Thursday, August 3, 2017

Reflections on the Old Testament: Micah, Habakkuk, and Zephaniah

“Is the Spirit of the LORD restricted? Are these His doings? Do not My words do good to him who walks uprightly?” Micah 2:7, NKJV.

“But truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the LORD, and of justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin,” Micah 3:8, NKJV.

The house of Jacob knew the Word of the LORD. The priests, at any rate, knew the Law by heart, and God continually sent prophets to the people. In short, they were without excuse. Nevertheless, throughout the book of Micah, we see the LORD’s wrath poured out upon the Israelite leaders, who mercilessly persecute the prophets and abuse their God-given authority over the people.

“Woe to those who devise iniquity, and work out evil on their beds! At morning light they practice it, because it is in the power of their hand. They covet fields and take them by violence, also houses, and seize them. So they oppress a man and his house, a man and his inheritance,” Micah 2:1-2, NKJV.

And when terror strikes them, they feign amazement. They are like those who say: “Lord, Lord,” but the Lord replies: “Depart from Me…I never knew you.” They are well-versed in the letter of the law, but, having no understanding of the spirit, they corrupt the supposed power of education to rob the rights of the ignorant.

“Lately My people have risen up as an enemy—you pull off the robe with the garment from those who trust you, as they pass by, like men returned from war. The women of My people you cast out from their pleasant houses; from their children you have taken away My glory forever,” Micah 2:8-9.

Therefore, the LORD sends His prophets to teach His people the truth, that they may not be led astray by the “false spirit” of the religious leaders. (See Mic. 2:11.)

“’Do not prattle,’ you say to those who prophesy. So they shall not prophesy to you; they shall not return insult for insult. You who are named the house of Jacob: ‘Is the Spirit of the LORD restricted? Are these His doings? Do not My words do good to him who walks uprightly?” Micah 2:6-7.

The bottom line is—the Israelite leaders knew the LORD’s words, but did not understand them; and to those who would explain it to them, they said: “Do not prattle.” They took the Holy Word of God—and interpreted it with a false spirit. O foolish man, only the Spirit of the LORD can correctly interpret His Word! Had you walked uprightly, “you who are named the house of Jacob,” His words would have done good unto you, as they did unto Micah, who says in verse 8 of chapter 3: “But truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the LORD, and of justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression and to Israel his sin.” But because you walked corruptly, the LORD says unto you: “Arise and depart, for this is not your rest; because it is defiled, it shall destroy, yes, with utter destruction. If a man should walk in a false spirit and speak a lie, saying, ‘I will prophesy to you of wine and drink,’ even he would be the prattler of this people,’” Micah 2:10-11.

Note Micah 3, which makes my whole point clearer than I could ever do:

“And I said: ‘Hear now, O heads of Jacob, and you rulers of the house of Israel: is it not for you to know justice? You who hate good and love evil; who strip the skin from My people, and the flesh from their bones; who also eat the flesh of My people, flay their skin from them, break their bones, and chop them in pieces like meat for the pot, like flesh in the caldron.’ Then they will cry to the LORD, but He will not hear them; He will even hide His face from them at that time, because they have been evil in their deeds. Thus says the LORD concerning the prophets who make my people stray; who chant ‘Peace,’ while they chew with their teeth, but who prepare war against him who puts nothing into their mouths: ‘Therefore you shall have night without vision, and you shall have darkness without divination; the sun shall go down on the prophets, and the day shall be dark for them. So the seers shall be ashamed, and the diviners abashed; indeed they shall all cover their lips; for there is no answer from God.’ But truly I am full of power by the Spirit of the LORD, and of justice and might, to declare to Jacob his transgression, and to Israel his sin. Now hear this, you heads of the house of Jacob and rulers of the house of Israel, who abhor justice and pervert all equity, who build up Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with iniquity: her heads judge for a bribe, her priests teach for pay, and her prophets divine for money. Yet they lean on the LORD, and say, ‘is not the LORD among us? No harm can come upon us.’ Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed like a field, Jerusalem shall become heaps of ruins, and the mountain of the temple like the bare hills of the forest.”


“Woe is me! For I am like those who gather summer fruits, like those who glean vintage grapes; there is no cluster to eat of the first-ripe fruit which my soul desires. The faithful man has perished from the earth, and there is no one upright among men. They all lie in wait for blood; every man hunts his brother with a net. That they may successfully do evil with both hands—the prince asks for gifts, the judge seeks a bribe, and the great man utters his evil desire; so they scheme together. The best of them is like a brier; the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge; the day of your watchman and your punishment comes; now shall be their perplexity. Do not trust in a friend; do not put your confidence in a companion; guard the doors of your mouth from her who lies in your bosom. For son dishonors father, daughter rises against her mother, daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; a man’s enemies are the men of his own household. Therefore I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me,” Micah 7:1-7, NKJV.

Thus the prophet bemoans the wickedness of man, the instability of all earthly alliances. Note the first verse: “Woe is me! For I am like those who gather summer fruits, like those who glean vintage grapes; there is no cluster to eat of the first-ripe fruit which my soul desires.” Given the context of this verse, it is not difficult to infer the prophet’s meaning: he seeks righteousness among mankind and puts his faith in loved ones. He seeks out the best and most admirable among man—“gathering summer fruits and gleaning vintage grapes”—but does not find “the first-ripe fruit which his soul desires.” Indeed, in verse 4, he says: “The best of them is like a brier; the most upright is sharper than a thorn hedge….” Thus, he comes to grips with the depravity of man and urges his readers not to place their trust even in the most admirable and beloved of mankind, but, rather, he concludes in verse 7: “Therefore I will look to the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation; my God will hear me.” And, in verses 8-9, he further urges us to trust in the LORD, as our salvation and the true source of righteousness: “Do not rejoice over me, my enemy; when I fall, I will arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD will be a light to me. I will bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against Him, until He pleads my case and executes justice for me. He will bring me forth to the light; I will see His righteousness.” In effect, we are warned of the depravity of man and urged to “look to the LORD,” who alone is able to lead us, and our loved ones, from darkness and sin to righteousness and light.

