Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Ezekiel 1-12: Ezekiel Makes a Case for Performing Arts?

So now we skip to Ezekiel.  At this point in my reading, I was relieved because Jeremiah was so depressing, and Ezekiel starts on a high note, what with the awesome visions of God and the cherubim and everything.  But it goes downhill from there.

Okay, so the visions.  There are two of them, and they very closely mirror John's vision of the throne of God in Revelation.  I've heard that ancient Jewish boys were not allowed to read Ezekiel until they were 30 because these visions were considered way too transcendent to be grasped by the young mind or something like that, but I'm not sure if that's true.  Most of what Ezekiel describes, interestingly enough, is not the appearance of God but the appearance of the cherubim.  They are weird freaky creatures!  They have four faces and four wings and are covered with eyes and have something like hands under their wings and there are these wheel things with them that move when they do, and somehow their spirits are contained within the wheels.  It kind of makes me want to try drawing a picture of it just so I can get an idea of what he's talking about, because I'm really not sure how the wheel idea works.  Fortunately, though, I don't have to, because a bunch of other people already did.  I did a Google Image Search for "Ezekiel cherubim" and found some interesting stuff.  Most of them forgot to add the eyes though.

Now when God calls Ezekiel to be a prophet, it's pretty interesting what He says.  He tells Ezekiel to speak to the house of Israel whether they will listen or not (2:7 and 3:11).  But then He says that at some point He will tell Ezekiel -not- to speak to anybody.  Apparently, our responsibility to do what God tells us does not depend on the immediate results we get.

The other interesting thing about these chapters, to me, is the stuff God has Ezekiel do to get his message out. First he tells Ezekiel to build a model of Jerusalem and lay siege against it, to show that Jerusalem will be under siege soon.  Then he has him lie down next to it and not get up for 390 days (he makes food ahead of time), and then again not for 40 days, corresponding to the number of years that Israel and Judah (respectively) have been walking in iniquity, as best as I can figure.  And during that time he's supposed to eat his food baked using human, um, excrement.  Ezekiel is really grossed out by this and God says he can use animal dung instead.  But ew! all the same.  Then later, God tells Ezekiel to pack up and dig through a wall and go out into exile to show Jerusalem that's what's going to happen to him.

Can you imagine if you saw a grown man make a Lego model of your town and then start attacking it?  That would be weird.  Or if he lay in the dirt for over a year, eating only what he had brought with him?  That would be disturbing.  That was Ezekiel's job.

The neat thing about this is that God is using something besides just preaching to get a message across.  He's using visual representation and physically acting out the prophecy in a symbolic way.  Hey, that sounds an awful lot like drama!  Ezekiel has become, in a very weird sense, a performing artist prophet.

This probably isn't the number one thing you're supposed to get out of reading Ezekiel 1-12, but for me, as a performing artist, it really stuck out.  There is a growing movement in the Western Church to use creative elements to worship God or to spread the gospel or to teach a biblical lesson.  I think the reaction to it so far has been pretty mixed.  Drama is probably the most accepted art form (next to music, obviously, although there are denominations which don't believe in using musical instruments); visual art and dance, on the other hand, are a little iffy.  Don't believe me?  Go to a Catholic or high-tradition Protestant (like Lutheran or Episcopal) church and look at how much visual material there is (stained glass windows, etc.).  Then go to a lower-tradition Protestant church (such as Baptist or non-denominational) and look at how much visual material is there - I'm guessing that the most you'll see in the sanctuary is a cross somewhere.  This is, of course, because of the 2nd commandment - don't make an image to represent God so that you have something physical to worship.  Ever since the Iconoclast Controversy in the Catholic church, many Christians have been concerned that all that visual material leads to worship of that material.

Dancing, though, is probably the most iffy art there is for Christians.  For so many centuries it was denounced by the Church or important leaders within the Church, although there were always some who objected to demonizing the art as a whole.  A few years ago I read an article that's actually fairly recent arguing that dance, while not inherently evil, probably always leads to bad things - the author claimed that it was the Israelites' dancing that angered Moses and caused him to break the original 10 Commandments, and even blamed Michal's anger at David's behavior on David!  As a dancer, I found this incredibly disturbing.  Fortunately, I think that with the rise of dance ministries (more than even the rise of Christian dance companies), people in the church are beginning to see dance as simply a visual, physical way of expressing an idea or emotion, and that expression can be worship.

Anyway, so back to Ezekiel.  It's just comforting to see that the things we're just now figuring out, Ezekiel was commanded by God to do.  He was using art, as it were, to tell a story or to present a message.  That is the purpose of art - not to be worshiped or even to draw attention to itself, but to tell you something about real life.  Art has a way of breaking down barriers.  A lot of people will not listen to a sermon, or if they hear something that starts to sound like one, they'll just close their ears.  The arts have the ability to reach beyond our defenses and speak straight to our hearts, sometimes without us even knowing it at first.  That's why they're so powerful, and maybe that's why God had Ezekiel do this.

Or, you know, maybe He was saying it's okay to let your kids play in the dirt.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Jeremiah 46-52: Prophecies against Other Nations

What's interesting to me about the prophets is that they have prophecies to other nations (that is, besides Israel and Judah) at all.  After all, Israel and Judah are the nations God sent them to.  So I think in a way these prophecies were for their benefit, to show them that God wasn't just picking on them, and also that the nations around them who were corrupt or whatever would get punished too.  Also there are asides in some of these that are directly for the Jews - for instance, at the end of the prophecy against Egypt God tells his own people that even though he's going to destroy Egypt, he's going to save the nation of Israel - they're going to be punished, but not wiped out completely.

The other interesting thing to me about these prophesies are that sometimes God says he's going to completely destroy a nation - such as Kedar and Hazor and Babylon - but with some of the other nations, God promises eventual restoration.  He says, "I will restore the fortunes of _____" sometime in the future, and he says it of Moab, Ammon, and Elam.  I have no idea who Elam is, but Moab and Ammon were the sons of Lot's daughters (and also of Lot . . . eww), so they were kind of cousins to the Israelites.  So that's kind of neat I guess.

In the prophecy against Babylon, God promises to return Judah to the promised land and that in those days "search will be made for the iniquity of Israel, but there will be none; and for the sins of Judah, but they will not be found; for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant."

The wording at the end of that sentence is very important for Christians, I think - "for I will pardon those whom I leave as a remnant."  I have been reflecting recently on the difference between a pardon and an exoneration in legal terminology.  When a defendant is exonerated, it means that it is officially declared they did not commit the crime and therefore cannot be charged for it; they are innocent.  A pardon is when a person who has already been convicted of a crime is forgiven of that crime.  It's still understood that they were guilty of the crime, but they no longer have to serve the consequences of doing it (jail time or whatever it is).

When we are saved, we are not exonerated.  God, for whatever reason, doesn't remove our pasts and make it so that we never sinned.  He also doesn't pretend like we never sinned (God doesn't pretend, I don't think). Instead he gives us a pardon: he says "yes, you did these crimes against me, but you are no longer responsible for the punishment - I'll take care of that."  He frees us from our prisons and lets us live again.  And it's not because we deserved it.

Some people might think it's unjust of God to pardon criminals, especially if they don't do anything to deserve that pardon.  God is just - he does require that the debt be paid - but it was paid by Jesus when he shed his innocent blood in our place.  God is just, but he is also merciful, and he loves us so much that he made a way to come to us when we lacked the strength to go to him.  The great thing about God is, and Jeremiah 51 makes this point, nobody can tell God he did the wrong thing and get him in trouble for it.  When I was in college, my history professor was the chair of the history department.  He would cancel class from time to time when he was going to visit his grandchildren out of state or something like that.  And nobody could tell him not to, because he was the head of his department (I guess the dean or vice president or president could've told him not to, but on the other hand he'd been there longer than any of them put together so they pretty much let him do things the way he wanted).  There's nobody above God.  He gets to make the rules.  That would be a scary thought if you didn't trust God.  If you believe that God is good and just, then it's a comfort.

In chapter 52, the fall of Jerusalem is described again, including the blinding of Zedekiah and the murder of his sons (not in that order).  But at the very end it says that Jehoiachin, who was the king of Judah before Pharaoh put Zedekiah up, finds favor with the king of Babylon (this is after Nebuchadnezzar), and the king restores him to his former title, although he stays in Babylon, and he gets to eat at the king's table the rest of his life.  I don't really know why the king of Babylon did that or what affect it had on Jehoiachin or the people of Judah, but I think it's a nice note to end such a depressing book on.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Jeremiah 39-45: Consequences of Disobedience

We've now reached the part of the story where it all hits the fan, and a lot of the stuff Jeremiah has been warning and prophesying about, happens.

First, the wall of Jerusalem is finally breached after a siege that lasted over a year.  Nebuchadnezzar's men overtake the city; King Zedekiah and his whole army try to sneak out, but the Chaldeans capture them.

Now let's review what Jeremiah advised Zedekiah to do: give yourself to the King of Babylon, basically surrender, and you'll be okay.  Zedekiah did not do that.  So now what happens is actually worse, I think, than just dying would have been: Nebuchadnezzar kills Zedekiah's sons right in front of him, and then blinds Zedekiah.  Imagine that - the last thing he saw was his children being brutally slaughtered.  That is harsh.  And Zedekiah is chained up and carried into captivity with just about everybody else.  Then the walls of Jerusalem are broken down and the city is burned.

Jeremiah, for some reason, is treated differently.  Nebuchadnezzar tells Nebuzaradan, the captain of his bodyguard, to do to Jeremiah whatever Jeremiah says he should.  So Jeremiah asks to remain in Jerusalem with the new governor-type guy of Judah that Nebuchadnezzar has appointed.  His name is Gedaliah.

