Backsliding

A constant problem for God’s people while they were living in the Promised Land was backsliding. The prophet Jeremiah declared “The LORD said also unto me in the days of Josiah the king, Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done? she is gone up upon every  high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot” (Jeremiah 3:6) The Hebrew word translated backsliding , meshubah means backturning (4878), as in turning your back on someone. Another translation of meshubah is the word faithless. In other words, the people of Israel lacked faith. They did not believe in God and would not repent of their sins against him.

God used the northern kingdom of Israel as an example of his judgment when he sent them into captivity in 722 B.C. In spite of the fact that the northern kingdom ceased to exist after that, the southern kingdom of Judah followed down the same pathway to destruction. Jeremiah remarked, “And yet for all this her treacherous sister Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole hart, but feignedly, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 3:10). The Hebrew word translated feignedly, sheqer (sheh´ – ker) refers to an untruth or sham (8267). Sheqer defines a way of life that goes contrary to the law of God. Sheqer is a relational term signifying ‘”one’s inability to keep faith” with what one has said or to respond positively to the faithfulness of another being.”

It could be said that Judah had become desensitized to sin. It no longer bothered the people when they made sacrifices to idols. They were like prostitutes that perform sex acts for money. It was just a way to earn a living. The LORD declared, “Surely as a wife treacherously departeth from her husband, so have you dealt treacherously with me, O house of Israel, saith the LORD” (Jeremiah 3:20). The strong language used to describe Israel’s betrayal indicated that it was intentional act. The people treated God as if he were their enemy and could not be trusted with the truth. The people of Judah no longer considered themselves to be children of God, but instead were acting like children of the  foreign god Baal.

Even though the situation with Judah seemed hopeless, God did not intend to abandon them as he had the northern kingdom of Israel. God said to them, “Return ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings” (Jeremiah 3;22). In order to cure his rebellious children of their backsliding, God would turn them over to the Babylonians so that they could experience life apart from him. The objective of their Babylonian captivity was to remind God’s people of what slavery was like. It had been hundreds of years since the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt. Over the course of seventy years, God expected the people of Judah to come to a point where they would say:

We lie down in shame, and our confusion covereth us:  for we have sinned against  the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God. (Jeremiah 3:25)

Hidden

Within the framework of the Mosaic Law was a provision for God’s people to receive mercy if they would repent from their sins. Because they had taken advantage of this provision numerous times, there came a point when God basically said, that’s enough. You will have to be punished in order to learn your lesson. The way that God chose to discipline his children was to allow them to be taken into captivity by their enemies, the Babylonians. Before the end of their time in the Promised Land, God spoke to the people of Judah and warned them that the end was coming. In one last attempt to spare them from destruction, God sent the prophet Zephaniah to tell the people that “the great day of the LORD” was near (Zephaniah 1:14).

Zephaniah did not offer the people of Judah an opportunity to escape their punishment, but he did say there was a way they could escape death. He said, “Seek ye the LORD, all ye meek of the earth, which have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger” (Zephaniah 2:3). Zephaniah told the people the way for them to be saved was through humility, asking the LORD’s help. The Hebrew word translated seek, baqash means to search out by any method, but specifically it refers to worship and prayer (1245). God’s ultimate goal was to restore his relationship with his people. It was only because they had turned away from him repeatedly that he was forced to discipline them.

The best way to understand the process of salvation was for Zephaniah to let the people know they were lost. Jesus often told parables about things being lost to illustrate God’s desire to reconcile with those people that had been separated from him by sin (Matthew 10:6, 15:24, 18:11). When Cain killed his brother Abel, he was sent out and prevented from ever seeing God’s face again (Genesis 4:14). In actuality, what happened was that Cain was hidden from God’s sight. In a sense, you could say he was invisible to God. The Israelites had committed so many sins while they was living in the Promised Land that God could no longer look at them. They were too disgusting for him to look at. The only way God could reconcile with them was to punish his children and force them to repent.

Zephaniah’s call to repentance included the possibility that God might still show mercy to those people that humbled themselves before him. In the same way that they had been hidden from God’s sight, Zephaniah suggested the people “seek righteousness, seek meekness; it may be ye shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger (Zephaniah 2:3). In this instance, the word hid refers to someone hiding or sheltering a person from his enemies (5641). In other words, God could conceal the repentant sinner from the Babylonian army so that his life would be spared and he would be taken into captivity instead of killed. If God’s people remained alive, God promised he would allow them to return to Jerusalem when their captivity was over (Zephaniah 2:7).

The day of the LORD

The prophet Zephaniah talked about the day of the LORD as if it could happen at any moment (Zephaniah 1:7). This was probably because he was looking at it from an eternal perspective. The phrase “day of the LORD” can refer to any time the Lord openly intervenes in the affairs of man. Thus it often applies to separate events in different time periods (footnote on Zephaniah 1:7). Zephaniah’s ministry took place during the reign of king Josiah, not long before Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon. Therefore, his prophecies had a certain amount of correlation to Judah’s current circumstances, but his overall message was about the end times.