“Who is a God like You, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He does not retain His anger forever, Because He delights in mercy. He will again have compassion on us, and will subdue our iniquities. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea,” Micah 7:18-19.


“O LORD, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? Even cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ And You will not save. Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble? For plundering and violence are before me; there is strife, and contention arises. Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds. ‘Look among the nations and watch—be utterly astounded. For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you,’” Habakkuk 1:2-5, NKJV.

With our limited understanding, we are wont, as Habakkuk, to question the LORD’s motives for allowing what, to our eyes, appears to be senseless trouble. Note, however, that Habakkuk did not question the LORD’s control, as, indeed, we often do; but, rather, why He would not hear, would not save, showed him iniquity, and caused him to see trouble. Indeed, Habakkuk clearly acknowledges the sovereignty of the LORD, but, given his limited perspective, seeks enlightenment, that his soul may no longer be troubled. Thus, the LORD answers him in verse 5: “Look among the nations and watch—be utterly astounded! For I will work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you.” And He proceeds to tell him of the coming invasion of the Chaldeans. A strange response to Habakkuk’s question, perhaps (“Why do You show me iniquity, and cause me to see trouble?”)—but God has called it a great work, and, in verse 11, says of the Chaldean people: “Then his mind changes, and he transgresses; he commits offense, ascribing this power to his god.” This seems to be the key verse for Habakkuk, for in the following verse, he makes this response: “Are you not from everlasting, O LORD my God, my Holy One? We shall not die. O LORD, You have appointed them for judgment; O Rock, You have marked them for correction.” Here Habakkuk expresses a simple truth which we find time and time again throughout the Scriptures—that the LORD protects the lives of His righteous ones (I speak in spiritual terms), but the wicked He has appointed for judgment. The trouble we see before us is temporary. Let the wicked have their reward here below—they will receive no other. Nevertheless, Habakkuk has more questions:

“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 devours a person more righteous than he? Why do You make men like fish of the sea, like creeping things that have no ruler over them? They take up all of them with a hook, they catch them in their net, and gather them in their dragnet. Therefore they sacrifice to their net, and burn incense to their dragnet; because by them their share is sumptuous and their food plentiful. Shall they therefore empty their net, and continue to slay nations without pity?” Hab. 1:13-17.

“Why,” he essentially asks, “does the LORD look upon wickedness—and do nothing?” Verses 15-16 are, in a way, a paraphrase of what God said concerning the Chaldeans in verses 6-11: viz., that the LORD gives a people power, but the people ascribe this power to their own false god (see Hab. 1:11). Habakkuk knows that the God who “raised up the Chaldeans” is able, also, to bring them down. Indeed, he believes entirely in God’s “appointed judgment” upon them (see Hab. 1:12)—but, in the meantime, shall the LORD indeed “look on those who deal treacherously, and hold [His] tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he?”

Why does He make His people “like fish of the sea, like creeping things that have no ruler over them,” and allow them to be caught in the nets of the Chaldeans—who ascribe this power to their false gods? “Shall they therefore empty their net, and continue to slay nations without pity?” But note verse 1 of chapter 2, in which Habakkuk says: “I will stand my watch and set myself on the rampart, and watch to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected.” We can all learn a valuable lesson from Habakkuk—who is not afraid to inquire of the LORD concerning that which he does not understand, yet never doubts His omnipotence or His goodness (see Hab. 1:12-13), and acknowledges himself as the one in error, the one in need of correction (Hab. 2:1). The LORD will answer one with such an attitude. He grants wisdom to those who seek it:

“Then the LORD answered me and said: ‘Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it. For the vision is yet for an appointed time; but at the end it will speak, and it will not lie. Though it tarries, wait for it; because it will surely come, it will not tarry. Behold the proud, his soul is not upright in him; but the just shall live by his faith. Indeed, because he transgresses by wine, he is a proud man, and he does not stay at home. because he enlarges his desire as hell, and he is like death, and cannot be satisfied, he gathers to himself all nations and heaps up for himself all peoples. Will not all these take up a proverb against him, and a taunting riddle against him and say, “Woe to him who increases what is not his—how long? And to him who loads himself with many pledges”? will not your creditors rise up suddenly? Will they not awaken who oppress you? And you will become their booty. Because you have plundered many nations, all the remnant of the people shall plunder you, because of men’s blood and the violence of the land and the city, and of all who dwell in it. Woe to him who covets evil gain for his house, that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of disaster! You give shameful counsel to your house, cutting off many peoples, and sin against your soul. For the stone will cry out from the wall, and the beam from the timbers will answer it. Woe to him who builds a town with bloodshed, who establishes a city by iniquity! Behold, is it not of the LORD of hosts that the peoples labor to feed the fire, and nations weary themselves in vain? For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor, pressing him to your bottle, even to make him drunk, that you may look on his nakedness! You are filled with shame instead of glory. You also—drink! And be exposed as uncircumcised! The cup of the LORD’s right hand will be turned against you, and utter shame will be on your glory. For the violence done to Lebanon will cover you, and the pounder of beasts which made them afraid, because of men’s blood and the violence of the land and the city, and of all who dwell in it. What profit is the image, that its maker should carve it, the molded image, a teacher of lies, that the maker of its mold should trust in it, to make mute idols? Woe to him who says to wood, “Awake!” To silent stone, “Arise! It shall teach!” Behold, it is overlaid with gold and silver, yet in it there is no breath at all. But the LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silent before Him,’” Habakkuk 2:2-20.

