary men who had washed ashore. So, not only had they survived the shipwreck, but they were greeted and well taken care of by the people of Malta. They hadn’t washed ashore on some deserted island or along an uninhabited section of the Maltese shoreline. Again, the sovereign hand of God had been propelling them along and protecting them every step of the way.

But God was not done. As Paul was adding wood to one of the fires, a venomous snake escaping the flames, sunk its fangs into his hand. The natives of Malta, seeing Paul shake the snake from his hand, assumed the worst. They quickly made the determination that Paul was an ill-fated soul who, while having escaped drowning at sea, was destined to die for his sins.

“No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” – Acts 28:4 ESV

Yet, once again, Paul survived. He was far from ill-fated, cursed or doomed. He was under the watchful eye of God Almighty. His life was not destined to end as a result of drowning or poisoning. Storms would not take his life, neither would a snake. God was not done with Paul. Paul was under the impenetrable force-field of God’s protective plan. There was nothing anyone or anything could to to him that did not first have to come through God’s hands and with His permission. Paul had a confidence in God that matched that of the author of Hebrews.

5 For God has said, “I will never fail you. I will never abandon you.”

6 So we can say with confidence,“The Lord is my helper, so I will have no fear. What can mere people do to me?” – Hebrews 13:5-6 NLT

In fact, what can the storms of life do to me? Or vindictive Jews? Or all-powerful Romans? Or governors and kings? Or even a deadly venomous snake? For Paul, the answer was nothing. Nothing at all.

When the people of Malta failed to see Paul swell up and drop down dead, they had determined that he must have been some kind of god. How else could they explain such a miraculous scene? They had no concept of God Almighty. And while they believed in the idea of supernatural beings, knew nothing of Yahweh and were completely ignorant of Jesus, the Messiah. But it would not be long before they saw the power of God on display, as Paul was given the opportunity to perform a miracle in their midst, healing the father of a man named Publius. And Luke tells us that when news of this incredible event for out, “the rest of the people on the island who had diseases also came and were cured” (Acts 28:9 ESV). Paul’s presence on Malta was eventful. From surviving a deadly snake bite to healing the sick, Paul was.a walking advertisement for the power of God. And while Luke doesn't report it, there'ss little doubt that Paul was sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ with everyone who would listen. He didn't waste a single second of his time on Malta. Yes, he performed miracles. He healed the sick. He cured those who came to him with diseases. But based on what we know about Paul, he shared the good news of salvation made possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus. And according to verse 11, God would provide Paul with a three-month window of opportunity to do so. He was still headed to Rome. That would be his final destination. But Malta would prove to be a divinely determined detour that had been a part of God’s divine plan all along. Stormy seas, helpless sailors, a shipwreck, and a poisonous serpent were no match for the sovereign will of God.

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

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

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

Are You Persuaded to Worship God?

12 But when Gallio was proconsul of Achaia, the Jews made a united attack on Paul and brought him before the tribunal, 13 saying, “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law.” 14 But when Paul was about to open his mouth, Gallio said to the Jews, “If it were a matter of wrongdoing or vicious crime, O Jews, I would have reason to accept your complaint. 15 But since it is a matter of questions about words and names and your own law, see to it yourselves. I refuse to be a judge of these things.” 16 And he drove them from the tribunal. 17 And they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue, and beat him in front of the tribunal. But Gallio paid no attention to any of this.

18 After this, Paul stayed many days longer and then took leave of the brothers and set sail for Syria, and with him Priscilla and Aquila.– Acts 18:12-18 ESV

If you recall, during the time Paul was ministering in the city of Corinth, God had given him a vision, telling him to keep doing what he was doing. He reminded Paul not to be afraid, but to trust in His providential plan and protective power. We know from Paul’s own words, written to the believers in Corinth some time later, that he had struggled with feelings of fear when he first arrived in the city. He confessed, “I came to you in weakness – timid and trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3 NLT). And while, at this point, nothing negative had happened up to him in Corinth, it was just a matter of time. And God had given Paul His unwavering assurance that all would be well.

“Do not be afraid, but go on speaking and do not be silent, for I am with you, and no one will attack you to harm you, for I have many in this city who are my people.” – Acts 18:9-10 ESV

And then, almost like clockwork, the inevitable happened. A year and a half later, well into Paul’s ministry there, “some Jews rose up together against Paul and brought him before the governor for judgment” (Acts 18:12 NLT). Luke is very specific in terms of his timing, using the proconsulship of Gallio to provide a firm date for this scenario. Gallio was the Roman proconsul or governor of the province of Achaia. Interestingly enough, Gallio a Roman citizen of Spanish descent, whose brother happened to be the Stoic philosopher, Seneca. In some sense, the Roman proconsul served as kind of a supreme court and his decisions on legal matters were binding, containing the full backing of the bēma or judgment seat. This was a raised platform from which the proconsul tried cases brought before him. Their accusation against Paul is simple, but direct. “This man is persuading people to worship God contrary to the law” (Acts 18:13 ESV). Basically, they are claiming that Paul is proselytizing Roman citizens, a crime according to Roman law. The Jews or any other religious were free to promote their religion, but not among those who were of Roman citizenship. These men were trying to get Paul in trouble with the legal authorities. It is the same tactic used by the Jews in Jesus’ day, who tried to set Him up as a revolutionary and radical, who was stirring up trouble. When the had appeared before Pilate to state their accusations against Jesus, they had said, “This man has been leading our people astray by telling them not to pay their taxes to the Roman government and by claiming he is the Messiah, a king” (Luke 23:2 NLT). They tried to portray Jesus as an insurrectionist, stating, “he is causing riots by his teaching wherever he goes—all over Judea, from Galilee to Jerusalem!” (Luke 23:5 NLT).

The Jews in Corinth are attempting to use the same ploy in their confrontation with Peter, attempting to set Paul up as some kind of radical revolutionary who posed a threat to the government of Rome. One of the last things the Roman government wanted was anyone disturbing the peace or rocking the proverbial boat. They allowed other religions to practice their faith openly and without government interference. But if they stirred up trouble or attempted to sway the allegiance of Roman citizens away from their dedication to the Emperor, they would face stiff consequences. 

But Gallio, sitting on his dais, interrupted the proceedings, even before Paul had an opportunity to defend himself. The proconsul simply stated, “Listen, you Jews, if this were a case involving some wrongdoing or a serious crime, I would have a reason to accept your case. But since it is merely a question of words and names and your Jewish law, take care of it yourselves. I refuse to judge such matters” (Acts 18:14-15 NLT). He turned them down flat, deeming their case as non-admissible in his court. He saw through their little ploy and labeled their case as fraudulent and frivolous. It had no business being brought before him for consideration. To him, this was nothing more than a theological dispute among Jews. He could have cared less and, in so many words, told them so. What is easy to miss here, is the weight of Gallio’s apparent non-decision. He had chosen to reject the case, but in doing so he was giving legitimacy to the Christian religion within all the Roman provinces. His action carried weight and set a precedent that would influence the decisions of other, less-powerful proconsuls. From this point forward, the Romans would merely view Christianity as just another sect of the Jews. They would refuse to see it as dangerous or a threat to the Roman way of life or the stability of the government. In their minds, it was a non-factor. This determination would provide a fertile soil in which Christianity was allowed to continue it spread. Because the Roman empire was so vast and encompassed a great many foreign nations, the gospel was given a freedom to go wherever Emperor’s power reigned – all the way to Rome itself.

Paul, while not necessarily vindicated, was at least liberated. But the Jews would find that their attempt to get Paul in trouble would backfire on them. Luke records that “they all seized Sosthenes, the ruler of the synagogue” (Acts 18:17 ESV). The phrase, “they all” most likely refers to the Gentile audience who had gathered to hear what Gallio was going to do. When they heard him reject the case, their anti-Semitic sentiments welled over, causing them to lash out at the Jews by grabbing one of the men who had most likely dragged Paul before the proconsul. Gallio did nothing about this obvious act of vigilantiasm, most likely thinking it would discourage the Jews from bringing their internal debates before him again. 

For Paul, it was business as usual. He continued to preach and spread the gospel. Paul would develop a strong affection for the church in Corinth, later penning two separate letters that he would use to encourage and, in some ways, admonish them in their faith.

4 I always thank my God for you and for the gracious gifts he has given you, now that you belong to Christ Jesus. 5 Through him, God has enriched your church in every way—with all of your eloquent words and all of your knowledge. 6 This confirms that what I told you about Christ is true. 7 Now you have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. 9 God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. – 1 Corinthians 1:4-9 NLT

Paul’s work among the Corinthians had not been without its opposition, but there had also been an eager reception on the part of many. God had made it clear to Paul that there were many in the city who were His (Acts 18:10). He had already chosen them for salvation. All Paul had to do was share the gospel, boldly and faithfully. The results were totally up to God. And God not only saved these people, He filled them with His Spirit and equipped them with all the spiritual gifts they would need to grow as individuals and as a congregation. As Paul later wrote them, they were enriched because of Christ. They were gifted because of Christ. They were going to stay strong to the end, because of Christ. In essence, they were in partnership with Christ – doing His will, growing His church, spreading His gospel and furthering the scope and reach of His Kingdom on this earth. 

This little scene involving Paul, the Jews and Gallio, the Roman proconsul, can be easy to blow right by when reading through the Book of Acts. It can be even easier to see it as some kind of divine payback or justice for the Jews because of their efforts to oppose Paul and the message of the gospel. But for us as believers, this event should act as a reminder of the sovereignty of God. The actions of the Jews are almost predictable. They were only doing what they thought to be right. They saw Christianity as a growing threat to Judaism, and they saw Paul as its primary proponent. They were blind to the truth, but didn’t realize it. The Gentiles who beat Sosthenes were only doing what the believed to be right and true, protecting the integrity of their Greek culture and the Roman rule under which they lived and because of which, they enjoyed peace and security. And Gallio was simply doing his job, refusing to waste his time or governmental resources listening to a case that had no merit or business being brought before him.

But all of these people were operating under the divine umbrella of God’s will. He was silently, invisibly accomplishing His preordained prerogatives through the lives of men, whether they realized it or wanted it. Sometimes we mistakenly think that we can somehow thwart or inadvertently derail the plans of God. When we read these words of Jesus in his model prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10 ESV), we somehow get the wrong impression that we are the ones who bring about God’s will. We have to pray for it or request it. We have to help make it happen. But God’s will is going to be done whether I help or not, pray or not, and even desire it or not. The Jews could drag Paul before Gallio, but not without God’s permission. The proconsul could refuse to take the case, but not apart from God’s sovereign will. The Gentiles could beat the local leader of the Jewish synagogue, but their actions, while unjust and ungodly, would somehow be used by God to further the spread of His Son’s Kingdom. We have no way of knowing how the events of that day impacted the local Jewish community. Perhaps it made them more receptive to the gospel. It could have put a damper on their desire to stand up to Paul and oppose the message he was proclaiming. We don’t know. But God does. None of the things we see happening in the Book of Acts were arbitrary in nature. Every action had a God-ordained reaction associated with it. Seemingly chance encounters were really divine appointments. What appear to be the spontaneous reactions of unruly mobs would end up producing amazing God-inspired outcomes. The entire Book of Acts is a primer on the sovereignty of God, providing us with a behind-the-scenes glimpse into God’s irrefutable involvement in the world as He unfolds and fulfills His plan of redemption for a lost and dying world.

