The day of the LORD

The prophet Zephaniah talked about the day of the LORD as if it could happen at any moment (Zephaniah 1:7). This was probably because he was looking at it from an eternal perspective. The phrase “day of the LORD” can refer to any time the Lord openly intervenes in the affairs of man. Thus it often applies to separate events in different time periods (footnote on Zephaniah 1:7). Zephaniah’s ministry took place during the reign of king Josiah, not long before Judah was taken into captivity in Babylon. Therefore, his prophecies had a certain amount of correlation to Judah’s current circumstances, but his overall message was about the end times.

The nation of Judah was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 B.C. At that time, the nation ceased to exist. The people that were taken into captivity eventually returned and reestablished their legal and worship systems, but they did not have a king to rule over them. Zephaniah made it clear in his message that the day of the LORD he was referring to was the final destruction of not only Judah, but also the entire world (Zephaniah 1:2). Zephaniah said, “I will utterly consume all things from off the land, saith the LORD. I will consume man and beast; I will consume the fowls of heaven, and the fishes of the sea, and the stumblingblocks with the wicked; and I will cut off man from off the land, saith the LORD” (Zephaniah 1:2-3).

Judah’s captivity was to a certain extent an illustration of God’s judgment of the world. Living in peace and prosperity for hundreds of years had desensitized the people to the reality of their sinful condition. The kings of Judah had managed to keep the nation stable during the expansion of the Assyrian empire, giving everyone the impression that God’s chosen people were immune to punishment. More than 200 years had transpired since Isaiah had first begun to warn the people of Judah of God’s anger towards them. Because they had been spared from going into captivity in Assyria with the northern kingdom of Judah, the people of Judah were probably thinking they could escape God’s wrath indefinitely.

In order to make the  people understand that there would be an end to their special treatment, Zephaniah spoke in terms of all things and all people being consumed by the LORD. It was only through the association of God’s people with the heathen of the world that they could see themselves as sinners. Zephaniah used language that conveyed a sense of urgency so that the people of Judah would realize that time was of the essence if they were to avoid getting caught up on the destruction that was about to take place. Unlike other prophetic messages the people may have heard in the past, Zephaniah warned of a sudden ending that would catch even the most valiant warrior off guard. He said, “The great day of the LORD is near, it is near, and hasteth greatly, even the voice of the day of the LORD: the mighty man shall cry there bitterly” (Zephaniah 1:14).

Revenge

The topic of revenge is scattered throughout the  Old Testament of the Bible and is explained from various different angles, but Nineveh is one example that clearly depicts the viewpoint God takes on revenge. The city of Nineveh was first mentioned in Genesis chapter 10 where it stated that it was one of several great cities built by the descendants of Noah’s son Ham who was cursed because he “saw the nakedness of his father” (Genesis 9:18). Asshur, the builder of Nineveh, was another name for Assyria. Nineveh was a prominent city in the Assyrian empire and officially became its capital in 700 B.C.

The prophet Jonah was sent to Nineveh to warn the people of its impending judgment. God told Jonah, “Arise, go to Nineveh that great city and cry against it; for their wickedness is come up before me” (Jonah 1:2). Although the exact date of Jonah’s visit to Nineveh is unknown, we do know his ministry to Israel took place sometime around 782 – 753 B.C. because he predicted king Jeroboam II’s restoration of Israel’s coastal cities (2 Kings 14:25). After Jonah preached to the city of Nineveh, the people turned to God, “And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he said he would do unto them; and he did it not” (Jonah 3:10).

Jonah was skeptical about the sincerity of the Ninevites change of heart. His anger about God’s decision to spare the people was demonstrated in his request for God to take his life (Jonah 4:3). Jonah thought it would be better for him to be dead than to see the Ninevites unpunished for their wicked behavior. The book of Jonah ends abruptly with Jonah being rebuked by God because he showed no compassion for the young children and animals that would be killed along with everyone else (Jonah 4:11). A hundred years later, the prophet Nahum picked up where Jonah left off. Instead of offering the people an opportunity to repent, Nahum declared that not only Nineveh, but also the entire Assyrian empire would be wiped out (Nahum 3:18).

