Keeping Promises

And the Lord said to Moses, “Cut two tablets of stone like the first ones, and I will write on these tablets the words that were on the first tablets which you broke. So be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself to Me there on the top of the mountain. And no man shall come up with you, and let no man be seen throughout all the mountain; let neither flocks nor herds feed before that mountain.”

So he cut two tablets of stone like the first ones. Then Moses rose early in the morning and went up Mount Sinai, as the Lord had commanded him; and he took in his hand the two tablets of stone.

Now the Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:1-7)

Angry at the Israelite’s sudden idolatry and his brother Aaron’s collusion in it, Moses had smashed the tablets bearing the Ten Commandments. God made replacements for the lost commandments. God’s word cannot be destroyed or undone by human actions.

The word translated “mercy” is sometimes rendered as “love” or “loving kindness.” It is a word used to describe the sort of love that exists within a contractual relationship. It expresses the obligations of that relationship.

If God’s law to Moses specified that children could not be punished for the crimes of their parents (Deuteronomy 24:16), what does it mean that the iniquity of the fathers would be visited upon the children and the children’s children down to the third and fourth generation? It means that no one is an island: your actions affect not just you, but also those around you, including your family and your descendents. If the father violates the covenant with God, he will go into exile and thus his children will also be in exile, along with their descendents. The repercussions of bad behavior reverberate for a long time. Israel’s exile in Babylon for violating the covenant has affected the people of God for generations.

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And God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant which I have established between Me and all flesh that is on the earth.”

Now the sons of Noah who went out of the ark were Shem, Ham, and Japheth. And Ham was the father of Canaan. These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated.

And Noah began to be a farmer, and he planted a vineyard. Then he drank of the wine and was drunk, and became uncovered in his tent. And Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment, laid it on both their shoulders, and went backward and covered the nakedness of their father. Their faces were turned away, and they did not see their father’s nakedness.

So Noah awoke from his wine, and knew what his younger son had done to him. Then he said:

“Cursed be Canaan;
A servant of servants
He shall be to his brethren.” (Genesis 9:17-25)

God judged the world for its wickedness by sending the Great Flood. Afterwards, the world was just as wicked as ever. Nevertheless, God made a new contract with the remnants of humanity, with Noah and his family, and with all the animals: that the world would never again suffer as it had and the rainbow would be proof of that: God’s signature on the contract.

How wicked was the post-flood world? Noah soon planted a vineyard and drank too much. Ham saw the nakedness of his father and told his brothers about it. Shem and Ham covered their father’s nakedness. Noah found out what Ham had done to him and he cursed one of Ham’s sons: Canaan.

Why did Noah curse Canaan? Why didn’t he curse Ham?

The phrase “saw the nakedness of his father” is a Hebrew idiom. It doesn’t mean that Ham saw his father naked. “His nakedness” is a reference to his wife. It means that Ham slept with Noah’s wife. Canaan is the result of Ham’s affair: an illegitimate child born of incest and the betrayal of a father by his own son. The phrase “to see” or to “uncover” the nakedness of a man is an idiom used to express having sexual intercourse with that man’s wife (see Leviticus 18:7-8, 20:20-21 for example).

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God Stays the Same

“See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years.

“So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,” says the LORD Almighty.

“I the LORD do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed. Ever since the time of your forefathers you have turned away from my decrees and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you,” says the LORD Almighty.

“But you ask, ‘How are we to return?’ (Malachi 3:1-7)

God can never fall out of love with us. So God has judged us completely, pouring out final judgment on every human being. In the Gospels, Jesus applies the opening line of this passage in Malachi to John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:10, Luke 7:27), who announced the coming of Jesus as the Messiah.

But who could actually face the Messiah, since he was coming as judge? He would be a “witness” against the wicked. The ancient Greek translation of the Bible known as the Septuagint, the Bible that the apostles used, translated that word with a word that later became part of the English language: “martyr.” The Messiah brought judgment on the wicked, but not quite the way everyone expected. The Messiah brought the judgment of the wicked upon himself. He became sin for them. He took their place—as God had intended all along.

Because God remains the same God that loved his people and rescued them from Egypt—he doesn’t destroy them. In fact, he offers them redemption: they can return to him. The judgment has been served—he served it against himself in their place—and therefore mercy is offered.

