A legal case

Jeremiah’s message to Judah began with the presentation of a legal case against God’s people. According to the Mosaic Law, the Israelites were forbidden to worship any other God besides YHWH, the name of God translated into English as LORD. God chose this name as the personal name by which he related specifically to his chosen or covenant people (3068). The first three commandments of the Mosaic Law stated:

  1. Thou shalt have not other gods before me.
  2. Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in the heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
  3. Thou shalt not bow down thyself  to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children  unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me. (Exodus 20:3-5)

The first three of the Ten Commandments given to the children of Israel dealt with idolatry because the covenant between God and his chosen people depended on a relationship existing between the two parties of the agreement. In some ways, the Ten Commandments were like a marriage contract that specified the terms for a divorce to take place. It was implied that both God and his people would be faithful to each other and remain in the relationship for ever. The reason why idolatry was off limits for them was because like adultery, it undermined the intimacy that was necessary for a loving relationship to exist. The only way the Israelites would trust God and depend on his provision for them was knowing God and God alone could take care of all their needs.

God’s issue with his people was not so much that they had broken his commandments , but that they had abandoned him for worthless idols. Speaking through Jeremiah, the LORD declared, “For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns; broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13). A cistern was a man-made storage tank designed to capture rain and make it available throughout the year. The cistern was representative of an idol because it was cut or carved out of stone and signified man’s ability to live independent of God’s ongoing provision. God’s reference to broken cisterns that could hold no water was meant to highlight the fact that a cistern was useless without rain, which God still had to provide.

The Israelites’ desire for independence was seen by God as being the same as an unfaithful spouse. Particularly in the book of Hosea, God’s people were likened to “a wife of whoredoms” (Hosea 1:2). Rather than being thankful for what God had provided, the Israelites preferred to fend for themselves (Jeremiah 2;25) and to worship whomever they pleased (Jeremiah 2:31). In spite of their flagrant idolatry, God’s people claimed to be innocent of the charges God brought against them. It was only because they refused to repent that God proceeded with his judgment. Jeremiah declared the truth about the people’s attitude when he said, “Yet thou sayest, Because I am innocent, surely his anger shall turn from me. Behold, I will plead with thee, because thou sayest, I have not sinned” (Jeremiah 2:35).

The elect

One of the issues God had with the children of Israel being his chosen people was their attitude of entitlement. In spite of their disobedience to God’s commandments, the Israelites saw themselves as better than the rest of the world, because they were consecrated to the LORD (Isaiah 65:5). God’s judgment of his people was intended to bring an end to their bad behavior (Isaiah 65:6-7).

God’s primary objective in the captivity of his people was to preserve the Messianic line of descendants until Christ was born. Although the nation of Judah was destined to spend 70 years in captivity, it took much longer to purge the idolatry from the people’s systems. Isaiah described this process in terms of wine making. He said, “Thus saith the LORD, as the new wine is found in the cluster: and one saith, Destroy it not; for a blessing is in it: so will I do for my servants’ sake, that I may not destroy them all. And I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains: and mine elect shall inherit it, and mine servants shall dwell there” (Isaiah 65:8-9).

The “mine elect” (Isaiah 65:9) Isaiah was referring to in this passage was the Messiah, Jesus Christ. Upon his birth, Jesus became the heir to the throne of God’s  kingdom, which in Isaiah’s time encompassed only the Promised Land. After the death and resurrection of Jesus, a new covenant went into effect that determined God’s elect or chosen people would no longer be those born into the household of Jacob, but those who accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior. Isaiah declared of those who rejected Christ, “And ye shall leave your name for a curse unto my chosen: for the Lord GOD shall slay thee, and call his servants by another name” (Isaiah 65:15).

The millennial reign of Christ that begins at the end of the great tribulation will be a time of transition from temporal to eternal life. During that time period, there will still be sinners alive on earth (Isaiah 6:20), but a new system of government will exist that mandates submission to God (Isaiah 32:1). It will be evident at that time that God’s elect are “chosen ones” (972) that have been called into the service of God on an individual basis rather than collectively as a group, as with the nation of Israel. Isaiah declared of these people:

They shall not build, and another inhabit; they shall not plant, and another eat: for as the days of a tree are the days of my people, and mine elect shall long enjoy the work of their hands. They shall not labour in vain, nor bring forth trouble; for they are the seed of the blessed of the LORD, and their offspring with them. And it shall come to pass, that before they call, I will answer; and whiles they are yet speaking, I will hear. (Isaiah 65:22-24)

The problem of sin

When  the Israelites left Egypt, God traveled with them in the form of a pillar of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). While they were in the wilderness, before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were instructed to make a tent of meeting, referred to as the tabernacle, so that God could dwell or live among his people. The tabernacle was assembled and then torn down every time the Israelites moved from one location to another (Numbers 10:17).