Nahum established the context for God’s punishment by stating, “The LORD will take vengeance on his adversaries, and he reserveth wrath for his enemies” (Nahum 1:2). God was acting in the role of the avenger of blood (5358). Judah and Israel had suffered greatly because of the tyranny of the Assyrian empire. King Sennacherib had conquered 46 cities in Judah and claimed to have driven out “200,150 people, young and old, male and female, horses, mules, donkeys, camels, big and small cattle beyond counting, and considered them booty” (Sennacherib’s campaign against Judah 701 B.C.).

What may have been the deciding factor in God’s punishment of Nineveh was Sennacherib king of Assyria’s blatant attack on God’s character and his declaration that the LORD could not save his people out of his hand. He asked, “Who are they among all the gods of the countries, that have delivered their country out of mine hand, that the LORD should deliver Jerusalem out of mine hand?” (2 Kings 18:35). Clearly, Sennacherib had crossed the line in his blasphemy of God and his choice of Nineveh as his empire’s capital meant Jonah was probably right about the Ninevites turning to God only so they could avoid his punishment.

God’s vengeance on Nineveh was set in the context of his mercy toward those who put their trust in him. The prophet Nahum asked the questions about God, “Who can stand before his indignation? and who can abide in the fierceness of his anger?” (Nahum 1:6), to point out the fact that if God’s wrath was unleashed, no one would be able to survive. Nahum went on to say, “His fury is poured out like fire, and the rocks are thrown down by him. The LORD is good, a strong hold in the day of trouble; and he knoweth them that trust in him” (Nahum 1:6-7). Like Sodom and Gomorrah, God would not destroy Nineveh if there were believers in her midst. God’s patience toward Nineveh was a sign that there was still hope of a revival.

When it came time for Nineveh to be destroyed, God intended to completely annihilate everyone within her borders. As the capital of the Assyrian empire, the fall of Nineveh would have a devastating effect on the entire kingdom. It may have been that God held back his judgment intentionally until a time when Nineveh’s destruction would have the maximum impact in stopping the evil practices that took place in and around her borders. In regards to this, Nahum asked, “What do ye imagine against the LORD? He will make an utter end: affliction shall not rise up the second time” (Nahum 1:9). The term “utter end” refers to complete annihilation (3617). After God poured out his wrath on Nineveh, there would be no evidence that the city ever existed.

The problem with Nineveh was that her influence had spread throughout the area surrounding the Promised Land and was even affecting the Israelites. Because the Assyrian kings demanded tribute from every nation that opposed them, the people were essentially their slaves. They could no longer live their lives independent of the Assyrian rulers. One of the reasons God intended to destroy the Assyrian empire was his people were in bondage to its gods. Nahum declared, “For now will I break his yoke from off thee, and will burst thy bonds in sunder. And the LORD hath given a command concerning thee, that no more of thy name be sown; out of the house of thy gods will I cut off the graven image and the molten image: I will make thy grave; for thou art vile” (Nahum 1:13-14).

God’s destruction of Nineveh was to a certain extent a deliverance of his people from idolatry. The Assyrian empire had permeated the boundaries of God’s kingdom to such a degree that even the king of Judah, Manasseh was corrupted by its idolatry and witchcraft (2 Chronicles 33:6). The only way God could cleanse the region was to eliminate the Assyrian capital Nineveh. Nahum declared, “But Nineveh is of old like a pool of water. Yet they shall flee away. Stand, stand, shall they cry; but none shall look back…She is empty, and void, and waste: and the heart melteth, and the knees smite together, and much pain is in all loins, and the faces of them all gather blackness” (Nahum 2:8,10).

It could be said that God’s destruction of the Assyrian empire was intended to be a warning to the rest of the world. The Assyrian empire and its capital Nineveh were probably admired as much as they were hated, as demonstrated by the  worship of their gods and the willingness of people to become integrated into their culture. If God hadn’t intervened, it is likely their influence would have continued and they might have overtaken the world. Nahum depicted Nineveh as a wellfavoured harlot that made the nations slaves to her idolatry, as an adulterer is slave to his mistress. Nahum proclaimed, “Because of the multitude of the whoredoms of the wellfavoured harlot, the mistress of witchcraft, that selleth nations through her whoredoms, and families through her witchcrafts, behold, I am against thee, saith, the LORD of hosts; and I will discover thy skirts upon thy face, and I will shew the nations thy nakedness, and the kingdoms thy shame” (Nahum 3:4-5).