Now I think Gedaliah is an okay guy.  He tells the Israelites what Jeremiah was telling them all along: don't be afraid of being under the Chaldeans (that's Babylon, remember); just stay here (the few who were not taken into exile) and things will go well for you.  So a bunch of Jews who had run off actually returned to the land.

But now there's this guy named Ishmael.  I don't know who he is, but some guy named Johanan confides in Gedaliah that Ishmael is planning to assassinate him (Gedaliah), but Gedaliah thinks it's a lie so he doesn't do anything about it.  And sure enough, Ishmael goes and kills him a short time later.  He also kills a bunch of other people and takes captive all the people who are left in Jerusalem and starts to take them to Ammon.  I have no idea why.  Was Ishmael an Ammonite, or just really screwed up?  But Johanan, the guy who had warned Gedaliah, takes some men and chases after Ishmael and gets all the captives back.  So that's good at least.

But now the people who are still in Judah are a little freaked out at what's happening.  They think it will be a really good idea to go to the one country that's been their ally for quite some time, Egypt (isn't that ironic after Exodus?).  And when you think about it, that does sound like a good idea.  Jerusalem has been burned; there's basically nothing and almost nobody left in the whole country, and the ones who are there are poor and helpless and now leaderless because their king has been exiled and the leader left to replace him has just been murdered, and who knows who's going to lead them now.  Egypt is rich and prosperous and they figure they can hide out there until things are going better in Judah and they can return.

So they ask Jeremiah if this is a good idea, and promise - actually they vow - to do whatever God says they ought to do, whether it's what they want to do or not.  Kind of weird that now they say they're going to listen to God.  What I find interesting about the exchange between the Israelites and Jeremiah is that they petition him to ask "the LORD your God," as if He's not their God too, and Jeremiah replies that he will pray to "the LORD your God," as if he's reminding them that He is.  I don't know if that's the reason for the "yours" or if that's just the way they happened to say it, but I find it interesting nonetheless.

God's response to the go-to-Egypt scheme is, don't do it.  Stay where you are and I'll take care of you, but if you go to Egypt, the enemies of Egypt will invade and you're going to die.  That is a pretty straightforward answer.  Now remember that oath the Jews just took to do whatever God said?  Yeah, they totally ignore that and say they're going to do what they want to do, because they think the reason all this bad stuff has happened is because they stopped sacrificing to pagan gods.  So they go down to Egypt anyway, and Jeremiah goes with them, and while in Egypt, Jeremiah prophesies the conquest of Egypt and destruction for the Jews who are there.  The only person whose promised life is Baruch, the guy who wrote Jeremiah's prophesies down a few chapters ago.  But that's about all he's going to get.

In light of what happened to Zedekiah and Jerusalem, you'd think the people would listen to Jeremiah.  After all, he's been right so far.  And I think they go to him for help because deep down they know he's right.  The trouble is, sometimes when we've made up our minds to do something, it doesn't matter whether we know we're right or wrong; we're going to do what we want to do and nothing can stop us.  I'm starting to think this is a bad attitude to have.

The other thing I learned from this story is, sometimes God calls us into dangerous and unpleasant situations.  It made sense to go to Egypt.  It would seem, from a practical standpoint, like the wise, prudent, and safe thing to do.  But God's wisdom confounds ours, and sometimes the things He wants us to do seem like foolishness to us and those around us.  Apparently God's not concerned with whether His ideas pass our test of "this makes sense."  He wants our obedience whether obedience makes sense or not, and whether it seems like a good idea or not.  The consequences of obedience may not be fame and prosperity and riches - they certainly weren't for Jeremiah and Baruch.  But the consequences of disobedience are far, far worse.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Jeremiah 30-38: More of the Same

There are two main points to this passage: 1) the future deliverance of Israel and Judah, and 2) Jeremiah gets in trouble for telling people that Babylon is going to conquer Jerusalem.  It's kind of a recurring theme in this book, if you haven't noticed.

I really like this one passage in chapter 30 though.  Check this out:
"For thus says the LORD, 'Your wound is incurable, And your injury is serious.  There is no one to plead your cause; No healing for your sore, No recovery for you. . . . Why do you cry out over your injury? Your pain is incurable. Because your iniquity is great And your sins are numerous, I have done these things to you. . . .  I will restore you to health, And I will heal you of your wounds,' declares the LORD" (30:12-13, 15, 17a).

Basically every religion or philosophy in the history of religion has treated sin/evil as a problem that we need to overcome in order to be acceptable to God.  A lot of them treat it as something caused by something external to us - pleasure, society, ignorance, lack of resources, etc., and if we could just eliminate those things, we would be perfect.  But that's really wishful thinking.  Sin is a problem that is inside of us, inside of me.  I can remove myself from situations that tempt me to sin, but I cannot remove sin from within me.  In short, I can't make myself perfect.  Neither can you.  You can try all you want, but I promise you'll never succeed.  And here the Bible says this problem, this "wound," is incurable.  That's depressing, right?  But then it says that God will heal us, will remove the sickness.  Christianity - true Christianity - is the one religion in which it is God who makes man acceptable, not man who cleans himself up for God.  God chose to meet us where we are - not halfway or three-fourths of the way or almost there - He came all the way to where we are, broken and bleeding and utterly sick inside, touched us as we were in that state, and took the plague on Himself so we could be free of it.  That's the gospel.

There's a lot in this passage about God restoring Israel, about His faithfulness to her, including the famous verse "I have loved you with an everlasting love" (31:3a).  God promises to make a new covenant with His people, putting His laws within them in their hearts, and forgiving all their sins.  Once again, the problem of sin is addressed - God gave people the Law, but they didn't follow it.  Was there something wrong with the Law?  No, the problem was with the people.  The Law was outside them, and in their hearts they were still lawless.  We don't need more laws or new laws, we need new hearts.  That is what God gives us when we are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.

Now, this is the part where it switches gears.  In chapter 32, King Zedekiah gets really fed up with Jeremiah and imprisons him, probably because Jeremiah was telling everybody that Nebuchadnezzar would conquer them and they should surrender, and now Jerusalem is under seige.  Jeremiah calls out to God, and God responds by telling him again what He is going to do - Nebuchadnezzar is going to capture the city and burn it, this is a punishment for all the sin of Judah, there is going to be a remnant preserved, and God will restore them to the promised land and set up a righteous King over Judah (pretty sure He means Jesus).  But in the mean time, he tells Jeremiah to tell Zedekiah what's in store for him: he's going to be captured, but not killed by Nebuchadnezzar (although honestly, what happens to him is probably worse than dying).

Oh, there's an interesting story in here that I want to mention.  God tells Jeremiah to invite some people over and serve them wine.  Jeremiah does so, but they say they can't drink wine because their whole family from generations back is under an oath not to drink wine or live in houses or grow vineyards, and they've all kept it.  God blesses these people (they're called Rechabites) for their obedience and uses them as a foil, of sorts, of Israel.  Here you have a bunch of people whose ancestors gave an oath to their father not to do some arbitrary stuff that isn't even wrong to do, and they've kept it all these years.  Israel, on the other hand, took a similar oath to obey God, and not do stuff that was actually bad, and they haven't kept it all no matter how hard God has tried to steer them back on track.  It's not like it was impossible to follow God's laws - the Rechabites have illustrated that it is possible to keep an oath your ancestors made - they just didn't do it.

So then there's another run-in with Zedekiah.  Jeremiah has this other guy named Baruch (Baruch is one of the few Hebrew words I know; it means "bless" or "blessed") write all his prophecies in a scroll, take it to the temple, and read it.  Some officials overhear him and want to take the message to the king, but they tell Baruch to hide while they take the scroll to Zedekiah.  It's a good thing they told him to do this, because when Zedekiah hears the scroll read, he cuts it up and throws it into the fire and gives orders to seize Baruch and Jeremiah.  Luckily they stay hidden.

I wonder if the officials who heard Baruch really thought Zedekiah would listen to the scroll?  After all, he had just thrown Jeremiah in prison.

Later, Jeremiah is trying to take a trip, and he's captured because a guard thinks he's defecting to the Chaldeans (that's Babylon).  They put him in jail, but King Zedekiah sends for him.  This is where things get interesting.  Zedekiah is the guy who threw Jeremiah in prison and burned up his scroll, but now it starts to seem like Zedekiah actually wants to listen to Jeremiah.  The two men talk, and Zedekiah gives Jeremiah a little bit more freedom (confines him to the guardhouse) and commands him to be given a ration of bread for as long as there's any bread in Jerusalem.  Then later, some guys hear Jeremiah preaching and throw him into a cistern, which is basically a well that's gone dry (well, mostly dry).  But some guy finds out and reports it to Zedekiah, and Zedekiah orders him to be taken out of the well and has another interview with him.  We find out that Zedekiah is really just afraid of the Jews.  Some of them have gone over to the Chaldeans and Zedekiah is afraid that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar, he's going to be turned over to them.  Jeremiah tells him that won't happen and that it'll be in his best interests to surrender now.  Zedekiah sounds like he believes him, but he makes Jeremiah promise not to tell anybody what they've talked about, and he doesn't follow Jeremiah's instructions because he's afraid of his officials.

I think I know what's going on here.  See, Zedekiah is not actually the rightful king of Judah.  He was set up by Nebuchadnezzar in place of Josiah's son Jehoiachin, but Jehoiachin is still alive.  I think Zedekiah is worried that if he does anything to upset the delicate balance that is Jerusalem right now, he's going to get fired, either by Nebuchadnezzar or by his own people.  I think he's worried that the people haven't fully embraced him as the real king and that if he surrenders to Nebuchadnezzar that will be even more proof of weakness.  I think that is why he's acting like this.

