God Talks to Sinners

When it was told Laban on the third day that Jacob had fled, then he took his kinsmen with him and pursued him a distance of seven days’ journey, and he overtook him in the hill country of Gilead. God came to Laban the Aramean in a dream of the night and said to him, “Be careful that you do not speak to Jacob either good or bad.”

Laban caught up with Jacob. Now Jacob had pitched his tent in the hill country, and Laban with his kinsmen camped in the hill country of Gilead. Then Laban said to Jacob, “What have you done by deceiving me and carrying away my daughters like captives of the sword?

“Why did you flee secretly and deceive me, and did not tell me so that I might have sent you away with joy and with songs, with timbrel and with lyre; and did not allow me to kiss my sons and my daughters? Now you have done foolishly.

“It is in my power to do you harm, but the God of your father spoke to me last night, saying, ‘Be careful not to speak either good or bad to Jacob.’

“Now you have indeed gone away because you longed greatly for your father’s house; but why did you steal my gods?” (Genesis 31:22-30)

God talks to sinners. Otherwise, he’d only be talking to himself. Laban was Jacob’s uncle and he was an idolater. He was also a scoundrel who had taken advantage of Jacob, cheating him repeatedly. His daughters knew what he was capable of, so his daughter Rachael, Jacob’s wife, had stolen the household idols when they ran away. How come? Because whoever held those idols was guaranteed to receive the inheritance. It was the equivalent of running off with Laban’s safe deposit box and his debit card. But of course it also meant that Laban, his daughters and even Jacob, being part of a polytheistic culture, still thought in terms of multiple gods, even as Jacob worshiped the God of his fathers, Abraham and Isaac.

The night before Laban caught up with the fleeing Jacob, God issued a warning: Laban could say nothing “good or bad” to him. That is, God prevented Laban from being able to pronounce either a curse or a blessing on his son-in-law. Such blessings and cursings were taken quite seriously by all involved. God protected Jacob by preventing anything bad from happening to him. God also prevented Jacob from thinking that the good that would follow in his life came from his idolatrous uncle—rather than from its true source: the God of Abraham and Isaac.

It is God who takes care of us. Nobody else.

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Sold for Sandals

“Because of the three great sins of Israel
—make that four—I’m not putting up with them any longer.
They buy and sell upstanding people.
People for them are only things—ways of making money.
They’d sell a poor man for a pair of shoes.
They’d sell their own grandmother!
They grind the penniless into the dirt,
shove the luckless into the ditch.
Everyone and his brother sleeps with the ‘sacred whore’—
a sacrilege against my Holy Name.
Stuff they’ve extorted from the poor
is piled up at the shrine of their god,
While they sit around drinking wine
they’ve conned from their victims.
“In contrast, I was always on your side.
I destroyed the Amorites who confronted you,
Amorites with the stature of great cedars,
tough as thick oaks.
I destroyed them from the top branches down.
I destroyed them from the roots up.
And yes, I’m the One who delivered you from Egypt,
led you safely through the wilderness for forty years
And then handed you the country of the Amorites
like a piece of cake on a platter.
I raised up some of your young men to be prophets,
set aside your best youth for training in holiness.
Isn’t this so, Israel?” (Amos 2:6-11)

Ingratitude can be startling. Hebrew poetry is created by rhyming ideas rather than sounds—that is, by writing parallel lines that use synonyms. Numbers, however, lack synonyms and so the convention for poets when they chose to use numbers, was to give two sequential numbers—as here, three, then four. The poet intended all along to list four things, of course. So what four sins was Israel guilty of?

Judges took bribes to punish a people for crimes they were innocent of. They oppressed the poor and suffering. They profaned the name of God when both a man and his father used the same prostitute. And finally, they got drunk in the temple from the wine they had taken unjustly.

God took this bad behavior as ingratitude. Look at what he had done for them in rescuing them from Egypt and giving them a country. Rather than being thankful, they treated each other the way the Egyptians who had enslaved them had.

The consequence, of course, would be God’s discipline. He intended to help them learn to be thankful, to help them learn to be loving to one another and to God. Likewise, God punishes us in order to make us better people more like him. God punishes us to keep us from hurting the people we should be loving.

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One Stick or Two?

The word of the LORD came to me: “Son of man, take a stick of wood and write on it, ‘Belonging to Judah and the Israelites associated with him.’ Then take another stick of wood, and write on it, ‘Ephraim’s stick, belonging to Joseph and all the house of Israel associated with him.’ Join them together into one stick so that they will become one in your hand.