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

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

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

 

Conflict in the Camp.

1 Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. 2 And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. 3 Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. 4 But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.” 5 And what they said pleased the whole gathering, and they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch. 6 These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid their hands on them.

8 And Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people. 9 Then some of those who belonged to the synagogue of the Freedmen (as it was called), and of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of those from Cilicia and Asia, rose up and disputed with Stephen. – Acts 6:1-9 ESV

One of the things that’s easy to miss while studying the book of Acts is the sovereign hand of God working behind the scenes. Luke’s retelling of the events surrounding the early days of the church and its subsequent growth can come across as nothing more than an historical record. But Luke, while historically accurate and faithful to provide us with a reliable account of those days, does so much more. Under the inspiration of the Spirit of God himself, he pens a detailed chronicle of God’s divine orchestration of each and every phase of the church’s growth. Events that appear, at first glance, to be little more than chance occurrences or the unplanned results of fate are, on closer examination, the result of God’s sovereign hand.

The fact that the Holy Spirit came during the feast of Pentecost is not to be overlooked. The day of Pentecost was an annual spring feast at which the Jews presented the first-fruits of their wheat harvest to God. In essence, as a result of the Spirit indwelling the disciples and empowering them to speak in foreign languages, thousands came to faith in Christ that day. They became the first-fruits of what would become an ever-increasing harvest of believers. As we read through Luke’s account, we find a steady stream of examples illustrating God’s behind-the-scenes activity in the spread of the gospel and the growth of the church.

Peter and John didn’t just happen to run into the lame man at the Gate Beautiful leading into the Temple. It had been a divinely ordained encounter. The fact that Peter’s healing of the man took place at the hour of prayer, when the Temple grounds were filled with people, was not a case of good timing, but of God’s planning. And more than 5,000 people came to faith as a result. Even the arrest of Peter and John, clearly the decision of the high priest and the Jewish council, was actually preordained by God. Their arrest provided them with an opportunity to speak truth to these important religious leaders, but more importantly, it forced the rest of the disciples to pray, asking God to provide them with boldness. Their arrest proved that there would be strong opposition to their efforts and created in the disciples a growing dependence upon God. It was all part of the plan. And when you consider the fact that the early converts to Christianity were made up of people from all walks of life and economic backgrounds, it explains how the church was able to meet the physical needs of its growing congregation. The rich were selling their properties and giving the proceeds to the apostles so that no one had any need. This was not a case of human generosity, but divine planning. God was at work, bringing into His rapidly growing family a diverse group of individuals, then moving in their hearts so that the needs of all were met.

And we see that same thing illustrated in these opening verses to chapter six. Luke describes a situation that had arisen within the church, that was the result of its continued expansion. He mentions two groups of individuals: The Hellenists and the Hebrews. These were all Jews who had come to faith in Christ and who “worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity” (Acts 2:46 NLT). But Luke mentions that “there were rumblings of discontent” (Acts 6:1 NLT). A dispute had arisen within the church between these two groups of people. There was conflict in the camp. And it would be easy to assume that this was out of God’s will and not a part of His plan. But look closer. Take notice of what is really going on here. Sometimes we must look beyond what appears to be the obvious in order to see the subtle, invisible hand of God at work. First of all, this dispute was taking place between two different sets of Jews: First were the Hellenists, or Greek-speaking Jews. These were Jews who had left Palestine as a result of one of the many diasporas or forced dispersions. They had ended up living in foreign lands and had picked up the Greek language and customs. Some would have been in Jerusalem in order to celebrate Passover and the Feast of Pentecost. They could have been part of the original crowd that heard the disciples speaking in tongues and came to faith. Others could have accepted Christ as a result of the message Peter preached in Solomon’s portico. These were Jews who were not native to the land of Israel and who would have been looked down on by the native Hebrews. And that seems to be the source of the conflict. The Hellenistic Jews were complaining that their widows were being overlooked by the native Jews. Keep in mind, this was all taking place within the church. These were new converts to Christianity who were arguing over an issue of discrimination within their own ranks. How could this be of God? Why would He allow this to happen? What good could come from this kind of conflict within the body of Christ?

Luke records that “the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples” (Acts 6:2 ESV). The 11 disciples of Jesus, plus Matthias, Judas’s replacement, called together what was probably the original group of 120 disciples who had been in the upper room at Pentecost. They recognize that the growing church is creating an increasing demand on their time, distracting them from doing what Jesus had commanded them to do: To teach and lead. They express their concern: ““It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables” (Acts 6:2 ESV), and then ask that recommendations be made for men who might step in and help with this dispute and the future distribution of funds and resources within the church. The men whose names are submitted must meet a set of standards. They must be “men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (Acts 6:3 ESV). Now, had this conflict not taken place, this selection process might never have occurred. It was the growth of the church and the inclusion of Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews that had caused the problem. And the problem had exposed an even more important need: The expansion of the leadership team to meet the growing demands of the ever-increasing congregation.

And Luke records that, “they chose Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, and Philip, and Prochorus, and Nicanor, and Timon, and Parmenas, and Nicolaus, a proselyte of Antioch” (Acts 6:5 ESV). What is important to notice here is that these seven men all have Greek names. Since the original complaint had come from the Greek-speaking Jews, it made sense that men who were more than likely Hellenists themselves, would be the best choices for handling the issue. And, whether we see it or not, this is where God’s sovereign hand is at work. Note that one of the men mentioned is Stephen. We will hear more about him in the days ahead. He will play a significant role in the continued spread of the church. But what is really happening here is the divine plan of God preparing the church to spread beyond the confines of Jerusalem and outside the context of Judaism. If you recall, Jesus had told the disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere--in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NLT). So far, they had not left the city of Jerusalem. They had not ventured beyond the city walls. Jesus had clearly commanded them to “go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19 NLT). But they were still in Jerusalem.

That’s where God comes in. He was working behind the scenes, orchestrating events in such a way that the gospel would eventually spread beyond the city of Jerusalem and into the rest of Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. In fact, that is what the rest of the book of Acts is all about. And this little dispute between the Hellenists and native Jews would be the impetus. These godly men with Greek names were chosen to meet the needs of the Greek-speaking widows. They were selected to serve. But they would do much more. As we will see, Stephen will end up sharing the gospel and sacrificing his life for the cause of Christ. In the verses that follow, we will see Stephen doing far more than serving widows. He will be sharing the gospel, and the group to whom he ministered was made up “ Jews from Cyrene, Alexandria, Cilicia, and the province of Asia” (Acts 6:9 NLT). They were part of the synagogue of the Freedman. These would have been former Roman slaves who had been granted their freedom and who had become Jews. They would have been considered Hellenists, and who better to share the gospel with them than one of their own: Stephen.

A dispute had resulted in the appointment of a new set of leaders. And those leaders had been Greek-speaking Jews, of whom one was a man named Stephen, a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit, full of grace and power. And he would to be far more than an adequate servant or deacon. He would be an evangelist. And, because of the mighty hand of God, working behind the scenes, the gospel was about to break through the confines of Jerusalem and burst beyond the ethnic barrier of Judaism, all the way to the ends of the earth.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 200z

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

Sovereign Lord!

23 When they were released, they went to their friends and reported what the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 And when they heard it, they lifted their voices together to God and said, “Sovereign Lord, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them, 25 who through the mouth of our father David, your servant, said by the Holy Spirit,

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
26 The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers were gathered together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed’—

27 for truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place. 29 And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, 30 while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” 31 And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.  – Acts 4:14-31 ESV

After their stern warning from the Sanhedrin “not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus” (Acts 4:18 ESV), Peter and John returned to the rest of their friends and reported all that had happened. What happened next provides us with a significant insight into the spiritual transformation that had taken in the lives of the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Rather than responding in fear at the possible ramifications of the Sanhedrin’s warnings. the disciples seem to take the news quite calmly. And instead of breaking into a heated discussion about how they should respond to the threats of the council, they prayed. And what they prayed is significant and illuminating.

First, Luke is very specific in recording that they addressed God as “Sovereign Lord.” The Greek word is despotēs and it means “master, lord or sovereign ruler.” This was a title reserved for those who held positions of ultimate and unwavering power and authority. And the disciples recognized that the God to whom they were praying was the supreme Master, the sovereign, all-powerful Lord of the universe. They did not address God as Father, although in the model prayer Jesus had given them, He had taught them to do so. No, at this moment in time, facing the demands of the Sanhedrin to cease and desist, and under threats of possible retaliation if they did not, the disciples turned their attention to the sovereign nature of God Almighty. They address Him as the Creator of “the heaven and the earth and the sea and everything in them” (Acts 4:24 ESV). And then they quote from an Old Testament passage penned by King David.

“‘Why did the Gentiles rage,
    and the peoples plot in vain?
The kings of the earth set themselves,
    and the rulers were gathered together,
    against the Lord and against his Anointed’” – Acts 4:25-26 ESV

Notice that they attribute this passage to David, but clearly state that it had been given to the former king through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Psalm 2 had been written by David, but what he had written had been inspired by the Spirit of God. And the disciples recognized that it had been a prophetic reference to Jesus, the Messiah. The Holy Spirit had given the disciples new insight into the Scriptures, allowing them to see things they had never seen before. Immediately after His resurrection, Jesus had opened the eyes of a couple of disciples walking along the road to Emmaus and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:27 ESV). Now, the Holy Spirit was doing the same thing for the rest of the disciples. They are able to see that what David had written hundreds of years earlier had special application to them. The “rulers were gathered together against the Lord and his Anointed”. The Sanhedrin were raging and plotting, but because God is sovereign, the disciples realized they had nothing to fear. The Gentiles or Romans had played a part in Jesus’ death. The “kings of the earth” is a clear reference to King Herod, who had authorized the death of Jesus. And the reference to rulers covers Pontius Pilate, the high priest and all the religious authorities who had subjected Jesus to humiliating trials and physical beatings before His death. But all that they had done had been in vain. It had proved futile and had failed to stop the sovereign will of God. 

The disciples had seen the risen Lord. They had talked and ate with Him. They had received their commission from Him. They they heard Him promise to one day return for them. And finally, they had watched Him ascend into the sky in order to return to His rightful place at His Father’s side. So, they knew that all the Gentiles and the Jews had done had been for naught. Which meant that they had no reason to fear what the threats of the Sanhedrin.

