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).

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.”

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).

Conversion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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