The difference

God’s treatment of his chosen people may seem harsh unless you understand his goal for the nation of Israel. God wanted his people to be a peculiar people, a nation set apart and devoted to him (Deuteronomy 14:2). God delivered the Israelites from Egyptian bondage  and formed them into what he wanted them to be; like a potter that forms a useful vessel out of clay. They were his handiwork. When the people of Judah were taken into captivity in Babylon, their customs and behavior differentiated them from everyone else. They were obviously not like their Babylonian captors because they prayed to a God that no one could see.

One of the things that God wanted his people to believe about him was that he would be faithful in keeping his promises to them. In spite of their rejection of his laws and commandments, God intended to deliver his people from sin. Jeremiah declared, “The LORD hath brought forth our righteousness: come, and let us declare in Zion the work of the LORD our God” (Jeremiah 51:10). The work that was to be declared in Zion was the salvation of God’s people. In essence, what was to be accomplished was the birth of the Messiah, but there was also a need for the relationship between God and his people to be restored in order for salvation to make a difference in peoples’ lives.

God’s control over humanity as the Creator of the Universe allows him to decide how to deal with sin. He determined that the penalty for sin would be death (Genesis 2:17). The purpose of salvation was to enable mankind to survive when God’s judgment was executed. Although physical death is inevitable, it is possible to die and yet not perish or cease to exist. The difference between someone who dies without receiving salvation and the person who is saved is life beyond the grave. In other words, death is not the end of life, but a new beginning for the person who has received salvation.

God illustrated this principle when he returned the remnant of Judah to their land after their captivity was completed. Instead of the city of Jerusalem remaining in ruins after it was destroyed by the Babylonians, it was rebuilt and the city still exists today. God destroyed many cities and even whole nations when he did away with the pagan rituals of idolatry that were prevalent in the Old Testament of the Bible. Jeremiah declared, “For their molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them. They are vanity, the work of errors; in the time of their visitation they shall perish. The portion of Jacob is not like them: for he is the former of all things” (Jeremiah 51: 17-19).

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Ruined

Habakkuk believed that God would do what he said he was going to, and, therefore, Habakkuk knew that his life was about to be ruined. God had said the Chaldeans would come and completely destroy the nation of Judah. He also said everyone would be killed except for a small portion of the population that would be taken into captivity and would become slaves of the king of Babylon. Given what he knew, Habakkuk prayed, “O LORD, I have heard thy speech, and was afraid. O LORD, revive thy work in the midst of the years in the midst of the years make known, in wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2).

Somehow, Habakkuk knew that God could show his people love in the midst of their punishment. He asked that God would revive his work and make himself known to his people while they were in captivity in Babylon. Habakkuk was most likely referring to God’s work of salvation. One of the key components to God’s plan was that the Messiah had to be a descendant of king David. In order for God to accomplish this, he had to preserve the royal blood line. Habakkuk didn’t know what would happen to him or his family when his country was invaded, but he believed that his salvation was assured and that was enough for him to trust God with the outcome of his situation.

Habakkuk declared, “Thou wentest forth for the salvation of thy people, even for salvation with thine anointed; thou woundest the head out of the house of the wicked, by discovering the foundation unto the neck. Selah” (Habakkuk 3:13). Habakkuk was able to see there was more at stake than the occupation of the Promised Land by God’s people. Where they lived was not as important as the fact that the Israelites remained alive until God’s plan of salvation was completed. Habakkuk understood that God was preserving, as well as punishing, his chosen people by sending them into captivity.

Habakkuk’s concluding statement of faith showed that he was able to trust in God’s providence regardless of his circumstances. His anticipation of what was to come, caused Habakkuk to set his mind ahead of time that he would survive against all odds. Habakkuk confidently stated, “The LORD is my strength, and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet, and he will make me to walk upon mine high places” (Habakkuk 3:19). Although Habakkuk’s fate is unknown, it is possible he escaped Jerusalem before it was invaded and became a member of the first wave of what has been described as the dispersion of the Jews. He may have set out for a far off land, leaving behind his prophetic writing as a testament to his belief that God would protect and preserve those of his people who truly put their trust in him.

The vision

The vision Habakkuk received of the punishment that would come to the people of Judah by the Chaldeans (Habakkuk 1:5-10) was so distressful that Habakkuk couldn’t comprehend that God would actually carry out such a plan against his own people. Habakkuk questioned God’s motives and asked, “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity: wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously, and holdest thy tongue when the wicked devoureth the man that is more righteous than he?” (Habakkuk 1:13). Habakkuk didn’t understand how a God that couldn’t stand to see his people sin could tolerate such an injustice as was described to him.

