I have received the following comment about a post on polygamy.
Sorry, but what I come to notice is that some people are using the New Testament to then try to interpret the Old Testament. Just like the author of this post is doing. By using Jesus and Paul interpretation of the Old Testament (Gen. 2:24-25) to say this means marriage is only between one men and one woman. If you see, in the Old Testament GOD never condemned polygamy for his people. It will be really hard for me to believe that GOD has clearly spoken and given rules about certain things like owning a Hebrew Slave, yet when it comes to polygamy he decides is best to put it a non-clear way.
1-“The first mention of polygamy in the Bible involves Lamech who claimed to avenge himself eleven times more often than Cain (Gen. 4:19, 24)”. -this point is moot, the text has to do with the killing, the fact that he had two wife makes no sense. If you find a person in the bible that was evil but only had one wife you will not say monogamy is bad.
2- “In fact, God had commanded that the king “must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Dt. 17:17)” – I love this because if you actually read the TEXT in CONTENT, well actually just read starting from verse 14, see that GOD is talking about the rules that the KING OF ISRAEL has to follow. He never ever say, everyone or my people. He is specially talking about the KING OF ISRAEL.
3- “The most extreme example of polygamy in the Bible is king Solomon who “had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray” (1 Ki. 11:3). His wives turned him to idolatry.” – Again here, the passage clearly never say don’t have many wife’s because I say it should be only one men and one woman. It clearly teaches the wrong thing here is that the wife’s made him believe in ANOTHER GOD.
This post is based on a survey of the instances of polygamy in the Old Testament (OT). I have been careful to identify instances of a man having more than one wife (or concubines) at the same time (concurrently). In those days woman sometimes died as a result of childbirth or for other reasons. In such cases the man usually remarried and could be said to have had children with two wives. Such serial marriages are not polygamy.
We will see that because polygamy wasn’t God’s idea, it wasn’t the original form of marriage, and it wasn’t the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it wasn’t the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
In this post we look at whether the instances of polygamy (including bigamy) in the OT are a command, a model to follow or merely a report of events. Monogamy will be considered in the same way so the two can be compared.
Is polygamy a command, a model or a report?
Some think that Exodus 21: 7-11 regulates polygamy involving a female Hebrew slave. However the translation of “ownah” (Strong’s 5772, feminine noun) as “marital rights” in verse 10 is uncertain as this is its only occurrence in Scripture (NET Bible). Also, it has been suggested that it could mean accommodation or ointments. The main point is that the displaced woman was to be cared for and not disadvantaged. Therefore, this verse doesn’t definitely relate to polygamy.
Hebrew law maintained the rights of the firstborn in a polygamous marriage (Dt. 21:15-17). Does this mean that God approved polygamy? Not necessarily, but He recognized that it did occur as this passage begins “If a man has two wives …”. It seems that God allowed polygamy because otherwise a man who had multiple wives would need to divorce all except one and those who were divorced would be destitute because they would be unable to remarry.
Under Hebrew law, levirate marriage obligated a man whose brother has died and left a widow without heir to marry her (Dt. 25:5-10). The son of this union “shall carry on the name of the dead brother”. This special case preserved the family name and protected the family property and the widow’s welfare in societies where women can’t own property and there is no social welfare. If the man was already married, this would mean that he had two wives. This seems to be the only OT command that is potentially related to polygamy. The best Scriptural examples of levirate marriage are Tamar (Gen. 38:1-30) and Ruth (Ruth 3:1 – 4:17), but they don’t involve polygamy.
Nathan the prophet said that God gave David Saul’s wives (2 Sam. 12:8). Does this mean that God commanded David to be polygamous? When we look at the context of this verse, it is part of the interpretation of the parable in v.1-4. The main message is that God has placed David as king of Israel in place of Saul. David has replaced Saul. So God had given David, as king of Israel, everything that was Saul’s. This included wealth and power and caring for Saul’s wives. If God had given him all this, how despicable of David to take another man’s wife. The Hebrew word translated “into your arms” (Strongs #2436) in v.8 is used in v.3 to describe how a poor man cared for a lamb like it was his daughter. Saul’s wives were given to David to care for like “all Israel and Judah” were given to him. But how could Saul’s wives trust him after how he had treated Uriah and Bathsheba? By the way, there is no conclusive evidence that he married any of them. So, this verse isn’t related to polygamy.
It is interesting to note that Jehoiada (a good High Priest) chose two wives for King Joash (2 Chron. 24:3). Joash was a godly king until the death of Joash, but he didn’t finish well. Was this a model of bigamy to follow for the kings of Judah?
Besides this, I am not aware of any example of polygamy in the OT that has God’s approval.
In the following cases polygamy is reported as a historical event without being endorsed or criticised: Lamech (Gen. 4:19, 23), Nahor (Gen. 22:20-24), Abraham (Gen. 25:6; 1 Chron. 1:32), Esau (Gen. 26:34; 28:6-9), Jacob (Gen. 29:16-30), Eliphaz (Gen. 36:12, Caleb (1 Chron. 2:18-19, 46, 48 ), Manasseh (1 Chron. 7:14), Gideon (Jud. 8:30-31), and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:1-2). Also, some other men who are said to have large numbers of children may have had more than one wife at once. But there are no reported incidences of polygamy among the Jews after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC.
Polygamy is also reported amongst the following kings of Israel without being endorsed or criticised: Saul (2 Sam. 3:7), David (2 Sam. 5:13), Solomon (1 Ki. 11:1-8), Rehoboam (2 Chron. 11:18-21), Ahab (1 Ki. 20:3), Jehoiachin (2 Ki. 24:15), Jehoram (2 Chron. 21:14, 17), Abijah (2 Chron. 13:21), and Joash (2 Chron. 24:3). These kings disobeyed the command not to have many wives (Dt. 17:17). Solomon was the worst offender with 700 wives and 300 concubines!
At that time kings used marriages to establish political alliances with other nations. For example, King Belshazzar (of Babylonia) had many wives and concubines and king Xerxes of Persia had a harem (Dan. 5:2; Est. 1:9; 2:14).
The Bible says that polygamy led to troubles in the family. There was friction, jealousy and rivalry between the wives (Gen. 30:1; 1 Ki. 11:3-4). And Solomon’s wives “led him astray” and “turned his heart after other gods” (1 Ki. 11:3-4).
So polygamy occurred in Old Testament times and it is reported amongst God’s people the Israelites, but it wasn’t approved or commanded by God. The only instance that could be a model for the kings of Judah to follow is the bigamy of king Joash.
How does this compare with what the Old Testament says about monogamy?
Is monogamy a command, a model or a report?
The 10th commandment given to the Israelites includes, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21NIV). The singular word “wife” assumes the ideal that each husband has only one wife.
Similarly God’s commands given to the Jews about 1,000 years later include,
“…the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife (singular) of your marriage covenant.” (Mal. 2:14)
“… do not be unfaithful to the wife (singular) of your youth” (Mal. 2:15b).
The singular word “wife” assumes the ideal that each husband has only one wife.
Hebrew law always assumes the ideal where a husband had one wife and not more than one. For example:
“Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife” (Lev. 18:8; 20:11; Dt. 22:30; 27:20).
“Do not dishonor your father’s brother by approaching his wife to have sexual relations” Lev. 18:14; 20:20)
“Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law. She is your son’s wife” (Lev. 18:15).
“Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife” (Lev. 18:16; 20:21).
“Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living” (Lev.18:18).
“Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor’s wife” (Lev. 18:20; 20:10).
“These are the regulations the Lord gave Moses concerning relationships between a man and his wife” (Num. 30:16).
“If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife” (Dt. 22:22).
“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant” (Dt. 25:11).
Also, the test for an unfaithful wife assumes the ideal of monogamy (Num. 5:11-31).
In all these instances it is assumed that a husband had one wife at any given time and not more than one.
The commands for the kings of Israel included not having many wives:
“The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself … He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold” (Dt. 17:16-7).
Horses were used in warfare and royal wives were taken to form alliances with other nations. God wanted the kings of Israel to trust in Him and not in armaments or political alliances. The accumulation of wealth may be due to the oppression of the people. So God places limits on the armaments, alliances and wealth of these future kings. The kings “must not take many wives” (v.17). The Hebrew verb translated “many” (Strongs #7235) means multiply. This doesn’t seem to be a command for monogamy because in the previous verse the same word is applied to horses, which were used in warfare. As they wouldn’t be restricted to one horse, then they weren’t necessarily restricted to one wife. So this passage can’t be used to support monogamy for these kings.
After God created Adam He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). Note that the helper, which became Adam’s wife is singular, not plural.
After God created Eve (the first woman) from Adam’s rib, the Bible says “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Because it says “that is why”, Adam and Eve are a model of marriage for humanity (when husband and wife leave their parents and live together). Because it says “his wife” and not “his wives”, this marriage is monogamous, with one man married to one woman and not many women. It is interesting to note that the second “start” to the human population (after the Genesis flood) began with four monogamous couples (Noah and his wife, Shem and his wife, Ham and his wife, Japheth and his wife). Also, Isaac, Joseph and Moses were monogamous.
One of the blessings of a godly man is “Your wife (singular) will be like a fruitful vine within your house” (Ps. 128:3). King Solomon advised “Enjoy life with your wife (singular)” (Eccl. 9:9). Also, a godly man “does not defile his neighbor’s wife (singular)” (Ezek. 18:6, 15).
Others who had one wife were Cain, Lot, servants (Ex. 21:3-5), Amram ( Num. 36:59), Lappidoth (Jud. 4:4), Heber (Jud. 4:17), Gilead (Jud. 11:2), Samson, Elimelek (Ruth 1:2), Phinehas (1 Sam. 4:19), Nabal (1 Sam. 25:3), David’s 600 men (1 Sam. 30:22), Uriah (2 Sam. 11:3), Bahurim (2 Sam. 17:18-19), a prophet (2 Ki. 4:1), Naaman (2 Ki. 5:2), Shallum (2 Ki. 22:14), Hezron (1 Chron. 2:24), Abishur ( 1 Chron. 2:29), Ephraim (1 Chron. 7:23), Jeiel (1 Chron. 8:29), Jehoiada (2 Chron. 22:11), Haman (Est. 5:10), Job (Job 2:9), Ezekiel (Ezek. 24:18). Kings have been omitted from this list because of the greater likelihood of them having more than one wife and of having concubines. For example, although Jezebel is said to be the wife of king Ahab, he also had other wives (1 Ki. 20:3; 21:5-7).
When the men of Benjamin who survived war with the rest of Israel were provided with wives, it was one wife for each man (Jud. 21:20-23).
So monogamy was the original form of human marriage (it was God’s idea) and it is assumed to be the ideal marriage in the commands of the Old Testament. Clearly monogamy was approved by God and was more prevalent in OT times than polygamy.
Marriage as a symbol
It is interesting to note that the OT prophets often illustrated God as the husband of Israel (Is. 54:5-8; 62:5 Jer. 2:2; 3:14; Ezek. 16:32; Hos. 2:16, 19-20; 3:1). In this figure of speech, the nation of Israel is God’s wife. It only makes sense with monogamy and not with polygamy – God only had one bride and wife in the OT and that was the nation of Israel. God didn’t have multiple brides and wives in the OT.
Because of her idolatry (following other God’s), Israel is accused of spiritual adultery (Jer. 3:1, 20; 13:27; Ezek. 23:37; Hos. 1:2; 4:13-14; 5:4; 9:1). Israel had broken the covenant between them (it was like a marriage covenant). This is illustrated by Hosea who married Gomer in a monogamous relationship (Hosea only had one wife). But Gomer was unfaithful in committing adultery – “like an adulterous wife this land (the northern kingdom of Israel) is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord” (Hos. 1:2). Afterwards Hosea took her back. He was to “love her as the Lord loves the Israelites” (Hos. 3:1). Then he told her “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any (other) man, and I will behave the same way toward you” (Hos. 3:3). This is a monogamous marriage, not a polygamous one.
So the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel was a monogamous marriage and not a polygamous one.
Polygamy and monogamy compared
We have seen that monogamy was approved and commanded by God, but polygamy wasn’t. Monogamy was God’s idea. But God protected the rights of children in a polygamous marriage and protected women without an heir. Also the commands given in the OT assume monogamous marriages, and not polygamous ones.
The first marriage was between Adam and Eve, so it was monogamous. Also the marriages of those saved in the Genesis flood to repopulate the earth were monogamous. So marriage was monogamous at the beginning of time and not polygamous. The godly example and model for marriage in the OT was monogamy. Although some godly men were polygamous, they aren’t commended for their polygamy. Instead the Bible records the troubles that this caused (see the lives of David’s and Solomon’s children). The only model to follow that advocates polygamy, may be that the bigamy of king Josiah was a model for the kings of Judah.
Both monogamy and polygamy are reported in the OT without being endorsed or criticised. These are historical reports of events that don’t indicate God’s viewpoint on the subject of marriage.
Because monogamy was God’s idea, it was the original form of marriage, and it was the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it was the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
Because polygamy wasn’t God’s idea, it wasn’t the original form of marriage, and it wasn’t the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it wasn’t the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
Written, August 2015
In my exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation) of the book of Zephaniah, I was amazed that most modern Bible translations have “earth” and not “land” for the Hebrew words adamah (Strongs #127) and erets (Strongs #776).
This passage says (NIV):
“I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything
from the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the earth,”
declares the Lord.
The Hebrew word adamah (Strongs #127) used twice in Zephaniah (1:2-3) means “ground” or “land” and is translated “earth” in the NIV, ESV, HSCB and NET Bibles. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon of Hebrew words, in these verses it means “ground” as earth’s visible surface. This is supported by “the face” (#6440) meaning the surface of the ground (Brown-Driver-Briggs). Because of possible confusion with the whole planet, I prefer “land” (which is used by the CJB, DRA, GNV, ISV, NABRE and NKJV Bibles – see BibleGateway.com) or “ground” (which is used by ASV, DARBY and YLT Bibles). The NASB states that the literal meaning is “ground”. This is consistent with original readers understanding that the judgment was on the land of Judah (the next verse describes an attack on Judah), not the whole earth.
