November 8, 2015
Scripture and Commentary, November 8-14
Micah 7, Jn. 15
Nahum 1, 1 Thes. 4
Verses 1-7 recount the sins of Israel. Instead of loving their neighbours and the people of
God, “The good man is perished.” All who are left “lie in wait for blood; they hunt every man his brother with a net.” No one is trustworthy. The members of a person’s own family are his enemies. Friends cannot be trusted. All are cheaters and murderers for personal gain. Government is no better. Instead of protecting the innocent and preserving justice, the prince, judge, and great (influential) men want bribes and rewards for their rulings and verdicts. Micah concludes there is no hope or help in any of them. Only God can help Israel now.
Verses 8-13 personify Israel, who speaks to the Gentile nations about her defeat and captivity. “I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned,” she says in verse 9, which perfectly expresses the thought of these verses.
Verse 14 is a prayer to God, as though the nation of Israel speaks it. Verses 15-17 is God’s answer. Read verse 14 as Israel speaking to God, and 15-17 as God answering her. In verse 18 Israel speaks again, expressing her faith, and giving thanks. “Who is a God like unto thee,” she says, “that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of His heritage? He retaineth not His anger forever, because He delighteth in mercy.”
Micah closes his book with Israel continuing to trust God to forgive her sins and turn her to Himself again. He will do this not because of any worthiness in Israel, but because He is faithful and will keep the promise He made to Jacob, Abraham, and the fathers. He will perform the truth, which He has sworn to the fathers from the days of old.
Once again we see the faithfulness of God contrasted with the unfaithfulness of man. God has chosen Israel for a purpose, and nothing can prevent Him from accomplishing that purpose. The Gentiles may rage against Israel. Her own people may fall into terrible sin and corruption. But God is able to overcome these obstacles. They are not even obstacles to Him. He moves through them, and even uses them for His own glory, as He continues to prepare the world for the advent of the Saviour, and move the world toward that Day when He will bring all things together in Christ.
As Nahum writes, the Assyrian Empire dominates the ancient near east. But Assyria is decaying, and Babylon is strengthening. Soon, Babylon will overcome Assyria, and become the new area superpower. Judah lives under Assyrian domination. Israel has been conquered by Assyria, and her people have been deported to various places in the empire, where they are unable to re-unite and cause any more trouble for the conquerors.
It is in this setting that Nahum is called to foretell the coming doom of Assyria. Nineveh, in upper Mesopotamia, is the capital of the empire, and Nahum’s opening words express the primary concern of his prophecy; the “burden,” or doom, of Nineveh and Assyria (1). The first chapter reinforces the truth of this prophecy. God is unstoppable, and He intends to punish Nineveh, and to preserve at least part of the Jewish people.
Nahum 2, Jn. 16
Nahum 3, 1 Thes. 5
Nahum describes a vision of the destruction of Nineveh. Given in poetic, and often symbolic language (6), it is still very real and very terrible. We remember from Jonah that the city takes three days to walk through, so it is very large and heavily populated. At the same time, it is very wealthy from the spoils of war, and from tribute paid by kings and nations in return for being spared total annihilation by the Assyrians.
Like all empires forged in blood and violence, Assyria faces constant unrest and rebellion. Babylon, especially is rising in power, and Egypt continually seeks an opportunity to break free of Assyrian control. Israel, too, resisted Assyria, but was too small to stand against the Empire’s army. Judah is an unwilling vassal, in which revolution is always being plotted and prayed for. Israel’s conquest and and destruction by the Assyrians is the subject of verse 2.
In verse 3, the weakening Assyrians face the destruction of their capital. This comes from an army formed by the alliance of the Medes and Babylonians. Nineveh, who has conquered many nations, and scattered their peoples across her empire, will, herself, be conquered and led into captivity (7). She is pictured here as a woman who is mourned by her daughters and maids. She is compared to lions and a lions’ den (11, 12). She kills and devours as she pleases, but her end is coming. God is against her (13). He will burn her chariots and kill her young “lions.” Cutting off her prey means to make her unable to capture and kill others, like a lion who hunts, but finds no prey.
