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)

One language

After the flood that wiped out all living creatures on earth (Genesis 7:21), it says in Genesis 11:1 “the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.” What that meant was that not only did everyone speak the same language, but also used the same jargon or slang words. Therefore, everyone understood each other perfectly. The descendants of Ham, the son of Noah’s that was cursed by God, worked together on a building project known as the tower of Babel. When God discovered what they were doing, he said, “Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:6-7).

The Hebrew word translated confound, balal means to mix (1101). Literally, what this meant was that words began to have mixed meanings. For instance, today a guy might say a girl is hot, which means he thinks she’s attractive. Anyone that didn’t know the slang meaning of the word hot would be confused by what he said. With each generation, words take on new meanings, therefore our speech is no longer pure. The prophet Zephaniah spoke about a time in the future when God would “turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve him with one consent” (Zephaniah 3:9). Essentially, what he was saying was there would come a time when God would  clarify the meaning of words so that everyone would understand each other again, so that the world could operate as a single, unified kingdom.

Throughout the Old Testament, God called his people to be separated from the rest of the world. Israel stood apart as the one righteous nation among all the wicked nations. Because Israel failed in keeping God’s commandments and even the holy city Jerusalem turned to idolatry, God decided to create a new world order under which all the people of the world could be united to serve him (Zephaniah 3:8-9). Rather than save only his chosen people, God would purge the world of evil and save all who would humble themselves and put their trust in the LORD (Zephaniah 3;11-12). Among those who would be saved would be a remnant of the nation of Israel that would also accept Jesus Christ as their Savior (Zephaniah 3:13).

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).

Not finished

The nation of Israel was unique in that God took a special interest in the descendants of Abraham, and in particular, the 12 sons of Jacob and caused them to settle in a land that had been promised to them hundreds of years earlier. As God developed the nation of Israel and caused it to grow, his people became known throughout the surrounding nations because of the way God blessed them.

After the northern kingdom of Israel was  destroyed by the Assyrians and the people of Judah were told they would be taken into captivity in Babylon, there was doubt about the future. God assured his people that he wasn’t finished with them. Through Isaiah he said, “But now thus saith the LORD that created thee, O Jacob, and he that formed thee, O Israel, fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name: thou art mine” (Isaiah 43:1).

Looking forward to the day when God’s eternal kingdom would be established, God declared, “Bring my sons from far, and my daughters from the ends of the earth; even every one that is called by my name: for I have created him for my glory, I have formed him, yea, I have made him” (Isaiah 43:6-7). During an unspecified period of time, God’s people would be scattered throughout the world, but their identity as God’s children would be preserved and eventually, they would return to their land.

The primary focus of God’s future work was a re-creation of what was once the nation of Israel. As God had established his presence in the Promised Land, so he would make himself known throughout the earth by the redemption of his people. In order to distinguish himself from all other deities, God intended to show the world his glory by dying for the sins of all people (Isaiah 43:10-11).

A new thing

The captivity of god’s people provided a short intermission to the playing out of a 2000 year effort to restore fellowship between God and man. While they were in Babylon, God demonstrated his faithfulness to his people by continuing to protect them and by making a way for them to return to the Promised Land (Isaiah 41:3). Ultimately, the goal was for Jerusalem to be rebuilt through a supernatural empowering of those called to be a part of the second stage of God’s  plan of redemption.

Isaiah proclaimed God’s faithfulness and gave his people hope by stating, “Fear  thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10). Following the destruction of God’s temple and decimation of the city of Jerusalem, the nations that rose up against God’s people would be destroyed (Isaiah 41:15-16) making it possible for the Israelites to return to the land they had been driven out of.

God used the destruction of Israel and its resurrection as an example of his power and ability to recreate the nation that belonged to him. Isaiah testified to this when he said, “That they may see, and know, and consider, and understand together, that the hand of the LORD hath done this, and the Holy One of Israel hath created it” (Isaiah 41:20). The remnant of God’s people that returned to Jerusalem would go back of their own free will, knowing they would be used by God in a different way than they had before.

Isaiah explained God’s plan in the context of spiritual blindness. He said, “I the LORD have called thee in righteousness and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles; to open blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of  the prison house” (Isaiah 42:6’7). Because everyone else in the world had been cut off from their creator for hundreds of years, the Israelites would be used by God to demonstrate the problem of sin and humanity’s need for a savior.

Unlike the rest of the world, God’s people had not been left in the dark. God’s law had been clearly presented to his people and they were fully aware of the consequences of their sin. As they were being transitioned into a new way of relating to their LORD, the Israelites were told not to expect anymore special treatment. Isaiah declared, “Behold, the former things are come to pass, and new things do I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” (Isaiah 42:9).

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.

God’s Territory

The Promised Land and in particular mount Zion was considered to be God’s territory. As much as God was interested in protecting and preserving his people, he was also interested in maintaining possession of the city of Jerusalem. Knowing the Assyrians intended to capture and take possession of Judah’s capital, Isaiah declared, “So shall the LORD of hosts come down to fight for mount Zion, and for the hill thereof. As birds flying, so will the LORD of hosts defend Jerusalem; defending also he will deliver it; and passing over he will preserve it” (Isaiah 31:4-5).

The terms defend  and deliver were typically used in connection with God’s people, but in the case of mount Zion, or as it was also known as, Jerusalem, God’s resources would be expended to retain a territory dedicated to his Messiah. Zion was mentioned throughout the book of Isaiah appearing in 31 of its 66 chapters. Clearly Isaiah saw Zion as a critical element of his prophecy about Israel’s future. The significance of Zion was both its geographical location and its purpose as a worship center for the entire world. According to Isaiah, the LORD founded Zion (Isaiah 14:32) and would reign there after his judgment of the world for universal sin (Isaiah 24:23).

Although the importance of mount Zion was connected to God’s people, the LORD’s protection of it was independent of their situation. God intended to personally defend his territory (Isaiah 31:4) in spite of his children’s rebellion. In fact, the LORD told Isaiah, “Now go, write it before them in a table, and note it in a book, that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever: that this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD” (Isaiah 30:8-9).

Eventually, Jerusalem would fall into enemy hands (2 Kings 25:4), but not to the Assyrians. God would miraculously deliver Jerusalem from king Sennacherib of Assyria in 701 B.C. and delay the city’s destruction for more than a hundred years, allowing the people of Judah to escape Assyrian captivity and end up instead in Babylon. Isaiah described the Assyrian attack as punishment for the Judah’s rebellion.

Wherefore thus saith the Holy One of Israel, because ye despise this word and trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon: therefore this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, swelling out of a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly at an instant. And he shall break it as the breaking of the potters’ vessel that is broken in pieces; he shall not spare. (Isaiah 30:12-14).