The trouble is, decisions that are motivated by fear are rarely wise, especially if you know that they aren't the right decisions.  I'm pretty sure Zedekiah knew Jeremiah was right, based on what I read in this passage.  But he was afraid to do the right thing, and to me, that means he was a weak king and didn't deserve his throne.  Doing the right thing is usually very difficult and sometimes brings about lots of opposition.  Sometimes our circumstances are such that it's also risky to do the right thing.  But easy or not, safe or not, wise or not, God calls us to obedience, and God blesses obedience like he blessed the Rechabites.  Maybe if Zedekiah had more faith in God, he would've had the courage to obey Him.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Jeremiah 20-29: Jeremiah in Danger

Once again, apologies for the hiatus.  When I get really far ahead in my reading I'm further discouraged from posting, so I've started just rereading the part I'm supposed to blog about until I get to blogging.  Smart, eh?  We'll see.

So this is the part where we learn a little bit about Jeremiah's life.  And it's not a very fun life.  Some priest named Pashhur puts Jeremiah in the stocks in chapter 20, and in chapter 26 people actually try to kill him.  Between those events, he apparently has to take his message of impending doom to other nations besides Israel and Judah, and I can only imagine that he wasn't entirely well received.  All in all, I think Jeremiah got a pretty raw deal as far as career satisfaction goes, and he knew it.  In chapter 20 he gives this long complaint to God, and it actually starts by claiming that God deceived him.  It talks about all the crap he has to endure from all the people who won't listen to him, and just about the terrible nature of the prophecies he's been commanded to speak.  But somehow in all that, Jeremiah finds the courage or faith or perseverance or something to say this:

"But the LORD is with me like a dread champion; Therefore my persecutors will stumble and not prevail. . . . Sing to the LORD, praise the LORD! For He has delivered the soul of the needy one From the hand of the evildoers."  From there he goes on to wish that he'd never been born and stuff like that, but still, that he can somehow praise God in the midst of what he's been going through, is pretty amazing to me.

The other main thing that stuck out to me in this passage was that after all God has said about destruction and punishment and judgment and wrath, we get a very clear message that He is willing - wanting - to relent.  First all we see is that God promises to spare the people if they will flee Jerusalem and give themselves over to Nebuchadnezzar.  I can understand how the Israelites would not have taken that message well; it kind of sounds like treason, really.  I think that God wanted to cleanse not just the people but the land of Israel.  If you remember way back to the Law, the people were supposed to let the land lie fallow every seven years to rest, and apparently Israel did that about . . . zero times . . . which, if you know anything about agriculture, isn't actually good for the soil.  Part of the reason (not the main reason) Israel went into exile was to give the earth a chance to replenish itself.

But then if you flip over to chapter 26, God tells the people that if they repent and turn away from evil, he will not cause all the destruction He is planning.  Jeremiah tells this to the people again when they've seized him and want to kill him.  This message reminds me of 2 Chronicles 7:14, which states that if the people do evil and reap all the curses God promised in the covenant, then if they will just repent, God will hear and forgive them and heal the land.  They could have avoided the 70 years in exile, not to mention all the horrific things that happened during the conquest of Judah, if only they had repented and started following God's laws.  Why did they need to follow God's laws so much, you ask? Because they made a covenant with Him to do so.  And this covenant was binding to all generations, not just the people who stood before Mt. Sinai.  The people fully expected God to keep up His end of the bargain - they went to the temple to ask Him to save them from Nebuchadnezzar and so forth - but they didn't have any intention of keeping their end of the covenant, which was service to God.  I think this is very applicable to the way we treat God today.  We ask Him for stuff, we ask for His help, we ask for His blessing, but we do it sometimes without any intention of changing the things in our lives that we know He doesn't like.  How is that fair?

Now, since Israel has not listened to God, God is going to send them into exile, but that doesn't mean their lives have to be miserable there.  This is something I find weird and interesting: God tells the people to pray for the welfare of the city where they are living in exile, because "in its welfare you will have welfare."  I think that for those of us who are trying to understand the place of patriotism or nationalism in light of being citizens of the kingdom of heaven, this is really relevant.  This world is not our home, and the country and city we're living in isn't our home either (at least not permanently), but God has placed us here for a time, for a reason, and while we're here we are to desire the good of the place we're living.

There are a few Messianic prophesies in this passage.  The first (chapter 23) uses a shepherd metaphor, and I love the language that is used in verse 4.  In contrast to the current leaders of Israel who are destroying the flock (the people) and causing them harm, God promises one day to raise up shepherds who will care for the flock and watch over them so they won't be afraid anymore, and none of them will be missing.  I don't know if this specifically is a Messianic reference or not, because it uses a plural for "shepherds," but I just love that idea of sheep - who are one of the most paranoid animals ever (like, they're afraid of running water) - not being afraid anymore.  And also how sheep have this tendency to wander off, but none of them will be missing.  But right after this it talks about raising up a righteous Branch who will reign as king over Israel and whose name will be "The LORD our righteousness."  I love that name (without looking it up, I think that it is Jehovah Tsikendu.)  And later in chapter 24, it says that God will give the people a heart to know Him, and that they will be His people and He will be their God.  This is important because God has done just about everything conceivable to make Himself known to Israel, but so far nothing has worked, at least not for long.  The problem is that we need a new heart, a heart that seeks God.

I have to mention chapter 29 because it has one of the most famous verses in Jeremiah, Jeremiah 29:11 - "For I know the plans I have for you . . . plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future."  Now He's talking specifically to Judah here, and even more specifically, He's referring to what will happen after their 70 years of exile are over.  But I'm sure that this verse still has bearing to all of God's people anyway.  But what I love even more are the verses that come immediately after verse 11.  Starting in verse 12 it says, "'Then you will call upon Me and come and pray to Me, and I will listen to you.  You will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.  I will be found by you,' declares the LORD."  Right now, the people do not seek God, although they do seek His blessing, and they don't serve Him with their hearts, although they do with their mouths.  God promises that the exile, this punishment for sin He is brining, will cause them to turn around and become a people who seek God wholeheartedly.  I think that sometimes God causes unpleasant and even bad things to happen to us to get our attention, but even more than that, to change us inside, to make us more into the kind of people we need to be to have a relationship with Him.  We have to seek Him and call on Him and pray to Him and search for Him, not just say we belong to Him and expect Him to show up like a genie whenever we're in trouble.  So maybe when bad things happen to us, instead of necessarily praying for the bad stuff to end, we should pray for God to teach us or change us or do to us whatever He's trying to accomplish through the bad stuff.

Finally, I want to mention one other thing that is underlined in my Bible.  And incidentally, they all have something to do with knowing God.  The first is 22:15-16, which states: "'Did not your father eat and drink And do justice and righteousness? Then it was well with him.  He pled the cause of the afflicted and needy; Then it was well.  Is not that what it means to know Me?' Declares the LORD."  This reminds me of a verse in Micah that we'll get to eventually.  It sounds like in God's perspective, knowing Him is as simple as doing the right thing (do justice and righteousness, plead the cause of the afflicted and needy) as you live your life (eat and drink).  Sometimes we over-complicate matters, I think.  We think that God's will is this abstract, really obtuse thing that we have to be super spiritual to understand.  Maybe sometimes things can be simple.  Just do the right thing, and that will bring you closer to God.  I like that.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Jeremiah 11-19: Brokenness

I feel really bad about getting so behind on these things.  It's just hard to blog about the prophets, like I said before.  I feel like I'm saying the same thing over and over.  I wonder if God felt that way when saying all this stuff to the prophets?

Chapter 11 is about how Israel has broken their covenant with God.  Covenant were an ancient oath ritual thing, very formal contracts that had specific terms and often very harsh consequences for breaking the covenant.  Israel has broken their terms of covenant, which were to remain faithful to God and worship Him only, basically. Not only this, but the people actually refuse to listen to God or turn back to Him. They don't want to be part of the God of Abraham's people anymore.  For this reason, God tells Jeremiah that he is not even supposed to grieve for the destruction that will come on Israel and Judah.  That would be very hard for me to obey.

Meanwhile, some people think it would be way more fun if Jeremiah weren't around, so there are some plots against his life, but God is protecting him from anything serious so far.

In chapter 12, we see again God's disgust with his chosen people who have rejected Him.  He says He is actually going to abandon them and forsake them - whoa, what?  The Bible actually says that?  Yes, it actually does.  God uses some very harsh language in the prophets, because He is flipping fed up with chasing after people who want nothing to do with Him.  So He's going to uproot them, cut them off, make their land desolate.

But . . .

The story doesn't end there.  After God does all this, He is going to bring them back, restore them, and bless them.  And when He does, then they will follow Him whole-heartedly.  I don't know if this is a reference to the coming of Christ, or to the eventual and ultimate restoration of Israel in the Day of the Lord.  Because Messiah has come, and the people of Israel didn't recognize or accept Him.

I think that we know more about Jeremiah as a person than we do about any other prophet who wrote a book.  Jeremiah (the book) is full of prayers of Jeremiah (the person), either laments over the state of his nation, or pleas with God to remember him and deliver him from his enemies, etc.  We find out about some of the plots against him, and we also find out that God didn't let him get married or have kids.  Bummer.  There are some people in the world that it seems God calls to live a really hard life.  Jeremiah did not have a fun life. Jeremiah did not have a lot of friends.  His only delight was in God.  He says in chapter 15, "Your words were found and I ate them, And Your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart, For I have been called by Your name."  If we had no joy in life, would we be able to find delight in God?  That is something I wonder about myself.  Do I give praise to God because He makes my life fun and happy and successful, or because He is goodness and joy itself?

