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)

The problem of sin

When  the Israelites left Egypt, God traveled with them in the form of a pillar of a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night (Exodus 13:21). While they were in the wilderness, before entering the Promised Land, the Israelites were instructed to make a tent of meeting, referred to as the tabernacle, so that God could dwell or live among his people. The tabernacle was assembled and then torn down every time the Israelites moved from one location to another (Numbers 10:17).

The temple built by king Solomon in Jerusalem was meant to be a permanent home for God (1 Kings 9:3). In connection with this, God made a covenant with Solomon that he would establish his throne for ever and would dwell among his people on the condition that Solomon and his descendants obeyed his commandments. The LORD specifically stated:

But if you shall at all turn from following me, you or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them: then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people; and at this house, which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the LORD done thus unto the land, and to his house? And they shall answer, Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them; therefore hath the LORD brought upon them all this evil. (1 Kings 6:6-9)

The Assyrian attack on Jerusalem in 701 B.C. was the first step taken to bring down the city that Solomon erected to glorify God. Referring to Judah’s distress, Isaiah declared, “Now will I rise, saith the LORD; now will I be exalted; now will I lift up myself” (Isaiah 33:10). Solomon’s attempt to contain God in a man-made structure was a failure because God’s presence was dependent on the absence of sin in his people.

Referring to God as a devouring fire, Isaiah asked, “Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire?” (Isaiah 33:14). God wanted to dwell among his people, but his holy nature made it impossible for him to coexist with sinners. The Israelites failed to understand that justification was a requirement for fellowship with God. Referring to the redeemed city of Jerusalem, Isaiah stated, “The people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity” (Isaiah 33:24).

God’s judgment of sin would not be isolated to his people. Ultimately, there would be universal judgment of sin (Isaiah 24:6) in order to eradicate it from God’s creation. Isaiah prophesied that in the end, there would be a complete destruction of God’s enemies.

Come near, ye nations, to hear; and hearken, ye people; let the earth hear, and all that is therein; the world, and all things that come forth of it. For the indignation of the LORD is upon all nations, and his fury upon all their armies: he hath utterly destroyed them, he hath delivered them to the slaughter.

The harvest

The universal law of the harvest, sowing and reaping, applies to all areas of life and experience (2232). Referring to Israel’s idol worship, the prophet Hosea declared, “For they have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind” (Hosea 8:7). In this instance, the wind “may be a suggestion of purposelessness, uselessness, or even vanity (emptiness)” (7307). The wind is regarded in Scripture as an emblem of the mighty penetrating power of the invisible God, therefore, the whirlwind or hurricane, suggests a spiritual storm that would snatch away the peaceful existence of God’s people.

The Israelites’ idolatry centered around two golden calves made by king Jeroboam I after Israel was divided into two kingdoms (1 Kings 12:28). The worship of these calves was most likely connected to the 400 years Israel spent in Egypt in slavery. Shortly after they were miraculously delivered from Pharaoh’s army, the Israelites made a golden calf and their leader Aaron declared, “These be thy gods, O Israel, which have brought thee up out of the land of Egypt” (Exodus 32:8). King Jeroboam I spoke similar words about his golden calves (1 Kings 12:28). God’s sentence against the Israelites specifically condemned this practice:

Of their silver and their gold have they made their idols, that they may be cut off. Thy calf , O Samaria, hath cast thee off, mine anger is kindled against them…The workman made it, therefore, it is not God: but the calf of Samaria shall be broken in pieces. (Hosea 8:5-6)

While the Israelites were dwelling in the Promised Land, they had enjoyed the benefit of God’s blessing and were given something no other nation received, God’s mercy. What this meant was that even though they had sowed wicked deeds like everyone else, the Israelites were not punished for their transgressions. Their sacrifices cancelled the record of their debt and they were blessed by God even though they didn’t deserve it. Because they turned their backs on God, things would to change.

Now will he remember their iniquity, and visit their sins…The days of visitation are come, the days of recompense are come; Israel shall know it. (Hosea 8:13, 9:7)

The northern kingdom of Israel received harsher treatment than Judah because their idolatry was blatant and continuous from the time of king Jeroboam I until the people were taken into captivity by Assyria. In particular, the capital city of Samaria had a reputation for paying tribute to foreign kings and relied on its army rather than God to deliver her from her enemies.

