Seeking Safe Dwellings

And my people shall abide in a peaceable habitation, and in safe dwellings, and in quiet resting-places (Isaiah 32:18).

In times of distress and turbulence, “normal stability” seems like paradise.

The prophet Isaiah spoke to Israel at the end of the good times and in times of great terror. Israel trusted in her prosperity and in her nimble foreign policy maneuvers yet would soon find out there was no security in them. Before Isaiah’s time was done Israel would experience the full terror of Assyria; the Kingdom of Israel would be no more, and the Kingdom of Judah was humiliated, impoverished, and broken (cf. 2 Kings 17:1-19:37, Isaiah 1:1-9). Furthermore, the time for Judah was short; the Babylonian menace loomed large in the future as Isaiah saw it (cf. Isaiah 39:1-8). Safety proved to be an illusion.

It is this future devastation which Isaiah seems to envision in Isaiah 32:9-14. He speaks to women who are at ease in Judah: they are complacent and ought to repent in light of what will take place (Isaiah 32:9). Isaiah envisions the failure of harvests, an empty palace, cities overrun with animals and weeds, no doubt the result of pestilence, famine, violence, and exile (Isaiah 32:10-14). Everything which seemed stable would fall apart; in the chaos, a return to what was expected as “normal” would seem great!

Yet that is precisely the problem: the Israelites, particularly the wealthy among them, have taken their stability and safety for granted, and have believed that it has come as a result of their own devices. Isaiah provides no message to encourage such a view. In the cutthroat ancient Near Eastern world, safety and security could not come from chariot, sword, gold, silver, or power. They all would fail over time.

Isaiah does speak of a time when stability, safety, and peace will return, and does so in a picturesque and ideal way for all times: the desert becomes fruitful, justice and righteousness abide in the land, all live in peace and confidence, with safe and quiet houses (Isaiah 32:15-18). Yet this does not come because of Israel and anything she has done but because God has poured out His Spirit upon His people (Isaiah 32:15).

Isaiah’s message did not receive much of a hearing while Israel remained prosperous. Yet after the devastation and terrors came to pass, later generations took comfort in the hope of Isaiah’s prophecies. They yearned for the security and stability they did not enjoy in their day. They looked forward to when God would pour out His Spirit and this security would be present.

We find the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy in Jesus of Nazareth and His Kingdom. God has poured out His Spirit upon His people (Acts 2:1-41). Yet if we look for the prosperity and security on a physical level, we look in vain, for the promise is for spiritual prosperity and security. In Christ all spiritual riches and blessings are poured out (Ephesians 1:3); in Christ we find true security and refuge (Hebrews 6:18). In Christ we have a great treasure ensured for us for eternity (1 Peter 1:3-9)!

We can therefore find a safe dwelling in God in Christ and among His people (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:14-16, 6:19-20, 1 Peter 2:3-5). Yet we do well to heed the warning provided by the example of Israel in the days of Isaiah: safety will not be found in this world among the tools of this world. We are not guaranteed material prosperity and comfort. In this world we will find danger, distress, trial, and tribulation (Acts 14:21, 2 Timothy 3:12). God has not sent His Son to help us escape the problems of life but to provide us strength so as to endure them (cf. Ephesians 3:17-21, 6:10-18). We may be fortunate enough to find a nice piece of property with a nice house in a nice community with nice neighbors with nice services and a clean, safe, sanitized environment, but we should never confuse that with normalcy or how Christianity ought to be. If our lives are going well and we have relatively safe dwellings, we should be thankful but not complacent, aware that earthly stability may vanish, but Jesus will remain. Days may come when we find ourselves in great distress or trial and we will discover, as Israel did before us, that confidence in earthly forms of stability may fail, and that true security can only be found through God and His loving-kindness.

The desert is now fruitful; righteousness now exists in the Kingdom of God; safe dwellings can be found. We will not find them from the military or the government but only through dwelling in God through His Son in the Spirit. Prosperity, righteousness, and stability do not demand the American dream but instead through quiet confidence in God’s strength unto endurance, humbly living as a faithful servant in the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus, suffering the loss of all things for Him for His eternal glory. Let us not seek safety in the world but through trusting in the Lord Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Seeking Safe Dwellings

The Immanuel Sign

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Butter and honey shall he eat, when he knoweth to refuse the evil, and choose the good. For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land whose two kings thou abhorrest shall be forsaken” (Isaiah 7:14-16).

The Kingdom of Judah seemed to be in deep trouble.

Around 735 BCE, faced with the ascendant power of Assyria to the north, Rezin king of Aram and Pekah king of Israel solidified their alliance and not so subtly suggested to Ahaz king of Judah that he should join their league. Ahaz resisted, and Rezin and Pekah retaliated by invading Judah and fighting against Jerusalem, intending to depose Ahaz and install a more compliant pretender on the throne (ca. 735-732 BCE, sometimes called the “Syro-Ephraimitic War”; Isaiah 7:1-6). Just before the invasion, when Judah was told of the confederation, they were terrified: Israel was likely stronger than Judah, let alone a Syro-Ephramitic alliance against Judah. How could Judah stand (cf. Isaiah 7:2)?

In the midst of this trial YHWH God of Israel sends a message to Ahaz through His prophet Isaiah. YHWH knew the plans of Aram and Israel and wanted to assure Ahaz that nothing would come of it (Isaiah 7:7). Within 65 years YHWH would see to it that there would be nothing left of Ephraim in Israel (Isaiah 7:8). All Ahaz needed to do was to do nothing, put his confidence in YHWH, and all would be well (Isaiah 7:9).

Yet Ahaz is famous (or infamous?) in Scripture for not putting his trust in YHWH but instead into the gods of other nations and what seemed like intelligent foreign policy (cf. 2 Kings 16:1-20). Now, it seemed, he was facing an existential threat to not only his own life but to the throne of David and Jerusalem itself. To do nothing while his adversaries encircled him and destroyed him? It seemed preposterous!