God uses some harsh words about Israel and Judah, like I said before.  He says that even if Moses and Samuel (the epitome of obedience to God, right?) were to plead with Him on behalf of the Jews, God would not listen or have compassion on them.  And this is saying a lot because Moses did plead with God on behalf of Israel more than once, and in each of those cases God relented from the punishment He was about to give. So Judah is in a pretty bad state right now if not even Moses can change His mind.

But . . .

There is something that could change God's mind, and that something is repentance.  He says, "If you return, then I will restore you."  No matter how far gone you are - even if you've become so corrupt that Moses himself could't argue a case for you - God will forgive you in a heartbeat if you simply turn away from a life of rebellion and submit to Him.  It's that simple.  Why don't we do that more often?

Chapter 17 has a famous verse about the heart: "The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked; Who can know it?"  My translation, the NASB, says that the heart is "desperately sick."  I think this is a better word image than what the KJV gives for the condition of our hearts.  We have a disease; it is called sin.  No matter what we do, we cannot rid ourselves of this inner illness, and what's worse, it is terminal.  Our sin is going to kill us.

But . . .

There is a cure.  There is one Doctor who knows how to treat this disease, a miracle surgeon who can take out all the nasty cancerous blackness and replace it with something good.  "Heal me, O LORD, and I will be healed; Save me and I will be saved," says Jeremiah.  There is only one way not to die of sin, and that is to die to sin by subjecting ourselves to the rule of God in our lives.  What does that look like?  Well, it kind of looks like clay being shaped into a pot, and God gives Jeremiah a visual of this by sending him down to a potter's house.  The potter is making a pot, and as sometimes happens in pottery, the thing just isn't turning out .  If you've ever tried your hand at pottery, you've experienced this - sometimes for whatever reason, the shape becomes such that you really can't fix it no matter what you do.  So you have to smash the clay back into a ball and star over.  This is what happens with the potter Jeremiah watches - the pot is ruined, so the potter starts over with the clay and makes something new, and that works.  This is what God is going to do to Israel.  They've become spoiled; they can't be repaired or patched or reshaped anymore because it's just patches on patches and sticking your finger in a dike, so to speak.  It's not going to work.  So God has to bring Israel down to the lowest possible point - He has to break her - in order to remake her into something new.

That is the gospel.  Sin has screwed us up beyond the point of repair; you can't slap a bandaid on an amputee and expect it to help.  If we are ever to become whole, we actually first have to become broken.  It's like when you break a bone, and it heals improperly, so then you go to the doctor to get it set and he has to re-break the bone in order to put it where it belongs.  It's a horrible, painful procedure, but it is the only treatment.  Brokenness is the only means to our cure.  That is what God is doing with Israel and Judah here - He's not just saying all this stuff about forsaking and destroying because He's done with them and is going to leave them in a pile of bones somewhere.  All this doom and gloom stuff has a purpose, and the purpose is to break Israel and Judah of their pride so they will return to following God.  And it actually worked; after the exile to Babylon, Israel remained monotheistic.  It was in Babylon that the Old Testament was compiled and copied.  To this day, the Jews have a strong attachment to their religion and the God of their fathers.  Unfortunately, as a whole they missed God's biggest blessing to them, their long-awaited Messiah.

Finally, one more broken thing.  God has Jeremiah take a jar out in the open and break it to foretell that destruction is coming to Jerusalem.  Another nation will come in and conquer the city and the nation, and they will demolish Jerusalem.

What do we learn about this passage?  First of all, there is a punishment for turning your back on God.  God is serious when He lays down consequences; He really means it when He says bad things will happen to you. Think about that before hastily agreeing to follow Him - because He's going to ask a lot of you.

Secondly, though, we learn that God is merciful, and that in spite of all His anger and frustration with these crazy people, He is willing and even eager to forgive them; in fact, everything He is doing to punish Israel is for the purpose of restoration.

I wrote in my journal once that we are like broken pieces of glass, and God can take all those broken pieces and shape them into something new and beautiful.  It's not something we can do ourselves (we're the broken pieces, remember?) - it's something only God can do.  And the amazing thing is, no matter how broken you were when you started, the thing He will make you into will actually be better than what you started as.  And that's a pretty awesome thing.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Jeremiah 1-10: A Book of Bad News, Mostly

I know, I know; I'm so behind.  But I'm in the prophets, and the prophets are so depressing that it's hard to want to write about them.  Jeremiah is no exception.

I like the way Jeremiah starts.  The first thing that God says to Jeremiah when He calls him is "before I formed you in the womb I knew you; And before you were born I consecrated you."  Even though immediately Jeremiah protests that he's only a kid and doesn't know how to speak (sound familiar?), God says that He is going to send him and tell him what to say and put the right words in his mouth.  Do you ever pray for God to put words in your mouth?  I do, because half the time I feel like I have no clue what is the right thing to say.  A lot of the stuff God tells Jeremiah is to encourage him, which I think was really necessary, because 1) like the rest of the prophets, Israel and Judah didn't listen to him at all, and 2) Jeremiah is not only a depressing book, but he was a very sad person.  He is called the "weeping prophet" because he was so heartbroken over what happened to Israel and Judah.  Imagine, on top of that, having to tell all the people why their homeland is being destroyed, and them not listening to you!  I would have been a weeping prophet too, I think.

Here are some of the notes I wrote in my margins:

2:27 - the context of this verse is saying that people will make up an idol that they form with their own hands and believe that it created them, but then when trouble comes they turn to God and ask Him to save them.  At least I think that's what this particular verse means.  What I wrote in my margins was the date 9/11/2001.  When the Twin Towers were attacked on September 11, a lot of people turned to God.  But it didn't seem to me like that lasted very long.  We think about God whenever a disaster strikes - whether we turn to Him in repentance or anger, in genuine faith or in a temporary shift of focus, it seems like bad things can't happen without us acknowledging God in some way.

3:5 says that "you [Israel] have done evil things, and you have had your way."  In my notes I wrote: "God does not force our obedience - he'll let us do what we want - have it 'our way' - if we so choose."  This, to me, is a sobering thought.  Sometimes I think that God won't let me do what's not in His plan for me.  But I think the truth is that if my heart is really focused on doing what I want - which is a state of rebellion toward God - sometimes He will just let me have what I want, even if it's bad for me.  And maybe that is because I am unteachable when I'm like that, and maybe getting what I want and finding out it wasn't right, will put me back on the right path.  But that doesn't sound like a way I want to go.  So right now I am praying that instead of God doing what I want to do, that God will make all my desires and all my will line up with what He wants for me.  It seems like a much better way to go.

Here is a passage of hope.  3:12ff is God's call to Israel to repent.  He says, "I will not look upon you in anger.  For I am gracious . . . I will not be angry forever."  It goes on from there.  The note I wrote was: "God wants us!  Here He's practically begging Israel to return to Him.  History is the story of how God tried time after time to have a relationship with people - finally it was accomplished - through Jesus."  Unfortunately, every appeal God made to Israel fell on deaf ears.  It's just like that parable where the master sent servants to his vineyard to get the profit or whatever, and the people working the vineyard mistreated the prophets, so finally the master sent his own son to do the job.  Of course, it didn't work out so well for that son, but at least Jesus rose from the dead.

I don't have any more margin notes in this passage.  But basically God tells Judah to repent, and tells them what will happen if they don't - destruction and judgment.  Jeremiah is overcome with anguish for the fate of his people.  So God tells Jeremiah to go through the streets of Jerusalem and try to find one person - just one - who "does justice, who seeks truth," and then He will pardon the whole city.  Remember Sodom and Gomorrah?  This is why I think if Abraham had asked God to spare Sodom for the sake of one righteous man, He would have.  But apparently Jeremiah doesn't find anybody.  That's pretty sad.  So yes, destruction is coming, and the people of Jerusalem are warned to flee the city to save their lives.

What is really difficult for me to grasp is that God tells Jeremiah not to pray for the people of Israel because He isn't going to hear.  Sometimes, the things we want are actually against God's will, and sometimes God even tells us not to pray for something or not to pray the way we would want to pray.  That is tough to think about.  Also, I don't think we can change God's mind when He is going to do something.  We can't force or manipulate or bargain God into doing what we want.  And finally, whether or not Israel survived didn't depend on Jeremiah, but on the rest of the people, and they had no intention of listening to God, apparently.

Jeremiah writes a lament for Zion, but then he acknowledges the greatness of God and the wickedness of people.  In spite of his own sorrow, Jeremiah is committed to the will of God and he knows that God does what is right, in the end.  I like this verse here, 10:23 - "I know, O LORD, that a man's way is not in himself, Nor is it in a man who walks to direct his steps."  Like I said above about wanting God to change my will - I really don't think that I have the ability to make the best decisions for myself.  Certainly not at 23.  I can't see ahead the way God can.  A few years ago I had an amazing job opportunity that I didn't take because, after thinking a lot about it, I didn't think I was ready for it and I wasn't sure I could commit to it.  The other day my mom mentioned that part of her wished now that we had gone for it (we, because I would have required my parents' help).  Did I do the right thing in not taking it?  I don't know right now; I'm not really sure I can know from where I'm standing.  I think several years from now I'll look back and see how God has directed my steps, and I'm sure I'll also see where I went astray.  It's hard to tell what straight is when you're up close to it.  That's why I need God to guide me, because only He has the perspective to tell where I need to go.

So apparently there is stuff to be learned from Jeremiah, both the book and the person, in spite of it's being an overwhelmingly sad book most of the time.  I'll try to be more regular about updating this. . . .  In my reading I'm almost to the end of Ezekiel (which is what I read immediately after Jeremiah).

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Isaiah 52-66: Restoration for the Transgressors

Okay, I know I dropped the ball again for a while on this blogging thing.  It's difficult to blog about these prophetic books because they kind of say the same thing over and over and while that's not a bad thing, it makes it difficult to feel like I'm saying anything new.  So my next several posts may be a bit shorter and cover larger passages, because I'm really trying to just point out what sticks out to me.