Nineveh fell in 612 B.C., approximately 25-26 years before Jerusalem was destroyed by the Babylonians. At the time of its destruction, Nineveh was considered to be the biggest city in the world. It is estimated there were about 100,000-150,000 people living within the enclosed area of her walls (Nineveh, Wikipedia). “The Assyrian empire then came to an end by 605 B.C., the Medes and Babylonians divided its colonies between them.” For more than 2000 years, the remains of Nineveh lie buried beneath its rubble. No one knew where it was or even remembered its existence except as it was mentioned in biblical text. In 1849, an archeologist discovered the lost palace of Sennacherib with its 71 rooms and ceilings that reached up to 72 feet high, along with a library of cuneiform tablets that described his military exploits, including the battle he fought at Lachish in the nation of Judah. Since their discovery, the remains of Nineveh have almost disappeared. In an October 2010 report, Nineveh was named one of 12 sites most on the verge of irreparable destruction and loss (Nineveh, Wikipedia).

Nahum’s concluding comments confirm the hopelessness of Nineveh’s future. He began by asking the question, “Nineveh is laid waste: who will bemoan her?” (Nahum 3:7). To bemoan someone meant you showed sympathy for him (5110). Clearly, no one was sad when Nineveh was wiped off the face of the earth. Nahum addressed the king of Assyria directly in his concluding remarks. He said, “Thy shepherds slumber, O king of Assyria: thy nobles shall dwell in the dust: thy people is scattered upon the mountains, and no man gathereth them. There is no healing of thy bruise; thy wound is grievous: all that hear the bruit of thee shall clap the hands over thee: for upon whom hath not thy wickedness passed continually?” (Nahum 3:18-19).

Whose side are you on?

The prophet Jonah’s ministry to the city of Nineveh made it clear that God’s mercy was not limited to the Israelites (Jonah 3:10). Even though the book of Jonah seems to end without an answer to the question, was the Ninevites repentance sincere? Isaiah’s prophecy about God’s eventual destruction of the Assyrian empire indicates its capital, Nineveh only received a temporary reprieve and would one day experience God’s judgment for their wicked behavior along with the rest of the world.

Describing God’s overthrow of Assyria, Isaiah declared, “The LORD of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand: that I will break the Assyrian in my land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot: then shall his yoke depart off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders” (Isaiah 14:24-25). As Sennacherib king of Assyria approached Jerusalem and threatened its destruction, it must have seemed to king Hezekiah that God had changed his mind and would allow Assyria to continue its conquest of the world.

After hearing of Sennacherib’s threat, Hezekiah sent Eliakim, Shebna, “and the elders of the priests covered with sackcloth, unto Isaiah the prophet the son of Amoz. And they said unto him, Thus saith Hezekiah, This day is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and of blashphemy: for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength to bring them forth” (Isaiah 37:2-3). King Hezekiah knew that Sennacherib was right about his ability to defeat Jerusalem. It was only a matter of time before he would break down the city walls and take the people into captivity.

Isaiah assured Hezekiah that God would not allow Sennacherib to carry out his threat, but Hezekiah’s confidence was shaken when he received a second message from Sennacherib’s servant Rabshakeh.

Let not thy God, in whom thou trustiest, deceive thee, saying, Jerusalem shall not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria…And Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it: and Hezekiah went up unto the house of the LORD, and spread it before the LORD. (Isaiah 37:10,14)

Hezekiah’s action of spreading or displaying the letter before the LORD was similar to presenting evidence. Hezekiah was making a case that Sennacherib had accused God of lying. In Hezekiah’s opinion, Sennacherib had gone too far and God needed to do something about it. As a result of Hezekiah’s prayer, God did more than just stop the Assyrians from attacking Jerusalem. It says in Isaiah 37:36, “Then the angel of the LORD went forth, and smote in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred and fourscore and five thousand: and when they arose early in the morning, behold, they were all dead corpses”.

Moment of truth

Isaiah’s ministry covered a span of approximately 60 years. During his lifetime, Isaiah experienced what could be considered the best and worst times in Jerusalem’s history. During King Uzziah’s reign (792 B.C. – 740 B.C.), Judah’s powerful army of over 300,000 men expanded his kingdom’s borders and fortified the city of Jerusalem, making it a secure fortress that could withstand a long siege of enemy attack (2 Kings 16:5). Within a decade of Uzziah’s death, his grandson, king Ahaz cooperated with the Assyrians to defeat the northern kingdom of Israel and erected an altar in the temple of God so he could worship a Syrian god instead (2 Kings 16:15).

