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).