Sunday, May 30, 2010

Zechariah 4

The lampstand with seven lamps (vs. 1-10)—Zechariah’s next vision (his fifth--remember there are no chapter divisions in the original writing) was of “a lampstand of solid gold with a bowl on top of it, and on the stand seven lamps with seven pipes to the seven lamps” (v. 2). There was a lampstand of gold in the tabernacle/temple, but it didn’t not have the seven lamps attached (Ex. 25:31-32), not were there two olive trees on either side of it, as in Zechariah’s image (v. 3). He asked the angel what the vision meant (v. 4); the angel responded, “you don’t know?”, and Zechariah confesses his ignorance (v. 5). Was Zechariah supposed to know what these visions meant? Was the angel’s words a rebuke? They sound like it, but they probably weren’t. One writer suggests this was “a stimulus to reflection on the mystery,” and I think that’s a good explanation. The angel explains that the vision is “the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel,” to encourage him in his work of rebuilding the temple. The Lord would be the source of the governor’s strength (vs. 6-7). And there would be no obstacles: “'Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!” (v. 7). And when the temple is finished, there will be great rejoice—shouts of “grace, grace to it!” Zerubbabel is plainly told that he will finish the temple, and thereby know that the Lord has been with him (v. 9). People may despise the Jews for their little land and wealth (‘the day of small things”), but the work will be done under the watchful eye of the Lord (v. 10). It is not altogether clear, to me, how the lampstand and lamps relate to the Lord being the source of Zerubbabel’s strength, but then, we don’t have to understand it. If the Lord says that “X’” means “X” then that’s what it means! The various interpretations of the commentators are as various as there are commentators. Best to leave well enough alone here and let the angel’s answer suffice, though it may not be clear to us. Zechariah may have had some understanding at his time, some historical reference, that is currently lost to us.

The two olive trees (vs. 11-4)—Zechariah was as confused as the rest of us. “What are these two olive trees?” (v. 11), and olive branches (v. 12). Again, the angel asked him, “Do you not know what these are?”, and again the prophet professes his ignorance (v. 13). So it is explained to him that the two trees are “the two anointed ones, who stand beside the Lord of the whole earth" (v. 14). There is near universal agreement that these two “anointed ones” are Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Zechariah 3

Sin forgiven (vs. 1-5)—The next vision Zechariah sees is Joshua, the high priest, standing before “the Angel of the Lord” with Satan there also “to oppose him (Joshua)” (v. 1). Satan obviously wants to accuse the Jews of sin, hoping that the Lord won’t forgive them, but Jehovah rebukes him, and reminds us of His choosing of Jerusalem (v. 2). This is important. If Satan can get the Lord to condemn the Jews, and thus utterly destroy them as He has done Assyria and Babylon, then the devil will have succeeded in aborting the redemption of mankind. Remember that the Messiah was to come through Israel, so obliterating the Jews will land everybody in hell with Satan. But the Lord will have none of it. Joshua, indeed, was standing before the Angel “clothed with filthy garments” (v. 3), symbolizing the sin that had stained the Jewish people. But the Lord “spoke to those who stood before Him” (angels?) and told them to remove Joshua’s filthy garment and clothe him “with rich robes” (v. 4). There’s no question what this means because Jehovah says, “See, I have removed your iniquity from you” (v. 4). It was wholly an act of God’s grace, the only hope for Israel, or the redemption of humanity. Satan was hoping for justice, not mercy. Joshua is given clean clothes and a “fair (clean, ASV) mitre on his head” (v. 5) symbolizing his restoration to the high priesthood and the acceptance of his sacrifices (the NKJV’s “clean turban” seems to miss the point). The people have returned from captivity, God has forgiven their sins, and will allow them to offer their sacrifices again. All by His grace, for they certainly didn’t deserve it. But then, do any of us deserve the grace of God? Such is an oxymoron.

A message for the high priest (vs. 6-10)—The Lord would allow the high priest to continue his work “If you will walk in My ways, and if you will keep My command” (v. 7). All of this is made possible because of “My Servant the Branch” (v. 8). This is a reference to the Messiah. He is called “the Branch” is several places in the Old Testament (Isaiah 4:2; 11:1; Jer. 23:5; Zech. 6:12). Without His redeeming work, of course, none of this would be possible. The stone (“cornerstone,” Is. 28:6) will be laid before Joshua; it has seven eyes—the all-seeing providence of God. The last statement of verse 9 is significant: “'And I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day”—the cross of Christ. And “in that day” there will be peace with God (v. 10). The “under his vine and under his fig tree” is used on more than one occasion in the Old Testament as a proverbial statement of peace (cf. Micah 4:4). The Jews have been restored and forgiven, and the larger purposes of God through the Messiah will come to pass. Satan cannot prevent that.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Zechariah 2

The man with the measuring line (vs. 1-5)—In his next vision, Zechariah sees a man with a measuring line (v. 1). “Where are you going?” “"To measure Jerusalem, to see what is its width and what is its length" (v. 2). The walls of Jerusalem had yet to be rebuilt; what will be the dimensions of the city of God where His people will dwell? Revelation 11 has a similar event, with not exactly the same meaning, but close. In this vision in Zechariah, however, there will be no need to rebuild the walls, for “'Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls, because of the multitude of men and livestock in it” (v. 4). Why? “For I,' says the LORD, 'will be a wall of fire all around her, and I will be the glory in her midst'" (v. 5). Jehovah will protect His people; they won’t need artificial means—if they would be faithful to Him. They weren’t much more spiritual after the exile than before, so the walls will indeed be rebuilt under Nehemiah. But the promise is there for them if they would believe and accept it.