Isaiah confronted Ahaz in a location referred to as “the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field” (Isaiah 7:3). Isaiah told the king of Judah, “The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father’s house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah” (Isaiah 7:17). Ahaz ignored Isaiah’s warning, no doubt thinking an alliance with the king of Assyria would  prevent him from attacking Jerusalem.

Isaiah recorded his prophecy about the king of Assyria as a testimony against king Ahaz and all who doubted God’s intention to punish Judah for its rebellion against him (Isaiah 8:7-8). Later, Isaiah added that Assyria would be destroyed after God was finished using them to punish Samaria and Jerusalem for their idolatry (Isaiah 10:12). Predicting specific details of the Assyrian attack, Isaiah showed the king of Judah that God controlled his kingdom and could give it to whomever he wished (Isaiah 22:20-25).

When Ahaz’s son Hezekiah took over as king in 715 B.C., Israel had already been taken into captivity and the king of Assyria was breathing down Judah’s neck. Isaiah’s message to Hezekiah made it clear that Assyria was doomed and Jerusalem would be spared from destruction (Isaiah 29:22; 30:31). Isaiah warned Hezekiah to not trust in Egypt, but to rely on the LORD. Isaiah stated, “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 moment of truth came in 701 B.C. when “Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the defenced cities of Judah, and took them” (Isaiah 36:1). The king of Assyria sent a messenger to Hezekiah with a great army, “And he stood by the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field” (Isaiah 36:2), the exact location where Hezekiah’s father had first been warned by Isaiah of an Assyrian attack against Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:3,17). Sennacherib claimed to be on a mission from God. He told Hezekiah’s men, “And am I now come up without the LORD against this land to destroy it? the LORD said unto me, Go up against this land, and destroy it” (Isaiah 36:10).

Denial

The subconscious mind sometimes filters unpleasant thoughts or memories that the unconscious mind wants to get out. Denial is one way this process may work. As a defense mechanism, denial enables a person to avoid confrontation with a personal problem or with reality itself by denying its existence. Unfortunately, dreams often subvert this process and can force a person to accept that a problem really exists.

When the northern kingdom of Israel was taken into captivity in 722 B.C., Judah did not expect to go with them. Because the people of Judah were engaged in religious activities, they thought they would be excused from God’s punishment. In particular, Jerusalem was thought to be a safe haven because the temple of God was there. Priests and false prophets told the people they had nothing to fear because their sacrifices guaranteed God’s protection.

Isaiah used the name Ariel instead of Jerusalem in order to trigger the people’s awareness of danger when he declared, “Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt! Add ye year to year; let them kill sacrifices. Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be heaviness and sorrow: and it shall be to me as Ariel” (Isaiah 29:1-2). The people’s sacrificial system had become a defense mechanism against their awareness that the Assyrian army was closing in and was about to attack Jerusalem.

Isaiah used the illustration of the subconscious mind at work during sleep in order to convince the people they were in denial about their future. He said, “And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, even all that fight against her and her munition, and that distress her shall be as a dream of a night vision. It shall even be as a hungry man dreameth, and behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty” (Isaiah 29:7).

The problem the people needed to acknowledge was they had become spiritually numb and were no longer communicating with God. Although God had been speaking to them, they didn’t hear what he was really saying. They were tuning him out. Isaiah declared:

And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed…Wherefore the Lord said, forasmuch as this people draw near to me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me…Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvelous work amongst this people. (Isaiah 29:11, 13-14)

One story

Micah’s predictions were linked with those of Isaiah and Jeremiah by statements that made the three messages a single story of what would happen to Israel over the course of hundreds of years. Each of the three prophets looked at things from a different perspective, but remained consistent in the facts of what they foretold. Essentially, there were three chapters in their story: return from captivity, birth of the Messiah, and last days or the end of time.

The different perspectives of Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah’s messages may be attributed to the timing and focus of their writings. Isaiah lived during the glory days of king Uzziah’s reign and was familiar with activities in the royal palace. Micah lived among the people and watched the kingdom unravel as Israel was taken into captivity by Assyria. Jeremiah lived approximately 100 years after Micah, when Israel had already been destroyed and Judah was on its way to being captured by king Nebuchadnezzer of Babylon.