The nation of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. At that time, the nation ceased to exist. The people that were taken into captivity eventually returned and reestablished their legal and worship systems, but they did not have a king to rule over them. Zephaniah made it clear in his message that the day of the LORD he was referring to was the final destruction of not only Judah, but also the entire world (Zephaniah 1:2). Zephaniah said, “I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the LORD. I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumblingblocks with the wicked; and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the LORD” (Zephaniah 1:2-3).

Judah’s captivity was to a certain extent an illustration of God’s judgment of the world. Living in peace and prosperity for hundreds of years had desensitized the people to the reality of their sinful condition. The kings of Judah had managed to keep the nation stable during the expansion of the Assyrian empire, giving everyone the impression that God’s chosen people were immune to punishment. More than 200 years had transpired since Isaiah had first begun to warn the people of Judah of God’s anger towards them. Because they had been spared from going into captivity in Assyria with the northern kingdom of Judah, the people of Judah were probably thinking they could escape God’s wrath indefinitely.

In order to make the  people understand that there would be an end to their special treatment, Zephaniah spoke in terms of all things and all people being consumed by the LORD. It was only through the association of God’s people with the heathen of the world that they could see themselves as sinners. Zephaniah used language that conveyed a sense of urgency so that the people of Judah would realize that time was of the essence if they were to avoid getting caught up on the destruction that was about to take place. Unlike other prophetic messages the people may have heard in the past, Zephaniah warned of a sudden ending that would catch even the most valiant warrior off guard. He said, “The great day of the LORD is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the LORD: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly” (Zephaniah 1:14).

Conversion

King David said, “The law of the  LORD is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalm 19:7). What he meant by that was there was contained within the Mosaic Law enough evidence to convict every person of their own sinful nature. Even if you narrowed God’s law down to just the Ten Commandments, everyone would be found guilty. Therefore, the law of Moses was able to bring people in the Old Testament to a place of repentance where they recognized their need for salvation.

Over time, the Israelites’ hearts became hardened and they were unwilling to repent and turn to God. The process of conversion is really a matter of repentance more than anything else. The word convert is translated from the Hebrew verb shuwb (shoob). “The basic meaning of this verb is movement back to the point of departure…The process called conversion or turning to God is in reality a re-turning or a turning back again to Him from whom sin has separated us, but whose we are by virtue of creation, preservation and redemption” (7725).

The life of Manasseh king of Judah illustrates the process of conversion perfectly. Manasseh’s father, king Hezekiah was a righteous  man who trusted God and he was able to prevent Judah from being taken into captivity by the Assyrians, but Manasseh chose to do that which was “evil in the sight of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 33:2). Manasseh not only practiced idolatry, but is says in 2 Chronicles 33:6 that he “observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards.”

Manasseh had a very negative influence on the people of Judah. As their king, he had the power to force them to worship as he did. It says in 2 Chronicles 33:9-10, “Manasseh made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to err, and do worse than the heathen, whom the LORD had destroyed before the children of Israel. And the LORD spoke to Manasseh, and to his people: but they would not hearken.” The prophet Isaiah used the word err throughout his writing to refer to the leaders of Israel causing the people to veer off the course God had established for them, the Mosaic Law.

Rather than punish the entire nation of Judah and undo the good that Hezekiah had accomplished, God chose to single out Manasseh in order to bring him to repentance. It says in 2 Chronicles 33:11-13:

Wherefore the LORD brought upon them the captains of the host of the king of Assyria, which took Manasseh among the thorns, and bound him with fetters, and carried him to Babylon. And when he was in affliction, he besought the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed unto him: and he was intreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD he was God.

After Manasseh acknowledged God’s sovereignty and was returned to Jerusalem, he showed evidence of genuine repentance. It says that “he took away the strange gods and the idol out of the house of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 33:15). Manasseh not only stopped practicing idolatry, but he also began to worship the LORD and commanded the people to observe the Mosaic Law (2 Chronicles 33:16). Manasseh’s example of repentance was one of the few seen in the Old Testament, particularly among the kings of Judah and Israel. It could be that his captivity in Babylon was such a horrifying experience that he realized spending eternity in hell was not a good option.

Repentance

A requirement for repentance is an awareness that you have done something wrong. You don’t necessarily have to be aware of a law in order to break it, but you do have to be aware of it in order to feel sorry that you broke it. An example of this is the person that gets a speeding ticket. Before he was stopped by a police officer, he may not have been aware that he was driving 15 mph over the speed limit. Depending on whether or not he can afford the fine or wants to have the ticket on his driving record, he may feel sorry afterwards that he broke the law.

“To repent means to make a strong turning to a new course of action…Hence, when one repents, he exerts strength to change, to re-grasp the situation, and exert effort for the situation to take a different course of purpose and action” (5162). Before the Israelites were taken into captivity, they formed alliances with the nations around them and often paid tribute to foreign kings in order to avoid war. The children of Israel stopped expecting God to defend and protect them and were arrogant about their military capabilities (Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah 701 B.C.). One of the reasons the people didn’t repent was they were no longer reading God’s word (2 Kings 22:8).

