trust

Close, But No Cigar

48 That very day the Lord spoke to Moses, 49 “Go up this mountain of the Abarim, Mount Nebo, which is in the land of Moab, opposite Jericho, and view the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel for a possession. 50 And die on the mountain which you go up, and be gathered to your people, as Aaron your brother died in Mount Hor and was gathered to his people, 51 because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. 52 For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” Deuteronomy 32:48-52 ESV

That very day. Those three simple words are filled with significance. The same day on which Moses delivered the words of God’s song to the people of Israel would be his last. Not only would he be denied entrance into the land of Canaan, but he would exit this life for the next one. Moses is informed by God that he will die alone on a mountaintop somewhere on the eastern side of the Jordan.

The phrase, “close but no cigar” comes to mind. Moses was close enough to see the land, but would never have the joy of crossing over the Jordan and enjoying the fruit of all his labors. From the moment God had called him to deliverer Israel from their captivity in Egypt, Moses had lived with one objective in mind: To lead God’s people to the land He had promised as their inheritance. When God had appeared to Moses all those years earlier, it had been on another mountain top, at Horeb. And God had shown up in the form of a burning bush. On that occasion, God had delivered the news to Moses that He had plans for His people.

“I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their taskmasters. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey…” – Exodus 3:7-8 ESV

Fast-forward and that is exactly where we find Moses, standing on the edge of a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses could see it with his own eyes. He could look on it longingly, but he would never set foot there. All because he had sinned against God.

And it’s a bit ironic that Moses has just spent a great deal of time addressing the people of God about the need to keep God’s law faithfully and to treat God Himself reverently. He has gone out of his way to stress the seriousness of sin and the danger of disobedience. In a way, Moses had been speaking from personal experience. He knew firsthand what happens when you fail to do God’s will on God’s terms. There was no room for improvisation. God was not interested in seeing their version of His will. He had not asked for their input or allowed them the option of extemporizing on His commands. But that is exactly what Moses had done.

God accuses Moses of breaking faith with Him and of failing to treat Him as holy. But what had he done? What was the crime Moses committed that kept him from entering the land of promise? The story is recorded in Numbers 20. And it began with the people of God complaining about their lack of water.

Now there was no water for the congregation. And they assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron. And the people quarreled with Moses and said, “Would that we had perished when our brothers perished before the Lord! Why have you brought the assembly of the Lord into this wilderness, that we should die here, both we and our cattle? And why have you made us come up out of Egypt to bring us to this evil place?” – Numbers 20:2-5 ESV

They were not happy campers. They were thirsty and they were upset. So, Moses took their complaint to God, who provided Moses with very specific instructions.

“Take the staff, and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle.” – Numbers 20:8 ESV

But what did Moses do? How did he end up enacting the instructions given to him by God? The text is very explicit. Moses and Aaron gathered all the people together and prepared to do what God had told them to do, but with a slight twist.

“Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. – Numbers 20:10-11 ESV

You can almost hear the anger in his voice. He is put out with the people of Israel. This was not the first time he had been confronted by their anger and resentment. And it had only been a short time since his sister Miriam had died. He had not even had time to grieve over his loss and now he was having to deal with these ungrateful and grumbling ingrates again. So, he took advantage of the God-given opportunity to put on a show for the people. He struck the rock with the staff. Not exactly what God had told him to do. But his act of anger-induced spontaneity seemed to produce the same results. “Water came out abundantly and the congregation drank, and their livestock.”

But he had not done God’s will God’s way. And God accused Moses of breaking faith and treating Him as unholy. He had let his anger get the best of him. And in doing so, he displayed his lack of faith in God. It is almost as if Moses doubted that God was going to do what He had promised to do. Look closely at the words Moses spoke before striking the rock: “shall we bring water for you out of this rock?”

Notice the emphasis on himself and Aaron, not God. And there is a degree of uncertainty or doubt in his voice as he states, “shall we…?” Perhaps Moses was questioning the ability of God to bring water out of a rock. He seems to be having misgivings about God’s plan. So, rather than speak to the rock as God had commanded, he decided to use the staff to strike the rock. He took out his anger on the rock. And the apostle Paul would later describe that rock as being a symbol or representation of Jesus Himself.

For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. – 1 Corinthians 10:3 ESV

Moses struck the rock. And in doing so, he displayed a lack of faith in God and demonstrated a disdain for the holiness of God. That rock was to have been a symbol of God’s gracious provision. There was no need to beat God into caring for their needs. God did not require coercion or compulsion. But because Moses did what he did, he was denied access to the land of promise. His sin was no different than the generation fo Israelies who refused to enter Canaan due to their fear of the giants in the land. They doubted God and trusted the words of men. And they all died in the wilderness.

Because Moses had failed to treat God as holy, he would fail to enter the land of promise. God is holy and He demands those who bear His name to live their lives in such a way that His reputation is honored by their actions. Moses had been God’s shepherd over the nation of Israel. He was God’s hand-picked leader and all that he said and did reflected on the character of God. He was held to a high standard. He was obligated to live according to God’s will faithfully and to speak God’s Word accurately. And because he didn’t, he was denied access into the land of promise.

“For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 32:52 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 Need For Strong Leadership

1 So Moses continued to speak these words to all Israel. 2 And he said to them, “I am 120 years old today. I am no longer able to go out and come in. The Lord has said to me, ‘You shall not go over this Jordan.’ 3 The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them, and Joshua will go over at your head, as the Lord has spoken. 4 And the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og, the kings of the Amorites, and to their land, when he destroyed them. 5 And the Lord will give them over to you, and you shall do to them according to the whole commandment that I have commanded you. 6 Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.”

7 Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the sight of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you shall go with this people into the land that the Lord has sworn to their fathers to give them, and you shall put them in possession of it. 8 It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:1-8 ESV

Moses’s days were numbered, and he knew it. His long and somewhat drawn out homily to the people was meant to prepare them for the inevitable and, possibly, to delay the unavoidable. He would not be going with them into the land of Canaan. God had denied Moses the privilege of leading the people of Israel when they crossed the border of Canaan and began their conquest of the land.

Moses had been God’s hand-picked deliverer. He had been chosen by God for the unique assignment of rescuing the people of Israel from their captivity in Egypt, and he had performed that role faithfully and effectively. Then he had successfully led the people to the edge of the land of promise, only to see them refuse to keep God’s command and cross the border – all because of an excess of fear and a lack of trust in God. So, Moses was forced to spend the next 40 years leading this rebellious generation around the wilderness until they had died off. Then, with a new generation in tow, he once again brought them to the edge of the land of promise so they might enter and possess it. But he would not be going with them. Why?

It all goes back to a regrettable scene that happened at a place called Meribah. Early on in their exodus from Egypt to Canaan, the people of Israel found themselves short on water and patience. So, they complained to Moses, who took the issue up with God. And God gave Moses instructions to take his brother Aaron’s staff “and assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water. So you shall bring water out of the rock for them and give drink to the congregation and their cattle” (Numbers 20:8 ESV).

But Moses was angry with the people for reading him the riot act over their lack of water. So, when he had assembled them, he took the staff and, rather than speaking to the rock as God had commanded, he took his anger out on it.

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock. And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, “Because you did not believe in me, to uphold me as holy in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” – Numbers 20:10-12 ESV

God accused Moses of two sins: Disbelief and disrespect. He expressed a lack of faith in God by refusing to do exactly as God had said. God’s word was not enough. He decided to add a little drama to the moment by striking the rock. And, on top of that, he seemed to take credit for the miracle, showing a deep disrespect for God. In doing so, he did not treat God as holy in the eyes of the people. As a leader and the representative of God, he had displayed unholy behavior, and his actions had reflected poorly on God. When Moses spoke, he spoke for God. When he led, he did so on behalf of God. When he struck the rock in anger, he did so as the representative of God. And his ungodly actions made God look unholy in the eyes of the people. This was a serious issue that brought a severe punishment from God.

“…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the people of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, and because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you shall not go there, into the land that I am giving to the people of Israel.” – Deuteronomy 32:51-52 ESV

And yet, just a few chapters later in the book of Deuteronomy, we read:

And there has not arisen a prophet since in Israel like Moses, whom the Lord knew face to face, none like him for all the signs and the wonders that the Lord sent him to do in the land of Egypt, to Pharaoh and to all his servants and to all his land, and for all the mighty power and all the great deeds of terror that Moses did in the sight of all Israel. – Deuteronomy 34:10-12 ESV

Moses was a great leader. He was a God-appointed and Spirit-anointed leader. But at Meribah, he had chosen to doubt and disrespect God, and he would pay dearly for that lapse in judgment. So, at the ripe old age of 120, Moses broke the news to the people of Israel that he would not be the one leading them on the next leg of their journey. That responsibility would fall to Joshua, Moses’ protegé and successor. And Moses assured the people that, ultimately, it would be God who would be going before them as their divine leader. 

“The Lord your God himself will go over before you. He will destroy these nations before you, so that you shall dispossess them.” – Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV

Their true leader had always been God Almighty. Moses had been nothing more than a human representative whose authority and power had been delegated by God. Now, the responsibility to lead God’s people would fall to Joshua, whom Moses assured them would “cross before you just as the Lord has said” (Deuteronomy 31:3 ESV).

And just to make sure that the people understood that God, not Joshua, was their true leader, Moses reminds them just who it would be that gave them victory over their enemies.

 “…the Lord will do to them as he did to Sihon and Og…” – Deuteronomy 31:4 ESV

“…the Lord will give them over to you…” – Deuteronomy 31:5 ESV

“…the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” – Deuteronomy 31:6 ESV

It would be God who gave them victory over their enemies. It would be God who went before them, never leaving them alone or on their own. Which is they could be “be strong and courageous” and not fear. Joshua would be their new human leader, but it was God who would make their path straight and their battles victorious.

Unlike Moses, God would never leave them or forsake them. Even good leaders can make bad mistakes that let their followers down. But not God. Moses would not be leading them into Canaan, but they could rest easy knowing that God would be with them every step of the way.

Next, Moses turns his attention to Joshua. He brings his much-younger successor before the people and provides him with a similarly worded charge:

“Be strong and courageous, for you will accompany these people to the land that the Lord promised to give their ancestors, and you will enable them to inherit it.” – Deuteronomy 31:7 NLT

Joshua would be attempting to fill some rather large sandals. He was tasked with stepping into the formidable role that Moses had held for nearly half a century. And he was going to have to be strong. But his strength would have to be in the Lord. Without His help, Joshua would find the days ahead difficult, because as Moses knew all too well, leading God’s people was anything but a walk in the park. And he gave Joshua the same simple, yet vital reminder.

“It is the Lord who goes before you. He will be with you; he will not leave you or forsake you. Do not fear or be dismayed.” – Deuteronomy 31:8 ESV

The people of Israel were going to need strong leadership if they were to be successful in fulfilling God’s command. The conquest of the land was not going to be easy. The enemies who lived in the land would not give up without a fight. There would be many battles to fight. They would face more powerful foes and come up against what appeared to be impenetrable defenses. But the people and their new leader would need to constantly remember that their strength and success would be God-ordained, not man-made.

Moses knew the people were going to need Joshua. But he also knew that Joshua was going to need the Lord. Effective spiritual leaders are those who allow themselves to be led by God. They find their strength and courage in the Lord, not in themselves. Moses knew from personal and painful experience just how difficult the role would be that Joshua was taking on. He was going to need all the help he could get and the only reliable source he could turn to was God Himself.

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

And You Shall Rejoice

1 “When you come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance and have taken possession of it and live in it, 2 you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket, and you shall go to the place that the Lord your God will choose, to make his name to dwell there. 3 And you shall go to the priest who is in office at that time and say to him, ‘I declare today to the Lord your God that I have come into the land that the Lord swore to our fathers to give us.’ 4 Then the priest shall take the basket from your hand and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God.

5 “And you shall make response before the Lord your God, ‘A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous. 6 And the Egyptians treated us harshly and humiliated us and laid on us hard labor. 7 Then we cried to the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. 8 And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. 9 And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. 10 And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God. 11 And you shall rejoice in all the good that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house, you, and the Levite, and the sojourner who is among you.” – Deuteronomy 26:1-11 ESV

Moses has finished reviewing all the rules and regulations intended to govern and guide the lives of the Israelites. Now, he provides them with instructions regarding the first harvest they will enjoy in the new land. Moses opens this section with the word, “when.” There was no question in his mind as to whether the Israelites would occupy the land. It was God’s will and it was going to happen. One generation had delayed the promise through their disobedience, but what God had ordained was going to happen. And Moses wanted the people to understand that God’s faithfulness was going to require an expression of gratitude on their part.

Once they settled in the land and began to cultivate it, they were to follow Moses’ instructions: “you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from your land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deuteronomy 26:2 ESV). Essentially, this would be the first of the firstfruits. The offering of the firstfruits was to be a regular occurrence in Israel and was intended to accompany every single harvest. But this command from Moses seems to be a unique offering that was specifically tied to the very first harvest in their new homeland. It was to be a special occasion, marking their official inheritance of the land of promise.

At this point in the their story, not only would the houses and towns be theirs, but they would reap the benefit of the fruit of the land. Back in the early chapters of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses had told the people what God was going to do for them.

“The LORD your God will soon bring you into the land he swore to give you when he made a vow to your ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It is a land with large, prosperous cities that you did not build. The houses will be richly stocked with goods you did not produce. You will draw water from cisterns you did not dig, and you will eat from vineyards and olive trees you did not plant.” – Deuteronomy 6:10-11 NLT

And, because God is a promise-keeping God, the day was going to come when they would feast from the vineyards, orchards, and fields they had inherited as part of that promise. When they did, Moses told them they would need to express their gratefulness to God by offering Him the firstfruits of all they had harvested. This offering would not only be an expression of thanksgiving but a demonstration of their faithfulness. By giving God the first and the best of their harvests, they would be displaying their trust in His ongoing provision of all their future needs.

As part of the process of offering God the firstfruits of their harvest, the people of Israel were to recite the following phrase: “A wandering Aramean was my father. And he went down into Egypt and sojourned there, few in number, and there he became a nation, great, mighty, and populous” (Deuteronomy 26:5 ESV). This would be a direct reference to Jacob, who is referred to as an Aramean because he spent much of his early days in the region known as Paddan-aram. It was there that he married his wives and began his family. Eventually, Jacob would end up in Egypt, a guest of his long-lost son, Joseph, who had become the second-highest-ranking official in the land. When Jacob and his extended family arrived in Egypt, they were just over than 70 in number, but by the time they left some 400 years later, they would have numbered in the millions.

A significant part of the firstfruits offering was the importance that they recognize and remember all the suffering that had proceeded God’s deliverance. Their arrival in the land of promise had been prefaced by four-centuries-worth of trials and difficulties. But their ancestors had cried out and God had heard them and sent them a deliverer in the form of Moses. And Moses himself reminds the Israelites of what God did to free them from their bondage in Egypt.

“…the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great deeds of terror, with signs and wonders. And he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” – Deuteronomy 26:8-9 ESV

And it was their remembrance of God’s gracious actions in the past that was to drive their display of gratitude in the future.

“‘And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which you, O Lord, have given me.’ And you shall set it down before the Lord your God and worship before the Lord your God.’” – Deuteronomy 26:10 ESV

Their giving of the firstfruits of their harvest would be a form of worship. It would honor God for all that He had done and prove their commitment to trust Him for all their future needs. He was and is a good God. He had kept His promise and delivered them to the land just as He had said He would. And as long as they continued to rely upon Him and reverently worship Him, He would continue to meet their needs for generations to come.