The temple built by king Solomon in Jerusalem was meant to be a permanent home for God (1 Kings 9:3). In connection with this, God made a covenant with Solomon that he would establish his throne for ever and would dwell among his people on the condition that Solomon and his descendants obeyed his commandments. The LORD specifically stated:

But if you shall at all turn from following me, you or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them: then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people; and at this house, which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the LORD done thus unto the land, and to his house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them; therefore hath the LORD brought upon them all this evil. (1 Kings 6:6-9)

The Assyrian attack on Jerusalem in 701 B.C. was the first step taken to bring down the city that Solomon erected to glorify God. Referring to Judah’s distress, Isaiah declared, “Now will I rise, saith the LORD; now will I be exalted; now will I lift up myself” (Isaiah 33:10). Solomon’s attempt to contain God in a man-made structure was a failure because God’s presence was dependent on the absence of sin in his people.

Referring to God as a devouring fire, Isaiah asked, “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire?” (Isaiah 33:14). God wanted to dwell among his people, but his holy nature made it impossible for him to coexist with sinners. The Israelites failed to understand that justification was a requirement for fellowship with God. Referring to the redeemed city of Jerusalem, Isaiah stated, “The people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity” (Isaiah 33:24).

God’s judgment of sin would not be isolated to his people. Ultimately, there would be universal judgment of sin (Isaiah 24:6) in order to eradicate it from God’s creation. Isaiah prophesied that in the end, there would be a complete destruction of God’s enemies.

Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people; let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it. For the indignation of the LORD is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter.

The curse

It’s hard to imagine that God knew Israel would end up going into captivity even before they entered the Promised Land, but along side the blessings of obedience listed in Deuteronomy 28 are the curses of disobedience which state:

And it shall come to pass, that as the LORD rejoiced over you to do you dood, and to multiply you; so the LORD will rejoice over you to destroy you, and to bring you to nought; and ye shall be plucked from off the land whither thou goest to possess it. And the LORD shall scatter thee among all people, from the one end of the earth even unto the other; and there thou shalt serve other gods, which neither thou nor thy fathers have known, even wood and stone…Then men shall say, Because they have forsaken the covenant  of the LORD God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them forth out of the land of Egypt: for they went and served other gods, and worshipped them , gods whom they knew not, and whom he had not given unto them; and the anger of the LORD was kindled against this land, to bring upon it all the curses that are written in this book: and the LORD rooted them out of their land in anger, and in wrath, and in great indignation, and cast them unto another land, as it is this day. (Deuteronomy 28:63-64; 29:25-28)

Hoshea, the last king of Israel, reigned from 732-722 B.C. Shalmanezer, the successor to Tiglath-pilneser king of Assyria, conducted a three-year protracted siege against Israel that ended in 722 B.C. “At that time, according to Assyrian annuls written on clay ‘I (Sargon) besieged and conquered Samaria, led away as booty 27,290 inhabitants…I installed over (those remaining) an officer of mine and imposed upon them the tribute of the former king” (Campaign of Shalmanezer V).

The explanation of Israel’s captivity was that they did not believe in the LORD their God. “And they rejected his statutes, and his covenant that he made with their fathers, and his testimonies which he testified against them; and they followed vanity, and became vain, and went after the heathen that were round about them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them, that they should not do like them” (2 Kings 17:15).

God did not force the Israelites to obey him. He gave them a choice (Deuteronomy 30:19) and clearly stated the consequences they could expect (Deuteronomy 28). Israel’s disobedience resulted in God rejecting them and turning them over to their enemies to be punished (2 Kings 17:20). After the king of Assyria removed them from the land, he “brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Ava, and from Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of God” (2 Kings 17:24).

The resettlement of Samaria with a mixture of cultures and nationalities led to diverse religious practices and idolatry. It says in 2 Kings 17:29 that even though the people were taught God’s divine law, “Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt.” In a very hypocritical manner, these people practiced syncretistic religion. “They feared the LORD, and served their own gods” (2 Kings 17:33).

A parable

Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-2) was used to describe the role Judah, and more specifically Jerusalem, had in God’s plan of salvation. Isaiah stated plainly in his parable that a partnership existed between God and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. God had done his part to ensure the Messiah would be born, but his kingdom had become unfit for habitation. Isaiah’s parable provided an important clue as to why the Messiah would not establish his kingdom until the last days, God’s people were corrupted by idolatry.

God had gone to great lengths to nurture and protect his people. In spite of his efforts, they refused to do things his way. Isaiah identified several problems the LORD intended to deal with in his judgment of the people of Judah, most importantly, their abuse of the land he had given them. Speaking for the LORD, Isaiah stated, “And now go to, I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up, and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned or digged, but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” (Isaiah 5:5-6).

Isaiah’s use of the term “wild grapes” (Isaiah 5:2,4) to describe the fruit of the LORD’s vineyard indicated the people of Judah had reached a point of no return in their abandonment of God’s law. The Hebrew word translated wild grapes, be’ushiym means poison-berries (891). Poison-berries are usually colorful and juicy looking, but toxic if ingested. Some poison-berries are lethal and it could be that Isaiah named a specific poison-berry in order to make his point that the vineyard had to be abandoned and was useless to its owner.