God intended the exile of the nation of Israel to bring the people of the southern kingdom of Judah to their senses. Whereas they had been dwelling safe and secure in the city of Jerusalem for hundreds of years, Sennacherib’s successful attacks on Judah’s fortresses served as a warning that God was no longer protecting his people as he had before (Isaiah 36:1). Judah’s appeal to God shows they were beginning to get the message. Isaiah declared, “O that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence” (Isaiah 64:1-2).

By the time the people of Judah were taken into captivity they had become aware of their moral failure. Isaiah declared, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as the leaf; and our iniquities like the wind have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6). Isaiah was speaking prophetically, so at that time, the people were still rebelling against God. It wasn’t until they were in captivity that the people began to repent.

Isaiah spoke of the inevitability of Judah’s captivity, but the actual event was still almost a hundred years away. Isaiah indicated that in the end, everyone would abandon their faith and turn away from God. He said, “And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou has consumed us, because of our iniquities” (Isaiah 64:7). In essence, Isaiah was saying that God was no longer paying attention to what was going on with his people. Although he hadn’t abandoned them completely, the LORD was not working for, but against them.

Only a remnant of God’s people would return to the Promised Land after their captivity in Babylon. Those that would return were expected to do so because they had repented of their sin. One of the characteristics of repentance is submission to the will of God. Isaiah described a change of heart that would be evident in the remnant in terms of clay, that which can easily be molded and shaped into a usable vessel. He said, “But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thine hand” (Isaiah 64:8).

Phase Two

The LORD identified Cyrus king of Persia as the shepherd that would lead his people out of captivity (Isaiah 44:28). God referred to Cyrus as his anointed (Isaiah 45:1), a term associated with Israel’s Messiah. In Cyrus’ case, this title meant that he was consecrated by God for a special office or function. Cyrus was a pagan king that did not know God. The LORD declared about him, “For my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me” (Isaiah 45:4).

God intended to use Cyrus for his own purposes in order to demonstrate his sovereign control over all his creation. In explaining this strategy the LORD said, “That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:6-7). Cyrus’ connection to Israel’s Messiah made it possible for God’s people to see that Jesus was to be the savior of the world, not just Israel.

The idea that God would save the world was a new concept for the Israelites because up to that point the Gentiles were excluded from having a relationship with God. If Israel had kept God’s commandments, they might have been able to retain their exclusive rights to his inheritance (Isaiah 48:18), but as it were, they chose to rebel and forfeited that right (Isaiah 48:19). Therefore, the LORD said, “Thou hast heard, see all this; and will not ye declare it? I have shewed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them” (Isaiah 48:6).

The Israelites’ captivity would prepare them for a new assignment. Phase two of God’s redemption plan required his people to become messengers, spreading God’s word throughout the earth. The scattering of God’s people was not just to punish them. God had always intended for the world to hear of his fame. What the Israelites didn’t know, and were being told for the first time, was they would be sharing their story with the Gentiles in order to get them to repent.

Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say ye, The LORD hath redeemed his servant Jacob. And they thirsted not when he led them through deserts: he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out. There is no peace, saith the LORD, unto the wicked. (Isaiah 48:20-22)

 

Babylon

Babylon was not a random city where God chose to send his people into captivity. It says in Genesis 11:27-28 that Abraham’s father, Terah was born in Ur of the Chaldees or Chaldeans. Around the 19th century B.C., it says, “Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees” (Genesis 11:31).

Later, when God made a covenant with Abraham in the land of Canaan, he said, “I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it” (Genesis 15:7). God’s plan of redemption for his people included Abraham’s descendants being made into a great nation (Genesis 12:2) and their captivity in the land from which Abraham had first been called out (Isaiah 43:14).

It was appropriate for God to send his people back to the land of Abraham’s ancestors because their idol worship originated there. Babylon’s primary idols , Bel and Nebo were a father and son duo connected with the two golden calves worshipped in Israel. Isaiah explained that these idols were not only the cause of Israel’s captivity, but they would be taken captive with them (Isaiah 46:1-2). God’s intention was to once and for all do away with these false deities.

God’s ability to direct the course of events made it possible for him to bring things full circle. Even though Jerusalem was still decades away from destruction, God warned his people, “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:9).

God’s vengeance on Babylon was due primarily to its arrogance. Isaiah declared, “And Babylon the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isaiah 13:19). Isaiah described God’s humbling of this nation in terms of a woman who would mourn the loss of her virginity. He said, “Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground; there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans; for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate” (Isaiah 47:1).

The Chaldeans were known for their practice of astrology. Perhaps their greatest claim to fame was their ability to foretell events that threatened the security of their kingdom. Using a sarcastic tone to mock them of their certain doom, Isaiah stated, “Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee” (Isaiah 47:13).