Thursday, March 9, 2017

UNDERSTANDING ISRAEL’S PROPHETS






For a long time, I tended to see the Prophets as mere robots. God told them to speak, and they spoke. He gave them instructions, and they followed them.

However, I began to see that they, although committed to their God, were much like us. They suffered from rejection and even had their problems with the Words of God. They simply didn’t see things as God saw them. In particular, they had considerable problems with God’s righteous judgments, especially those that He had promised against their own people.

However, this discomfort with the righteous God of the Bible is not new; nor is it merely found among the unfaithful. Even though God had given Israel everything (Jeremiah 2:21), Israel rejected her God so thoroughly that he challenged Jeremiah to find just one truth-seeker:

·         "Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city” (Jeremiah 5:1-2).

Jeremiah was convinced that God’s assessment of Israel was way off, and that he’d have little difficulty finding one such individual, especially among the educated:

·       I thought, "These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God. So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God" (Jeremiah 5:4-5).

Jeremiah was like the rest of us. He thought that God’s assessment was overly harsh, and therefore, His threats of judgment were inappropriate. He was convinced that the educated elite were of a wholly superior caliber and merited forgiveness instead of judgment. We too see as Jeremiah. We find little in our peers, colleagues, or family that merits divine judgment. Our peers kiss their wives goodbye in the morning and tell stories to their children at night. They are respected, get promotions and are honored by the community. They might not be perfect, but who is?  They’re not like the drunkards and wife-beaters, who clearly deserve judgment. However, according to Scripture, appearances can spread a deceptive veneer over reality. Paul affirmed and quoted the Old Testament’s assessment of human degradation:

·       "There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one." (Romans 3:10-12)

Failing to understand this, we remain convinced that humanity only requires a face-lift and not a complete overhaul. We also fail to fathom the necessity of God’s judgments. Consequently, we also fail to grasp the radically underserved grace of God.

However, if we are going to represent and serve God faithfully, these truths must become our bedrock. If we fail to realize that everything we receive from God is because of His mercy and not because of our merit, we will become intolerably arrogant. It is for this very reason that our Savior chose the lowliest, those who realized that they deserved the least (1 Cor. 1:26-29), and made salvation entirely a matter of a free gift to prevent any boasting (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 3:24-28; Luke 14:11). In contrast to God, we tend to regard some as worthy candidates for salvation, honoring some, dishonoring others. However, Jesus adamantly denied that any were worthy of salvation (Mat. 19:25-26; Luke 18:14).

It’s all about God’s merit and has nothing to do with our own (Titus 3:3-5). If we fail to understand this, we cannot give God the worship He requires and deserves. Jesus taught that we are to worship God in spirit – in the depths of our being – and in truth (John 4:22-24). This means that He gets all the praise and glory.

This may seem egotistical, but it’s this very understanding that we need for our relationships to flourish. Once the Corinthian church strayed from an awareness of their humble estate, love was soon replaced by conflict and unity by factionalism. They began boasting about themselves and their meritorious associations. Paul warned that this was highly destructive of Christian fellowship:

·       Dear brothers and sisters... If you pay attention to the Scriptures, you won't brag about one of your leaders at the expense of another. What makes you better than anyone else? What do you have that God hasn't given you? And if all you have is from God, why boast as though you have accomplished something on your own? (1 Cor. 4:6-7; NLT)

Boasting will not only undermine human relationships, it will also jeopardize our divine relationship. If Jeremiah was going to serve faithfully, he would have to see as God sees, and there would be no better place to learn this skill than in his home town of Anathoth. He had come from a respectable family, a family of priests. However, he soon learned that the Anathothians also wanted to kill him because of the Word of God:

·       Then the Lord told me about the plots my enemies were making against me. I had been as unaware as a lamb on the way to its slaughter. I had no idea that they were planning to kill me! (Jeremiah 11:18-19)

 And this was only the beginning! The Lord then warned Jeremiah:

·       Even your own brothers, members of your own family, have turned on you. They have plotted, raising a cry against you. Do not trust them, no matter how pleasantly they speak (Jeremiah 12:6).

