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 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).

 

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).

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.

The end

Josiah was the last king of Judah of which it was said, “he did that which was right in the sight of the LORD” (2 Kings 22:2). Josiah reigned from 640 to 609 B.C., during the time period when the Assyrian empire was coming to an end. During Josiah’s reign, you could say that Judah experienced a revival of sorts, but it may only have been a last ditch effort to spare the nation from God’s judgment. Josiah did everything he could to get Judah back on track, to the point where it was said of him, “like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to the law of Moses” (2 Kings 23:25).

The reforms enacted by Josiah that are recorded in the twenty third chapter of 2 Kings indicate that Josiah left no stone unturned in his effort to cleanse Judah of idolatry. The  only problem was it was too late to change the outcome of Judah’s fate. In particular, king Manasseh’s wickedness was identified as the reason God would not change his mind again. It says in 2 Kings 23:26, “Notwithstanding the LORD turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.” The Hebrew word translated provoked, ka’ac (kaw – as´) means to trouble or to grieve (3707). God was both angry and sad that the nation of Judah was beyond the reach of his mercy.

Josiah’s death in 609 B.C. was perhaps the greatest testament to his willingness to do whatever it took to try and change Judah’s fate. When Pharaoh-nechoh went to Assyria to assist with their fight against the Babylonians, king Josiah attempted to stop him and was killed in the battle. Josiah was killed at Megiddo (2 Kings 23:29), the location where the battle of Armageddon will take place (Revelation 16:16). In the final battle that takes place on earth, God will bring an end to the kingdom of Satan. It says in Revelation 16:16-17, “And he gathered them together into a place called in the Hebrew tongue Armageddon. And the seventh angel poured out his vial into the air; and there came a great voice out of the temple of heaven, from the throne, saying, It is done.”

The missing book

King Josiah, the grandson of Hezekiah, began to reign in Judah when he was only eight years old (2 Kings 22:1). His reign began in 640 B.C. and it says in 2 Kings 22:3 that in the eighteenth year of his reign, approximately 622 B.C., he launched a building project to restore the temple of God. A hundred years had passed since the destruction of the northern kingdom of Israel and the Assyrian empire was on the verge of collapse. While the temple construction was going on, Hilkiah the high priest “found the book of the law in the house of the LORD” (2 Kings 22:8).

There is no mention in scripture of the book of the law being lost, nor any indication of when it had last been used in temple worship services. The last reference to the temple was at the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign. It says in 2 Chronicles 29:3, “He in the first year of his reign, in the first month, opened the doors of the house of the LORD, and repaired them.” That was in 715 B.C. It is possible the book was hidden during the reign of Queen Athaliah, along with Joash her grandson, in order to prevent the queen from destroying them around 840 B.C. (2 Chronicles 22:11-12).

Hilkiah the high priest gave the book to king Josiah’s scribe Shaphan. “And Shaphan the scribe shewed the king saying, Hilkiah the priest hath delivered me a book. And Shaphan read it before the king. And it came to pass when the king had heard the words of the book of the law, that he rent his clothes” (2 Kings 22:10-11). We don’t know whether Shaphan read the entire book of the law known as the Pentateuch or just the sections dealing with God’s commandments, but it is likely Shaphan concluded with the book of Deuteronomy which specifies the blessings and curses associated with keeping the law.

Josiah’s reaction to hearing the law indicated he was aware Judah was in trouble. Typically, a person rent his clothes as a sign of mourning, such as when Job received the news that all his children were dead (Job 1:20). Josiah sent several men to inquire of the LORD and he received a message through the prophetess Huldah. She said, “Thus saith the LORD God of Israel, Tell the man that sent you to me, thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will bring evil upon this place, and upon the inhabitants thereof, even all the words of the book which the king of Judah read” (2 Kins 22:15-16).

The place God was referring to was Jerusalem. The holy city had been corrupted by idolatry and had reached the point where no one cared about the law anymore as evidenced by the high priest’s ignorance of the book of the law’s whereabouts. The good news for Josiah was God would spare him from going into captivity. God told him, “Behold therefore, I will gather thee unto thy fathers, and thou shalt be gathered into thy grave in peace; and thine eyes shall not see all the evil which I will bring upon this place” (2 Kings 22:20).

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).