The disciples were able to look back on all the events that had happened in Jerusalem surrounding the death of Jesus and recognize that it had all been the pre-planned work of God. They confess, “everything they did was determined beforehand according to your will” (Acts 4:28 NLT). It had been predestined and predetermined by God. All that the disciples had seen as an unmitigated disaster and as a heartbreaking end to their hopes of Jesus being the Messiah, had actually been the will of God. It had been part of His divine plan.

With all this in mind, it’s important to notice how their thoughts of God’s sovereignty influence what they ask of God. Notice that they don’t ask God to place a hedge of protection around them. They don’t request that He remove the threat that hovers over them. They don’t demand that He strike down the Sanhedrin. No, they pray for boldness. They realize He is in complete control of the circumstances, so they simply ask that He give them the strength to continue to do what He has called them to do.

29 “And now, O Lord, hear their threats, and give us, your servants, great boldness in preaching your word. 30 Stretch out your hand with healing power; may miraculous signs and wonders be done through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” – Acts 4:29-30 NLT

They fully recognized that their strength came from God. They realized that any power they had to heal or perform signs and wonders came from God. They were simply instruments in the Redeemer’s all-powerful hands. So, they asked Him for boldness or parrēsia, a Greek word that means “free and fearless confidence, cheerful courage, boldness, assurance” (Outline of Biblical Usage). They weren’t asking for relief from their problems, but for the resources they needed to continue doing His will. Jesus had set His face toward Jerusalem, willingly facing not only the threat of death, but its inevitable reality. Now, they were asking for the same bold determination to keep on keeping on, regardless of what the Gentiles, kings and rulers may say.

And Luke records, “when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness” (Acts 4:31 ESV). It is important that we note that what happened here was not another baptism of the Holy Spirit. They had received the Spirit in full at Pentecost. This “filling” is a reference to the Spirit’s control over them. This has less to do with the specific moment in time than with the ongoing control of the Spirit over them. Luke says, “they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.” They walked out of the room under the control of the Spirit, able to speak boldly and confidently, in direct answer to their prayer request. What they were able to do was the direct result of the Spirit of God. It was His control over them that allowed them to speak the words of God with boldness. Their efforts were not the result of human strength. They were sovereignly, spiritually equipped by God for the task He had given 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

 

Submit Like It.

13 Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, 14 or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good. 15 For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. 16 Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God. 17 Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor. – 1 Peter 2:9-12 ESV

Peter continues to provide specific details regarding the behavior that should characterize those who have been chosen by God and who have been made a part of His family. They are a chosen people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood and a people for God’s own possession and, as such, they should “show others the goodness of God” (1 Peter 2:9 NLT). And now, Peter applies his calls for changed behavior to the relationship between the believer and the state. In these verses, Peter reflects the same thoughts as expressed by Paul in his letter to the believers in Rome.

1 Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. 2 So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished. 3 For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. 4 The authorities are God’s servants, sent for your good. But if you are doing wrong, of course you should be afraid, for they have the power to punish you. They are God’s servants, sent for the very purpose of punishing those who do what is wrong. 5 So you must submit to them, not only to avoid punishment, but also to keep a clear conscience.

6 Pay your taxes, too, for these same reasons. For government workers need to be paid. They are serving God in what they do. 7 Give to everyone what you owe them: Pay your taxes and government fees to those who collect them, and give respect and honor to those who are in authority. – Romans 13:1-7 NLT

Both of these men are calling for a dramatically different outlook when it comes to the Christian and his ongoing relationship with the civil government. Peter says, “Be subject…to every human institution.” Paul says, “submit to governing authorities.” And they are both referring to the rulers and leaders who make up the local government. Peter says that it is to be done “for the Lord’s sake.” Paul says to not do so is to rebel against God, since He is the one who has instituted all those in authority. This has nothing to do with whether we think they deserve our submission. Neither Peter or Paul qualifies their statements with words like, “as long as they are Christians.” That doesn’t seem to matter. Peter simply says that these man (or women) serve under the sovereign will of God. Paul says they have been placed in their positions by God. And we must realize that this kind of talk was as difficult to accept then as it is now. We have a hard time seeing corrupt governments and despotic dictatorships serving at the whim and according to the will of God. But both men want us to know that government was God’s idea. He instituted it and has charged it with keeping the law and maintaining order among all men, not just Christians. And if you think about it, that is an extremely difficult proposition, because of the nature of the fall and the ever-present reality of sin.

Ultimately, human governments exist “to punish those who do wrong and to honor those who do right” (1 Peter 2:15 NLT). That is their God-given mandate. Paul makes it perfectly clear that governments exist to punish those who do wrong. If you are doing what is right, you have nothing to fear.

For the authorities do not strike fear in people who are doing right, but in those who are doing wrong. Would you like to live without fear of the authorities? Do what is right, and they will honor you. – Romans 13:3 NLT

Now, while we know that this is not always the case, it is the normal and natural role that civic government is to play in the lives of men. There will always be outliers and anomalies. There will be dictators and oppressive regimes that use their power and authority unethically and even illegally. There will be world leaders who abuse their people and their authority, punishing even those who do right. But in the normal scheme of things, government exists to provide order and protection, to enforce the laws, and to create an environment that fosters stability and encourages productive lifestyles among its people.

But neither Peter or Paul takes time to deal with the renegade rulers. They are more interested in dealing with the behavior of believers. What should our relationships with these authorities look like? Quite simply: Be subject, do good, and live as people who are free. Peter was a big fan of our new-found freedoms in Christ, but like Paul, he knew that those freedoms could be misunderstood and abused. Just was we can live as if we are free from the law and assume that we are released to live however we want, we can easily assume that, since we are citizens of God’s Kingdom, we are free from having to obey earthly kings and authorities. But that would be a wrong and dangerous assumption.  Which is why Peter summarizes his thoughts with the short, but far-from-simplistic admonition: “Respect everyone, and love the family of believers. Fear God, and respect the king” (1 Peter 2:17 NLT). Notice the juxtapositions in this statement. We are to love the family of God, while we show respect to everyone outside the family of God. We are to show fear, awe and reverence to God, while we show respect to the king. Our status as children of God does not remove our responsibilities to the earthly authorities that God has established. We are are continue to pay our taxes. We are to support and pray for our governmental leaders. Paul put it this way:

I urge you, first of all, to pray for all people. Ask God to help them; intercede on their behalf, and give thanks for them. Pray this way for kings and all who are in authority so that we can live peaceful and quiet lives marked by godliness and dignity. This is good and pleases God our Savior, who wants everyone to be saved and to understand the truth. – 1 Timothy 2:1-4 NLT

Peter wasn’t stupid. He wasn’t out of touch with reality. He knew that there were plenty of corrupt governments and officials. He knew that the believers to whom he wrote were going to find themselves persecuted for their faith by the very governments to whom he was calling these people to submit. Jesus Himself lived and ministered during the period of Roman rule in Israel, when the government hamstrung the people of God with exorbitant taxes and oppressive rules. And yet, it was Jesus who said, “Therefore render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's” (Matthew 28:22 NLT). Jesus did not foster civic unrest or try to drum up rebellion against the Roman rulers. In fact, He allowed them to crucify Him on a cross, their preferred method of capital punishment. Jesus didn’t raise an army in response. He didn’t even raise His voice. He submitted, because He knew that, ultimately, He was submitting to the will of His Father.

And that is the attitude that we are to have. “For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people” (1 Peter 2:15 ESV). When we live godly lives, even when surrounded by ungodly governments and oppressive circumstances, we are placing our faith in God, and that brings Him glory. We are trusting God and revealing to the lost world around us, that we truly believe nothing can come against us or harm us that God has not allowed. Which is why Paul told the believers in Rome:

38 And I am convinced that nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. 39 No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord. – Romans 8:38-39 NLT

So, if we believe what Paul has to say, we must begin to submit like it. Because it reveals that we trust in God’s unfading, never-failing love and rest in the knowledge that when we submit to governments, we are really submitting to the sovereign will of God for our lives. He is in control, so what do we have to fear?

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

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

The Message (MSG)

Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Sword of the Lord.

The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah the prophet concerning the Philistines, before Pharaoh struck down Gaza.

“Thus says the Lord:
Behold, waters are rising out of the north,
    and shall become an overflowing torrent;
they shall overflow the land and all that fills it,
    the city and those who dwell in it.
Men shall cry out,
    and every inhabitant of the land shall wail.
At the noise of the stamping of the hoofs of his stallions,
    at the rushing of his chariots, at the rumbling of their wheels,
the fathers look not back to their children,
    so feeble are their hands,
because of the day that is coming to destroy
    all the Philistines,
to cut off from Tyre and Sidon
    every helper that remains.
For the Lord is destroying the Philistines,
    the remnant of the coastland of Caphtor.
Baldness has come upon Gaza;
    Ashkelon has perished.
O remnant of their valley,
    how long will you gash yourselves?
Ah, sword of the Lord!
    How long till you are quiet?
Put yourself into your scabbard;
    rest and be still!
How can it be quiet
    when the Lord has given it a charge?
Against Ashkelon and against the seashore
    he has appointed it.” – Jeremiah 47:1-7 ESV

In this oracle from God, His attention turned to the nation of the Philistines. We are not given any indication as to when this prophecy was given to Jeremiah, but obviously, it was well before the events discussed actually took place. We know that Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians defeated Ashkelon in 604 B.C. In 605 B.C., the Babylonians defeated the Egyptians at the battle of Carchemish. So, this prediction of the fall of the Philistines at the hands of the Egyptians would have probably been given to Jeremiah sometime before that, most likely around 609 B.C. But regardless of its exact date, the content of the oracle is indisputable and its outcome certain.

“A flood is coming from the north
    to overflow the land.
It will destroy the land and everything in it—
    cities and people alike.” – Jeremiah 47:2 NLT

The “flood” from the north is a reference to the Babylonians. At some point, before they made their way to Egypt, King Nebuchadnezzar and his forces invaded Gaza and destroyed the Philistines. Their arrival happened so quickly that the Philistines were totally caught off guard and unprepared to defend themselves. God describes the fathers running for their lives, not even bothering to look back and abandoning their helpless children to fend for themselves against the Babylonian forces.

God makes it clear that He is going to wipe out the Philistines once and for all, and He is going to use King Nebuchadnezzar to do so. The Philistines were not natives to the land of Canaan. They had originally showed up in the land as refugees from Caphtor (Crete). But in the book of Amos, God makes it clear that their presence in the land of Canaan had been His doing.