According to the Macquarie dictionary, the word “earth” can mean: the planet, its inhabitants, the surface of the planet, the ground, or the softer part of the land. The appropriate meaning of the word “earth” in a particular text is determined by the context of the word. As there are no other words in this passage or the rest of the book that refer unambiguously to the whole planet or all its inhabitants, the first three possible meanings are ruled out. Therefore, the preferred meaning for adamah in Zephaniah (1:2-3) is the ground, the land or the surface of the earth within the country of Judah.
So a better translation of Zephaniah 1:2-3 is:
“I will sweep away everything
from the face of the land (of Judah),”
declares the Lord.
“I will sweep away both man and beast;
I will sweep away the birds in the sky
and the fish in the sea—
and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.”
“When I destroy all mankind
on the face of the land (of Judah),”
declares the Lord.
This passage says (NIV):
“In the fire of His jealousy
the whole earth will be consumed,
for He will make a sudden end
of all who live on the earth”
The Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) used twice in Zephaniah (1:18) means “earth” or “land” and is translated “earth” in the NIV, ESV, HSCB and NET Bibles. According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon of Hebrew words, in the Old Testament it can mean: the whole earth, its inhabitants, a region, its inhabitants, or ground (surface of ground). As there are several alternatives, the one chosen should largely depend on the context of the word. Because of possible confusion with the whole planet, I prefer “land” (which is used by the ASV, CEB, CJB, DARBY, DRA, GNV, ISV, LEB, NKJV, WEB, YLT and mentioned as an alternative in the NET). This is consistent with original readers understanding that the judgment was on the land of Judah (the next verse addresses the nation of Judah), not the whole earth. The ERV states that both adamah and erets can also mean “land” or “country”. The NLT uses “land” for the first occurrence and “earth” for the second! In a footnote, it says “or land”.
So a better translation of Zephaniah 1:2-3 is:
“In the fire of His jealousy
the whole land (of Judah) will be consumed,
for He will make a sudden end
of all the people living in the land (of Judah)”
The word erets in Zephaniah
The Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) is mentioned eight times in the book of Zephaniah1:18 (twice); 2:3, 5, 11; 3:8, 19, 20. The table below shows how it is translated in four modern versions of the Bible; how I would translate it; and the context.
From this table, it is evident that:
– I only agree with the versions on about 25% (2/8) of the occasions (where they use “land”).
– On the other 75% (ranging 63% to 88%) of occasions (shaded yellow), the versions use “earth” (which has global connotations) even though it is evident from the context that none of these verses refer to the whole planet or all its inhabitants.
– The translators are always using “earth” when the context involves more than one country. However, they are also using it for a single country (1:18)!
By the way, the NKJV uses “land” or “nation” on 50% (4/8) of these occasions.
The phrase kol erets in the prophets
The phrase “all the earth/land” kol erets (Strongs #3605 and #776) occurs in Zephaniah 3:8 and 3:19 and is used in the Bible by other prophets. A study was made into the translations of this phrase in the prophetic books by various versions of the Bible. The results are tabulated in a similar format to that described above. The verses are listed in approximate chronological order.
From this table, it is evident that:
– I think that the phrase refers to the whole earth or all its inhabitants in about 13% (6/48) of the verses. The context of these verses is the sphere of God’s reign and God’s sovereignty. The other versions of the Bible agreed with this interpretation.
– These versions of the Bible translated the phrase as “land(s)” “country” or “countries” in about 56% (27/48) of the verses (but the NET used “earth” in three of these verses). The context of these verses is a country/land or a group of countries/lands. So it was used for both individual countries and groups of countries. I agreed with this interpretation. By the way, the fraction for the NKJV was 50%.
– However, the major difference between these versions and how I would translate the phrase is that they use “earth” where I use “land” (shaded yellow) in: Isa. 10:14 (except the NIV); 25:8; Zeph. 1:18; 3:8, 19 (except the NIV); Jer. 50:23; 51:7, 25, 41, 49; Hab. 2:20; Lam. 2:15; Ezek. 35:14; Dan. 8:5 (except the NET); Zech. 1:11. This is about 31% (15/48) of the verses. It shows that the translators are not only using this practice in Zephaniah, but in at least seven other prophetic books as well. Why are they doing this? Is it when it refers to more than one country? This is mainly the case, except for the countries of Babylon (Jer.50:23; Hab. 2:20), Edom (Ezek. 35:14) and Judah (Zeph. 1:18). So they are not consistent.
It is interesting that these versions of the Bible all tend to translate the phrase in a similar fashion in a particular verse. They agree on 90% of occasions (it is 80% when the NKJV is included). However, I can’t explain why they sometimes choose “country”/”land” for an individual country and sometimes they choose “earth”. Also, I can’t explain why they sometimes choose “countries”/”lands” for a group of countries and sometimes they choose “earth”.
I have shown that although four modern versions of the Bible usually translate the Hebrew words adamah and erets (Strongs #127 and #776) in the book of Zephaniah as “earth”; the word “land” would be a better translation.
A study was made of the translations of the phrase “all the earth/land” kol erets (Strongs #3605 and #776) in the prophetic books by four modern versions of the Bible. This showed that the poor translation in Zephaniah was evident in about 31% of the occurrences of the phrase in the prophetic books. The context of many of these is groups of countries (but some are single countries). I was unable to determine why these versions of the Bible all tend to translate the phrase in a similar fashion in a particular verse. Are the translators assuming that in the days of the prophets a group of nations was viewed as comprising the whole earth? But this doesn’t explain all the translations! The methodology seems to be inconsistent. Are they using some other criterion? Could the consistency between different versions indicate collusion or plagiarism?
Written, November 2014
Also See: God’s warning
The Islamic State is killing minorities in Iraq and Syria who won’t convert to Islam. It’s genocide. Women and children are taken as sexual slaves. People are fleeing to save their lives. How would you feel in the face of this onslaught if you were one of the Turkmen, Shabaks, Yazidis or Christians? Terrified? Shocked in unbelief? Wanting to escape?
This article looks at the book of Zephaniah where the Jews are warned of an impending terrible destruction. We will see that, because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming, but deliverance is promised for the repentant.
Zephaniah prophesised “during the reign of Josiah” (Zeph. 1:1NIV), who was king over Judah in 640 – 609 BC. At this time Judah was influenced by three foreign powers: Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. There was tension between these super powers for world supremacy (like between USA, Russia and China today). Power shifted from Assyria and Egypt to Babylonia when Assyria was conquered in 612BC and Egypt conquered in 605BC. These large nations dominated the smaller ones. Judah was a vassal state of Assyria during much of the 7th century BC. So Judah was a weak nation that was surrounded by many enemies.
Josiah’s father Amon and grandfather Manasseh were wicked kings who spread idolatry across Judah. They worshipped Baal, Asherah, and the stars and planets, with child sacrifice to Molech and ritual prostitution (2 Ki. 21:6-9; 2 Chr. 33:6-9). There was occultism and the righteous were martyred. Josiah turned back to God and repaired the temple, restoring temple worship in 622BC.
Zephaniah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 70 years after Isaiah and Micah and was a contemporary of Nahum and the young Jeremiah. He is recognised as the last pre-exilic prophet.
Before Zephaniah, Isaiah proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He warned that Judah’s wickedness would be punished by the Babylonians. The judgment is called “the day of the Lord”. But they would be restored when the Messiah would reign. Micah also proclaimed God’s judgement and deliverance. He lists their sins, and predicts a ruler from Bethlehem and the restoration of a remnant. The main theme of these prophets was God’s judgment and God’s restoration of Judah. We will see that this is what Zephaniah prophesied as well. So he may have been already familiar with the content of his message from the earlier prophets.