“When your countrymen ask you, ‘Won’t you tell us what you mean by this?’ say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I am going to take the stick of Joseph—which is in Ephraim’s hand—and of the Israelite tribes associated with him, and join it to Judah’s stick, making them a single stick of wood, and they will become one in my hand.’ Hold before their eyes the sticks you have written on and say to them, ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: I will take the Israelites out of the nations where they have gone. I will gather them from all around and bring them back into their own land. I will make them one nation in the land, on the mountains of Israel. There will be one king over all of them and they will never again be two nations or be divided into two kingdoms. (Ezekiel 37:15-22)

Only God can put Humpty Dumpty together again. More than three hundred years before Ezekiel was born, the northern tribes of Israel had rebelled against the son of Solomon and established a separate nation, with a different king. For all those years, they had maintained their independence—until the day the Assyrians arrived, destroyed their capital, and took nearly thirty thousand of them away to Nineveh. When Ezekiel prophesied, that northern kingdom had been in Assyrian captivity for over a hundred years. The southern kingdom, ruled over by a descendent of Solomon, was then in the process of being destroyed and taken into their own captivity in Babylon, where they were destined to remain for seventy years.

In the midst of this division and destruction, God announced that both the captivity in foreign lands, and the divisions between the people of Israel were ending. The shattered Israelites, both northerner and southerner, would together rebuild the desolate cities and find rest under a single king.

God’s words to Ezekiel began to come true when Cyrus, the Persian king, issued his decree permitting all the captives to go back home. They became fully true when the Holy Spirit united all believers everywhere into one body in Christ.

God did not ever intend for his people to be estranged. He intends to restore harmony to wherever it has gone missing.

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A Discouraging Word

Now Shephatiah son of Mattan, Gedaliah son of Pashhur, Jehucal son of Shelemiah, and Pashhur son of Malkijah heard what Jeremiah had been telling the people. He had been saying, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Everyone who stays in Jerusalem will die from war, famine, or disease, but those who surrender to the Babylonians will live. Their reward will be life. They will live!’ The LORD also says: ‘The city of Jerusalem will certainly be handed over to the army of the king of Babylon, who will capture it.’ ”

So these officials went to the king and said, “Sir, this man must die! That kind of talk will undermine the morale of the few fighting men we have left, as well as that of all the people. This man is a traitor!”

King Zedekiah agreed. “All right,” he said. “Do as you like. I can’t stop you.”

So the officials took Jeremiah from his cell and lowered him by ropes into an empty cistern in the prison yard. It belonged to Malkijah, a member of the royal family. There was no water in the cistern, but there was a thick layer of mud at the bottom, and Jeremiah sank down into it. (Jeremiah 38:1-6)

Jeremiah was an enemy of the state. From the perspective of his government, God’s words as relayed by the prophet sounded treasonous: he was encouraging the people, in a time of war against an existential threat—Babylon—to surrender. Jeremiah was arguing that God had turned against Judah and that they would lose the war. In fact, Jeremiah reported that God God was now fighting on the side of Babylon! The only ones who could come out well from this disaster would be those who were least patriotic, least loyal, least devoted to their nation. Those who were cowards, who surrendered to the invader, were the ones who would prosper.

So the government decided that something had to be done: Jeremiah should be executed. He was arrested and put into a cistern full of mud to rot until they got around to killing him, assuming he didn’t die there and save them all the trouble.

Sometimes God’s message will seem obviously wrong to us. We will be tempted, like Jeremiah’s government, to reject it. We will want to attack those who are reporting it to us. God is not always particularly popular. God does not always sound like he’s on our side because sometimes he isn’t. Sometimes what we really need is a trip to the woodshed, not a trip to the candy store.

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Hope and Change

“Although you have been forsaken and hated,
with no one traveling through,
I will make you the everlasting pride
and the joy of all generations.
You will drink the milk of nations
and be nursed at royal breasts.
Then you will know that I, the LORD, am your Savior,
your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
Instead of bronze I will bring you gold,
and silver in place of iron.
Instead of wood I will bring you bronze,
and iron in place of stones.
I will make peace your governor
and righteousness your ruler.
No longer will violence be heard in your land,
nor ruin or destruction within your borders,
but you will call your walls Salvation
and your gates Praise.
The sun will no more be your light by day,
nor will the brightness of the moon shine on you,
for the LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your God will be your glory.
Your sun will never set again,
and your moon will wane no more;
the LORD will be your everlasting light,
and your days of sorrow will end.
Then will all your people be righteous
and they will possess the land forever.
They are the shoot I have planted,
the work of my hands,
for the display of my splendor.
The least of you will become a thousand,
the smallest a mighty nation.
I am the LORD;
in its time I will do this swiftly.” (Isaiah 60:15-22)

God promised hope and change to those who needed it most desperately. The Israelites in foreign captivity in Assyria and Babylonia felt lost and abandoned. But God told them that what had failed them would become their hope: the city of Jerusalem, then scattered and broken, would rise against as a fortress of protection.