“Are you not like the Cushites to me,
    O people of Israel?” declares the Lord.
“Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,
    and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?
Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom,
    and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground,
    except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,”
declares the Lord. – Amos 9:7-8 ESV

God had been behind the formation of the various nations and their migrations and subsequent settlements around the globe. And God spoke through Amos, indicating that He was going to bring complete destruction on these sinful nations, but would refrain from completely destroying the house of Jacob. But the Philistines, who had long been the enemies of God’s people, were going to experience His wrath. Unlike the Egyptians, who had never turned against the Israelites or treated them poorly, the Philistines had been a perpetual thorn in the side of the people of God for generations. But God makes it clear that their 15 minutes of fame were about to expire.

“The time has come for the Philistines to be destroyed,
    along with their allies from Tyre and Sidon.
Yes, the Lord is destroying the remnant of the Philistines,
    those colonists from the island of Crete.
Gaza will be humiliated, its head shaved bald;
    Ashkelon will lie silent.
You remnant from the Mediterranean coast,
    how long will you cut yourselves in mourning?” – Jeremiah 47:4-5 NLT

God even throws Tyre and Sidon into the mix. Perhaps they were allies of the Philistines, but we are not told why there were included in God’s judgment. More than likely, God is using geographic points of interest to indicate that His judgment will be complete and will encompass the entire nation. Tyre and Sidon were on the northern perimeter of the land of the Philistines, while Gaza and Ashkelon were at the southern-most tip. His wrath would be meted out upon the whole nation, from one end to the other. No one would escape.

Verse six contains a heartfelt plea that God might cease from the slaughter. This is likely a glimpse into how those who witness the coming devastation will respond. They will beg that God call an end to the horror of it all. The fact that this horror is the result of God’s judgment will be clearly evident and it will be to God that the cries will go out.

“Now, O sword of the Lord,
    when will you be at rest again?
Go back into your sheath;
    rest and be still.” – Jeremiah 48:6 NLT

But verse seven gives the response to this call for mercy.

“But how can it be still
    when the Lord has sent it on a mission?
For the city of Ashkelon
    and the people living along the sea
    must be destroyed.” – Jeremiah 48:7 NLT

God’s will must be done. His judgment must be fulfilled. His sword will not return to its scabbard until His will concerning the Philistines is completely fulfilled. These oracles concerning Egypt and the nation of the Philistines are intended to remind the people of God of His sovereignty. He is in control of all things. He is sovereign over all the nations. There are no kings who reign without His express permission. There are no dictators or despots who rule without His will making it possible. Like flood waters that overflow their banks and devastate the land, the nation of Babylon would overwhelm the nations of the world, bringing destruction and fulfilling the sovereign will of God Almighty. No one escapes His judgment. No one operates outside of His will. No kings rule without His permission. No governments exist that He has not willed into existence. It was Daniel who said of God:

“Praise the name of God forever and ever,
    for he has all wisdom and power.
He controls the course of world events;
    he removes kings and sets up other kings.
He gives wisdom to the wise
    and knowledge to the scholars.
He reveals deep and mysterious things
    and knows what lies hidden in darkness,
    though he is surrounded by light.” – Daniel 2:20-22 NLT

Despite all that had happened in Judah, and regardless of how bleak things appeared to the people of Judah, God was still in charge. And the words of psalmist provide us with a powerful reminder of God’s sovereign, unstoppable hand in the affairs of man.

“I warned the proud, ‘Stop your boasting!’
    I told the wicked, ‘Don’t raise your fists!
Don’t raise your fists in defiance at the heavens
    or speak with such arrogance.’”
For no one on earth—from east or west,
    or even from the wilderness—
    should raise a defiant fist.
It is God alone who judges;
    he decides who will rise and who will fall.
For the Lord holds a cup in his hand
    that is full of foaming wine mixed with spices.
He pours out the wine in judgment,
    and all the wicked must drink it,
    draining it to the dregs. – Psalm 75:4-8 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

 

His Will Be Done.

The word of the Lord that came to Jeremiah concerning the drought:

 

“Judah mourns,
    and her gates languish;
her people lament on the ground,
    and the cry of Jerusalem goes up.
Her nobles send their servants for water;
    they come to the cisterns;
they find no water;
    they return with their vessels empty;
they are ashamed and confounded
    and cover their heads.
Because of the ground that is dismayed,
    since there is no rain on the land,
the farmers are ashamed;
    they cover their heads.
Even the doe in the field forsakes her newborn fawn
    because there is no grass.
The wild donkeys stand on the bare heights;
    they pant for air like jackals;
their eyes fail
    because there is no vegetation.

“Though our iniquities testify against us,
    act, O Lord, for your name's sake;
for our backslidings are many;
    we have sinned against you.
O you hope of Israel,
    its savior in time of trouble,
why should you be like a stranger in the land,
    like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night?
Why should you be like a man confused,
    like a mighty warrior who cannot save?
Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us,
    and we are called by your name;
    do not leave us.”

Thus says the Lord concerning this people:
“They have loved to wander thus;
    they have not restrained their feet;
therefore the Lord does not accept them;
    now he will remember their iniquity
    and punish their sins.”

The Lord said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.” – Jeremiah 14:1-12 ESV

Jeremiah has just finished begging the people of Judah to give up their pride, glorify God, and listen to his words of warning. On top of this, the people knew exactly what God had said He would do if they refused to obey Him fully. He had made it perfectly clear when He made His covenant with them.

“And if, in spite of all this, you still disobey me, I will punish you seven times over for your sins. I will break your proud spirit by making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze. All your work will be for nothing, for your land will yield no crops, and your trees will bear no fruit.” – Leviticus 26:18-20 NLT

And now, God’s promise of famine was getting ready to come true. Since they refused to listen to the words of Jeremiah and humble themselves in willful submission to God, He would humiliate them by “making the skies as unyielding as iron and the earth as hard as bronze”. Famine is a non-discriminatory natural disaster. Everyone suffers, from the noble living in his posh palace to the farmer in his fields. And the lack of rain, which the people of Judah will tie directly to the hand of God, will cause each of them to cover their heads, a sign of deep grief. Even the farmers will feel shame, covering their heads in sorrow, over their inability to produce crops. They will be powerless to do anything about the dry and unyielding land. As long as God withholds the rain, the people of Judah will find themselves helpless and hopeless.

Verses 7-9 are either a prayer of Jeremiah for the people of Judah or the reflect a prophesy regarding the reaction of the people once the famine begins. Either way, these verses contain an admission of guilt and a cry for rescue.

“Our wickedness has caught up with us, Lord,
    but help us for the sake of your own reputation.” – Jeremiah 14:7 NLT

The hopelessness of the situation creates a willingness to turn to God, something that had been missing up until this point. I tend to believe that this prayer is a reflection of the hearts of the people, once they find themselves suffering under the devastating effects of the famine. They become desperate, calling out to God in the midst of their suffering, hoping that He will relent and send much-needed rain.

“O Hope of Israel, our Savior in times of trouble,
    why are you like a stranger to us?
Why are you like a traveler passing through the land,
    stopping only for the night?
Are you also confused?
    Is our champion helpless to save us?
You are right here among us, Lord.
    We are known as your people.
    Please don’t abandon us now!” – Jeremiah 14:8-9 NLT

Notice how they attempt to flatter God. But they also tend to make Him the guilty party. Now that they have confessed their own wickedness, they can’t seem to understand why God hasn’t done anything to rescue them. His silence and lack of action don’t make any sense to them. They said they were sorry, so why hasn’t He removed the famine and returned the rain? They remind God that they are His people and seem to infer that He is somehow obligated to protect them. But God gives them sobering news.

“You love to wander far from me
    and do not restrain yourselves.
Therefore, I will no longer accept you as my people.
    Now I will remember all your wickedness
    and will punish you for your sins.” – Jeremiah 14:10 NLT

He knew their hearts. Their confession of guilt was nothing more than a ploy to escape further punishment. They had no intention of changing their ways, and God knew it. And so He dropped the bombshell on them that they would no longer be His people. This does not mean that God was going to abandon them. It simply meant that, from all outward indications, it would appear to all as if they had lost their privileged status as His chosen ones. Without the blessings of God, the people of God become indistinguishable from everyone else. It was His guiding and providing hand that had set them apart from all the other nations. It was His constant provision for their physical needs and His unceasing goodness as evidenced by His gracious supply of rain and crops that were to have helped distinguish them as His people. He had made this clear when He established His covenant with them, long before they arrived in the land of promise.

“If you follow my decrees and are careful to obey my commands, I will send you the seasonal rains. The land will then yield its crops, and the trees of the field will produce their fruit. Your threshing season will overlap with the grape harvest, and your grape harvest will overlap with the season of planting grain. You will eat your fill and live securely in your own land.” – Leviticus 26:3-5 NLT

But they had failed to follow His decrees and to obey His commands. Now, the rain was ceasing and the crops were failing. Fruitfulness had given way to famine. Fullness and security were replaced with hunger and fear. And God commands Jeremiah to stop interceding on their behalf.

“Do not pray for these people anymore. When they fast, I will pay no attention. When they present their burnt offerings and grain offerings to me, I will not accept them. Instead, I will devour them with war, famine, and disease.” – Jeremiah 14:11-12 NLT

God was not going to relent, because He knew these people were not going to repent. Jeremiah could continue to beg God to show mercy, but God would refuse, because their fasts, mourning and tears were too little, too late. And their hearts were not in it. The prophet Isaiah records God’s stinging indictment against the people of Judah.

“These people say they are mine. They honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” – Isaiah 29:13 NLT

And God goes on to reveal what they really thought about Him:

“What sorrow awaits those who try to hide their plans from the Lord,
    who do their evil deeds in the dark!
‘The Lord can’t see us,’ they say.
    “He doesn’t know what’s going on!”
How foolish can you be?
    He is the Potter, and he is certainly greater than you, the clay!
Should the created thing say of the one who made it,
    ‘He didn’t make me’?
Does a jar ever say,
    ‘The potter who made me is stupid’?” – Isaiah 29:15-16 NLT

They thought they could fool God. They treated Him like He was ignorant and easily deceived. They truly believed them could fake repentance, get Him to relent and then go on with their wicked ways. But God knew better. And He was going to bring more famine, increased suffering and, eventually, the armies of the Babylonians to destroy their land and take them captive. God will not be mocked.

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. – Galatians 6:7 ESV

This was a truth the people of Judah were going to learn the hard way. They were going to reap the results of their centuries-worth of rebellion against God. He was the potter and they were the clay. He had every right to do with them He wished. God will confirm this very idea for Jeremiah a little bit later on, when He sends the prophet to the house of a potter for a real-life demonstration of His sovereign will over the people of Israel.

“Go down to the potter’s shop, and I will speak to you there.” So I did as he told me and found the potter working at his wheel. But the jar he was making did not turn out as he had hoped, so he crushed it into a lump of clay again and started over.

