Repentance (Step 4)

Both the books of Isiah and Jeremiah contain illustrations of God as a potter and his chosen people as clay. Isaiah wrote, “But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all are the work of thine hand” (Isaiah 64:8). Jeremiah was told a parable in which the clay was marred in the hand of the potter and had to be remade into another vessel (Jeremiah 18:4). The LORD said to Jeremiah, “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6).

The process of repentance includes a willing relinquishment of the outcome of our lives. In order to get us to give up what we once thought to be essential for our happiness, God sometimes has to break our hearts. A broken heart is not about producing sadness, but about the view we have of ourselves that is central to our identity. The heart, according to Hebrew scriptures, is the whole inner man. “It includes not only the motives, feeling, actions and desires, but also the will, the aims, the principles, the thoughts, and the intellect of man”  (3820). In one sense, you could say that a broken heart results in the person you are ceasing to exist.

God’s punishment of his people was intended to change their character. He wanted them to be free of the pride and arrogance that caused them to refuse his help. It says in Lamentations 4:1-2, “How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed! The stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street. The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hand of the potter!

God had to use extreme measures to get his people to stop worshipping idols. It says in Lamentations 4:6, “For the punishment of the iniquity of the daughters of my people is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom, that was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands stayed on her.” Sodom’s quick destruction was considered a merciful act because there was no awareness of what was happening. When Israel and Judah were destroyed, not only did God tell them what was going to happen, but he also forced some of them to survive and go into captivity where the memory of what happened would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

It says in Lamentations 4:18, “They hunt our steps, that we cannot go in our streets: our end is near, our days are fulfilled; for our end is come.” This passage most likely came from someone that witnessed the destruction of Judah and saw first hand the Babylonian soldiers hunting down people as if they were animals to be killed in sport. This type of ruthless brutality no doubt had a lasting impact on those who survived. Through this experience, the hearts of God’s people were changed forever.

Zedekiah’s escape

King Nebuchadnezzar’s attack of Jerusalem lasted from the ninth year and tenth month of Zedekiah’s reign over Judah until the eleventh year and fourth month, on the ninth day of that month. The exact date of the fall of Jerusalem is known to be July 18, 586 B.C. During the nineteen month siege upon his country, king Zedekiah pretended to believe Jerusalem would survive Nebuchadnezzar’s attack, but in reality, Zedekiah knew the end was coming.

When Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, all his princes, and all his army came against Jerusalem, and sat in the middle gate, a strategic vantage point for invaders; it says in Jeremiah 39:4: “And it came to pass, that when Zedekiah the king of Judah saw them, and all the men of war, then he fled, and went forth out of the city by night, by the way of the king’s garden, by the gate betwixt two walls: and he went out the way of the plain.” Zedekiah took with him all his princes and men of war and left the people of Jerusalem defenseless (Jeremiah 52:7-10).

Zedekiah’s plan of escape went against the counsel he received from Jeremiah. The LORD told Jeremiah, “And Zedekiah king of Judah shall not escape out of the hands of the Chaldeans, but shall surely be delivered into the hand of the king of Babylon, and shall speak with him mouth to mouth, and his eyes shall behold his eyes” (Jeremiah 32:4). The Chaldean army overtook Zedekiah in the plans of Jericho and brought him to Nebuchadnezzar’s military headquarters (Jeremiah 39:5).

Zedekiah was appointed king of Judah by Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C. after the first wave of captives was taken to Babylon (2 Kings 24:14, 17). Initially, Zedekiah did what Nebuchadnezzar wanted him to , but later Zedekiah rebelled against the king of Babylon and sought assistance from the king of Egypt because Nebuchadnezzar “made him swear by God” that he would remain faithful to their agreement (2 Chronicles 36:13). It says of Zedekiah in 2 Chronicles 36:13 that “he stiffened his neck, and hardened his heart from turning unto the LORD God of Israel.”

When Zedekiah stood before Nebuchadnezzar after he had been captured, Zedekiah was treated as a traitor. It says in Jeremiah 39:6-8, “Then the king of Babylon slew the sons of Zedekiah in Riblah before his eyes: also the king of Babylon slew all the nobles of Judah. Moreover he put out Zedekiah’s eyes and bound him with chains to carry him to Babylon. And the Chaldeans burnt the king’s  house, and the houses of the people with fire, and brake down the walls of Jerusalem.”

Nebuchadnezzar’s barbaric treatment of Zedekiah was a type of psychological torture that was intended to cause him pain and anguish. Most likely, Zedekiah suffered from nightmares and perhaps depression as a result of seeing his family slaughtered before his eyes. The practice of putting out someone’s eyes after he has witnessed a personal tragedy suggests that Nebuchadnezzar was a ruthless disciplinarian that controlled others to the point that no one dared cross him. Zedekiah was foolish to think he could escape from Nebuchadnezzar’s army and paid dearly for his rebellion against the king of Babylon.

Spiritual manipulation

One of God’s key characteristics is the reliability of his word. Jeremiah frequently used the phrase “thus saith the LORD” to indicate God’s authority over what he said. As in the creation of the world, God speaks things into being and can cause something to happen by merely saying that it will. Therefore, God only says things that are consistent with his will. God does everything he promises to, because to him, saying and doing are essentially the same thing.

The commandments that were given to the Israelites were like a contract between God and his people that bound their actions together so that an obligation existed whenever obedience or disobedience occurred. If the Israelites kept the commandments, God rewarded them, and if they didn’t, he punished them. So, over time, the Israelites learned how to get what they wanted from God.