YHWH wishes to give a sign to Ahaz so that he can have confidence in the word He delivered through Isaiah (Isaiah 7:10-11); Ahaz, attempting to appear humble and pious, demurred (Isaiah 7:12). In so doing he wearies YHWH (Isaiah 7:13), yet the Lord will give a sign regardless: a woman will conceive a child, bear a son, called Immanuel (“God with us”; Isaiah 7:14). Before he knows how to choose good and refuse evil, likely within eight to fifteen years of his birth, he will eat butter and honey, signs of prosperity, for the land of Aram and Israel will be forsaken by that time (Isaiah 7:15-16). The danger will pass away if only Ahaz would just sit tight and trust in YHWH for deliverance.

Ahaz does not put his trust in YHWH. Rezin and Pekah invade Judah and besiege Jerusalem yet prove unable to overcome it (2 Kings 16:5-6). In distress Ahaz ends up beseeching the agent YHWH intended to use to judge Aram and Israel, Assyria, but does so at a high cost: he collected the gold and silver in the Temple and his own palace to give to Tiglath-pileser III king of Assyria and became a vassal of Assyria (2 Kings 16:7-8). Yet Tiglath-pileser III king of Assyria did not really need inducement to attack Aram and Israel; he would have likely done so without Ahaz’s appeal. In 732 BCE, Tiglath-pileser invaded Aram and Israel, exiled the inhabitants of Damascus and killed Rezin, then invaded Israel and made all of the land save for Ephraim part of his own empire (cf. 2 Kings 15:29, 16:9). About ten years later, in 722/721 BCE, Sennacherib king of Assyria finished the task by overcoming the defenses of Samaria and fully conquering the northern Kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:1-6). A child conceived in 735 BCE and born in 734 BCE would have been about 12 or 13 in 722/721 BCE, at the age of knowing to choose the good and refuse evil. YHWH made sure that the Immanuel sign was accomplished in its own time, but Ahaz’s foolish action cost Judah dearly. Had Ahaz listened to YHWH and done nothing, his foes would be gone and his (relative) independence would be maintained. Yet he voluntarily submitted to Assyria as a vassal; when his son Hezekiah rebelled against Sennacherib king of Assyria and stopped paying tribute, the full force of Assyria was unleashed against Judah, leading to the destruction of the walled cities of Judah save for Jerusalem (ca. 701 BCE; 2 Kings 18:7, 13-19:37). Ahaz sought a worldly way to maintain his throne and his head; it nearly cost his son both. They only obtained deliverance because God was with them.

Over the next seven hundred years there were many times when the Jews could have easily doubted the idea that God was with them: Babylon accomplished what Assyria sought to do, the people were exiled, returned to the land, remained under foreign domination, and experienced intense persecution at the hands of pagan oppressors for maintaining their confidence in YHWH their God. Yet through all of this the people hoped for the ultimate fulfillment of the Immanuel sign: the Child born of a virgin who would truly represent Immanuel, God with us, and He was born in a most humble way to a Galilean peasant girl in Bethlehem (Matthew 1:21-25, Luke 2:4-20). Yet again the people of Israel were beset with foes that seemed to threaten their very existence, but the time for their concerns had passed. The sign was no longer that the child would see prosperity and the destruction of the national foes of Judah by the age of 15; the Child Himself is the sign, for He is Jesus, the Immanuel, God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14). He came in the flesh to overcome the enemy of all mankind, to deliver them from sin and death, if they would only put their trust in Him to that end and stand firm (Acts 2:14-38, Romans 5:6-11, 8:1-10). By persevering to the end, Jesus obtains the Kingdom promised to the descendants of David, an everlasting Kingdom, and He serves as its Lord (Daniel 2:44, Colossians 1:13).

God was with Judah: He provided the sign of the child who would be able to enjoy peace and security at 15, and it came to pass. YHWH was able to defend and protect Judah without Ahaz needing to go compromise himself through the pursuit of what passed for human wisdom and sensible foreign policy. The cost of Ahaz’s foolishness was high, but God remained faithful to Hezekiah and preserved a remnant of Judah. Yet YHWH’s presence among His people was only ultimately demonstrated through the embodiment of the Word in Jesus of Nazareth, and it is through Him that God provides the ultimate deliverance for all mankind. We can only obtain that deliverance by trusting in Him and doing what He says; attempting to establish the fulfillment of the promise through what passes for worldly wisdom is foolhardy and can only postpone the ultimate end and danger we all face. Let us be thankful for the Immanuel sign, and unlike Ahaz, let us put our full confidence in God and seek to serve Him and glorify His name through His Son Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Immanuel Sign

Smooth Things

For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD; that say to the seers, “See not”;
and to the prophets, “Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits, get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us” (Isaiah 30:9-11).

The Iraq war of 2003. The economic disaster of 2008. These are but two of many instances in history when certain people warned about dangers and problems with conventional thinking and wisdom that went unheeded but proved to be precisely correct. Such voices often only gain credibility and respect after the fact when “I told you so” proves to be cold comfort.

The reason why this tendency exists in humanity is the same as the origin of the phrase, “don’t shoot the messenger”: humans do not like doom and gloom predictions and warnings about the dangers of their behaviors and the consequences of their actions. In such circumstances most will seek out reassurance that all will be well, to keep on accepting the official line or statement, and carry on with their lives. Meanwhile, the problems continue to grow and develop, and when they become too painfully obvious to ignore, it is too late. Pain and regret follow.

