The inner man

God’s main concern when he planned for the people of Judah to be taken into captivity was the condition of their hearts. The relationship God wanted to have with his people was one of love and trust. In order for that to be possible, the people had to be devoted to God and open to his involvement in their lives. The way Jeremiah described this was to use circumcision as an illustration of being dedicated to the LORD. He told the people, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4). Moses used similar language when he said, “Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deuteronomy 10:16).

The Hebrew words translated stiffnecked, qashah oreph literally mean hard necked or a neck that is unable to bend and be bowed down as in prayer (7185/6203). Looking at this term in relation to the heart, it refers to someone who is hard-hearted, a tough minded person who refuses to submit himself to God. Therefore, to circumcise the heart would mean you cut off behavior that is offensive to God (4135). Jeremiah referred to the cleansing of the heart in connection with salvation. He said, “O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved” (Jeremiah 4:14). Typically, a person is only concerned with washing the exterior part of his body. Jeremiah was pointing out that it was the inner man that needed to be dealt with.

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)

The child prophet

The prophet Jeremiah was unique in that his calling to serve as God’s mouthpiece was not a secondary  occupation that temporarily fulfilled God’s need to deliver a message to his people, but a lifelong vocation that Jeremiah had been specifically created for. God told Jeremiah, “Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee; and before thou comest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee, and I ordained thee a prophet unto the nations” (Jeremiah 1:5). The Hebrew word translated formed is yatsar (yaw – tsar´). “Yatsar is a technical potter’s word, and it is often used in connection with the potter at work. The word is sometimes used as a general term of ‘craftsmanship or handiwork’…Yatsar is frequently used to describe God’s creative activity, whether literally or figuratively” (3335).

The prophet Isaiah used the word yatsar in connection with God’s  relationship to the nation of Israel and redemption of his people. In general, it could be said that yatsar refers to someone that has been saved or born again. Isaiah spoke of this when he said, “Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth: even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him; yea, I have made him” (Isaiah 43:6-7). These words were spoken in the context of God’s redemption of his people. Although it could be said that every person is a child of God, only those that have been redeemed or saved go through a transformational process in which they are conformed into the image of Christ. This process is referred to as sanctification. God said of Jeremiah, “before thou comest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee” (Jeremiah 1:5). Therefore, it could be said that Jeremiah was born a fully matured Christian in order to accomplish his vocation as a prophet unto the nations.

One way of looking at a fully mature Christian is to see him as someone that has completely submitted himself to God. He does this because he understands God’s role as Creator and sees himself in the context of a divine order that is intended to accomplish God’s will. Sometimes it is easier for a child to get this perspective than an 80 year old man. When Jesus was a child, he was found in the temple “sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them, and asking them questions” (Luke 2:46). Even though Jesus was only twelve, he had the ability to discuss deep theological issues with men that had been studying the scriptures their whole lives. It is possible Jeremiah had this same or a similar capacity and began his ministry as young as 12-14 years of age (Jeremiah 1:6-7).

Jeremiah’s ministry began in 626 B.C., in the fourteenth year of king Josiah’s reign. Josiah was only 22 years old at that time. In the eighth year of his reign, Josiah began to “seek after the God of David his father” (2 Chronicles 34:3) and by the eighteenth year of his reign, he had purged the land of idolatry  and begun a building project to repair the house of the LORD his God” (2 Chronicles 34:8). So, Jeremiah’s ministry started under positive conditions in the nation of Judah. The people may have expected peace and prosperity to return to their nation because they were doing the right things. Unfortunately, time had run out for God’s people and his judgment was inevitable. The LORD warned Jeremiah of an impending disaster that would come soon. Jeremiah received two visions from God about this event (Jeremiah 1:11-14).

Although is must have been difficult for Jeremiah’s young mind to comprehend all that was about to take place, his ability to “see” the future helped him to grasp the situation ahead for Judah and to communicate it clearly. Twice, the LORD told Jeremiah to not be afraid of or dismayed at the faces of those he had to speak to (Jeremiah 1:8, 17). The Hebrew term for face, paneh (paw – neh´) refers to the look on one’s face or one’s countenance (6440). In other words, Jeremiah was going to have to confront some scary people, but God assured him that he would protect him. He said, “And they shall fight against thee; but they shall not prevail against thee; for I am with thee, saith the LORD, to deliver thee” (Jeremiah 1:19).

 

One language

After the flood that wiped out all living creatures on earth (Genesis 7:21), it says in Genesis 11:1 “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” What that meant was that not only did everyone speak the same language, but also used the same jargon or slang words. Therefore, everyone understood each other perfectly. The descendants of Ham, the son of Noah’s that was cursed by God, worked together on a building project known as the tower of Babel. When God discovered what they were doing, he said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7).

The Hebrew word translated confound, balal means to mix (1101). Literally, what this meant was that words began to have mixed meanings. For instance, today a guy might say a girl is hot, which means he thinks she’s attractive. Anyone that didn’t know the slang meaning of the word hot would be confused by what he said. With each generation, words take on new meanings, therefore our speech is no longer pure. The prophet Zephaniah spoke about a time in the future when God would “turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent” (Zephaniah 3:9). Essentially, what he was saying was there would come a time when God would  clarify the meaning of words so that everyone would understand each other again, so that the world could operate as a single, unified kingdom.

