Have you ever worked on a giant jigsaw puzzle? What if some of the pieces are missing? How about piecing together the 20,000 Dead Sea Scroll fragments! Historians piece together pictures of what life was like in days gone by. They also look for patterns – what has remained the same, what has changed, and why. In their investigations, historians follow a process of historical inquiry – they ask questions, form opinions and theories, locate and analyze sources, and use evidence from these sources to develop an informed explanation about the past.
Most of what is known of the ancient world comes from written accounts by ancient historians. But these only record a sample of human events and only a few of these documents have survived. Few people could write such histories as illiteracy was widespread in ancient times. And the reliability of the surviving accounts needs to be considered.
According to Christian history, Jesus lived in Palestine about 5 BC to 33 AD. The gospels record His birth, teaching, death, burial and resurrection. But all historians are biased and selective. Christians are biased towards believing that Jesus existed as a historical person, whereas non-Christians can be biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Could the story of Jesus be just a Christian myth or conspiracy and He doesn’t exist outside the Bible or outside early church history? By the way, almost no early ancient historian believes this. But how robust is the historical evidence about Jesus? How confident are we that Jesus lived in history?
Jesus was a Jew (a minor race) who lived in Galilee, which was a part of Palestine (not the capital, Jerusalem), which was an outpost of the Roman Empire (a tiny part of a vast empire). He was a long way away from the local center of power and from Rome (the capital of the empire). So the fact that we can find any written record of Jesus outside the New Testament is significant. Based on this, the best place to look for extra-biblical (outside the Bible) evidence of Jesus is in ancient Roman and Jewish literature.
In His work “Lives of the twelve Caesars” (AD 120, about 85 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Suetonius (AD 69 – AD 122) says,
“He (Claudius) expelled the Jews from Rome, on account of the riots in which they were constantly indulging, at the instigation of Chrestus” (Book 5, Life of Claudius 25.4).
Claudius was the Emperor of Rome in AD 41-54. “Chrestus” may be a misspelling of Christ (this is debated by classical scholars). If Chrestus refers to Christ, the riots were about Him, rather than led by Him. Alternatively, it has been suggested that Suetonius misunderstood conflicts between Jews and Christians over “the Christ” as a conflict involving a person named Chrestus (a common slave name). This passage may refer to the expulsion of Jews from Rome in AD 49 mentioned in Acts 18:2. Or, Chrestus could have been an agitator in Rome. As the meaning of this passage is inconclusive, it’s debatable whether it refers to Jesus Christ or not.
Now we move to an earlier reference that is more conclusive. In his “Annals” (AD 115-117, about 80 years after Christ’s death), the Roman historian Tacitus (AD 56 – AD 120) says,
“They (Christians) got their name from Christ, who was executed by sentence of the procurator Pontius Pilate in the reign of Tiberius. That checked the pernicious superstition (Christianity) for a short time, but it broke out afresh not only in Judea, where the plague first arose, but in Rome itself, where all horrible and shameful things in the world collect and find a home” (15, 44).
The most recent complete copy of the Annals was copied in the 11th century AD (1,000 years after it was written). The Annals is a history of the Roman Empire from the reign of Tiberius to that of Nero (AD 14–68). The context of this passage is the 6-day fire that burned much of Rome in July 64 AD. The integrity of the passage isn’t disputed by classical scholars. It indicates the manner and time period of Christ’s death. Emperor Nero (37-68 AD) accused the Christians of starting the fire and persecuted them. This means that the Christians in Rome must have been a well-known group, with many members, and with good internal organization. Paul Barnett suggested that as a former consul in Rome, Tacitus would have had access to official archives and may have seen Pilate’s report to Tiberius about the execution of Jesus and others in Judea in AD 33.
We now move from Rome to Bithynia in Asia Minor (now Turkey). Pliny the Younger was the Roman governor of Pontus/Bithynia in 111-113 AD. We have a whole set of exchanges of his letters with the emperor Trajan on a variety of administrative political matters. Letters 10, 96-97 describe his encounter with Christianity (See Appendix A and B), where the emperor advises that Christians be punished unless they denounce Christianity by worshipping Roman gods.