The prophets of Israel understood this tendency only too well. Isaiah laments how the king of Judah and his associates have not put their trust in the LORD but instead seek to make political alliances with Egypt in Isaiah 30:1-17. He has, no doubt, prophesied before them about the dangers of their path, but they did not want to hear it. It is unlikely that the people of Judah would be so bold as to actually tell the prophet to lie, deceive, and say smooth things (cf. Isaiah 30:10-11). Instead, they communicate the same message through their actions, rejecting the message of Isaiah and turning instead to listen to another prophet who would tell them, in the name of the LORD, that their alliance with Egypt would stand, and all would be well with them, just as they would put their trust in the prophets who told them what they wanted to hear in the days of Jeremiah (cf. Jeremiah 28:1-17).

We do well to remember that even though the voice of the false prophets is rarely heard in the Old Testament, they would have been quite prominent and vociferous in ancient Israel (cf. Luke 6:26). The false prophets do not feature prominently in the Old Testament since their deception and error proved evident: after the devastations of 722 and 586 BCE, the remnant of Israel recognized just how accurately the true prophets of God foretold what would happen. This realization helps us to understand why the Israelites did not really listen to prophets like Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel: their messages were dire and harsh, demanding repentance, lest the LORD destroy them and/or exile them away from the land. Meanwhile, these false prophets would tell them that YHWH would destroy their enemies and keep them in their land. If we were there, which one would we rather believe?

We also should keep in mind that the message of the false prophet might seem to better match theological expectations. This was certainly true in Jesus’ day. Jesus prophesied that God would render judgment against Israel and destroy Jerusalem by the hands of the Romans (Matthew 24:1-36). Meanwhile, many in Israel were convinced that God would give them victory over the Roman oppressor just as He gave the Maccabees victory over the Macedonians for His name’s glory and honor. Therefore, to many Jews of the first century, Jesus’ prediction seemed blasphemous and perhaps even demonic, an attempt to weaken resolve in the struggle against an imperious overlord. And then, in 70 CE, Jesus was fully vindicated.

Isaiah is right: people like to hear “smooth things.” Paul warns Timothy of how Christians will no longer endure sound doctrine, but having “itching ears,” will find teachers to satisfy their desires, and turn away to fables (2 Timothy 4:3-4). People still do not like hearing messages that challenge the way they live their lives and ideas or the ideas and philosophies upon which they have built their understanding of their environment. To this day people are still looking for ways to justify their attitudes and behavior rather than changing them in healthy ways.

The Gospel of Christ can never be a “smooth thing.” It convicts and challenges everyone toward greater faithfulness to Christ; it is a hard way to go (cf. Matthew 7:13-14)! There are always temptations to make the message smooth–always. Some might make the message smooth by toning down or compromising those parts of the Gospel which work against conventional cultural thinking. Others might make the message smooth by focusing only on the problems, errors, or challenges of others without having to go through the uncomfortable process of looking in the mirror and confronting their own problems and challenges (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). The whole truth of God’s message in Christ proves difficult for everyone!

It is understandable why so many people attempt to make the message smooth: we can read how the prophets, Apostles, and others who faithfully proclaimed God’s message were persecuted, humiliated, injured, or even killed because the people did not like their message (cf. Hebrews 11:32-38). Meanwhile, those who tell people what they want to hear receive accolades, praise, and other benefits (cf. Luke 6:26). We would rather be liked than disliked; loved rather than hated.

Nevertheless, God’s message proves true. There are many false prophets about, just as there has always been, and many will be led astray by them (2 Peter 2:1-4). Yet a day will come, just like it did for Israel in 722 BCE, Judah in 586 BCE, and Jerusalem again in 70 CE, when God will render judgment on all people, and on that day far too many, both “Christian” and otherwise, will recognize how they have been deceived and that it is too late (Matthew 7:21-23, Romans 2:5-11, 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10). Therefore, we must resist the temptation to preach smooth things or to listen to them, and to be willing to deal with the discomfort and challenge that comes from acceptance of the Gospel of Christ. Let us heed God’s warnings and prove willing to fully repent and follow after Jesus!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Smooth Things

Judgment unto Victory

Behold, my servant, whom I uphold; my chosen, in whom my soul delighteth: I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the Gentiles. He will not cry, nor lift up his voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. A bruised reed will he not break, and a dimly burning wick will he not quench: he will bring forth justice in truth. He will not fail nor be discouraged, till he have set justice in the earth; and the isles shall wait for his law (Isaiah 42:1-4).

One of the more puzzling aspects of Jesus’ ministry on the earth involves His admonishment of many of those whom He healed to not proclaim what He did for them. Why would He do such things but not want them to be made known? And why is He inconsistent about it?

It is not as if the “ban” on discussing what Jesus did was permanent; after all, we read about these events in the Gospel narratives. Jesus told Peter, James, and John to not speak of His Transfiguration until after He rose from the dead (Matthew 17:9). Furthermore, Jesus told the man from whom He cast out Legion to declare to all in his house what God did for him (cf. Luke 8:38-39). What is motivating Jesus to do what He is doing?

Matthew provides us a glimpse into the logic behind Jesus’ actions in Matthew 12:15-21. Matthew tells us how Jesus healed many people, but then charged them not to make Him known (Matthew 12:15-16). Matthew then establishes that He did so in order to fulfill what was spoken of Him by the prophet Isaiah in Isaiah 42:1-4 (Matthew 12:17-21). But how does Isaiah 42:1-4 relate to Jesus’ admonishments?

The heart of the matter can be found in Isaiah 42:2: He will not cry, nor lift up His voice, nor cause it to be heard in the street. This does not seem to be a prophecy of Jesus on the surface; Jesus most assuredly has been active in preaching and teaching throughout Israel (cf. Matthew 4:17, 23, 5:1-7:27, etc.). Matthew, of course, is well aware of this, and yet he is certain that the prophecy does relate to Jesus.