The Sun and the Moon—false gods that they had worshiped but which had failed them—would fade from their consciousness. God would take the place of the Sun and Moon, and unlike the false deities, he would never set; he would never fade to a crescent sliver. No cloud would cover him, no shifting phases, no dark nights ever again. God would always be there, a steady light of joy and hope free of sorrow, because their sin would be gone, replaced by everlasting righteousness.

Sin is inevitably sad. It’s sweet promise always turns to bitterest ashes in our mouths. God grants us his righteousness, banishing such sorrow forever.

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Bring forth the people who are blind, yet have eyes,
who are deaf, yet have ears!
Let all the nations gather together,
and let the peoples assemble.
Who among them declared this,
and foretold to us the former things?
Let them bring their witnesses to justify them,
and let them hear and say, “It is true.”
You are my witnesses, says the LORD,
and my servant whom I have chosen,
so that you may know and believe me
and understand that I am he.
Before me no god was formed,
nor shall there be any after me.
I, I am the LORD,
and besides me there is no savior.
I declared and saved and proclaimed,
when there was no strange god among you;
and you are my witnesses, says the LORD.
I am God, and also henceforth I am He;
there is no one who can deliver from my hand;
I work and who can hinder it? (Isaiah 43:8-13)

There are none so blind as those who will not see. It was hard for the Israelites to accept what seems obvious to us today: there is only one God. The Egyptian civilization out which Israel had been rescued and the Mesopotamian civilization into which they had settled was polytheistic to the core. Everyone the Israelites came in contact with believed in many deities: deities for each city, deities for each profession, deities for the seasons, even deities for individual households. It even seemed reasonable: after all, the very basis of civilization itself is a division of labor: not everyone farms, not everyone manufactures tools, not everyone is a scribe, not everyone is a king, or governor, or other bureaucratic official. The family itself divides labor between the father and mother, between the daughters and sons. The concept that there was but one God, that he had no beginning or end, that he was everywhere and was in charge of everything was hard for the Israelites to wrap their heads around. Additionally, as the time passed from those who had seen the miracles of the Exodus, the very reality of God seemed to fade. How could they rely on a God without symbols, without images? At least the gods they knew from the people around them were visible, even if their power was limited and their effectiveness in question. How could a God that was invisible do anything for them? Or against them?

It took the captivity of seventy years in Babylon for God to finally get through to the Israelites. God is real. He both can and will remind us of his involvement in our lives. God may be alone, but he does not leave us alone.

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God Made You

Descendants of Jacob,
I, the LORD, created you
and formed your nation.
Israel, don’t be afraid.
I have rescued you.
I have called you by name;
now you belong to me.
When you cross deep rivers,
I will be with you,
and you won’t drown.
When you walk through fire,
you won’t be burned
or scorched by the flames.
I am the LORD, your God,
the Holy One of Israel,
the God who saves you.
I gave up Egypt, Ethiopia,
and the region of Seba
in exchange for you.
To me, you are very dear,
and I love you.
That’s why I gave up nations
and people to rescue you.
Don’t be afraid! I am with you.
From both east and west
I will bring you together.
I will say to the north
and to the south,
“Free my sons and daughters!
Let them return
from distant lands.
They are my people—
I created each of them
to bring honor to me.” (Isaiah 43:1-7)

Only crazy people kill their own children. God’s not crazy. As the writer of Proverbs pointed out, children need discipline and the rod of discipline will not kill the child, though the child might be convinced otherwise and will scream bloody murder. The Israelites were suffering because they had violated the terms of God’s contract with them. They were suffering justly. They were being punished because they had been bad. So the Israelites were certain that God had abandoned them for all time, that they were in exile in Babylon or Assyria because God hated them and never wanted to see them again.

Children often take any bad situation and magnify it beyond recognition. The children of Israel were no different—and if we’re honest with ourselves, we’re no different either. But God reassured his people, that no matter what they went through, he would be with them and would protect them. It was all for the best and in the end, they’d be glad for the experience. Punishment never seems good when it’s happening. But later, the value usually becomes pretty obvious.

God created his people—every last one of them—and not only does he love them despite their sins, their many failures, he knows that they will, each of them, ultimately bring him honor. Remarkably, God is honored to know us.

