False information

The people of Judah were dependent on false prophets and corrupt priests to guide them in their spiritual activities. One of the reasons God’s people were unrepentant was they thought their sacrifices were enough to guarantee God’s blessing on their nation. There was no real awareness among the people of Judah that they were in trouble. Jeremiah described their problem as a “perpetual backsliding” (Jeremiah 8:5). Jeremiah’s use of the term perpetual backsliding indicated there was a permanent separation between God and his people. Another way of describing their condition would be to say the people had abandoned their faith. They no longer believed in God.

It was difficult for Jeremiah to get through to the people because their consciences were unaffected by what they were doing. Jeremiah declared, “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them  that fall: in the time of their visitation” (Jeremiah 8:12). A time of visitation was an appointed time when an officer or custodian would have to give an account for his area of responsibility. The nation of Judah was responsible to God for their worship activities. They were not free to worship in any other way than what had been prescribed to them by the Mosaic Law. God’s ultimate goal for his people was for them to receive salvation and eternal life. Because of their disobedience, God’s plan could not be carried out.

God was grieved over the situation in Judah. He didn’t want to punish his children, but he couldn’t overlook the fact that they had disassociated themselves from him and were going to die without their sins being atoned for. Jeremiah depicted God’s attitude toward his children as one of care and concern for their well-being. He said, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

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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)

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.

Repentance

A requirement for repentance is an awareness that you have done something wrong. You don’t necessarily have to be aware of a law in order to break it, but you do have to be aware of it in order to feel sorry that you broke it. An example of this is the person that gets a speeding ticket. Before he was stopped by a police officer, he may not have been aware that he was driving 15 mph over the speed limit. Depending on whether or not he can afford the fine or wants to have the ticket on his driving record, he may feel sorry afterwards that he broke the law.

“To repent means to make a strong turning to a new course of action…Hence, when one repents, he exerts strength to change, to re-grasp the situation, and exert effort for the situation to take a different course of purpose and action” (5162). Before the Israelites were taken into captivity, they formed alliances with the nations around them and often paid tribute to foreign kings in order to avoid war. The children of Israel stopped expecting God to defend and protect them and were arrogant about their military capabilities (Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah 701 B.C.). One of the reasons the people didn’t repent was they were no longer reading God’s word (2 Kings 22:8).

God intended the exile of the nation of Israel to bring the people of the southern kingdom of Judah to their senses. Whereas they had been dwelling safe and secure in the city of Jerusalem for hundreds of years, Sennacherib’s successful attacks on Judah’s fortresses served as a warning that God was no longer protecting his people as he had before (Isaiah 36:1). Judah’s appeal to God shows they were beginning to get the message. Isaiah declared, “O that thou wouldest rend the heavens, that thou wouldest come down, that the mountains might flow down at thy presence, as when the melting fire burneth, the fire causeth the waters to boil, to make thy name known to thine adversaries, that the nations may tremble at thy presence” (Isaiah 64:1-2).

By the time the people of Judah were taken into captivity they had become aware of their moral failure. Isaiah declared, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as the leaf; and our iniquities like the wind have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6). Isaiah was speaking prophetically, so at that time, the people were still rebelling against God. It wasn’t until they were in captivity that the people began to repent.

Isaiah spoke of the inevitability of Judah’s captivity, but the actual event was still almost a hundred years away. Isaiah indicated that in the end, everyone would abandon their faith and turn away from God. He said, “And there is none that calleth upon thy name, that stirreth up himself to take hold of thee: for thou has consumed us, because of our iniquities” (Isaiah 64:7). In essence, Isaiah was saying that God was no longer paying attention to what was going on with his people. Although he hadn’t abandoned them completely, the LORD was not working for, but against them.

Only a remnant of God’s people would return to the Promised Land after their captivity in Babylon. Those that would return were expected to do so because they had repented of their sin. One of the characteristics of repentance is submission to the will of God. Isaiah described a change of heart that would be evident in the remnant in terms of clay, that which can easily be molded and shaped into a usable vessel. He said, “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).

True believers

Fasting and praying were common religious practices in the Israelite community that were associated with mourning and repentance. The first mention of these activities is in 2 Samuel 12:16 where it says that king David fasted and prayed because of his sick child. David wanted God to spare the child’s life, but his son died anyway.

Fasting was perceived to be a means of obtaining God’s mercy. As a form of spiritual intervention, it was effective in gaining God’s attention, although the desired result was not always obtained. Isaiah identified right and wrong types of fasting. One of the characteristics of the wrong type of fasting was an attitude of entitlement (Isaiah 58:3).

An indication that a person was fasting for the wrong reason was a desire for vengeance (Isaiah 58:4). The purpose of fasting was supposed to be to humble oneself before God (Isaiah 58:5). Speaking through Isaiah, the LORD declared, “Is not this the fast that I have chosen? to loose the bands of wickedness, to undo heavy burdens, and to let the oppressed go free, and that ye break every yoke?” (Isaiah 58:6).

Fasting was designed to be a tool to break free from spiritual bondage. Instead of focusing on their own spiritual condition, the Israelites had turned fasting into a speed dial to access God’s power. What God wanted was a sincere search for sin in one’s own life. His expectation was, “When thou see the naked that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh” (Isaiah 58:7).