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To the Fourth Generation

And that’s the story of Jehu’s wasting of Baal in Israel.

But for all that, Jehu didn’t turn back from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, the sins that had dragged Israel into a life of sin—the golden calves in Bethel and Dan stayed.

God commended Jehu: “You did well to do what I saw was best. You did what I ordered against the family of Ahab. As reward, your sons will occupy the throne of Israel for four generations.”

Even then, though, Jehu wasn’t careful to walk in God’s ways and honor the God of Israel from an undivided heart. He didn’t turn back from the sins of Jeroboam son of Nebat, who led Israel into a life of sin.

It was about this time that God began to shrink Israel. Hazael hacked away at the borders of Israel from the Jordan to the east—all the territory of Gilead, Gad, Reuben, and Manasseh from Aroer near the Brook Arnon. In effect, all Gilead and Bashan. (2 Kings 10:28-33)

Idols are abhorrent to God, but like most Israelites, Jehu just didn’t get it. He had led a rebellion, killed Joram, a son of Ahab, and killed every member of Joram’s family, including Jezebel, Ahab’s wife and the queen mother. Then he wiped out all the prophets, servants and priests of Baal, tore down Baal’s temple, and desecrated his altars.

Despite all of that, however, he did not undo the problem that Jeroboam, the first rebel king of the Northern Kingdom of Israel had created at the founding of the nation: the golden calf idols in Dan and Bethel. Jehu only got rid of Baal worship. Though that was a good thing and God blessed him for it, guaranteeing that his royal dynasty would endure for four generations, it wasn’t enough.

Why? Human beings are the image and likeness of God, to be loved just as God is loved. Creating idols stands in the way of recognizing the full value of human beings as God’s only image. We’re supposed to catch a glimpse of God in each other, not get distracted by idols. Loving God is easy, since he doesn’t cut us off on the freeway, or otherwise bug us. But as John pointed out, if we claim to love God, who we can’t see, but hate the people whom we do, then we really don’t love God. How we treat the real image of God—other human beings—reflects whether and how we really love God.

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Justice is Served

During David’s reign there was a famine for three successive years, so David inquired of the Lord. The Lord answered, “It is because of the blood shed by Saul and his family when he killed the Gibeonites.”

The Gibeonites were not Israelites but rather a remnant of the Amorites. The Israelites had taken an oath concerning them, but Saul had tried to kill them in his zeal for the Israelites and Judah. So David summoned the Gibeonites and spoke to them. He asked the Gibeonites, “What should I do for you? How can I wipe out this guilt so that you will bring a blessing on the Lord’s inheritance?”

The Gibeonites said to him, “We are not asking for money from Saul or his family, and we cannot put anyone to death in Israel.”

“Whatever you say, I will do for you,” he said.

They replied to the king, “As for the man who annihilated us and plotted to exterminate us so we would not exist within the whole territory of Israel, let seven of his male descendants be handed over to us so we may hang them in the presence of the Lord at Gibeah of Saul, the Lord’s chosen.”
The king answered, “I will hand them over.” (2 Samuel 21:1-6)

Going back on a promise will cost you, with unpredictable consequences. During the time of Joshua, when the Israelites were conquering the Canaanites and wiping them out, one group of them from a place called Gibea pretended to come from a long ways off. God had prohibited Israel from making treaties of peace with any Canaanites, but it was fine if they made them with other people. So the Israelites made a treaty with them. Of course, the Israelites soon learned of the subterfuge, but because of the treaty, these Canaanites came under Israel’s protection. The Gibeonites, like Rahab in Jericho, had turned to God.

In his zeal to wipe out the remaining Canaanites, Saul had also attacked the people of Gibea. Thanks to a famine, David learned what Saul had done and agreed to go along with the Gibeonite’s request for vengeance. How could it be right that Saul’s sons would die for their father’s crime?

The Gibeonites had repented and come under the protection of the Israelites. Saul had violated that: he had attacked the innocent. Like Jonathan, his sons had served as soldiers in Saul’s army. They had participated in their father’s crime, and so they suffered the just consequences.

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But What About the Punishment?