Anyway, so in chapter 52 Isaiah starts talking about the exalted servant of God.  And then in chapter 53 he talks about the suffering servant.  Jews believe these are two different people, whereas Christians believe both passages are referring to the same person: Jesus the Messiah.  I have always wondered what the Jews think about chapter 53, because the language is that of sacrificial atonement - that our sins, sorrows, transgressions, etc., are placed on this person, that he is a guilt offering, that somehow this bearing of our iniquities justifies us.  For Jews who believe that justification comes through keeping the Law and making animal sacrifices, what does this passage mean to them?

Recently, the thing that has struck me about Isaiah 53 is that it's not just our wickedness that Jesus atoned for.  Verse 4 says "Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried."  In the margin of my Bible I wrote this:  "Not just our sins, but our sorrows - not just our wrongs, but also our hurts.  Jesus knows what all of our pains, griefs, shame, trauma, feel like, because He carried it.  It, too, was nailed to the cross, which means it, too, will be redeemed."  To me, that is a very comforting thought.

The next three chapters are pretty positive: God's lovingkindness and covenant of peace can never be shaken, God offers mercy freely, God's boundless mercy is incomprehensible because God Himself is incomprehensible, being obedient to God will yield blessing, etc.

Following this are three chapters of warnings and judgments and stuff like that.  There's an indictment of rulers who don't acknowledge God as higher than them, and there's a call to fasting so that God will hear.  But as it is, the text says, God doesn't hear because the people's sins have created a barrier between themselves and Him.  I find the juxtaposition of these two verses very telling: 59:1 says, "Behold, the LORD's hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear."  Then the very next verse says, "But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear."  So it's not that God can't hear, but that He doesn't - I think He's waiting for repentance - He's waiting for us to turn from our wickedness in order to truly seek Him.  Because the thing is, people would cry out to God and stuff, but at the same time they were holding on to these idols and sinful practices and stuff, so it wasn't really God that they wanted; they just wanted a bailout.  And I think this is what I do too.  What I pray for the most is help when I'm in trouble.  I think I need to seek God for His own sake, not just to be my cleanup crew.

Chapters 60-66 cover a few different ideas, but I think they all are built around the central theme of the Day of the Lord, the restoration of Zion, and the redemption of man.  Someof the language is very messianic (or at least was used by Handel in writing Messiah): "Arise, shine; for your light has come, And the glory of the LORD has risen upon you."  Some of the language sounds like the book of Revelation: "No longer will you have the sun for light by day; Nor for brightness will the moon give you light; But you will have the LORD for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory," and, "the days of your mourning will be over," and (chapter 65) "behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; And the former things will not be remembered or come to mind."  Chapter 61 opens with the passage that Jesus read in the synagogue when He began His ministry: "The Spiri of the Lord God is upon me, Because the LORD has anointed me To bring good news to the afflicted . . ."

But at the same time that all this happy glorious stuff is going on, God also says that at this time He will judge the nations and will pour our His wrath on those who are wicked.  But to those who follow God, God will show mercy and compassion and will save them.

Chapter 65 reminds me of the book of Romans (actually it's quoted in the book of Romans), because it talks about God being found by people who didn't seek Him, while at the same time He is pursuing people who want nothing to do with them.  Paul says that this is referring to the Gentiles compared to the Jews.  All this time, God has been making appeal after appeal to the Jews, and they really couldn't care less what He has to say.  But when the gospel is brought to the Gentiles, they accept this brand new God that they didn't even know before.  But in this future time that Isaiah keeps referring to, the time when God makes a new heaven and earth, everyone will acknowledge God and everything will be great.  Even lambs will be safe in the company of animals that used to be their predators.  It just now struck me that this is the context of the verse, "Before they call, I will answer; and while they are still speaking, I will hear."  Does that mean that this verse doesn't apply to right now?  Because it seems to me that God does and has answered prayers before they were prayed or even at the same time.  So if God is already doing that now, I wonder what this verse will mean about what things will be like in the future.

Anyway, so the chapter ends basically with a comparison between the future state of the righteous and the future state of the wicked.  It's very clear that everybody ultimately will see and know who God is and will bow before Him, but only some will share in His glory and joy.  For those who persisted in transgression, there is only agony and death, which really sucks. 

I think the message is clear - the message of this whole book - that God extends mercy and forgiveness to everybody (because He makes intercession for the "transgressors," who are the wicked people - that's all of us), but not everybody is going to participate in that.  Ultimately, God is going to come down and give everybody what they really want, and it's either going to be Him, or it's going to be Not Him.  It's a message to take God seriously, to take repentance seriously, and not to be complacent about the thought of God's judgment, because it's real, and it's coming.  It's a sobering thought, but only if you're living outside God's mercy.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Isaiah 40-51: God Is Great, God Is Good

This passage is one of my favorites in the whole Bible.  It contains verse after verse describing God's greatness, His power, His supremacy, His mercy, His love, his faithfulness, His constancy.  If you are ever in a dark place, I recommend you read these twelve chapters.

I think instead of offering commentary - because let's face it, the content of these chapters is essentially the same as the content of the last 39 - I'm going to quote the verses that stood out to me the most.  By the way, somebody at my small group pointed out that Hebrew literature is full of what is called chiastic structure, which is something I learned about in theology class.  It's a way of organizing topics symmetrically so that the first topic and last topic are the same.  For instance, if the writer had two topics to talk about, topic A and topic B, in a chiastic structure he would talk about A, then B, then B, then A.  If he had three topics he would order it ABCCBA, and so forth.  So that is why Isaiah is so back-and-forth all the time.

Now on to my verse highlights.  I'll organize them by topic.  All verses are from the NASB, all emphases mine.

God's Greatness

40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades,
But the word of our God stands forever.

40:10 Behold, the Lord GOD will come with might,
With His arm ruling for Him.
Behold, His reward is with Him
And His recompense before Him.

40:12-13 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand,
And marked off the heavens by the span,
And calculated the dust of the earth by the measure,
And weighed the mountains in a balance
And the hills in a pair of scales?
Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD,
Or as His counselor has informed Him?
With whom did He consult and who gave Him understanding?
And who taught Him in the path of justice and taught Him knowledge
And informed Him of the way of understanding?

40:25-26 "To whom then will you liken Me
That I would be his equal?" says the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high
And see who has created these stars,
The One who leads forth their host by number,
He calls them all by name;
Because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power,
Not one of them is missing.

40:28 Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable.

41:4b I, the LORD, am the first, and with the last.  I am He.

42:8-9 I am the LORD, that is My name;
I will not give My glory to another,
Nor My praise to graven images.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
Now I declare new things;
Before they spring forth I proclaim them to you.

43:10-13 "You are My witnesses," declares the LORD,
"And My servant whom I have chosen,
So that you may know and believe Me
And understand that I am He.
Before Me there was no God formed,
And there will be none after Me.
I, even I, am the LORD,
And there is no savior besides Me.
It is I who have declared and saved and proclaimed,
And there was no strange god among you;
So you are My witnesses," declares the LORD,
"And I am God.
Even from eternity I am He,
And there is none who can deliver out of My hand; I act and who can reverse it?"

44:6-8 Thus says the LORD, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the LORD of hosts:
"I am the first and I am the last,
And there is no God besides Me.
Who is like Me? Let him proclaim and declare it;
Yes, let him recount it to Me in order,
From the time that I established the ancient nation.
And let them declare to them the things that are coming
And the events that are going to take place.
Do not tremble and do not be afraid;
Have I not long since announced it to you and delcared it?
And you are My witnesses.
Is there any God besides Me,
Or is there any other Rock?
I know of none."

44:24 Thus says the LORD, your Redeemer, and the one who formed you from the womb,
"I, the LORD, amd the maker of all things,
Stretching out the heavens by Myself
And spreading out the earth all alone."

45:5-7 I am the LORD, and there is no other;
Besides Me there is no God.
I will gird you, though you have not known Me;
That men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun
That there is no one besides Me.
I am the LORD, and there is no other,
THe One forming light and creating darkness,
Causing well-being and creating calamity;
I am the LORD who does all these.

46:9-10 Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me,
Declaring the end from the beginning,
ANd from ancient times things which have not been done,
Saying, "My purpose will be established,
And I will accomplish all My good pleasure."

God's Love, Provision, and Care

40:11 Like a shepherd He will tend His flock,
In His arm He will gather the lambs
And carry them in His bosom;
He will gently lead the nursing ewes. 
40:28-31 He gives strength to the wear,
And to him who lacks might He increases power.
Though youths grow weary and tired,
And vigorous men stumble badly,
Yet those who wait for the LORD
Will gain new strength;
They will mount up with wings like eagles,
They will run and not get tired,
They will walk and not become weary.

41:10 Do not fear, for I am with you;
Do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you, surely I will help you,
Surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.

41:13 "For I am the LORD your God, who upholds your right hand,
Who says to you, 'Do not fear, I will help you,'
Do not fear, you worm Jacob, you men of Israel;
I will help you," declares the LORD, "and your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel."

43:1b-5 Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name; you are Mine!
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
And through the rivers, they will not overflow you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched,
Nor will the flame burn you.
For I am the LORD your God,
The Holy One of Israel, your Savior;
I have given Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in your place.
Since you are precious in My sight,
Since you are honored and I love you,
I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life.
Do not fear, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
And gather you from the west.
44:21 Remember these things, O Jacob,
And Israel, for you are My servant;
I have formed you, you are My servant,
O Israel, you will not be forgotten by Me.

46:4 Even to your old age I will be the same,
And even to your graying years I will bear you!
I have done it, and I will carry you;
And I will bear you and I will deliver you.
49:15-16 Can a woman forget her nursing child
And have no compassion on the son of her womb?
Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.
Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands;
Your walls are continually before me.