Then the Lord gave me this message: “O Israel, can I not do to you as this potter has done to his clay? As the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand.” – Jeremiah 18:2-6 NLT

They were His people. He had chosen them and made them what they were. And He had every right to do with them as He saw fit. No, it would make no sense to them. It might not make sense to us. But He is God and we are not. He is sovereign and in complete control over His entire creation, including mankind. Just like a potter, God has a plan. He has something He is accomplishing in this world. And His will is going to be accomplished whether we like it or not, and whether we decide to go along with it or not. His will WILL be done.


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

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

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

“You Will Be Safe!”

Declare in Judah, and proclaim in Jerusalem, and say,

“Blow the trumpet through the land;
    cry aloud and say,
‘Assemble, and let us go
    into the fortified cities!’
Raise a standard toward Zion,
    flee for safety, stay not,
for I bring disaster from the north,
    and great destruction.
A lion has gone up from his thicket,
    a destroyer of nations has set out;
    he has gone out from his place
to make your land a waste;
    your cities will be ruins
    without inhabitant.
For this put on sackcloth,
    lament and wail,
for the fierce anger of the Lord
    has not turned back from us.”

“In that day, declares the Lord, courage shall fail both king and officials. The priests shall be appalled and the prophets astounded.” Then I said, “Ah, Lord God, surely you have utterly deceived this people and Jerusalem, saying, ‘It shall be well with you,’ whereas the sword has reached their very life.”

At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem, “A hot wind from the bare heights in the desert toward the daughter of my people, not to winnow or cleanse, a wind too full for this comes for me. Now it is I who speak in judgment upon them.” – Jeremiah 4:5-12 ESV

Back in chapter one, God gave Jeremiah a vision of a boiling cauldron that was spilling over. And He told Jeremiah:

“Out of the north disaster shall be let loose upon all the inhabitants of the land. For behold, I am calling all the tribes of the kingdoms of the north, declares the Lord, and they shall come, and every one shall set his throne at the entrance of the gates of Jerusalem, against all its walls all around and against all the cities of Judah.” – Jeremiah 1:14-15 ESV

Now God is going to give Jeremiah a much more detailed description of what is going to happen, and Jeremiah is to share this less-than-comforting news with the people of Judah. God tells Jeremiah to metaphorically “blow the trumpet.” He was to issue an alarm to the people, warning them to send signals to the entire nation to seek shelter in the fortified cities. Disaster was coming. A destroyer of nations was coming out of the north “to make your land a waste; your cities will be ruins without inhabitant” (Jeremiah 4:7 ESV). And all the people could do was wait for the inevitable and unavoidable outcome. All they could do was mourn their fate and regret the folly of their ways.

So put on sackcloth!
Mourn and wail, saying,
‘The fierce anger of the Lord
has not turned away from us!’” – Jeremiah 4:8 NET

But before we go on, let’s take a minute to consider something that is often overlooked. First of all, how do you think Jeremiah felt about having to deliver this message? Talk about being the bearer of bad news. What a difficult task it must have been for Jeremiah to obey God and speak these words to people he knew and loved. And how do you think Jeremiah was received? What kind of reception did the prophet encounter when he gave his message of doom and gloom to the people of Judah? He was ,undoubtedly, a very unpopular person. It is unlikely that he was invited to a lot of dinner parties. People probably avoided him on the street. No one wanted to be seen with Jeremiah. And no one wanted to be around when Jeremiah went on one of his rants.

We sometimes forget that the prophets of God were mere men. And yet, they had been called by God to deliver very difficult news to the people of God. They were human and had feelings just like anybody else. They didn’t enjoy being despised and rejected. But they put a higher priority on obedience to God’s will than they did on being liked by the people. God’s words were difficult to deliver, and even more difficult for the people to receive. But they knew God was speaking truth the people needed to hear. So they spoke – faithfully and fearlessly.

But back to God’s message. He also told Jeremiah to tell the people:

“When this happens,” says the Lord,
“the king and his officials will lose their courage.
The priests will be struck with horror,
and the prophets will be speechless in astonishment.” – Jeremiah 4:9 NET

The leadership of Judah would find themselves in a state of shock. Responsible for the well-being of the nation, they will be unprepared to deal with the enormity of the problem when it comes. The king and his court won’t know what to do. The priests won’t know where to turn. After all, they had a plethora of gods they worshiped, so they had do decide which one was going to help them? The false prophets, who had been predicting ongoing peace, would be tongue-tied, unable to explain how they had gotten it so wrong. And Jeremiah alludes to the deceptive message of these false prophets when he responds to God:

“Ah, Lord God, you have surely allowed the people of Judah and Jerusalem to be deceived by those who say, ‘You will be safe!’ But in fact a sword is already at our throats.” – Jeremiah 4:10 NET

While God had not raised up these false prophets, He had allowed them to present their deceptive messages promising safety and security. He had let the people be lulled into a false sense of comfort, all the while knowing that their unrepentant state was going to lead to their destruction. But the time had come for God to speak and to bring an end to Judah’s overconfident, unrepentant attitude.

“At that time the people of Judah and Jerusalem will be told,
‘A scorching wind will sweep down
from the hilltops in the desert on my dear people.
It will not be a gentle breeze
for winnowing the grain and blowing away the chaff.
No, a wind too strong for that will come at my bidding.
Yes, even now I, myself, am calling down judgment on them.’” – Jeremiah 4:11-12 NET

Judgement was coming. The party was over. The fake gods, false prophets, faithless priests, godless officials, and adulterous people were going to find themselves facing the wrath of the God they had taken for granted and treated with disdain. He would no longer tolerate their blatant disregard for His will and His ways. And He makes it clear that He will be the one who calls down judgment on them. This will not just be a case of fate. God will be the one who sends the Babylonians. This coming destruction will be the direct result of God’s sovereign will and providential plan.

There is a not-so-subtle message in these verses for those of us who consider themselves God’s chosen people in this day. We who claim to be Christ-followers and lovers of God must take heart God’s words of warning. While our sins are forgiven and our right standing with God has been fully taken care of by Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, we must not take our secure standing lightly or treat the glory of God flippantly. He is still a holy God who expects His people to live in accordance with His will. He not only expects us to be holy, He has given us His Spirit in order that we might BE holy. But the greatest danger we face is that of complacency and a false sense of comfort. Just because we know where we’re going when we die doesn’t mean we can do whatever we want while we’re alive. The fact that we have forgiveness available to us when we sin is not to be an incentive to continue to live in sin. And Paul makes the absurdity of this kind of thinking quite clear in his letter to the Romans.

Well then, should we keep on sinning so that God can show us more and more of his wonderful grace? Of course not! Since we have died to sin, how can we continue to live in it? Or have you forgotten that when we were joined with Christ Jesus in baptism, we joined him in his death? For we died and were buried with Christ by baptism. And just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glorious power of the Father, now we also may live new lives. – Romans 6:1-4 NLT

God has called us to live new lives, and He has provided us with the power to make it possible. But how easy it is for us to reject God’s call to live holy lives and to choose to live slightly improved versions of our old selves. That is NOT what He has called us to. That is NOT what His Son died to make possible. We have been redeemed from captivity to sin and set free to live Spirit-empowered lives of holiness and spiritual wholesomeness. We are to be faithful to God and committed to His will and His ways. We are to be His representatives on this earth, providing living proof that His Son’s death truly does provide new life – both here and in the hereafter. We must never become complacent or overly comfortable with our status as God’s children. God will discipline us. Why? Because He loves us too much to allow us to continue to live in sin. But we must always remember that His love for us, even in the form of His discipline of us, will be for our good. The author of Hebrews reminds us:

And have you forgotten the encouraging words God spoke to you as his children? He said, “My child, don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, and don’t give up when he corrects you. For the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes each one he accepts as his child.” As you endure this divine discipline, remember that God is treating you as his own children. – Hebrews 12:5-7 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

Called By God.

Now the word of the Lord came to me, saying,“Before I formed you in the womb I knew you,
and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”

Then I said, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth.” But the Lord said to me,

“Do not say, ‘I am only a youth’; for to all to whom I send you, you shall go, and whatever I command you, you shall speak.Do not be afraid of them, for I am with you to deliver you,
declares the Lord.”

Then the Lord put out his hand and touched my mouth. And the Lord said to me,

“Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day over nations and over kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant.” – Jeremiah 1:4-10 ESV

The verses above contain the conversation Jeremiah had with God concerning his calling to be a prophet. They reflect Yahweh’s sovereign selection of Jeremiah and Jeremiah’s reluctant response to the news. It is easy to read these words and miss the significance of the fact that Jeremiah was talking with God Almighty. We are not told how Jeremiah received this news from God. The text simply says, “Now the word of the Lord came to me” (Jeremiah 1:4 ESV). Was it in the form of a vision? Was it an audible voice? Did an angel appear? We don’t know. But suffice it to say, that Jeremiah was probably a bit surprised to hear from God, no matter how it happened. And, when he heard what God had to say, it obviously caught Jeremiah by surprise. Jeremiah was probably as young as 16, and no older than 20, when he heard this call from God. Which explains Jeremiah’s response: “I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:7 ESV). Hearing God speak to him was shocking enough, but when he heard what God had for him to do, Jeremiah was understandably dumbfounded. He was just a kid. What was God thinking? He didn’t have what it took to be a prophet. But God opened up his conversation with Jeremiah with a statement that should have brought the young man comfort.

“I knew you before I formed you in your mother’s womb. Before you were born I set you apart and appointed you as my prophet to the nations.” – Jeremiah 1:5 NLT

Notice what God says. He tells Jeremiah that He knew (yada’) Jeremiah before gestation. The Hebrew word provides a glimpse into God’s incredible omniscience and sovereignty. He knew, had an awareness of, Jeremiah long before he was even conceived. This was not some last-minute selection process where God looked down from heaven and spied Jeremiah and determined he would make a good candidate for a prophet. No, God had pre-ordained Jeremiah’s birth and his ultimate appointment as a prophet. Jeremiah had been created by God for his role as a prophet. In speaking of Jeremiah’s appointment, God used the Hebrew word, qadash. It most often gets translated as “sanctify” and it usually means to consecrate or set apart as sacred. God was telling Jeremiah that he had been set apart by God for His use. He had been created by God for a specific purpose. He was not a cosmic accident or a byproduct of random chance. He had been fore-ordained and set apart to be God’s divinely appointed spokesperson. And that word “appointed” is the Hebrew word, nathan, which most often gets translated as “give”. God was giving Jeremiah to the nations as a prophet. Jeremiah belonged to God and was being sent by God to minister to His people.

And yet, Jeremiah responds to this astounding news by telling God, “Ah, Lord God! Behold, I do not know how to speak, for I am only a youth” (Jeremiah 1:6 ESV). All God’s talk of Jeremiah being preordained and created specifically for this role fell on deaf ears. To Jeremiah, this all sounded like a case of mistaken identity. God must have gotten him confused with someone else. So he attempted to inform God that he was too young and too ill-equipped for this assignment. But what Jeremiah failed to comprehend was that the God who had set him apart even prior to his conception, knew things about Jeremiah he didn’t know himself. God hadn’t just made Jeremiah for the job, He had equipped him to accomplish it. Within Jeremiah’s DNA were all the qualities and attributes he would need to do what he had been created to do.