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

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

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

A Holy People

1 “When the Lord your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it, and clears away many nations before you, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites, seven nations more numerous and mightier than you, 2 and when the Lord your God gives them over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction. You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them. 3 You shall not intermarry with them, giving your daughters to their sons or taking their daughters for your sons, 4 for they would turn away your sons from following me, to serve other gods. Then the anger of the Lord would be kindled against you, and he would destroy you quickly. 5 But thus shall you deal with them: you shall break down their altars and dash in pieces their pillars and chop down their Asherim and burn their carved images with fire.

6 “For you are a people holy to the Lord your God. The Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession, out of all the peoples who are on the face of the earth.” – Deuteronomy 7:1-6 ESV

If you recall, in yesterday’s post, we looked at the verse in Hebrews that states, “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him. (Hebrews 11:6 NLT). The Israelites were convinced of God’s existence, but now they were facing the challenge of trusting in His ability to reward them for sincerely seeking Him.

They stood on the border of the land of Canaan, the very land that God had promised to give to the descendants of Abraham nearly half a century earlier. The land described as “flowing with milk and honey” lay before them and it was theirs for the taking. All God asked was that they sincerely seek Him. He desired that they display an irresistible craving for Him.  And one of the primary ways in which they could demonstrate their devotion to God was through their obedience to His commands.

Moses reminded the people that God was going to do His part. He had brought them all the way to the border of the land of promise and now He was going to make sure they not only entered the land but that they possessed it as their own. And, for Moses, their occupation of the land was not a matter of if, but when.  It was as good as done.

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are about to enter and occupy, he will clear away many nations ahead of you… – Deuteronomy 7:1 NLT

Entering the land was not going to be enough. Abraham had done that hundreds of years earlier but had never owned a single acre of the land as his own. The author of Hebrews describes Abraham’s time in the land of promise to that of an alien or stranger.

It was by faith that Abraham obeyed when God called him to leave home and go to another land that God would give him as his inheritance. He went without knowing where he was going. And even when he reached the land God promised him, he lived there by faith—for he was like a foreigner, living in tents. And so did Isaac and Jacob, who inherited the same promise. – Hebrews 11:8-9 NLT

Abraham had entered the land of promise, but lived there by faith, believing in God’s promise that, one day, his descendants would own and occupy all the land of Canaan. The only property Abraham ever owned in Canaan was the plot he purchased for the burial of his wife, Sarah. But he continued to believe the promise of God.

So Abraham bought the plot of land belonging to Ephron at Machpelah, near Mamre. This included the field itself, the cave that was in it, and all the surrounding trees. It was transferred to Abraham as his permanent possession in the presence of the Hittite elders at the city gate. Then Abraham buried his wife, Sarah, there in Canaan, in the cave of Machpelah, near Mamre (also called Hebron). So the field and the cave were transferred from the Hittites to Abraham for use as a permanent burial place. – Genesis 23:17-20 NLT

God’s promise to Abraham still held true. Hundreds of years had passed, but the integrity of God’s word remained unchanged. He would do what He had promised to do. And Moses reminded the people that they were going into the land to possess it as their own. They were not to let the presence of seven powerful nations diminish their hopes or deflate their confidence in God.  He would give those nations into their hands. All they had to do was obey His command to “completely destroy them” (Deuteronomy 7:2 NLT).

God had been very specific. He had commanded that they make “no treaties with them and show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2 NLT). But why? This seems so extreme. Even the Israelites had to have questioned the over-the-top nature of God’s command. His ban on making treaties with any of the land’s occupants must have seemed illogical and unnecessary. Why not make peace with them and prevent the needless loss of life on both sides?

But this is where faith was going to be required. The people of Israel were going to have to trust God and believe that He knew best. While it made all the sense in the world to negotiate with the occupants of the land, God knew what would happen as a result. Any treaties made with the Canaanites would only delay the bloodshed, but not prevent it. And the consequences of disobeying God and forming alliances with the Canaanites would be far worse than going to war with them. Which is exactly what Moses told them.

You must not intermarry with them. Do not let your daughters and sons marry their sons and daughters, for they will lead your children away from me to worship other gods. Then the anger of the Lord will burn against you, and he will quickly destroy you. – Deuteronomy 7:3-4 NLT

The problem with leaving the Canaanites in the land was that their presence would result in the Israelites abandoning God. And it wasn’t as if there was no precedents for this kind of behavior on the part of the Israelites. Even during their days of wandering through the wilderness, they had displayed their propensity to be led astray.

While the Israelites were camped at Acacia Grove, some of the men defiled themselves by having sexual relations with local Moabite women. These women invited them to attend sacrifices to their gods, so the Israelites feasted with them and worshiped the gods of Moab. In this way, Israel joined in the worship of Baal of Peor, causing the Lord’s anger to blaze against his people. – Numbers 25:1-3 NLT

This was all about holiness. God had set the people of Israel apart from all the nations of the earth. He had made them His chosen possession, and they were to live distinctively different lives that set them apart as belonging to God. That is why He had given them His law. And Moses reminded them of their unique status as God’s people.

“For you are a holy people, who belong to the Lord your God. Of all the people on earth, the Lord your God has chosen you to be his own special treasure.” – Deuteronomy 7:6 NLT

There was no room for compromise. They could not afford to make concessions or to allow status as God’s chosen people to be diminished in any way. And the apostle Paul would pick up on this call to set-apartness in his second letter to the church in Corinth.

Don’t team up with those who are unbelievers. How can righteousness be a partner with wickedness? How can light live with darkness? What harmony can there be between Christ and the devil? How can a believer be a partner with an unbeliever? And what union can there be between God’s temple and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. – 2 Corinthians 6:15-16 NLT

The core issue facing the Corinthian Christians and the Israelites of Moses’ day was idolatry. Compromise with the culture was going to result in unfaithfulness to God. That’s why Moses told the people, “You must break down their pagan altars and shatter their sacred pillars. Cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols” (Deuteronomy 7:5 NLT). But not only must they remove the idols, but they must also eliminate all those who worshiped them. To remove the false gods while allowing their followers to remain would prove futile.  It would only be a matter of time before the idolaters made more idols. And eventually, the Israelites would find themselves worshiping the gods of the Canaanites, not just making treaties with them.

God wanted to bless His chosen people. But He knew that they were going to find it difficult to obey Him because they would struggle with believing Him. His ways made no sense to them, and His commands seemed far too strict and stringent. But He desired that they would sincerely seek Him – to passionately crave to know Him better and to experience more of His presence and power. But to do so, they would have to trust Him and do as He said. They would have to obey, even when it made no sense.  

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

 

 

 

That You May Know

32 “For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. 33 Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? 34 Or has any god ever attempted to go and take a nation for himself from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, by wonders, and by war, by a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and by great deeds of terror, all of which the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? 35 To you it was shown, that you might know that the Lord is God; there is no other besides him. 36 Out of heaven he let you hear his voice, that he might discipline you. And on earth he let you see his great fire, and you heard his words out of the midst of the fire. 37 And because he loved your fathers and chose their offspring after them and brought you out of Egypt with his own presence, by his great power, 38 driving out before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day, 39 know therefore today, and lay it to your heart, that the Lord is God in heaven above and on the earth beneath; there is no other. 40 Therefore you shall keep his statutes and his commandments, which I command you today, that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” – Deuteronomy 4:32-40 ESV

Ever since the day God had appeared to Abraham and called him to leave his ancestral homeland and travel to the land of Canaan, God has been revealing Himself to the descendants of Abraham. Time and time again, the invisible God made Himself known in miraculous ways. It was while Abraham was in Haran, that God spoke audibly to him and said, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:1-2 ESV).

And while Abraham was never given the privilege of seeing God with his own eyes, he would regularly hear God’s voice and even receive visions from the Almighty. And through it all, Abraham was learning to trust in God’s invisible, yet unmistakable presence and power. His repeated encounters with God ended up solidifying his trust in and reliance upon God. So much so, that when God told Abraham, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.…So shall your offspring be,” that Abraham “believed the Lord, and he [God] counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:5-6 ESV).

Abraham believed God, even though his wife was barren and the two of them were  well-advanced in years. He believed God because he had seen God – not with his eyes, but as he watched God work in and around his life in countless, miraculous ways. And the same would be true for Isaac and Jacob. These men would also have personal encounters with the invisible God. They would never look upon Him with their eyes, but they would experience His presence and power as God manifested Himself in a variety of miraculous and inexplicable ways.

This pattern of God revealing Himself to the descendants of Abraham would continue throughout the years. And God would eventually show up in the land of Midian, in the form of a burning bush, in order to issue His call to Moses to deliver the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt. This amazing scene is recorded for us in the book of Exodus.

Moses stared in amazement. Though the bush was engulfed in flames, it didn’t burn up. “This is amazing,” Moses said to himself. “Why isn’t that bush burning up? I must go see it.”

When the Lord saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, “Moses! Moses!”

“Here I am!” Moses replied.

“Do not come any closer,” the Lord warned. “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” When Moses heard this, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God. – Exodus 3:2-6 NLT

This would be the first of many extraordinary encounters between Moses and God. And each of them were intended to prove the reality and reliability of God. Moses was learning the invaluable lesson that, while God could not be seen, He could be known.

And when God informed Moses of His plan to release the Israelites from their captivity in Egypt, He revealed one of the important outcomes:

“When I raise my powerful hand and bring out the Israelites, the Egyptians will know that I am the Lord.” – Exodus 7:5 NLT

The ten plagues that God would command Moses to bring upon the people of Egypt would eventually leave them fully convinced that the god of the Israelites was not a figment of their corporate imagination. He was real and very powerful. And He was greater than every one of the false gods they worshiped.

But from the day the Israelites had walked out of Egypt and crossed over the Red Sea on dry ground, God had been revealing Himself in countless ways. He had been demonstrating His power and presence, appearing in the form of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. He had shown up on Mount Sinai, accompanied by smoke, fire, thunder, and lightning. And Moses reminded the people of Israel of their unique status as the only nation privileged to experience God’s presence in such spectacular fashion.

“Has any nation ever heard the voice of God speaking from fire—as you did—and survived? Has any other god dared to take a nation for himself out of another nation by means of trials, miraculous signs, wonders, war, a strong hand, a powerful arm, and terrifying acts? Yet that is what the Lord your God did for you in Egypt, right before your eyes.” – Deuteronomy 4:33-34 NLT

And Moses made it painfully clear why God had chosen to reveal Himself to His chosen people.

“He showed you these things so you would know that the Lord is God and there is no other.” – Deuteronomy 4:35 NLT

These miraculous displays of His power were intended to convince the people of Israel that their God was real and fully reliable. He may have been unseen, but He was far from nonexistent. They didn’t need an idol or some kind of man-made representation of God to prove that He existed. He had proven His reality “by means of trials, miraculous signs, wonders, war, a strong hand, a powerful arm, and terrifying acts.”

By this time in their faith journey, the people of Israel should have had more than enough proof that their God was real and reliable. He had proven Himself so, time and time again. And yet, Moses felt compelled to tell them, “So remember this and keep it firmly in mind: The Lord is God both in heaven and on earth, and there is no other” (Deuteronomy 4:37 NLT).

As they prepared to enter the land of Canaan, they needed to be convinced of God’s pervasive presence and power. The days ahead were going to be filled with countless obstacles. The enemies in the land were real and formidable. The temptations to doubt God’s presence and question His power were going to be constant. So, they were going to have to place their faith in their invisible, but highly powerful God.

The author of Hebrews, discussing the faith of the Hebrew patriarchs like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses, wrote: “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NLT).

One of the greatest dangers the Israelites faced as they prepared to enter the land of Canaan was not the enemy forces that occupied the land. It was the temptation to lose faith in God. Moses knew that the first time the Israelites encountered a circumstance where the odds were stacked against them, they would assume that God was not with them. As soon as they found themselves in a situation that appeared hopeless, they would be tempted to see themselves as helpless and their God as powerless.

But they had no reason to doubt God. He had proven Himself to be trustworthy. He had displayed His power in countless ways. And all God asked in return was that they believe He exists and that He reward those who sincerely seek Him and faithfully serve Him. Which is why Moses challenged them:

“If you obey all the decrees and commands I am giving you today, all will be well with you and your children. I am giving you these instructions so you will enjoy a long life in the land the Lord your God is giving you for all time.” – Deuteronomy 4:40 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

 

 

 

High Walls, No Problem

1 “Then we turned and went up the way to Bashan. And Og the king of Bashan came out against us, he and all his people, to battle at Edrei. 2 But the Lord said to me, ‘Do not fear him, for I have given him and all his people and his land into your hand. And you shall do to him as you did to Sihon the king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.’ 3 So the Lord our God gave into our hand Og also, the king of Bashan, and all his people, and we struck him down until he had no survivor left. 4 And we took all his cities at that time—there was not a city that we did not take from them—sixty cities, the whole region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. 5 All these were cities fortified with high walls, gates, and bars, besides very many unwalled villages. 6 And we devoted them to destruction, as we did to Sihon the king of Heshbon, devoting to destruction every city, men, women, and children. 7 But all the livestock and the spoil of the cities we took as our plunder. 8 So we took the land at that time out of the hand of the two kings of the Amorites who were beyond the Jordan, from the Valley of the Arnon to Mount Hermon 9 (the Sidonians call Hermon Sirion, while the Amorites call it Senir), 10 all the cities of the tableland and all Gilead and all Bashan, as far as Salecah and Edrei, cities of the kingdom of Og in Bashan. 11 (For only Og the king of Bashan was left of the remnant of the Rephaim. Behold, his bed was a bed of iron. Is it not in Rabbah of the Ammonites? Nine cubits was its length, and four cubits its breadth, according to the common cubit).” – Deuteronomy 3:1-11 ESV

This chapter continues Moses’ description of the conquest of the Transjordan region – that are east of the Jordan River that was outside the land of Canaan. While the Israelites had their eyes set on the land west of the Jordan, God was leading them to remove any and all enemies on the other side of the river who might pose a future threat to their safety. This included the people living in Bashan. 

As we saw in yesterday’s post, God’s promise to Abraham had been much more extensive in terms of territorial boundaries.

“To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates, the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim, the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites and the Jebusites.” – Genesis 15:18-21 ESV

God had meant for Israel to fill the land from the Brook of Egypt, a small wadi on the easter border of Egypt, all the way to the Euphrates.  He had big plans for His chosen people. And, during the days of King David, Israel saw this promise partially fulfilled

David was able to extend the boundaries of Israel until it included virtually all of the land God had promised to Abraham. But it would not remain theirs for long. Disobedience on the part of Solomon, David’s son and successor, would cause God to split the kingdom in half, and it would never be restored to its former glory.

But there is a line in these opening verses of chapter 3 that speaks volumes regarding God’s power and man’s unwillingness or inability to trust in that power. After God commanded Moses to take the land belonging to Og, the king of Bashan, the people of Israel obeyed and were given a great victory over their enemies. They were able to destroy every city, town, and small village within the land. But notice how Moses describes their victory.

And we took all his cities at that time—there was not a city that we did not take from them—sixty cities, the whole region of Argob, the kingdom of Og in Bashan. All these were cities fortified with high walls, gates, and bars, besides very many unwalled villages. – Deuteronomy 3:4-5 ESV

If you recall, the reason the people of Israel had failed to enter the land 40 years earlier was because the 12 spies had brought back disturbing news. They had reported that the land was rich in produced but it was also defended by powerful armies who were housed in well-fortified cities. In fact, the people  had responded to the news by saying, “Our brothers have made our hearts melt, saying, ‘The people are greater and taller than we. The cities are great and fortified up to heaven’” (Deuteronomy 1:28 ESV).

And even when God assured them of certain victory, they had refused to believe. Moses had pleaded with them to trust God.