The “voice of thy messengers” may refer to Rabshakeh, sent, to Jerusalem with a message from the Assyrian king to surrender and allow the people to be deported and scattered. His message boasts that not even God can deliver Jerusalem from Assyria (2 Kings 18). But Nineveh herself will be destroyed and scattered. No more messengers of doom will come from her.
The “bloody city” (1) has a double meaning. First, it is Nineveh, who sheds innocent blood, murdering and plundering other nations. Second, it is Nineveh’s own blood being shed by her conquerors. Her streets are filed with the carcasses of her slain (3). Her most serious sin is her idolatry, which Nahum, like other prophets, calls whoredom (4). The multitude of her whoredoms refers to the many, many idols claimed and worshiped by her in the place of God. It is because of her refusal to honour God as her God, and to love Him with all her heart, soul, and mind, that she has embarked on a spree of murder and plunder from the Nile to the Caspian. Naked and exposed, she will be led into captivity, and none who see her will bemoan her (4-7).
No (8) is an early name for Thebes, and symbolises Egypt. Located deep inside of Egypt, she was protected by the Mediterranean and Sahara. Yet, she fell to the Assyrians in 663 B.C. Once powerful, she declined until Assyria was able to conquer her. God is making the point that Assyria is declining, and, not having the natural barriers of the sea and the desert to defend her, will fall to her enemies, too. The Assyrian strongholds will fall like ripe figs shaken from the tree (12). Her trained soldiers will fight like women, who are not trained for war. Her borders will be open gates through which her invaders will flow (13)
Like so many before, and after her, Assyria is overconfident, and her people have become fat and weak. They live for the enjoyment of their ill-gotten gains, and they forget to keep watch against danger. Her religious, governmental, and military leaders (shepherds) slumber instead of keeping watch and being prepared to defend her (18). There is, therefore, no healing for her wounds. She will die of them, and all that hear of her death will clap their hands in joy (19). Thus ends another of the enemies of God and His people.
Habakkuk 1, Jn. 17
Hab. 2, 2 Thes. 1
Habakkuk is broken hearted over the sins of his people. Living in Jerusalem, he has heard or read the words of prophets like Jeremiah and Isaiah. When he begins to prophesy, the northern kingdom of Israel has already fallen to the Assyrians, as Amos foretold, and Assyria is weakening while Babylon grows stronger, as Nahum foretold. We are not sure when Habakkuk preached and wrote, but if it was after 612 B.C., Assyria has already been conquered by the Babylonians, who now also control and oppress Jerusalem. Habakkuk, therefore, has seen many of the other prophets’ words literally fulfilled before his eyes. He also sees the rising Babylonian threat to Jerusalem, just as other prophets predicted.
Yet, Jerusalem continues in her sin. “Spoiling and violence” (3) refers to the rich and powerful taking the property of the poor through force. Slaking of the law and wrong judgement (4) refers to corruption in the political and judicial rulers, who use the “system” for their own gain, at the expense of those outside of their circle. In verses 1-4, Habakkuk voices his concern to God. “O Lord, how long shall I cry [about these injustices] and thou wilt not hear?”
God answers in verses 5-11. The heart of His response is that He is going to use the Chaldeans (Babylonians) to chastise Judah, by allowing them to conquer Jerusalem and take her people into captivity. God’s answer makes Habakkuk even more unhappy than the sins of his people. Yes, the Jews have sinned, but aren’t the Chaldeans worse? Even God calls them “terrible and dreadful” (7). They come for violence (9), and credit their god with their victory (11). How can God, who is “of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (13) even look upon the Chaldeans, let alone allow them to conquer the Jews? Yes the Jews are sinners, but aren’t they more righteous than the Chaldeans? How can God give the righteous into hands of the unrighteous? Where is the justice in this?
Surely we can understand Habakkuk’s problem. God’s actions seem backward to us. It seems to us that He should empower the poor and the oppressed to rise up against their oppressors, and to elect new leaders, who will rule in justice and equity, according to the law rather than according to greed. But the moral/political condition of their country is just what God said would happen when the people demanded a king, and when they turned away from God to follow the idolatry and wickedness of their Gentile neighbors. So the Jews are getting the natural consequences of their choices and actions.