Flee from Babylon (vs. 6-9)—There was no longer any reason for any Jew to remain in Babylon. Some of them did, after the captivity, because that was where their homes were. Remember, the Israelites spent 70 years in captivity in Babylon, so there were many people born in that land and who had never been to Israel. Babylon was their home, so the Lord has to encourage them to return to their true home, Israel. It would be a good idea to get out of any foreign territory, because “surely I will shake My hand against them" (“the nations which plunder you,” v 8), "and they shall become spoil for their servants” (v. 9). No one should want to be caught in a location where Jehovah will render vengeance. “He who touches you touches the apple of His eye” (v. 8).

“I will dwell in your midst” (vs. 10-13)—This passage almost surely refers to the church age; this is evident because of the statement in verse 11, “many nations shall be joined to the Lord in that day.” That certainly could not be said of any period of the Jewish dispensation, and indeed, was contrary to what the Lord intended for that age. Indeed, the coming of the Messiah is a reason to “sing and rejoice” (v. 10). We will belong to Him, and He “will again choose Jerusalem,” the church, the holy city of God (v. 12). Revere God, “for He is waked up out of His holy habitation” (ASV, v. 13). He is ready to act in behalf of His people

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Zechariah Introduction and Chapter One

Introduction—Zechariah was a contemporary of Haggai. He started his prophecy two months after Haggai. He calls himself the son Berechiah, the son of Iddo who was also a prophet, though we don’t know anything else about it. Both Ezra and Nehemiah call Zechariah the son of Iddo, but this is common, i.e., referring to descendants as “sons.” Jesus was the “son of David.” We don’t know much else about Zechariah; his prophecy gives little more information about him. His book is a difficult one, especially the latter chapters where there is a lot of obscure prophetic material. The first half of the book contains a lot of metaphors, symbols, and visions, but many of them are explained for us. Like Revelation, it’s a beautiful book once this symbolic material is understood.

Chapter One

“Do not be like your fathers” (vs. 1-6)—After introducing himself in verse one and dating the beginning of his prophecy, Zechariah gets right into his message from God. “The LORD has been very angry with your fathers” (v. 2). We saw from the book of Haggai that, for the first 16 years of their return from captivity, the Jews had been negligent in their service to Jehovah, so Zechariah follows up with God exhorting the people to return to Him and He would be gracious and return to them (v. 3). People can choose their course of action, and the Lord’s response will be based on ours. Their fathers had been obstinate, even though God’s prophets had preached to them; “do not be like your fathers” (v. 4). The Lord had exhorted them to “turn now from your evil ways,” but “they did not hear nor heed Me” (v. 4). What happened to your fathers? Well, they are all dead, of course, but their message of being disobedient and punished remains. Where are the former prophets? “Do they live forever?” No, they don’t, but their message of repentance and salvation remains, and it is as true now as it was when first preached (vs. 5-6). Everything happened just as the prophets said it would, and the Lord dealt with those former people according to their ways and doings. And, of course, the clear implication is that He will do the same with the current generation of Jews. Thus, return to the Lord.

The four horsemen (vs. 7-11)—This next revelation to Zechariah was approximately three months later (compare verses 1 and 7). The prophet sees four horsemen, which remind us of the four horsemen of the book of Revelation (Revelation 6). Or rather, the four horsemen of Revelation should remind us of the horsemen here because Zechariah was first. The prophet sees (by night, perhaps emblematic of the darkness and affliction the Jews suffered under) a man sitting on a red horse, which probably symbolizes blood and war. But he is sitting under myrtle trees, trees of peace. There were three horses behind him, the significance of which is unknown (v. 8). Zechariah asks the angel, who was talking with him, “My lord, what are these?" (v. 9). The angel said “These are the ones whom the LORD has sent to walk to and fro throughout the earth,” (v. 10), apparently observing what was going on because they announce in verse 11 that, having gone “to and fro throughout the earth,” they find peace. The Persian empire dominated the Near and Middle East at the time, and beside sporadic outbreaks in various provinces, largely kept order for about 2 centuries. The Jews, of course, were still in affliction, but they weren’t at war and had been allowed, by the Persians, to return to their homeland.

Zealous for Jerusalem (vs. 12-17)—The angel who spoke with Zechariah then asked Jehovah asking Him how long it would be before He had mercy “on Jerusalem and on the cities of Judah, against which You were angry these seventy years?” (v. 12). Well, this is a bit of divine pageantry, if you will; the Lord had been merciful to them in allowing them to return home, but yet the people were still dominated by a foreign power. The Lord spoke “good and comforting words” (v. 13), and announced that He was “zealous for Jerusalem” and “angry with the nations at ease” (vs. 14-15). Jehovah had used these nations to punish His people, “and they helped—but with evil intent” (v. 15). Read Isaiah 10 for some interesting information about this. The Assyrians did God’s will, but for their own benefit, not because they were trying to please Him. The Lord will allow His temple to rebuilt and His people to dwell in their former cities. “And will again choose Jerusalem” (v. 17). Jehovah’s choice of the Jews was not because of any righteousness or worth on their part, but in keeping with a promise He had made to mankind back in Genesis 3:15—the coming of the Messiah—which would be filled through the descendents of Abraham (Gen. 12:3). So there is a much larger purpose here than simply the restoration of Jerusalem and the cities of Judah.