Then Jonah went out of the city and sat down east of the city, and made a booth for himself there. He sat under it in the shade, waiting to see what would become of the city.

The LORD God appointed a bush, and made it come up over Jonah, to give shade over his head, to save him from his discomfort; so Jonah was very happy about the bush. But when dawn came up the next day, God appointed a worm that attacked the bush, so that it withered. When the sun rose, God prepared a sultry east wind, and the sun beat down on the head of Jonah so that he was faint and asked that he might die. He said, “It is better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Is it right for you to be angry about the bush?” And he said, “Yes, angry enough to die.” Then the LORD said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:5-10)

People like stories where the bad guy gets his just deserts. That’s exactly what Jonah was hoping for Nineveh. Jonah hated it; the capital of an Assyrian Empire was cruel and threatened Israel. But God told Jonah to warn them that judgment was imminent. Jonah refused and boarded a ship going the opposite direction. He expected God would kill him. Jonah was fine with that, because lacking his warning, Nineveh would be destroyed. To Jonah’s surprise, God put him in a fish’s belly, instead. Three days later, God asked again. So Jonah obeyed. And what he feared most is what happened: Nineveh repented, and God forgave the Ninevites.

God showed Jonah mercy as well. As he sat outside Nineveh hoping that God would punish it, Jonah’s misery in the hot sun was relieved by a vine that gave him shade. When it shriveled and died, he wished he could die too. The story ends with a question from God: if Jonah can feel concern over a mere plant, then what should God feel for human beings? Jonah learned why God much prefers mercy to judgment.

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Let Justice Roll

Alas, you who are longing for the day of the LORD,
For what purpose will the day of the LORD be to you?
It will be darkness and not light;
As when a man flees from a lion
And a bear meets him,
Or goes home, leans his hand against the wall
And a snake bites him.
Will not the day of the LORD be darkness instead of light,
Even gloom with no brightness in it?

“I hate, I reject your festivals,
Nor do I delight in your solemn assemblies.

“Even though you offer up to Me burnt offerings and your grain offerings,
I will not accept them;
And I will not even look at the peace offerings of your fatlings.

“Take away from Me the noise of your songs;
I will not even listen to the sound of your harps.

“But let justice roll down like waters
And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

“Did you present Me with sacrifices and grain offerings in the wilderness for forty years, O house of Israel?

“You also carried along Sikkuth your king and Kiyyun, your images, the star of your gods which you made for yourselves.

“Therefore, I will make you go into exile beyond Damascus,” says the LORD, whose name is the God of hosts. (Amos 5:18-27)

The Day of the Lord was not a time of celebration. It was the time when God acted in judgment. Those who wanted justice might be among the first on the chopping block. Sure, while the Israelites wandered for forty years, they sacrificed to God. Sure, the Israelites continued to perform the required rituals as specified by the contract they made with God. Unfortunately, they also sacrificed to some other deities as well. So God would exile them in Babylon.

Sikkuth and Kiyyun were both false gods, most likely to be identified with Jupiter and Saturn. In Canaanite mythology, those two gods, Saturn and Jupiter were identified with El and Baal. They were part of Israel’s religious life even as far back as the wanderings in the wilderness. The worship of other gods is what motivated Joshua to famously stand before the people and ask them to “chose you this day” whom you will worship.

God had been very patient, gently working for a very long time in an attempt to turn his people from their tendency to mix the false worship with the worship of Yahweh. But sometimes, mercy had to end. Sometimes it became necessary to move on to something more harsh: the Day of the Lord.

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Where Is God?

“Now, therefore,” says the LORD,
“Turn to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
So rend your heart, and not your garments;
Return to the LORD your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents from doing harm.
Who knows if He will turn and relent,
And leave a blessing behind Him—
A grain offering and a drink offering
For the LORD your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion,
Consecrate a fast,
Call a sacred assembly;
Gather the people,
Sanctify the congregation,
Assemble the elders,
Gather the children and nursing babes;
Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber,
And the bride from her dressing room.
Let the priests, who minister to the LORD,
Weep between the porch and the altar;
Let them say, “Spare Your people, O LORD,
And do not give Your heritage to reproach,
That the nations should rule over them.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’ ”
Then the LORD will be zealous for His land,
And pity His people. (Joel 2:12-18)

“Where is God?” A common question in the midst of a disaster. In the case of Israel, the question might arise as outsiders witnessed the destruction of his chosen people at the hands of the Babylonians or some other invader. Through Joel, God called upon his people to repent whole-heartedly, to respond to the punishment so that he could restore them and silence those who wondered about what was happening, who might imagine that the suffering of his chosen ones meant that he wasn’t there, had rejected them, or for some reason had abandoned them.