During the time of Zephaniah, Nahum predicted the destruction of Nineveh, the largest city of the time. This would have been good news for Judah who had been threatened by Assyria since the fall of Samaria in 722 BC. It showed that God judges His enemies. At this time, Jeremiah (Ch. 1-38) denounced the sins of Judah. He predicted that because of these they would be defeated by the Babylonians and be exiled for 70 years. But he also predicted their restoration and life under the Messiah with a new covenant.
So, at the time when Zephaniah prophesised, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies. Idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent; they were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Zephaniah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
Apart from the first verse, the book of Zephaniah is poetry, not prose. It teems with figures of speech such as metaphors, similes, metonymy and synecdoche.
God is the central character. He is a God of action. At the beginning He is a merciless judge. But by the end he shows mercy and pardons people. Zephaniah is a humble spokesman: he speaks about God and not himself.
The story is that God wants Judah to serve Him. However, this is prevented by their sins.
Through “the day of the Lord”, Judah is restored to serve Him and they are joined by believing Gentiles.
The two main themes of Zephaniah are predictions of God’s judgment and God’s deliverance, which show His justice and mercy. Zephaniah mainly concerns the coming judgment and punishment of Judah and other nations because of their sinfulness (1:2-3:8). This is followed by the promised restoration of a Jewish remnant (3:9-20). So an imminent threat is balanced by the hope of ultimate deliverance.
Those who “have sinned against the Lord” (1:17) will be judged and those who obey and trust the Lord will be restored (2:3; 3:12). The themes of judgment and restoration are linked by a call to repentance (2:1-3).
Looking at these linkages shown in the schematic diagram, four major themes can be identified: Humanity’s sinfulness, God’s warning, God’s judgment, and God’s deliverance. We will now look at each of these in turn.
Zephaniah shows that human sinfulness is a universal problem; it affected both Judah and the other nations.
The sins of Judah included: idolatry (1:3, 4), syncretism (where the true God is worshipped through or alongside other gods) (1:5; 2 Ki. 17:41), apostasy (1:6), following foreign (pagan) customs and culture, which compromised their identity as God’s special people (1:8-9), violence (1:9), apathy and pride (1:12; 3:11), love of money (1:18), oppression (3:10), rebellion (3:10), self-sufficiency, unruliness and ungodliness (3:2), greedy and corrupt leaders (3:3-4, 7), lying and deceit (1:9; 3:13), and thinking that God doesn’t punish sins or reward repentance (1:12). They didn’t “seek the Lord” or “inquire of Him” via prayer or the Scriptures (1:6).
The sins of other nations included: pride (2:10, 15), self-sufficiency (2:15), and insulting, mocking and threatening God’s people (2:8, 10).
This sinfulness was the source and reason for God’s judgment. God had given His people standards to live by in the Mosaic law. So they should have known better.
Now we come to God’s response to their sins.
The prophets warned God’s people about the consequences of their sinfulness. They were breaking the covenant with their God. Instead of living like God’s people, they were living like pagans. They were breaking most of the ten commandments. The punishment for disobeying the covenant is given in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:14-45; Dt. 28:15-68). It included being defeated by their enemies, having their cities besieged, plundered and destroyed and their people captured and scattered to other nations.
Zephaniah calls for repentance (2:3). There is deliverance for the humble who trust God. But Jerusalem is unrepentant (3:6-7). They didn’t learn from the mistakes of the northern kingdom about 100 years earlier that lead to them being captured by the Assyrians and destroyed as a nation.
So God is merciful: He warns His people of the consequences of their behavior. And we know that king Josiah did repent.
There are two possible responses to a warning. The first is to ignore it. Now we come to the major theme of God’s judgment.
Judgment is predicted for both Judah and other nations for their ongoing sinfulness.
First for the Jews. The “day of the Lord” is mentioned at least eleven times in the book of Zephaniah (1:7, 8, 9, 10, 14 (twice), 15, 18; 2: 2 (twice), 3). Each occurrence is associated with a message to Judah. According to the NET Bible the concept of “the day of the Lord” may have originated in the ancient Near Eastern idea of the sovereign’s day of conquest, where a king would boast that he had concluded an entire military campaign in a single day. In the Old Testament the phrase first appears in the book of Amos (Amos 5:18-20).
It is a time of great judgement. But when and where will it occur? The book begins with God declaring (1:2-3): “I will sweep away (“destroy” NET) everything from the face of the earth,” declares the Lord. “I will sweep away both man and beast; I will sweep away the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea—and the idols that cause the wicked to stumble.” “When I destroy all mankind on the face of the earth,” declares the Lord.
At the end of chapter 1, Zephaniah comments (1:18): “In the fire of His jealousy the whole earth will be consumed, for He will make a sudden end of all who live on the earth.”
So everything on the ground will be devastated. Where will it occur? It is clear from the next verse that both Judah and Jerusalem will be attacked (1:4). He calls it “the day of the Lord” (1:7, 14) and “the day of the Lord’s wrath” (1:18; 2:2). Jerusalem will be devastated (1:10-13) because of her sinfulness (3:1-5) and unrepentance (3:7).
But why does the NIV say the judgment is on “the face of the earth” (1:2, 3), “the whole earth” and “all who live on the earth” (1:18)? It seems to me that these phrases are translated poorly by most modern translations of the Bible. Click the link to see my reasons. A better translation is: “the land (of Judah)” (1:2, 3), “the whole land (of Judah)”, and “all who live on the land (of Judah) (1:18).
The judgment is directed to the unrepentant, those who don’t seek the Lord (1:6). Zephaniah gives three pictures of God’s judgement, “the day of the Lord”: a devastating flood (1:2-3), a great sacrifice (1:7-8), and a great battle (1:14-18).
As it described total destruction of living things and idols, yet there are survivors (a humble remnant), the description of the judgment seems to include hyperbole (1:2-3, 18b, 2:3; 3:11-13). Some resolve this dilemma by assuming that the verses on deliverance (3:9-20) were written after the time of Zephaniah. But this isn’t necessary because the combination of the themes of judgement, deliverance of a remnant and a new life of blessing for the faithful is an old as Noah’s flood. So the day of the Lord includes both punishment and purification. Zephaniah wasn’t just a prophet of doom, but of doom and hope. After all God is characterised by both justice (when he punishes sinners) and mercy (when he restores the repentant).
When will the judgment occur? “The great day of the Lord is near—near and coming quickly” (1:7, 14). It’s imminent. It describes the desolation after an army invades Judah and Jerusalem (1:4-18a). Nothing will be able to save the Judeans (1:18a). It will be “a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and blackness” (1:15). A time of wailing (1:11). This prediction was probably given at least 30 years before it was fulfilled when Babylonia invaded Jerusalem. That’s when the judgment was to occur. In the meantime, the purpose of the distress was so Judah would repent.
Secondly, judgment is also predicted as total destruction for nations around Judah. Philistia in the west (2:4-6), Moab and Ammon in the east (2:8-11), Egypt in the south (2:12) and Assyria in the north (2:13-15). As there is judgment in all directions, no one can escape. God also promised to judge all the wicked Gentiles (3:8). This is when other nations experience “the day of the Lord”. It was announced by Zephaniah to call Judah to repentance (3:6-7).
