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)

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).

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).

Phase Two

The LORD identified Cyrus king of Persia as the shepherd that would lead his people out of captivity (Isaiah 44:28). God referred to Cyrus as his anointed (Isaiah 45:1), a term associated with Israel’s Messiah. In Cyrus’ case, this title meant that he was consecrated by God for a special office or function. Cyrus was a pagan king that did not know God. The LORD declared about him, “For my servant’s sake, and Israel mine elect, I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee, though thou hast not known me” (Isaiah 45:4).

God intended to use Cyrus for his own purposes in order to demonstrate his sovereign control over all his creation. In explaining this strategy the LORD said, “That they may know from the rising of the sun, and from the west, that there is none besides me. I am the LORD, there is none else. I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the LORD do all these things” (Isaiah 45:6-7). Cyrus’ connection to Israel’s Messiah made it possible for God’s people to see that Jesus was to be the savior of the world, not just Israel.

The idea that God would save the world was a new concept for the Israelites because up to that point the Gentiles were excluded from having a relationship with God. If Israel had kept God’s commandments, they might have been able to retain their exclusive rights to his inheritance (Isaiah 48:18), but as it were, they chose to rebel and forfeited that right (Isaiah 48:19). Therefore, the LORD said, “Thou hast heard, see all this; and will not ye declare it? I have shewed thee new things from this time, even hidden things, and thou didst not know them” (Isaiah 48:6).

The Israelites’ captivity would prepare them for a new assignment. Phase two of God’s redemption plan required his people to become messengers, spreading God’s word throughout the earth. The scattering of God’s people was not just to punish them. God had always intended for the world to hear of his fame. What the Israelites didn’t know, and were being told for the first time, was they would be sharing their story with the Gentiles in order to get them to repent.

Go ye forth of Babylon, flee ye from the Chaldeans, with a voice of singing declare ye, tell this, utter it even to the end of the earth; say ye, The LORD hath redeemed his servant Jacob. And they thirsted not when he led them through deserts: he caused the waters to flow out of the rock for them: he clave the rock also, and the waters gushed out. There is no peace, saith the LORD, unto the wicked. (Isaiah 48:20-22)

 

Babylon

Babylon was not a random city where God chose to send his people into captivity. It says in Genesis 11:27-28 that Abraham’s father, Terah was born in Ur of the Chaldees or Chaldeans. Around the 19th century B.C., it says, “Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son’s son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram’s wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees” (Genesis 11:31).

Later, when God made a covenant with Abraham in the land of Canaan, he said, “I am the LORD that brought thee out of Ur of the Chaldees, to give thee this land to inherit it” (Genesis 15:7). God’s plan of redemption for his people included Abraham’s descendants being made into a great nation (Genesis 12:2) and their captivity in the land from which Abraham had first been called out (Isaiah 43:14).

It was appropriate for God to send his people back to the land of Abraham’s ancestors because their idol worship originated there. Babylon’s primary idols , Bel and Nebo were a father and son duo connected with the two golden calves worshipped in Israel. Isaiah explained that these idols were not only the cause of Israel’s captivity, but they would be taken captive with them (Isaiah 46:1-2). God’s intention was to once and for all do away with these false deities.

God’s ability to direct the course of events made it possible for him to bring things full circle. Even though Jerusalem was still decades away from destruction, God warned his people, “Remember the former things of old: for I am God, and there is none else; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done” (Isaiah 46:9).

God’s vengeance on Babylon was due primarily to its arrogance. Isaiah declared, “And Babylon the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah” (Isaiah 13:19). Isaiah described God’s humbling of this nation in terms of a woman who would mourn the loss of her virginity. He said, “Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground; there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans; for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate” (Isaiah 47:1).

The Chaldeans were known for their practice of astrology. Perhaps their greatest claim to fame was their ability to foretell events that threatened the security of their kingdom. Using a sarcastic tone to mock them of their certain doom, Isaiah stated, “Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee” (Isaiah 47:13).