To this, Habakkuk replies: “O LORD, I have heard Your speech and was afraid; O LORD, revive Your work in the midst of the years! In the midst of the years make it known; in wrath remember mercy,” (Hab. 3:2). And, of course, the LORD does remember mercy—“in the midst of the years,” “in wrath”—as Habakkuk notes in verses 12-13 of chapter 3: “You marched through the land in indignation; You trampled the nations in anger. You went forth for the salvation of Your people, for salvation with Your Anointed. You struck the head from the house of the wicked, by laying bare from foundation to neck.” Indeed, the wicked one may have bruised our Lord’s heel, but He has crushed his head! Thus Habakkuk concludes: that with God there is wrath and judgment, but also great mercy.

“When I heard, my body trembled; my lips quivered at the voice; rottenness entered my bones; and I trembled in myself, that I might rest in the day of trouble. When he comes up to the people, he will invade them with his troops. Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls—yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation. The LORD God is my strength; He will make my feet like deer’s feet, and He will make me walk on my high hills,” Habakkuk 3:16-19.


“’I will utterly consume everything from the face of the land,’ says the LORD; ‘I will consume man and beast; I will consume the birds of the heaven, the fish of the sea, and the stumbling blocks along with the wicked. I will cut off man from the face of the land,’ says the LORD. ‘I will stretch out My hand against Judah, and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem. I will cut off every trace of Baal from this place, the names of the idolatrous priests with the pagan priests—those who worship the host of heaven on the housetops; those who worship and swear oaths by the LORD, but who also swear by Milcom; those who have turned back from following the LORD, and have not sought the LORD, nor inquired of Him,’” Zephaniah 1:2-6, NKJV.

“The great day of the LORD is near; it is near and hastens quickly. The noise of the day of the LORD is bitter; there the mighty men shall cry out. That day is a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet and alarm against the fortified cities and against the high towers. ‘I will bring distress upon men, and they shall walk like blind men, because they have sinned against the LORD; their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse.’ Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD’s wrath; but the whole land shall be devoured by the fire of His jealousy, for He will make speedy riddance of all those who dwell in the land,” Zeph. 1:14-18, NKJV.

So begins the book of Zephaniah. Indeed, similar beginnings are prevalent in all the books of the minor prophets. If one reads the Scriptures often, distinct patterns inevitably present themselves—patterns that invariably point to the salvation plan: viz., that “God made man upright,” that man fell and came under the wrath of God, but that God, being merciful, “prepared a sacrifice” (see Zeph. 1:7) to redeem His fallen creation, that those who do not accept this sacrifice will remain under the wrath of God. Creation. Fall. Redemption. Final Judgment. A simple pattern that is repeated and firmly established all throughout Scripture. In the opening text of Zephaniah, we see that man has, indeed, fallen, and that judgment is pronounced upon him. But we also see the telltale signs of God’s redemption plan—as in Zeph. 1:7, “Be silent in the presence of the LORD God; for the day of the LORD is at hand, for the LORD has prepared a sacrifice; He has invited His guests.” Furthermore, note the opening verses of chapter two: “Gather yourselves together, yes, gather together, O undesirable nation, before the decree is issued, or the day passes like chaff, before the LORD’s fierce anger comes upon you, before the day of the LORD’s anger comes upon you! Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth, who have upheld His justice. Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD’s anger,” (Zeph. 2:1-3). Here we are clearly warned that the final judgment is coming, but that the LORD has prepared salvation for those who seek Him. And in verses 5-7, we see the stark contrast of judgment and redemption, which appears almost as a contradiction: “Woe to the inhabitants of the seacoast, the nation of the Cherethites! The word of the LORD is against you, O Canaan, land of the Philistines: ‘I will destroy you; so there shall be no inhabitant.’ The seacoast shall be pastures, with shelters for shepherds and folds for flocks. The coast shall be for the remnant of the house of Judah; they shall feed their flocks there; in the houses of Ashkelon they shall lie down at evening. For the LORD their God will intervene for them, and return their captives.” Is this not the very heart of the matter? That we are under the wrath of God, alienated from Him, captives of sin—but He has intervened for us?

The LORD then proceeds to contrast the redeemed with the condemned, to contrast His power with the false power of man: “’I have heard the reproach of Moab, and the insults of the people of Ammon, with which they have reproached My people, and made arrogant threats against their borders. Therefore, as I live,’ says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, ‘surely Moab shall be like Sodom, and the people of Ammon like Gomorrah—overrun with weeds and saltpits, and a perpetual desolation. The residue of My people shall plunder them, and the remnant of My people shall possess them.’ This they shall have for their pride, because they have made arrogant threats against the people of the LORD of hosts. The LORD will be awesome to them, for He will reduce to nothing all the gods of the earth; people shall worship Him, each one from his place, indeed all the shores of the nations,” (Zeph. 2:8-11).