About 50 years later Ezekiel also prophesied the destruction of Ammon, Moab and Philistia (Ch. 25) (Assyria had already been invaded by the Babylonians). Ammon and Moab would be invaded by Babylonia. God would take vengeance on Philistia. Also, Egypt and its allies would be invaded by Babylonia (Ch 29-32). After this it was invaded by the Persians. So all these judgements occurred within 100 years of Zephaniah’s predictions.
God’s judgment in “the day of the Lord” shows that justice comes to all.
The other response to a warning is to take notice and change your behavior so as to avoid the consequences. Now we come to the other major theme of God’s deliverance.
Deliverance is predicted for both Judah and other nations.
First for the Jews. Believers would be protected during “the day of the Lord” (2:3). Then God promises to restore a Jewish remnant (2:7; 3:10-13, 18-20). Deliverance and salvation follow judgment. The scattered Jews will return to the land of Judah. They will seek the Lord, trust in Him, obey Him and be humble (2:3; 3:12). They will resume the temple offerings. Their enemies will be punished and there will be peace and honesty in their land. Shame and wickedness will cease (3:11-13). The Jews will be praised and honored around the world – praise and honor has replaced their shame. They will occupy Philistia, Moab and Ammon (2:7, 9c). This leads to joyful celebration in Jerusalem under God’s leadership (3:14-17). Singing has replaced their wailing (3:14), because the punishment has been taken away, the enemies turned back and God is with them (v.15). There is joy and singing in heaven as well (3:17). God “will rejoice over you with singing”.
When will the deliverance occur (Zeph. 3:10-20)? A Jewish remnant returned to Judah after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Although Gentiles called “on the name of the Lord” when they became Christians (Zeph. 3:9; Rom. 10:13), I don’t think that the deliverance described has been completed yet. Did Judah have peace (3:13)? After Jerusalem was rebuilt, Judea was ruled by the Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians and Romans. In 70 AD, the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and in 134 AD the Romans attacked again and the Jews were killed, enslaved and dispersed to surrounding countries including Europe and North Africa. Since this time, Judea has been ruled by the Byzantine Empire, the Islamic Empire, the Crusaders, the Mamluk Empire, the Ottoman Empire, and the British Empire. The Jews were persecuted and driven out of many regions culminating in the holocaust. Have the Jews been praised and honored in other lands (3:19-20)? It says “never again will you fear any harm” (3:15), yet Jerusalem, was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70.
Secondly, redemption is also predicted for believing Gentiles. When God destroys Judah’s enemies (2:11): “Distant nations will bow down to Him, all of them in their own lands”. When they realise the awesomeness of God, they will repent and worship Him. They will also seek His help in prayer and serve Him (3:9). This has been fulfilled to some degree in the Christian church.
We have seen that Zephaniah told the Jews of the 7th century BC that because of humanity’s sinfulness, God will judge the Jews and the Gentiles in the “day of the Lord”. And God did judge them. But God is merciful. He warns them of their situation and their need to repent.
After this a Jewish remnant will be restored and they will worship Him as King of Israel.
So Zephaniah’s main themes are: Mankind’s sinfulness, God’s warning to repent, God’s judgment (the day of the Lord) for the unrepentant, and God’s deliverance for the repentant (the remnant). This is an example of “the kindness and sternness of God” (Rom. 11:22). These are two aspects of God’s character. The kindness is for those who repent, while the sternness is for the unrepentant.
The Jews should have known about these themes because they come from the Pentateuch. It contains rewards for obedience and punishment for disobedience. It also says if they confess their sins with humility, then God would remember their covenant (Lev. 26:40-45). So their repentance is the goal of their punishment. God wanted them to turn back to following Him once again.
Zephaniah also implies that God is the God of all nations. In those days each nation had their own gods. People were polytheistic. Here we see that Judah’s God is sovereign and supreme over other nations. He will destroy all the other gods (2:11). Therefore, He was sovereign and supreme over their gods. So the fact of one true God as expressed in the first two commandments is another theme of Zephaniah.
Furthermore, it implies that God intervenes in history (1:12). They thought He wouldn’t intervene, but God says He will search Jerusalem (2:11). So the fact that Judah’s God intervenes in human affairs and history is another theme of Zephaniah.
In order to apply Zephaniah’s prophecy to our modern world, we need to take of account of what God has revealed since then. Today we know that the New Testament teaches that because of humanity’s sinfulness, we all deserve God’s punishment. But God is merciful. In the Bible He warns us of our situation and our need to repent. Jesus took the punishment for us when He was crucified. Those who repent are redeemed to worship Him as their Lord.
When Paul addresses the sins of the self-righteous moralist, he writes “because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom. 2:5). So God warns people today of a coming judgment. Also, Peter warns that God’s final judgment of the universe is coming as “the day of the Lord” (2 Pt. 3:7-10). In the meantime, we are to be faithful followers of Christ (2 Pt. 3:11-14).
Even though it was written over 2,600 years ago, Zephaniah’s book is relevant to our times. We can apply the four main themes to ourselves. What are our sins? What are our gods? Are we apathetic? Are we materialistic? Are we selfish? How loyal are we to God? They had a choice. So do we. Will we confess and repent of our sins in order to maintain our relationship with the Lord? There is deliverance and salvation for the humble who trust in the death of Jesus Christ for their sins. Do we have the hope of heaven? The hope of a better time to come.
Because of the sins of humanity, judgment is coming; but deliverance and salvation is promised for the repentant.
Written, November 2014
We live in a world of contracts. They regulate our lives and financial transactions. There are employment contracts and marriage contracts. Contracts for the supply of telephone and internet services. Contracts when you buy a car or a property or build a house. Anti-bullying contracts at schools.
This article looks at some of God’s contracts in the Bible. We will see that because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Adam and Eve lived in utopia. But after they disobeyed God, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Sinful behaviour increased until it had to be punished when God destroyed the world in a global flood and started again with Noah’s family. Noah lived about 2,500 years BC. We see two aspects of God’s character in His response to humanity’s sin. First there is judgement and punishment. Second there is grace and mercy. God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises.
The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses at about 1,500 years BC. The most important types of contracts, agreements and treaties at this time involved kings. There were two types:
- Royal land grants – A king’s free gift of land or some other benefit to a loyal servant. The grant was normally perpetual and unconditional, but the servant’s descendants benefited from it only if they continued to be loyal.
- Suzerain–vassal treaties – A treaty between a great king and the lesser kings that he ruled. Here the one with the political control is called the suzerain (a French word) and the other is called the vassal (a Latin word). The suzerain protected the vassal as long as the vassal was loyal to him. It was a conditional treaty.
We will now look at a series of covenants/contracts that God made with humanity. A contract is a legally binding agreement between two parties.
After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolised by the rainbow. It was unconditional, like a royal land grant.
When in Babylon, Ezekiel had the vision of God’s glory, and the radiance was like a rainbow (Ezek. 1:28). When on Patmos, John had the vision of the throne in heaven, which was encircled by a green rainbow (Rev. 4:3). The rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
How did people respond to God’s promise never to destroy the world again with a global flood? At this time they were also told to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1, 7). But they were disobedient and built the city of Babel instead and resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). That’s behaving like a teenager who is given everything by their parents, but rebels and goes their own way.