The way

Unlike the exodus when all of the children of Israel were delivered from slavery, captivity was a means of separating out those who wanted a different way of life from those who were content with a lifestyle of sin. When the Israelites went into captivity, God had not yet fulfilled his promise to provide a Messiah or Savior for his people. Only those who returned to the Promised Land at the end of their captivity experienced the fulfillment of God’s promise.

Isaiah encouraged God’s people to not give up on God’s promise by describing the scene of their return as a desert that blossoms like a rose (Isaiah 35:1). The real incentive for return was the hope of a transformed life. Isaiah depicted the Messiah’s ministry as a miraculous intervention in the lives of desperate people. He said:

Behold, your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompence, he will come and save you. Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped. Then shall the lame man leap as a hart, and the tongue of the dumb sing: for in the wilderness shall waters break out, and streams in the desert. (Isaiah 35:4-6)

Isaiah compared God’s offer of salvation to a well-known and well-traveled road (Isaiah 35:8). The children of Israel were well aware of the LORD’s promise of a Messiah. The trouble with God’s people was they didn’t want to give up their sin. Isaiah referred to salvation as “The way of holiness” (Isaiah 35:8). What he meant by that was there would be a process of salvation available that would result in a transformed life, but only for those who chose to return from captivity (Isaiah 35:9-10).

At the heart of Isaiah’s message about returning to Zion after captivity was the concept of a consecrated life. Many of Israel’s leaders were poor examples of being set apart for God’s work. What Isaiah wanted the people to understand was that it was possible to live a life for God and be happy, in spite of negative circumstances. Isaiah spoke of being ransomed (Isaiah 35:10), which meant some intervening or substitutionary action would effect a release from an undesirable condition (6299). The undesirable condition of God’s people was punishment for their sin. Those who were redeemed would escape punishment and be set free from the power of death (Isaiah 25:8).

Desolation

Within the nation of Israel, was an elite class of people that had altered the culture in order to enjoy a lifestyle that was not only luxurious, but also oppressive to the poor. It began with king Ahab who had stolen the vineyard of Naboth the Jezreelite (1 Kings 21:16). Amos described the situation as a seat of violence (Amos 6:3). The Hebrew word translated violence in Amos 6:3, chamac refers to unjust gain. “Basically chamac connotes the disruption of the divinely established order of things” (2555).

The nation of Israel was established as a kingdom devoted to God. Every aspect of the peoples’ lives was intended to reflect the character of their LORD and his unique relationship with them. The violence that was prevalent at the time of God’s judgment was disrupting the Israelites relationship with God and thereby interfering with His blessings (2555).

Amos described the wrongdoers as “them that are at ease in Zion…that lie upon beds of ivory, and stretch themselves upon couches, and eat the lamb out of the flock, and the calves out of the midst of the stall” (Amos 6:1,4). As a result of their greed, Amos declared, “Therefore now shall they go captive with the first that go captive, and the banquet of them that stretched themselves shall be removed” (Amos 6:7).

The initial thrust of the Assyrian military campaign against Israel took place 738 – 732 B.C. Assuming Amos was alive at that time, his declaration that captivity would begin now, was most likely a reference to the capture of Gilead by king Tiglath-pileser of Assyria. “The furious onslaught against the northern tribes left only mount Ephraim and the capital city of Samaria intact. By this time Israel was a tiny nation wracked by pro- and anti- Assyrian factions, multiple assassinations, hypocrisy, arrogance and fear” (Assyrian Campaigns against Israel and Judah).

Amos’ prediction of the desolation of Israel by king Tiglath-pileser described a fearful scene in which an entire household was burned to death. “And it shall come to pass, if there remain ten men in one house, that they shall die. And a man’s uncle shall take him up, and he that burneth him, to bring out the bones our of the house, and shall say unto him that is by the sides of the house, Is there yet any with thee? and he shall say, No” (Amos 6:9-10).