“Do not be in dread or afraid of them. The Lord your God who goes before you will himself fight for you, just as he did for you in Egypt before your eyes, and in the wilderness, where you have seen how the Lord your God carried you, as a man carries his son, all the way that you went until you came to this place.” – Deuteronomy 1:29-31 ESV

But the words of Moses had no impact on the people. He summarized their response to his pleas by saying, “Yet in spite of this word you did not believe the Lord your God” (Deuteronomy 1:32 ESV). Their enemies were bigger than their God. The circumstances they faced were greater than the God they claimed to follow. And it didn’t matter to them that He had freed them from slavery in Egypt and had faithfully guided them across the desert. When they had assessed their current situation, they had deemed their God incapable of fulfilling His promises to them.

Now, four decades later, God was proving Himself fully capable of defeating any and all enemies. The spies had been right. The cities were surrounded by high walls, but they proved to be no obstacle for God. He gave His chosen people victory over their enemies, allowing them to defeat what appeared to be more powerful armies and to destroy siege-proof cities. In fact, Moses states that “there was not a city that we did not take from them” (Deuteronomy 3:4 ESV). A total of 60 cities fell that day, and the people of Israel were able to take spoil from each and every one of them. And the resources they gathered would prove essential in supplying their future needs as they prepared their conquest of the land of Canaan.

The victories God gave His people were necessary. Not only did the plunder provide the Israelites with plenty of food for the future, the land would house the future settlements of the tribes of Dan and Reuben, as well as the half-tribe of Manassah. These battles were all part of God’s plan for His people. And while we may find the description of Israel’s complete annihilation of these people groups disturbing, there was a divine strategy taking place. As we saw yesterday, God had a reason for eliminating the nations that occupied the land and Moses made that reason known to the people of Israel.

“…because of the wickedness of these nations the Lord your God is driving them out from before you…” – Deuteronomy 9:5 ESV

God knew that these people, if allowed to remain in the land, would prove to be a constant threat to the people of Israel, not just militarily, but also morally. Their false religions and immoral behavior would tempt the Israelites to turn their backs on God. That is why God commanded His people to remove all the Canaanites from the land. But, as we will see, they would fail to do so. They would not fully comply with God’s commands and their failure to do so would play a huge part in their future demise as a nation.

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

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

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

 

 

 

I Am Not in Your Midst

34 “And the Lord heard your words and was angered, and he swore, 35 ‘Not one of these men of this evil generation shall see the good land that I swore to give to your fathers, 36 except Caleb the son of Jephunneh. He shall see it, and to him and to his children I will give the land on which he has trodden, because he has wholly followed the Lord!’ 37 Even with me the Lord was angry on your account and said, ‘You also shall not go in there. 38 Joshua the son of Nun, who stands before you, he shall enter. Encourage him, for he shall cause Israel to inherit it. 39 And as for your little ones, who you said would become a prey, and your children, who today have no knowledge of good or evil, they shall go in there. And to them I will give it, and they shall possess it. 40 But as for you, turn, and journey into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea.’

41 “Then you answered me, ‘We have sinned against the Lord. We ourselves will go up and fight, just as the Lord our God commanded us.’ And every one of you fastened on his weapons of war and thought it easy to go up into the hill country. 42 And the Lord said to me, ‘Say to them, Do not go up or fight, for I am not in your midst, lest you be defeated before your enemies.’ 43 So I spoke to you, and you would not listen; but you rebelled against the command of the Lord and presumptuously went up into the hill country. 44 Then the Amorites who lived in that hill country came out against you and chased you as bees do and beat you down in Seir as far as Hormah. 45 And you returned and wept before the Lord, but the Lord did not listen to your voice or give ear to you. 46 So you remained at Kadesh many days, the days that you remained there.” – Deuteronomy 1:34-46 ESV

Moses is addressing the people of Israel as they stand on the eastern edge of the land of Canaan, attempting to bolster their confidence in God and refresh their memories concerning what happened to the previous generation who had refused to enter the Promised Land as God had commanded them. Moses is providing his younger audience with a much-needed history lesson, in which he exposes the true reason that more than 40-years had passed since the Israelites had been set free from their captivity in Egypt. This younger generation had to have questioned the cause of the delay and wondered why it had taken so long to reach the land of Canaan. And it is doubtful that their parents had been open and honest about the cause of the delay. 

Moses wants this generation, which represented the future of Israel, to know the truth. He didn’t want them questioning the faithfulness of God or doubting the Almighty’s ability to keep His promises. The four-decade-long detour and delay had not been God’s plan. It had come about as the result of the peoples’ refusal to trust Him. And Moses recounts the doubt-filled response of the people when they had heard that there were giants in the land.

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

The report of the spies, detailing the presence of formidable enemies in the land, had caused the Israelites to doubt God’s love and question His goodness. Suddenly, their view of God changed. The great I Am,  who had graciously freed them from captivity, defeated the armies of Egypt, and had led them across the wilderness, had become a tyrant. He was a hateful, promise-breaking deity who was going to allow them to be slaughtered by the occupants of the land. And how did they arrive at this warped perspective? They had been told that there were enemies in the land.

And the news of enemies in the land carried more weight in their minds than God’s track record of love, care, grace, mercy, and faithfulness. His history as a covenant-keeping God went out the window at the first sign of trouble. The prospect of enemies in the land destroyed any confidence they had in the God in their midst.

God did not take their accusations against Him lightly. They were accusing Him of lying and of being untrustworthy. They were questioning His very character. Rather than recognizing God as holy, righteous, and just, they had accused Him of betrayal and abandonment. And God, who always protects the integrity of His name and defends His own character, would not allow them to drag His reputation through the mud. Their very existence as a nation had been His doing. He had taken Abraham and Sarah, an elderly man and his barren wife, and had given them more descendants than there are stars in the sky (Genesis 15:5). And He had promised to give those descendants “all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God” (Genesis 17:8 ESV). 

But when the time had come to take possession of that land, those very same people had decided that their enemies were greater than their God. In their minds, the potential for trouble overshadowed the proven power of God. When they discovered that their occupation of the land of promise wasn’t going to be easy, they lost all hope. The presence of trials did a number on their ability to trust. And God responded quickly and sternly.

“Not one of you from this wicked generation will live to see the good land I swore to give your ancestors.” – Deuteronomy 1:35 NLT

Their disbelief was going to lead to their discipline by God. That disobedient generation would never enjoy all the blessings the land of promise held in store for them, because they failed to trust the God who had promised it to them. Their unwillingness to do battle for the land robbed them of ever experiencing all that the land had to offer.  But one of the other things they would miss out on would be the faith-stirring reality of watching God defeat the giants in their midst. He had told them He would go before them and fight on behalf of them. He had promised to give them victories over all their enemies – if they would simply obey His command and enter the land – giants and all.

Facing the prospect of God’s anger, the people had declared, “We have sinned against the Lord! We will go into the land and fight for it, as the Lord our God has commanded us” (Deuteronomy 1:41 NLT). But it was too little too late. God knew their hearts. He was fully aware that they had no confidence in Him. They were simply trying to escape His wrath.

As a sign of their change of heart, the men of Israel had strapped on their weapons and prepared to do battle for the hill country of the Amorites. They wanted to prove to God that they were ready to be obedient. But the text tells us that they believed this battle would prove to be a cake walk. “So your men strapped on their weapons, thinking it would be easy to attack the hill country” (Deuteronomy 1:41 NLT). 

But God warned them not to follow through with their plans, because He would not be with them. They would be going into battle against His wishes and without His assistance. And the outcome would be devastating. 

“If you go ahead on your own, you will be crushed by your enemies.” – Deuteronomy 1:42 NLT

Yet, they refused to believe God and went ahead with their plan. They were going to prove to God that they were faithful, even if it meant being disobedient to do so. Think about the absurdity of their reasoning. They were going to disobey God in a vain attempt to impress Him. And Moses, retelling the details of this past event to his young audience standing on the edge of the land of Canaan, explains what happened next:

“This is what I told you, but you would not listen. Instead, you again rebelled against the Lord’s command and arrogantly went into the hill country to fight.  But the Amorites who lived there came out against you like a swarm of bees. They chased and battered you all the way from Seir to Hormah. Then you returned and wept before the Lord, but he refused to listen. So you stayed there at Kadesh for a long time.” – Deuteronomy 1:43-46 NLT

They had refused to trust God. Instead, they had decided to disobey Him. Then, when He responded in anger to their disobedience, they determined to prove their faithfulness by disobeying Him yet again. But God warned them that any efforts done by them but without His approval or help would be doomed to failure. They had feared the giants in the land, but had fallen to the Amorites outside the land. They had failed to trust God, but then tried to win back His favor through further disobedience.

And yet, all of this could have been avoided if they had only done what God had asked them to do: Enter the land and trust Him with the results. 

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

 

 

 

Faith and Love

6 But now that Timothy has come to us from you, and has brought us the good news of your faith and love and reported that you always remember us kindly and long to see us, as we long to see you — 7 for this reason, brothers, in all our distress and affliction we have been comforted about you through your faith. 8 For now we live, if you are standing fast in the Lord. 9 For what thanksgiving can we return to God for you, for all the joy that we feel for your sake before our God, 10 as we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith? – 1 Thessalonians 3:6-10 ESV

In time, Timothy had returned from his assignment in Thessalonica, where he had been sent by Paul to establish and exhort the believers in their faith. At his reunion with Paul, Timothy provided a report concerning the state of the churches in Thessalonica, and Paul deemed what he heard as “good news.” Timothy shared details regarding their faith and love – pistis and agapē – two characteristics that Paul deemed indispensable to the Christian life. The writer of Hebrews stressed that “it is impossible to please God without faith. Anyone who wants to come to him must believe that God exists and that he rewards those who sincerely seek him” (Hebrews 11:6 NLT). Faith begins the Christian’s spiritual journey, but it does not end there. Faith is to be a permanent fixture of the believer’s life from the moment of conversion to the future day of glorification. Paul himself wrote, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17 ESV). And in the original Greek, that phrase actually reads, “The one who by faith is righteous shall live.” Faith is the fuel of the Christian life. It provides new life in Christ and makes possible the abundant life that He promised.

As the author of Hebrews makes clear, faith is a belief in the existence of God. But there’s more. It is a belief that this existent God is a rewarder of those who sincerely seek Him. In other words, those who sincerely seek Him and Him alone will be rewarded with the joy of finding Him. But in his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote:

For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God. – Romans 1:20 NLT

While God has revealed His invisible attributes through all that He has made, most men have chosen to worship chosen the creation rather than the creator. They had an awareness of God’s presence, but rather than seeking Him, they turned their attention to things made by Him. And the apostle John reminds us that “No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is Himself God and is at the Father’s side, has made Him known” (John 1:18 BSB). And Paul describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15 ESV), who made God not only knowable but approachable. And yet, Paul also reveals that many who have heard about Jesus, still refuse to believe in Jesus. And their disbelief results in a spiritual blindness to the reality of who He is and what He has come to offer. 

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

They don’t believe. The Greek word is apistos and it means “not belief.” It is a lack of faith and trust in who Jesus is and the salvation He came to offer.

But for those who do believe in the salvation offered by God through His Son, forgiveness of sin and a restored relationship with God are the reward. But God expects that belief to last well beyond the point of conversion. Placing your faith in Christ is not a singular event, but a lifelong experience. The Christian life is a journey on which the believer’s faith will be tested all along the way. And when Paul heard that the believers in Thessalonica were exhibiting faith amid difficulty, he was encouraged. Their faith was a living faith. They were exhibiting a belief in the promises of God that did not waver in the face of difficulties. They were not allowing the presence of trials to diminish their trust in God. Their perseverance in the face of difficulties made Paul proud because it reflected their adherence to his teachings.

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.  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

They fully believed that they were loved by God and didn’t allow their less-than-ideal circumstances to diminish that belief. And their unwavering belief in God’s love for them manifested itself in a selfless love for others. That was the second characteristic Timothy highlighted. He reported to Paul that the Thessalonian believers loved well. But the text is very specific as to what kind of love they exhibited. The Greek word is agapē, and it refers to a specific kind of love. Timothy could have used the Greek word philadelphia, which refers to a love between brothers or friends. No, he specifically used agapē, which carried a much more powerful connotation. Within Christianity, it came to be associated with the love of Christ. It was a selfless, sacrificial kind of love that exhibited a lay-it-all-on-the-line kind of quality that demanded nothing in return. This kind of love is unconditional and not reciprocal. It doesn’t require the one who is loved to return the favor. It doesn’t demand that the one to be loved be lovely or loveable. In fact, Paul tells us that “God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8 NLT). And the apostle John would have us remember that this kind of sacrificial and undeserved love is exactly what we received from God.

This is real love – not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins. – 1 John 4:10 NLT

The Thessalonian believers loved in the same way they had been loved by God: Sacrificially and selflessly. And this brought Paul great joy. It provided him with comfort as he faced his own set of trials and troubles. News of their faith and love was exactly what he needed to hear. And he responded to this encouraging report by telling them, “It gives us new life to know that you are standing firm in the Lord” (1 Thessalonians 3:8 NLT).  News of their faith and love was like a tonic for Paul. It made all his hard work well worth the effort. For Paul, there was nothing more revitalizing to his own faith than to hear that his spiritual children were growing in godliness. And the two characteristics that best illustrated their growth were persevering faith and selfless love.

Yet, in spite of the good news delivered by Timothy, Paul longed to see his brothers and sisters in Christ again. And he assured them, “we pray most earnestly night and day that we may see you face to face and supply what is lacking in your faith” (1 Thessalonians 3:10 ESV). Notice the motivation behind Paul’s desire to return. He wants to fill in any gaps that might exist in their faith. For Paul, faith was dynamic, not static. It was to be living and ever-increasing. That is why James wrote, “faith by itself isn’t enough. Unless it produces good deeds, it is dead and useless” (James 2:17 NLT). Both Paul and James knew that true saving faith would result in true life change. And they also understood that faith would have a tendency to ebb and flow, based on the circumstances of life. There would be those days when a believer found holes in his faith – those gaps where the seed of doubt tends to take root and, in time, turns into full-grown disbelief. So, Paul wanted to fill in the gaps. He wanted to bring confident assurance to their faith, by increasing their knowledge of God and improving their understanding of and reliance upon His promises. And this desire by Paul to pour into the lives of believers is reflected in his prayer for the congregations in Colossae.

We ask God to give you complete knowledge of his will and to give you spiritual wisdom and understanding. Then the way you live will always honor and please the Lord, and your lives will produce every kind of good fruit. All the while, you will grow as you learn to know God better and better.

We also pray that you will be strengthened with all his glorious power so you will have all the endurance and patience you need. – Colossians 1:9-11 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

Your God Reigns!

1 Awake, awake,
    put on your strength, O Zion;
put on your beautiful garments,
    O Jerusalem, the holy city;
for there shall no more come into you
    the uncircumcised and the unclean.
2 Shake yourself from the dust and arise;
    be seated, O Jerusalem;
loose the bonds from your neck,
    O captive daughter of Zion.

3 For thus says the Lord: “You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.” 4 For thus says the Lord God: “My people went down at the first into Egypt to sojourn there, and the Assyrian oppressed them for nothing. 5 Now therefore what have I here,” declares the Lord, “seeing that my people are taken away for nothing? Their rulers wail,” declares the Lord, “and continually all the day my name is despised. 6 Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.”

7 How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
    who publishes salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
8 The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
    together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
    the return of the Lord to Zion.
9 Break forth together into singing,
    you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
    he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10 The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God.

11 Depart, depart, go out from there;
    touch no unclean thing;
go out from the midst of her; purify yourselves,
    you who bear the vessels of the Lord.
12 For you shall not go out in haste,
    and you shall not go in flight,
for the Lord will go before you,
    and the God of Israel will be your rear guard.