We do well, therefore, to understand Isaiah 42:2 in terms of the “silence” He requests from those of Israel whom He heals. When we consider the entire prophecy, this makes sense: the Servant is in the process of establishing justice on the earth. He is working toward sending forth judgment in truth and victory. But He is not there yet, and there is plenty of room for confusion. If the proclamations were made too soon, the people of God would misunderstand Jesus’ purposes, convinced that He was doing what they expected out of their Messiah. They would make Him into the Messiah of their own desires as opposed to allowing Him to be the Messiah in whom God is pleased, whom God upholds.

This judgment in truth and victory comes with His death and resurrection after which all of these things can be made known and properly understood. The “silence” is necessary because of the lack of understanding of Israel, even among His own disciples (cf. Matthew 16:15-23, John 2:18-22). Through His deeds and His teachings Jesus was setting forth the context for His Kingdom which He was busy establishing; the time was not yet to have His deeds proclaimed among Israel.

Yet this was not the same story among the Gentiles. The Servant came to bring justice to the Gentiles; in Him the Gentiles would hope; the islands, to be understood as people afar off, wait for His law. Such is why He encourages the man from whom Legion was cast out to proclaim what God had done for him (cf. Luke 8:26-39): since he lived across the Sea of Galilee from Galilee, he is in the Decapolis, a mostly Gentile area, and the Gentiles are to hear of the powerful working of Jesus the Servant of God, manifest as well in Acts 10:36-38.

Jesus’ insistence on people not making Himself or His deeds known does seem strange but is a bit more understandable when considering the prophecy. Everything Jesus says and does will make sense after His death and resurrection even if it is hard to comprehend beforehand. As God’s Servant, Jesus is preparing the ground for His Kingdom, the moment when He will send forth judgment unto victory, the hope of Jew and Gentile alike. The time has come to make known to all men the teachings and deeds of Jesus of Nazareth so that all may place their trust in Him so as to obtain eternal life. Let us place our hope in Jesus’ name!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Judgment unto Victory

The Enemy of My Enemy

At that time Berodach-baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present unto Hezekiah; for he had heard that Hezekiah had been sick. And Hezekiah hearkened unto them, and showed them all the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, and the house of his armor, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah showed them not.
Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him, “What said these men? And from whence came they unto thee?”
And Hezekiah said, “They are come from a far country, even from Babylon.”
And he said, “What have they seen in thy house?”
And Hezekiah answered, “All that is in my house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not showed them.”
And Isaiah said unto Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the LORD. Behold, the days come, that all that is in thy house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store unto this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith Jehovah. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, whom thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
Then said Hezekiah unto Isaiah, “Good is the word of the LORD which thou hast spoken.”
He said moreover, “Is it not so, if peace and truth shall be in my days?” (2 Kings 20:12-19).

“The enemy of my enemy…”

When we think of this quote, we quickly supply the way it often is completed: “…is my friend.” Such has been the prevailing political logic for generations, and yet it led Israel into all sorts of problems!

There is much more going on in 2 Kings 20:12-19 than what appears on the surface. The Kings author honors Hezekiah greatly as loyal to YHWH, attempting to rid the land of idolatry and encouraging the people to honor YHWH as the One True God, the God of Israel (2 Kings 18:1-8). As that all goes, well and good, but as 2 Kings 18:13-20:37 shows, Hezekiah has a major problem: the Assyrians invade Judah, destroy all of the major fortified cities save Jerusalem, and it only survived because of God’s intervention during the siege.

The Assyrians invaded because Hezekiah ceased paying tribute and actively rebelled against Assyrian hegemony by attempting to establish alliances with Egypt and Babylon against the Assyrians. We are not told what political machinations and calculations were involved and why Hezekiah felt so confident in going against Assyria, but the results were evident. The Kingdom of Judah barely escaped complete annihilation, having been functionally abandoned by its erstwhile allies in the face of the Assyrian onslaught.

Why would Hezekiah ally himself with Egypt, the former oppressor of Israel? Why does Hezekiah feel so open in showing everything he has to the Babylonian ambassadors? We are not explicitly told, but Hezekiah’s answer to Isaiah’s declaration provides us with some indications. Isaiah declares how God is going to give over to the Babylonians everything they saw; Hezekiah seems relatively untroubled by the statement since things will be well during his own day (cf. 2 Kings 20:16-19). Hezekiah sees his short-term problem: the kingdom of Assyria is ascendant. The Assyrian Empire is now literally at his border, having conquered the Kingdom of Israel to the north (2 Kings 18:9-12). Judah now has a place of prominence in international affairs, courted by Egypt and Babylon to be a fellow ally against the Assyrian power. Hezekiah was willing to make the enemies of his enemy Assyria his friends.

It did prove to be a great short-term decision: Hezekiah’s son Manasseh ruled over a politically peaceful and economically prosperous Judah despite his spiritual depravity, and Josiah his great-grandson would be able to exercise authority over all of the historic land of Israel. And yet Hezekiah’s short-term political calculations now began to cost the kingdom greatly. The Assyrian power diminished far quicker than anyone could have ever imagined, and now Babylon was the ascendant power. Judah still maintained an alliance with Babylon; it was because of this alliance that Josiah went out to intercept Pharaoh Neko II as the latter was traveling north to fight against Nebuchadnezzar to determine who was going to be the new authority in the Near East. Josiah would die in that battle (2 Kings 23:28-30), and Neko would lose to Nebuchadnezzar at the Battle of Carchemish. For the next twenty years Judah found itself trapped between its two former allies in a power struggle; the kings of Judah seemed to prefer being allied with near Egypt than faraway Babylon, and ultimately proved Isaiah’s prophecy as true: Nebuchadnezzar sent his forces to Judah, the erstwhile Egyptian ally helped once but no more, and Jerusalem was destroyed, its people and wealth exiled to Babylon (2 Kings 25:1-21). The enemies of Israel’s enemy may have been “friends” in the short-term, but Israel paid dearly in the long-term.