God rejected Jeremiah’s attempt to use his young age as an excuse. God was not going to be limited by what Jeremiah believed to be a chronological deficiency. And his inability to speak was not going to be a deal-breaker either. God had made Jeremiah specifically for this job. He was perfectly suited for the assignment. He just didn’t know it yet. So, God simply told Jeremiah, “you must go wherever I send you and say whatever I tell you” (Jeremiah 1:7 NLT). The only thing Jeremiah had to worry about was obeying God. He was going to be told where to do and exactly what to say. Jeremiah wasn’t going to have to come up with a criteria or agenda. He wasn’t going to have to write any speeches. God had all the details pre-planned, down to the very words Jeremiah was going to say. Not only that, God knew how it was all going to turn out. Which is why He told Jeremiah, “And don’t be afraid of the people, for I will be with you and will protect you” (Jeremiah 1:8 NLT). At this point, Jeremiah had no idea what it was that God was going to have him say. He wasn’t even sure where he was being sent. But God knew. And God was fully aware of how Jeremiah’s assignment was going to turn out. All Jeremiah needed to know was that God had created him for this role and that the outcome was completely up to God.

God touched Jeremiah’s lips and told him, “I have put my words in your mouth” (Jeremiah 1:9 ESV). This symbolic gesture was designed to assure Jeremiah that the words he spoke would be the words of God. Yahweh would be using Jeremiah’s lips to deliver His message to the nations. He would be speaking on behalf of God. And Jeremiah’s assignment was “to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and to overthrow, to build and to plant” (Jeremiah 1:10 ESV). In these words we have a synopsis of Jeremiah’s message. He was going to tell the people of Judah about God’s plan to bring judgment upon them in the form of the Babylonians. They would be destroyed because of their disobedience and unfaithfulness to God. But one day, they would return to the land and be restored to God. God would rebuke, but He would also redeem. He would punish, but He would also pardon. 

Jeremiah didn’t need to doubt his calling. He didn’t need to worry about his qualification. He didn’t even need to worry about whether he would be successful or not. God had it all under control. From beginning to end, this was all part of God’s sovereign plan. There were no loose ends. There were no aspects of the plan that had not been taken into account. No matter how Jeremiah felt about his qualifications or how he might later view the success of his efforts, God knew what He was doing and had already determined exactly what was going to happen. All Jeremiah had to do was go and speak.

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

Questioning God.

Are you not from everlasting,
    O Lord my God, my Holy One?
    We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
    and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he?
You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
    like crawling things that have no ruler.
He brings all of them up with a hook;
    he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
    so he rejoices and is glad.
Therefore he sacrifices to his net
    and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
    and his food is rich.
Is he then to keep on emptying his net
    and mercilessly killing nations forever?
Habakkuk 1:12-17 ESV

In this section, we have the beginning of the second exchange between Habakkuk and God. His oracle opened with him asking the question: “When? ” He wanted to know when God was going to hear his prayers and do something about all the wickedness and iniquity that surrounded him in Judah. But God answered Habakkuk’s question by addressing the issue of “How.” In other words, He simply told Habakkuk how He was going to deal with the people of Judah – by using the Babylonians. God didn’t give Habakkuk a time frame or a firm date. He just simply let the prophet know that He had it all in control. In the verses above, we have Habakkuk’s response. He asks the question: “Why?” He wants to know why God would choose to use a pagan nation like the Babylonians to punish His own people. He boldly voiced his concern to God:

You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
    and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
    and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
    the man more righteous than he? – Habakkuk 1:13 ESV

Habakkuk is a man who is filled with inner conflict. On the one hand, he realizes that Yahweh is the one true God. He refers to him as everlasting or eternal. He even views Him as holy, gracious and compassionate, faithful to the end – which is why he is able to state, “We shall not die” (Habakkuk 1:12 ESV). Habakkuk did not fear annihilation at the hands of the Babylonians, but abject humiliation. He knew God would not wipe out His own people, but Habakkuk was struggling with why God would choose to use a wicked nation like the Babylonians to do His bidding. Over and over again, Habakkuk asks the question, “Why?”

…why do you put up with such treacherous people? – Habakkuk 1:13 NET

Why do you say nothing when the wicked devour those more righteous than they are? – Habakkuk 1:13 NET

Habakkuk goes on to describe the situation as he sees it. As far as Habakkuk could tell, mankind was no better off than the fish in the sea – easy pickings to someone like the Babylonians. He describes the fate of the people of Judah using helpless and hopeless imagery.

Are we only fish to be caught and killed?
    Are we only sea creatures that have no leader?
Must we be strung up on their hooks
    and caught in their nets while they rejoice and celebrate?
Then they will worship their nets
    and burn incense in front of them.
“These nets are the gods who have made us rich!”
    they will claim. – Habakkuk 1:14-16 NLT

There are actually ancient Babylonian monuments that have been discovered which depict what Habakkuk has described. Etched on these monuments are images of captured people being led along in chains, single file, with their lower lips pierced through with hooks. The Babylonians were known for worshiping or giving credit to the tools they used in their conquests. Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian tells the story of the Babylonian king, Xerxes, who was attempting to cross the Hellespont with his massive army by using pontoon bridges his engineers had built. But a storm came and destroyed the bridges before they could use them. In his anger, Xerxes had the engineers beheaded, but he also had the waters of the Hellespont flogged 300 times. Then he had shackles dropped into the water as a mark of enslavement.

Habakkuk finds it hard to believe that God would use pagan people like this to do His bidding. They did not honor Yahweh. They worshiped false gods and even gave undue credit to inanimate objects. Why would God, the faithful, holy, compassionate God of Judah, stoop to using such wicked people? And, because Habakkuk was convinced that God was going to do exactly what He had said, he asks one final question:

Will you let them get away with this forever?
    Will they succeed forever in their heartless conquests? – Habakkuk 1:17 NLT

Habakkuk understood that God was punishing Judah. He just was having a difficult time understanding why God was going to use a nation like Babylon. They were wicked, unjust, known for their excessive violence and renowned for their disregard for human life. Habakkuk knew God was justified in His punishment of wicked Judah. The prophet had even asked God how long He was going to delay in dealing with all the violence that surrounded him. But God’s chosen methodology caught Habakkuk by surprise. He just could not fathom why God would accomplish His will in this manner.

There are times in every believer’s life when they are forced to ask of God, “Why?” Those circumstances inevitably arise that cause us to question God, demanding to know why He is doing what He is doing or why He has not done something to stop what is happening. We struggle with our circumstances. We see what is happening to us as unfair or undeserved. And we either conclude that God doesn’t love us and has chosen not to help us or we wrongly determine that God is powerless to help us. But the prophet Isaiah has some timely words of warning for us:

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

We are free to ask God, “Why?” But He is not obligated to provide us with an answer or defend His actions by explaining Himself to us. He is God. He alone knows what is best. He can choose to do whatever He wants to do and use whoever He wants to use to accomplish His perfect, divine will. Habakkuk was going to have to trust God. He didn’t have a clear picture of how the story ends. God had not yet revealed the entire scope of His plan. What appeared to Habakkuk as illogical and unfathomable, was part of God’s just, righteous and sovereign plan for the people of Judah. We always have to remember that God’s plan is bigger and more comprehensive than what we can see at any given moment. We also need to recall that His plan is universal in scope. It is not limited to our isolated, individual life. His plan was bigger than Habakkuk. It was grander in scope than just the lives of those living in Judah at that time. God was looking down the corridors of time, with His eyes fixed on His future plan to send His Son into the world. He would be born into the tribe of Judah. Bethlehem, in Judah, would be his birthplace. He would do all of His ministry within the confines of that region of the world and be crucified outside the walls of the city of Jerusalem. For all that to happen, God would need to spare the nation of Judah. This coming calamity was nothing more than a blip on God’s radar screen of history. God had greater plans for Judah. He had an inescapable destiny of destruction already planned for Babylon. But for now, they were going to be His chosen instrument to accomplish His divine will and bring about this portion of His perfect plan for mankind.

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

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

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

Divine Opposition.

Desolate! Desolation and ruin!
    Hearts melt and knees tremble;
anguish is in all loins;
    all faces grow pale!
Where is the lions’ den,
    the feeding place of the young lions,
where the lion and lioness went,
    where his cubs were, with none to disturb?
The lion tore enough for his cubs
    and strangled prey for his lionesses;
he filled his caves with prey
    and his dens with torn flesh.

Behold, I am against you, declares the Lord of hosts, and I will burn your chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your young lions. I will cut off your prey from the earth, and the voice of your messengers shall no longer be heard. – Nahum 2:10-13 ESV

You don’t want to be on God’s bad side. You don’t want Him for an enemy. And the one thing no human being should ever want to hear God say is, “I am against you.” Any time we see that statement, it is usually followed by some very unpleasant circumstances. The people of Judah themselves would eventually hear God say those same words:

“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?’
14 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 21:13-14 ESV

Babylon, one of the nations that God would use to defeat the Assyrians, would also hear those four words:

“Behold, I am against you, O proud one,
    declares the Lord God of hosts,
for your day has come,
    the time when I will punish you.
The proud one shall stumble and fall,
    with none to raise him up,
and I will kindle a fire in his cities,
    and it will devour all that is around him.” – Jeremiah 50:30-31 ESV

God would one day say of the great city of Tyre:

“Behold, I am against you, O Tyre, and will bring up many nations against you, as the sea brings up its waves. They shall destroy the walls of Tyre and break down her towers, and I will scrape her soil from her and make her a bare rock.” – Ezekiel 26:3-4 ESV

God makes a great friend, but He is a formidable enemy. And Nahum, speaking on behalf of God, makes it quite clear that the Assyrians had overstepped their bounds and exceeded the limits of God’s patience. The Assyrians had more than met their match. While they were known for leaving a wake of destruction in their path, God was going to completely annihilate them. Their fall would leave nothing but desolation behind. Their once great city would be reduced to rubble, their vast horde of plunder and treasure would be removed. Their citizens would be taken captive or scattered to the four winds. And even their infamous chariots would be burned to ashes.

People will be left wondering what ever happened to Nineveh. Comparing the Assyrian king to a lion and Nineveh to his den, Nahum sarcastically asks, “Where is the lions’ den, the feeding place of the young lions, where the lion and lioness went, where his cubs were, with none to disturb?” (Nahum 2:11 ESV). In time, the rubble of the city will look like just another part of the landscape. It will be difficult to tell that it was once the great capital of the mighty Assyrian empire. There had been a day when the king of Assyrian had “filled his caves with prey and his dens with torn flesh” (Nahum 2:12 ESV), but that was about to change. Because God was against him. He had made an enemy of the Lord of Hosts. That term, Lord of Hosts, is a title for God that refers to His military might. It “pictures God as the sovereign king who has at his disposal a multitude of attendants, messengers, and warriors to do his bidding” (NET Study Bible notes). God commands the hosts of heaven, a countless force made up of angelic beings.

