A testimony

It took Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon seven years to learn a lesson that he could have gotten immediately if he had been open to the possibility that God was more powerful than he was. Nebuchadnezzar thought he could ignore God’s existence and do as he pleased, until he was stripped of his power and made to live like an animal. Nebuchadnezzar recorded his testimony of conversion and made it available to the world large. His opening remarks are recorded in Daniel 4:1-3, where it says, “Nebuchadnezzar the king, unto all people, nations, and languages, that dwell in all the earth; Peace be multiplied unto you. I thought it good to shew the signs and wonders that the high God hath wrought toward me. How great are his signs! and how mighty are his wonders! his kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and his dominion is from generation to generation.”

Nebuchadnezzar’s second experience of having a prophetic dream showed that he had gained no insight into God’s plan for his life. Instead of honoring God for the privilege he had been given of ruling over the entire world, Nebuchadnezzar chose to honor himself and claim the glory that rightfully belonged to God. Therefore, he was told his kingdom would be taken from him until he acknowledged God’s sovereign control of the entire planet. Daniel told Nebuchadnezzar, “This matter is by the decree of the watchers, and the demand by the word of the holy ones: to the intent that the living may know that the most High ruleth in the kingdom of men, and giveth it to whomsoever he will, and setteth up over it the basest of men” (Daniel 4:17). The watchers were agents of God, guardian angels, that were empowered to bring down any kingdom that did not conform to God’s will.

King Nebuchadnezzar was forced to submit himself to God. Through a unique set of circumstances, Nebuchadnezzar was humbled and became like a wild animal in order see that he could not live apart from God’s divine control. For seven years, it says in Daniel 4:33 that Nebuchadnezzar “did eat grass as oxen, and his body was wet with the dew of heaven, till his hairs were grown like eagles’ feathers, and his nails like birds’ claws.” Whether or not Nebuchadnezzar contracted a rare disease or went insane is not clear from the description of his condition, but it appears that he was aware of what he was going through, and yet had no control over his behavior until a set period of time was completed. It says in Daniel 4:34, “At the end of the days I Nebuchadnezzar lift up mine eyes to heaven, and mine understanding returned unto me, and I blessed the most High, and I praised and honored him that liveth for ever, whose dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom is from generation to generation.”

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Israel’s watchman

Ezekiel was identified as a watchman for Israel. In that role, he was expected to keep a close watch on events leading up to the fall of Jerusalem. For seven years, from 593 B.C. to 586 B.C., Ezekiel delivered numerous messages from the Lord indicating that the end was near. In his final warning, Ezekiel’s role as Israel’s watchman was emphasized so that there would be no misunderstanding as to what was happening. He was told:

Son of man, speak to the children of thy people, and say unto them, When I bring the sword upon a land, if the people of the land take a man of their coasts, and set him for their watchman: if when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people; then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head. He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul. (Ezekiel 33:2-5).

God’s attempt to warn his people showed that he still cared about them, even though they had abandoned him. He told Ezekiel, “Say unto them, As I live, saith the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die, O house of Israel” (Ezekiel 33:11). God’s plea for repentance was a sign that he still wanted to have a relationship with his people. His motive in bringing judgment was to restore, not to severe his ties with Israel. The only way God could reconnect with his people was through conversion. “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).

On August 14, 586 B.C., Ezekiel received word from someone that escaped that Jerusalem had fallen (Ezekiel 33:21). The news not only vindicated Ezekiel, but also validated him as being Israel’s watchman and a true prophet of God. At the start of Ezekiel’s ministry, when he was first commissioned as Israel’s watchman, God made him dumb, or unable to speak, except for the messages he received from God. In connection with the news of Jerusalem’s fall, Ezekiel said, “Now the hand of the LORD was upon me in the evening, afore he that was escaped came; and had opened my mouth, until he came to me in the morning; and my mouth was opened, and I was no more dumb” (Ezekiel 33:22). Ezekiel’s ability to speak indicated that he was no longer Israel’s watchman. From that point forward, Ezekiel would have a new mission, pastoral comfort or the job of a shepherd.

God’s chosen people

When God’s people were first brought out of slavery in Egypt, they entered into a covenant with God to serve him and obey his commandments (Exodus 19:8). After many years of practicing idolatry and finally being told they would be sent into exile in Babylon, God’s chosen people thought they could avoid their punishment by renouncing their relationship with God altogether. God told them, “And that which cometh into your mind shall not be at all, that ye say, We will be as the heathen, as the families of the countries, to serve wood and stone. As I live, saith the Lord GOD, surely with a mighty hand, and with a stretched out arm, and with fury poured out will I rule over you.

In spite of their rebellion against him and continual breaking of his commandments, God would not abandon his people as they had him. God was committed to fulfilling his promise to Abraham and later to king David when he said that he would make his people into a great nation and his kingdom would be established for ever (2 Samuel 7:13). God’s plan to renew his covenant with his chosen people involved a purging of all unbelievers from the Promised Land. God said through the prophet Ezekiel that he would bring his people out of the countries to which he had scattered them “And I will bring you into the wilderness of the people, and there will I plead with you face to face. Like as I pleaded with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I plead with you, saint the Lord GOD” (Ezekiel 20:35-36).

