Not too hard

While the city of Jerusalem was under siege from king Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, Jeremiah was kept in prison so he couldn’t speak to the people and discourage them from fighting (Jeremiah 38:4). About halfway through a two-year battle that was eventually lost, Jeremiah received a message from the LORD. “And Jeremiah said, The word of the LORD came unto me, saying, Behold, Hanameel the son of Shallum thine uncle shall come unto thee, saying, Buy thee my field that is in Anathoth: for the right of redemption is thine to buy it…And I bought the field of Hanameel my uncle’s son, that was in Anathoth, and weighed him the money, even seventeen shekels of silver” (Jeremiah 32:6-7,9).

Jeremiah’s act of obedience to the Mosaic Law served two purposes. First, it was a sign of Jeremiah’s faith that he believed God would return his people to the Promised Land after their captivity was completed. Second, Jeremiah’s redemption of his cousin’s property demonstrated that normal economic activity was expected to resume after the exile. Judah’s captivity would not change the course of events. It was meant to reset, not alter the execution of God’s covenant with his people.

One of the main problems that existed at the time of Judah’s captivity was a lack of faith. No one really believed God could or would save his people. As a means of establishing his ability to do the impossible, God intended to destroy the city of Jerusalem, and then, to bring it back to life again. Jeremiah declared, “Ah Lord GOD! behold, thou hast made the heaven and the earth by thy great power and stretched out arm, and there is nothing too hard for thee” (Jeremiah 32:17). What was not too hard for God was to make his people want to obey his commandments. In other words, for God’s people to have faith in him.

One of the reasons the Israelites did not obey God was he had never punished them. In a sense, you could say, they had gotten away with their sins, and therefore, continued to do what they knew was not right. Also, there was probably a sense that God couldn’t or wouldn’t punish them, so there was no need for them to repent. In some ways, you could say God’s people were leading double lives. They offered sacrifices to God and continued to sin as if the two had nothing to do with each other; there was no connection in their minds.

God’s answer to the problem of disobedience or lack of faith was to give his people a desire to know  him, to have a personal relationship with him. God told his people they were to obey his voice (Exodus 19:5), but they had stopped listening. They were distracted by their sin and interest in accumulating wealth. God said to Jeremiah, “And I will give them one heart, and one way, that they may fear me for ever, for the good of them, and of their children after them” (Jeremiah 32:39). In essence, what God was saying was he would give his people only one option, they would obey him or they would not live in the Promised Land.

The new covenant

The captivity of Judah brought an end to God’s original plan of salvation for his people, known as the Old Covenant. The Old Covenant was based on God’s deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt. When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea and entered the wilderness, they became an independent people group that was later referred to as the nation of Israel. Everything that happened between God and his people was done collectively as if all the people were a single entity. When the Old Covenant was brought to a conclusion, God began to look at every person on an individual basis to determine their life’s course.

The captivity of Judah was the result of a national failure to obey God. Even though every person was guilty of sinning against God, it was their collective guilt that brought condemnation on God’s people. Describing the new approach God would take, Jeremiah declared, “In those days they shall say no more, the fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity” (Jeremiah 31:29-30). God make his new covenant “with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah” (Jeremiah 31:31). The reunification of Jacob’s family and rebuilding of the nation of Israel was an important aspect of God’s revised plan that showed he did not intend to start over or abandon his chosen people in his attempt to save the world.

A critical difference between the old and new covenants was the type of relationship God intended to have with his people. Initially, God acted as a husband to his people (Jeremiah 31:32), and desired an exclusive relationship with them based on a binding legal agreement. After Israel betrayed him and Judah sought military assistance from foreign nations, God determined another way to deliver his people from their sinful behavior. Rather than expecting them to make sacrifices to him, God would enable his people to be forgiven of their sins once and for all. Based on his sovereign right to show favor to whomever he chose, God designated all who accepted his free gift of salvation to be completely absolved of their sins (Jeremiah 31:34).