13 Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
    he shall be high and lifted up,
    and shall be exalted.
14 As many were astonished at you—
    his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
    and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15 so shall he sprinkle many nations.
    Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
    and that which they have not heard they understand. – Isaiah 52:1-15 ESV

There are times in life when it is difficult to imagine God sitting on His throne and ruling in unparalleled power and sovereignty. We look at the circumstances surrounding us and see no signs of His presence or power. The world appears to be in a state of chaos. The enemies of God seem to hold the upper hand. Righteousness looks as if it is on the wane, while wickedness spreads like a cancer through the land. Immorality runs rampant and injustice prevails. People call good evil and evil good. And, it appears as if God is going nothing about. Either because He can’t or because He doesn’t care.

But Isaiah 52 extends to the people of God, in every generation, a much-needed wake up call. This particular message is directed at Zion, the holy mountain upon which the city of Jerusalem sat. It is a call to the people of Judah, but it is timeless in nature. The situation in which they found themselves was unique to them but, at the same time, universal. They were facing difficult days and wrestling with strong feelings of doubt regarding God’s involvement in their circumstances. Which is why, in chapter 51, they had extended their own wake up call to God.

Wake up, wake up, O Lord! Clothe yourself with strength!
    Flex your mighty right arm!
Rouse yourself as in the days of old
    when you slew Egypt, the dragon of the Nile. – Isaiah 51:9 NLT

From their vantage point, it appeared that God was the one who had fallen asleep on the job. The evidence was all around them that God had either abandoned them or simply forgotten all about them. But their perspective was skewed and their conclusion was wrong. Not only was God there, He cared, and He was going to act on their behalf. But, as we have seen, His intervention into their difficulties was going to be on His schedule and according to His divine plan, not theirs. He knew what was best and He was going to do what needed to be done at just the right time – no sooner or later. And, they were going to have to trust Him.

Salvation comes easy to God. It requires no effort on His part. He doesn’t even break a sweat. Which is why He told the prophet, Jeremiah, “I am the LORD, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me?” (Jeremiah 32:27 NLT). Which is the same thing God said to Abraham when Sarah had laughed at His announcement that she would bear a son, in spite of her barrenness

“Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return about this time next year, and Sarah will have a son.” – Genesis 18:14 NLT

It is the same message Jesus conveyed to His disciples when they had asked Him, “Who then can be saved?” He responded, ““With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26 ESV).

The problems facing the people of Judah were not a problem for God. In fact, He is the one who had sovereignly ordained each and every circumstance in which they found themselves. The Assyrians and Babylonians had been instruments in His hands. The fall of Judah to the Babylonians had been His doing. Their 70 years of captivity were part of His divine plan for them. And, just as God had found it quite easy to bring His judgment upon the people of Judah, He would find it just as easy to bring about their salvation. The 800-pound gorilla in the room was not God’s lack of power, but the peoples’ lack of faith. They didn’t trust God.

Now, God addresses the people of Judah in their captive state – in the midst of one of darkest days of their corporate history.

Remove the chains of slavery from your neck,
    O captive daughter of Zion.
For this is what the Lord says:
“When I sold you into exile,
    I received no payment.
Now I can redeem you
    without having to pay for you.” – Isaiah 52:2-3 NLT

Just as no one had forced God to sell the people of Judah into slavery, no one would coerce or bribe Him to redeem them. He would act according to His own divine will.

The truth was, that the people of God had a track record of finding themselves in difficult situations. Generations earlier, Jacob and his family had willingly sought shelter in Egypt, in an attempt to escape the famine in Canaan. But they ended up enslaved to the Egyptians and had to be rescued by God. Centuries later, when they had occupied the land, they found themselves harassed by the Assyrians, and the northern kingdom of Israel was defeated and deported as slaves.

And hundreds of years later, the southern kingdom of Judah would find itself living in captivity in Babylon, enslaved once again and crying out in despair. Their captors would mock the name of God, declaring their false gods to be superior in strength. And even the Jews would end up blaspheming the name of God by failing to trust in His word and rely on His covenant faithfulness. Their wailing and moaning would be a visible sign of their lack of faith. And yet, God tells them:

“But I will reveal my name to my people, and they will come to know its power. Then at last they will recognize that I am the one who speaks to them.” – Isaiah 52:6 NLT

And the following verses contain a powerful song of praise from the lips of Isaiah as he considers the incredible nature of God’s promise of redemption.

How beautiful upon the mountains
    are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
    who publishes salvation,
    who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” – Isaiah 52:7 ESV

Don’t miss what Isaiah is saying here. The key to the salvation of God’s people was the fact that God reigns. He is in complete control of all things. He is the ruler over all the earth. He is final determiner of all that happens. God is not only powerful, He is ALL powerful. And, as far as Isaiah is concerned, the salvation of the Lord is as good as done because He reigns over all.

The Lord has bared his holy arm
    before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
    the salvation of our God. – Isaiah 52:10 ESV

God would one day return a remnant of the people of Judah from their captivity in Babylon. But there is an even greater deliverance foreshadowed here. This passage predicts an even more remarkable day when the people of God experience release from their captivity to sin. Look back on verse 7 and consider the significance of what is conveyed in its words.

How beautiful on the mountains
    are the feet of the messenger who brings good news,
the good news of peace and salvation,
    the news that the God of Israel reigns!

Now fast forward to Paul’s letter to the Romans. He picks up on this very same passage when addressing the Roman believers about their need to share the good news of Jesus Christ with the lost in their community.

But how can they call on him to save them unless they believe in him? And how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them? And how will anyone go and tell them without being sent? That is why the Scriptures say, “How beautiful are the feet of messengers who bring good news!”

But not everyone welcomes the Good News, for Isaiah the prophet said, “Lord, who has believed our message?” So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. – Romans 10:14-17 ESV

The release of the people of Judah from their physical captivity in Babylon did nothing to restore their broken relationship with God. They remained stubbornly unfaithful and persistently inconsistent in their obedience to and worship of Him. Sin still plagued their lives. Immorality and injustice remained a constant part of their individual and corporate existence.

But one day, God would send His Son to remedy their true problem: Their slavery to sin. And, He would do it by sending His Son. In the closing verses of this chapter, Isaiah is given a vision of the coming Messiah, God’s servant who “shall be high and lifted up,  and shall be exalted” (Isaiah 52:13 ESV). In these three verses we have a prophecy concerning Jesus and His incarnation, crucifixion and ultimate glorification, as described so eloquently by the apostle Paul.

…being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:8-11 ESV

Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Savior of the world, came to earth in order to provide sinful mankind with a means by which they might be restored to a right relationship with God the Father. It required His death. It also demanded His resurrection and ascension. And it will include His eventual return to earth to consummate God’s redemptive plan for the earth and for His people, Israel. And all of this will take place because our God reigns, whether we see it, believe it, or place our trust in it.

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

Wait For the Lord

16 “And I have put my words in your mouth
and covered you in the shadow of my hand,
establishing the heavens
and laying the foundations of the earth,
and saying to Zion, ‘You are my people.’”

17 Wake yourself, wake yourself,
stand up, O Jerusalem,
you who have drunk from the hand of the Lord
the cup of his wrath,
who have drunk to the dregs
the bowl, the cup of staggering.
18 There is none to guide her
among all the sons she has borne;
there is none to take her by the hand
among all the sons she has brought up.
19 These two things have happened to you—
who will console you?—
devastation and destruction, famine and sword;
who will comfort you?
20 Your sons have fainted;
they lie at the head of every street
like an antelope in a net;
they are full of the wrath of the Lord,
the rebuke of your God.

21 Therefore hear this, you who are afflicted,
who are drunk, but not with wine:
22 Thus says your Lord, the Lord,
your God who pleads the cause of his people:
“Behold, I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering;
the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more;
23 and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors,
who have said to you,
‘Bow down, that we may pass over’;
and you have made your back like the ground
and like the street for them to pass over.” – Isaiah 51:16-23 ESV

Back in verse 9, the people of Judah called on God to wake up from His apparent slumber. From their perspective, it appeared as if God was asleep or unconcerned about their dire circumstances. But in verse 17, God turns the tables, calling on the people of Judah to wake up. He reminds them that He is the one not only made the heavens, but had chosen them to be His people. Why would He abandon His own? No, they had fallen asleep on the job and had failed to do His will. And now, they were suffering the consequences for their disobedience and unfaithfulness. This wasn’t a case of spiritual narcolepsy. They were hungover from wine of God’s wrath.

“You have drunk the cup of the Lord’s fury.
You have drunk the cup of terror,
tipping out its last drops.” – Isaiah 51:17 NLT

They were punch drunk, hammered and hungover from having imbibed the divine anger of God Almighty. God describes Judah as bereft of their senses and of children. They were like a heavily intoxicated individual who has no one to assist them in getting home safely. All their children are gone.

“Not one of your children is left alive
to take your hand and guide you.” – Isaiah 51;18 NLT

The picture here is bleak. Judah is described in stark terms that reveal the devastation brought on them by God’s judgment. And they had received exactly what they deserved. No one felt sorry for them, including God. They had not been innocent victims, but had been willing participants in the rebellion that had brought on them the judgments of God. And their sins have impacted the lives of multiple generations.

“For your children have fainted and lie in the streets,
    helpless as antelopes caught in a net.
The Lord has poured out his fury;
    God has rebuked them.” – Isaiah 51:20 NLT

And yet, God provides them with powerful words of comfort.

“See, I have taken the terrible cup from your hands.
    You will drink no more of my fury.” – Isaiah 51:22 NLT

God acknowledges that they are afflicted and totally incapacitated by the fury of His wrath. But God reveals that a day will come when His anger is abated, and He speaks in the past-tense, as if it has already occurred. It is as good as done.

And God lets them know that their fortunes will take a dramatic and unexpected turn for the better. Instead of being the sufferer, they will watch as all those nations that had tried to destroy them come under the vengeance of God.

“Instead, I will hand that cup to your tormentors,
    those who said, ‘We will trample you into the dust
    and walk on your backs.’” – Isaiah 51:23 NLT

This message from God has long-term ramifications, that reach far beyond the immediate context of Isaiah and the generation to whom he ministered. God is revealing prophetic details that extend into the future and encompass generations of Israelites. Yes, they would eventually suffer at the hands of the Babylonians, but in time the Jews would find themselves suffering at the hands of other nations and in other centuries. Theirs would be a history marked by constant abuse and unrelenting persecution. For generations, they would be a nation without a homeland. During WWII, they would become pariahs in virtually every country in which they resided. In Germany, the Nazis would persecute and murder to the point of virtual extension. The viscious pogroms of communist-controlled Russia would carry on the unrelenting efforts to eliminate the Jews as a people group. And, during the seven years of the Tribulation, the Antichrist will do everything in his power to eradicate every single Jew from the face of the earth.

And yet, because they belong to God, they are still here. And, even the Antichrist, backed by the power and authority of Satan himself, will not be able to destroy God’s people or prevent Him keeping His promise to redeem and restore them to a relationship with Him.

In spite of all that was happening around them and to them, God was reminding the people of Judah that He was far from done with them. Much was going to happen in the not-so-distant future. But even more would take place in the centuries ahead. And God did not want them to lose hope. He desired that they have a long-term perspective based on His faithfulness and His plan for their eternal well-being as a nation. The prophet Habakuk penned these words, expressing his intention to trust in God no matter what happened around him, and they should provide inspiration and encouragement to every child of God in every generation.

“I will wait quietly for the coming day
    when disaster will strike the people who invade us.
Even though the fig trees have no blossoms,
    and there are no grapes on the vines;
even though the olive crop fails,
    and the fields lie empty and barren;
even though the flocks die in the fields,
    and the cattle barns are empty,
yet I will rejoice in the Lord!
    I will be joyful in the God of my salvation!
The Sovereign Lord is my strength!
    He makes me as surefooted as a deer,
    able to tread upon the heights.” – Habakuk 3:16-19 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

Turn and Be Saved

14 Thus says the Lord:
“The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush,
    and the Sabeans, men of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours;
    they shall follow you;
    they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.
They will plead with you, saying:
    ‘Surely God is in you, and there is no other,
    no god besides him.’”

15 Truly, you are a God who hides himself,
    O God of Israel, the Savior.
16 All of them are put to shame and confounded;
    the makers of idols go in confusion together.
17 But Israel is saved by the Lord
    with everlasting salvation;
you shall not be put to shame or confounded
    to all eternity.

18 For thus says the Lord,
who created the heavens
    (he is God!),
who formed the earth and made it
    (he established it;
he did not create it empty,
    he formed it to be inhabited!):
“I am the Lord, and there is no other.
19 I did not speak in secret,
    in a land of darkness;
I did not say to the offspring of Jacob,
    ‘Seek me in vain.’
I the Lord speak the truth;
    I declare what is right.

20 “Assemble yourselves and come;
    draw near together,
    you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge
    who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
    that cannot save.
21 Declare and present your case;
    let them take counsel together!
Who told this long ago?
    Who declared it of old?
Was it not I, the Lord?
    And there is no other god besides me,
a righteous God and a Savior;
    there is none besides me.

22 “Turn to me and be saved,
    all the ends of the earth!
    For I am God, and there is no other.
23 By myself I have sworn;
    from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear allegiance.’

24 “Only in the Lord, it shall be said of me,
    are righteousness and strength;
to him shall come and be ashamed
    all who were incensed against him.
25 In the Lord all the offspring of Israel
    shall be justified and shall glory.” – Isaiah 45:14-25 ESV

In verse 13, God makes it clear that Cyrus was going to obey His command to allow the people of Judah to return to their land, and without any incentive attached to his actions.

“…he shall build my city
    and set my exiles free,
not for price or reward,”
    says the Lord of hosts.” – Isaiah 45:13 ESV

He would do it simply because God had ordained it. There was nothing in it for him. He would receive nothing for his efforts. In fact, Cyrus would end up giving more than he would get. The book of Ezra tells us that he “brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods” (Ezra 1:7 ESV). He returned these items of plunder to the Jews. And the Jews would walk away with great wealth because of the decree of Cyrus.

“And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1:4 ESV

The returning remnant would walk out of Babylon carrying greta quantities of gold, silver, goods, and livestock. But Cyrus would receive nothing for his actions.

And yet, God tells the people of Judah, living in the days of Isaiah, that things will be quite different for their ancestors who are part of the remnant that returns.

“The wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush,
    and the Sabeans, men of stature,
shall come over to you and be yours;
    they shall follow you;
    they shall come over in chains and bow down to you.” – Isaiah 45:14 ESV

What a stark difference. Cyrus, who would obey the will of God, will receive nothing. But the rebellious people of Judah, who were sent into exile because of their disobedience, will receive the wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Cush. It makes no sense. It even seems a bit unfair. Which brings up the point God made in verse 9.

“Does the clay dispute with the one who shapes it, saying,
    ‘Stop, you’re doing it wrong!’” – Isaiah 45:9 NLT

This is why it makes no sense to argue with God and to dispute His ways. He does what He deems best. He acts in ways that make no sense. The people of Judah to whom Isaiah was prophesying could not understand why God was going to allow the Babylonians to defeat them and take them captive. And they were prone to dispute and disagree with His methods. But God was letting them know that His ways, while difficult to understand, were always for the best. He was providing them with a glimpse into the future and showing them that this nightmare had a happy ending to it. And if they would only trust Him, they would learn that they had no reason to doubt Him.

The people of Judah deserved no reward. They didn’t even merit their restoration to the land of promise. In the 70 years they would be exiled in Babylon, they would do nothing to earn God’s favor or merit their return to Jerusalem. And yet, God was revealing that they would return and with great wealth. And the Gentile nations that witnessed this God-ordained event would recognize the hand of God in it and respond, “Surely God is in you, and there is no other, no god besides him” (Isaiah 45:14 ESV).