Zedekiah, the last king of Judah, was told to become a servant to Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (Jeremiah 25:11). Instead of submitting himself to Nebuchadnezzar’s authority, Zedekiah continually resisted and fought against going into captivity. In his attempt to change the outcome of his situation, Zedekiah used one of God’s commandments to manipulate God’s behavior. Zedekiah made a covenant with all the people in Jerusalem to let their Hebrew slaves go free (Jeremiah 34:8-9).

Zedekiah’s interpretation of the law was correct in that he understood it was wrong for the Israelites to make slaves of their own people, but the law of liberty or year of jubilee did not mean that letting the people go free would prevent Judah from going into captivity. And yet, God recognized Zedekiah’s  action and told him, “And ye were now turned, and had done right in my sight, in proclaiming liberty every man to his neighbor” (Jeremiah 34:15).

Unfortunately, Zedekiah wasn’t sincere in his effort to follow God’s commandment. When he saw that Pharaoh’s army was coming from Egypt, Nebuchadnezzar’s army stopped attacking Jerusalem (Jeremiah 37:5). And so, it says in Jeremiah 34:11, “But afterwards they turned, and caused the servants and the handmaids whom they had let go free, to return, and brought them into subjection for servants and handmaids.”

As soon as Zedekiah thought he got what he wanted, Nebuchadnezzar stopped attacking Jerusalem, he did an about face and recanted his promise to let the Hebrew slaves go free. God responded to Zedekiah’s broken promise by sending Nebuchadnezzar’s army back. He told Zedekiah, “Behold, I will command, saith the LORD, and cause them to return to this city; and they shall fight against it, and take it, and burn it with fire: and I will make the cities of Judah a desolation without an inhabitant” (Jeremiah 34:22).

God’s power

God’s ability to control the world we live in is due to his active, sovereign, and mighty involvement in the affairs of men. Not only does God rule directly over his people, but he also governs them through every person in authority that affects their lives. The LORD told Jeremiah, “I have made the earth, the man and the beast that are upon the ground, by my great power and by my outstretched arm, and have given it unto whom it seemed meet unto me” (Jeremiah 27:5).

God gave Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon all the land in and around the nations of Israel and Judah to rule over while his people were in captivity. God described Nebuchadnezzar as his servant, a term usually reserved for his chosen people. It would have been fair to say that Nebuchadnezzar was nothing more than a hired hand, but as the king of Babylon, he had more power and control than probably any other individual in history. Nebuchadnezzar was the first king to rule over what was considered to be at that time the entire civilized world.

Jeremiah was told to warn the kings of the world that God was going to subject them to Nebuchadnezzar’s authority. He declared, “And now have I given all these lands into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, my servant…And it shall come to pass, that the nation and kingdom which will not serve the same Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon, and will not put their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, that nation will I punish, saith the LORD, with the sword, and with the famine, and with the pestilence, until I have consumed them by his hand” (Jeremiah 27:6,8).

The symbol of the yoke was used to convey the idea of having an attitude of submission to Nebuchadnezzar’s authority. It was unlikely Jeremiah’s message was taken seriously because false prophets were contradicting everything Jeremiah said (Jeremiah 27:9). As a sign of his sovereign control, God promised he would bless those who obeyed his command. Jeremiah declared, “But the nations that bring their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, and serve him, those will I let remain still in their own land, saith the LORD; and they shall till it, and dwell therein” (Jeremiah 27:11).

The inner man

God’s main concern when he planned for the people of Judah to be taken into captivity was the condition of their hearts. The relationship God wanted to have with his people was one of love and trust. In order for that to be possible, the people had to be devoted to God and open to his involvement in their lives. The way Jeremiah described this was to use circumcision as an illustration of being dedicated to the LORD. He told the people, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4). Moses used similar language when he said, “Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deuteronomy 10:16).

The Hebrew words translated stiffnecked, qashah oreph literally mean hard necked or a neck that is unable to bend and be bowed down as in prayer (7185/6203). Looking at this term in relation to the heart, it refers to someone who is hard-hearted, a tough minded person who refuses to submit himself to God. Therefore, to circumcise the heart would mean you cut off behavior that is offensive to God (4135). Jeremiah referred to the cleansing of the heart in connection with salvation. He said, “O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved” (Jeremiah 4:14). Typically, a person is only concerned with washing the exterior part of his body. Jeremiah was pointing out that it was the inner man that needed to be dealt with.

Surrender

One of the ways salvation is sometimes described is described is surrendering your life to Christ. The act of surrendering is often associated with criminals that have been caught by the police or an army that is taken prisoner by its enemy. There is usually some element of capture involved and the loss of freedom. When I became a Christian, I didn’t really surrender my life to Christ. I surrendered a part of my life, the part that was messed up and needed fixing, but most of my life was still under my control. Over the course of about 30 years, I slowly and gradually surrendered the rest until I was completely surrendered to Christ.

Most of the vessels in Solomon’s temple were made of brass (2 Chronicles 4:18), but some were made of gold. A list of articles made of pure gold can be found in 2 Chronicles 4:20-22 and it also indicates that “the flowers, and the lamps, and the tongs, made he of gold, and that perfect gold.” The word translated perfect, miklah means completion (4357). Miklah is derived from the word kalah which means to end or be finished (3615). Kalah may refer to the end of a process or action, so the perfect gold may have been gold that was processed to remove impurities. The word translated pure, cagar means to shut up or imprison and figuratively it can mean to surrender. The likely source of this gold was an underground mine. Therefore, the reference to its purity is not about its quality, but its location.

Thinking about myself as a resource to God, I have no value unless I am where he wants to be when he wants to use me. Part of the process of my surrender was getting into a location where I would be available for service in a particular church/ministry. In some ways, my gifts and talents are now like a gold deposit ready to be mined when they are needed.