If the Jews had lived by faith, trusting and obeying God, they would not have fallen into this situation. God would count their faith as righteousness, and give them all the blessings and graces promised to them in His Covenant (1-4). Indeed those who live by faith will yet prevail. God’s promises to judge the Chaldeans, and return the remnant to Jerusalem will keep them going through the conquest and years of captivity. They know their conquerors will pass away, but Jerusalem will remain.
Just as the ancient Judeans trusted God to save Jerusalem from complete destruction, our faith in Christ delivers believers from the spiritual captivity of sin and the spiritual death of the wrath of God. As the faith of the Jews looked for the restoration of Jerusalem, and the full accomplishment of God’s purpose for Israel, the faith of God’s Church looks for the Day in which the Messiah will restore the earth and the New Jerusalem to purity and peace under Christ. Faith assures us that God’s purpose for His creation, and His people will be accomplished perfectly.
Verses 5-20 tell of the fall of the Chaldeans. Their appearance is terrifying and frightening to the people of Jerusalem. They are, indeed, powerful and cruel. They will kill many, cause much suffering, and destroy much. But their dominion on earth will be short. Like the Assyrians, whose empire they are taking, they will grow weak, until they, too are conquered and replaced by another, which will be replaced by another, and another, until the end of time. But God’s Church, meaning His people, both of the Old Testament and New Testament eras, will remain because He will keep them forever.
Hab. 3, Jn. 18
Zephaniah 1, 2 Thes. 2
Habakkuk closes his book with a prayer and a hymn. He probably intends the entire chapter to become part of the liturgy when the people are taken into captivity. It is a request that God remember mercy, even in His wrath, lest the people give up hope and faith completely, and become like those who never knew God. “In the midst of years” probably refers to the seventy years of captivity predicted by Jeremiah. During this time the older generations, who remember Jerusalem, her fall, and her prophets, will pass away. The rising generations will know only Babylon. How will they continue in the faith unless God sends them help, unless He sends them revival in the midst of the years of captivity?
Habakkuk says, “I have heard thy speech” (2). In chapter 2, the prophet sets himself to wait for the word of the Lord, like a soldier on watch, guarding the city. Now he has heard God’s answer, and it is not good news. God will send the Chaldeans to conquer Jerusalem (1:6) as His judgement upon the Jews and as punishment for their sins. But their punishment will not last forever. God will also punish the Chadians for their sins, and in this, He will deliver the Jews from the power of the Chaldeans. God allows them to kill and plunder the Jews, but their actions are still murder and theft, for which they will pay.
Habakkuk has also heard that the just will live by faith (2:4). They will trust in the Lord, and their faith will enable them to persevere through the awful events of conquest and captivity, waiting for the promise of return and restoration to be fulfilled.
Now Habakkuk beseeches God to revive the work of His hands. He is asking God to restore the Jews to Jerusalem, but, even more importantly, he is asking God to restore them to the Covenant, and true faith. His concern is not simply that the nation of Judah continue, but that God’s great work of redemption and restoration of fallen people and creation may be brought to completion and fulfillment. He is asking God to restore Israel to faith and Godliness, so she may again be the people of God.
The prophet is given a vision of the coming of God to deliver the Jews and judge her enemies. He comes from Teman and Paran in the Sinai desert, where the Law Covenant were given and ratified. He comes in terrifying fury. His hands have horns to gore and tear enemies. Burning coals and pestilence surround His feet like tremendous clouds of dust as He walks, destroying everything in His path (5). He drives the nations, the enemies of His people before Him. Kings and armies and hordes of people flee in terror. The mountains crumble and the earth trembles under His feet. Rivers and seas (symbols of Gentiles and opposition to God) feel His wrath (8). His bow is out of its case (9) and He shoots arrows that “cleave the earth” so deeply they create new rivers and seas. Even the sun and moon stand still in fear as God threshes the heathen in anger (12) for the salvation of His people from Babylon (13).