He concludes the book of Zephaniah with a message of hope: “’Therefore wait for Me,’ says the LORD, ‘until the day I rise up for plunder; My determination is to gather the nations to My assembly of kingdoms, to pour on them My indignation, all My fierce anger; all the earth shall be devoured with the fire of My jealousy. For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language, that they all may call on the name of the LORD, to serve Him with one accord,’” (Zeph. 3:8-9).

“Wait for Me,” says the LORD, “I will administer justice.” “For then I will restore….” We see the extent of His amazing grace:

“From beyond the rivers of Ethiopia My worshipers, the daughter of My dispersed ones, shall bring My offering. In that day you shall not be shamed for any of your deeds in which you transgress against Me; for then I will take away from your midst those who rejoice in your pride, and you shall no longer be haughty in My holy mountain. I will leave in your midst a meek and humble people, and they shall trust in the name of the LORD. The remnant of Israel shall do no unrighteousness and speak no lies, nor shall a deceitful tongue be found in their mouth; for they shall feed their flocks and lie down, and no one shall make them afraid,” (Zeph. 3: 10-13).

And, finally, His great promise:
“Sing, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O Israel! Be glad and rejoice with all your heart, O daughter of Jerusalem! The LORD has taken away your judgments, He has cast out your enemy. The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall see disaster no more. In that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: ‘Do not fear; Zion, let not your hands be weak. The LORD your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save; He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing.’ ‘I will gather those who sorrow over the appointed assembly, who are among you, to whom its reproach is a burden. Behold, at that time I will deal with all who afflict you; I will save the lame, and gather those who were driven out; I will appoint them for praise and fame in every land where they were put to shame. At that time I will bring you back, even at that time I gather you; for I will give you fame and praise among all the peoples of the earth, when I return your captives before your eyes,’ says the LORD,” (Zeph. 3: 14-20).

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Reflections on the Old Testament: Hosea

 “Ephraim is oppressed and broken in judgment, because he willingly walked by human precept,” Hosea 5:11, NKJV.

How much sorrow might have been avoided if Ephraim had simply trusted in his God! But, alas, he trusted in man—nor was he deceived, nor bribed into it, but he willingly walked by human precept. How vile, how low, to reject the counsel of the almighty God and joyfully embrace the empty philosophies of the world! To exchange glory and wisdom for shame and folly! And yet, is there anyone among us who is not guilty of the same? Alas, for Ephraim is no more wicked than we. Therefore, the LORD says: “I will return again to My place till they acknowledge their offense. Then they will seek My face; in their affliction they will earnestly seek Me,” (Hosea 5:15). When we eat the fruits of our folly, will we then repent? When we are “oppressed and broken in judgment”? Even “in our affliction,” it is by God’s grace alone that we “acknowledge our offense.” And then, what horror! What revulsion and hatred of our manifold sins, when once our eyes are opened! And how ashamed we are in the presence of the Almighty, whom we have so cruelly wronged! Yet how desperately we yearn for His Spirit! Note the following verses:

“Come, and let us return to the LORD; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up. After two days He will revive us; on the third day He will raise us up, that we may live in His sight,” Hosea 6:1-2, NKJV. (Notice: “After three days He will raise us up”—is not the old man crucified, and raised with Christ to walk in newness of life?) To this, the LORD replies: “O Ephraim, what shall I do to you? O Judah, what shall I do to you? For your faithfulness is like a morning cloud, and like the early dew it goes away. Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets, I have slain them by the words of My mouth; and your judgments are like light that goes forth. For I desire mercy and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings,” Hosea 6:4-6.

What are our prayers, what is our faithfulness? A morning cloud, the early dew—lingering in the pleasant dawn, and then dissipating in the heat of the day. Does the LORD not perceive this? Does He not see the depth of our hearts, and know that we cannot stand? Therefore His Word must hew and slay us, stroke by stroke, until our judgments are like light that goes forth, and mercy and the knowledge of God replace empty sacrifices and burnt offerings. Does not the psalmist say: “You do not desire sacrifice, or else I would give it; You do not delight in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and a contrite heart—these, O God, You will not despise” (Psalm 51:16-17, NKJV)? Our spirit is broken by the Word of God. That swift and terrible two-edged sword. Nevertheless, “let us return to the LORD; for He has torn, but He will heal us; He has stricken, but He will bind us up.”

“Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground, for it is time to seek the LORD, till He comes and rains righteousness on you. You have plowed wickedness; you have reaped iniquity. You have eaten the fruit of lies, because you trusted in your own way, in the multitude of your mighty men,” Hosea 10:12-13, NKJV.


“I will not execute the fierceness of my anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim. For I am God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst; and I will not come with terror,” Hosea 11:9, NKJV.

Here the LORD establishes an important distinction between Himself and man—viz., His divine capacity for mercy. We observe, particularly in the books of the prophets, the fierce judgment the LORD pronounces upon Israel. And yet, in the midst of this, there is a consistent undertone of divine sorrow, compassion, and unquenchable love. Note Hosea 11:5-8 as one of many examples:

“He shall not return to the land of Egypt; but the Assyrian shall be his king, because they refused to repent. And the sword shall slash in his cities, devour his districts, and consume them, because of their own counsels. My people are bent on backsliding from Me. Though they call to the Most High, none at all exalt Him. How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I make you like Admah? How can I set you like Zeboiim? My heart churns within Me; my sympathy is stirred.”