Did Israel learn a lesson from this? It does not seem like it. During the “intertestamental” period, the Israelites were part of the Seleucid Empire and were fighting for their lives and their identity as Daniel predicted in Daniel 11:1-45 in the middle of the second century BCE. The apocryphal book 1 Maccabees tells us about these events; the book is not inspired of God as Scripture but is generally regarded as reliable witness to history. As the Jews are fighting these Greeks, they seek to make an alliance with a fellow enemy of the Seleucid Empire: Rome (1 Maccabees 8:1-32). It is worth noting the attitude of the author of 1 Maccabees toward the Romans:

It was told [Judah the Maccabee, leader of the insurgency against the Seleucids] besides, how [the Romans] destroyed and brought under their dominion all other kingdoms and isles that at any time resisted them; But with their friends and such as relied upon them they kept amity: and that they had conquered kingdoms both far and nigh, insomuch as all that heard of their name were afraid of them: Also that, whom they would help to a kingdom, those reign; and whom again they would, they displace: finally, that they were greatly exalted: Yet for all this none of them wore a crown or was clothed in purple, to be magnified thereby: Moreover how they had made for themselves a senate house, wherein three hundred and twenty men sat in council daily, consulting alway for the people, to the end they might be well ordered: And that they committed their government to one man every year, who ruled over all their country, and that all were obedient to that one, and that there was neither envy nor emulation among them (1 Maccabees 8:11-16).

We see nothing but praise here for the Romans: their ability in warfare, their honoring of treaties, their republican form of government. The Jews made a treaty with the Romans to assist them in their conflict against the Seleucids.

It was part of a great short-term strategy: the Seleucids had to take the Roman threat seriously. For about a hundred years the Maccabees provided a measure of freedom to Israel not seen since the days of Zedekiah and which would not be seen again until 1947 of our own era. But we know what happens in the long-term. The Romans seemed so far away in 160 BCE; a hundred years later, their republican form of government was transitioning into an imperial mode of government, and Pompey their general was taking over the Seleucid Empire and was welcomed into Jerusalem in the midst of a feud between two Maccabean descendants vying for the throne. The Romans would rule in Jerusalem, raising up the reviled half-breed Herod and his clan over the Jews; when the indignities perpetrated by the Romans could be tolerated no longer, the Jews rose up in revolt against the Romans, and yet again they saw their city and Temple destroyed, the latter to never be built again. Yet again, the enemy of Israel’s enemy might have been a decent short-term “friend,” but proved disastrous in the long-term.

Let us learn from Israel’s experience. There are many times when it seems beneficial to take up a common cause with people under the justification of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But what happens when the common enemy is vanquished? Will we find that our alliance has now placed us in a most compromising position, and we are in a relative position of weakness and not strength? Could we be overtaken because we have made an alliance choice on the basis of a common enemy rather than a common goal?

What right did Israel have uniting with Babylon, Egypt, and Rome? It seemed to make sense at the time; there were some great short-term results; but the end proved disastrous. The enemy of my enemy may still be my enemy; what interest does the enemy of my enemy have in me, especially once our common enemy is gone? Let us be careful about our choices of whom we ally ourselves, lest we find ourselves compromised like Israel!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Enemy of My Enemy

Strength in Hope of Deliverance

Strengthen ye the weak hands, and confirm the feeble knees. Say to them that are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not: behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; he will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:3-4).

After judgment and loss, despair easily sets in. One can only imagine how the Israelites would feel.

Their city would be utterly destroyed; their king would be blinded, his children executed. The Temple of YHWH would be burned by pagan Babylonians. They would be taken into exile to Babylon, dwelling among pagans vaunting themselves against the God of Heaven. The days would seem bleak; discouragement would be the rule, not the exception. In such an environment, it is easier to give up hope; it is easier to give into the propaganda all around you.

God understands these things, and that is why the message of the prophets was not only doom and gloom. He pointed forward to a day of deliverance; He would avenge Himself on those who acted against God’s people, and He will rescue His people.

It would somewhat come to pass for Israel. The Babylonian Empire was not long for the earth; soon after, the Persians would take over. The Jews would return to their land and would rebuild another Temple. Yet they remained acutely aware of the deficiency of the day: they still did not have the promised King. Their deliverance, and God’s vengeance upon His enemies, was not yet complete.

Notice how Isaiah promises that God will come and save them (Isaiah 35:4). This promise is not truly fulfilled when Israel returns to its land; it finds its fulfillment in the life of the Immanuel, God with us: Jesus of Nazareth.

Israel was looking forward to obtaining vengeance on the Romans and rescue from their pagan rule. Yet God has promised a more profound and deeper form of rescue. God is looking to defeat the enemy that lurks behind Babylon, Rome, and any imperial, oppressive power. He will go after the true enemy, our Adversary, Satan, and the sin and death which enslaves all of us (Romans 5:12-18, 6:23). In His life Jesus showed us the nature of God and righteous living (John 1:18, Hebrews 1:3); through His death, sin was overcome and true forgiveness could be obtained through His blood (cf. Matthew 26:28, Acts 2:38, Romans 5:6-11). In His resurrection He gained the victory over death, extending the hope of victory over death to all men (1 Corinthians 15:54-58).

God most certainly came to obtain vengeance over His enemies, sin and death; God has made recompense, and God came to save. This message of hope, therefore, is as applicable now as it was then.