Habakkuk, too, is filled with fear at the appearance of God (16), and horrified at the massive devastation and destruction of the Gentiles (16). But this vision will sustain the believing Jews during the catastrophic days and years ahead. It has much affinity with the New Testament book of Revelation, which tells of the persecutions and tribulations Christians will face, yet encourages them to be faithful, even unto death by foretelling the horrible fate of their persecutors, and the eternal blessedness of the Church. Thus, the message of Habakkuk is not so much judgement for the sins of Israel, as it is a message of encouragement to repent and be faithful to God, even during time of trouble and catastrophe. God does remember mercy, even in wrath, and He will deliver and restore His people.
Zephaniah seems to be a descendant of King Hezekiah, spelled, “Hizkiah” in verse 1. He ministers as a prophet during the time of King Josiah (640-609), and God may have used his preaching as part of the reformation and revival during Josiah’s time.
The prophet speaks boldly against the idolatry and social corruption that holds the hearts of the Jewish people. Their idolatry is often combined with God’s worship, and even uses Biblical language, though its meaning is twisted to convey ideas and practices entirely different from what is taught in Scripture. Thus, the people appear to worship God, but their ideas about God are based on their own ideas of what they want God to be like, and upon ideas imported from pagan mythology. Baalism is still practiced (4) along with astrology and worship of the moon goddess and sun god (5). Jews wear the gaudy, sexually suggestive clothing of pagans rather than the simple, modest dress that befits the people of God (8). Prosperity, rather than Godliness, occupies their minds and energy. They conduct their business like Canaanites (merchant people, vs. 11), with cheating and dishonesty. They say the Lord will not do anything about it (12).
But God tells the people of Maktesh, which is a neighborhood of Jerusalem, to howl in mourning because He will cut them down (11) and their goods will become booty for their conquerors (13). The great Day of the Lord is a day of judgement on Jerusalem, and it “is near, and hasteth greatly” (14). It is a terrifying day for the Jews because God will make a “speedy riddance of all of them” (18).
Zeph. 2, Jn. 19
Zeph. 3, 2 Thes. 3
God calls His people to gather before Him to repent of sin and seek God. He promises to hide them from His wrath when He sends the Babylonians through the area to conquer and destroy the nations. “Seek ye the Lord… it may be that ye shall be hid in the day of the Lord’s anger.”
Verse 4 begins to list the nations around Judah who will be conquered by the Babylonians. Gaza, Ashkelon, Ashdod, and Ekron are Philistine cities on the Mediterranean coast, who have been bitter enemies of Israel from the start (4). Cherethites (5) are a small coastal people. Their land will be given to the remnant of the Jews (7). Moab and Ammon are descendants of Lot, who have been aggressive toward the Jews from the Exodus era. They will be treated as Sodom and Gomorrah, which were destroyed by God (9). Ethiopia and Assyria will be made into a wilderness. This passage describes the Babylonians sweeping through Canaan like a storm, leaving death and destruction in their path.
The chapter begins with yet another inditement of the failures of the leaders of God’s people. This is a recurring theme in the prophets because it is the normal condition of the leaders. God calls them lions who gnaw away the bones of His people (3), and treacherous polluters of the Temple who do violence to the law of God (4). After so many warnings from so many prophets, we would think the Jews would learn not to pervert the faith and practice given by God, or the moral/civil law of His Covenant. God even says He “cut off’ other nations for their sins, and that the Jews should have learned from their example (6, 7).
The book closes with another expression of God’s grace. The Jews are going to be punished. The Chaldeans will march through their land, just as they will through the neighbouring nations. Their suffering will be terrible, and it will take generations to recover from the devastation caused by the conquest. But Jerusalem itself will continue, along with a remnant of the people, who will trust in the Lord (12, 13). His purpose and faithfulness is not disrupted by the loss of purpose or the unfaithfulness of the descendants of Abraham. His work will continue, as He holds Israel together and brings the Messiah into the world through her. All the promises and purposes of God will be fulfilled.