The four horns and the four craftsmen (vs. 18-21)—Zechariah then sees four horns (v. 18), which usually represent power. “What are these?” he asks the angel. “These are the horns that have scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem” (v. 19). Trying to find four specific nations that did that is a bit problematic, so the idea is probably a totality—all those who had played a part in the Jews dispersion. Then Zechariah sees four craftsmen (v. 20, “carpenters,” KJV, “smiths,” ASV). “What are these coming to do.” The craftsmen will be God’s tool in punishing those who had afflicted His people (v. 21). So the promise of God to His people is that He saw their affliction and misery, and those who so abused them would some day have retribution return upon them. It’s always nice to see justice done. These thoughts in the last half of Zechariah 1 remind us much (or should) of the principles found in the book of Revelation. Since Zechariah was written long before John penned the Revelation, some of the signs and symbols of that last book should already be familiar to us, and we should be able to understand them better. It is to our shame that we do not, and that is totally due to our failure to fully study the message of the Old Testament prophets.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Haggai 2

Comparing the two temples (vs. 1-5)—About a month later, the Lord spoke to Zerubbabel and Joshua again (vs. 1-2). The subject was a comparison of Solomon’s temple with the current one, which wasn’t anywhere near completion, but it was already obvious it would be far inferior to the first one. After the captivity, the Jews simply didn’t have the resources to erect a building with the splendor and magnificence of Solomon’s temple. There were apparently a few, very aged people, who might have seen and remembered the first structure (v. 3). They would been in their late 70s or 80s because the date here is some 70 years after Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the first temple. Apparently the Lord assumed that the inferiority of the current temple might be a singular disappointment to the people because He urges Zurbbabel, Joshua, and “all you people of the land” to be strong and work, “for I am with you” (v. 4). He had made a covenant with them when they came out of Egypt (see Deut. 5:1-4), and He was going to honor it (v. 5).

The Desire of All Nations will come (vs. 6-9)—Inherent in that promise (v. 5) was the coming of the Messiah. Such will be the most magnanimous event the world has ever seen (“I will shake all nations,” v. 7), and the temple (the church) would be filled with glory. And “the glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former” (v. 9). And His people will be blessed with peace. God never let the people—or us—forget the true aim of it all: salvation from sin through Jesus, the Desire of All Nations. Indeed, those who do not desire Him should, as one day they, too, will bow before Him and confess Him (Phil. 2:10-11).

An unclean people (vs. 10-14)—Even though the Lord has brought the Jews back from captivity, they were never to forget the cause of their captivity in the first place and their continued sin in His presence. We all stand in need of God’s mercy at all times. The blessing He gave them of allowing them to return home did not mean that, all of a sudden, they were lily white pure in His eyes. No, the uncleanness was still there, and indeed, that was why this new temple had to be built. There are two analogies here: If one carries something holy on his person and touches something not holy, does that make the latter item holy? No, it does not (v. 12). If a person touches a dead body and thus, according to the Law of Moses, becomes unclean, does whatsoever he may touch also become unclean? And the answer to that is yes (v. 13). Israel’s uncleanness was still manifest before God, as evidenced by the fact they had been so slow in rebuilding His temple.

Blessings are forthcoming (vs. 15-23)—The prophet ends with a message of hope. After reminding the people that the shortage of goods was a punishment for their lack of spirituality (chapter 1, and it is noted here again in verses 15-17), the Lord told them that “from the day that the foundation of the LORD'S temple was laid…from this day I will bless you” (vs. 18-19). When we finally decide to be obedient to the Lord’s will and busy with His work, we will find ourselves the recipients of divine grace and favor. There is a beautiful thought along this line in Daniel 10:12—“Do not fear, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand, and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard.” If we will humble ourselves before Him, pray, and do His will, we can expect God to notice and provide what we need. Haggai’s final message is words of encouragement from the Lord to Zerubbabel. In a picture of destructive warfare, Jehovah promises strength to the governor, and “will make you like a signet ring” (v. 23)—exalt Zerubbabel in the eyes of the people. The Jews had returned home, they were rebuilding their temple, and the Lord promises them protection from their enemies. What more could they want?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Haggai--Introduction and Chapter 1

Introduction—We know nothing of the personal history of this prophet. He is one of three—Zechariah and Malachi being the other two—who prophesied after the Jews returned from Babylonian captivity (Zechariah was a contemporary, Malachi came about 100 years later). Haggai began his work approximately 16 years after the return from Babylon; that would be around 520 B. C. When they got back to Judea, the Jews began working on God’s temple, but stopped because of opposition from some Samaritans. That story is found in the book of Ezra, chapter 4. Samaritans were foreign peoples who populated the land following the removal of the northern kingdom into captivity by Assyria in 722/21. They interbred with the Jewish riff-raff that the Assyrians left in the land, thus were “half-breeds,” and despised by the Jews. This is clear from several New Testament passages (e.g., “Jews have no dealings with Samaritans,” John 4:9). These people are never called “Samaritans” in the Old Testament, but that’s who they were. With this opposition, the Jews, who had laid the foundation of the temple (Ezra 4), ceased their work and didn’t begin again until Haggai and Zechariah exhorted them to do so (Ezra 6:14). It took about four years to totally finish the work. Haggai constantly attributes his message to the Lord. Almost 30 times in 38 verses, he says something like “the word of the Lord came,” or “thus saith the Lord.” Every preacher needs to fill his preaching with “thus speaks the Lord.”