At this point, we have to determine whether the details described in this prophecy have already been fulfilled. We know from the biblical record that the Babylonians eventually defeated Jerusalem and took the people of Judah captive. We also know that 70 years later, King Cyrus issued the decree that make possible their return to the land of promise. And it is a proven fact that the city of Jerusalem and the temple were rebuilt. But when those things happened, did the Egyptians, Ethiopian, and Sabeans follow the people of Judah in chains and bow down before them? Did the Jews find their return to the land accompanied by Gentile subjection and the worship of Yahweh? The book of Nehemiah provides us with an answer to that question:

When Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the people of Ashdod heard that the restoration of the walls of Jerusalem had moved ahead and that the breaches had begun to be closed, they were very angry. All of them conspired together to move with armed forces against Jerusalem and to create a disturbance in it. – Nehemiah 4:7-8 NLT

The Jews were opposed in their efforts to rebuild the city. They were surrounded by enemies who did everything in their power to derail their efforts. And to this day, Israel finds itself facing intense opposition to its presence in the land. So, it would seem that the content of this prophecy remains as yet, unfulfilled.

But the point of this passage is the sovereign work of God and His ongoing role as the Savior of Israel. And the emphasis is on His eternal relationship with His covenant people.

Israel is saved by the Lord
    with everlasting salvation;
you shall not be put to shame or confounded
    to all eternity. – Isaiah 45:17 ESV

While the people of Judah were having a hard time seeing past the news that they were going to fall to the Babylonians, God was focusing on the larger, long-term plan for their well-being. When God created the world, He did so with an eternal strategy in mind. It was never intended to be devoid of human life and filled with confusion.

For the Lord is God,
    and he created the heavens and earth
    and put everything in place.
He made the world to be lived in,
    not to be a place of empty chaos. – Isaiah 45:18 NLT

God did not make an empty world, but one that was meant to be occupied. And He did not tell the people of Israel to seek Him and then hide Himself from them. He had a reason behind His calling of them and it is eternal in scope. And God speaks of a time when He will call all the nations of the earth to come to Him.

“Assemble yourselves and come;
    draw near together,
    you survivors of the nations!” – Isaiah 45:20 ESV

There is a day coming when the nations of the earth will recognize that their false gods cannot save them. They will finally realize that their idols are lifeless and useless. And God will tell them, “there is no other god besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is none besides me” (Isaiah 45:21 ESV). What will cause the nations of the earth to come to this recognition? What will finally make them recognize the futility of their false gods and the reality of God’s status as the one true God.? It will be the unprecedented judgment of God that will come upon the earth during the days of the Great Tribulation. Jesus described those coming days in very stark terms:

“For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be.” – Matthew 24:21 ESV

In those days, God will bring unparalleled suffering, destruction, and death upon sinful mankind. But they will refuse to repent. They will remain obstinate and stubbornly resistant to the obvious judgment of God taking place all around them. The apostle John was given a vision of the Tribulation and recorded the amazingly obdurate nature of sinful mankind.

Then the fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and his kingdom was plunged into darkness. His subjects ground their teeth in anguish, and they cursed the God of heaven for their pains and sores. But they did not repent of their evil deeds and turn to God. – Revelation 16:10-11 NLT

And yet, then as now, God’s will is that all men repent and return to Him. Which is why he calls out, “Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:22 ESV). And all that God does is intended to convince sinful mankind that He is the one true God. There are no other gods. And while, during the Tribulation, the world will choose to worship the Antichrist and Satan, God will be persistently proving their weakness and His own power. And by the time the seven years of the Tribulation are over, all the world will find itself bowing down before God, just as He has predicted.

‘To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear allegiance.” – Isaiah 45:23 ESV

Man can choose to humble himself and worship God, or he will find himself humbled by God and bowing down before Him in fear and subjugation. Isaiah records God’s decree concerning that day.

“The descendants of your tormentors will come and bow before you. Those who despised you will kiss your feet. They will call you the City of the LORD, and Zion of the Holy One of Israel.” – Isaiah 60:14 NLT

And in his letter to the Romans, Paul quotes from Isaiah 45, when he writes:

For the Scriptures say, "'As surely as I live,' says the LORD, every knee will bend to me, and every tongue will confess and give praise to God.'" – Romans 14:11 NLT

God calls on sinful mankind to turn and be saved. He pleads with them to repent of their sinful ways. But if they refuse, the day will come when they bow before Him anyway.

…to him shall come and be ashamed
    all who were incensed against him. – Isaiah 45:24 ESV

All will one day bow before Him – some in humility and worship, others in humiliation and fear. But there will be no one who remains ignorant of His place as the one true God.

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

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

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

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

I Do Not Forsake Them

10 Sing to the Lord a new song,
    his praise from the end of the earth,
you who go down to the sea, and all that fills it,
    the coastlands and their inhabitants.
11 Let the desert and its cities lift up their voice,
    the villages that Kedar inhabits;
let the habitants of Sela sing for joy,
    let them shout from the top of the mountains.
12 Let them give glory to the Lord,
    and declare his praise in the coastlands.
13 The Lord goes out like a mighty man,
    like a man of war he stirs up his zeal;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
    he shows himself mighty against his foes.

14 For a long time I have held my peace;
    I have kept still and restrained myself;
now I will cry out like a woman in labor;
    I will gasp and pant.
15 I will lay waste mountains and hills,
    and dry up all their vegetation;
I will turn the rivers into islands,
    and dry up the pools.
16 And I will lead the blind
    in a way that they do not know,
in paths that they have not known
    I will guide them.
I will turn the darkness before them into light,
    the rough places into level ground.
These are the things I do,
    and I do not forsake them.
17 They are turned back and utterly put to shame,
    who trust in carved idols,
who say to metal images,
    “You are our gods.” –
Isaiah 42:10-17 ESV

At hearing the news of the coming of God’s Servant, Isaiah can’t contain his excitement and breaks out into song. Verses 10-13 contain a joyous hymn of praise to Yahweh for His goodness and greatness. God’s Servant, the Messiah, was going to bring redemption to the people of God. He will bring justice to the nations and be a demonstration of God’s righteousness on earth. God had made it clear that His Servant would “be a light to guide the nations.” He would “open the eyes of the blind” and “free the captives from prison, releasing those who sit in dark dungeons” (Isaiah 42:6-7 NLT). And Isaiah saw this as ample reason to praise God.

But Isaiah’s song was also a call for others to join him in singing the praises of God. He addresses those who sail the seas and those who live in the deserts. From the farthest coastal towns to villages in the mountains, all the inhabitants of the earth were to recognize and respond to the unequaled power of God. As far as Isaiah was concerned, this was to be a global celebration of the one true God

Let the whole world glorify the Lord;
    let it sing his praise.
– Isaiah 42:12 NLT

And the reason behind Isaiah’s enthusiastic call for universal praise of God was quite simple.

The Lord goes out like a mighty man,
    like a man of war he stirs up his zeal;
he cries out, he shouts aloud,
    he shows himself mighty against his foes.
– Isaiah 42:13 ESV

It is important to recall that, at the time Isaiah is singing this son, the situation in Judah remained unchanged. There was still the looming threat of invasion. God had already told Isaiah and King Hezekiah that the nation of Judah would fall to the Babylonians. And yet, here is Isaiah singing about God marching forth like a mighty hero and crushing all his enemies, as if it had already happened.

For Isaiah, the word of God was all he needed. If God said it, Isaiah believed it. He had learned to take God at His word and to trust Him to do what He had promised. God had said He would send His Servant and that was enough for Isaiah. He would put his trust in God.

And God would eventually prove Himself trustworthy – yet again. The day would come when He would use King Cyrus to decree the return of the people from captivity in Babylon. This Persian king would even help fund the return of the remnant to Jerusalem and help defray the cost of rebuilding the city and the temple of God. Yahweh, the very one who brought judgment on the people of Judah for their rebellion against Him, would be the one to restore them to the land.

And one day, God would send His Son to earth, in the form of an innocent baby, in order to bring salvation to the people of God. Born a Jew, Jesus would bring His message of the Kingdom to His own people, calling them to repentance and offering them a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be restored to a right relationship with Yahweh. But sadly, as the apostle John records, “He came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (John 1:11 NLT). The Servant of God was sent by God to sacrificially serve the people of God. Mark tells us, He “came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45 NLT). But Jesus’ offer of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Him alone was rejected by the majority of His own people. They refused His gracious offer of redemption.

And yet, there is a another day coming when Jesus will return to earth again. The Servant/Savior will come a second time, and He will bring redemption to the people of Israel. The prophet Ezekiel wrote about this coming day.

“Therefore, give the people of Israel this message from the Sovereign Lord: I am bringing you back, but not because you deserve it. I am doing it to protect my holy name, on which you brought shame while you were scattered among the nations. I will show how holy my great name is—the name on which you brought shame among the nations. And when I reveal my holiness through you before their very eyes, says the Sovereign Lord, then the nations will know that I am the Lord. For I will gather you up from all the nations and bring you home again to your land.” – Ezekiel 36:22-24 NLT

There is a sense in which this prophecy was fulfilled when the people were given permission to return to the land of Judah by King Cyrus. But if we continue to read God’s words, as recorded by Ezekiel, we will see that there is an as-yet-unfulfilled aspect to this prophecy.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart.  And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:25-28 NLT

God will accomplish all this through His Son, the Servant and Savior of Israel. God will use Jesus, the Messiah, to do for the people of Israel what they had been unable and unwilling to do for themselves. God will transform them into the faithful, obedient, children He had called them to be.

And, suddenly, God interrupts Isaiah’s song of praise with an announcement that is intended to bring assurance to Isaiah and the people of Judah. God admits that, from a human perspective, He has appeared to be silent and inactive. All kinds of things have happened around the people of Judah. There have been alliances made between nations, with the intent to defeat Judah. The Assyrians have plundered and pillaged their way through the land of Judah, leaving a wake of devastation in their path. They have even set up camp outside the walls of Jerusalem, threatening the city with destruction if the inhabitants refuse to surrender.

But all that was about to change. God describes Himself as a woman about to give birth. He is on the verge of delivery, not of a baby, but of salvation for His people. And while this imagery conveys a certain sense of immediacy, it does not mean that God’s salvation is right around the corner. It is meant to convey the idea of inevitability and certainty. Once a woman goes into labor, the baby is going to come, and there is nothing she can do to stop it. God is letting Isaiah and the people of Judah know that when the time comes for Him to act, He will do so. And He emphasizes the inevitability of it all by stating what He will do when the time comes.

I will level the mountains and hills
    and blight all their greenery.
I will turn the rivers into dry land
    and will dry up all the pools.
I will lead blind Israel down a new path,
    guiding them along an unfamiliar way.
I will brighten the darkness before them
    and smooth out the road ahead of them.
Yes,
I will indeed do these things;
    
I will not forsake them.” – Isaiah 42:15-16 NLT

He will do all that He has promised to do. And the greatest challenge the people of Judah faced was taking God at His word. They were going to face some significant setbacks in the days ahead. There were going to be plenty of moments when God’s presence and power were difficult to comprehend. They would find themselves facing all kinds of difficulties that seemed to contradict the promises of God. But circumstances are always a lousy litmus test of God’s power and presence. Just because we can’t see God doesn’t mean He is not there. Too often, we allow the presence of trials to cause us to conclude that God is inactive or indifferent to our situation. We may even assume He lacks the power to do anything about our problem.

But this passage is meant to encourage faith in God, regardless of the circumstances. It is easy to praise God after the fact. It takes very little faith to sing His praises when the victory has been accomplished and we are on the winning side of the battle. But to praise Him based on nothing more than His word – that take real faith. That requires true trust. When God says, “I will,” He expects His child to respond, “I believe.” It’s all about trust. And God makes it clear that those who refuse to place their trust in anything or anyone but Him, will be disappointed.

“But those who trust in idols,
    who say, ‘You are our gods,’
    will be turned away in shame.”
– Isaiah 42:17 NLT

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

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

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

I, the Lord…I Am He

1 Listen to me in silence, O coastlands;
    let the peoples renew their strength;
let them approach, then let them speak;
    let us together draw near for judgment.

2 Who stirred up one from the east
    whom victory meets at every step?
He gives up nations before him,
    so that he tramples kings underfoot;
he makes them like dust with his sword,
    like driven stubble with his bow.
3 He pursues them and passes on safely,
    by paths his feet have not trod.
4 Who has performed and done this,
    calling the generations from the beginning?
I, the Lord, the first,
    and with the last; I am he.

5 The coastlands have seen and are afraid;
    the ends of the earth tremble;
    they have drawn near and come.
6 Everyone helps his neighbor
    and says to his brother, “Be strong!”
7 The craftsman strengthens the goldsmith,
    and he who smooths with the hammer him who strikes the anvil,
saying of the soldering, “It is good”;
    and they strengthen it with nails so that it cannot be moved.

8 But you, Israel, my servant,
    Jacob, whom I have chosen,
    the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
9 you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
    and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, “You are my servant,
    I have chosen you and not cast you off”;
10 fear not, for I am with you;
    be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

11 Behold, all who are incensed against you
    shall be put to shame and confounded;
those who strive against you
    shall be as nothing and shall perish.
12 You shall seek those who contend with you,
    but you shall not find them;
those who war against you
    shall be as nothing at all.
13 For I, the Lord your God,
    hold your right hand;
it is I who say to you, “Fear not,
    I am the one who helps you.”

14 Fear not, you worm Jacob,
    you men of Israel!
I am the one who helps you, declares the Lord;
    your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
15 Behold, I make of you a threshing sledge,
    new, sharp, and having teeth;
you shall thresh the mountains and crush them,
    and you shall make the hills like chaff;
16 you shall winnow them, and the wind shall carry them away,
    and the tempest shall scatter them.
And you shall rejoice in the Lord;
    in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.

17 When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them;
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
18 I will open rivers on the bare heights,
    and fountains in the midst of the valleys.
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
    and the dry land springs of water.
19 I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
    the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive.
I will set in the desert the cypress,
    the plane and the pine together,
20 that they may see and know,
    may consider and understand together,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    the Holy One of Israel has created it. – Isaiah 41:1-20 ESV

Judah was in an unenviable position, in both a physical and spiritual sense. It seems that they were located in the very epicenter of a region that attracted conquering nations like honey draws bees.

If you look at any maps that reveal the extent of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires, you find Judah positioned precariously in the middle of all the action. The threat of defeat at the hands of more powerful nations was a constant reality. If it weren’t the Assyrians, it would be the Babylonians.

And God has already warned Hezekiah that Jerusalem would eventually fall to the Babylonians, who weren’t even a major player on the scene at the time. 

But even more unenviable than Judah’s geographic location was its position in respect to Yahweh. They had been unfaithful to the Faithful One. They had repeatedly disobeyed Him and dishonored His name by worshiping false gods. And God, by virtue of His holiness and righteousness, was obligated to punish His people for their serial spiritual adultery. 

And yet, God has provided His rebellious people with a somewhat surprising message of assurance, saying, “Comfort, comfort my people” (Isaiah 40:1 ESV). In spite of all that the people of Judah had done to offend a holy God, they would find Him to be compassionate and gracious. He promised to one day restore them.

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31 NLT

It would have been easy for the people of Judah to look at their circumstances and lose heart. They were a seemingly insignificant nation surrounded by more powerful enemies who were intent on their destruction. What was Judah when compared to the world-dominating power of Assyria? What hope did they have when the ten tribes of Israel to the north had fallen to Sennacherib and his forces? But in chapter 41, God assures His people that they have nothing to fear from these other nations. They were mere pawns in His hands, and their power was insignificant when compared with His.

God summons as witnesses all the Gentile nations of the world. Like a prosecuting attorney in a court of law, He addresses them, delivering in no uncertain terms a defense of His sovereignty.