Haggai 1, Jn. 20
Haggai 2, 1 Tim. 1
The Prophet Haggai lived and ministered in Jerusalem after the return from the Babylonian Captivity. His work began in the second year of Darius, who ruled the Empire from 522-486 B.C. So, Haggai began his ministry around the year 520. His message is that the Temple of the Lord must be rebuilt. Leveled in the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem, Cyrus of Persia gave permission and funds to rebuild it, yet fourteen years after their release from Babylon, only the Temple's foundations have been laid. Haggai asks the Jews why they work diligently on their own houses, yet let the House of God lie waste (4).
Today we see people, maybe even our own selves, fervently building their own "houses" and neglecting the House of God. Our work, our amusements, our prosperity, our comfort, and our pleasure consume our energy and time, while, day after day, the Bible and Christian life are neglected, and Sundays find us indulging our own pleasures while the House of God is ignored.
Haggai reminds us that God is not blind to this, nor does He bless it. He tells the Jews their neglect of God is the reason they have sown much to the flesh (see Gal. 6:7-8) but have reaped little harvest for their labours. In the same way, people today who put their efforts into the things of the world, to the neglect of the things of God, reap a bitter harvest. There is nothing in this world that can give happiness and purpose to life. Worldly things do give pleasure for the moment, but it fades quickly. Only God remains forever, and only those who find their happiness in Him will be truly happy, now, and for eternity.
The Jews hear the words of Haggai and repent. The Lord stirs up their hearts and they obey (12-15). Through much work, sacrifice, and, even danger, the Temple is completed. Those in our own age who have neglected the House of God will also expend much effort, sacrifice, and no small amount of spiritual danger as they try to re-establish Godly habits of life and worship. But the greatest danger of all is failure to obey. "He that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting" (Gal. 6:8).
The Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed when Babylon sacked the city in 586 B.C. It is often called Solomon's Temple because it was built while he was king of Israel, and it was largely financed by him through a system of forced labour and foreign trade that made Solomon fabulously wealthy but caused a grassroots feeling of resentment among the Hebrew people. The Temple reflected his wealth. In Haggai's day things are different. Jerusalem is in ruins and Judah is in poverty. Even with the funds given by Cyrus, the Temple would be a poor reflection of the glory of Solomon's Temple (Hag. 2:3).
Or would it? Perhaps the real glory of the Temple cannot be found in its dimensions or ornaments. Perhaps the Temple's real glory is measured by other things, like the faith of the people, obedience to God's law, and Scriptural worship. Maybe the real glory of the Temple is something even greater than that; maybe it is something that cannot be given or removed by people. Maybe it is the glory of God dwelling in it that is its true glory. This is the point God is making through the prophet Haggai. And God intends to make His Temple more glorious than the people of Jerusalem in 520 B. C. could imagine. In a little while (6) God is going to shake the nations. The Desire of Nations will come, and God will fill the Temple with His glory (7). The Desire of Nations is Christ. He filled the Temple with glory when He was taken there as a young child, when He later confounded the Doctors at Passover, and when He taught the people there during His ministry. He filled it with glory when He accomplished the salvation it could only foreshadow, and when He gave Himself as the Lamb of God which alone is able to take away sins. He filled it with glory when, in the true Holy of Holies in Heaven, He offered the true sacrifice. He filled it with glory when He rose from the grave and ascended into the true Temple of God. He fills it with glory now in the days of His new Temple, the Church. In the Church He brings the nations into His Kingdom, proclaims His Word, dwells by His Spirit, and gives the kind of peace a Temple built by human hands could never give.