Micah’s prediction that Jerusalem would be destroyed was quoted by Jeremiah’s captors as evidence that the downfall of Judah had been put off because of Micah’s preaching (Jeremiah 26:18). Talking about Judah’s leadership problem, Micah said, “The heads thereof judge for reward, and the priests thereof teach for hire, and the prophets thereof divine for money: yet will they lean upon the LORD and say, Is not the LORD among us? none evil can come upon us” (Micah 3:11).

Micah’s straightforward message of condemnation no doubt had a big impact on those who heard it. Micah used vivid language and clear depictions to make his point that Israel was beyond hope. He also gave details that made it possible to verify his predictions. Referring to Judah’s captivity, Micah said, “For now shalt thou go forth out of the city, and thou shalt dwell in the field, and thou shalt go even to Babylon; there shalt thou be delivered; there the LORD shall redeem thee from the hand of thine enemies” (Micah 4:10).

The exile Micah spoke of occurred in 586 B.C. and Judah’s deliverance began in 538 B.C., almost 200 years after Micah predicted it. Some of the most specific details of the Messiah’s birth and death also came from Micah. He said, “They shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek. But thou, Beth-lehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:1-2).

An extremely important aspect of Micah’s prophecy that was overlooked or perhaps ignored before Jesus was alive on the earth was the timeline for the Messiah’s reign. After stating that the coming ruler would be someone who had existed before the beginning of time (Micah 5:2), Micah said, “Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth. Then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel…for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth” (Micah 5:3-4).

Clearly, Micah was saying the Messiah would be born, then the remnant would return unto the children of Israel, and afterwards the Messiah’s reign would begin. The confusion about the timing of the remnants return is understandable since the Babylonian captivity ended in 538 B.C., but if you look at Micah’s prophecy in light of Isaiah’s reference to the Lord recovering the remnant of his people a second time (Isaiah 11:11), it makes perfect sense that the Messiah’s reign would begin after the gathering of God’s people from the four corners of the earth (Isaiah 11:12).

A parable

Isaiah’s parable of the vineyard (Isaiah 5:1-2) was used to describe the role Judah, and more specifically Jerusalem, had in God’s plan of salvation. Isaiah stated plainly in his parable that a partnership existed between God and the inhabitants of Jerusalem. God had done his part to ensure the Messiah would be born, but his kingdom had become unfit for habitation. Isaiah’s parable provided an important clue as to why the Messiah would not establish his kingdom until the last days, God’s people were corrupted by idolatry.

God had gone to great lengths to nurture and protect his people. In spite of his efforts, they refused to do things his way. Isaiah identified several problems the LORD intended to deal with in his judgment of the people of Judah, most importantly, their abuse of the land he had given them. Speaking for the LORD, Isaiah stated, “And now go to, I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will take away the hedge thereof, and it shall be eaten up, and break down the wall thereof, and it shall be trodden down: and I will lay it waste: it shall not be pruned or digged, but there shall come up briers and thorns: I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it” (Isaiah 5:5-6).

Isaiah’s use of the term “wild grapes” (Isaiah 5:2,4) to describe the fruit of the LORD’s vineyard indicated the people of Judah had reached a point of no return in their abandonment of God’s law. The Hebrew word translated wild grapes, be’ushiym means poison-berries (891). Poison-berries are usually colorful and juicy looking, but toxic if ingested. Some poison-berries are lethal and it could be that Isaiah named a specific poison-berry in order to make his point that the vineyard had to be abandoned and was useless to its owner.

Part of the reason for God’s judgment against Judah was a need to expose the people’s sin and to condemn their bad behavior. As a demonstration of their unfaithfulness to God, the people would be removed from the land and humbled before the surrounding nations. It says in Isaiah 5:13, “Therefore my people are gone into captivity, because they have no knowledge: and their honorable men are famished, and their multitude dried up with thirst.”

The word translated captivity, galah means to denude or make oneself naked, especially in a disgraceful sense (1540). Captivity is also referred to as going into exile, captives being usually stripped in order to disgrace and humiliate them in public. Another meaning of the word galah is to reveal and it is sometimes applied to “the revealing of secrets and of one’s innermost feelings.” I believe God sent his people into captivity so that they could see themselves for what they really were, sinners in need of a Savior.