“Who has stirred up this king from the east,
    rightly calling him to God’s service?
Who gives this man victory over many nations
    and permits him to trample their kings underfoot?
With his sword, he reduces armies to dust.
    With his bow, he scatters them like chaff before the wind.
He chases them away and goes on safely,
    though he is walking over unfamiliar ground.”– Isaiah 41:2-3 NLT

In response to these questions from God, the Gentile nations would have most likely stated that the pagan gods of the Assyrians and Babylonians were responsible for their victories. But God’s questions are intended to be rhetorical, and He provides the only correct answer: “I, the Lord, the first, and with the last; I am he” (Isaiah 41:4 ESV).

And yet, the pagan nations continue to place all their hopes in their false gods. They attempt to manufacture some semblance of security just as they manufacture the idols they worship.

The idol makers encourage one another,
    saying to each other, “Be strong!”
The carver encourages the goldsmith,
    and the molder helps at the anvil.
    “Good,” they say. “It’s coming along fine.”
Carefully they join the parts together,
    then fasten the thing in place so it won’t fall over. – Isaiah 41:6-7 NLT

But these man-made totems will prove no match for the Lord of Hosts. They have no power. And any power that the kings of these pagan nations wield has been given to them by God. As God revealed to Daniel in a dream:

“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.” – Daniel 2:20-21 NLT

So, God turns His attention to the people of Judah, reminding them of their unique position as His chosen people. Of all people on the earth, they were to be envied, despite all that was happening around them. The nations beyond the seas had no god to save them. Their idols would prove powerless in the face of the Assyrian and Babylonian armies. But Judah had no reason to fear because they belonged to God.

“Don’t be afraid, for I am with you.
    Don’t be discouraged, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you and help you.
    I will hold you up with my victorious right hand.” – Isaiah 41:10 NLT 

If they looked at their circumstances, they were bound to experience fear and discouragement. But, as God’s people, they were to look to Him. They were to trust in Him. Because He had promised to do what no other god could do: To strengthen them, help them and hold them up. They had nothing to fear, even though they were surrounded by more powerful enemies because God was in control and was on their side.

Those who attack you
    will come to nothing.
For I hold you by your right hand—
    I, the Lord your God.
And I say to you,
    ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” – Isaiah 41:12-13 NLT

Notice what God tells them. They would be attacked. Their enemies were real, and the prospect of warfare was as well. God didn’t promise them freedom from warfare, but the assurance of His help. And the apostle Paul reminds us that we can expect warfare in our lives as well.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. – Ephesians 6:10-13 NLT

God promises the people of Judah that a day is coming when the tables will be turned. They will become the victor rather than the victim. The lowly “worm” will become the aggressor, wreaking havoc on its enemies and gladly glorying in the greatness of God.

Then you will rejoice in the Lord.
    You will glory in the Holy One of Israel. – Isaiah 41:16 NLT

God tells them that, just when things are looking like they couldn’t get any worse, He will show up.

“When the poor and needy search for water and there is none,
    and their tongues are parched from thirst,
then I, the Lord, will answer them.
    I, the God of Israel, will never abandon them.” – Isaiah 41:17 NLT

At their greatest moment of need, their great God will show up. And He will provide for them in ways that are beyond their imaginations. He will work a miracle that leaves no doubt that their salvation was divinely ordained and orchestrated. And God tells them why He is going to act on their behalf.

“I am doing this so all who see this miracle
    will understand what it means—
that it is the Lord who has done this,
    the Holy One of Israel who created it.” – Isiah 41:20 NLT

God’s greatest works always appear at our greatest moments of need. It is in our periods of most intense crisis that God reveals His power and proves His faithfulness to us. It is when we need Him most that God tends to show up best. It is in those times that He intervenes and says, “I, the Lord…I am He.”

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

Trust God

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
    and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure
    and weighed the mountains in scales
    and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord,
    or what man shows him his counsel?
14 Whom did he consult,
    and who made him understand?
Who taught him the path of justice,
    and taught him knowledge,
    and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
    and are accounted as the dust on the scales;
    behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust.
16 Lebanon would not suffice for fuel,
    nor are its beasts enough for a burnt offering.
17 All the nations are as nothing before him,
    they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness.

18 To whom then will you liken God,
    or what likeness compare with him?
19 An idol! A craftsman casts it,
    and a goldsmith overlays it with gold
    and casts for it silver chains.
20 He who is too impoverished for an offering
    chooses wood that will not rot;
he seeks out a skillful craftsman
    to set up an idol that will not move.

21 Do you not know? Do you not hear?
    Has it not been told you from the beginning?
    Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
22 It is he who sits above the circle of the earth,
    and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers;
who stretches out the heavens like a curtain,
    and spreads them like a tent to dwell in;
23 who brings princes to nothing,
    and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.

24 Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
    scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
when he blows on them, and they wither,
    and the tempest carries them off like stubble.

25 To whom then will you compare me,
    that I should be like him? says the Holy One.
26 Lift up your eyes on high and see:
    who created these?
He who brings out their host by number,
    calling them all by name;
by the greatness of his might
    and because he is strong in power,
    not one is missing.

27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
    and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
    and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
    the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
    his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
    and to him who has no might he increases strength.
30 Even youths shall faint and be weary,
    and young men shall fall exhausted;
31 but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength;
    they shall mount up with wings like eagles;
they shall run and not be weary;
    they shall walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:12-31 ESV

This chapter opened with the words, “Comfort, comfort my people.” And the next ten verses revealed the form that comfort would take. God was going to intervene on behalf of Judah. Isaiah was given a vision of a future day in which the Lord God will appear in glory and might. 

Yes, the Sovereign Lord is coming in power.
    He will rule with a powerful arm.
    See, he brings his reward with him as he comes. – Isaiah 40:10 NLT

God will one day come as Shepherd of Israel, carrying his lambs in His arms and “holding them close to his heart” (Isaiah 40:11 NLT). But how can the people of Judah know for certain that all of this will take place? What assurance do they have that this future revelation of God’s glory and deliverance will happen? Isaiah has already provided an answer to these questions. It is because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5 ESV). He is trustworthy and true, and His word is as immutable as His holy character.

But God knows that the people of Judah have their doubts. They are still obsessed with God’s declaration that the city of Jerusalem is going to fall to the Babylonians. So, any news of God’s future redemption sounds a bit hollow and too good to be true. The immediate prospect of defeat carries far more weight with them than any promise of future restoration. So, God addresses their apprehension with a series of 13 questions. And these queries from God are meant to reveal His greatness and the everlasting nature of His nature. God is eternal. He stands outside of space and time. Which is why He speaks of future events as if they have already happened. He is without equal and beyond comparison, and Isaiah stresses His incomparability with three rhetorical questions: 

Who else has held the oceans in his hand?

Who has measured off the heavens with his fingers?

Who else knows the weight of the earth or has weighed the mountains and hills on a scale?  

The answer to all three questions is the same: No one. There is no one else like God. He doesn’t need advice or instruction. He doesn’t require anyone else to tell Him what is right or wrong. Compared with God, the “the nations of the world are but a drop in the bucket” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). Like dust on a scale, they are infinitesimal and inconsequential. Their weight or glory doesn’t even register. In contrast, God’s glory is so great and His power, so beyond comparison, “He picks up the whole earth as though it were a grain of sand” (Isaiah 40:15 NLT). To put it bluntly, “The nations of the world are worth nothing to him. In his eyes, they count for less than nothing—mere emptiness and froth” (Isaiah 40:17 NLT).

This series of questions is reminiscent of an exchange that took place between God Almighty and His servant Job. After having lost virtually everything near and dear to him, including his children, his wealth and his health, Job was confused by the dire nature of his circumstances. He questioned the nature of his suffering and defended his own righteousness before God. In a sense, he expressed his doubts concerning God’s justice. And God responded with a series of questions for Job that contrasted His own character with that of Job’s. For two chapters, God bombards Job with a series of questions designed to juxtapose God’s glorious deity with Job’s humanity.

“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?
    Tell me, if you know so much.” – Job 38:4 NLT

“Do you know where the gates of death are located?
    Have you seen the gates of utter gloom?
Do you realize the extent of the earth?
    Tell me about it if you know!” – Job 38:17-18 NLT

“Can you shout to the clouds
    and make it rain?
Can you make lightning appear
    and cause it to strike as you direct?” – Job 38:34-35 NLT

And two chapters later, God wraps up his inquisition of Job with the stinging words:

“Do you still want to argue with the Almighty?
    You are God’s critic, but do you have the answers?” – Job 40:2 NLT

This was all about a mere man questioning the integrity of the God of the universe. Job may not have liked his circumstances, but that gave him no right to doubt the goodness or greatness of God. Which is what led God to ask:

“Will you discredit my justice
    and condemn me just to prove you are right?
Are you as strong as God?
    Can you thunder with a voice like his?” – Job 40:8-9 NLT

There is no situation that provides justification for man’s questioning of God’s integrity. Our first reaction, when faced with difficult circumstances, is to measure God’s character by human standards. We tend to analyze His actions by using our own flawed sense of right and wrong. But Isaiah asks, “To whom can you compare God? What image can you find to resemble him?” (Isaiah 40:18 NLT). God is not a man so He cannot be judged like one. And He is not a false god, made by human hands. He is uncreated. He has no maker. And He owes no one an answer or explanation for His actions.

So, God repeats Isaiah’s previous question:

“To whom will you compare me?
    Who is my equal?” asks the Holy One. – Isaiah 40:25 NLT 

And the answer remains: No one.

Yet, God knows that His people still have their doubts about Him. So, He confronts them with the real issue behind their refusal to believe His word.

“O Jacob, how can you say the Lord does not see your troubles?
    O Israel, how can you say God ignores your rights?” – Isaiah 40:27 NLT

There were convinced that God was blind to their current circumstances. Not only that, they were questioning God’s integrity by accusing Him of ignoring their rights. In essence, they were labeling God as unjust and unrighteous. They were measuring God by their circumstances, rather than viewing their circumstances through the lens of God’s character. So, Isaiah gave them a much-needed reminder of how just and righteous, good and gracious God is.

He gives power to the weak
    and strength to the powerless.
Even youths will become weak and tired,
    and young men will fall in exhaustion. – Isaiah 40:29-30 NLT

Notice the circumstances in which God reveals His power and strength. It is in the midst of our weakness and powerlessness. It is when we are tired and exhausted that God tends to show up in all His glory. God told the apostle Paul, “My power works best in weakness” and Paul responded by saying, “So now I am glad to boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ can work through me. That’s why I take pleasure in my weaknesses, and in the insults, hardships, persecutions, and troubles that I suffer for Christ. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10 NLT).

How could Paul take pleasure in weakness? It was because he trusted God. He knew from experience that God tended to show up when things were looking down. God’s power was best manifested when Paul’s weakness was on full display. Which is why Isaiah reminded the people of Judah:

But those who trust in the Lord will find new strength.
    They will soar high on wings like eagles.
They will run and not grow weary.
    They will walk and not faint. – Isaiah 40:31 NLT

Trust is the greatest antidote to trials. Relying on the incomparable, unquenchable power of God when our strength is gone is the key to surviving and thriving in this world. But we must trust what He has said. We must not question His word or doubt His integrity.

God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? – Numbers 23:19 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

Prayer Changes Us, Not God

1 In those days Hezekiah became sick and was at the point of death. And Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz came to him, and said to him, “Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you shall die, you shall not recover.” 2 Then Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, 3 and said, “Please, O Lord, remember how I have walked before you in faithfulness and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

4 Then the word of the Lord came to Isaiah: 5 “Go and say to Hezekiah, Thus says the Lord, the God of David your father: I have heard your prayer; I have seen your tears. Behold, I will add fifteen years to your life. 6 I will deliver you and this city out of the hand of the king of Assyria, and will defend this city.

7 “This shall be the sign to you from the Lord, that the Lord will do this thing that he has promised: 8 Behold, I will make the shadow cast by the declining sun on the dial of Ahaz turn back ten steps.” So the sun turned back on the dial the ten steps by which it had declined. – Isaiah 38:1-8 ESV

A key to understanding chapters 38-39 and their place in the chronology of the book of Isaiah is the first three words of verse one of chapter 38: “In those days…” This is a clear reference to the events surrounding the siege of Jerusalem as described in chapters 36-37. Isaiah is providing additional information that will help shed light on all that took place in those dark days, but he is also prefacing the remaining chapters of his book.

During the height of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, King Hezekiah became deathly ill. We are not told the extent of his condition, but the prophet Isaiah delivered a divine prognosis that was anything but good news.

“This is what the Lord says: ‘Set your affairs in order, for you are going to die. You will not recover from this illness.’” – Isaiah 38:1 NLT

So, along with the pending invasion of the Assyrian forces and the likely fall of Jerusalem, Hezekiah had to deal with the threat of a terminal illness. All of this had to have weighed heavily on Hezekiah’s heart. He must have been confused by this unrelenting wave of bad news. After all, he had been one of the few kings of Judah who had tried to do the right thing, instituting a series of drastic religious reforms in an effort to restore the peoples’ worship of Yahweh.

Hezekiah had ascended to the throne of Judah after the death of King Ahaz, who was the poster-boy for unfaithfulness and apostasy. The book of 2 Chronicles gives a summary of some of his exploits.

The king took the various articles from the Temple of God and broke them into pieces. He shut the doors of the Lord’s Temple so that no one could worship there, and he set up altars to pagan gods in every corner of Jerusalem. He made pagan shrines in all the towns of Judah for offering sacrifices to other gods. In this way, he aroused the anger of the Lord, the God of his ancestors. – 2 Chronicles 28:24-25 NLT

But when Hezekiah took the throne at the age of 25, “He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his ancestor David had done” (2 Chronicles 29:2 NLT). One of the first things he did was to reopen the temple and recommission the Levites so that the sacrifices to Yahweh could begin again. He also revived the celebration of Passover and called the people to worship Yahweh alone. As a result, “they smashed all the sacred pillars, cut down the Asherah poles, and removed the pagan shrines and altars” (2 Chronicles 31:1 NLT). 

Yet, in spite of all his reforms and his efforts to restore the worship of Yahweh in Judah, God sent the Assyrians.

After Hezekiah had faithfully carried out this work, King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judah. He laid siege to the fortified towns, giving orders for his army to break through their walls. – 2 Chronicles 32:1 NLT

And to make matters even worse, Hezekiah was told he was going to die. If anyone had the right to ask God, “Why?” it was Hezekiah. But rather than questioning God’s actions or doubting His love, Hezekiah simply asked that his acts of faithfulness be remembered.

“Remember, O Lord, how I have always been faithful to you and have served you single-mindedly, always doing what pleases you.” – Isaiah 38:3 NLT

Hezekiah was not bragging or boasting, but merely expressing his confusion over this latest bit of bad news. Isaiah describes the king as weeping bitterly. He was devastated by all that was happening to him and around him. The nation of Judah was under siege. It was just a matter of time before the Assyrians arrived outside the walls of Jerusalem. And now, he was facing imminent death. It was all more than he could handle. So, he took his hurt, confusion, and despair to God. And his prayer was heard. God gave Isaiah a second message for Hezekiah.

“This is what the Lord, the God of your ancestor David, says: I have heard your prayer and seen your tears. I will add fifteen years to your life, and I will rescue you and this city from the king of Assyria. Yes, I will defend this city.” – Isaiah 38:5-6 NLT

This raises the often-debated question: “Can the prayers of men change the mind of God?” Was God’s prescribed will somehow altered by the prayer of Hezekiah? The text is clear that, as a result of Hezekiah’s prayer, God extended his life by 15 years. So, it would appear that Hezekiah’s death date was postponed because he prayed. But at the heart of the question lies the sovereignty of God. There is also the issue of God’s omniscience. He knows all. There is nothing that escapes His notice or that lies outside His awareness. While there are many occasions recorded in Scripture where it appears that God “changed His mind” because of the prayers of men like Moses, Abraham, David, and others, it is essential that we understand that God’s will is never altered by anyone. In fact, the book of Numbers tells us that God never changes His mind.