Zechariah 1, Jn. 21
Zech. 2, 1 Tim. 2, 3
Zechariah is another of those short books at the end of the Old Testament called the Minor Prophets. The prophet began his ministry in the second year of Darius. Thus, we know that Zechariah and Haggai began their work in the same year, 520 B.C. (Hag. 1:1). Looking at the first verses of both books we see their ministries began within two months of each other. Naturally, their messages compliment one another. Both are concerned to get the new Temple built. Haggai tells the people it is wrong for them to work so hard to establish their own houses, yet neglect the House of God. Zechariah is determined to show why they are willing to neglect the House of God. It is because their hearts are not with God. They are starting to fall back into the ways of their fathers (1:3-4). They are beginning to be content with an outward show of religion and a general intellectual assent to the being of God as revealed in Scripture. They are willing to live in general conformity with the moral and ceremonial law of God, but they lack a sense of belonging to God, of being His people, of being loved by Him and of loving Him back with all their heart and soul and might (Dt:6:4-5). Thus, they really love themselves above God, so they work for their own advancement, and neglect the things of God.
We often see the same thing in professed believers today. They give mental assent to the doctrines and moral values of the Bible. They live decent lives. They believe the things Christian people are supposed to believe. But these things are held as something outside of them. They are like the scenery through which a train passes, when they ought to be the fire that drives the locomotive. Love for God ought to be the driving force of life; that one Thing that gives the direction and purpose to every other aspect of our being. Mankind lost that love for God when we fell into sin. We rejected God, and we chose to love ourselves more than we loved Him. Christ died to free us from that kind of self love, for it is destructive and deadly to everything it touches. Christ also died to return us to the spiritual condition of loving God first of all and with our all. Faith that does not move a person in that direction is not faith at all by Biblical standards. It is a form of Godliness which denies the power thereof (2 Tim. 3:4-5). Thus, God, through Zechariah, urges and beseeches the people not to be like their fathers in their sin.
Three months after the message of Zechariah 1:1-6 was given, the Lord spoke again to Zechariah (7). This word came in a vision of a Man among the myrtle trees receiving a report from riders who have returned from walking to and fro through the earth (1:10). The Man is Christ Jesus, and the riders report that the earth is at rest. There is peace in the Persian Empire. Persia is strong and secure, and there is none to disturb her rest (11). But all is not well, for the Lord Himself is displeased with the people of Persia. They are the heirs of the Babylonians who attacked and brutalised the Jews. Even now they trouble the Jews and prevent them from building the Temple of God. In this they have inflicted more sorrow upon the Jews than God intended (1:15). The Babylonian Captivity was God's will. He allowed it to chasten the Jews for their sin, to humble them, and to lead them to depend upon Him again. In 520 B.C., the time of chastisement is over, yet the Gentiles will not cease their troubling of the Jews. So God assures the Jews He is with them again in mercy (16). Jerusalem, He promises, will prosper, along with God's people around the world (17). This promise has an immediate meaning to the Jews in Jerusalem. They do prosper, and the Temple of God is rebuilt. But its primary meaning is fulfilled in Christ and His Church. Through Christ the House of God was built in Jerusalem, and through His House, He has gathered people into it around the world. In Christ He has blessed the New Jerusalem with prosperity and posterity the frightened inhabitants could scarcely imagine when Zechariah spoke these words.
Why is the man measuring Jerusalem? To show its dimensions, meaning, to show that it has dimensions. It has boundaries, breadth and length (1-2). There is a point where Jerusalem begins, and a point where it ends. But the day will come when its walls will not be able to contain its people and goods (4). Its wall will be a wall of fire, not of stones, a living wall of God Himself (5). God will dwell in it (10), and people of many nations will be joined to it (11).
These promises refer to the Jews in 520 B.C. Their feeble efforts and the seemingly plain and small Temple they build seem as nothing compared to the old one. Their city, small, weak, and impoverished, seems to them as a poor imitation of the old Jerusalem. But God has great things in store for them. The Temple of God will be great in all the earth, and the city of Jerusalem will be a city that cannot be contained by any wall but the presence of God. These promises are fulfilled, in part, by the rebuilding of the Temple and the city, and by the return to Jerusalem of Jews who had been scattered among many peoples and many nations. But this is only a partial fulfillment. The real fulfillment is found in Christ and His Church. Few Old Testament passages speak so clearly of the Church of Christ in the New Testament. The Church, which is the New Jerusalem, is a city encompassing multitudes of many nations. Jews and Gentiles alike are welcomed into it. Walls cannot contain its multitudes. God, by His Spirit, dwells in it.