It is easy to be consumed by despair. Sin and death seem to lurk everywhere; it is easy to imagine that God is far from us at times. It is easy to give in and to believe the propaganda of sin surrounding us. This is why we do well to be strong, not fear, strengthening the weak hands, confirming the feeble knees (cf. Hebrews 12:12). We may experience times of trial or discipline; we must endure. God has not forsaken us. The victory has been obtained; it is only left to be fully realized. We have every reason for hope and joy in our new life through God who came to save us. Let us be strengthened by God’s work and promises, stand firm against the wiles of sin, fear not, and obtain the victory through Jesus Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Strength in Hope of Deliverance

Healed by His Wounds

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Ever since Isaiah 53 was composed it has been a compelling passage. It had special meaning for its author and then for his original audience. It would be the passage which the eunuch was reading and considering in Acts 8:31-34. All sorts of interpretations have been made ever since.

It is likely that, at least in part, Isaiah has a suffering figure in mind in the latter days of the Babylonian exile. God is redeeming Israel again and will again bring her back to the land He promised them– but a particular suffering one will not make it.

Nevertheless, it is a stretch to argue that Isaiah really and completely has himself or some individual of the 6th century BCE in mind. Atonement requires an unblemished offering (e.g. Leviticus 1:3), and neither Isaiah nor someone two hundred years later were unblemished. Sure, they may have suffered because of sin, but they had their own sins against them, too. They could not really accomplish atonement by themselves.

Yet there was a Man concerning whom it was attested that He was tempted but did not sin (Hebrews 4:15). A Man who learned obedience through suffering, who was able to accomplish the atonement of which the Temple system and the previous servant were but a type (cf. Hebrews 7:23-28, 9:1-15, 10:1-14). This Man was Jesus of Nazareth, of whom Peter testifies:

Who his own self bare our sins in his body upon the tree, that we, having died unto sins, might live unto righteousness; by whose stripes ye were healed (1 Peter 2:24).

Peter explicitly identifies Jesus of Nazareth with the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53. It was by the stripes upon Jesus– His scourging– that we are healed (Isaiah 53:5, 1 Peter 2:24; cf. Matthew 27:26).

When we think about it for a moment, we can perceive that Isaiah 53:5 really sets up a series of absurd statements. He was wounded for our transgressions? The chastisement of our peace was upon Him? We receive healing through His wounding? This does not really make any human sense whatsoever. Wounds injure and cause pain– they do not heal. Peace and chastisement are poles apart. If someone else gets abused because of our misdeeds, we otherwise would call that injustice and oppression, since if anyone deserves abuse for misdeeds, it is those who commit those misdeeds!

Yet this absurdity is precisely the point, for it gets us to the ultimate absurdity: in order to demonstrate God’s love, Jesus had to suffer great pain (Romans 5:6-11).

This concept poses a challenge to some people. What kind of God is this who shows His love by causing someone to suffer? It sounds disconcerting, to say the least!

In other contexts, however, this same impulse is extremely praiseworthy. How many stories have we read, or movies have we seen, that feature some character willing to suffer in order to protect or defend a loved one? Do we not consider it praiseworthy when someone is willing to give up a kidney or bone marrow or some other part of their body to another so that the latter can continue to live? Another compelling story in the Scriptures is found in Genesis 44: Judah, who had previously proved willing to sell Joseph into slavery, is now willing to stand as surety for Benjamin his brother, to suffer the penalty of the latter for the sake of their father.

If we can appreciate all of these examples as expressions of human love for one another, how much more should we appreciate God’s ultimate demonstration of love as expressed through Jesus of Nazareth? God did not want us to have to pay the true penalty for sin– eternal separation from Him and torment (cf. Romans 6:23, 2 Thessalonians 1:6-9). There is nothing that we humans could ever do in order to redeem ourselves or pay for our sins since we have all sinned, and no law could ever make us righteous once we have broken it (cf. Romans 3:9-20). If redemption were to be accomplished, it would have to be done by God Himself.

Therefore, the Word, the Son of God and God the Son, was willing to humble Himself, taking on the form of Jesus of Nazareth, to learn obedience through His suffering, to pay the penalty for us. He endured the beatings and crucifixion so that we did not have to endure eternal torture for our sin. He suffered chastisement in order to fulfill the demands of the law to set it aside, to kill hostility between people, and make peace between God and man and man with one another (cf. Ephesians 2:11-18). His wounds allow us to be cleansed from sin and to walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-7).

The powerful and compelling message of Isaiah 53:5 is only matched by its fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth. We can only imagine the terrible suffering that He endured on that final day so long ago. Yet we can– and must– at times bring it to mind. We must consider how the whip abused His back, how the thorns pressed deeply into His scalp, and how the nails tore through His wrists and ankles. And, all the while, we must remember that it was accomplished for us. It was by every one of those wounds that we are healed.

A humbling expression of love– and such is its intent. Let us reflect on Christ’s suffering and live for Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Healed by His Wounds

A God Who Hides Himself

Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour (Isaiah 45:15).

We have all gone through times in our lives when we have felt that God has hidden His face from us. Perhaps it was in the midst of a trial or challenge and we felt that there was no divine aid. Maybe it was during an entire period in our lives when we admittedly turned our backs upon God. Far too many people, at times, feel as if God has abandoned them and all of us. Some want to know where God has been for the better part of the past two thousand years!

The Israelites living in Babylon toward the end of their exile would have likely felt in similar ways. Many were not quite sure what to make of their experience. Was YHWH really there? Why did He not save us from the Babylonians? Is Marduk really stronger than YHWH? If YHWH is out there, and He is the God of Israel, why are we still in Babylon? It would be easy for them to feel as if they were abandoned by God!

The statement made in Isaiah 45:15 has caused discomfort throughout time. The Greek translator of the text seemingly could not reconcile its substance with the proper understanding of YHWH, and so he translated it, “for thou art God, yet we knew it not, the God of Israel, the Saviour.” Even if we take the text at its face value, we must wonder whether the author is being deadly serious or whether he is lodging an implicit critique or complaint. Are there times when God really does hide Himself, or does Isaiah just feel as if that’s the way it seems sometimes? Or perhaps he means a little bit of both?