Jeremiah was beginning to see what it meant to truly follow and identify with the Lord. As the entire nation had turned against their God, they had also turned against the bearer of His Word, Jeremiah:

·       Then I said, "What sadness is mine, my mother. Oh, that I had died at birth! I am hated everywhere I go. I am neither a lender who has threatened to foreclose nor a borrower who refuses to pay—yet they all curse me." (Jeremiah 15:10)

After we’ve walked in God’s despised shoes, the idea of judgment becomes far more acceptable. It’s inevitable that rejection will impact the way we regard humanity, and it did for Jeremiah. Before, he struggled with what had seemed to him as God’s lack of compassion for Israel:

·       ”Why are you like a stranger to us? Why are you like someone passing through the land, stopping only for the night? … Are you helpless to save us? You are right here among us, Lord. We are known as your people. Please don't abandon us now!" (Jeremiah 14:8-9)

However, after he experienced the rejection that God experiences, his calls for compassion fell silent. Now he wanted the very thing that he had been against – judgment!

·        Then I said, "Lord, you know I am suffering for your sake. Punish my persecutors! Don't let them kill me! Be merciful to me and give them what they deserve! (Jeremiah 15:15)

Experience can be a great teacher, and God uses many pedagogical tools:

·        “Lord, you know all about their murderous plots against me. Don't forgive their crimes and blot out their sins. Let them die before you. Deal with them in your anger.” (Jeremiah 18:23)

Before we can truly understand the mercy of God, we first have to understand the righteousness of God. Jeremiah was learning about justice and righteousness and had swung far to the side of judgment without mercy. Soon, he’d be ready to learn about mercy. Meanwhile, he longed to see God’s vengeance:

·        “Lord Almighty! You know those who are righteous, and you examine the deepest thoughts of hearts and minds. Let me see your vengeance against them, for I have committed my cause to you.” (Jeremiah 20:12)

We understand God through the lens of our experiences. When we find acceptance among men, we ask for divine compassion and fail to appreciate God’s reticence. When we don’t experience acceptance, we don’t want our detractors to find acceptance. Instead, we ask God for judgment, and are disturbed when the judgment is slow in coming. Israel had more rejected their God, more than had any other nation had rejected their evil and worthless gods:

  • "Go west to the land of Cyprus; go east to the land of Kedar. Think about what you see there. See if anyone has ever heard of anything as strange as this. Has any nation ever exchanged its gods for another god, even though its gods are nothing? Yet my people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols! (Jeremiah 2:10-11)

It is only after we understand the weightiness of the judgment that we deserve, that we can have any appreciation for grace we don’t deserve. Likewise, it is only after we become aware of the extent of our treachery – something that can only come from God – that we can value forgiveness as we ought.

Jeremiah was beginning to appreciate the extent of his betrayal – even his own family had betrayed him – and the necessity for judgment. He was now ready for a lesson in God’s glorious mercy:

  • "I will send disaster upon the leaders of my people—the shepherds of my sheep—for they have destroyed and scattered the very ones they were expected to care for," says the Lord. This is what the Lord, the God of Israel, says to these shepherds: "Instead of leading my flock to safety, you have deserted them and driven them to destruction. Now I will pour out judgment on you for the evil you have done to them. But I will gather together the remnant of my flock from wherever I have driven them. I will bring them back into their own fold, and they will be fruitful and increase in number. Then I will appoint responsible shepherds to care for them, and they will never be afraid again. Not a single one of them will be lost or missing," says the Lord. "For the time is coming," says the Lord, "when I will place a righteous Branch on King David's throne. He will be a King who rules with wisdom. He will do what is just and right throughout the land. And this is his name: 'The Lord Is Our Righteousness'” (Jeremiah 23:1-6).

From the darkness of judgment, Messiah is best seen for who He is and most fully embraced through a veil of tears and desperation. As the hurricane precedes the rainbow, the bad news must precede the good. The reality of our deserved judgment must serve as the herald for grace. We must suffer with Christ so that we can reign with Him. Judgment (1 Peter 4:17) must precede comfort. There are certain truths we must first learn – the hard way – even as Jeremiah had to learn them.