Evidence of genuine righteousness was important to God because he wanted his children to be an example for others. The LORD often referred to himself and his people as a light to the world. Regarding the practice of genuine righteousness, the LORD said, “then shall thy light break forth as the morning…then shall thy light rise in obscurity, and thy darkness be as the noonday” (Isaiah 58:8,10).

Ultimately, God wanted his people to demonstrate the results of following his commands, but in the near term, the goal was to show the world that God’s promises were reliable. After the people of Judah were taken into captivity in Babylon, a remnant was to return and rebuild Jerusalem. The remnant was going to be a group of true believers that would pave the way for the birth of Israel’s Messiah.

During their time in Babylon, the Israelites would be tested to see who among God’s people were truly committed to him. Those who were merely religious would not survive. Isaiah said of these true believers:

And the LORD shall guide thee continually, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and make fat thy bones: and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and  like a spring of water, whose waters fail not. And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places: thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations; and thou shalt be called, The repairer of the breach, The restorer of paths to dwell in. (Isaiah 58:11-12)

A new world order

Looking past the captivity of Judah, Isaiah saw a time when God’s people would be transformed into heroes of faith. God was going to take the nation of Israel in a new direction, one that would require his people to re-grasp the situation and exert an effort to do the opposite of what came natural to them. In order to demonstrate the eternal nature of his kingdom, God intended to let Jerusalem be destroyed and rebuilt in a whole new fashion.

Isaiah introduced a new world order that would be based on repentance. He began his message by stating, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God” (Isaiah 40:1). The Hebrew word translated comfort, nâcham (naw – kham´) means to sigh or to be sorry (5162). Nacham is translated as both comfort and repent with regards to a turning point in a person’s life. The first mention of this word is in Genesis 5:29 where Noah is listed as the son of Lamech. It says, “And he called his name Noah, saying, This same shall comfort us concerning our work and toil of our hands, because of the ground which the LORD has cursed.”

It could be said that comfort or repentance is the sign of a new beginning, a fresh start in life. Isaiah linked this new beginning to the point in time when God’s punishment of Jerusalem was finished. Isaiah stated, “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:2). Immediately following this statement, Isaiah established Jerusalem’s new beginning as the launch of the Messiah’s ministry on earth (Isaiah 40:3).

John the Baptist quoted Isaiah 40:3 when he declared Jesus to be the Messiah. It says in Matthew 3:1-3:

In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom  of heaven is at hand. For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

John’s reference to repentance was intended to convey the idea that individual action was necessary to become a member of God’s kingdom. God’s work was no longer about saving the nation of Israel as a whole, but about the individual people of God turning to him in order to receive salvation.

The new world order that Jesus came to establish was based on a personal relationship with God. Prior to Jesus’ arrival on earth, no one had seen God face to face. Isaiah revealed that the LORD would come to his people and be seen not only by then, but by everyone (Isaiah 40:5). The evidence that God was present would be a supernatural power that would enable those with faith to exercise divine strength to undergo trials and persecutions on behalf of God’s divine kingdom. Isaiah said about believers, “But they that wait on the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (Isaiah 40:31).

God’s family

God’s relationship to the people of Israel was the basis of his involvement in their lives. It says in Amos 3:2, “You only have I known of all the families of the earth.” The Hebrew word translated known, yada’ is properly translated as “to ascertain by seeing” which includes observation, care, recognition; and causatively instruction, designation, and punishment (3045). In a sense, Israel had become a member of God’s family, and vice versa. God treated the Israelites like a father would treat his own child.

Because God had been involved in the lives of the Israelites and knew them in a personal way, it says in Amos 3:2, “Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.” The Hebrew word translated punish, pâqad (paw – kad´) means to visit or be concerned with, to look after and make a search for, as well as punish (6485). Another way to look at paqad is “to intervene on behalf of” and in the normal course of events to bring about or fulfill a divine intent.

Over the course of time, Israel seemed to have forgotten or were unaware that there was a reason for their existence. In particular, the nation of Judah was designated to bring forth the Messiah. At the time of Amos’ ministry, the primary focus of Judah was preservation of the most favored nation status they were entitled to as God’s chosen people. Their worship had become meaningless as if they were just going through the motions. In an effort to remind his people that he was in control of their destiny, God asked the question, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3).

The Hebrew word translated agreed, yâ‘ad (yaw – ad´) means to meet at a stated time (3259). The idea behind this word is to make an appointment or set a time for an event to take place, such as an engagement when a wedding date is established. God was letting his people know that a time had been set for his Messiah to be born and he intended to keep his appointment. Therefore, God’s people needed to be brought into alignment with his plan through divine intervention.

God’s punishment was intended to bring his people back to him. He wanted them to repent, make an effort to change, “to re-grasp the situation, and exert effort for the situation to take a different course of purpose and action” (5162). What needed to happen was the people needed to be converted. “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).

God had made numerous attempts to bring his people to a point of repentance, but each time there was no response. Five times in Amos chapter four, the LORD stated, “Yet have ye not returned unto me” and then concluded, “Therefore thus will I do unto thee O Israel: and because I will do this unto thee, prepare to meet thy God, O Israel” (Amos 4:12). The LORD’s people would encounter an enemy so fierce, they would be forced to cry out to God for mercy.