Chapter One

The bag with holes (vs. 1-11)—Haggai doesn’t even tell us who his father was, but he does date his prophesy minutely. Darius was a king of Persia, Zerubbabel was the governor of Judah, and Joshua was the high priest (v. 1). Again, as noted in the introduction, this would be about 520 B.C. Haggai chides the people for their failure to rebuild the temple (v. 2), the first of which (Solomon’s) had been destroyed in 586 by Nebuchadnezzar. They had been building their own “paneled houses,” and allowed God’s house “to lie in ruins” (v. 4). Thus, the Lord said to “consider your ways” (v. 5). The land was unproductive (v. 6); “’Why?’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘Because of My house that is in ruins, while every one of your runs to his own house'” (v. 9). The Lord had withheld the dew, and “the earth withholds its fruit” (v. 10). Drought came and so “the labor of your hands” was unfruitful (v. 11). The most picturesque description of this calamity is found in verse 6: “he who earns wages, earns wages to put into a bag with holes." I’ve got a pair of pants like that. Thus, again, the message is “Consider your ways” (v. 7), and get to work on the Lord’s temple (v. 8).

The people obey (vs. 12-15)—More often than not, the preaching of God’s word gets results—either positive or negative—and in this case, good came from it. The governor, Zerubbabel, and the high priest, Joshua, “with all the remnant of the people, obeyed the voice of the Lord their God” (v. 12). When they started work, the Lord told them “I am with you” (v. 13). The Lord “stirred up the spirit of Zerubbabel” (v. 14); how? Verse 13 gives a clear answer: “Then Haggai, the Lord's messenger, spoke the Lord's message to the people.” Stirring up people to obedience is the main purpose of “Thus saith the Lord.” The people did more in 24 days than they had in the previous 16 years (v. 15). Preacher, preach the Word!

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Zephaniah 3

“Woe to her who is rebellious” (vs. 1-3)—In chapter 3, Zephaniah returns to his denunciation of Judah and Jerusalem. The city was rebellious, polluted, and oppressive (v. 1). There is a four-fold condemnation in verse 2: “She has not obeyed His voice, She has not received correction; She has not trusted in the LORD, She has not drawn near to her God.” That’s a pretty good summary of Judah/Jerusalem’s failures. As usual, the leaders of the people were foremost in sin—princes, judges, prophets, and priests—they were oppressive, ravenous, insolent, treacherous; “they have done violence to the law” (vs. 3-4) And as a result, “the just Lord is in the midst thereof”—justice must be served (v. 5). “He never fails, but the unjust knows no shame.” As an example to Judah, the Lord had “cut off nations,” (v. 6) including some of those mentioned in chapter 2; their streets were desolate, their cities destroyed and completely uninhabited. And “I said, 'Surely you [Judah] will fear Me, You will receive instruction'" (v. 7); surely Judah has learned from others. But no—“they rose early, and corrupted all their doings” (v. 7). “Therefore” is the first word of verse 8, and it isn’t hard to guess what follows. The Lord would “pour on them My indignation, all My fierce anger; all the earth [Judah] shall be devoured with the fire of my jealousy.” When He tells them to “wait for me,” it is simply an announcement that God will fulfill His promises and threatenings. He doesn’t change and sin will be punished.

Restoration (vs. 9-20)—But like many of the prophets, Zephaniah ends his prophecy with a message of hope. Again I remind the reader to always recall the great theme of the Old Testament—Christ is coming, and He is coming through the Jewish people. Thus, even though they were every bit as worthy of punishment as Sodom and Gomorrah (Hosea 11:8), there is a higher purpose here—the redemption of all mankind. God had made that promise all the way back in Genesis 3:15 and its fulfillment would be through Abraham’s descendants. There would always be a “remnant of Israel” (v. 13). Some see this section as Messianic, i.e., referring to the church age, but I don’t see any references to Christ here. It appears simply an announcement of return from Babylonian captivity. It is a picture of beauty and holiness, which didn’t exist in Israel following the return, but isn’t perfect in the church, either. But it is possible, given the righteousness described here, that spiritual Israel, the church, is in view rather than national Israel. Regardless, the standard is for “pure language that they may call on the name of the Lord” (v. 9). They would be returned “from beyond the rivers of Ethiopia”—from the farthest reaches of captivity (v. 10). There would be no shame, for the wicked shall be removed from their midst (v. 11), and only a “meek and humble people” who “trust in the name of the Lord” shall remain (v. 12). It’s only a “remnant,” but they would “do no unrighteousness and speak no lies;” they would “feed their flocks” and not be afraid (v. 13). This was a great cause for rejoicing and gladness (v. 14). The Lord will no longer need to punish them (v. 15), and “you shall see disaster (or, “evil,” KJV) no more.” There will be no cause to fear (v. 16) because “The LORD your God in your midst, the Mighty One, will save” (v. 17). There would gladness, peace, love, and singing. The weak and the helpless, those who had been oppressed for so long, “I will appoint…for praise and fame” (v. 19). Verse 20 sounds like return from Babylon, but again, could be spiritual bondage: “At that time I will bring you back, even at the time I gather you…When I return your captives before your eyes," says the LORD.” Again, my only hesitation in applying this to the church age is the omission of any allusion to the Messiah. Certainly the righteousness and holiness described in this passage does not describe how the Jews acted after their homecoming from Babylon (though there was no more idol worship), but again, this is designed as a message of hope, especially for those in Zephaniah’s age who had remained loyal to the Lord. Even though most of them would be dead before the restoration from exile, they would understand that the Lord had seen their own affliction and righteousness and that a better day for all was forthcoming.