There is a wonderful story chronicled for us in the book of 1 Kings. It involves the prophet Elisha. It seems that the King of Aram had been setting traps and ambushes for the forces of Israel, and Elisha was prophetically warning the King of Israel about these situations before they happened. Of course, when the King of Aram found out what Elisha had been doing, it enraged him, so he sent troops to capture Elisha. One morning, Elisha’s servant woke up to find they were surrounded by troops.

When the servant of the man of God got up early the next morning and went outside, there were troops, horses, and chariots everywhere. “Oh, sir, what will we do now?” the young man cried to Elisha. – 2 Kings 6:15 ESV

But rather than panic, Elisha simply told his servant, “Don’t be afraid!” Then he calmed his anxious servant with the news: “For there are more on our side than on theirs!” (1 Kings 6: 16 ESV). But he could tell that his servant’s sense of panic was not exactly assuaged by this announcement. Because all his servant could see was one thing: The armies of Aram. There was nobody else in sight. What was Elisha talking about? And then Elisha prayed: “O Lord, open his eyes and let him see!” (1 Kings 6:17 ESV). And we’re told that God opened the young man’s eyes, and when he looked up, he saw that the hillside around Elisha was filled with horses and chariots of fire. In other words, he got a glimpse of the host of heaven.

God has more than enough resources to enforce His will and to accomplish His sovereign plan. In the case of Elisha and his servant, God used the hosts of heaven to rescue them. In the case of the Assyrians, God would call upon the Medes and the Babylonians to attack and destroy the Assyrians. God used the waters of the Red Sea to destroy the armies of Pharaoh. He brought down fire and brimstone to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. There is no limit to God’s capabilities. That is why it is a dangerous thing to find yourself on the receiving end of His wrath. In the case of Egypt, God sent a single angel to take the lives of all the first born males in the nation. God can use His heavenly host or He can utilize human resources to accomplish His will. But the bottom line is, once the Assyrians found themselves on the wrong side of God’s wrath, their days were numbered. Daniel reminds us:

He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings; he gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding… – Daniel 2:21 ESV

The Assyrians were no match for God. And those who would set themselves against the people of God will always find themselves as the enemies of God. It is one thing for God to sovereignly choose to use a nation to accomplish His divine will and mete out His just judgment on His own people. But when a nation independently assumes the right to attack what rightly belongs to God, they will find themselves opposed by Him. There will always be nations like Assyria to wreak havoc and demand their way in the world. Wicked nations will rise up and force their will on others. Their will be dictators and tyrants. There will be always be despots and megalomaniacs who use force to build and maintain their empires. And from our human perspective, it will always look to use as it did to Elisha’s servant. We will see ourselves surrounded by the forces of evil. We will feel like the odds are against us, and we will cry out to God, “Oh, sir, what will we do now?” But God would have us remember that we have the Lord of Hosts on our side. He is in control. As bad as things might appear, our God is still on His throne. He is still the Lord of Hosts and has the resources of heaven at His disposal. Not only that, He is in full and ultimate control of all that goes on around us, whether it seems like it or not. Nothing happens outside of His sovereign will. No king, president, or dictator ascends to power without His permission. We may not understand why God does what He does, but we should never question His motives. All those who stand opposed to His will eventually find themselves hearing those very same words the Assyrians heard: “I am against you.” And the apostle Paul would have us remember: “If God is for us, who can ever be against us?” (Romans 8:31 NLT). Not only that, but, “nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow—not even the powers of hell can separate us from God’s love. No power in the sky above or in the earth below—indeed, nothing in all creation will ever be able to separate us from the love of God that is revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38-39 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

Our Great God.

An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
    the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
    and keeps wrath for his enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
    and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
    and the clouds are the dust of his feet.
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
    he dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
    the bloom of Lebanon withers.
The mountains quake before him;
    the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
    the world and all who dwell in it.

Who can stand before his indignation?
    Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
    and the rocks are broken into pieces by him. –
Nahum 1:1-6 ESV

Nahum was an unknown man from an unknown town. Other than what we read about him in the book that bears his name, we know very little about him. He was simply Naham of Elkosh, but the one thing that sets him apart from all his peers is that he was chosen by God to be a prophet. Nahum was most likely a contemporary of Jonah. We have some idea of when he penned this information, because he mentions the fall of Thebes in chapter three, verse 8. Historically, we know that took place in 663 B.C. So his writing had to have taken place after that. Most of this book predicts the fall of the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, which occurred in 612 B.C., when Nineveh fell to a combined force of Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians. So, that puts the date of his prophecy and writing somewhere between 663 and 612 B.C. Most scholars put the date closer to 660 and 650 B.C. So, it is likely that Nahum prophesied during the reign of King Manasseh of Judah.

Nahum was a Jew and, while the majority of his message concerned the Assyrians and their capital city of Nineveh, it was intended for the Jewish people. It is interesting to note that Jonah was given a message of judgment for the people of Nineveh, but God spared them when they repented. Jonah was required by God to take that message directly into the heart of enemy territory, within the walls of the city of Nineveh itself. And he did so under great duress, having tried to escape from the task by running from God. And even when he saw that the people of Nineveh repented and God spared them from judgment, he was angry with God, and even accused God of evil. But at virtually the very same time, Nahum was writing an oracle concerning the Assyrians and their great capital city. He also had a word of warning from God concerning them. But his was very descriptive and specific as to exactly what was going to happen to them.

This message, while dealing with the coming fall of Nineveh, was meant to bring comfort to the people of the southern kingdom of Judah. The Assyrians were a powerful force in the region, having already conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. The Assyrian troops remained in the area and had conquered many Judean cities and had even besieged Jerusalem, the capital of Judah in 701 B.C. While their efforts to take the city had failed, their presence had left its mark on the people of Judah. They were scared and demoralized. They felt it was only a matter of time before they were the next victims of the all-powerful Assyrians.

It is interesting to note that God had been warning the people of Judah that their destruction would come, and that He would use the Assyrians to accomplish it. He had warned of this very thing to King Ahaz of Judah through the prophet, Isaiah.

“The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!” – Isaiah 7:17 ESV

Unless the people of Judah repented of their rebellion against God, He would send judgment upon them. He would use godless nations like the Assyrians and Babylonians to harass and defeat them. But God also assured the people of Judah that He would bring justice to those same pagan nations.

“What sorrow awaits Assyria, the rod of my anger.
    I use it as a club to express my anger.
I am sending Assyria against a godless nation,
    against a people with whom I am angry.
Assyria will plunder them,
    trampling them like dirt beneath its feet.
But the king of Assyria will not understand that he is my tool;
    his mind does not work that way.
His plan is simply to destroy,
    to cut down nation after nation.
He will say,
    ‘Each of my princes will soon be a king.
We destroyed Calno just as we did Carchemish.
    Hamath fell before us as Arpad did.
    And we destroyed Samaria just as we did Damascus.
Yes, we have finished off many a kingdom
    whose gods were greater than those in Jerusalem and Samaria.
So we will defeat Jerusalem and her gods,
    just as we destroyed Samaria with hers.’” – Isaiah 10:5-11 NLT

Ultimately, the book of Nahum is a book about the sovereignty of God. He is in control of all things, including all nations and kings. He has the power to lift up and tear down. He can make a nation great, like He had done for Judah, and He can bring a nation to its knees. As Daniel wrote:

…he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. – Daniel 2:20-21 NLT

While God had sovereignly used Assyria to punish the sins of Israel, He would also hold them accountable for their own sins and for their pride and arrogance. The Assyrians would not acknowledge God as the source of their strength or power. They would never acknowledge that they were instruments in His hands. Instead, they would see themselves as all-powerful and a force to be reckoned in the world of their day. They were arrogant and self-assured, believing themselves to be invincible. But God had other plans for the nation of Assyrian. The prophet, Zephaniah would make those plans perfectly clear:

And the Lord will strike the lands of the north with his fist,
    destroying the land of Assyria.
He will make its great capital, Nineveh, a desolate wasteland,
    parched like a desert.
The proud city will become a pasture for flocks and herds,
    and all sorts of wild animals will settle there.
The desert owl and screech owl will roost on its ruined columns,
    their calls echoing through the gaping windows.
Rubble will block all the doorways,
    and the cedar paneling will be exposed to the weather.
This is the boisterous city,
    once so secure.
“I am the greatest!” it boasted.
    “No other city can compare with me!”
But now, look how it has become an utter ruin,
    a haven for wild animals.
Everyone passing by will laugh in derision
    and shake a defiant fist. – Zephaniah 2:13-15 NLT

The Assyrians were mighty warriors. And their military exploits were well-known and well-chronicled. They were brutal in battle and unmerciful to all those they conquered. Nahum graphically describes this powerful and fearful nation:

She is crammed with wealth
    and is never without victims.
Hear the crack of whips,
    the rumble of wheels!
Horses’ hooves pound,
    and chariots clatter wildly.
See the flashing swords and glittering spears
    as the charioteers charge past!
There are countless casualties,
    heaps of bodies—
so many bodies that
    people stumble over them. – Nahum 3:1-3 NLT

They had left a wake of destruction in their path. They had swept through that region of the world, reeking havoc and decimating city after city. But Nahum also assures the people of Judah that God is also a great power.

The Lord is a jealous God,
    filled with vengeance and rage.
He takes revenge on all who oppose him
    and continues to rage against his enemies! – Nahum 1:2 NLT

He too, is a force to be reckoned with. He may be slow to get angry, but that does not mean His anger will go unchecked forever. And He has the power to back up His anger with action. He will ultimately deal with the guilty and justly mete out exactly what they deserve.

The Lord is slow to get angry, but his power is great,
    and he never lets the guilty go unpunished.

He displays his power in the whirlwind and the storm.
    The billowing clouds are the dust beneath his feet. – Nahum 1:3 NLT

God could and did use nations to accomplish His divine will. He had used Assyria to conquer Israel. He would eventually use Babylon to conquer Judah. But God was not dependent upon these nations. He had all of creation at His disposal. He could wipe out entire armies with a word. He could use the forces of nature to defeat the forces of Assyrian or any other nation.

At his command the oceans dry up,
    and the rivers disappear.
The lush pastures of Bashan and Carmel fade,
    and the green forests of Lebanon wither. – Nahum 1:4 NLT

Nahum is about to utter an oracle against Nineveh and the nation of Assyria. And he reminds the people of Judah that their God is great. He is all-powerful. He stands in judgment over all nations, and is equipped to enact justice against any and all, at any time.