A description of the new covenant was given to Jeremiah in order to clarify God’s intent in restoring the nation of Israel. He said, “But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; after those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). God’s ability to transform the human heart was the hallmark of his new covenant. A desire to do the will of God would be evidence that a person had been converted. Not only did God intend to bring his people back to their homeland, but he also intended to live among them (Jeremiah 31:34).

The vision

The vision Habakkuk received of the punishment that would come to the people of Judah by the Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1:5-10) was so distressful that Habakkuk couldn’t comprehend that God would actually carry out such a plan against his own people. Habakkuk questioned God’s motives and asked, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13). Habakkuk didn’t understand how a God that couldn’t stand to see his people sin could tolerate such an injustice as was described to him.

The vision Habakkuk received was intended to be a final warning to any who would be willing to put their trust in God before it was too late. It says in Habakkuk 2:3-4, “And the LORD answered me, and said, write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it, for the vision is yet for the appointed time, but at the end it shall speak and not lie. Though it tarry, wait for it’  because it will surely come; it will not tarry.” God’s  instruction to make the vision plain meant that it should be obvious to everyone that it was definitely going to happen. It was not a matter of if, but when the end would come to the nation of Judah.

The end that the LORD was referring to was not just an end to the political and religious structure that kept the nation of Judah functioning, but an end to the Old Covenant that promised salvation through the keeping of the Mosaic Law. Habakkuk was given an advance presentation of the New Covenant when he was told, “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him, but the just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Many in Jerusalem at the time of its destruction thought they would be saved, but God told Habakkuk only those who had faith, believed that God would do what he said he would (530), would remain alive and be taken into captivity.

In contrast to the promise that the just would live by their faith, Habakkuk was told that the unrighteous or nonbelievers would suffer a terrible death and eternal punishment (Habakkuk 2:5). Five woes were pronounced, similar to those recorded in Isaiah 5:8-23. In the New Testament, Matthew addressed the religious leaders who were referred to as “scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 23:13) and pronounced woes upon them. Matthew labeled these teachers of the law as hypocrites, men who acted as if they believed in God, but in actuality they were depending on their knowledge of God’s rules and regulations to condemn others instead of examining their own hearts to see if they were guilty of any sin.

The imagination of the heart

Jeremiah’s message to the people of Judah about obedience to God’s commandments was met with death threats (Jeremiah 26:8). The priests and prophets had been lying to the people about the consequences of their sins and were unwilling to let God’s message interfere with the corrupt practices they had established (Jeremiah 8:11). After approaching the people in the temple, Jeremiah was told to take his message to the streets of Jerusalem. There he was to remind the people of their covenant with God and to warn them that judgment was coming. (Jeremiah 11:6,11).

The LORD’s argument against the people was their stubborn refusal to listen to what God was saying to them. Jeremiah was told, “For I earnestly protested unto your fathers in the day that I brought them up out of the land of Egypt, even unto this day, rising early and protesting, saying, Obey my voice. Yet they obeyed not, nor inclined their ear, but walked every one in the imagination of their evil heart” (Jeremiah 11:8). Imagination refers to the thoughts in one’s mind. The people had gotten the idea in their heads that idolatry was necessary for their survival. Idolatry had become a way of life for them and they couldn’t imagine giving up that lifestyle.

God described the situation in Judah as a conspiracy (Jeremiah 11:9). What he meant by that was an alliance had been formed between the leaders of Judah and the priests and prophets of the temple that excluded God from the government of his people. Normally, the people were expected to seek God for direction and to thank him for his provision, but instead the people were expected to pay tribute to the king of Egypt (2 Chronicles 36:3) and to mock God for his inability to deliver them from their enemies (2 Chronicles 36:4).