And so ends the writings of another great, but often overlooked, prophet of God in the Old Testament. What lessons could be learned if we would only do so.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Zephaniah 2

Call to repentance (vs. 1-3)—Following the strong, dramatic words of denunciation in chapter one, Zephaniah follows up with a call to repentance. Gather together and listen, “O undesirable nation,” or, in the ASV’s words, “O nation that hath no shame” (v. 1). Before it’s too later, “before the day of the LORD'S anger comes upon you” (v. 2), “seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth…seek righteousness, seek humility” (v. 3), and “it may be that you will be hidden in the day of the LORD'S anger.” The Lord always promises goodness upon repentance. Zephaniah’s words here indicate that there was still some hope; at least, the “meek of the earth” might escape the worst of God’s judgments. Certainly humbling ourselves before God is a must if we wish to forego His wrath.

Judgment upon the nations (vs. 4-15)—In the rest of this chapter, Zephaniah has some words of condemnation for several nations around Judah, who had plagued God’s people through the years. In verses 4-7, he prophesies against Israel’s ancient enemies, the Philistines. Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron (v. 4) were all famous Philistine cities. The Cherethites (v. 5) were perhaps foreign mercenaries. King David apparently used them at times (cf. II Sam. 8:18; 15:18), but so did the Philistines. Clarke says they were Cretans (from the isle of Crete), and may have been a colony of Philistia. Regardless, the Lord’s message was “I will destroy you; so there shall be no inhabitant" (v. 5). “The seacoast (where Philistia was) shall be pastures…and a remnant for the house of Judah” (vs. 6-7). When the Israelites returned from Babylonian captivity, that land would be theirs. No more Philistines, who had before the time of Abraham (Genesis 21:32). In verses 8-11, Zephaniah writes of the coming doom of Moab and Ammon, who were the sons of Lot by his daughters (read this disgusting tale in Genesis 19). They were to be punished for having “reproached my people and made arrogant threats against their borders” (v. 8). Thus, “surely Moab shall be like Sodom, and the people of Ammon like Gomorrah” (v. 9). Pride was also a noteworthy sin of these peoples (v. 10). No more Philistines around today, nor are there any Moabites or Ammonites. Zephaniah’s prophesies have proven true. Verse 12 has a brief prophecy against Ethiopia: “You Ethiopians also, you shall be slain by My sword.” This is largely the same geographical region as Ethiopia occupies today, but it was larger in ancient times. Nebuchadnezzar pretty well took care of these people, about the time he sacked Jerusalem; but notice, no permanent annihilation was prophesied as with Philistia, Moab, and Ammon. The last few verses are a prediction about Nineveh and the Assyrians (vs. 13-15). It appears that this prophecy of Zephaniah may have been in the 630s before the final destruction of that city and empire, because in the prophet’s words, that event is yet future. The arrogance of this wicked city is eloquently described in verse 15: “This is the rejoicing city that dwelt securely, that said in her heart, ‘I am, and there is none else besides me.’" But Nineveh would “become a desolation, a place for beasts to lie down” (v. 15). Verses 13 and 14 speak of Assyria’s destruction as yet future; verse 15 speaks as if it had already come. It probably hadn’t happened yet by the time of Zechariah’s work, but it was so sure to happen that he speaks as if it already had.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Zephaniah Introduction and Chapter 1

Introduction—The word “Zephaniah” means “hidden by Jehovah.” In 1:1, his lineage is traced back four generations, to Hezekiah, who is reckoned to be the king of that name. If that’s true, then the prophet obviously has some royal blood in him. He prophesied during the reign of Josiah (c. 642-611 B.C.), who is probably the second greatest king of Judah, after David. Josiah completely cleared Judah of all idolatry, and though very soon after Josiah’s tragic death in 611 Babylon entered Judah and began carrying the people away into captivity, there is no reference to idol worship in the southern kingdom after Josiah. His interesting story is told in II Kings 22 and 23, and again in II Chronicles 34 and 35. But he was the last good king of Judah. The fact that Zephaniah, in eloquent, powerful, and even frightening terms depicts the devastation of Judah during the reign of one of their best kings is evidence that the corruption in the country was deep, and that for the people, any reformation had been only skin deep. But again, very soon after Josiah’s death, Nebuchadnezzar showed up and captivity commenced. That is the aim of Zephaniah’s prophecy.