What about us? The Bible says that Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” and “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:11). Do we live as though God sustains the universe, or do we ignore Him and go our own way?
So the first covenant/contract was a promise of God’s protection and now we will move to the second.
Promised nation and land
When the people proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements, God judged their sin by causing the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages.
Then God responded with grace and mercy and promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18-21). This was unconditional like a royal land grant. By the way, this promise has not yet been fulfilled. Although Solomon ruled over it as over vassal states, his people didn’t occupy all of it themselves (1 Ki. 4:21, 24).
How did they respond? Sarah, unable to have any children, persuaded Abraham to father a child by her servant, Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The child was Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabic people. Sarah and Abraham lacked faith and took matters into their own hands.
So God repeated the promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan and promised to be their God (Gen. 17:1-22). He promised a son who was to be named Isaac who would have many descendants and Ishmael would also have many descendants. It was an everlasting covenant/contract (Gen. 17:7-8). They were to undergo male circumcision because it was the sign of this covenant/contract (Gen. 17:11).
How did they respond? Abraham promptly circumcised the males in his household. When they were told that Sarah would have a son, Abraham worshiped and laughed in amazement, while Sarah laughed in disbelief as she was past the childbearing age (Gen. 17:17-18; 18:9-15). In this case Sarah doubted God’s promise and needed to hear, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14).
Politicians make promises before elections. But people often doubt them because afterwards they can get downgraded into core and non-core promises or scrapped because it is alleged that the circumstances have changed.
What about us? In the New Testament, God promises eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s second coming. Do we treat God like we treat politicians? Do we live as though these are doubtful non-core promises? Are we like Abraham who trusted God or like Sarah who didn’t?
So the second covenant/contract was a promise of a nation and land and now we will move to the third.
The promises given to Abraham were repeated to Isaac and Jacob; and Jacob’s family followed Joseph to Egypt. After being in Egypt for many years, Jacob’s family grew to a nation of 2 million people and Moses led them out in the exodus to Canaan. At Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). As it was conditional on obeying God’s laws, including the 10 commandments, social laws and religious laws, this covenant/contract was like a Suzerain-vassal agreement. There were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). It was based on works; if people obeyed, God would do His part. The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant/contract (Ex. 31:13, 17).
How did they respond? The 4th time that Moses went up Mt Sinai to met with God lasted 40 days (Ex. 24:18) and the people got impatient and made a golden idol shaped like a calf (Ex. 32:1-6). It was not a good start! Then after the spies explored Canaan, the people rebelled against God and wanted to go back to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4). Their punishment was to wander in the wilderness for 38 years, while those that rebelled died before they reached Canaan.
After the Israelites occupied Canaan, they were ruled by Judges for about 300 years. Then they became a monarchy. Saul was the first king and David the second. David lived about 1,000 years BC. Later in the monarchy they divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. All of Israel’s kings were ungodly; they followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Assyrian conquest of 722BC. Many of the kings of Judah also followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Babylonian conquest of 586BC.
If a tenant fails to pay the rent on time or damages the property, they are warned of the danger of being evicted. If they continue failing to comply with the contract then the lease is terminated and they are evicted.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the end for the Jews as some returned to Judah after the exile in Babylon. But we will see later that this covenant/contract is now called the “old covenant”.
Likewise, sin shouldn’t be the end of our fellowship with the Lord. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). If we confess our sins, then we can experience God’s parental forgiveness.
So the third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God and now we will move to the fourth.
When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). His son Solomon would build the temple and experience God’s mercy. This covenant/contract was unconditional like a royal land grant. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). It was repeated by Jeremiah and Luke (Jer. 33:17-26; Lk. 1:32-33). The prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.
A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). His kingdom is everlasting.
Unrest has stopped peace talks in the Ukraine and between Pakistan and the Taliban. There is little progress in Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Peace is illusive in the world’s hot spots.
The Bible says that this world will not have peace until Jesus returns to set up His kingdom. Just as Solomon had a peaceful kingdom, Jesus will bring peace to the world. Do we believe this?
So the fourth covenant/contract was a promise of a dynasty and now we will move to the final one.
We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant/contract. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicts a Babylonian conquest and 70 year exile (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27). Then he predicts that Israel would be restored after the captivity (Jer. 30-31).
He also promises the Israelites a new covenant/contract, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:33-34).
The nation is revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today.
This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s a promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth which will merge into the eternal kingdom. This covenant/contract was instituted at the first Lord’s Supper when Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk. 22:20). It began at His death when the curtain inside the temple was torn in two. His death makes the new covenant/contract possible. It’s the foundation.
Ancient covenants were validated by the sacrificial death of an animal (Gen. 15:9-21; Heb. 9:19). Christ had to die before the new covenant/contract commenced. He is the mediator of the new covenant/contract (Heb. 12:22).
The blessings of the new covenant/contract for the Jews are both physical and spiritual. Believers enter into it spiritually; they enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the gospel by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. Gentiles like us have been grafted into the tree of the faithful, but in future believing Jews will be grafted back into the tree (Rom.11:17, 23-24).
The new covenant/contract is different to the one given at Mt Sinai. It is unconditional like a royal land grant. It depends on God alone. The old covenant/contract of the Jewish law is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). We shouldn’t live by those rules and practices. The old covenant/contract was a shadow of what was to come. Its purpose was to bring a knowledge and conviction of sin (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). It was temporary, until the time of Christ. God confirmed this by destroying the temple in AD 70 (1 Cor. 3:7, 11). The new covenant/contract is eternal (Heb. 13:20). Since Christ’s death, the Jewish law has been replaced with the Christian faith and the Jews have been replaced by the church as God’s people on earth (Gal. 3:23-25).
With the advent of computers, typewriters are now obsolete. Photocopiers have made carbon paper obsolete. Other things like floppy disks and video tapes are also obsolete. So let’s not be tempted to try to please God by following the Old Testament laws, because they are now obsolete.
The gospel is called the “new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). Because it depends on God and not humanity, it brings forgiveness of sins, something the old covenant/contract couldn’t do. It’s a “better covenant” with “better promises” (Heb. 7:22; 9:6) as explained in Hebrews chapters 8-10. The law promised blessing for obedience but threatened death for disobedience. It required righteousness but didn’t give the ability to produce it. The gospel imputes righteousness where there is none and empowers believers to live righteously. It’s better, because it relies on God alone. The Old Testament offerings were ceremonial and ritual, they didn’t deal with the guilt of sin (Heb. 9:9-10). Christ’s sacrifice was superior, it was once for all.
The Lord’s Supper is our symbol of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?
So the final covenant/contract was a promise of Jewish revival and spiritual blessings for believers.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from these five covenants/contracts that God made with humanity?
We have seen that God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises. They illustrate God’s grace and mercy.
The covenant/contract often had a sign or symbol to remind people of it:
- Rainbow – given to Noah to remind of God’s protection for all
- Male circumcision – given to Abraham to remind of Jewish nation and land
- Sabbath day – given to Moses to remind of the Jewish relationship with God (They were His special people)
The other two covenants didn’t include a sign, although the Lord’s supper reminds Christians of the spiritual blessings of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) and receiving the Holy Spirit could also be viewed as a sign (Eph. 1:13).