Jeremiah’s frustration and humiliation at being condemned to death for speaking the truth is evident in his statement of rejection. He said, “But I was like a lamb or an ox that is led to the slaughter’ and I knew not that they had devised devices against me saying, Let us destroy the tree with the fruit thereof and let us cut him off from the land of the living, that his name be no more remembered” (Jeremiah 11:19). In spite of his desperate situation, Jeremiah didn’t lose hope in God. He prayed, “But, O LORD of hosts, that judgest righteously, that triest the reins and the heart, let me see vengeance on them: for unto thee have I revealed my cause” (Jeremiah 11:20).

A legal case

Jeremiah’s message to Judah began with the presentation of a legal case against God’s people. According to the Mosaic Law, the Israelites were forbidden to worship any other God besides YHWH, the name of God translated into English as LORD. God chose this name as the personal name by which he related specifically to his chosen or covenant people (3068). The first three commandments of the Mosaic Law stated:

  1. Thou shalt have not other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
  3. Thou shalt not bow down thyself  to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children  unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (Exodus 20:3-5)

The first three of the Ten Commandments given to the children of Israel dealt with idolatry because the covenant between God and his chosen people depended on a relationship existing between the two parties of the agreement. In some ways, the Ten Commandments were like a marriage contract that specified the terms for a divorce to take place. It was implied that both God and his people would be faithful to each other and remain in the relationship for ever. The reason why idolatry was off limits for them was because like adultery, it undermined the intimacy that was necessary for a loving relationship to exist. The only way the Israelites would trust God and depend on his provision for them was knowing God and God alone could take care of all their needs.

God’s issue with his people was not so much that they had broken his commandments , but that they had abandoned him for worthless idols. Speaking through Jeremiah, the LORD declared, “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns; broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). A cistern was a man-made storage tank designed to capture rain and make it available throughout the year. The cistern was representative of an idol because it was cut or carved out of stone and signified man’s ability to live independent of God’s ongoing provision. God’s reference to broken cisterns that could hold no water was meant to highlight the fact that a cistern was useless without rain, which God still had to provide.

The Israelites’ desire for independence was seen by God as being the same as an unfaithful spouse. Particularly in the book of Hosea, God’s people were likened to “a wife of whoredoms” (Hosea 1:2). Rather than being thankful for what God had provided, the Israelites preferred to fend for themselves (Jeremiah 2;25) and to worship whomever they pleased (Jeremiah 2:31). In spite of their flagrant idolatry, God’s people claimed to be innocent of the charges God brought against them. It was only because they refused to repent that God proceeded with his judgment. Jeremiah declared the truth about the people’s attitude when he said, “Yet thou sayest, Because I am innocent, surely his anger shall turn from me. Behold, I will plead with thee, because thou sayest, I have not sinned” (Jeremiah 2:35).

The elect

One of the issues God had with the children of Israel being his chosen people was their attitude of entitlement. In spite of their disobedience to God’s commandments, the Israelites saw themselves as better than the rest of the world, because they were consecrated to the LORD (Isaiah 65:5). God’s judgment of his people was intended to bring an end to their bad behavior (Isaiah 65:6-7).

God’s primary objective in the captivity of his people was to preserve the Messianic line of descendants until Christ was born. Although the nation of Judah was destined to spend 70 years in captivity, it took much longer to purge the idolatry from the people’s systems. Isaiah described this process in terms of wine making. He said, “Thus saith the LORD, as the new wine is found in the cluster: and one saith, Destroy it not; for a blessing is in it: so will I do for my servants’ sake, that I may not destroy them all. And I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains: and mine elect shall inherit it, and mine servants shall dwell there” (Isaiah 65:8-9).

The “mine elect” (Isaiah 65:9) Isaiah was referring to in this passage was the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Upon his birth, Jesus became the heir to the throne of God’s  kingdom, which in Isaiah’s time encompassed only the Promised Land. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new covenant went into effect that determined God’s elect or chosen people would no longer be those born into the household of Jacob, but those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Isaiah declared of those who rejected Christ, “And ye shall leave your name for a curse unto my chosen: for the Lord GOD shall slay thee, and call his servants by another name” (Isaiah 65:15).