Who can stand before his fierce anger?
    Who can survive his burning fury?
His rage blazes forth like fire,
    and the mountains crumble to dust in his presence. – Nahum 1:6 NLT

The news of the day was filled with stories of the atrocities being committed by the Assyrians. Conversations at the water wells of Judah were all about what was going on in the surrounding regions. News of destruction and devastation was everywhere. The people had begun to fear the Assyrians. But Nahum wanted them to know that they need not fear their enemies. Their God was still in control. It was He they should fear. It was His power they should be talking about. It was His sovereignty they should be concerned with. 

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 Wonderful Ways of God.

In the days when the judges ruled there was a famine in the land, and a man of Bethlehem in Judah went to sojourn in the country of Moab, he and his wife and his two sons. The name of the man was Elimelech and the name of his wife Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion. They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah. They went into the country of Moab and remained there. But Elimelech, the husband of Naomi, died, and she was left with her two sons. These took Moabite wives; the name of the one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth. They lived there about ten years, and both Mahlon and Chilion died, so that the woman was left without her two sons and her husband. – Ruth 1:1-5 ESV

Like many of the Old Testament books, this one bears the name of one of the primary characters whose life makes up a great portion of the narrative. But while Ruth plays a significant role in the story, she was not intended to be the main focus of the story. The special honor goes to God. He is the silent, unseen protagonist of this book, moving behind the scenes and orchestrating events in such a way so that His divine will is accomplished and His plan for the redemption of mankind, developed in eternity past, would come to pass just as He preordained it. This story must be read with a searching eye, looking for the invisible hand of God. And it should be read with an understanding of the larger, overarching story contained in the Bible. Otherwise, it becomes nothing more than a story about a widowed Moabite girl and her somewhat serendipitous and fortuitous marriage to a well-to-do Hebrew man. But there is so much more going on here.

We are told that the story takes place, “In the days when the judges ruled…” This refers to the period of the judges before Israel had a king. In the Hebrew Bible the book of Judges and the book of Ruth were companion books. Many believe they were written by the same author: Samuel. But there is no solid evidence for the authorship of Ruth. All we know is that it chronicles a period of time when God was using judges to rule over His people. This was a period of extreme turmoil and instability. The book of Judges records the up-and-down nature of the Israelites and their relationship with God. Their faithfulness to Him ebbed and flowed. Their obedience was spotty at best and when they turned their back on Him, God would send judgment in the form of foreign nations. When the people cried out to Him in desperation, God would raise up a judge to lead and deliver them. This would result in a period of relative peace and spiritual solidarity. But in time, the people would rebel again and the cycle would repeat itself. It was during this rather unstable and spiritually volatile period that the story of Ruth took place.

The opening verses introduce us to Elimelech and provide us with an extremely important detail about his life that can be easily overlooked, but that would have been like a red flashing light to the books original Hebrew audience. We are told that Elimelech was “a man of Bethlehem in Judah” and he and his sons were “Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.” This is an extremely important point and is vital to understanding the true import of this story.

On his deathbed, Jacob blessed each of his twelve sons, but gave the following blessing to his son, Judah:

The scepter shall not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until tribute comes to him;
    and to him shall be the obedience of the peoples. – Genesis 49:10 ESV

His words carried a prophetic pronouncement of a king who would come from the tribe of Judah. While this blessing would be realized in the life of David, a descendant of Jacob, the prophet Micah, long after David was dead and gone, provided details regarding another king who would be born in Bethlehem just as David was, and rule over the nation of Israel.

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
    from ancient days.
Therefore he shall give them up until the time
    when she who is in labor has given birth;
then the rest of his brothers shall return
    to the people of Israel.
And he shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
    in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great
    to the ends of the earth.
And he shall be their peace. – Micah 5:2-5 ESV

The prophet, Jeremiah, would give further details regarding this future king:

Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. – Jeremiah 23:5 ESV

So when we read that Elimelech was a member of the tribe of Judah and a native of the city of Bethlehem, it should gives us pause. It should act as a warning sign that there is something going on in this story that is far greater than might normally be expected. Elimelech and his wife, Naomi, are forced to leave their homeland because of a famine. The mention of this natural disaster should remind us of supernatural and sovereign oversight of God over His creation. This is not the only time in Scripture that a famine has played a significant role in God’s providential plan. A famine was the cause of Abraham’s flight into Egypt (Genesis 12:10). His son, Isaac, would also find himself facing a famine, but would be commanded by God not to go to Egypt (Genesis 26:1-5). Years later, Isaac’s son, Jacob, would be commanded by God to take his entire family to Egypt to escape the famine in the land (Genesis 46:3-4).

Now we find Elimelech and his family facing yet another famine and being forced to flee for their lives – this time to the land of Moab. The Moabites were close relatives of the Jews, since Moab was the son of Lot, the nephew of Abraham (Genesis 19:37). Moab was located to the east of Judah, on the other side of the Dead Sea. It was evidently a very fertile land. In fact, we read in the book of Genesis, that when Abraham gave his nephew, Lot, the father of the Moabites, the first choice of all the land, he chose well.

And Lot lifted up his ” eyes and saw that the Jordan Valley was well watered everywhere like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt, in the direction of Zoar. (This was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah.) So Lot chose for himself all the Jordan Valley, and Lot journeyed east. Thus they separated from each other. – Genesis 13:10-11 ESV

So Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and their two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, leave Judah for Moab and settle there, intending to wait out the famine in Judah. But Elimelech dies, leaving his wife a widow, living in a foreign land. In time, her two adult sons take wives from among the Moabites – “one was Orpah and the name of the other Ruth” (Ruth 1:4 ESV). And then, ten years later, the two sons die, leaving Naomi and her two daughter-in-laws alone and without any source of provision of protection.

These opening lines are a divine setup for what is to come. This is not a case of fate or bad karma. This is not about three unlucky women and their series of unfortunate events. It is the story of God and His divine, supernatural, all-powerful and providential plan for the coming of the Messiah. In the middle of the genealogy of Jesus provided in the first chapter of the book of Matthew, we read, “Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab, Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth, Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David” (Matthew 1:5-6 ESV). Then it concludes: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile to Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Messiah” (Matthew 1:17 ESV). Jesus was a descendant of David, but He was also a descendant of Ruth, a widow from Moab. And the book of Ruth provides us with a glimpse into God’s orchestration of His sovereign will and unstoppable plan for the future redemption of a list and dying world.

But God Will…

So Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father's house. Joseph lived 110 years. And Joseph saw Ephraim's children of the third generation. The children also of Machir the son of Manasseh were counted as Joseph’s own. And Joseph said to his brothers, “I am about to die, but God will visit you and bring you up out of this land to the land that he swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.” Then Joseph made the sons of Israel swear, saying, “God will surely visit you, and you shall carry up my bones from here.” So Joseph died, being 110 years old. They embalmed him, and he was put in a coffin in Egypt. – Genesis 50:22-26 ESV

These are the names of the sons of Israel who came to Egypt with Jacob, each with his household: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, and Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, and Benjamin, Dan and Naphtali, Gad and Asher. All the descendants of Jacob were seventy persons; Joseph was already in Egypt. Then Joseph died, and all his brothers and all that generation. But the people of Israel were fruitful and increased greatly; they multiplied and grew exceedingly strong, so that the land was filled with them. – Exodus 1:1-7 ESV

The story of the life of Joseph is filled with ups and downs, joy and sorrow, pain and pleasure, hope and disappointment. It is a story of contrasts and contradictions, including betrayal and forgiveness, curses and blessings, famine and fullness, a powerful Pharaoh and lowly shepherds. But one of the main themes of this fascinating story is that of God’s sovereign hand guiding the affairs of Joseph’s life, from beginning to end. It is the story of the eternal, all-powerful God guiding and directing the details surrounding one man’s life so that His divine plan for the world might be fulfilled. This story is about so much more than Joseph and his rise to power and prominence. There is far more going on than God’s temporal blessings on single individual. Joseph’s promotion to the second-highest position in the land of Egypt is not the point of the story and was never intended to be taken as an example of how God blesses those who are faithful to Him. What happened to Joseph had less to do with him than it did with God’s much greater plan for the people of Israel and, ultimately, for the nations of the world. The story of Joseph must be kept within the context of the overarching story of the Bible. Joseph’s story is a snapshot, a single frame from the film of God’s great redemptive epic. From the creation of Adam and Eve, their sin and fall from grace to the return of the Second Adam and His restoration of all creation and removal of all vestiges of sin from the world, God has been and is accomplishing His grand redemptive plan.

Even Joseph knew that God was not yet done. His life was ending, but God’s plan was far from over. He told his brothers, “I am about to die. But God will surely come to you and lead you up from this land to the land he swore on oath to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob” (Genesis 50:24 NLT). Joseph was not dismayed, distraught or disappointed that his life was coming to an end. He had lived a long and eventful life. He knew that his 110-year odyssey on this planet was just a blip on the radar screen of God’s eternal plan. His life, while it mattered, was not ALL that mattered. His life’s accomplishments, while significant, were nothing compared to what God was going to do. His death was not mean to be an epilogue, but simply the closing words of a single chapter in God’s great story of redemption. Joseph was fully expecting God to do more of what He had already done. He lived with the constant expectation that “God will…” He was so confident in God’s promises that he made his brothers swear to take his bones back to the land of Canaan when God did what He had promised to do. They would return one day. He was sure of it. And when Joseph said, “God will…,” he was right, because God did. God did visit eventually visit them and the people of Israel did return to the land of Canaan. And as for Joseph’s desire to be buried in the land of Canaan:

As for the bones of Joseph, which the people of Israel brought up from Egypt, they buried them at Shechem, in the piece of land that Jacob bought from the sons of Hamor the father of Shechem for a hundred pieces of money. It became an inheritance of the descendants of Joseph. – Joshua 24:32 ESV

If God has said it, He will do it. If He has promised it, He will accomplish it.

God is not a man, so he does not lie. He is not human, so he does not change his mind. Has he ever spoken and failed to act? Has he ever promised and not carried it through? – Numbers 23:19 NLT

The stories of the Bible provide us with glimpses into the character of God. He is faithful and true. He is persistent and unwavering when it comes to His plan and consistent in Hisefforts to carry out His promises. Reading the story of Joseph should not leave us amazed at the faith of this unique individual, but it should produce in us an awe at the faithfulness of our God. It should encourage us to trust the One who Joseph trusted and to rest in the promises of the same God who fulfilled all His promises to Joseph. Joseph could confidently say, “God will…” Can you?

Before He ascended back up into heaven, Jesus told His disciples, “Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3 ESV). And years later, while the apostle John was exiled to the island of Patmos, Jesus appeared to him and said:

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” – Revelation 22:20 ESV

Jesus has said, “I will come again.” He has promised, “Surely I am coming soon.” And He will. That is the story of the Bible. That is the point of the story of Joseph.