Yet we can make some sense of what is being revealed here. The message is consistent with what Paul will say to the Colossians regarding the gospel of Christ: it is the mystery hidden for ages and generations that was manifest in Jesus and revealed to all who will believe from the first century onward (Colossians 1:25-27). While it is true that God comforted Israel with predictions regarding the Christ and His Kingdom (cf. 1 Peter 1:10-12), how it would all work out was hidden until the time when God the Son was manifest in the flesh as Jesus of Nazareth (John 1:1, 14).

So it was for Israel in the exile. God had already comforted His people with the understanding that the exile was temporary. The fortunes of Israel would change quickly– the mighty Babylonian empire fell quickly to Cyrus the Persian, and the Israelites found themselves able to go home (2 Chronicles 36:20-23, Daniel 5:1-31). All of this, Isaiah assures that audience, is from the hand of YHWH (Isaiah 44:24-45:7).

Is God a God who hides Himself? There are times when it may seem like it– but notice the end of the verse. The God of Israel remains the “Savior” (Isaiah 45:15). Sometimes, in His acts of salvation, He does not reveal everything all at once. At times the message is held back so that events can play out. God has infinitely greater understanding and insight than we do (Isaiah 55:8-9), and if He decides to hide Himself in some way, we must trust that it is part of His greater plan for salvation. We may not understand it now, but if we love God and seek to serve His Son, we may rest ourselves in Romans 8:28, knowing that it will all work out for good in the end.

Even though God hid His message of deliverance and salvation to some, it was ultimately accomplished so that all could benefit if they so chose. God has acted definitively against sin and evil to redeem mankind through Jesus Christ (Romans 5:6-11), and we have the opportunity to be saved through Him and to obtain the resurrection of life (1 Corinthians 15:1-58, Philippians 3:12-14). If it seems that God is hiding Himself, it might be our mistaken impression, or perhaps God is working to deliver us in ways we do not understand. Let us rest assured of God’s overwhelming love for us and that He is the Savior indeed!

Ethan R. Longhenry

A God Who Hides Himself

Willful Blindness

“Therefore speak I to them in parables; because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand. And unto them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah, which saith,
‘By hearing ye shall hear, and shall in no wise understand; And seeing ye shall see, and shall in no wise perceive: For this people’s heart is waxed gross, And their ears are dull of hearing, And their eyes they have closed; Lest haply they should perceive with their eyes, And hear with their ears, And understand with their heart, And should turn again, And I should heal them'” (Matthew 13:13-16).

Jesus’ teaching style is not exactly what one might expect out of the Messiah, the Son of God. As the Word, active in the creation, He through whom all things subsist, He understands the greatest mysteries of the universe (John 1:1-3, Hebrews 1:3). He has come to proclaim the coming of the eternal Kingdom of God (Matthew 4:23). One might expect some kind of lofty discourse or some compelling argument. Instead, Jesus talks about farmers, crops, merchants, merchandise, women’s work, and similar things.

While it may seem strange to us, Jesus knows precisely what He is doing. While He speaks of farming, house work, matters of trade, and the like, He is really not addressing those matters. He’s providing marching orders in code: suffer loss of everything for the Kingdom. Not all will hear; not all who hear will endure. Do not be surprised when some doing the Devil’s work are in the midst of the saints. God is more interested in humble repentance than sanctimonious professions of righteousness.

So why does Jesus seem to “beat around the bush” and provide these messages in a figure? Yes, it was predicted that He would do so (Matthew 13:35; cf. Psalm 78:2). But there was even a reason why it was predicted that it would be so, and it involves the sad history of the Jews.

Jesus quotes the prophet Isaiah (Matthew 13:13-15; cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). God comissions Isaiah to proclaim the message of deliverance and healing to the people. Yet the preaching of that message will not lead to repentance; God knows that it will only serve to further harden their hearts. In the Hebrew in Isaiah 6:9-10, it is the message being delivered that “makes fat” their hearts, “makes heavy” their eyes, and “makes shut” their ears. And, indeed, the people close off their senses. They do not listen to Isaiah’s message of nonintervention in international affairs and repentance regarding injustice, oppression, immorality, and idolatry at home. And Isaiah– and the people– live to see the wrath of God manifest in the Assyrian juggernaut, devastating Aram and Israel while leaving Jerusalem alone unscathed in Judah (Isaiah 1-10). It was not a pretty picture.

Seven hundred years later things had not changed too much for the better. While the Jews may not have been committing the particular sins of their ancestors, their eyes seemed no more inclined to see God’s work, nor were their ears much more inclined to hear God’s message. Jesus quotes the Isaianic prophecy directly at the Jews of His day (Matthew 13:14-15/Mark 4:10-12/Luke 8:10); Paul will later do so to the Jews at Rome (Acts 28:24-30).

In the Greek now, the prediction involves the condition of the heart. Obviously the Jews can “see” and “hear” what Jesus says and does. But they do not draw the appropriate conclusions. They should understand who Jesus is and the value of the message He proclaims, but it would be foreign to them no matter how it would be presented.

Some think that Jesus’ methodology might be unfair. How can He know whether or not His message would be understood before proclaiming it? Is that not unfair to the Jews?

We must remember that many of the Jews not only have no interest in the type of Kingdom of which Jesus proclaims but are even actively working to destroy Him. Anything He says can and will be used against Him, no matter how much the message is misunderstood or misconstrued. An excellent example comes from John 2:19, where Jesus says, “destroy this Temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” The Jews imagined that He was talking about the edifice in Jerusalem (John 2:20), although He really was referring to His body (John 2:21). Years later, at Jesus’ trial, what is the evidence for the charge against Him? “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another made without hands'” (Mark 14:58). Their testimony in this did not even agree (Mark 14:59), and for good reason: Jesus never said it. He never said He would destroy the “Temple made with hands.” The memory of the event was entirely confused– and the source of the confusion was not Jesus. The confusion came from the worldview and perspective of the Jews hearing Him and their expectations and what they wanted to hear versus what He actually said!