Throughout the Old Testament, God called his people to be separated from the rest of the world. Israel stood apart as the one righteous nation among all the wicked nations. Because Israel failed in keeping God’s commandments and even the holy city Jerusalem turned to idolatry, God decided to create a new world order under which all the people of the world could be united to serve him (Zephaniah 3:8-9). Rather than save only his chosen people, God would purge the world of evil and save all who would humble themselves and put their trust in the LORD (Zephaniah 3;11-12). Among those who would be saved would be a remnant of the nation of Israel that would also accept Jesus Christ as their Savior (Zephaniah 3:13).

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).

Exempted

A key component of the Israelites’ sacrificial system was the Passover. The Passover was instituted on the eve of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt. Prior to that night, the Egyptians had experienced nine plagues because Pharaoh refused to let the Israelites go into the wilderness and worship their God. The plagues were intended to demonstrate God’s miraculous power. The LORD told Moses, “the Egyptians shall know that I am the LORD, when I stretch forth my hand upon Egypt, and bring out the children of Israel from among them” (Exodus 7:5).

During the plagues, God made a distinction between the  Israelites and the Egyptians. God told Pharaoh, “I will put a division between my people and thy people” (Exodus 8:23). The Hebrew word translated division, peduth is derived from the word padah. “Padah indicates that some intervening or substitutionary action effects a release from an undesirable condition” (6299). Padah is usually translated as redeem or ransom. God was letting Pharaoh know that his people were no longer subject to Pharaoh’s command and would be exempted from the rest of his plagues.

The last plague God brought upon the Egyptians was the death of all their firstborn. Even though the Israelites were exempted from this plague, they had to sacrifice a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorposts of their home as a sign to God that he should pass over that household (Exodus 12:7). The lamb was later referred to as the Passover (Exodus 12:27) and the Israelites were expected to celebrate this event annually in remembrance of God’s deliverance. After the Israelites settled in the Promised Land, the Passover celebration was for the most part ignored or forgotten. It wasn’t until king Hezekiah ordered the people to observe it, that the Passover was kept as it was originally intended to be (2 Chronicles 30:5).

In 622 B.C., after the book of the law was found and read to all the people, king Josiah kept the Passover exactly as it was prescribed by Moses. Every person that was living in Judah and Jerusalem participated in the celebration (2 Chronicles 35:17). This may have been the only complete observance of the sacrifice since it was celebrated in Egypt. Josiah  himself provided 33,000 animals for the sacrifice, indicating there were probably only 100,000 – 200,000 people residing in the nation at that time. Around 800 B.C, there were 300,000 men alone in Judah, 20 years old and above that were able to go to war, suggesting the total population was over one million.

The significance of king Josiah’s Passover celebration was that it occurred within a generation of when Judah went into captivity. There were three kings that followed Josiah; all of whom were his sons. It seems as if the first Passover and this last Passover celebration served somewhat as bookends to the Israelites’ freedom. The only way God could get the people to celebrate it was through the threat of death. Given that the Passover exempted the Israelites from all punishment of their sins, you would think they would have been more diligent about its observance.

Revenge

The topic of revenge is scattered throughout the  Old Testament of the Bible and is explained from various different angles, but Nineveh is one example that clearly depicts the viewpoint God takes on revenge. The city of Nineveh was first mentioned in Genesis chapter 10 where it stated that it was one of several great cities built by the descendants of Noah’s son Ham who was cursed because he “saw the nakedness of his father” (Genesis 9:18). Asshur, the builder of Nineveh, was another name for Assyria. Nineveh was a prominent city in the Assyrian empire and officially became its capital in 700 B.C.

The prophet Jonah was sent to Nineveh to warn the people of its impending judgment. God told Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh that great city and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Although the exact date of Jonah’s visit to Nineveh is unknown, we do know his ministry to Israel took place sometime around 782 – 753 B.C. because he predicted king Jeroboam II’s restoration of Israel’s coastal cities (2 Kings 14:25). After Jonah preached to the city of Nineveh, the people turned to God, “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he said he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10).

Jonah was skeptical about the sincerity of the Ninevites change of heart. His anger about God’s decision to spare the people was demonstrated in his request for God to take his life (Jonah 4:3). Jonah thought it would be better for him to be dead than to see the Ninevites unpunished for their wicked behavior. The book of Jonah ends abruptly with Jonah being rebuked by God because he showed no compassion for the young children and animals that would be killed along with everyone else (Jonah 4:11). A hundred years later, the prophet Nahum picked up where Jonah left off. Instead of offering the people an opportunity to repent, Nahum declared that not only Nineveh, but also the entire Assyrian empire would be wiped out (Nahum 3:18).

Nahum established the context for God’s punishment by stating, “The LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies” (Nahum 1:2). God was acting in the role of the avenger of blood (5358). Judah and Israel had suffered greatly because of the tyranny of the Assyrian empire. King Sennacherib had conquered 46 cities in Judah and claimed to have driven out “200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them booty” (Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah 701 B.C.).