The Hebrew word translated plead in Ezekiel 20:35 is shaphat (shaw – fat’) which means to pronounce sentence and by extension to govern (8199). Basically, what God was saying was he intended to exercise his authority over his people and would use force as necessary to return them to the Promised Land after their captivity was completed. Even though he could have made all the people return to their homeland, God would only cause those that were willing to serve and obey to start over. He said, “And I will purge out from among you the rebels, and them that transgress against me: I will bring them forth out of the country where they sojourn, and they shall not enter into the land of Israel: and ye shall know that I am the LORD” (Ezekiel 20:38).

As a result of God’s purging of the Israelites, he was able to accept his people back into fellowship with him. God wanted his chosen people to know that he would continue to work in their lives until the salvation of his people was completed. The one requirement on the part of the people was repentance and even that was something that God was working to bring about. He said, “I will accept you with your sweet savour when I bring you out from the people, and gather you out of the countries wherein ye have been scattered; and I will be sanctified in you before the heathen…And there shall ye remember your ways, and all your doings, wherein ye have been defiled; ye shall loathe yourselves in your own sight for all your evils that ye have committed.

Second chances

God’s system of justice is based on his willingness to give second chances. Although God judges us and punishes us when we do something wrong, he does not expect perfection or condemn us because we can’t stop doing what is wrong. Even when we intentionally break God’s commandments, all we have to do is repent and God will give us a second chance to do things right.

God’s exception to his rule of judgment was explained to Ezekiel this way. He said, “The soul that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon him. But if the wicked will turn from his sin that he hath committed, and keep all my statutes, and do that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live, he shall not die” (Ezekiel 18:20-21).

The Hebrew word translated turn in Ezekiel 18:20 is shuwb (shoob). Typically, shuwb is used to describe a situation in which one must go back to a previous location. “The basic meaning of the verb is movement back to a point of departure,” (7725) but it does not necessarily mean that you have to return to the starting point. In the context of a journey, shuwb means that you go back to the point where you got off track or departed from the prescribed pathway you were supposed to follow.

Although some people may think God wants to punish us and is glad when we get into trouble, God’s intention in establishing the Mosaic Law was to prevent his people from doing things that offended him. God asked Ezekiel two rhetorical questions to point out the absurdity of believing God wanted to destroy his people. He said, “Have I any pleasure at all that the wicked should die? saith the Lord GOD: and not that he should return from his ways, and live?

In an attempt to set the record straight once and for all, God said plainly, “I will judge you,” but added that it would be on an individual basis that he would make his call. He said, “Therefore I will judge you, O house of Israel, every one according to his ways, saith the Lord GOD. Repent, and turn yourselves from all your transgressions; so iniquity shall not be your ruin” (Ezekiel 18:30).

In his plea for repentance, God explained that it was necessary for a change to take place that involved the inner being of man. As if it were possible to become an entirely different person, God said that heart and spirit must be transformed in order to truly have a second chance at life. He said to his people, “Cast away from you all your transgressions, whereby ye have transgressed:  and make you a new heart and a new spirit: for why will ye die, O house of Israel? for I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth, saith the Lord GOD: wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye” (Ezekiel 18:31-32).

Repentance (Step 4)

Both the books of Isiah and Jeremiah contain illustrations of God as a potter and his chosen people as clay. Isaiah wrote, “But now, O LORD, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter, and we all are the work of thine hand” (Isaiah 64:8). Jeremiah was told a parable in which the clay was marred in the hand of the potter and had to be remade into another vessel (Jeremiah 18:4). The LORD said to Jeremiah, “O house of Israel, cannot I do with you as this potter? saith the LORD. Behold as the clay is in the potter’s hand, so are ye in mine hand, O house of Israel” (Jeremiah 18:6).

The process of repentance includes a willing relinquishment of the outcome of our lives. In order to get us to give up what we once thought to be essential for our happiness, God sometimes has to break our hearts. A broken heart is not about producing sadness, but about the view we have of ourselves that is central to our identity. The heart, according to Hebrew scriptures, is the whole inner man. “It includes not only the motives, feeling, actions and desires, but also the will, the aims, the principles, the thoughts, and the intellect of man”  (3820). In one sense, you could say that a broken heart results in the person you are ceasing to exist.

God’s punishment of his people was intended to change their character. He wanted them to be free of the pride and arrogance that caused them to refuse his help. It says in Lamentations 4:1-2, “How is the gold become dim! how is the most fine gold changed! The stones of the sanctuary are poured out in the top of every street. The precious sons of Zion, comparable to fine gold, how are they esteemed as earthen pitchers, the work of the hand of the potter!