Furthermore, the conclusion of nearly every prophetic book is a promise of restoration and salvation of a remnant. If a mankind were given the power to destroy Ephraim , would he not do so, not once or even twice, but a thousand times over, simply because he was able? Indeed, man, when given power, is merciless. Seeking not to defend and uphold righteousness, but to squander whatever power he possesses on his own lusts. But the wrath of the Almighty God is ever righteous—provoked by the wickedness of our depraved race—and He will execute justice. Nevertheless, though He has power to obliterate our pathetic existence, He will relent. Not because we turn to Him of ourselves or because we possess even the faintest shred of righteousness (without God, this is impossible), but because He is merciful and compassionate, because He is “God, and not man, the Holy One in your midst.” O man, frail and wicked, be ever so humble! Be ever so grateful that this God is Almighty! How very wretched and desolate would be our lot if God did not govern the hearts of men!


“When Ephraim spoke, trembling, he exalted himself in Israel; but when he offended through Baal worship, he died,” Hosea 13:1, NKJV.

What awful judgment awaits those who reject God! What utter condemnation is pronounced upon the unrepentant sinner! We are no better than Ephraim. Do we not daily show greater preference to the things of the world than to the things of God? Do we not offend through Baal worship, just as Ephraim? And are we not utterly deserving of death—i.e., eternal separation from God? Most certainly! Such is the “awful judgment” pronounced upon our race from the fateful moment of Adam’s sin! Nevertheless, in verse four of this same chapter, we see, once again, the great mercy and love of the Almighty, as He declares:

“Yet I am the LORD your God ever since the land of Egypt, and you shall know no God but Me; for there is no savior besides Me.”

And further, in verse fourteen:

“I will ransom them from the power of the grave; I will redeem them from death. O Death, I will be your plagues! O Grave, I will be your destruction! Pity is hidden from My eyes.”

What a joyous message this is for sinners! Behold, the vengeance the Lord wreaks upon death and the grave! Behold, the redemption and salvation of the natural man—made possible only by the blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of the Almighty God! O foolish man, you will never know the full extent of His pain, the acuity of His suffering. Let His commandment, then, be sufficient:

“You shall know no other God but Me; for there is no savior besides Me.”

“O Israel, return to the LORD your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity; take words with you, and return to the LORD. Say to Him, ‘take away all iniquity; receive us graciously, for we will offer the sacrifices of our lips. Assyria shall no save us, we will not ride on horses, nor will we say anymore to the work of our hands, “You are our gods.” For in You the fatherless finds mercy.’ ‘I will heal their backsliding, I will love them freely, for My anger has turned away from him. I will be like the dew to Israel; he shall grow like the lily, and lengthen his roots like Lebanon. His branches shall spread; his beauty shall be like an olive tree, and his fragrance like Lebanon. Those who dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall be revived like grain, and grow like a vine. Their scent shall be like the wine of Lebanon. Ephraim shall say, “what have I to do anymore with idols?” I have heard and observed him. I am like a green cypress tree; your fruit is found in Me.’ Who is wise? Let him understand these things. Who is prudent? Let him know them. For the ways of the LORD are right; the righteous walk in them, but transgressors stumble in them,” Hosea 14, NKJV.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Reflections on the Old Testament: Daniel

It becomes evident very early on that the main point emphasized in the book of Daniel is that God alone grants knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. Moreover, all throughout the Bible we see a pattern in the men to whom God grants these great gifts—the key verse in the book of Daniel, for example, is: “Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard….”(Daniel 10:12, NKJV.) 1) “Daniel set his heart to understand”: what exactly is meant by this statement? Jeremiah 17:9 denotes the heart as “wicked and deceitful above all things”—therefore, how can Daniel himself set his heart to understand? By surrendering it entirely to God. “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom,” Prov. 9:10. 2) “Daniel humbled himself before God”: in other words, he recognized his lowly estate, his unworthiness to receive the Holy Spirit, and surrendered himself as vile clay which the Potter might either cast out or form into a vessel according to His own sovereign will. The question is, how exactly did Daniel reach this stage? We know that the natural man, which Daniel most certainly was, of himself, is not so constituted as to reach a state of total submission and humility. We must assume a divine intervention.

In other words, Daniel was a chosen vessel, which God lovingly and mercifully formed and equipped with the necessary disposition to fulfill a specific purpose. It is crucial to understand that Daniel was simply a man—a sinner, condemned to death—but by the grace of God, he received the Holy Spirit (this is verified numerous times throughout the book of Daniel—see Daniel 4:8-9, Daniel 5:14) and became a “greatly beloved,” (Daniel 9:23). As for Daniel’s purpose, or “gift,” as the Apostle Paul would say, it is obvious that God granted to him “the skill to understand.” One may argue, however, that this is the role of the Holy Spirit in each one of us. And so it is—but to each one of us it reveals a specific branch of understanding. Daniel’s gift was to understand visions. God revealed to him the meaning of the king’s dreams as well as secrets of the end times, giving him power not only to understand the visions, but to understand their purpose: “But as for me, this secret has not been revealed to me because I have more wisdom than anyone living, but for our sakes who make known the interpretation to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your heart,” Daniel 2:30. O foolish wretches that we are! What reason have we to be haughty? When will we realize that we are not granted understanding because of our own wisdom, but because we are instruments of God’s will? And when will we realize that we are not instruments of God’s will because of our own righteousness, but because of God’s great mercies? (See Daniel 9:18.) We stand astonished at Daniel’s humility, at his constant, untiring devotion to God. But to see the visions God showed him! If, by experience alone, a man can be utterly and permanently humbled, Daniel’s experiences would certainly have done so. To see the Ancient of Days enthroned, to hear the doom of the latter days, sealed and irrevocable, to converse with archangels and observe visions that leave one faint and sick for days—oh! How little we know! How small and insignificant we are in the grander scheme of things! As pious Christians, we greatly admire and often attempt to imitate the praises that Moses, King David, the prophets, and, yes, Daniel, offered up to the LORD—but seldom, if ever, do we realize their significance and truth as acutely as Daniel did. Studying the supernatural experiences of Daniel gives us an enlightened perspective of his words and actions throughout the book.