They show us that God keeps His covenants/contracts. He is faithful. In particular the rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts. Many of the promises he made in the Old Testament have already been fulfilled. But not all of them.
We have seen that people don’t always accept what God offers to them. Some trust in them like Abraham, while others rebel against them like the Israelites. Do we live as though God is our master, our Suzerain, and we are His servant, His vassal?
Some may say the revival in the new covenant/contract only applies to Christians and that God is finished with the Jews. They are extinct as a separate entity in God’s plans for the future. But when he wrote Romans in AD 57, Paul predicted a Jewish revival and it hasn’t happened yet (Romans 11). Also in AD 55 he divided people into three categories, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The Greeks are unconverted Gentiles and the church includes believing Jews and Gentiles. Also Jews appear in John’s visions of the future in the book of Revelation (Rev. 7:4-8; 11:1-2; 14:1-5; 15:5-8). It includes 144,000 Jewish believers who are sealed for their protection. Although this was written in AD95, 25 years after the temple was destroyed, it hasn’t happened yet. So according to the Bible, God isn’t finished with the Jews. If He was, why has the Jewish nation returned to Israel of recent times after a gap of about 1,900 years?
We have seen how God’s grace and mercy flows through the Old Testament covenants/contracts into the New Testament and to us another 2,000 years later. In a world that has no time for God, and in the struggles of life, it’s good to know that He controls the big picture.
So let’s be like Abraham trusting that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
Because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Written, February 2014
Sin is our greatest problem
Our world can be a dangerous place. But sometimes we are unaware and oblivious of the dangers. Using a smart phone can be dangerous if we are not aware of what’s happening around us. After a woman died recently in Sydney when she was run over by a bus, police issued a warning about people using their phones when walking.
Not only are there physical dangers, but there are spiritual dangers. Are we aware of the spiritual dangers we face? Like ignoring the God who made the universe by living as though there is no God? Or are we oblivious of these like someone using a phone when crossing a street? Today in a survey of the first 11 chapters of the Bible we will see that sin against God is our greatest problem, and the source of all our problems.
This passage was compiled and written by Moses 700–2,500 years after the events occurred. Some of this information was passed down from his ancestors and some was revealed to him directly by God. Note that most of this time is covered by two generations – the lifetimes of Adam and Noah cover about 1,900 years. When he wrote it, Moses was “carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pt. 1:21NIV). “Moses was educated in all the wisdom of the Egyptians”, so he could write and keep records (Acts 7:22).
The Israelites had been slaves in Egypt where people worshiped many pagan gods (Polytheism). In order to understand their situation and their world, they needed to know about the earlier history of the world. This helps us understand our world as well.
Genesis covers the origins of the universe, the earth, humanity, marriage, sin, languages, the nations, and the Israelites as God’s chosen people. The first eleven chapters summarize the highlights of world history up to the time of Abraham. This history includes four crises.
A crisis in the first generation
Chapters 1-2 describe the creation of the universe, the earth, the plants and animals, and Adam and Eve, the first man and woman. God spoke and it happened over a period of six days. They were given one restriction: “you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat from it you will certainly die” (Gen. 2:17).
The first crisis occurs when Adam and Eve are tempted by Satan to disobey God (Gen. 3:1-5). What will they do: follow God or Satan? This is a unique situation, because they lived in a perfect world and didn’t have a sinful nature. It was an external temptation. After they chose to disobey God and eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they are banished from the Garden of Eden. This first sin affected the whole creation including child birth, relationships between husband and wife, work and agriculture. Life was now a struggle with conflict, suffering, disease, decay, spiritual death and physical death. They went from a life in paradise to a life of problems. Their problems were a consequence of their sin. Sin was their greatest problem and the source of all their problems.
The Bible teaches that we have all inherited this sinful tendency – “everyone has sinned, we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT). Everyone is guilty; we are all self-centred, and so we were all affected.
However, in the list of God’s punishments there is a promise. He said to Satan “I will put enmity between you and the woman (Eve), and between your offspring and hers; he (Eve’s offspring) will crush your head, and you will strike his heel” (Gen. 3:15NIV). So there is a hint of good news amidst the bad news. A suggestion of an end to the conflict between people and Satan, when Satan is crushed.
It’s a bit like the old game of “Snakes and Ladders” (“Chutes and Ladders in the US”) where you roll a dice to get a number and move that many spaces along the board. When you land on the head of a snake you slide backwards, and when you land on the bottom of a ladder you jump ahead. The consequences of Adam and Eve’s sin hindered their life and moved them away from God, like the snakes hinder a player of snakes and ladders. The sin sequence is: temptation, followed by sin, and spiritual death. But the promise of victory over Satan is like a ladder to help them and move them towards God.
Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed Satan the snake (Gen. 3:12-13). Like Adam and Eve, we often blame our problems on others or our circumstances. Do we realise that our sin is our greatest problem? Do we ignore God by living as though He doesn’t exist?
A crisis in the second generation
Cain and Able were Adam and Eve’s first two sons. Cain becomes jealous of Abel. The second crisis occurs when this develops into hatred and he is tempted to kill Abel. What will he do; follow God or his anger? His parents would have told him what happened after they disobeyed God. But he murders Abel and is banished to be a nomad and “went out from the Lord’s presence” (Gen. 4:1-16). Cain’s problems were a consequence of his sin. This incident would have devastated Adam and Eve. The first boy to grow from infancy to maturity was a murderer! Their greatest problem as a family was caused by Cain’s sin.
But once again, it’s not all bad news. Because Cain was worried about his safety, “the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him” (Gen. 4:15). This is a promise of God’s protection. We can see a pattern developing here. God punishes sin, but provides some relief in the form of a promise.
Also, it is an example of the conflict between Satan’s offspring and Eve’s godly offspring (Gen. 3:15). In this case Cain was Satan’s agent who killed Abel, who is commended for his faith in God (Heb. 11:4; 1 Jn. 3:12). But God replaced Abel with Seth and the godly line of descendants was re-established (Gen. 4:25-26).
So in the history of humanity, Cain is like a snake in the game of snakes and ladders and Seth is like a ladder. Cain’s descendants moved away from God and lived as thought He wasn’t there, while Seth’s descendants moved towards God and followed Him. Who are we like; Cain or Seth (Jude 11)? Cain ignored God, but Seth followed God.
According to the Bible, The fool says …, “There is no God”. They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good” (Ps. 14:1). If we live as though there is no God, then we become god. We claim to know everything everywhere – otherwise God could exist somewhere, but we could be ignorant of Him. The Bible says this is foolish and leads to sinful behavior.
A crisis in the 10th generation
During the 1,600 years after the first crisis, the earth’s population grew, being comprised of cities and societies. We have seen the crises and problems in the early history of our earth for individuals and for a family. Now we will look at society as a whole.
Wickedness increased with time. It became a part of their normal way of life. They were oblivious to its danger. In the days of Noah, society was characterized by violence and corruption (Gen. 6:1-7). “The Lord saw how great the wickedness of the human race had become on the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of the human heart was only evil all the time” (Gen. 6:5). It is a crisis where a society of people turns away from God and go their own way. They reject the message of Noah, the “preacher of righteousness” (2 Pt. 2:5). He warned people to turn to God or face God’s judgment. So they had a choice to make.