Chapter 1

God’s stern denunciation of Judah (vs. 1-6)—After introducing himself in verse 1, the prophets gets right into the strong condemnation of Judah by Jehovah. “I will utterly consume everything from the face of the land” (v. 1). Man, beasts, birds, fish—nothing will be left when the Lord finishes with Judah. Now, this language is hyperbolic, obviously, but it does indicate the wrath of Jehovah in no uncertain terms, and the completeness and finality of His judgment on Judah. Captivity is coming; there will be no more pardon or patience. Interestingly, the statement in verse 4 ”I will cut off every trace of Baal from this place” apparently took place during the reign of Josiah; but certainly, following the return from Babylonian captivity, we read of no more idolatry in Israel. That’s the one lesson—about the only one—they learned from the period of bondage. God’s righteous judgments will not only be on the idolaters of Judah, but also on “Those who have turned back from following the LORD, and have not sought the LORD, nor inquired of Him" (v. 6). That’s probably a specific reference to the idolaters, but certainly, in general, would encompass anyone who refused to obey the word of the Lord.

The Lord’s sacrifice (vs. 7-9)—It’s time to listen to the Lord God (v. 7), for “the day of the Lord is at hand.” That’s a recurring theme in Zephaniah, meaning judgment is near. The Lord has prepared a sacrifice and invited His guests (v. 7). This doesn’t appear to be a sacrifice that one would want to be called to: “In the day of the LORD'S sacrifice…I will punish the princes and the king's children, and all such as are clothed with foreign apparel” (v. 8). The leaders of the people once again come in for special mention. Verse 9’s “all those who leap over the threshold” is interesting, and I want to share some thoughts from Adam Clarke as to its possible meaning: “It is most probable that the Philistines are here meant. After the time that Dagon fell before the ark, and his hands were broken off on the threshold of his temple, his worshippers would no more set a foot upon the threshold, but stepped or leaped over it, when they entered into his temple…Some understand it of haughtiness and pride: others think that leaping on the threshold refers to the customs of the Arabs, who used to ride into people's houses and take away whatever they could carry; and that this is the reason why, in several parts of the East, they have their doors made very low, to prevent those depredators from entering. In this manner, we learn the Persians have frequently oppressed the poor Armenians, going on horseback into their houses, and taking whatever they thought proper.” I can’t imagine why Zephaniah would bring the Philistines into this at this point, but it’s possible, I suppose. I prefer the “haughtiness and pride” understanding.

Mourning and wailing (vs. 10-13)—All of this, not surprisingly, will be accompanied by “a mournful cry from the Fish Gate” and “a wailing from the Second Quarter”—various parts of Jerusalem (v. 10). No one will escape: “I will search Jerusalem with candles,” in effect, looking in every nook and cranny for anyone who thinks they might avoid the judgment of God. And the Lord will “punish the men who are settled in complacency, who say in their heart, 'the LORD will not do good, nor will He do evil'” (v. 12). At times, men believe that, because God is being patient with them, He will always be patient with them and there will never be a day of reckoning. Not so. And it is a lesson America should learn. If we think we are immune from the laws of history and the wrath of God, then we are as foolish as ancient Judah. Desolation approaches (v. 13).

The day of the Lord (vs. 14-17)—How can I improve on the words of the prophet here?: “The great day of the LORD is near; It is near and hastens quickly. The noise of the day of the LORD is bitter; there the mighty men shall cry out. That day is a day of wrath, a day of trouble and distress, a day of devastation and desolation, a day of darkness and gloominess, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet and alarm against the fortified cities and against the high towers” (vs. 14-16). Of course, one can never “improve” upon God’s word, but there are times when no comment is even necessary. The reason for this “day of the Lord” is plainly stated in verse 17: “Because they have sinned against the Lord.” And the end result: “Their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like refuse” (v. 17). And nothing will save them: “Neither their silver nor their gold shall be able to deliver them in the day of the LORD'S wrath” (v. 18). The “whole land shall be devoured,” and “He will make speedy riddance of all those who dwell in the land” (v. 18). That’s pretty clear. And such is always the consequences of sin.

Habakkuk 3

“In wrath remember mercy” (vs. 1-2)—Habakkuk is strongly moved by the Lord’s response in chapter 2. The word “Shigionoth” (v. 1) apparently indicates some kind powerful emotional feeling as expressed in poetry or song, as chapter 3 is. Jehovah’s speech made the prophet afraid, but also revived his hope because of what the Lord had done before: “revive Your work in the midst of the years!” (v. 2). Or, as he says, “in wrath remember mercy”—when You punish Your people in Your wrath, remember Your mercies of former years.

God’s former interventions (vs. 3-15)—There is majestic, mighty language found in this portion of Habakkuk to describe Jehovah’s actions towards His people. “God came from Teman” (v. 3) introduces the thought. Teman is actually a city south of Israel, towards Sinai. So the indication here seems to be—and it’s a bit obscure—the mighty works of God in delivering His people from Egypt and giving them His law. All sorts of grandiose, vivid terms are used to describe God and His works: glory, works, praise, brightness, and power (vs. 3-4). He is awesome and all powerful, and “His ways are everlasting” (vs. 6-7). Verse 8, God’s wrath against “the rivers,” is perhaps a reference to the Nile or the Red Sea passage; He makes war as He pleases (v. 9). The mountains, sea, even the sun and moon trembled and revere Him (vs. 10-11). He crushes the nations in behalf of His people (vs. 12-13). The wicked are destroyed by their own devices (v. 14), and no obstacle can hinder Jehovah (v. 15). A lovely song describing the might and splendor of the Almighty.