What may have been the deciding factor in God’s punishment of Nineveh was Sennacherib king of Assyria’s blatant attack on God’s character and his declaration that the LORD could not save his people out of his hand. He asked, “Who are they among all the gods of the countries, that have delivered their country out of mine hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of mine hand?” (2 Kings 18:35). Clearly, Sennacherib had crossed the line in his blasphemy of God and his choice of Nineveh as his empire’s capital meant Jonah was probably right about the Ninevites turning to God only so they could avoid his punishment.

God’s vengeance on Nineveh was set in the context of his mercy toward those who put their trust in him. The prophet Nahum asked the questions about God, “Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger?” (Nahum 1:6), to point out the fact that if God’s wrath was unleashed, no one would be able to survive. Nahum went on to say, “His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him. The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him” (Nahum 1:6-7). Like Sodom and Gomorrah, God would not destroy Nineveh if there were believers in her midst. God’s patience toward Nineveh was a sign that there was still hope of a revival.

When it came time for Nineveh to be destroyed, God intended to completely annihilate everyone within her borders. As the capital of the Assyrian empire, the fall of Nineveh would have a devastating effect on the entire kingdom. It may have been that God held back his judgment intentionally until a time when Nineveh’s destruction would have the maximum impact in stopping the evil practices that took place in and around her borders. In regards to this, Nahum asked, “What do ye imagine against the LORD? He will make an utter end: affliction shall not rise up the second time” (Nahum 1:9). The term “utter end” refers to complete annihilation (3617). After God poured out his wrath on Nineveh, there would be no evidence that the city ever existed.

The problem with Nineveh was that her influence had spread throughout the area surrounding the Promised Land and was even affecting the Israelites. Because the Assyrian kings demanded tribute from every nation that opposed them, the people were essentially their slaves. They could no longer live their lives independent of the Assyrian rulers. One of the reasons God intended to destroy the Assyrian empire was his people were in bondage to its gods. Nahum declared, “For now will I break his yoke from off thee, and will burst thy bonds in sunder. And the LORD hath given a command concerning thee, that no more of thy name be sown; out of the house of thy gods will I cut off the graven image and the molten image: I will make thy grave; for thou art vile” (Nahum 1:13-14).

God’s destruction of Nineveh was to a certain extent a deliverance of his people from idolatry. The Assyrian empire had permeated the boundaries of God’s kingdom to such a degree that even the king of Judah, Manasseh was corrupted by its idolatry and witchcraft (2 Chronicles 33:6). The only way God could cleanse the region was to eliminate the Assyrian capital Nineveh. Nahum declared, “But Nineveh is of old like a pool of water. Yet they shall flee away. Stand, stand, shall they cry; but none shall look back…She is empty, and void, and waste: and the heart melteth, and the knees smite together, and much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness” (Nahum 2:8,10).

It could be said that God’s destruction of the Assyrian empire was intended to be a warning to the rest of the world. The Assyrian empire and its capital Nineveh were probably admired as much as they were hated, as demonstrated by the  worship of their gods and the willingness of people to become integrated into their culture. If God hadn’t intervened, it is likely their influence would have continued and they might have overtaken the world. Nahum depicted Nineveh as a wellfavoured harlot that made the nations slaves to her idolatry, as an adulterer is slave to his mistress. Nahum proclaimed, “Because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the wellfavoured harlot, the mistress of witchcraft, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcrafts, behold, I am against thee, saith, the LORD of hosts; and I will discover thy skirts upon thy face, and I will shew the nations thy nakedness, and the kingdoms thy shame” (Nahum 3:4-5).

Nineveh fell in 612 B.C., approximately 25-26 years before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. At the time of its destruction, Nineveh was considered to be the biggest city in the world. It is estimated there were about 100,000-150,000 people living within the enclosed area of her walls (Nineveh, Wikipedia). “The Assyrian empire then came to an end by 605 B.C., the Medes and Babylonians divided its colonies between them.” For more than 2000 years, the remains of Nineveh lie buried beneath its rubble. No one knew where it was or even remembered its existence except as it was mentioned in biblical text. In 1849, an archeologist discovered the lost palace of Sennacherib with its 71 rooms and ceilings that reached up to 72 feet high, along with a library of cuneiform tablets that described his military exploits, including the battle he fought at Lachish in the nation of Judah. Since their discovery, the remains of Nineveh have almost disappeared. In an October 2010 report, Nineveh was named one of 12 sites most on the verge of irreparable destruction and loss (Nineveh, Wikipedia).

Nahum’s concluding comments confirm the hopelessness of Nineveh’s future. He began by asking the question, “Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?” (Nahum 3:7). To bemoan someone meant you showed sympathy for him (5110). Clearly, no one was sad when Nineveh was wiped off the face of the earth. Nahum addressed the king of Assyria directly in his concluding remarks. He said, “Thy shepherds slumber, O king of Assyria: thy nobles shall dwell in the dust: thy people is scattered upon the mountains, and no man gathereth them. There is no healing of thy bruise; thy wound is grievous: all that hear the bruit of thee shall clap the hands over thee: for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?” (Nahum 3:18-19).