51:12-13 I, even I, am He who comforts you.
Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies
And of the son of man who is made like grass,
That you have forgotten the LORD your Maker,
Who stretched out the heavens
And laid the foundations of the earth,
That you fear continually all day long because of the fury of the oppressor,
As he makes ready to destroy?
But where is the oppressor?

God's Mercy and Forgiveness 
40:1-2 "Comfort, O comfort My people," says your God.
"Speak kindly to Jerusalem;
And call out to her, that her warfare has ended,
That her iniquity has been removed,
That she has received of the LORD's hand
Double for all her sins."

44:22 I have wiped out your transgressions like a thick cloud
And your sins like a heavy mist.
Return to Me, for I have redeemed you.

48:9 For the sake of My name I delay My wrat,
And for My praise I restrain it for you,
In order not to cut you off.

50:2b Is My hand so short that it cannot ransom?
Or have I no power to deliver?

God is truly amazing, and it is amazing to read all these declarations.  As you can see, some of the verses span many topics so it was kind of hard to categorize them, because the truth is that part of what makes God great His love and care for His people, His grace and forgiveness.  Anyway, I hope you enjoyed reading all that if you made it this far. :)

Monday, April 19, 2010

Isaiah 32-39: More Prophecies and a History Lesson

Okay, so I'm behind again, but only a little.  The great thing about Isaiah is I can lump a lot of chapters together pretty easily because it's a lot of words about a few key ideas.

And the first key idea in this passage is what the heading in my Bible calls "The Glorious Future."  As before, this is describing a time in the future when there will be a righteous king and basically the world will be the way it should be - people will listen to the truth, understand what's right, and cheaters really won't prosper, and that sort of thing.  But then he switches gears again and talks about trouble that is coming, and it seems to me that this time he gives a deadline: about one year from when he is speaking is when things are really going to go downhill and Jerusalem will be abandoned.  But then it says that the Spirit will be poured out on us, and everything will become good again.

So then Isaiah talks more about the judgment that's to come, and how basically the instruments of judgment will be judged themselves because they aren't righteous either.  And then he describes the God who is doing all this, how God is going to be exalted in all this, how He is the source of security, and how those who live according to His laws are the ones who will be able to stand the judgment because God will save them.

Then it talks about a more universal judgment (I think the last chapter was talking about Judah specifically) and how God is going to judge all the nations for their wickedness and the whole earth - the whole of creation - will be affected by it, even to the mountains and the sky.  I think this is describing the Day of the Lord - the final day of judgment - but Isaiah specifically mentions Edom in this particular chapter and says that it's going to be completely uninhabitable for men and that only wild animals will live there.

And once again, there's a full-circle effect when Isaiah talks again about a future time of peace and prosperity for Judah.  This has another favorite verse of mine, verse 4, which says: "Say to those with anxious heart, 'Take courage, fear not. Behold, your God will come with vengeance; The recompense of God will come, But He will save you.'"  There's a song based on this verse that we sang in church when I was little, and I really liked it.  In my Bible, whenever I read a line that I know from a song, I put a little music note mark next to it.  It's so neat to see where the songs I know from church originated.

Then there's a history lesson, and I think it's almost word-for-word from 2 Kings.  It's the story about Sennacherib invading Judah during the reign of Hezekiah, and how the army commander taunts the people, but they don't say anything back, and how Hezekiah prays and asks God to deliver them, and He does.  What I didn't mention last time was that Isaiah was involved in this story.  See, when Hezekiah hears what's happening, he sends for Isaiah and asks him to pray for the people who are left in Jerusalem.  Isaiah tells them not to be afraid of Sennacherib or of Rabshakeh (that's the name of the army commander, I think it's funny) because God will make them leave and Sennacherib will die in his own land.  That's basically all Isaiah says, and it happens just as he predicted.  We see Hezekiah's prayer again and God's response and the aftermath, how Sennacherib departed from Judah and was later killed by his own sons while worshiping a false god at home.  Kind of ironic, isn't it?  Sennacherib's commander bragged on and on about the powerlessness of all these other nations' gods and the might of Sennacherib.  Well, in the end, neither Sennacherib's own might nor his own god were able to save his life.

Then we have the story of Hezekiah's sickness again, and it's the same story again except for this time there's a poem that Hezekiah writes after his recovery about being sick and God healing him.  And finally, the story that makes me cringe, about the king of Babylon paying a courtesy visit to Hezekiah and Hezekiah showing him all the valuable stuff that the king of Babylon thinks would look great in his own house.  And of course, since we've already read Kings, we know exactly what's going to happen.  But in case we didn't, Isaiah tells us.

So what I think is cool about this passage is that after a bunch of prophecies about what's going to happen someday, we see a story about some of Isaiah's prophecies coming true.  So we know he's not just making all this up, and I think this story is to sort of silence the nay-sayers.

This was probably my shortest entry in a while, but I am saving the next passage for next time, because it's one of my favorites.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Isaiah 24-31: Present Suffering, Future Glory

I took my advice and found a book to help me understand the stuff I'm reading a little better, and it's been very, well, helpful.  The book is called Eerdman's Handbook to the Bible and it's a 1992 edition so I don't know how accessible it is today, but I really like it because it gives a lot of background historical information and, at least in what I've read so far (just Isaiah), it summarizes the verses without trying to add a slant to them like some commentaries do.

So we left off in chapter 24.  Chapter 24 is about the final judgment of the earth and everything basically being completely destroyed in in.  One of the things it says that I have a question about is in verse 21, where it says "the LORD will punish the host of heaven on high."  That refers to the angels, right?  I don't think it's a reference to heavenly bodies, because of course they're amoral, and because the next line refers to judging the kings on earth.  So maybe this is when Satan and his angels are thrown into the lake of fire.

But then in chapter 25 there is a song of praise to God, which kind of seems weird after a chapter of death and destruction, but it's because the judgment makes way for restoration, healing, and everlasting peace.  I think it's like what Isaiah said about Egypt, that the LORD strikes, "striking but healing."  It's as if the two go hand in hand, like you can't get healed unless you first clean up the mess - like if you break a bone, you have to get it set for it to heal properly.  For some reason, this is the way God likes to work.

One of my favorite passages is in chapter 26, which continues praising God for His preservation, providence, goodness, and majesty.  It goes like this (I memorized it in KJV): "Thou wilt keep him in perfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee.  Trust thee in the LORD forever, for in the LORD Jehovah is everlasting strength" (26:3-4).  This is one of those "anchor" type verses for me.  What I mean is, it's one of those things that just reminds me to trust in God and anchors me to Him, so to speak, because not only is He the source of my strength, but He is also the source of my peace.  And that's very important, as I've been discovering lately.

It says in this chapter that God's hand is clearly at work in the world, but some people just don't see it.  It says that our own efforts are futile when we try to do things ourselves, but God can make even the dead live - it's God who makes all our efforts and actions produce something real.

Next it talks about Israel being delivered and restored, that through their suffering they'll turn to God and be forgiven, and they'll return to the land and worship God.

Chapter 28 goes back to the bad news.  After dwelling on the wonderful result, Isaiah focuses for a while on the events that must happen to produce the result - the conquer and captivity of Israel.  This was written just before the fall of Samaria, but not very much before.  And at the time, the people of Judah are continually following the example of Israel, so Isaiah's message is really for them, telling them what's going to happen to Israel and warning them that they're next if they continue on that path.  Judah is acting like a teenager right now - teenagers think they're indestructible.  They can't imagine ever getting in a car accident, or becoming deathly ill, or anything like that.  Judah is thinking that whatever bad stuff comes their way, it won't really hit them, but there's absolutely no reason for them to have that security because they're not hiding in God, and they know it.  The warning continues through chapter 29.  It sounds like the people of Judah are following God on a superficial level - claiming YHWH as their God, following the traditions God established way back in Exodus, etc., but there is nothing behind them.  It says "their reverence for Me consists of tradition learned by rote" (v.13).  It reminds me of a line in Romeo and Juliet, in which Father Lawrence criticizes Romeo's "love" for Rosaline, saying "thou didst read by rote that could not spell" - somebody who pretends to read something that they actually have memorized, because they can't even spell.  In other words, there's no mental process, no comprehension, no analyzing or even thinking about what is being done; it's just a routine, like washing your hands.  That's all God is to them.  But God knows that a day will come when these spiritually blind and deaf people will see and hear and worship God from their hearts.

Chapter 30 describes a current event.  Judah has made an alliance with Egypt during the Assyrian invasion of Samaria, and they think that means they're safe.  This chapter starts off with something I think is very important - it says, "woe to the rebellious children . . . who execute a plan, but not Mine: (v.1).  Sometimes we - and I'm talking about Christians now - make a plan that we think is very sound and reasonable (Egypt was still a major world power, probably a good ally), but just because you are a Christian and you made a plan, doesn't mean it's God's plan.  Just because you're a Christian and you're doing something, doesn't mean you're acting on God's behalf.  Like, all this talk about judgment and vengeance and the wrath of God?  If you act in those ways, and you're a Christian, it doesn't mean you're executing God's justice and vengeance and wrath.  It says that Judah went to Egypt without even consulting God.  Do we really take time to seek God's will before making a decision, or do we simply make a decision based on what we've already decided we believe about what God wants?  This is a very relevant warning, I think, and I mean that for myself too.

So basically, God says the alliance will fail and Judah will be humiliated.  But then there's great news.  Verse 18 says, "Therefore the LORD longs to be gracious to you, And therefore He waits on high to have compassion on you.  For the LORD is a god of justice; How blessed are all those who long for Him."