The point of this discourse is by no means to belittle Daniel or to suggest that, under the right circumstances, “anyone can be a Daniel,” but simply to emphasize the basic truth that man does not obtain greatness by his own merit but by the will of God. God made Daniel a great man. God made him one of the elite, out of all His servants, not because he was “special,” but because such was God’s sovereign will. It is essential to understand that Daniel, himself, was merely a man. It is essential to understand that God raises up whom He will and lowers whom He will, but we are all members of the same Body—members of a glorious, perfect Body, in which there is no place for pride. “If your right hand causes you to sin,” the Lord tacitly commands, “cut it off.” Understanding that it is not by any merit of our own that we are granted righteousness and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, we can only humbly receive that which the Lord Jesus mercifully bestows upon us and, like Daniel, dutifully fulfill the task apportioned to us—keeping this truth ever in mind: “But as for me, this secret has not been revealed to me because I have more wisdom than anyone living, but for our sakes who make known the interpretation to the king, and that you may know the thoughts of your heart,” (Daniel 2:30). Let us understand that spiritual gifts are not earned, but given (hence the name) by God for our own sakes and for the sakes of those to whom we minister. Another testament of God’s mercy.

Daniel is a humbling book. From Nebuchadnezzar’s seven years in the wilderness to Daniel’s visions of the end times, it reminds us just how small we are and how utterly dependent we are upon God. It reminds us that the “Most High rules in the kingdom of men and gives it to whomever He chooses,” (Dan. 4:25), that He “holds your breath in His hand and owns all your ways,” (Dan. 5:23), and that “to us belongs shame of face, to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, because we have sinned against You. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against Him,” (Dan. 9:8-9).

I will conclude with a selection of verses which ought to get the point across better than anything I can say:

“Daniel answered and said: ‘Blessed be the name of God forever and ever, for wisdom and might are His. And He changes the times and the seasons; He removes kings and raises up kings; He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to those who have understanding. He reveals deep and secret things; He knows what is in the darkness, and light dwells with Him. I thank You and praise You, O God of my fathers; You have given me wisdom and might, and have now made known to me what we asked of You, for You have made known to us the king’s demand,’” Daniel 2:20-23, NKJV.

“This decision is by the decree of the watchers, and the sentence by the word of the holy ones, in order that the living may know that the Most High rules in the kingdom of men, gives it to whomever He will, and sets over it the lowest of men,” Daniel 4:17, NKJV.

“I have heard of you, that the Spirit of God is in you, and that light and understanding and excellent wisdom are found in you,” Daniel 5:14, NKJV.

“I was watching; and the same horn was making war against the saints, and prevailing against them, until the Ancient of Days came, and a judgment was made in favor of the saints of the Most High, and the time came for the saints to possess the kingdom,” Daniel 7:21-22, NKJV.

“O my God, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see our desolations, and the city which is called by Your name; for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies,” Daniel 9:18, NKJV.

“…And at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the firmament, and those who turn many to righteousness like the stars forever and ever,” Daniel 12:1-3, NKJV.
“Many shall be purified, made white, and refined, but the wicked shall do wickedly; and none of the wicked shall understand, but the wise shall understand,” Daniel 12:10, NKJV.

Reflections on the Old Testament: Ezekiel

 “Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the LORD God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’” Ezek. 33:11; “When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die,” Ezek. 33:13, NKJV.

Wickedness is the natural state of the human spirit, manifested by the activity of body and mind. It is in this state that we are first placed before the perfect, sinless God, who accordingly pronounces upon us the awful judgment: “O wicked man, you shall surely die!” Nevertheless, God does not intend to completely annihilate His creation. Having originally created only good things, although that creation fell (a discussion for another time), He, being almighty as well as all-good, is able to redeem it. And this He does by imparting His own goodness to us—viz., through the victory of the cross, bestowing His Holy Spirit upon us, thus placing us in a spiritual state of righteousness, which is (or ought to be) manifested by the activity of body and mind.

Ezekiel 33:12-13 states the following: “Therefore you, O son of man, say to the children of your people: ‘The righteousness of the righteous man shall not deliver him in the day of his transgression; as for the wickedness of the wicked, he shall not fall because of it in the day that he turns from his wickedness; nor shall the righteous be able to live because of his righteousness in the day that he sins.’ When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, nonce of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die.”

First of all, according to the teaching of the New Testament, we know that the gift of the Holy Spirit cannot be revoked, regardless of the failing of the flesh. For mind and body are but passing shadows, and their activity will not be remembered. Rather, it is the spirit, which instigates that activity, that we ought to be concerned about. Again, the natural spirit of man is wicked, thus, his natural actions are also wicked. But God promises not to impute that sin against him if he turns from his wickedness, i.e., if he humbles himself before God, that he may receive the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, God says: “When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live, but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity, none of his righteous works shall be remembered; but because of the iniquity that he has committed, he shall die.” To begin with, examine the phrase: “but he trusts in his own righteousness and commits iniquity.” To commit iniquity is obviously a failure of the flesh, but to trust in one’s own righteousness is to believe that one’s natural spirit is righteous of itself, which is not merely a failure of the flesh but a denunciation of the Holy Spirit—in short, a rejection of God. A man may be righteous in works, indeed, blameless according to the law, but unless he recognizes God as the only source of righteousness and his own spirit as wicked, he will fall, and will surely die. Therefore, when God says: “When I say to the righteous that he shall surely live…” we can only assume, based on the irrevocability of salvation, that He is speaking to the morally righteous man, or else, “the man who is righteous in his own eyes,” who recognizes virtuous activity, but does not possess the spiritual righteousness given by the Holy Spirit. To this man, the LORD presents the following: 1) the reality that his spirit is naturally wicked, and 2) the offer of spiritual salvation.