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

So, what is going on here? Why did God determine to extend Hezekiah’s life? One of the things we need to always bear in mind is God’s complete and unwavering knowledge of all things. God knew Hezekiah’s heart. He was fully aware of how Hezekiah would respond to the news of his pending death. Hezekiah’s prayer didn’t change the heart of God, it changed the heart of Hezekiah. The king, faced with the news of his terminal illness, unknowingly prayed within the will of God, revealing his desire that his life be extended because he cared for the glory of God and the good of the people of Judah. God, because He is all-knowing, knew exactly how Hezekiah was going to respond and His “decision” to extend the king’s life had been part of His will all along.

God used the announcement of Hezekiah’s death to bring the king to the point of total dependence upon Him. The terminal prognosis was meant to get Hezekiah’s attention, not God’s. It was intended to bring the king to a place of total reliance upon the will of God and to remind the king of his own faithfulness. So much of this is about perspective. We see things from our limited vantage point as human beings. From our earth-bound, time-controlled view, we are incapable of seeing into the future. We don’t know what tomorrow holds. But God does. He knew all along that Hezekiah was going to live an additional 15 years because He knew how Hezekiah was going to respond to the news of his illness. Hezekiah didn’t change the mind of God, but Hezekiah’s mindfulness of God was dramatically altered. God wanted Hezekiah to know and not forget that faithfulness was the key to God’s graciousness. In a time when it could have been easy for Hezekiah to turn away from God and restore the former alters to the false gods, he remained faithful to Yahweh. He did not follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.

Even during this time of trouble, King Ahaz continued to reject the Lord. He offered sacrifices to the gods of Damascus who had defeated him, for he said, “Since these gods helped the kings of Aram, they will help me, too, if I sacrifice to them.” – 2 Chronicles 28:22-23 NLT

In a sense, the news of Hezekiah’s terminal illness had been a test. Not of God, but of Hezekiah. And God knew that Hezekiah would pass the test with flying colors. Hezekiah’s death date did not really change. But his view of God did. And in the remaining verses of this chapter, Hezekiah will reveal the profound impact this situation had on his life and his heart. He was drawn closer to God. His reliance upon and love for God deepened. And this enhanced understanding of God’s love and faithfulness was going to be needed in the days ahead.

One of the more interesting aspects of this story is the proof that God gave Hezekiah to assure that all He had said was true.

“‘And this is the sign from the Lord to prove that he will do as he promised: I will cause the sun’s shadow to move ten steps backward on the sundial of Ahaz!’” So the shadow on the sundial moved backward ten steps. – Isaiah 38:7-8 NLT

We know from the parallel story found in 2 Kings, that Hezekiah had asked God for a sign.

“What shall be the sign that the Lord will heal me?” – 2 Kings 20:8 ESV

This was not necessarily an expression of doubt on Hezekiah’s part, but a request for some form of reassurance on God’s part. The news was almost too good to be true. So, Hezekiah asked God to provide him with a tangible sign that what He had promised would indeed take place. And God graciously and miraculously obliged.

What’s truly interesting is that God used something built by and named after wicked King Ahaz to provide faithful King Hezekiah with proof of His word. God caused the shadow of the sun to reverse itself. In a sense, time reversed itself. We are not told whether the sun itself moved backward in the sky or whether the shadow moved contrary to the position of the sun. In either case, God provided a miracle, a supernatural sign that provided Hezekiah with all the proof he required. And again, the impact of all of this on Hezekiah was profound, resulting in his penning of a poem of praise to God.

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

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

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

 

You Alone Are God

14 Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. 15 And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord: 16 “O Lord of hosts, God of Israel, enthroned above the cherubim, you are the God, you alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth; you have made heaven and earth. 17 Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. 18 Truly, O Lord, the kings of Assyria have laid waste all the nations and their lands, 19 and have cast their gods into the fire. For they were no gods, but the work of men’s hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. 20 So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord.” – Isaiah 37:14-20 ESV

Faced with the threat of annihilation at the hands of the Assyrians, Hezekiah, the king of Judah, had taken the situation directly to God. He had entered the temple to pray and sent his key officials to plead with Isaiah to intercede with God on behalf of the nation. And Isaiah had sent the king a reassuring message from God.

“Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have reviled me.” – Isaiah 37:6 ESV

God promised to save Jerusalem from the threat of Assyrian invasion. King Sennacherib would receive a divinely inspired message that forced him to return home, where he would be assassinated by his own sons. So, God has provided the king of Judah with His personal guarantee that none of the boastful threats of the Assyrian king will come to fruition. Yet, in spite of God’s assurances, King Hezekiah still has the Assyrians camped outside the walls of his city and the threats of the Assyrian emissary ringing in his ears.

“Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, devoting them to destruction. And shall you be delivered?” – Isaiah 37:10-11 ESV

The problem persisted. The enemy was still outside the city walls. And Hezekiah was left with two options: Believe the words of King Sennacherib or those of God Almighty. At this point in the story, that is all he has to go on. The words of a man and the words of His God. One was visible, his power manifested in the sizeable army camped outside the walls of Jerusalem. His words were backed by a well-documented reputation for accomplishing what he set out to do.

“Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?” – Isaiah 36:18-20 ESV

Hezekiah could see the power of Sennacherib with his own eyes. It was all around him. And it was clear that the forces of Judah were out-manned and ill-equipped to deal with the circumstances facing them.

To make matters worse, Hezekiah’s God was invisible. Yes, the king believed in Him. He even spoke to Him. But he couldn’t see Him. And, unlike the gods of the pagans, there were no statues or figurines representing Yahweh that Hezekiah could turn to for assurance. His God was transcendent and hidden from human view.

But while God was invisible, He was far from unknowable or imperceptible. He had a reputation as well. Yahweh had a long track record of intervening in the affairs of mankind, especially on behalf of His chosen people. From the day He had called Abram out of Ur, God had chosen to reveal Himself in a variety of ways, to reassure His people of His imminence or nearness. He spoke to Abraham audibly and regularly. He appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush. He revealed Himself to the people of Israel as a flame of fire and a cloud, leading them across the wilderness for 40 years. And God had repeatedly intervened on behalf of His people, accomplishing great victories on their behalf, even when they faced more formidable foes and insurmountable odds.

Hezekiah was faced with a dilemma familiar to all believers of all times. He could allow the presence of a tangible trial to influence his decision-making, or he could rely on the promises of a God he couldn’t see but who had proven Himself faithful time and time again. And the text tells us that Hezekiah made the right choice. He took his problem to God.

Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. And Hezekiah prayed to the Lord… – Isaiah 37:14-15 ESV 

He took the enemy’s message to the only one he could trust: God. And he opened his prayer to God with a series of appellations that seemed designed to remind himself of God’s power and distinctiveness.

“O Lord of Heaven’s Armies, God of Israel, you are enthroned between the mighty cherubim! You alone are God of all the kingdoms of the earth. You alone created the heavens and the earth.” – Isaiah 37:16 NLT

He addresses God as the divine warrior-God. He leads the innumerable hosts of heaven, a supernatural army that far surpasses any earthly or human foe, including the Assyrians. He describes God as Israel’s God, a not-so-subtle reminder that God had chosen the nation of Israel as His own. They belonged to Him, and He was responsible for their well-being. Hezekiah goes on to describe God as sitting on a throne, but unlike any earthly throne occupied by a human king. God sits enthroned between cherubim – supernatural, angelic beings who are unlike anything of this earth. This designation of God’s glory and magnitude is borrowed from the psalms.

Please listen, O Shepherd of Israel,
    you who lead Joseph’s descendants like a flock.
O God, enthroned above the cherubim,
    display your radiant glory
    to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh.
Show us your mighty power.
    Come to rescue us! – Psalm 80:1-2 NLT

The Lord is king!
    Let the nations tremble!
He sits on his throne between the cherubim.
    Let the whole earth quake! – Psalm 99:1 NLT

And Hezekiah acknowledges that Yahweh alone is God of all the kingdoms of the earth, including the kingdom of Assyria. He is sovereign over all. In fact, Hezekiah admits that God created all that exists. He made the heavens and the earth and every living creature. While Sennacherib could brag about his creation of a mighty kingdom, only God could claim the title of Creator. Hezekiah was bringing his problem to the source and the solution of all things.

And Hezekiah begs the great, majestic, transcendent, all-powerful God of the universe to intervene on Judah’s behalf.

Incline your ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear all the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to mock the living God. – Isaiah 37:17 ESV

Hezekiah acknowledges that Assyria had successfully defeated the other nations, but only because the gods of those nations were lifeless and impotent. They were fabricated by men and, unlike Yahweh, had no power to save.

For they were no gods, but the work of men's hands, wood and stone. Therefore they were destroyed. – Isaiah 37:19 ESV

False gods provide faulty help in times of trouble. They can’t deliver the necessary aid because they lack the necessary ingredient to do so: Life. But not so with Yahweh. He is alive and well. He is all-powerful and fully capable of providing the hope and help we need in life’s darkest moment. There is no challenge too great. There is no enemy too strong. There is no challenge we will face that is beyond His awareness or outside His ability to provide a solution. So, Hezekiah asks his Sovereign for salvation.

So now, O Lord our God, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that you alone are the Lord. – Isaiah 37:20 ESV

Selfishly, Hezekiah wants to see Jerusalem saved. But he also wants to see God glorified. And he knows that the seriousness of the situation will require the power of God for any hope of salvation. He longs to see God work so that the nations will see that God is sovereign over all. He wants His God to receive the glory He deserves. And so, he begs God to save. When we trust God to do what only God can do, He alone gets the glory. When we turn to Him as our sole source of help and hope, we get to see Him work, and the world gets to see the one true God in action. Our reliance upon Him gives proof of His reliability. Our trust in Him demonstrates before the world the trustworthiness of God.

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

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

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

 

A Day of Distress, Rebuke, and Disgrace

1 As soon as King Hezekiah heard it, he tore his clothes and covered himself with sackcloth and went into the house of the Lord. 2 And he sent Eliakim, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and the senior priests, covered with sackcloth, to the prophet Isaiah the son of Amoz. 3 They said to him, “Thus says Hezekiah, ‘This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. 4 It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.’”

5 When the servants of King Hezekiah came to Isaiah, 6 Isaiah said to them, “Say to your master, ‘Thus says the Lord: Do not be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the young men of the king of Assyria have reviled me. 7 Behold, I will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor and return to his own land, and I will make him fall by the sword in his own land.’”

8 The Rabshakeh returned, and found the king of Assyria fighting against Libnah, for he had heard that the king had left Lachish. 9 Now the king heard concerning Tirhakah king of Cush, “He has set out to fight against you.” And when he heard it, he sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying, 10 “Thus shall you speak to Hezekiah king of Judah: ‘Do not let your God in whom you trust deceive you by promising that Jerusalem will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria. 11 Behold, you have heard what the kings of Assyria have done to all lands, devoting them to destruction. And shall you be delivered? 12 Have the gods of the nations delivered them, the nations that my fathers destroyed, Gozan, Haran, Rezeph, and the people of Eden who were in Telassar? 13 Where is the king of Hamath, the king of Arpad, the king of the city of Sepharvaim, the king of Hena, or the king of Ivvah?’” – Isaiah 37:1-13 ESV

The Assyrian army surrounds the city of Jerusalem. An emissary from the Assyrian king, speaking fluent Hebrew, has taunted the people of Judah, warning them not to trust in their king, their allies or their God. And he has tempted them with the tantalizing offer of peace and prosperity if they will only surrender. And though the text tells us that “the people were silent and did not utter a word” (Isaiah 36:21 NLT), the thought of giving up must have crossed the minds of many that day. Why suffer certain defeat and death when the king of Assyria was promising so much more?

“Make peace with me—open the gates and come out. Then each of you can continue eating from your own grapevine and fig tree and drinking from your own well. Then I will arrange to take you to another land like this one—a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards.” – Isaiah 36:16-17 NLT

Even King Hezekiah was devastated by the news of what had taken place outside the walls of Jerusalem. He immediately went into mourning and entered the temple to pray and seek the aid of God Almighty. He even sent two of his administrative aids to Isaiah the prophet with a request that he intercede with God on their behalf.

“This day is a day of distress, of rebuke, and of disgrace; children have come to the point of birth, and there is no strength to bring them forth. It may be that the Lord your God will hear the words of the Rabshakeh, whom his master the king of Assyria has sent to mock the living God, and will rebuke the words that the Lord your God has heard; therefore lift up your prayer for the remnant that is left.” – Isaiah 37:3-4 ESV

These were dark days, and the outlook was grim. But rather than give up, Hezekiah looked up. He turned to God for help. And he sought the aid of the prophet of God, hoping that Isaiah had a direct line to the Almighty and could enlist His support.

Hezekiah, while a good and godly king, had a somewhat limited view of God’s sovereignty and power. He questions whether God has heard what the Assyrian emissary has said. It’s as if He thinks God might be unaware of their predicament and must be informed of all that is going on. What he failed to understand was that all of this was God’s doing. The Almighty was not clueless, He was in control of all that was going on. The Assyrians were His instruments of judgment upon the people of Judah, but they could do no more than He permitted. And while their army was impressive and their taunts were impactful, they were not to be feared.

“This is what the Lord says: Do not be disturbed by this blasphemous speech against me from the Assyrian king’s messengers. Listen! I myself will move against him, and the king will receive a message that he is needed at home. So he will return to his land, where I will have him killed with a sword.” – Isaiah 37:6-7 NLT

It’s interesting to note how Isaiah prefaced his message from God. He said, “This is what the Lord says.” When the Assyrian emissary approached the walls of Jerusalem with a message for King Hezekiah, he had stated, “This is what the great king of Assyria says” (Isaiah 36:4 NLT). Isaiah seems to be purposefully juxtaposing the word of God against the word of King Sennacherib. Both sovereigns had spoken, but only one would be right. The word of God would trump the arrogant boasts of the Assyrian king. His threats of destruction and deportation would never happen. Before Sennacherib could even launch an attack on Jerusalem, he would receive news that would force him to return to Assyrian, where he would be assassinated. His grandiose plans for conquest would end in his own death at the hands of his own sons.

What is interesting to note is that God does not tell Isaiah or Hezekiah another important detail regarding His defeat of the Assyrians. The book of 2 Chronicles records that God did far more than plant a message in King Sennacherib’s ear. He destroyed the Assyrian army.

And the Lord sent an angel who destroyed the Assyrian army with all its commanders and officers. So Sennacherib was forced to return home in disgrace to his own land. And when he entered the temple of his god, some of his own sons killed him there with a sword. – 2 Chronicles 32:21 NLT

Most likely, Sennacherib would have left the majority of his army in place and returned home without them. But God had other plans. Not only was the king forced to leave Judah, his army would be destroyed. He would return home in disgrace and defeat, where things would get only worse.

Sennacherib’s sin was that he had mocked the living God. He and his men “talked about the God of Jerusalem as though he were one of the pagan gods, made by human hands” (2 Chronicles 32:19 NLT). His officers “mocked the Lord God and his servant Hezekiah, heaping insult upon insult” (2 Chronicles 32:16 NLT).

And they were not done. Isaiah records that the Assyrian emissary continued to mock Hezekiah and his God.

“Don’t let your God, in whom you trust, deceive you with promises that Jerusalem will not be captured by the king of Assyria.” – Isaiah 37:10 NLT

And he gave as proof all the other nations and gods the Assyrians had conquered along their way to Jerusalem. But Sennacherib’s mistake was in thinking Yahweh was nothing more than just another impotent god who would prove incapable of standing up to his power and might. In a sense, he saw himself as greater than God. And he had a track record of success against all the other pagan gods to prove it. But this time, he was wrong. He was up against the one true God. And as God told Moses centuries earlier:

“Look now; I myself am he! There is no other god but me! I am the one who kills and gives life; I am the one who wounds and heals; no one can be rescued from my powerful hand!” – Deuteronomy 32:39 NLT

Sennacherib could brag and mock, but God would have the last word. The Assyrian king could boast about all his previous victories, but this battle would not go his way. It would end in defeat and his own death. God was about to turn the day of distress, rebuke, and disgrace on its head. It would be the Assyrians who saw their army and their hopes of victory crushed. 

