Egypt

Jeremiah received a message from the LORD about the fate of all the nations that were enemies of Israel. The first kingdom to be dealt with was the one that had been a continual stumbling block to the descendants of Abraham. Egypt had been a refuge that the Israelites often retreated to during difficult times. Egypt was the eventual destination of Jacob and his sons when a famine wiped out all life sustaining crops in the region of Mesopotamia (Genesis 43:12).

The descendants of Jacob spent 430 years in Egypt as slaves of Pharaoh as the result of their dependence on a foreign economy to sustain themselves. During their time in bondage, the Israelites learned the culture of the Egyptians and were influenced by their pagan worship system. One of the key factors in the downfall of the nation of Israel was their worship of the two golden calves made by king Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28). A turning point for the nation of Judah was the death of king Josiah who was killed by Pharaoh-nechoh king of Egypt in the valley of Megiddo (2 Kings 23:29).

The message Jeremiah received pronounced an end to the reign of Pharaoh-nechoh. Jeremiah declared, “They did cry there, Pharaoh king of Egypt is but a noise; he hath passed the time appointed…Egypt is like a very fair heifer, but destruction cometh; it cometh out of the north…And I will deliver them into the hand of those that seek their lives, and into the hand of Nebuchadrezzar king of Babylon” (Jeremiah 46:17, 20, 26). Josiah king of Judah had tried to intervene in the battle of Charchemish and was unsuccessful. God intended to end Egypt’s age-long claims to power and pretensions once and for all. The defeat of Egypt by the king of Babylon in the battle of Charchemish brought and end to Egypt’s dynasty.

Jeremiah was assured that Babylon’s destruction of the Egyptian empire would not mean the end of Judah also. He was told, “Fear thou not, O Jacob my servant, saith the LORD: for I am with thee; for I will make a full end of all the nations whither I have driven thee: but I will not make a full end of thee, but correct thee in measure; yet will I not leave thee wholly unpunished” (Jeremiah 46:28). God would impose the penalty against his people for breaking his Ten Commandments, but he would not abandon them completely. Once they were purged of their idolatrous habits, God would bring his people back to their homeland.

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The vision

The vision Habakkuk received of the punishment that would come to the people of Judah by the Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1:5-10) was so distressful that Habakkuk couldn’t comprehend that God would actually carry out such a plan against his own people. Habakkuk questioned God’s motives and asked, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13). Habakkuk didn’t understand how a God that couldn’t stand to see his people sin could tolerate such an injustice as was described to him.

The vision Habakkuk received was intended to be a final warning to any who would be willing to put their trust in God before it was too late. It says in Habakkuk 2:3-4, “And the LORD answered me, and said, write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it, for the vision is yet for the appointed time, but at the end it shall speak and not lie. Though it tarry, wait for it’  because it will surely come; it will not tarry.” God’s  instruction to make the vision plain meant that it should be obvious to everyone that it was definitely going to happen. It was not a matter of if, but when the end would come to the nation of Judah.

The end that the LORD was referring to was not just an end to the political and religious structure that kept the nation of Judah functioning, but an end to the Old Covenant that promised salvation through the keeping of the Mosaic Law. Habakkuk was given an advance presentation of the New Covenant when he was told, “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him, but the just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Many in Jerusalem at the time of its destruction thought they would be saved, but God told Habakkuk only those who had faith, believed that God would do what he said he would (530), would remain alive and be taken into captivity.

In contrast to the promise that the just would live by their faith, Habakkuk was told that the unrighteous or nonbelievers would suffer a terrible death and eternal punishment (Habakkuk 2:5). Five woes were pronounced, similar to those recorded in Isaiah 5:8-23. In the New Testament, Matthew addressed the religious leaders who were referred to as “scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 23:13) and pronounced woes upon them. Matthew labeled these teachers of the law as hypocrites, men who acted as if they believed in God, but in actuality they were depending on their knowledge of God’s rules and regulations to condemn others instead of examining their own hearts to see if they were guilty of any sin.

Recompense

God intended his children to be different than everyone else. He rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt and gave them the Promised Land so they could prosper and live there for ever. When the Mosaic Law was implemented, God made a way for his people to be forgiven of their sins and again to prosper even though they had made mistakes. As a result of their special treatment, the Israelites became wicked, and selfish, and took advantage of God’s mercy toward them (Jeremiah 5:27-28). In some ways, God’s people acted as if the LORD was their servant, instead of the other way around. God asked Jeremiah, “Do they provoke me to anger? do they not provoke themselves to the confusion of their own faces? (Jeremiah 7:19). In other words, God was saying that the people had lost sight of who they were and why he had delivered them from slavery.

The main thing the people of Judah had forgotten was their responsibility to do the will of God. The LORD reminded Jeremiah, “But this thing commanded I them saying, Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and ye shall be my people: and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you” (Jeremiah 7:23). Just because their sins were forgiven didn’t mean God’s children were exempt from suffering the consequences of their wrong behavior. In effect, God had told the Israelites from the beginning that it would go well for them if they obeyed his commandments, but if they didn’t, they would be punished (Deuteronomy 28:15). In condemnation of their wrong choices, the LORD stated, “But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsel and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward and not forward” (Jeremiah 7:24).

Jeremiah warned the people  of Judah of terrible days to come. He described the scene of a great slaughter that would take place at a sight known as the “valley of the son of Hinnom” where children were burned in a fire pit as a sacrifice to pagan gods (note on Jeremiah 7:31). As if he was paying a recompense to the unfortunate children that had been killed there, the LORD said he would turn the valley of Hinnom into a cemetery when the people of Judah were slaughtered there by the Babylonian invaders. He said, “Therefore, behold, the days will come, saith the LORD, that it shall no more be called Tophet, nor the valley of the son of Himmom, but the valley of slaughter: for they shall bury in Tophet till there be no place. And the carcasses of the people shall be meat for the fowls of heaven, and for the beasts of the earth; and none shall fray them away” (Jeremiah 7:32-33).

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)

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).

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).