God had to use extreme measures to get his people to stop worshipping idols. It says in Lamentations 4:6, “For the punishment of the iniquity of the daughters of my people is greater than the punishment of the sin of Sodom, that was overthrown as in a moment, and no hands stayed on her.” Sodom’s quick destruction was considered a merciful act because there was no awareness of what was happening. When Israel and Judah were destroyed, not only did God tell them what was going to happen, but he also forced some of them to survive and go into captivity where the memory of what happened would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

It says in Lamentations 4:18, “They hunt our steps, that we cannot go in our streets: our end is near, our days are fulfilled; for our end is come.” This passage most likely came from someone that witnessed the destruction of Judah and saw first hand the Babylonian soldiers hunting down people as if they were animals to be killed in sport. This type of ruthless brutality no doubt had a lasting impact on those who survived. Through this experience, the hearts of God’s people were changed forever.

Repentance (Step 3)

Mourning is a necessary part of the process of repentance. Until you’ve had your heart broken and have been crushed under the weight of your circumstances, you can’t fully appreciate the blessings of the LORD. Often times, a traumatic experience serves as a painful reminder of the past that we would like to leave behind. At some point, we will be ready to let go and the pain will begin to subside as hope is restored and we are able to remember there was good along with the bad that we experienced.

Lamentations 3:19-20 shows us that remembering our times of distress has a purpose, to make us humble. It says, “Remember my afflictions and my misery, the wormwood and the gall, my soul hath them still in remembrance, and is humbled in me.” The Hebrew word translated humbled, shuwach (shoo´ – akh) means to sink (7743). Shuwach is also translated as bow down as in to show reverence or respect to someone. I think the best way to express this is to fall down in worship or to sink to one’s knees in prayer.

After you have expressed godly sorrow, and restored your relationship with the LORD, you will start to remember the good things he has done for you. Sometimes it takes an intentional effort to see the good within the bad, but it is there if you want to find it. It says in Lamentations 3:21-23:

This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope. It is of the LORD’s  mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.

To be consumed means that something is completed or finished, “with nothing else expected or intended” (8552). This kind of attitude can cause us to give up and think there is not point in going on.

In Lamentations 3:22 it says, “It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.” Essentially, what this is saying is that God is without end, therefore he cannot stop loving us. His love for us continues without any end to it. What we need to realize, and will if we truly repent, is that God has not left us, we have left him. God is faithful, completely reliable, because “that which He once said He has maintained” (530). He does everything he says he’s going to, even the bad, as well as the good.

It may seem like taking matters into our own hands is going to work out well, but in the long run, only God can accomplish that which is necessary for our salvation. His plan is perfect and will yield the best result. It says in Lamentations 3:25-26, ” The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him. It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.” Understanding that God’s timing is not the same as our timing is essential for repentance to be effective. As  we wait for the LORD we see that he is still working and will not let us move on until we’re ready according to his standard, which is perfection.

Repentance (Step 2)

Godly sorrow, the first step in the process of repentance, is marked by an attitude of humility that recognizes the damage that one’s sin has caused. A description of godly sorrow can be found in Lamentations 2:10. It says, “The elders of the daughter of Zion sit upon the ground, and keep silence: they have cast up dust upon their heads:  they have girded themselves with sackcloth: the virgins of Jerusalem hang down their heads to the ground.”

Perhaps, the most obvious sign that a person has repented of his sins is the absence of pride. Typically, guilt subsides when true repentance begins to take place. A lack of guilt enables the sinner to see that what has happened is a matter of cause and effect. God is not responsible for our bad fortune, he is the one that tries to prevent us from doing harm. Lamentations 2:17 declares, “The LORD hath done that which he had devised; he hath fulfilled his word that he had commanded in days of old.”

If God were not in control, there would be no reason to obey him. The fact that he does what he says he’s going to, proves to us that God is able to make things happen according to his plan and purpose for our lives. When we sin, we are trying to control or alter our own destiny. When we realize that we cannot alter the course of our lives in a positive way, we see that it is foolish to ignore God’s warnings and try to succeed without his help.

We reach the second step of repentance when we are willing to talk to God about what has gone wrong in our lives. We are instructed in Lamentations 2:19 to, “Arise, cry out in the night: in the beginning of the watches, pour out thine heart like water before the face of the LORD: lift up thy hands toward him for the life of the young children, that faint for hunger in the top of every street.” The Hebrew word translated arise, quwm (koom) is sometimes used to signify empowering or strengthening (6965). In this instance, it is most likely suggesting a restoration of relationship and communication.

It is clear from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians that the desired outcome of repentance is a restored relationship with God and our fellow man (2 Corinthians 7:8-10). The key to a right relationship with God is an understanding that his commandments are not optional. It is easy to believe that we are free to choose whether or not we want to live according to God’s word, but the fact of the matter is that there will always be negative consequences if we choose to disobey him.

Having a relationship with God is a prerequisite for forgiveness. God does not forgive strangers. The type of relationship that is necessary is not only personal, but also intimate. The phrase in Lamentations 2:19, “pour out thine heart like water before the LORD” is similar to a phrase used by king David in Psalm 62. David said, “Trust in him at all times; ye people, pour out your heart before him” (Psalm 62:8). The idea being we are to express sincere and intense conviction when we communicate with God.