God’s judgement on their sin was to destroy the original creation with a global flood. The death of these people was a consequence of their sin. Their greatest problem as a society was caused by their sin.
But once again, it’s not all bad news. Noah’s godly family was protected on the ark (Gen. 7:1 – 8:19) and given a promise that the earth would never be destroyed again by a flood (Gen. 8:21 – 9:17). Here we see that God punishes sin, but some are rescued.
Noah’s family is like a ladder in the game of snakes and ladders. They followed God. The rest of the people are like a snake. They moved away from God and lived as thought He wasn’t there. Who are we like; Noah’s family or the rest? The rest ignored God, but Noah’s family followed God. Their choice determined their destiny.
A crisis in the 15th generation
In God’s covenant with Noah, He commanded the people to “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1). They obeyed the first part but not the second. They increased in number and built the city of Babel, but resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). They proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements. This is another crisis where a society of people turns away from God and go their own way.
God’s judgement on their sin was to cause the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Now because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages. This would have been a tough time. They lost technology and homes that were in the city, becoming nomads and settling in new areas. Some probably lived in caves at this time. The scattering of these people was a consequence of their sin. Their greatest problem as a society was caused by their sin.
Once again we see that God punishes sin, but where is the promise? It’s like a game of snakes and ladders without the ladders. The promise is given to Abraham in the next section of the book of Genesis.
Are we alert or oblivious?
What can we learn from these four crises in early history involving Adam, Cain, the flood and Babel?
At each crisis the people had a choice, but the choice wasn’t unlimited. Because we are finite, we are only free to make decisions within God’s limits and boundaries. God is the only one without boundaries – He is infinite. He gave us a free will and choice, but within certain boundaries. God sets the standard for human behaviour. It is a sin to cross those boundaries.
At each crisis the people had a choice to follow God or Satan. And their choice determined what their life was like afterwards. Likewise, our choices have physical and spiritual consequences. They determine our destiny in many ways.
But in each crisis people acted as though God wasn’t there; they ignored the possibility that they would be punished for disobeying God. They were unaware and oblivious of this danger. It’s like they were asleep or unconscious or there’s a malfunction of the brain and nervous system. My nephew is in a hospital brain injury unit. He can see and hear and is starting to speak a little, but he can’t respond with the rest of his body. If there is danger, he can’t react to it. For our safety, let’s be alert and aware of spiritual dangers instead of being oblivious. The dangerous sin sequence is: temptation, followed by sin, spiritual death, physical death, and eternal death in hell. It’s the snake to hell that Satan promotes. It’s the choice of those oblivious to temptation. Here death is the door to hell.
God made us with a conscience, an inborn sense of right and wrong (Rom. 2:15). It’s like an alarm to remind us when something is wrong. It worked for Adam and Eve when they felt guilty and hid from God after they sinned. Then they confessed their sin. Is your conscience working or broken?
Our greatest danger is spiritual death, which leads to eternal punishment in hell. This is the consequence of our sin if we don’t accept God’s promise of eternal life with Him in heaven (Jn. 3:16). That life is possible because Jesus took the punishment that we deserve when He died on the cross. It is ours if we confess our sin and repent by turning around to follow God. Have you done that?
This salvation is like the promises that we found in the passage. It is an example of God’s grace and mercy and like the ladders in snakes and ladders, which move us closer to God. The salvation sequence is: Conviction of our sinfulness – our conscience alarms, followed by confession, and repentance, followed by God’s forgiveness, spiritual life, physical death, and eternal life in heaven. It’s the ladder to heaven that Jesus Christ provides. It’s the choice of those alert to temptation. Here death is the door to heaven.
According to the Bible, there are no other chances to follow God after we die. We only live once, and die once. We only have one life to follow Jesus and then the opportunity will end. There is no reincarnation. Also, the way of salvation is not through good works, or superior knowledge, or acts of worship or devotion. We can’t get to heaven by being good. It’s not through what we do, but accepting what Jesus has already done for us.
But sin has consequences for Christians as well. We can also be oblivious and live as though God isn’t there. This destroys our fellowship with God. It can be restored if we confess our sin and repent by turning around to follow God once again (1 Jn. 1:9). This pattern is like snakes and ladders, with sin being a snake that moves us away from God and restoration a ladder that moves us towards God. The sequence is: Temptation, followed by sin, loss of fellowship with God, conviction of our sinfulness – our conscience alarms, confession, repentance, followed by God’s forgiveness, and the restoration of fellowship with God. It’s the snake and ladder of daily Christian living. It’s the choice of those oblivious to temptation, but whose conscience alarms later.
Of course it is better if our conscience alarms at the stage of temptation than that at the stage of conviction. So temptation is a critical stage. A healthy alert conscience short circuits the cycle and saves a lot of anguish.
Christians still experience the conflict between Satan and humanity (Gen. 3:15). When we pray it’s good to include spiritual concerns like temptation, sin, conviction, confession, repentance, and salvation, not just physical concerns.
Because we are all sinful, there will be crises in our life. There will be choices to make. In this respect, life is different to the game of snakes and ladders: it’s about choice, not chance. When facing a crisis, we need to realise that sin is our greatest problem. The first step in dealing with a problem or an addiction is to acknowledge that we have a problem. Then we can deal with the sin and get right with God.
Some say Genesis chapters 1-11 is just a story to illustrate that God made the world. It really took billions of years, not six days. It’s not real history. It’s a different genre. Adam and Eve didn’t exist, there was no global flood. The genealogies aren’t true. It’s an ancient myth. But such a viewpoint undermines the whole Bible. This part of Genesis is quoted extensively by both Jesus and Paul. Adam and Noah are both mentioned 8 times in the New Testament. They were real people.
So let’s remember these lessons from the early chapters of Genesis. Let’s be alert and aware of our sinfulness and not oblivious like someone using a smart phone when crossing a street. We ignore it at our peril because God punishes sinners. But it’s not all bad news, the good news is that God promised to help sinners like us and the rest of the Bible describes how He did it.
Let’s be like Noah’s family and make good choices and follow the God who made the universe, instead of living like He isn’t there. Realizing that sin is our greatest problem and Jesus is God’s solution.
Written, February 2014
When the armies of three nations ran out of water they sought the help of Elisha the prophet (2 Ki. 3:9-27). Elisha received a message from God saying that He would use a miracle to provide water for themselves and their animals. This happened on the following morning and God also used the appearance of the water to defeat their enemy. So God did more than they requested (Eph. 3:20).
The first part of God’s message as given in verse 16 has been translated in two ways:
- “Make this valley full of ditches” (NKJV). This emphasises that the armies were to dig the ditches (or pits) and then the Lord would provide the water.
- “I will fill this valley with pools of water” (NIV). This emphasises that God would provide the water.
See link for a comparison between different translations and a translation note from the New English Translation (NET). Here we see that both alternatives occur in more than one translation. The difference depends on whether the command is assumed to be literal or hyperbolic (a figure of speech). It has also been said that in this context “ditches” (or pits) and “pools” are nearly synonymous.
Possible applications to the two alternative translations are:
- Pray, listen to God and do all you can to accomplish His purposes, while trusting God to act.
- Pray and then wait and trust God to act.
Written, February 2013