Perhaps all of the Prophets had a problem with God. He had announced to Ezekiel the destruction of Judah and Jerusalem (chapter 7). Ezekiel must have been rocked to his core by this revelation. Therefore, to justify his coming judgment, the Lord took Ezekiel, in the Spirit, to see the abominations that the leadership were performing in the Temple (chapter 8). Understandably, Ezekiel was still appalled by the coming judgment:

·       So it was, that while they were killing them [Israel, in the vision] I was left alone; and I fell on my face and cried out, and said, "Ah, Lord GOD! Will You destroy all the remnant of Israel in pouring out Your fury on Jerusalem?" (Ezekiel 9:8; 11:13)

In response, He revealed to His Prophet His coming Messianic mercy:

·       “Therefore say, ‘Thus says the Lord GOD: I will gather you from the peoples and assemble you out of the countries where you have been scattered, and I will give you the land of Israel.’ … And I will give them one heart, and a new spirit I will put within them. I will remove the heart of stone from their flesh and give them a heart of flesh, that they may walk in my statutes and keep my rules and obey them. And they shall be my people, and I will be their God. (Ezekiel 11:17-20)

Ezekiel first had to hear the bad news before he could appreciate the Good News. The Prophet Habakkuk also had a problem with God. Habakkuk had complained to God about the violence he had been observing in Judah. God had the remedy. How would bring the Babylonians against Judah to destroy them. Understandably, this shocked the Prophet:

·       “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked [Babylonians] devours a person more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13)

Was Judah more righteous than Babylon? We tend to think more of our own people than we ought. We tend to give them the benefit of any doubt.

However, God assured Habakkuk that His judgment would not be indiscriminate. Instead, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4). God had also assured Ezekiel of the mercy that He would have on the repentant:

·       And the LORD said to him [an angelic being], “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity.” (Ezekiel 9:4-5)

God knows those who are His, and He will bring judgment on those who aren’t. This revelation enabled Habakkuk to close with his famous prayer of praise:

·       Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. GOD, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places. To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. (Habakkuk 3:17-19)

The Prophet Jonah had such a serious problem with the Word of God that he fled and would gladly give his life up to avoid bringing a Word of warning to Nineveh he had found utterly unacceptable. Since Jonah was not ready to listen to God’s call, He sent a great fish who was able to “preach” a message that Jonah he could not refuse. In the fish’s belly, Jonah “heard” the message and prayed:

  • When my life was fainting away, I remembered the LORD, and my prayer came to you…But I with the voice of thanksgiving will sacrifice to you; what I have vowed I will pay. Salvation belongs to the LORD!” (Jonah 2:7-9)

Jonah acknowledged that salvation belongs to the Lord, and that He could grant it to even the hated and ruthless Assyrians. Consequently, the fish spit Jonah up onto a beach adjacent to Nineveh, where Jonah began to preach:

  • Then the word of the LORD came to Jonah the second time, saying, “Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah arose and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the LORD. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly great city, three days’ journey in breadth. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s journey. And he called out, “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:1-4)

Even after his fishy life-changing ordeal, Jonah’s greatest fear was realized:

  • When God saw what they [the Assyrians] did and how they turned from their evil ways, he had compassion and did not bring upon them the destruction he had threatened. (Jonah 3:10)

Jonah had known that God’s promise to bring destruction on Nineveh was conditional. Jonah had so hated Nineveh that he would have been glad to deliver a message of Nineveh’s unconditional destruction. However, Jonah knew that his God is one who relents, and therefore, he fled, refusing to preach a message that might lead to Nineveh’s repentance. He, therefore, complained:

  • "O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” (Jonah 4:1-2)

However, God wasn’t finished with Jonah yet. As with all of His people, God wanted Jonah to not simply be a robotic mouthpiece but a willing participate in His plans. He wants us to understand Him and worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:22-24). Therefore, he reasoned with Jonah using a plant as His object lesson, instead of a fish. The plant had provided Jonah with shade, but it suddenly died. Jonah was furious.

  • But God said to Jonah, “Do you do well to be angry for the plant?” And he said, “Yes, I do well to be angry, angry enough to die.” And the LORD said, “You pity the plant, for which you did not labor, nor did you make it grow, which came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should not I pity Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?” (Jonah 4:9-11)

Jonah’s problem with God was with his grace to those Jonah regarded as less deserving. However, God reasoned that if Jonah had pitied the plant, He had far more reason to pity 120,000 persons.

Isaiah had his own problem with God, but we will save that one for the next chapter.


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