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)

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).

The voice of reason

The ministry of Isaiah the prophet began when king Uzziah died in 740 B.C. and spanned four generations of kings until at least 697 B.C., when Manasseh began a coregency with his father king Hezikiah. Isaiah opens his message by stating he has received a vision from the LORD that pertains to Judah and Jerusalem (Isaiah 1:1). The purpose of this divine communication was to reveal what was going to happen, so the people would be prepared for it. Unfortunately, Isaiah’s message was ignored, or at least not taken seriously, until it was clear Judah was on the pathway to destruction.

At the beginning of Isaiah’s ministry, circumstances contradicted what he said was going to happen. During king Uzziah’s reign, Judah had increased in strength and was expanding its borders. Uzziah’s military successes caused Judah’s enemies to retreat and remain at a distance, allowing his army to grow to more than 300,000 men. While Uzziah was very methodical in his approach to managing his kingdom, he was also innovative and could compete with the strongest of nations for precious resources.

Isaiah’s opening comment indicates the issue was a matter of loyalty. “Hear, O heaven, and give ear, O earth: for the LORD hath spoken, I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against me. The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider” (Isaiah 1:2-3). The Hebrew word translated consider, biyn means to separate mentally or distinguish (995). Biyn has to do with wisdom and  is associated with paying attention to something or noticing what is going on.

When we have considered something, it will affect our behavior and guide our actions. It can lead to change if it has affected our way of thinking. Considering takes place in the heart, not the mind, and it is not the same as thinking about something. It could be said that to consider something is to give it a place in your heart. In essence, to consider something is to let it affect you. Whether it is a thought or a person, considering expresses an attachment that indicates approval or affection.

One of the main points the LORD wanted his people to consider was his forgiveness of their sins. It says in Isaiah 1:18, “Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow: though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool.” At this point in Israel’s history, God’s plan of redemption applied only to them. With the exception of the city of Nineveh, no other nation had experienced God’s forgiveness. And yet, Judah did not consider God’s favor important to their success.

Found out

In spite of king Ahab’s bad influence on the people in his kingdom, there were 7,000 Israelites that remained faithful to God (1 Kings 19:18). One of those men, Naboth the Jezreelite, lived next door to Ahab’s secondary residence where his wife Jezebel lived. Naboth lived on a plot of land  that had been occupied by his family for hundreds of years, perhaps since the Israelites entered the Promised Land. As if it were a trivial matter, “Ahab spake unto Naboth, saying, Give me thy vineyard, that I may have it for a garden of herbs, because it is near unto my house: and I will give thee for it a better vineyard than it; or, if it seem good to thee, I will give thee the worth of it in money” (1 Kings 21:2).

Naboth refused to give the land to Ahab because it was his inheritance. In other words, Ahab had no legal claim to the land. Naboth was honoring God by refusing to give Ahab the hereditary property that was supposed to stay within his family. Ahab’s reaction shows that he was upset, but intended to abide by Naboth’s decision (1 Kings 21:4). Then Jezebel stepped in and took matters into her own hands, “So she wrote letters in Ahab’s name and sealed them with his seal, and sent the letters unto the elders and to the nobles that were in the city, dwelling with Naboth” (1 Kings 21:8).

Jezebel’s action to take control of the situation was probably typical behavior for her. She was able to get the elders and nobles to do what she wanted, which was break the law and lie about Naboth committing a sin so that he could be stoned to death. Jezebel manipulated the Israelite legal system in order to accomplish her own selfish purposes. Although Ahab was willing to accept Naboth’s refusal, Jezebel was not.

When Ahab went down to the vineyard of Naboth to take possession of it, Elijah was there waiting for him. “And Ahab said to Elijah, Hast thou found me, O mine enemy? And he answered, I have found thee because thou hast sold thyself to work evil in the sight of the LORD” (1 Kings 21:20). Ahab’s question to Elijah might have been expressed, have you found out what I have done or are you here to accuse me of a crime? Ahab had been caught red handed stealing Naboth’s property. No matter what he did to try and talk his way out of it, king Ahab was found out. He was guilty of letting Jezebel rule God’s kingdom.

Surprisingly, Ahab didn’t argue with Elijah when confronted with his sin. Elijah’s reference to Ahab having sold himself to work evil in essence meant that Ahab was unable to say no to his wife Jezebel and therefore, was under the power of Satan. It says in 1 Kings 21:27, “when Ahab heard those words, that he rent his clothes, and put sackcloth upon his flesh, and fasted, and lay in sackcloth, and went softly.” Ahab repented of his sin and because he humbled himself before the LORD, God forgave him.

Confession

Between the ages of four and seven, my sister and I were molested by our brother. Because I am almost four years older than my sister, her abuse started about the same time mine ended. One year, when we were on a family vacation, my two brothers, sister, and I were in a truck camper on our way to Arkansas. While I was taking a nap, my two brothers molested my sister. I woke up in the middle of it, but pretended to be asleep so that they wouldn’t know I was listening and could tell what was going on. I never told anyone about it. Several years later, I was raped while spending the night at a friend’s house. I only recently realized the circumstances of the two events was very similar. It felt as if I was being punished for not protecting my sister because I could have stopped her abuse.

Solomon said, “He that covereth his sins shall not prosper; but whoso confesseth and forsaketh them shall have mercy. Happy is the man that feareth always: but he that hardeneth his heart shall fall into mischief” (Proverbs 28:13-14). According to Solomon, confessing and forsaking our sins can prevent our hearts from becoming hardened because when we receive God’s mercy we are then able to be merciful to others. The Hebrew word translated mercy, racham means to have compassion or show pity to someone and racham is also translated as love (7355). Mercy is at the heart of salvation and it was modeled by Jesus as he died on the cross.

I believe the process of hardening a heart begins at an early age, perhaps when we are as young as two years old. The tendency we have to rebel against our parents is the same tendency that causes us to rebel against God. I know it was a hard heart that made me keep silent instead of helping my sister and I was only about eight at the time. Today, because of what Jesus did on the cross, we can confess and forsake our sins at any time and receive God’s mercy. Just as the process of hardening the heart can go on for many years, I believe the process of unhardening or softening the heart can also take time. Thankfully, the condition of my heart has improved significantly since I accepted Christ.

Repentance

Confession of sin and repentance do not always go together. Confession is really nothing more than an acknowledgement that we have done something wrong. The apostle John said about Jesus, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). So confession is all we need to do to receive God’s forgiveness.

Sometimes people joke about having committed a sin and say, the devil made me do it, as if that is an acceptable excuse for not taking responsibility for their actions. God wants us to admit our guilt so that he can make things right again.

It says in 2 Samuel 24:10, “And David’s heart smote him after that he had numbered the people. And David said unto the LORD, I have sinned greatly in that I have done and now I beseech thee, O LORD, take away the iniquity of thy servant, for I have done very foolishly.”

It is important for us to confess our sins and although it is enough for us to be forgiven, confession does not change the outcome of our wrong actions. In David’s case, he was given three options for his punishment, but he still had to pay a penalty for his sin. “So the LORD sent a pestilence upon Israel from the morning even to the time appointed: and there died of the people from Dan even to Beer-sheba seventy thousand men” (2 Samuel 24:15).

The basic meaning of repentance is to be sorry, but it involves more than just saying, I’m sorry. “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).

Initially, the pestilence was to be in the land three days. As a result of David’s repentance, it says in 2 Samuel 24:16, “And when the angel stretched out his hand upon Jerusalem to destroy it, the LORD repented him of the evil, and said to the angel that destroyed the people, It is enough: stay now thine hand.” So the LORD stopped the angel from destroying Jerusalem because David repented.