Trusting God through every tribulation (vs. 16-19)—When Habakkuk heard of the coming punishment upon his countrymen, he “trembled” (v. 16). It would be a dark day for Israel, a day of great distress; “rottenness entered my bones.” Tribulation, trials, and chastisement come into the life of every child of God. But no matter how bad things are, there is always a reason to rejoice. Verses 17 and 18 are magnificent: “Though the fig tree may not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines; though the labor of the olive may fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock may be cut off from the fold, and there be no herd in the stalls--yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.” Habakkuk says—and what a wonderful example this is to us—it doesn’t matter what happens in this life, how bleak and desperate things may be, how sorrowful, sad, distressing might be our surroundings and circumstances, we should always rejoice and find joy in the Lord. He is our strength, and “He will make me walk on my high hills” (v. 19)—restore us to the blessings of “the land flowing with milk and honey.” Indeed, tremble at the wrath of God; but rejoice in His mercy.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Habakkuk 2

The Lord’s 2nd answer (vs. 2-4)—As noted in the summary of chapter 1, verse 1 of chapter 2 really belongs with the previous division. Habakkuk asks his question, “how can Jehovah use a more wicked people to punish one more righteous?” and then awaits God’s answer. The Lord commands the prophet to “write the vision and make it plain on tablets” (v. 2), for He wants understood by all. Indeed, so “that he may run who reads it”—act on it quickly and surely. What the Lord says will surely come to pass and come soon (v. 3). The answer to Habakkuk’s question, though, is really not given; he learns a far greater lesson—“the just shall live by his faith” (v. 4). “Habakkuk, you let Me take care of it, your responsibility is to trust Me.” There are many, many times in our lives when we do not understand the will of the Lord; His ways are far above ours. We simply must trust in Him to do what is right for us; and if we do, in His infinite wisdom all will work out according to His will and for our good (Romans 8:28).

Five woes against Babylon (vs. 5-20)—Why God will use the more wicked Babylon to punish Judah is not answered, but the Lord does tell Habakkuk that Babylon’s day of doom will surely come. Such a wicked people must also face judgment. Verse 5 introduces the section and provides a partial catalogue of the sins of Babylon: drunkenness, pride, insatiable conquest of other peoples—“he enlarges his desire as hell, and he is like death, and cannot be satisfied.” Hell is never full and death cannot get enough victims—a vivid description of the unquenchable appetite of Babylon for the territory of others. Eventually, however, those same people will taunt and mock Babylon for its own fall (v. 6).

The five woes start in verse 6 and are as follows:

“Woe to him who increases what is not his” (v. 6), i.e., captures and plunders other peoples. Those oppressed will someday “awaken…and you will become their booty” (v. 7).

“Woe to him who covets evil gain for his house that he may set his nest on high, that he may be delivered from the power of disaster” (v. 9). Regardless of where the fortifications were built or how strong they were, there would be no escape (v. 10). Even the stones on the city walls will cry out against Babylon (v. 11).

“Woe to him who builds a town with bloodshed” (v. 12). Babylon had done a lot of this, of course. God’s punishment is coming upon them (v. 13), and the news of His vengeance upon Babylon will fill the earth “as the waters cover the sea” (v. 14).

“Woe to him who gives drink to his neighbor” (v. 15). Babylon was a very debauched, shameless society (vs. 15-16), and “the cup of the LORD'S right hand will be turned against you, and utter shame will be on your glory” (v. 16). The same violence Babylon used to conquer others will be used on her (v. 17).

“Woe to him who says to wood, 'Awake!' To silent stone, 'Arise! It shall teach!'” (v. 19). Idolatry was a sin that plagued nearly all ancient peoples, and Babylon was no different. “The molded image” was “a teacher of lies”; the idols were “mute” and untrustworthy (v. 18). Rather, they should have listened to Jehovah, for “the LORD is in His holy temple. Let all the earth keep silence before Him" (v. 20).

Few empires were ever more deserving of punishment than Babylon. But God, in His infinite wisdom and purposes, used these wicked people to punish His own. We must not think that we are safe just because other appear more vile than we.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Habakkuk Introduction and Chapter One

Introduction—We know virtually nothing about the prophet Habakkuk. There have been some legends that have been told about him, the most interesting of which is that one day he was “on his way to the field with a bowl of pottage, was taken by an angel, carried to Babylon and placed in the lions den, where Daniel ate the pottage, when Habakkuk was returned to his own place.” (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, “Habakkuk”). There is a musical notation at the end of chapter 3 which has led some to conclude that he was a member of a Levitical choir. None of this is known for certain. We can pretty well date his book, however, as near the end of the 7th century B.C., soon before the Babylonian onslaught into Judah. This would make Habakkuk a contemporary of Zephaniah and Jeremiah.

Chapter One

Habakkuk’s dilemma (vs. 1-4)—Like all godly men, Habakkuk was concerned with the increasing degeneracy and debauchery among the people of his country. And, indeed, as Judah got closer to Babylonian captivity, corruption and iniquity were more rampant. Habakkuk had asked God about it (v. 2), but so far received no answer. He mentions the sins of plundering, violence, strife, and contention (v. 3), and there were no restraints—“the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; therefore perverse judgment proceeds” (v. 4). A pretty clear statement of the wickedness in Judah at the time. When people ignore the law (“the law is powerless”), then sin, anarchy, and chaos are not far behind.