The millennial reign of Christ that begins at the end of the great tribulation will be a time of transition from temporal to eternal life. During that time period, there will still be sinners alive on earth (Isaiah 6:20), but a new system of government will exist that mandates submission to God (Isaiah 32:1). It will be evident at that time that God’s elect are “chosen ones” (972) that have been called into the service of God on an individual basis rather than collectively as a group, as with the nation of Israel. Isaiah declared of these people:

They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and whiles they are yet speaking, I will hear. (Isaiah 65:22-24)

The problem of sin

When  the Israelites left Egypt, God traveled with them in the form of a pillar of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). While they were in the wilderness, before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were instructed to make a tent of meeting, referred to as the tabernacle, so that God could dwell or live among his people. The tabernacle was assembled and then torn down every time the Israelites moved from one location to another (Numbers 10:17).

The temple built by king Solomon in Jerusalem was meant to be a permanent home for God (1 Kings 9:3). In connection with this, God made a covenant with Solomon that he would establish his throne for ever and would dwell among his people on the condition that Solomon and his descendants obeyed his commandments. The LORD specifically stated:

But if you shall at all turn from following me, you or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them: then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people; and at this house, which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the LORD done thus unto the land, and to his house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them; therefore hath the LORD brought upon them all this evil. (1 Kings 6:6-9)

The Assyrian attack on Jerusalem in 701 B.C. was the first step taken to bring down the city that Solomon erected to glorify God. Referring to Judah’s distress, Isaiah declared, “Now will I rise, saith the LORD; now will I be exalted; now will I lift up myself” (Isaiah 33:10). Solomon’s attempt to contain God in a man-made structure was a failure because God’s presence was dependent on the absence of sin in his people.

Referring to God as a devouring fire, Isaiah asked, “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire?” (Isaiah 33:14). God wanted to dwell among his people, but his holy nature made it impossible for him to coexist with sinners. The Israelites failed to understand that justification was a requirement for fellowship with God. Referring to the redeemed city of Jerusalem, Isaiah stated, “The people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity” (Isaiah 33:24).

God’s judgment of sin would not be isolated to his people. Ultimately, there would be universal judgment of sin (Isaiah 24:6) in order to eradicate it from God’s creation. Isaiah prophesied that in the end, there would be a complete destruction of God’s enemies.

Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people; let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it. For the indignation of the LORD is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter.

The curse

It’s hard to imagine that God knew Israel would end up going into captivity even before they entered the Promised Land, but along side the blessings of obedience listed in Deuteronomy 28 are the curses of disobedience which state:

And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you dood, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone…Then men shall say, Because they have forsaken the covenant  of the LORD God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them forth out of the land of Egypt: for they went and served other gods, and worshipped them , gods whom they knew not, and whom he had not given unto them; and the anger of the LORD was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curses that are written in this book: and the LORD rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them unto another land, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 28:63-64; 29:25-28)

Hoshea, the last king of Israel, reigned from 732-722 B.C. Shalmanezer, the successor to Tiglath-pilneser king of Assyria, conducted a three-year protracted siege against Israel that ended in 722 B.C. “At that time, according to Assyrian annuls written on clay ‘I (Sargon) besieged and conquered Samaria, led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants…I installed over (those remaining) an officer of mine and imposed upon them the tribute of the former king” (Campaign of Shalmanezer V).

The explanation of Israel’s captivity was that they did not believe in the LORD their God. “And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them, that they should not do like them” (2 Kings 17:15).

God did not force the Israelites to obey him. He gave them a choice (Deuteronomy 30:19) and clearly stated the consequences they could expect (Deuteronomy 28). Israel’s disobedience resulted in God rejecting them and turning them over to their enemies to be punished (2 Kings 17:20). After the king of Assyria removed them from the land, he “brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of God” (2 Kings 17:24).

The resettlement of Samaria with a mixture of cultures and nationalities led to diverse religious practices and idolatry. It says in 2 Kings 17:29 that even though the people were taught God’s divine law, “Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt.” In a very hypocritical manner, these people practiced syncretistic religion. “They feared the LORD, and served their own gods” (2 Kings 17:33).