The vision Habakkuk received was intended to be a final warning to any who would be willing to put their trust in God before it was too late. It says in Habakkuk 2:3-4, “And the LORD answered me, and said, write the vision, and make it plain upon tables, that he may run that readeth it, for the vision is yet for the appointed time, but at the end it shall speak and not lie. Though it tarry, wait for it’  because it will surely come; it will not tarry.” God’s  instruction to make the vision plain meant that it should be obvious to everyone that it was definitely going to happen. It was not a matter of if, but when the end would come to the nation of Judah.

The end that the LORD was referring to was not just an end to the political and religious structure that kept the nation of Judah functioning, but an end to the Old Covenant that promised salvation through the keeping of the Mosaic Law. Habakkuk was given an advance presentation of the New Covenant when he was told, “Behold, his soul which is lifted up is not upright in him, but the just shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Many in Jerusalem at the time of its destruction thought they would be saved, but God told Habakkuk only those who had faith, believed that God would do what he said he would (530), would remain alive and be taken into captivity.

In contrast to the promise that the just would live by their faith, Habakkuk was told that the unrighteous or nonbelievers would suffer a terrible death and eternal punishment (Habakkuk 2:5). Five woes were pronounced, similar to those recorded in Isaiah 5:8-23. In the New Testament, Matthew addressed the religious leaders who were referred to as “scribes and Pharisees” (Matthew 23:13) and pronounced woes upon them. Matthew labeled these teachers of the law as hypocrites, men who acted as if they believed in God, but in actuality they were depending on their knowledge of God’s rules and regulations to condemn others instead of examining their own hearts to see if they were guilty of any sin.

Uncircumcised heart

Jeremiah’s assessment of the situation in Judah revealed that the people were not following God’s commandments because they didn’t really know the LORD, they didn’t have a relationship with him (Jeremiah 9:3). Beginning with Abraham, God had made it clear that faith was the only way to enter into a relationship with him. Abraham believed in the LORD and God counted it to him for righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

God’s people thought the most important things in life were for them to be wise, powerful, and rich (Jeremiah 9:23). They wanted material success rather than a godly life. They didn’t realize that having a relationship with God was the only way for them to be truly happy. God had to explain to them that his way of life was the opposite of what they were trying to achieve. He said:

Let not the wise man glory in his wisdom, neither let the mighty man glory in his might, let not the rich man glory in his riches: But let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am the LORD which exercise lovingkindness, judgment, and righteousness, in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith the LORD. (Jeremiah 9:23-24)

One of the ways Jeremiah described being committed to the LORD was to have a circumcised heart. He told the people of Judah to “circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4). Taking away the foreskin was symbolic of being stripped or to go naked (6188). In reference to the heart, it meant you would bare your soul or confess all your sins to God.

The LORD warned his people of a day when the entire world would be punished for sin. Previously, the Israelites expected God to pardon all their sins and establish an eternal kingdom for them in Jerusalem (2 Samuel 7:13). Because of their unfaithfulness, God would only pardon those of his chosen people who repented of their sins and received salvation through Jesus Christ. He said, “Behold the day cometh, saith the LORD, that I will punish all them which are circumcised with the uncircumcised. For all these nations are uncircumcised, and all the house of Israel are uncircumcised in the heart” (Jeremiah 9:25-26).

False information

The people of Judah were dependent on false prophets and corrupt priests to guide them in their spiritual activities. One of the reasons God’s people were unrepentant was they thought their sacrifices were enough to guarantee God’s blessing on their nation. There was no real awareness among the people of Judah that they were in trouble. Jeremiah described their problem as a “perpetual backsliding” (Jeremiah 8:5). Jeremiah’s use of the term perpetual backsliding indicated there was a permanent separation between God and his people. Another way of describing their condition would be to say the people had abandoned their faith. They no longer believed in God.

It was difficult for Jeremiah to get through to the people because their consciences were unaffected by what they were doing. Jeremiah declared, “Were they ashamed when they had committed abomination? nay, they were not at all ashamed, neither could they blush: therefore shall they fall among them  that fall: in the time of their visitation” (Jeremiah 8:12). A time of visitation was an appointed time when an officer or custodian would have to give an account for his area of responsibility. The nation of Judah was responsible to God for their worship activities. They were not free to worship in any other way than what had been prescribed to them by the Mosaic Law. God’s ultimate goal for his people was for them to receive salvation and eternal life. Because of their disobedience, God’s plan could not be carried out.