And this is why Jesus speaks in parables. Even if they had an inkling of what He was really talking about– possibly quite doubtful, for even His disciples, who were more sympathetic to Him, needed them all explained (Mark 4:34)– what could they do with it? What kind of case can be made against someone who talks about crops, bread, pearls, fish, and the like? It was the perfect vehicle for Jesus’ messages: innocuous and innocent on the surface, deeply subversive and powerful in application underneath.

It was all necessary because the Jews wanted their Messiah according to their image and following their ideas of who the Messiah would be. As the Israelites of Isaiah’s day had little use for the declarations of the prophet, so many of the Jews of Jesus’ day had little use for a Messiah of a spiritual Kingdom who left Rome’s control of Jerusalem intact. They did not want to hear because it did not meet their expectations.

This challenge is not limited to the Jews, and it is not limited to the ancient world. Far too often people to this day refuse to listen to God in Christ because the message is unwanted, it does not fit their view of the world and how it operates, and it poses unwelcome challenges. Believers can easily fall into this trap themselves, preferring a particular view or perspective on Jesus that is heavily distorted, and dispense the true message of Jesus Christ with trite sayings and misguided arguments. There is no lack of willful blindness and deafness in our world today!

It is better, then, for us to be disciples in the same mold as the disciples present when Jesus spoke these words. Everyone comes to Jesus with their own ideas and expectations; those who will be found to be true servants of God are the ones who are willing to radically change those views and expectations based on what Christ the Lord says (1 Corinthians 1:18-31, Galatians 2:20, Colossians 2:1-9). Let us not reject His words; let us not create a God or a Christ in our own image, with our perspective to serve, but instead allow our image to be conformed to the true and Risen Christ (Romans 8:29)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Willful Blindness

Morality Turned Upside Down

Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

Does it ever seem like the idea of morality has become a joke? It seems like one’s social and economic stature determines what is moral. With enough clout and money, it seems, one could get away with anything– even murder at times! The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and no one seems to care. As the wealthy consolidate power thanks to their resources, the situation seems all but hopeless. Either you are rich, and the land is your oyster, or you are poor, and you serve the rich in many ways. If you are poor, the slightest infraction might be your doom; if you have enough resources, you can get your way out of anything.

Does that sound familiar? Many might think that such is true today. It was also quite true of the days of Isaiah. Those with wealth could live with impunity. They could squeeze out the small farmer, bribe any judicial figures, and feast away with the king and others (cf. Isaiah 5:18-24). The poor man was forced to bear all of this. If he had to be sold into debt slavery, so be it; such meant little to the wealthy landowner. They had the luxury of choosing which laws to favor and which laws to neglect. They could call light darkness and darkness light, and mock the expectations of God for equity in dealing with all people.

Isaiah would not stand for this. He proclaimed the message of God’s disfavor with the actions of the rich and influential. He predicted their doom at the hands of first Assyria and then Babylon. They would receive their comeuppance– eventually. Woe, indeed, to them.

While the challenges of today are not as based on income as they were in days past, there is still the sense that the rich and powerful can get away with pretty much everything. If a “regular Joe” steals something, he has a quick trial and goes to prison in a pretty bad environment. If the wealthy extort or embezzle, which is theft, and happen to get caught, and happen to go to trial, and happen to get sentenced, and actually have to serve time, it tends to be in a far more cushy environment– if it ever ended in imprisonment. Different standards abound to this day!

Challenges with morality are not limited to the upper class; everyone has their sins (Romans 3:23). These days, however, the idea of “sin” is on the out. Many believe that “sin” is an artificial construct, an invention of authorities attempting to keep the people down. Things that God has declared to be sinful are re-named to seem less harmful. Arguments are made to appeal to the heart-strings in a misguided attempt to show compassion to that which is, in reality, sinful. And those who dare declare what God has said are labeled “intolerant,” “bigoted,” “narrow-minded,” or “old-fashioned.”

There is little doubt that the Israelites of Isaiah’s day could have done similar things. Idolatry was just “a different theological choice.” Bribes were just “ways to get things done.” Isaiah, no doubt, was considered intolerant, narrow-minded, perhaps even fundamentalistic, a dangerous religious zealot, for declaring the will of the Lord.

Our time is not as “enlightened” as its participants would imagine. As long as there have been people in sin there have been people who have been trying to find ways to justify their sins and demonize anyone who would challenge their justifications. There have always been people who want to bend the rules to their own favor and find any way possible in which to do so. Many will do what they want to do no matter what anyone tells them. The human capacity for self-justification is almost unimaginable in its depth.

Yet, as in Isaiah’s proclamation, so with today. Comeuppance will come, eventually, to such people. Justice may be served in their own lifetimes; it will surely be served on the final day (Acts 17:30-31). God’s patience and longsuffering toward people, hoping for their repentance (2 Peter 3:9), will not last forever, and many will learn the true cost of calling evil good and good evil; of declaring bitter sweet and sweet bitter; of loving the darkness and hating the light.

Believers in God often feel distressed by all of this, and it is understandable. It is much harder to strive to live as God would have us live when it is reviled as being the opposite of what it truly is– the way of life, light, and peace (John 8:12, Romans 8:6). Yet believers should take comfort in knowing that this has been the way people have been acting for centuries; it is not a purely modern phenomenon. It will continue until the Lord returns. It is not fair, it is difficult, and sometimes we get penalized for it. But we know who will ultimately reward the righteous and condemn the wicked (1 Peter 4:12-19). Let us stand for what is just, right, true, and holy, no matter what it is called or how others may abuse us, and receive the ultimate reward in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Morality Turned Upside Down