A parable

Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-2) was used to describe the role Judah, and more specifically Jerusalem, had in God’s plan of salvation. Isaiah stated plainly in his parable that a partnership existed between God and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. God had done his part to ensure the Messiah would be born, but his kingdom had become unfit for habitation. Isaiah’s parable provided an important clue as to why the Messiah would not establish his kingdom until the last days, God’s people were corrupted by idolatry.

God had gone to great lengths to nurture and protect his people. In spite of his efforts, they refused to do things his way. Isaiah identified several problems the LORD intended to deal with in his judgment of the people of Judah, most importantly, their abuse of the land he had given them. Speaking for the LORD, Isaiah stated, “And now go to, I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up, and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned or digged, but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” (Isaiah 5:5-6).

Isaiah’s use of the term “wild grapes” (Isaiah 5:2,4) to describe the fruit of the LORD’s vineyard indicated the people of Judah had reached a point of no return in their abandonment of God’s law. The Hebrew word translated wild grapes, be’ushiym means poison-berries (891). Poison-berries are usually colorful and juicy looking, but toxic if ingested. Some poison-berries are lethal and it could be that Isaiah named a specific poison-berry in order to make his point that the vineyard had to be abandoned and was useless to its owner.

Part of the reason for God’s judgment against Judah was a need to expose the people’s sin and to condemn their bad behavior. As a demonstration of their unfaithfulness to God, the people would be removed from the land and humbled before the surrounding nations. It says in Isaiah 5:13, “Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst.”

The word translated captivity, galah means to denude or make oneself naked, especially in a disgraceful sense (1540). Captivity is also referred to as going into exile, captives being usually stripped in order to disgrace and humiliate them in public. Another meaning of the word galah is to reveal and it is sometimes applied to “the revealing of secrets and of one’s innermost feelings.” I believe God sent his people into captivity so that they could see themselves for what they really were, sinners in need of a Savior.

 

Not just a man

The remarkable thing about Isaiah’s prophecy of the last days was not that he saw what would happen thousands of years after his death, but that Isaiah’s vision came 700 years before the Messiah, Jesus Christ was born. There was still a huge gap in the outcome of the nation of Judah that needed to be filled in.

Beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God had spoken of an eternal kingdom that his people would inherit (Genesis 17:6-7). On his deathbed, Jacob foretold the future of his descendants and made reference to the last days (Genesis 49:1). Speaking of his son Judah’s inheritance, Jacob said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (Genesis 49:10).

The word Shiloh is an epithet of the Messiah (7886). What Jacob was saying was that Judah’s family would be kept in tact until the Messiah was born. The bloodline of Jesus had to be traced back to Abraham in order for God’s promise to be validated and verifiable to those who would question his lineage. At the time when Isaiah spoke to the nation of Judah, it was on the verge of extinction. Although they didn’t know it yet, the northern kingdom of Israel was about to be completely wiped out by Assyria, and Judah was next on Assyria’s list.

God’s judgment of Judah was intended to bring the people back to their senses. Although worship took place in God’s temple, the people’s hearts were far from the LORD, and their behavior reflected the cultures of the nations surrounding them. The most significant problem God intended them to deal with was their desire to be like everyone else. Isaiah posed a question to reveal their fault. “Cease ye from man whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?” (Isaiah 2:22).

The point Isaiah was making was that a mere man could not save God’s people. Although it was known that the Messiah would be a man, it was known at that time that he would also be God. Because king David was told that his son would reign for ever (2 Samuel 7:13), David assumed his son would become immortal. I don’t think David, or anyone else, expected the immortal God to become a man.

Isaiah spoke of blessings that indicated God’s judgment of Judah would prepare its people for the supernatural birth of their Messiah. “In that day shall the branch of the LORD be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel…When the LORD shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the Spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning” (Isaiah 4:2,4).