That verse is like a breath of fresh air to me.  It tells me two things about God: first, that God is patient with us.  I know I've mentioned this before, but one of my favorite parts in the Bible is 2 Peter 4:9, where it says God "is patient with you, not wishing for any to perish, but for all to be brought to salvation."  God is waiting on us.  Just like in My Fair Lady where the dad says "I'm willing to tell you; I'm wanting to tell you; I'm waiting to tell you!"  God is willing, wanting, waiting to lavish His grace and compassion on us.  Why is He waiting?  Because He wants us to want it, I think.

The second thing this verse tells me is that compassion is just.  People make a big deal out of the supposed dichotomy between justice and mercy (or grace, or love).  In God's reality, they are the same thing.  God isn't 1/2 Justice and 1/2 Mercy, or mostly mercy with a little bit of justice, or something like that. This verse says that God is gracious and compassionate because He is a God of justice.  Isn't that amazing?

So once the people wise up and realize this, then things will be just fine.  God Himself will be the teacher of the people and all those idols are going to be thrown away forever, and even the land and the animals will be blessed, and the light - the light!  The moon will be as bright as the sun, and the sun will be seven times brighter than it is right now.  Why?  Because God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all (1 John 1:5).  It sounds glorious to me.

But then Isaiah reminds us of what else is going to happen -  judgment against the wicked and the proud.  Listen to this - "burning is His anger and dense is His smoke" (v.27, I thought it sounded cool) - fire, overflowing torrent, consuming fire, cloudburst, downpour, hailstones.  And God says Assyria will be terrified - they better be!

Finally, God condemns the Jews for trusting in Egypt and not in Him, because Egypt itself is going to fall, and it's God who will be the deliverer in the end.  The chapter (and this passage) ends with a call: "return to Him from whom you have deeply defected," because when the rubber hits the road, every other defense is going to fall.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Isaiah 13-23: Judgments Against Other Nations

Okay, I know this is a huge chunk of chapters, but I'm going to catch up to where I've read today (although I'm a little behind in my reading).  Basically, I'm lumping these chapters together because they all have something in common: they are (mostly) not about Israel and Judah.  These are prophecies about the falls of other nations.

The first one to be named is Babylon. Basically it says that God is going to use Babylon to carry out his judgment against Judah, but then it says that God will judge the whole earth.  Isaiah mentions something that becomes a common theme in prophetic books: the day of the LORD.  It's the day when God will judge the earth once and for all, and it will be so terrifying that even the sun, the moon, and the stars will not shine.  Then going back to Babylon, Isaiah says next that Babylon will fall to the Medes.  I wonder what the state of the Mede empire was at this time.  They're from Persia, I think.  And Isaiah talks about Israel, once it's been restored, taunting Babylon once it's been conquered

This is where there's that famous line where it calls Babylon "star of the morning" and "son of the dawn."  In Hebrew, those nicknames are pronounced Lucifer.  I'm not sure when the idea that Lucifer was Satan, the devil, first came about, but this is one of the two passages of Scripture that mention this name (the other uses it to describe the king of Tyre).  Scripture never actually says that Lucifer = Satan, so this passage may or may not be referring to him.  I just wanted to point that out.

Next there's a quick judgment against Assyria and one against Philistia.  Following this is a longer judgment against Moab and another long one about Damascus, which was in Aram.  Basically, they're all going down.  Then there's a prophecy about Ethiopia, but I don't really get it.  I'm not sure whether it's saying that bad things are going to happen to them or not, but it seems to say that the Ethiopians will serve God.  And you know, Ethiopia was one of the first Christian nations.

Then Isaiah talks about Egypt, and it's basically the same story - they'll be conquered by somebody else, all the proud people will be humiliated, the land will be desecrated, etc., but it says that the affliction will make Egypt return to God, and then God will heal them.  In fact, he talks about Egypt almost the same way that he talks about Israel: it says God will send a Savior to deliver them, that God will make himself known to Egypt and they will know him, they will worship Him, etc.  I know that Egypt was a Christian nation for a time, before it became Muslim.

There's a short break here - God tells Isaiah to go around naked and barefoot for three years, to serve as a sign against Egypt and Cush (Ethiopia) because they will be taken captive by Assyria.  I find all this really interesting, actually.  Did these other nations hear Isaiah's prophecies about them?  Did he travel to them or send messages so they would know what was going on?  God sent the prophet Jonah to Ninevah; I wonder if he sent other prophets to other nations, especially since it seems he is very concerned with them.

Then he talks again about Babylon falling, and then there's a really short one about Edom, but I don't know what it means.  It's just somebody asking "Watchman, how far gone is the night?" and the watchman replying "morning comes but also night. If you would inquire, inquire; come back again."  I don't really know what that means.  Any ideas?  And then another short one about Arabia, and I don't so much get that one either.  I think it's saying that Arabia will lose its splendor and suffer some kind of loss.

Then there's a prophecy about something called "the valley of vision."  I don't know where that is, but they are going to be in mourning and suffering, but then God will set up somebody named Eliakim and put him over Judah, so I guess the valley of vision is something to do with Judah or Jerusalem.  But he's going to fall too.

Finally there's a judgment against Tyre.  I'm not sure where Tarshish is in relation to Tyre, but it's mentioned a lot too.  Like all the other places, it's going to be destroyed, but only for 70 years.  Then it will rise again and be just as bad as it was before.

So from reading this passage, I learned that I don't know very much about what's happening here.  I know a pretty good amount about Israel, but when it comes to all these other places, I don't have a clue.  I don't know if these prophecies came true or if we're still waiting for at least some of them.  I always thought I knew a lot about the Bible, but I've found an area where I need more study.

Isaiah 1-12: Bad News, Good News

All right, so now we move into Isaiah.  I'm going to put up a sidebar that lists the books of the Old Testament in the order they appear in the Tanakh, so you know that I'm really not being arbitrary.

Isaiah was written during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah - who, if you remember, were really good, good, really bad, and really good, respectively.  So this was right around the time of Israel's fall.  The prophecies in Isaiah are mostly about Judah and Israel, but there are some about other nations too.

The beginning prophecies are about Judah and Jerusalem, and they are condemning the sin of the people.  Now this is interesting to me, because this was written mostly during the time of good kings.  But if you remember, the high places were still in place all the way until the reign of Hezekiah.  What it sounds like to me is that the people were basically following the law, sacrificing to God and observing the feasts (with the exception of Passover) and whatnot, but they were also serving other gods and just not doing good.  So God says that he doesn't even like their sacrifices or feasts or any of the things they do "for" him, so that he's not even going to listen to their prayers anymore.

The first several chapters go back and forth between good news and bad news.  The bad news is, God is going to destroy Jerusalem and Judah to judge them for their wickedness and idolatry.  The good news is, he is going to restore Jerusalem and people will worship God from their hearts.  The bad news is, first will come a day of judgment against all the people who are proud, adulterous, who don't take care of the poor and needy, who take bribes and permit sin, and against the leaders and rulers who are corrupt.  The good news is, there will always be a remnant of the faithful.  Even though God is not going to punish Judah, he is not going to leave them alone forever.  He's going to make sure that Judah never entirely forsakes him, and he's not going to forsake them either.

Then Isaiah describes a vision that he has during the year that Uzziah died.  He has a vision of the throne of God, what Paul calls the "third heaven," and he sees these angels called seraphim gathered around God's throne.  These seraphim are so high up on the angel hierarchy that they are actually in the direct presence of God, standing before his throne all day and night, and yet even they must cover their eyes with two of their wings.  And all day long they say to each other, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, The whole earth is full of His glory."

What I understand about the Hebrew language is that they don't have comparative or superlative suffixes like English and other languages do.  That is, we add the "er" and "est" suffixes of words to show degrees of how extreme something is.  Hebrew doesn't have that; instead, the word would be repeated - twice for the comparative, three times for the superlative.  (Another way to state a superlative would be to say "X of Xs," as in "king of kings" and "song of songs.")  So it would be like, instead of saying "better," they would say "good good," or "good good good" for "best."  That is what they are doing here.  As my old Bible teacher said once, "God is not 'holy.'  God is not 'holy, holy.'  He is 'holy, holy, holy.'"

When Isaiah sees God like this, he is completely overwhelmed by the holiness, the perfection, the goodness, the righteousness, the otherness, the un-humanness of God.  God is holy - holy, holy, holy - and Isaiah knows that he is not.  He does what every thinking, feeling person does when they encounter God: he falls flat on his face.  Then he does the second thing every thinking, feeling person does when they encounter God: he acknowledges his sin.  But then, amazingly, one of the seraphim takes a burning coal from the altar and touches it to Isaiah's lips.  Now, it doesn't say so, but I have to imagine that this would hurt, even in a vision.  Don't you think?  But the coal cleanses him.  And then God asks for a messenger to send, to speak on his behalf - as if he really didn't know who he was going to send.  And Isaiah, quite unlike Moses, volunteers to be sent wherever God wishes him to go.  I find it interesting that it's only after Isaiah's been cleansed that he mentions being sent.  I don't think this means we have to overcome our sin and become perfect in order for God to use us, though.  Remember, Isaiah didn't actually do anything to become clean - he just acknowledged his uncleanness, and it was God who declared him clean.  I think this means that in order to receive God's calling on our lives, we have to acknowledge our sin and accept his cleansing forgiveness.  And I think that the process of cleansing may not be painless.  I don't think it was for Isaiah.

One thing I have always wondered is whether this vision took place before Isaiah received the prophecies recorded in chapters 1-5, or if the whole thing is written chronologically.  It seems as if this story is the beginning for Isaiah, but I don't know.