“God, when are you going to do something about this wickedness? How long are You going to put up with it?” That’s what Habakkuk wants to know. A lot of people in America would like to know the same thing about this country.

The Lord’s answer (vs. 5-11)—Jehovah tells the prophet that He is, indeed, about to “work a work in your days which you would not believe, though it were told you” (v. 5). He is going to use the Babylonians (“Chaldeans”) to punish Judah (v. 6). The rest of this section is a vivid description of the power of Babylon—“a bitter and hasty nation” (v. 6). They had conquered many other peoples (v. 6). “They are terrible and dreadful,” (v. 7), and then perhaps the most striking portrayal: “Their judgment and their dignity proceed from themselves” (v. 7). They make their own laws, judge others by their own standards, create their own gods; they pay no attention to the righteous dictates of God. They are fast, they are fierce (v. 8), they are violent, “they gather captives like sand” (v. 9), no world power scares them, they take anything they want (v. 10). And all their sins they attribute to their god (v. 11). The Babylonians were, indeed, an unusually perverse and wicked people, and were known throughout the ancient world for such.

Habakkuk’s 2nd dilemma (vs. 12-2:1)—Jehovah’s answer didn’t compute to Habakkuk at all. “Ok,” the prophet says, “you have appointed Judah for judgment, and marked them for correction, but will not obliterate them completely” (“we shall not die”—v. 12). The problem for Habakkuk was the agent God was going to use. In one of the great passages in the prophetic writings, he says, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness. Why do You look on those who deal treacherously, and hold Your tongue when the wicked devours a person more righteous than he?” (v. 13). “God, we’re bad, but we aren’t as bad as those people (the Babylonians). How can You use them, who are more wicked than we, to punish us?” A singular question indeed! In the rest of the chapter, Habakkuk uses an illustration of a fisherman and a net; in effect, Babylon is sweeping the seas and capturing all the fish. The last statement in verse 17 explains his allegory: “And continue to slay nations without pity?” The Babylonians were doing that. How can the Lord use such people as they? The ways of God were simply beyond the prophet’s ability to understand. So he asks.

Chapter 2, verse 1 really belongs at the end of chapter 1. It records the end of Habakkuk’s speech. He will “watch to see what He will say to me, and what I will answer when I am corrected.” He greatly anticipated the Lord’s response to his question. The answer he received wasn’t what he expected.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Nahum 3

“Woe to the bloody city!” (vs. 1-4)—“Full of lies and robbery” (v. 1), and harlotries and sorceries (v. 4). In verses 2 and 3, Nahum again vividly pictures the warfare that would be waged in destroying Nineveh—horses, chariots, swords and spears…and “countless corpses” (v. 3). A tragic, but just, end to this wicked city.

It is Jehovah Who does this (vs. 5-7)—"’Behold, I am against you,’ says the LORD of hosts” (v. 5). He will expose Nineveh’s shame to all the nations (v. 5), “cast abominable filth upon you, make you vile” (v. 5). None will bemoan her or attempt to comfort her (v. 7).

Why should Nineveh escape justice? (vs. 8-11)—Others haven’t. Nahum uses the city of No Amon in Egypt as an example. This is the Hebrew name for the city of Thebes, which existed in the delta region of the Nile, as described in verse 8. Thebes had once been overcome by Assyria, so the idea here is, just as that city had been destroyed by Assyria, even so Assyria would be destroyed by another power (Babylon). Regardless of any protection Thebes had been give by “Ethiopia and Egypt,” and “Put and Lubim” (v. 9), Thebes didn’t escape judgment: “she was carried away, she went into captivity; her young children also were dashed to pieces at the head of every street; they cast lots for her honorable men, and all her great men were bound in chains” (v. 10). Assyria did that. “Put” were a mercenary peoples that the Egyptians sometimes used for assistance; “Lubim” were Libyans. But in the same vein, Assyria “also will be drunk” (with the wrath of God), “hidden” (no longer found), and seeking “refuge from the enemy” (v. 11).

For Nineveh was ripe for justice…

The ripened fig (vs. 12-19)—Nineveh, like the ripened fig, was ready to fall (v. 12). They were weak (like women, v. 13, sorry feminists), and wide open for destruction (v. 13). Prepare for the siege! (v. 14). But it won’t do any good—fire and the sword would devour and cut them off (v. 15). Regardless of how numerous they were (“like the locust,” v. 15). no matter the wealth (“you have multiplied your merchants,” v. 16), despite the abundance of “commanders” and “generals,” (v. 17), “when the sun rises they will flee away” (v. 17). Nothing can save Nineveh. The leaders of the city (“shepherds” and “nobles”) were of no use, and thus “your people are scattered on the mountains, and no one gathers them” (v. 18). Their wound was incurable, and everyone who hears the news “will clap their hands over you,” because “upon whom has not your wickedness passed continually?” (v. 19). Assyria was the largest, most expansive empire in the Near East, up to that point. It had conquered, brutally, many peoples. No one was sad to see her destruction.

Nahum’s book ends here. There is no word of hope, not even for the people of God, though certainly the children of Israel were happy to know of Assyria’s coming doom. It was too late, however, for Samaria and the northern kingdom, who were taken into Assyrian captivity in 722/21. Some of them returned to Israel after the Babylonian captivity (Ezekiel 37), but the damage was done.