Ye have plowed wickedness, ye have reaped iniquity, ye have eaten the fruit of lies: because thou didst trust in thy way, in the multitude of thy mighty men. Therefore shall a tumult arise among thy people, and all thy fortresses shall be spoiled. (Hosea 10:13-14)

Independence

Israel’s relationship with God was meant to be special, unique in that it involved personal contact between God and his people. The basis for the relationship was a covenant that was similar to a marriage that permanently bound the two together. The problem was that Israel didn’t want to be dependent on God. The people thought they could take care of themselves and didn’t need to be forgiven of their sins. Hosea stated it this way. “They will not frame their doings to turn unto their God” (Hosea 5:4).

Basically, the message Hosea conveyed was that Israel was unconcerned about its own well-being. Like a reckless teenager barreling down the freeway at 100 mph, Hosea stated, “And the pride of Israel doth testify to his face: therefore shall Israel and Ephraim fall in their iniquity; Judah also shall fall with them” (Hosea 5:5). As much as God wanted to be in close contact with his people, the Israelites were determined to exercise their independence, so he had to walk away and leave them to their own devices.

Speaking through the prophet Hosea, the LORD communicated his intention. He declared, “I will go and return to my place, till they acknowledge their offence, and seek my face: in their affliction they will seek me early” (Hosea 5:15). The way God’s system worked was that his people had to confess their sins and ask for forgiveness through sacrifices. The people thought their sacrifices were payment for their sins, but in reality, the sacrifices were symbolic of the substitutionary death required to erase the sin from God’s memory.

Israel had gotten used to God coming to her rescue whenever she cried out for help. Like a child whose mother constantly attends to her needs, the people of Israel thought God would respond as usual even though the people had stopped confessing their sins (Hosea 6:3). Their sacrificial system was no longer a means of clearing their collective conscience, but a way to get God’s attention and to secure the Israelites’ prosperity. The LORD pointed out the contradiction in their objectives when he stated, “For I desire mercy, and not sacrifice, and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).

As a testimony to their disobedience, God reminded the Israelites that forgiveness was not automatic and the consequences they were going to experience was a result of sin (Hosea 7:2). Using the illustration of a hot oven to depict their uncontrolled behavior, God showed the Israelites that their resources had run out (Hosea 7:7). In spite of this, they thought they could survive without him. “And the pride of Israel testifieth to his face: and they do not return to the LORD their God, nor seek him for all this” (Hosea 7:10).

Unfaithful

The prophet Hosea was given the difficult task of modeling for everyone around him the relationship between God and Israel. Hosea’s choice of a mate was symbolic of God choosing the nation of Israel to be his people. Because Israel had been unfaithful to him, God told Hosea, “Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredoms, departing from the LORD” (Hosea 1:2).

The harsh picture drawn of the Israelites was meant to be a sort of shock treatment to get them to realize how God felt about their idolatry. Not only did God want them to know how disgusted he was with their behavior, but he also wanted them to know that in spite of their unfaithfulness, he still loved them and wanted them to come back to him. The names of Hosea’s children were used to convey a message of detachment and punishment for their inappropriate behavior. Beginning with Jezreel, God’s awareness of his children’s sin was made public so that his intentional rejection would not be mistaken for a lack of love on his part.

God had a right to be angry because he had gone to such great lengths to deliver his people from their sins, and yet, they made no effort to follow his commandments. In fact, the Israelites openly worshipped other deities and gave them the credit for their success. The seriousness of their transgression was reflected in the name of Hosea’s third child. “Then said God, Call his name Lo-ammi: for you are not my people, and I will not be your God” (Hosea 1:9).

In spite of Israel’s lack of interest in having a relationship with the LORD, God did not want to permanently cut them off. His intention was to show them that their idol worship was pointless. In order to bring them to their senses, God allowed Israel to reap what it had sown, ruin, and destruction. Speaking of Hosea’s unfaithful wife Gomer, the LORD said, “Therefore behold, I will hedge up thy way with thorns, and make a wall, that she shall not find her paths. And she shall follow after her lovers, but she shall not overtake them; and she shall seek them, but shall not find them: then shall she say, I will go and return to my first husband; for then was it better with me than now” (Hosea 2:6-7).