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He’ll Come If You Ask

This is what the Sovereign LORD,
the Holy One of Israel, says:
“Only in returning to me
and resting in me will you be saved.
In quietness and confidence is your strength.
But you would have none of it.
You said, ‘No, we will get our help from Egypt.
They will give us swift horses for riding into battle.’
But the only swiftness you are going to see
is the swiftness of your enemies chasing you!
One of them will chase a thousand of you.
Five of them will make all of you flee.
You will be left like a lonely flagpole on a hill
or a tattered banner on a distant mountaintop.”
So the LORD must wait for you to come to him
so he can show you his love and compassion.
For the LORD is a faithful God.
Blessed are those who wait for his help.
O people of Zion, who live in Jerusalem,
you will weep no more.
He will be gracious if you ask for help.
He will surely respond to the sound of your cries. (Isaiah 30:15-19)

You can do things your way or God’s way. Like a small child telling his father, “I can do it myself,” so the children of Israel were not interested in what God had to offer them. They were convinced that they had a good plan and that everything was under control. God pointed out that they were mistaken, but he let them try it their way first.

In the time of Moses, God had promised his people that if they were faithful, one person could make a thousand enemies flee. If they were not faithful, God promised that one enemy would make a thousand Israelites flee. Five hundred years later, God used Isaiah to remind them of those promises.

God would have rather that his people had listened to him. He had Isaiah offer them the chance to do the right thing. God loved his people and he didn’t want to see them hurt or unhappy. But he loved them so much that he set them free and waited for them to realize the error of their ways—as he knew they would—so that they would, in the end, freely choose him. God promised his people that whenever they finally called out to him for help, whenever it was that they finally realized that they really couldn’t do it themselves, he would be there to help them pick up the pieces. God is always near, always ready to help us, no matter how many bad choices we’ve made. All we have to do is ask.

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Rebellious Children

“Woe to the rebellious children,” declares the LORD,
“Who execute a plan, but not Mine,
And make an alliance, but not of My Spirit,
In order to add sin to sin;
Who proceed down to Egypt
Without consulting Me,
To take refuge in the safety of Pharaoh
And to seek shelter in the shadow of Egypt!
“Therefore the safety of Pharaoh will be your shame
And the shelter in the shadow of Egypt, your humiliation.
“For their princes are at Zoan
And their ambassadors arrive at Hanes.
“Everyone will be ashamed because of a people who cannot profit them,
Who are not for help or profit, but for shame and also for reproach.” (Isaiah 30:1-5)

War plans never survive contact with the enemy. The people of Israel feared the rising power of the Assyrians and Babylonians. To counter the very real threat, they attempted to make an alliance with the Egyptians. The Egyptians had long served as a counterweight to the power of Mesopotamia, with Israel balanced precariously between the two of them. God pointed out that in seeking help from Egypt, the Jewish people were rejecting help from God. They were trusting the power of an Egypt that they could see, and distrusted God, whom they could not. Rather than consulting God, rather than praying, rather than studying the word of God, they relied on themselves.

Children make decisions based on what they think is best, based on their understanding of things. But children lack both the brain development and the experience base that adults have. What seems like a perfectly reasonable plan of action to a child, can be incredibly stupid in reality. They could have been spared much grief if they had only talked to their parents first. God was willing to provide proper guidance to his people. He was willing to take care of them. He was far more powerful than the Egyptians. But they trusted themselves more than him and lost everything because of that. God understands our problems better than we do. So why not let him make the plans?

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God Loves Your Enemies

In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar to the LORD at its border. And it will be for a sign and for a witness to the LORD of hosts in the land of Egypt; for they will cry to the LORD because of the oppressors, and He will send them a Savior and a Mighty One, and He will deliver them. Then the LORD will be known to Egypt, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day, and will make sacrifice and offering; yes, they will make a vow to the LORD and perform it. And the LORD will strike Egypt, He will strike and heal it; they will return to the LORD, and He will be entreated by them and heal them.

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will serve with the Assyrians.

In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria—a blessing in the midst of the land, whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, “Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands, and Israel My inheritance.” (Isaiah 19:19-25)

God doesn’t just love us. He loves those who hate us, too. Egypt had enslaved the Israelites for more than four hundred years. Assyria was a brutal dictatorship, noted for its cruelty in war. Egypt became a picture of sin. The Exodus from Egyptian slavery became a picture of God’s salvation from sin. Assyria was a place of bondage and exile, too: a place destined to be judged by God for their mistreatment of his people.

But despite all that, God loved the Egyptians and the Assyrians no less than he loved anyone else. He offered forgiveness and salvation to them, just as he had offered it to his own people, the Israelites. Surprisingly, just like the Israelites, God announced that the Assyrians and the Egyptians would repent and become as much God’s people as the Israelites. The fulfillment of God’s words began with the spreading of the Gospel message beyond the borders of Palestine to the Gentiles. Those of us who are not Jewish by birth, have become one with all of God’s people thanks to Jesus. Even the enemies of God, the enemies of his people, were offered—and then granted—God’s love. We might as well love our enemies, since God already does—and who really wants to disagree with God?

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