God was grieved over the situation in Judah. He didn’t want to punish his children, but he couldn’t overlook the fact that they had disassociated themselves from him and were going to die without their sins being atoned for. Jeremiah depicted God’s attitude toward his children as one of care and concern for their well-being. He said, “The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved. For the hurt of the daughter of my people am I hurt; I am black; astonishment hath taken hold of me. Is there no balm in Gilead; is there no physician there? why then is not the health of the daughter of my people recovered?

The inner man

God’s main concern when he planned for the people of Judah to be taken into captivity was the condition of their hearts. The relationship God wanted to have with his people was one of love and trust. In order for that to be possible, the people had to be devoted to God and open to his involvement in their lives. The way Jeremiah described this was to use circumcision as an illustration of being dedicated to the LORD. He told the people, “Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, and take away the foreskins of your heart” (Jeremiah 4:4). Moses used similar language when he said, “Circumcise therefore the foreskins of your heart, and be no more stiffnecked” (Deuteronomy 10:16).

The Hebrew words translated stiffnecked, qashah oreph literally mean hard necked or a neck that is unable to bend and be bowed down as in prayer (7185/6203). Looking at this term in relation to the heart, it refers to someone who is hard-hearted, a tough minded person who refuses to submit himself to God. Therefore, to circumcise the heart would mean you cut off behavior that is offensive to God (4135). Jeremiah referred to the cleansing of the heart in connection with salvation. He said, “O Jerusalem, wash thine heart from wickedness, that thou mayest be saved” (Jeremiah 4:14). Typically, a person is only concerned with washing the exterior part of his body. Jeremiah was pointing out that it was the inner man that needed to be dealt with.

Conversion

King David said, “The law of the  LORD is perfect, converting the soul” (Psalm 19:7). What he meant by that was there was contained within the Mosaic Law enough evidence to convict every person of their own sinful nature. Even if you narrowed God’s law down to just the Ten Commandments, everyone would be found guilty. Therefore, the law of Moses was able to bring people in the Old Testament to a place of repentance where they recognized their need for salvation.

Over time, the Israelites’ hearts became hardened and they were unwilling to repent and turn to God. The process of conversion is really a matter of repentance more than anything else. The word convert is translated from the Hebrew verb shuwb (shoob). “The basic meaning of this verb is movement back to the point of departure…The process called conversion or turning to God is in reality a re-turning or a turning back again to Him from whom sin has separated us, but whose we are by virtue of creation, preservation and redemption” (7725).

The life of Manasseh king of Judah illustrates the process of conversion perfectly. Manasseh’s father, king Hezekiah was a righteous  man who trusted God and he was able to prevent Judah from being taken into captivity by the Assyrians, but Manasseh chose to do that which was “evil in the sight of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 33:2). Manasseh not only practiced idolatry, but is says in 2 Chronicles 33:6 that he “observed times, and used enchantments, and used witchcraft, and dealt with a familiar spirit, and with wizards.”

Manasseh had a very negative influence on the people of Judah. As their king, he had the power to force them to worship as he did. It says in 2 Chronicles 33:9-10, “Manasseh made Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to err, and do worse than the heathen, whom the LORD had destroyed before the children of Israel. And the LORD spoke to Manasseh, and to his people: but they would not hearken.” The prophet Isaiah used the word err throughout his writing to refer to the leaders of Israel causing the people to veer off the course God had established for them, the Mosaic Law.

Rather than punish the entire nation of Judah and undo the good that Hezekiah had accomplished, God chose to single out Manasseh in order to bring him to repentance. It says in 2 Chronicles 33:11-13:

Wherefore the LORD brought upon them the captains of the host of the king of Assyria, which took Manasseh among the thorns, and bound him with fetters, and carried him to Babylon. And when he was in affliction, he besought the LORD his God, and humbled himself greatly before the God of his fathers, and prayed unto him: and he was intreated of him, and heard his supplication, and brought him again to Jerusalem into his kingdom. Then Manasseh knew that the LORD he was God.

After Manasseh acknowledged God’s sovereignty and was returned to Jerusalem, he showed evidence of genuine repentance. It says that “he took away the strange gods and the idol out of the house of the LORD” (2 Chronicles 33:15). Manasseh not only stopped practicing idolatry, but he also began to worship the LORD and commanded the people to observe the Mosaic Law (2 Chronicles 33:16). Manasseh’s example of repentance was one of the few seen in the Old Testament, particularly among the kings of Judah and Israel. It could be that his captivity in Babylon was such a horrifying experience that he realized spending eternity in hell was not a good option.