When God’s people finally repented, the outsiders would witness their restoration and their return to glory. Instead of asking, “where is God”, they would finally realize, “oh, well there He is!”

People do not wonder where God is when times are good. Instead, they exclaim praises and thanks and shout that “God is good,” and “behold the hand of God,” and “see how God moves.” No one, facing happiness, asks “why me?” or “where is God?” For some reason, God seems easier to recognize in the good times than in the bad.

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The Watchman

“So you, mortal, I have made a sentinel for the house of Israel; whenever you hear a word from my mouth, you shall give them warning from me. If I say to the wicked, ‘O wicked ones, you shall surely die,’ and you do not speak to warn the wicked to turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but their blood I will require at your hand. But if you warn the wicked to turn from their ways, and they do not turn from their ways, the wicked shall die in their iniquity, but you will have saved your life.

“Now you, mortal, say to the house of Israel, Thus you have said: ‘Our transgressions and our sins weigh upon us, and we waste away because of them; how then can we live?’ Say to them, ‘As I live, says the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from their ways and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’” (Ezekiel 33:7-11)

When the world’s idea of failure happens, it doesn’t mean that God doesn’t love us anymore. Success is simply doing what God has asked, regardless of the consequences. God did not tell Ezekiel that anyone would necessarily repent or even believe his words. What mattered to God, what was “success” to God, was simply that Ezekiel would do what God had asked. His responsibility was to warn the Israelites. What the Israelites then did with his warning was up to them. He might feel bad for what happened to the people, but he could never feel guilty. He would be a failure only if he kept silent. If a building lacks fire alarms and smoke detectors and people die, the building owner will be held accountable. But if the alarms are there and no one heeds them, then those who die in the flames have only themselves to blame.

God, though, hoped desperately that his people would heed the warnings delivered by Ezekiel. God’s happiness comes when people repent and turn from their sins. God derives no pleasure at all when his warnings are ignored. God does not delight in bringing judgment. He delights in rescue. For God, it really does hurt him more than it hurts us.

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Sour Grapes

The LORD All-Powerful, the God of Israel, said:

I promise to set the people of Judah free and to lead them back to their hometowns. And when I do, they will once again say,

“We pray that the LORD
will bless his home,
the sacred hill in Jerusalem
where his temple stands.”

The people will live in Jerusalem and in the towns of Judah. Some will be farmers, and others will be shepherds. Those who feel tired and worn out will find new life and energy, and when they sleep, they will wake up refreshed.

Someday, Israel and Judah will be my field where my people and their livestock will grow. In the past, I took care to uproot them, to tear them down, and to destroy them. But when that day comes, I will take care to plant them and help them grow. No longer will anyone go around saying,

“Sour grapes eaten by parents
leave a sour taste in the mouths
of their children.”

When that day comes, only those who eat sour grapes will get the sour taste, and only those who sin will be put to death. (Jeremiah 31:23-30)

God can and does distinguish between the guilty and the innocent. And God reassures his people that his punishments against the guilty are not forever. Someday life will be good again; the Israelites will go home and return to their former lives, like a criminal released from prison. Once again, they will go about their business and do what they used to do. When that day comes, they will stop imagining that God is just out to get them, or that his punishments are not distinguishing between those who deserve it and those who don’t.

It was part of Israel’s legal code that “Parents are not to be put to death for their children, nor children put to death for their parents; each of you will die for your own sin.” (Deuteronomy 24:16). God does not violate his own commandments, and yet a false proverb had become widely quoted in Israel that suggested God punished children for what their parents did. God, through Jeremiah, reiterates reality: only those who do wrong get punished for it. There’s no such thing as collateral damage with God’s punishments. He only brings his judgment upon those who deserve it.

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