Then it goes back to prophecy, and this time there's a specific context: Ahaz, the bad king, is at war, and God tells Isaiah to tell Ahaz not to be afraid because Judah is going to win.  God invites Ahaz to ask him for a sign to know that this is true, but he says he will not test God.  But God says he will give a sign himself, and guess what it is?  "A virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel."  Immanuel means "God with us" - this is the first time Isaiah references Messiah, I think.  I wonder if Ahaz knew that this sign was not really related to his little battle.  Because then God goes on to tell about more bad things that are about to happen to Judah, and also, that Israel and Samaria are going to fall.  That happened during the reign of Hezekiah, from what I understand, so it must have been pretty close to the time.

Then there's another Messiah prophecy.  After a bunch of talk about gloom and darkness and destruction, it says that the gloom is going to end, that the people who are walking in the darkness will see a great light, and the light will shine on them.  Deliverance is going to come in the form of a child, who will be given the throne of David, but he's more than just another king.  It says he will be called Mighty God and Eternal Father - somehow, this child is going to be God.  I wonder what the Jews think about these names, what they thought at the time this prophecy was written.  Obviously they are holding on to the part where it talks about him reigning over David's kingdom, but what about the part where it calls him God?

But for now, Israel is not doing so hot.  I think this next prophecy is against the ten tribes that now form the nation of Israel, specifically, because it mentions Ephraim.  Ephraim is only one tribe but its name becomes synonymous with the nation of Israel.  God says they are proud and they do not seek God, that the teachers are leading the people astray.  There's a repeating phrase in the next several paragraphs: "His anger does not turn away, and His hand is still stretched out."  Basically Israel is acting wickedly, even in tribe fighting against tribe.  So God says that Assyria is his instrument for justice and judgment.  But, don't forget, Israel was God's instrument of judgment against Canaan, and now they're getting busted for their own sin.  Well, the same thing is going to happen to Assyria, because they're not good either.  So basically God is saying that after he's done with Israel, Assyria is going to be judged as well.

But then there's more good news: another Messianic reference, and it talks about a time of paradise - the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard with the goat and things like that.  When that happens, the remnant of the Jews will be restored from all the countries where they will be scattered to.

So this has been kind of a cyclic passage - good news, bad news, and super good news - the news of a coming Savior.  The thing is, Israel has gotten itself really screwed up, screwed up beyond repair.  God wants his people to return to him, but their hearts are so hardened that it's going to take something really drastic to repair the damage that's been done.  For almost the first time, we're getting a glimpse of what God has planned.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

2 Kings 21-25: The End of Judah

Now we've come to my third favorite king (David is my second): Manasseh.  However, I'm not going to tell you why he's my third favorite king, and it's not going to make sense either unless you've read 2 Chronicles, because Manasseh is bad.  He is arguably the most evil king of Judah, because it is Manasseh's evil acts that move God to decide to hand Judah over to Babylon, and do it soon.  Manasseh rebuilds the high places that Hezekiah had just gotten rid of, he puts altars to false gods in the temple, he worships heavenly bodies, he sacrifices his son, he practices witchcraft and divination, and so forth.  It says that "Manasseh seduced them [Judah] to do evil more than the nations whom the LORD destroyed before the sons of Israel."  Remember that when the Hebrews took the promised land, they were not just fulfilling God's promise to give the land to Abraham; they were executing God's judgment against the sins of the Canaanites.  The Canaanites were so evil and so unrepentant for so long that God decided to wipe them out.  Judah, under the reign of Manasseh alone, becomes even more evil than the people they destroyed.  That is bad.

And this is all that the book of Kings has to say about Manasseh.  I find that really odd, because there is a lot more to his story than this, but since the Tanakh puts Chronicles at the very end, you won't find out the twist for a long while.  So you'll just have to sit there and wonder why the heck this evil evil person is my third favorite king of Judah.

Manasseh's son Amon becomes king, and he is evil like Manasseh.  His servants conspire against him and assassinate him, but the people of Judah round up the conspirators and execute them, and put Amon's son Josiah on the throne.  Josiah is a mere eight years old at the time, the second youngest king in Judah's history (Joash was 7).  Josiah is a good king, a very good king.  While some of his servants are sprucing up the temple, they find the book of the Law and bring it to Josiah and read it to him.  When Josiah hears the words - the words of Moses, the first five books of the Bible - he tears his clothes.  He is totally convicted - and this is a good king already, remember.  He wants to know what is going to happen to his country because they have not kept God's laws, so he sends people to ask this prophetess named Huldah, and she tells them that God's wrath is burning against Judah, but because Josiah heard the words of the LORD and paid attention to them, the destruction God has planned for Judah is not going to happen during his lifetime.  So then the king gathers all Judah together and reads the entire Torah to them and makes a covenant with them before God to keep the Law and follow Him with heart and soul.  Then he institutes a bunch of reforms, and chapter 23 lists all the bad stuff that he eradicated from Judah, and it's cool.  Josiah did not do things halfway, I'm thinking.  He gets rid of all the altars everywhere to every god and goddess, he destroys the place where people burned their sons and daughters, he tears down the houses of the male cult prostitutes, he defiles the high places that had been rebuilt by his grandfather, he executes all the priests to false gods, and basically just goes on a rampage throughout his whole country, destroying everything that had been an idol for Judah.  Finally, he goes back to Jerusalem and reinstitutes Passover, which has not been observed since the days of the judges.  That means even David and Solomon did not observe Passover - this book has been lost for a long time.

And just like Hezekiah, the author of this book tells us that "before him there was no king like him who turned to the LORD with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his might, according to the law of Moses; nor did any arise after him."  Hezekiah, it seems, followed the LORD from the beginning.  It seems almost like Josiah turned to God because of the Torah that was found in the temple.  Maybe if that book hadn't been found, he would have just been okay.  I really believe that the Bible, even though it was written a long time ago and each book was written specifically for a particular group of people in a certain time and place, is relevant to every generation and every culture.  The Torah was already old when Josiah heard it for the first time, and he realized that those words were for him.  I think we should have the same response to God's Word that Josiah did.

Unfortunately, God has already made up his mind about Judah, and he is still going to let them get conquered by Babylon - but not just yet.  Just like he did with Canaan, he is waiting until they are past the point of no return.

Josiah's son Jehoahaz becomes king, and dangit, he's evil.  After having such a great dad, I'm at a loss as to why Jehoahaz turned away from all the good that had been accomplished in the preceding chapter.  It just goes to show you, people are individuals.  I don't know what kind of dad Josiah was, but there comes a point at which you can't guarantee the outcome of your child's life, I guess.  I'm not a parent yet, and that's already a scary thought to me.

Up to this point, it seems like Judah has had a fairly okay relationship with Egypt, but now the pharaoh imprisons Jehoahaz and sets up a different son of Josiah, Eliakim, in his place.  Jehoahaz, unfortunately for him, is held captive in Egypt and dies there.  Eliakim, meanwhile, is renamed Jehoiakim by Pharaoh, and has to pay him tribute.  He is also bad, by the way.  It's starting to look like all the good that Josiah did, was for nothing.  It only lasted one generation!

So now Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, starts encroaching on Judah.  At first Judah becomes kind of a vassal state or something, because it says that Jehoiakim serves him for three years.  But then he rebels, and so marauders from a bunch of different nations - Chaldeans, Aramenas, Moabites, and Ammonites - start attacking Judah, and the author tells us it was at the command of God, to carry out his judgment because of the sins of Manasseh.  Man, how would you like to be held responsible for the downfall of your whole entire country?  It just goes to show you, leaders and authority figures are held to a higher standard of accountability than everybody else, because they are examples, and they can influence people to follow God or not.

Jehoiakim dies and his son Jehoiachin becomes king (you can tell a country is nearing its end when the names become less and less creative).  Egypt has all but fallen to Babylon by now, Jehoiachin is only 18, also does evil in God's sight, and he only lasts three months before Nebuchadnezzar sends his army to Jerusalem.  Jehoiachin surrenders and is taken captive along with his family and a ton of people from Judah - the brave, the strong, the skilled, the talented, the educated.  Nebuchadnezzar sets up I guess Jehoiachin's uncle? Mattaniah as king, renaming him Zedekiah, who is also evil, and he tries rebelling against Nebuchadnezzasr.  So Nebuchadnezzar marches again against Jerusalem and pretty much just demolishes the city.  He kills Zedekiah's sons in front of him, then brings him to Babylon bound, and the whole of Jerusalem is burned.  Some random person named Gedaliah is appointed as governor over what's left of the people of Judah, who advises the people to serve Nebuchadnezzar - because as long as they paid tribute to him, he really was a pretty reasonable guy I think.  But a bunch of people flee to Egypt, although I'm pretty sure it was also under Babylon's control to some extent.

Remember Jehoiachin?  He's still in Babylon in prison, but he gets released and Nebuchadnezzar puts him back on the throne of Israel and treats him nicely, because he knows that Jehoiachin is going to be submissive.  And it works out pretty well for Jehoiachin after that.  He stays under Nebuchadnezzar's thumb, but he gets to keep his life, and his job, and he actually gets paid to be king for the rest of his life.  And that is the end of the story.

So man!  Judah sure went out with a bang.  I have to wonder, all those kings who tried rebelling against Nebuchadnezzar, it doesn't say any of them tried seeking God during that process.  And what I wonder is, if they had turned to God, would things have turned out differently?  God had already made up his mind to destroy Judah because of Manasseh, but because Josiah was repentant, he delayed the destruction.  I really think that if any of the successive kings had been good like Josiah, God would not have brought the destruction so soon.  But I think God knew what was going to happen.  It's sad, because Josiah tried so hard to turn the country around, but in the end it didn't work.  I don't know why.  In the end I guess that the people of Judah had hardened their hearts, and when you get to that point, it's very hard to turn back.

Believe it or not, from here the Tanakh goes to Isaiah.  So when next I write, we will be hearing from the Prophets.