If he recognizes the truth and submits himself to God, he shall surely live. But if he trusts in his own righteousness, he will inevitably commit iniquity and die. His “righteous works” will not be remembered. Ezekiel 33:12-13 simply indicates that morality does not save, for it is but virtuous actions of body and mind, which will pass away, while the spirit remains in wickedness. Rather than striving for moral perfection, which man can never attain, we ought to recognize our wickedness, humble ourselves before God, and thus receive the Holy Spirit and live. Having established this, the LORD goes on to repeatedly promise the bestowal of the Holy Spirit and describe, allegorically, the transaction of redemption:

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes and you will keep My judgments and do them…And I will multiply the fruit of your trees and the increase of your fields, so that you need never again bear the reproach of famine among the nations. Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations,” Ezek. 36:25-27, 30-31, NKJV.

“Thus says the Lord God: ‘On the day that I cleanse you from all your iniquities, I will also enable you to dwell in the cities, and the ruins shall be rebuilt. The desolate land shall be tilled instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass by. So they will say, “This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the wasted, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.” Then the nations which are left all around you shall know that I, the LORD, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted what was desolate. I, the LORD, have spoken it, and I will do it,’” Ezek. 36:33-36, NKJV.

“’I will put My Spirit in you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I, the LORD, have spoken it and performed it,’ says the LORD,” Ezek. 37:14, NKJV.
“’And I will not hide My face from them anymore; for I will have poured out My Spirit on the house of Israel,’ says the Lord God,” Ezek. 39:29, NKJV.

“’Not for your sake do I do this,’ says the Lord God, ‘let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel!’” Ezek. 36:32, NKJV.

Amidst the lengthy passages in which God speaks of redeeming and cleansing His people, just when we are beginning to feel quite special, He inserts this verse. What does He mean—He does not do it for our sake? What other motive could He possibly have for sacrificing His own Son?

To begin with, after saying “Not for your sake do I do this,” the LORD says: “Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways.” The implication here is that God was not merciful to His people because He saw anything worth saving in them—indeed, we know that in our natural state of wickedness, we are completely alienated from God, and in us “dwells no good thing.” “There is none who does good.”
Rather, God loved His creation—the creation that He pronounced good—and would redeem it for His namesake. Salvation is the gift of God, and is by no means earned. We are not redeemed because of anything praiseworthy in us. Our righteousness is as filthy rags in God’s sight, and He reminds us of this, that we may be humble: “Not for your sake do I do this…Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways!”

Reflections on the Old Testament: Lamentations

“I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath. He has led me and made me walk in darkness and not in light. Surely He has turned His hand against me time and time again throughout the day. He has aged my flesh and my skin and broken my bones. He has besieged me and surrounded me with bitterness and woe. He has set me in dark places like the dead of long ago. He has hedged me in so that I cannot get out; He has made my chain heavy. Even when I cry and shout, He shuts out my prayer. He has blocked my ways with hewn stone; He has made my paths crooked. He has been to me a bear lying in wait, like a lion in ambush. He has turned aside my ways and torn me in pieces; He has made me desolate. He has bent His bow and set me up as a target for the arrow. He has caused the arrows of His quiver to pierce my loins. I have become the ridicule of all my people—their taunting song all the day. He has filled me with bitterness, he has made me drink wormwood. He has also broken my teeth with gravel, and covered me with ashes. You have moved my soul far from peace; I have forgotten prosperity. And I said, ‘My strength and my hope have perished from the LORD.’ Remember my affliction and roaming, the wormwood and the gall. My soul still remembers and sinks within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I hope in Him!’ The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and keep silent, because God has laid it on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope. Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him, and be full of reproach. For the LORD will not cast off forever. Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men,”—Lamentations 3:1-33, NKJV.

Observe the prophet’s mode of expression: in the first eighteen verses, he speaks of God as his Oppressor—indeed, presents Him as merciless and cruel—but then, abruptly, we see him speak of God’s mercy, compassion, and faithfulness. Contrary to outward appearances, however, neither God nor the prophet are being inconsistent. Too often, Christians attempt to portray God as being an all-merciful, loving, forgiving Father to whom we may always turn for solace and comfort—and while this may be true to some degree, it is often errantly assumed to be a denunciation of the face of God which is described in Lamentations 1-18. The prophet maintains a view of God which all Christians should aspire to. First of all, it is evident that he is severely afflicted. He does not attribute these afflictions to the sinful actions of human beings or simply to fate, but acknowledges God as his oppressor. He knows that God governs men’s hearts and engineers all circumstances—in short, that God is in control, and therefore He alone has chosen to afflict him. Even so, he does not turn against God in anger at his suffering, but says, in verses 22-24: “Through the LORD’s mercies we are not consumed, because His compassions fail not. They are new every morning; great is Your faithfulness. ‘The LORD is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I hope in Him!’”