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

 

Misplaced Trust

1 In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and took them. 2 And the king of Assyria sent the Rabshakeh from Lachish to King Hezekiah at Jerusalem, with a great army. And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. 3 And there came out to him Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder.

4 And the Rabshakeh said to them, “Say to Hezekiah, ‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: On what do you rest this trust of yours? 5 Do you think that mere words are strategy and power for war? In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? 6 Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him. 7 But if you say to me, “We trust in the Lord our God,” is it not he whose high places and altars Hezekiah has removed, saying to Judah and to Jerusalem, “You shall worship before this altar”? 8 Come now, make a wager with my master the king of Assyria: I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them. 9 How then can you repulse a single captain among the least of my master’s servants, when you trust in Egypt for chariots and for horsemen? 10 Moreover, is it without the Lord that I have come up against this land to destroy it? The Lord said to me, “Go up against this land and destroy it.”’”

11 Then Eliakim, Shebna, and Joah said to the Rabshakeh, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, for we understand it. Do not speak to us in the language of Judah within the hearing of the people who are on the wall.” 12 But the Rabshakeh said, “Has my master sent me to speak these words to your master and to you, and not to the men sitting on the wall, who are doomed with you to eat their own dung and drink their own urine?”

13 Then the Rabshakeh stood and called out in a loud voice in the language of Judah: “Hear the words of the great king, the king of Assyria! 14 Thus says the king: ‘Do not let Hezekiah deceive you, for he will not be able to deliver you. 15 Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in the Lord by saying, “The Lord will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” 16 Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me and come out to me. Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, 17 until I come and take you away to a land like your own land, a land of grain and wine, a land of bread and vineyards. 18 Beware lest Hezekiah mislead you by saying, “The Lord will deliver us.” Has any of the gods of the nations delivered his land out of the hand of the king of Assyria? 19 Where are the gods of Hamath and Arpad? Where are the gods of Sepharvaim? Have they delivered Samaria out of my hand? 20 Who among all the gods of these lands have delivered their lands out of my hand, that the Lord should deliver Jerusalem out of my hand?’”

21 But they were silent and answered him not a word, for the king’s command was, “Do not answer him.” 22 Then Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, who was over the household, and Shebna the secretary, and Joah the son of Asaph, the recorder, came to Hezekiah with their clothes torn, and told him the words of the Rabshakeh. – Isaiah 36:1-21 ESV

The fateful day has arrived. The Assyrians are literally knocking at the door of Jerusalem, preparing to add this city to a long list of others they had conquered in the region. Isaiah provides us with a date, the fourteenth year of Hezekiah’s reign, which would have been 701 BC. By this date, the Assyrians had conquered 46 cities in Judah, including Lachish, which Sennacherib used as a staging area for further military actions.

The Assyrian king sent an emissary, accompanied by a massive army, to discuss surrender terms with King Hezekiah of Judah. This display of might was meant to persuade the king to surrender Jerusalem without a fight. King Hezekiah sent three of his top administrative personnel to meet with the Assyrians and, as they stood just outside the conduit of the upper pool, the people of Judah squeezed onto the walls to see what was going to happen.

It is interesting to note that, 23 years earlier, on this very same spot, Isaiah had been sent by God to confront another king of Judah facing a similar problem.

And the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. And say to him, ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah.’” – Isaiah 7:3-4 ESV

Nearly a quarter-century earlier, Judah was facing the combined forces of Syria and Israel, two nations who had formed an alliance in order to capture Jerusalem and destroy Judah. But God had other plans. He warned King Ahaz to stay strong and not lose heart. As bad as things may have appeared, the outcome would be different than expected. He told them:

“It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.” – Isaiah 7:7 ESV

But he also warned them:

“If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” – Isaiah 7:9 ESV

The Syrians and Israelites never conquered Jerusalem. Their plans were easily thwarted by God. And He used the Assyrians to accomplish His will. Now, 23 years later, the Assyrians were gathered en masse outside the walls of Jerusalem. And the words that Isaiah had spoken to King Ahaz all those years earlier still applied. The people of Judah had no reason to fear if they would only trust in God. And trust is the main theme of King Sennacherib’s ultimatum delivered by his emissary.

“This is what the great king of Assyria says: What are you trusting in that makes you so confident?” – Isaiah 36:4 NLT

Remember, the king of Judah had paid a large sum to the Egyptians to secure their assistance in the event that the Assyrians came against them. Their confidence, if any, was in that very expensive alliance. They had placed their hopes in the military might of the Egyptian army. But they were nowhere to be found. And King Sennacherib knew it.

“Who are you counting on, that you have rebelled against me? On Egypt? If you lean on Egypt, it will be like a reed that splinters beneath your weight and pierces your hand. Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, is completely unreliable!” – Isaiah 36:5-6 NLT

Sennacherib knew that Egypt would prove to be an unreliable and even dangerous source of security. They could not be depended upon. But the Assyrian king’s strongest words of warning concerning Judah’s misplaced trust were aimed at Yahweh.

“But perhaps you will say to me, ‘We are trusting in the Lord our God!’ But isn’t he the one who was insulted by Hezekiah? Didn’t Hezekiah tear down his shrines and altars and make everyone in Judah and Jerusalem worship only at the altar here in Jerusalem?” – Isaiah 36:7 NLT

Actually, Sennacherib has his facts wrong. When Hezekiah had begun his reign as king over Judah, he was only 25-years old. But he proved to be a different kind of king, ruling much more in line with his ancestor, King David.

He did what was pleasing in the Lord’s sight, just as his ancestor David had done. He removed the pagan shrines, smashed the sacred pillars, and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke up the bronze serpent that Moses had made, because the people of Israel had been offering sacrifices to it. The bronze serpent was called Nehushtan.

Hezekiah trusted in the Lord, the God of Israel. There was no one like him among all the kings of Judah, either before or after his time. – 2 Kings 1:3-5 NLT

King Sennacherib saw Hezekiah’s removal of the pagan shrines as an affront to Judah’s god. Being a polytheist, he didn’t understand the concept of a single deity who demanded the undivided worship of His people. But it may be likely that Sennacherib was addressing the unspoken fears of the people of Judah, who were wondering if Hezekiah’s reforms had actually angered the false gods they used to worship. Had his radical efforts to rid the realm of all gods but Yahweh been the cause of all their problems? The Assyrian king seems to stir the embers of this smoldering spirit of unrest among the people. And the three royal representatives of King Hezekiah, sensing that Sennacherib’s words were having their planned impact, asked that the rest of the negotiations be conducted in Aramaic rather than Hebrew, so the people on the walls might not understand what was being said. But the Assyrian emissary refused, choosing instead to address the citizens of Judah directly.

Then the chief of staff stood and shouted in Hebrew to the people on the wall, “Listen to this message from the great king of Assyria! This is what the king says: Don’t let Hezekiah deceive you. He will never be able to rescue you. Don’t let him fool you into trusting in the Lord by saying, ‘The Lord will surely rescue us. This city will never fall into the hands of the Assyrian king!’” – Isaiah 36:13-15 NLT

Again, the primary emphasis of his message was focused on trust. He warned them not to trust Hezekiah, the Egyptians, or their own God. They couldn’t rely on their king, their allies, or their deity. Sennacherib was removing every single source of support and security. In the place of their unreliable resources, King Sennacherib offered peace and security.

“Make peace with me—open the gates and come out. Then each of you can continue eating from your own grapevine and fig tree and drinking from your own well.” – Isaiah 36:16 NLT

“I will arrange to take you to another land like this one—a land of grain and new wine, bread and vineyards.” – Isaiah 36:17 NLT

Notice what he is doing. He is offering the people of Judah what God had promised to give them. In a sense, he was setting himself up as their god, their source of peace, prosperity, sustenance, and security. And that is what the enemy always does. He appeals to our innate need for divine help, but he sets himself up as the solution to all our needs. It should not escape our notice that Sennacherib and the Assyrians were a threat to the security of Judah. They had proven themselves to be the enemy of the people of God, having already destroyed 46 other cities of Judah. And now they were camped outside the walls of Jerusalem, a massive army prepared to add this city to their long list of conquests, and determined to make its citizens its slaves.

The offers of Sennacherib were well-disguised lies. He told the people of Judah what they wanted to hear, offering them escape through surrender, and rescue through compromise. If they would only trust him, they would live. But God would have the people of Judah trust Him alone. No matter how bad things may have appeared, no matter how attractive the enemy’s lies may have sounded, only God could deliver the salvation for which they longed. Listening to the lies of the enemy would result in slavery, not salvation. Trusting in the promises of Satan always brings death, not life. So God calls out to us to remain faithful to Him, to place our trust in Him alone.

“If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.” – Isaiah 7:9 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

 

Until the Spirit Is Poured Upon Us

9 Rise up, you women who are at ease, hear my voice;
    you complacent daughters, give ear to my speech.
10 In little more than a year
    you will shudder, you complacent women;
for the grape harvest fails,
    the fruit harvest will not come.
11 Tremble, you women who are at ease,
    shudder, you complacent ones;
strip, and make yourselves bare,
    and tie sackcloth around your waist.
12 Beat your breasts for the pleasant fields,
    for the fruitful vine,
13 for the soil of my people
    growing up in thorns and briers,
yes, for all the joyous houses
    in the exultant city.
14 For the palace is forsaken,
    the populous city deserted;
the hill and the watchtower
    will become dens forever,
a joy of wild donkeys,
    a pasture of flocks;
15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,
    and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field,
    and the fruitful field is deemed a forest.
16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness,
    and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.
17 And the effect of righteousness will be peace,
    and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.
18 My people will abide in a peaceful habitation,
    in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.
19 And it will hail when the forest falls down,
    and the city will be utterly laid low.
20 Happy are you who sow beside all waters,
    who let the feet of the ox and the donkey range free. – Isaiah 32:9-20 ESV

Isaiah has announced the coming of a righteous king and has called the people of Judah to “Return to the one against whom you have so blatantly rebelled!” (Isaiah 31:5 NET). He has delivered God’s stinging indictment against the leaders of the nation, labeling them as “stubborn children…who carry out a plan, but not mine, and who make an alliance, but not of my Spirit” (Isaiah 30:1 ESV).  Now, the prophet directs his message to the women of Judah. This is intended to reveal that Judah’s problem is pervasive, and not relegated to a particular class or gender of people. Even the women of Judah are guilty of rebellion against God. So, Isaiah calls them out.

You complacent women,
get up and listen to me!
You carefree daughters,
pay attention to what I say! – Isaiah 32:1 NET

He uses two words to describe these women. The first is sha'anan, which portrays them as being a bit haughty and aloof, living with a false sense of ease and confidence. The second word he uses is batach, and it paints them as having a false sense of security. To put it in more modern terms, Isaiah is saying they are “fat and happy.” Which is somewhat similar to the words the prophet Amos used when he called out the women of the northern kingdom of Israel.

Listen to me, you fat cows
    living in Samaria,
you women who oppress the poor
    and crush the needy,
and who are always calling to your husbands,
    “Bring us another drink!” – Amos 4:1 NLT

Isaiah attempts to light a fire under these carefree and complacent women, pleading with them to listen to what he has to say. Time is running out. Judgment is coming. In fact, Isaiah warns that “In a short time—just a little more than a year—you careless ones will suddenly begin to care” (Isaiah 32:10 NLT). God will get their attention. Their false sense of security will be suddenly shattered. Their smug demeanor will be replaced with fear.

Tremble, you women of ease;
    throw off your complacency.
Strip off your pretty clothes,
    and put on burlap to show your grief.
Beat your breasts in sorrow for your bountiful farms
    and your fruitful grapevines. – Isaiah 32:11 NLT

Isaiah calls on these women to repent. He warns them to change their attitude now before the judgment of God falls on them. They need to replace their false sense of security with a fear of God. They need to remove their fine clothing and put on the garments of mourning, as a sign of their sorrow for having offended a holy God. They need to repent over their misplaced trust, as illustrated by their over-confidence in their bountiful farms and fruitful grapevines. These women, like everyone else in the nation, had come to believe that they were somehow invincible and their material prosperity was a sign of God’s favor.

Yet, Isaiah lets them know that everything in which they have trusted will suddenly be taken from them. He depicts a dramatic reversal of fortunes for these women and the nation.

For your land will be overgrown with thorns and briers.
    Your joyful homes and happy towns will be gone.
The palace and the city will be deserted,
    and busy towns will be empty.
Wild donkeys will frolic and flocks will graze
    in the empty forts and watchtowers… – Isaiah 32:13-14 NLT

Their material world was going to be rocked. Nothing will be left untouched. Houses, towns, palaces, and pastures, will all bear the brunt of God’s righteous wrath. Because these things represent the source of their security. Their material possessions had become substitutes for God. They found peace in the shelter of their houses, not the arms of God. They felt safe because of the fortifications of their cities, not because of their God. They relied on the fruitfulness of their fields and orchards for sustenance, rather than God. In short, they worshiped the gifts rather than the Giver.

But God was about to change all that. In the relatively short-term, God would bring destruction upon the nation of Judah. In 701 BC, Sennacherib besieged the city of Jerusalem, creating extremely difficult conditions within its walls. Even before the siege began, the emissary for the king had warned the people in the city:

“Do you think my master sent this message only to you and your master? He wants all the people to hear it, for when we put this city under siege, they will suffer along with you. They will be so hungry and thirsty that they will eat their own dung and drink their own urine.” – 2 Kings 18:27 NLT

As we have seen, God eventually spared the city of Jerusalem, miraculously defeating the Assyrian army. In the middle of the night, an angel of the Lord killed 185,000 of the enemy’s troops, forcing Sennacherib to call off the siege and return to Assyria. But 115 years later, the destruction of Jerusalem would finally come. In 586 BC, after another lengthy and devastating siege, the Babylonians, under the leadership of King Nebuchadnezzar, breached the walls the city and completely destroyed it. 

At this point, as Isaiah addresses the women of Judah, all of these events had not yet happened. They lie somewhere in the future; as yet unfulfilled, but unavoidable. Because they did happen. God’s judgment did come. Homes were destroyed, palaces demolished, the temple burned and razed, and the people taken captive. And Isaiah warns that the desolation of Judah would continue until another, as yet unfulfilled event took place. He describes the desolation of Jerusalem continuing “until at last the Spirit is poured out on us from heaven” (Isaiah 32:15 NLT).

With the coming of this future day, another incredible reversal of fortunes will take place. Isaiah describes the wilderness becoming a fertile field yielding bountiful crops. And the most abundant fruit to be found will be justice and righteousness. It will be a time marked by peace. And in place of the cocky confidence of the women of Judah, will be a quiet and confidence that comes from God.

And this righteousness will bring peace. Yes, it will bring quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in safety, quietly at home. They will be at rest. – Isaiah 32:17-18 NLT

Rather than trusting in material things and finding their hope and security in the gifts, the people of Judah will turn to the Giver of all good things. And He will bless them.

the Lord will greatly bless his people.
    Wherever they plant seed, bountiful crops will spring up.
Their cattle and donkeys will graze freely. – Isaiah 32:20 NLT

This day has not yet come. This prophecy has not yet been fulfilled. But it will be. Just as the Assyrians besieged the city and the Babylonians destroyed it, the day will come when the Lord pours out His blessings upon Jerusalem and the people of Israel. 

“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope” – Jeremiah 29:11 NLT

And that plan includes the future restoration of His people. He will pour out His Spirit upon them and they will become all that He has intended for them to be all along.

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 36:26-27 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