Part of the reason for God’s judgment against Judah was a need to expose the people’s sin and to condemn their bad behavior. As a demonstration of their unfaithfulness to God, the people would be removed from the land and humbled before the surrounding nations. It says in Isaiah 5:13, “Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst.”

The word translated captivity, galah means to denude or make oneself naked, especially in a disgraceful sense (1540). Captivity is also referred to as going into exile, captives being usually stripped in order to disgrace and humiliate them in public. Another meaning of the word galah is to reveal and it is sometimes applied to “the revealing of secrets and of one’s innermost feelings.” I believe God sent his people into captivity so that they could see themselves for what they really were, sinners in need of a Savior.

 

Not just a man

The remarkable thing about Isaiah’s prophecy of the last days was not that he saw what would happen thousands of years after his death, but that Isaiah’s vision came 700 years before the Messiah, Jesus Christ was born. There was still a huge gap in the outcome of the nation of Judah that needed to be filled in.

Beginning with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, God had spoken of an eternal kingdom that his people would inherit (Genesis 17:6-7). On his deathbed, Jacob foretold the future of his descendants and made reference to the last days (Genesis 49:1). Speaking of his son Judah’s inheritance, Jacob said, “The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be” (Genesis 49:10).

The word Shiloh is an epithet of the Messiah (7886). What Jacob was saying was that Judah’s family would be kept in tact until the Messiah was born. The bloodline of Jesus had to be traced back to Abraham in order for God’s promise to be validated and verifiable to those who would question his lineage. At the time when Isaiah spoke to the nation of Judah, it was on the verge of extinction. Although they didn’t know it yet, the northern kingdom of Israel was about to be completely wiped out by Assyria, and Judah was next on Assyria’s list.

God’s judgment of Judah was intended to bring the people back to their senses. Although worship took place in God’s temple, the people’s hearts were far from the LORD, and their behavior reflected the cultures of the nations surrounding them. The most significant problem God intended them to deal with was their desire to be like everyone else. Isaiah posed a question to reveal their fault. “Cease ye from man whose breath is in his nostrils: for wherein is he to be accounted of?” (Isaiah 2:22).

The point Isaiah was making was that a mere man could not save God’s people. Although it was known that the Messiah would be a man, it was known at that time that he would also be God. Because king David was told that his son would reign for ever (2 Samuel 7:13), David assumed his son would become immortal. I don’t think David, or anyone else, expected the immortal God to become a man.

Isaiah spoke of blessings that indicated God’s judgment of Judah would prepare its people for the supernatural birth of their Messiah. “In that day shall the branch of the LORD be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel…When the LORD shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the Spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning” (Isaiah 4:2,4).

 

Mercy

Jonah’s reaction to the transformation of the people of Nineveh shows a disregard for the purpose of his visit. Jonah knew that God wanted the Ninevites to repent and turn from their wicked ways, and yet, when they did, “it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was very angry” (Jonah 4:1). Jonah was not interested in seeing a change, he wanted revenge.

In spite of his successful mission, Jonah was distraught. It is clear from his prayer that Jonah wanted a different outcome. Jonah prayed, “Therefore now, O LORD, take, I beseech my life from me; for it is better for me to die than to live” (Jonah 4:3). What Jonah meant was that he thought the outcome was unfair. God was only supposed to care about the Israelites because they were his chosen people.

At the core of Jonah’s complaint, was a belief that the Israelites should be treated different than everyone else. Jonah did not want God to forgive the people of Nineveh. As Jonah was demonstrating, the Israelites had become proud and were taking advantage of their relationship with the LORD. God wanted Jonah to realize that his mercy was not exclusive, anyone could repent and be saved.

Jonah was convinced that the Ninevites repentance was not genuine. It says in Jonah 4:5, “Jonah went out of the city, and there made himself a booth, and sat under it in the shade till he might see what would become of the city.” Jonah expected that on day 41, the day after the people were to be overthrown, everything would go back to normal. Jonah thought as soon as the people had escaped God’s judgment, they would return to their evil ways.

The booth Jonah made for himself was a temporary shelter or hut constructed by weaving together tree branches or the leaves of a plant (5521). Jonah’s attempt to make himself comfortable while he waited made it seem as if the destruction of Nineveh was a spectator sport that Jonah was meant to enjoy. In spite of his calloused attitude, God indulged Jonah by causing a plant to grow over him that provided additional shade. Unfortunately, the plant was eaten by a worm the next day.

In a final attempt to bring Jonah to his senses, God demonstrated his sovereign control over Jonah’s circumstances by sending a hot east wind to drive him away, but Jonah would not relent. Jonah was determined to prove God wrong and could not accept that the people of Nineveh were worthy of God’s compassion. What Jonah didn’t understand was that God’s mercy was not a part of his covenant with Israel. Rather, it was a part of God’s covenant with Noah that applied to the whole world (Genesis 9:15-17).