Perhaps the most common (and most dangerous) misunderstanding Christians develop is that God’s mercy and faithfulness means we will be spared affliction. The prophet, on the other hand, gives full vent to the fact that God does inflict pain on His children—to the point of cruelty—but in the midst of it all, our feet remain planted on the solid rock and our souls are still held in the Father’s hands. God’s wrath is heavy indeed—but it is momentary.

“The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD. It is good for a man to bear the yoke in his youth. Let him sit alone and keep silent, because God has laid it on him; let him put his mouth in the dust—there may yet be hope. Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him, and be full of reproach.”

Jesus described His yoke as “light and easy”—but that depends on our perspective. If we compare our yoke to what we want in this world, or to what others have, we will be gravely disappointed. But if we compare it to “the joy that is set before us,” it becomes insignificant.

“For the Lord will not cast off forever. Though He causes grief, yet He will show compassion according to the multitude of His mercies. For He does not afflict willingly, nor grieve the children of men.”
“Wait on the Lord, keep His way.”

Reflections on the Old Testament: Jeremiah

“Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel: ‘Like these good figs so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for their own good, into the land of the Chaldeans. For I will set My eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land; I will build them and not pull them down, and I will plant them and not pluck them up.’”—Jeremiah 24:5-6, NKJV.

Too often we wonder why God places us in difficult positions when we have done nothing deserving of punishment (for whatever reason, we naturally associate discomfort with punishment). Or else, we feel “unfairly treated” when we must suffer the repercussions of someone else’s sin. Indeed, such circumstances are difficult to understand, and every day we feel the injustices and slights of a sinful world. But God’s recurring promises of “sheltering” His children from harm are not just a lot of empty words. In Jeremiah 24, God shows Jeremiah two baskets of figs: one filled with good figs and the other with bad. All the figs together represent the children of Israel, and they are all destined to be carried into captivity—but the “good figs” are still set apart. Although captivity was God’s chosen method of punishment for this nation who had turned its back on Him, He reserved a remnant of these people who would return to Him, and used the same circumstance for their good. “Like these good figs, so will I acknowledge those who are carried away captive from Judah, whom I have sent out of this place for their own good….”
So it is with us to this day. Our flesh is weak, and is tied to this earth—it complains when ills befall it, it feels slighted and cruelly treated, and, in short, groans with all other creation. But our souls belong to God, and they rejoice when we suffer for His name’s sake. Follow God in all things, and when you are faced with tribulations, whether it feels unjust or not, rejoice—knowing that what may be judgment against the evildoer is, for the children of God, but another crown to cast at the feet of Christ.

Reflections on the Old Testament: Isaiah and Jeremiah

“For a mere moment I have forsaken you, but with great mercies I will gather you. With a little wrath I hid My face from you for a moment; but with everlasting kindness I will have mercy on you,’ says the LORD, your Redeemer.”—Is. 54:7-8, NKJV.

In our natural sinful state, we are cut off from God. The sinless God cannot associate with sin, but hides His face from it, and forsakes those who are clothed in its filthy rags. Recall the words of Christ upon the cross—“My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Because He had become sin, Christ suffered the same anguish as our sinful race: separation from God. The consequences of sin are terrible, because sin is opposite to God’s nature. God is life and goodness, therefore sin is death and wickedness. God holds no communion with that which is opposite to Him. He rejects it, forsakes it, and turns His face away. Thus we are cut off from Him, and are subject to His holy wrath.

Nevertheless, He is not overcome by sin, that He cannot redeem His beloved creation. Rather, in His great mercy, He sent His Son to carry our sin—in short, to suffer God’s wrath in our stead—and thus wash away the filth with His own precious blood. By God’s amazing grace, we are redeemed, we are crowned as God’s own children, rescued, by His everlasting kindness, from the dark prison of sin. Recall Isaiah 54:7-8. God’s wrath against us is but for a moment—His kindness is everlasting.

 “Has a nation changed its gods, which are not gods? But My people have changed their Glory for what does not profit.”—Jer. 2:11, NKJV.

The observation made in this verse is that the other nations are more faithful to their false gods than Israel is to the One True God. Indeed, why is it that, not only Israel, but every human being in the history of the world clings to what is false, empty, and unprofitable, and rejects that which is true, glorious, and blessed?

I am reminded of Romans 1:22-25, which says: “Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. Therefore, God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves, who exchanged the truth of God for the lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen.”

We, as a depraved race, have no communion with that which is high, holy, and bright—just as light has no communion with darkness. Because we cannot reach the heights of God, nor span the gulf which separates us from Him, we sink still deeper into the mire of our sin, and worship and serve ourselves, and accept the lie, because the truth reveals all too clearly the terrible extent of our depravity. We prefer the darkness, because the light only reminds us how far we have fallen from God.

Because of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, that immense gulf is closed, and we are able to rise form the mire and enter the holy of holies. Christ intercedes for us daily and offers us His glory! The only ground upon which man refuses this is that he does not want to admit his depravity. The only way we may be cleansed of our sin is to first acknowledge that we have sinned. Men are afraid of this. They wish to remain in the darkness, that their deeds may not be revealed, that they may continue to worship themselves. They believe the lie, that they are not in darkness and that they have no sin to be washed away—in short, that there is no God. “For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools.”—Romans 1:20-22.
God has placed into all His creatures an innate knowledge of Him, therefore, though they cling to their false gods, exchange the Glory of God for self-glorification, and, in short, embrace the lie, it is only a desperate but futile attempt to suppress the truth they are unconsciously aware of, but have denied: that all men have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.