More than wanting to punish Israel for its unfaithfulness, God wanted to restore the relationship that existed between him and his people when they first entered the Promised Land. God was capable of forgiving them, but he would not allow his people to worship other gods. The end result that God expected was sincere devotion to him and him alone. He said, “And I will sow her unto me in the earth; and I will have mercy upon her that had not obtained mercy; and I will say to them which were not my people, Thou art my people; and they shall say, Thou art my God” (Hosea 2:23).

Burdens

God was not only  interested in the sins of Israel, but also the sins of the entire world, when he put together his plan of salvation. What differentiated God’s children from everyone else was his mercy toward the nation of Israel. As God had promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation, so also he said he would “bless them that bless thee and curse them that curseth thee” (Genesis 12:2-3).

The Assyrian empire was a key enemy of the nation of Israel because it wanted to create a single world system that its king would rule over. Within the Assyrian empire was a city known as Babylon that would one day rise to the top of God’s most evil list. Babylon symbolized the world powers arrayed against God’s kingdom and its role in the downfall of Judah and Jerusalem made it a target of God’s judgment.

In his burden of Babylon recital, Isaiah stated, “the day of the LORD cometh cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners  thereof out of it” (Isaiah 13:9). Isaiah spoke of a purging of sinners that would be cruel, meaning it would be violent and deadly (393). God intended to punish the world for its mistreatment of his people. In particular, Isaiah said of Babylon, “the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isaiah 13:19).

In his discourse, Isaiah spoke of the king of Babylon as if he were Satan himself. Isaiah said, “How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! How art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations! For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north: I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High. Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit” (Isaiah 14:12-15). The king of Babylon was a type of antichrist, perhaps the first leader that attempted to exterminate the Jews.

God’s overthrow of the Assyrian empire was intended to set in motion the collapse of Satan’s kingdom on earth. The link between Jewish captivity and the destruction of Babylon was necessary to establish the true source of Israel’s spiritual weakness, idolatry. God said he would break the Assyrian and tread him under foot, “then shall his yoke depart from off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders” (Isaiah 14:25).

 

The problem of sin

Israel’s first act of idolatry occurred shortly after they had been brought out of Egypt. While Moses was on Mount Sinai receiving God’s commandments, his brother Aaron made a golden calf for the people to worship. As they were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses reminded the Israelites of their mistake and said, “You have been rebellious against the LORD from the day I knew you” (Deuteronomy 9:24). Then Moses defined God’s great requirement of his people, “And now, Israel, what doth the LORD thy God require of thee, but to fear the LORD thy God, to walk in his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul” (Deuteronomy 10:12).

The Hebrew word translated rebellious in Deuteronomy 9:24 is marah, which means to be bitter. “Marah signifies an opposition to someone motivated by pride” (4784). In the context of a relationship with God, marah primarily means to disobey. Therefore, the Israelites were guilty of sin even before they entered the Promised Land. In fact, Micah knew there had never been a period of time in their history when Israel had fully obeyed God’s commands. In an attempt to make the people realize they had a problem that would never go away, like Moses, Micah articulated the requirement for a relationship with God.

He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good; and what doth the LORD require of thee, but to do justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8).

Something Micah tried to make clear was that the only way God’s people could meet his requirement was through an act of salvation. Micah stated, “The good man is perished out of the earth: and there is none upright among man…Therefore I will look unto the LORD; I will wait for the God of my salvation: my God will hear me” (Micah 7:2,7). Micah eluded to a day of judgment in which those who had been held captive by sin, would be declared innocent. Speaking on behalf of the people of God’s kingdom, Micah said, “I will bear the indignation of the LORD, because I have sinned against him, until he plead my cause, and execute judgment for me” (Micah 7:9).

The key to God’s plan of salvation was an undertaking of the responsibilities for sins of others by substitution. Micah declared, “Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? He will turn again, he will have compassion on us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depth of the sea” (Micah 7:18-19. Like Isaiah (Isaiah 1:18), Micah identified a way for God’s people to be completely free from the effects of sin. Sacrifices would no longer be necessary and God’s people would be able to overcome their problem with sin.