Pliny said that Christians:
– Wouldn’t offer prayer with incense and wine to images of the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t offer sacrificial animals at temples to the Emperor and Roman gods.
– Wouldn’t curse Christ.
– Met on a fixed day before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a god (worship).
– Pledged not to commit any crimes such as fraud, theft, or adultery, or be dishonest or untrustworthy.
– Assembled together to eat ordinary food (communal meal).
– Practiced depraved, excessive superstition. “Superstition” was what the Romans called religions they didn’t like.
Trajan supported Pliny’s approach, provided he acted justly and not on the basis of rumor.
Pliny’s letter supports the existence of the early Christian Church (80 years after Christ’s death) and its rapid growth and mentions aspects of its belief system. It shows that the movement had spread from Jerusalem into Asia Minor and to Rome. And it was widespread in Turkey at that time. Clearly the movement was named after its founder, Christ. This meant that Jesus existed. Because if Jesus didn’t exist, then Christianity wouldn’t exist. Furthermore, Christians worshipped Christ “as to a god”. Clearly Pliny said this because Christ was a human being, unlike their Roman gods. Also, it states that Christians died for their faith (Pliny executed Christians who refused to renounce their faith), which is unlikely to have happened if Jesus was only a mythical figure that had not existed. So this passage shows the impact of Jesus about 80 years after His death.
Josephus (37 – 100 AD) is the best known Jewish historian. He was born in Jerusalem and went to Rome in 71 AD where he wrote his histories under Roman patronage. Jesus Christ is mentioned twice in his “Antiquities of the Jews” (a history of Israel from Genesis to the first century AD) published around 93 AD (about 60 years after the death of Jesus). The oldest manuscripts of the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek date to the tenth and eleventh centuries (800 years after it was written).
Book 20, Chapter 9, 1 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” says,
“he (Ananus the high priest) assembled the Sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned”.
This event is dated at 62 AD. The Bible also says that James was the brother of Jesus (Gal. 1:19). According to Dr. Chris Forbes (Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Macquarie University), no historian suggests that this passage is forged or not authentic. This passage assumes you already know about Jesus, which is true because Josephus has already mentioned him two books earlier (see below).
The exact wording of Book 18, 63-64 of the “Antiquities of the Jews” is disputed as it comes down to us only through Christians. It has probably been edited by a Christian scribe (whose annotations have been added to the text) and it’s fairly easy to decide which parts were written by Josephus and by the scribe. Here is a likely wording of what Josephus wrote:
“Now, there was about this time (a source of further trouble) Jesus, for he was a doer of surprising works, a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure (men who welcome strange things). He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. And when Pilate, at the suggestion of principal men among us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him (cease to cause trouble). And the tribe of Christians, so named for him are not extinct to this day” (D. Bock, 2016)
The context of this passage is the political disturbances that the Roman rulers dealt with during this period. It’s clear from what Josephus wrote that:
– Jesus lived during the time of Pilate.
– Jesus had a reputation for doing unusual works (miracles).
– The Jewish leadership pressured Pilate to condemn Jesus to the cross.
– Jesus died by crucifixion.
– Christianity and Christians came out of Christ’s ministry.
Does any tampering with a passage like this make it inadmissible? No, because historians always face incomplete and inconclusive evidence. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle with lots of pieces missing! In this case, the consensus is that there is a historical nucleus written by Josephus, but it was edited by a Christian scribe.
According to Justin Martyr (Apology 69.7; AD 160), the Jewish view of Jesus was “They said it (Christ’s miracles) was a display of magic art, for they even dared to say that he was a magician and a deceiver of the people” (D. Bock, 2016). So the Jews acknowledged the existence of Jesus and explained His unusual ministry by saying He was a “magician”, “deceiver” and a “false prophet”. In this context a “magician” was an appeal to spiritual forces, and not to an entertainer. Because they tried to explain the source of His power, they accepted Christ’s miracles. This is consistent with the account in the gospels where the Jews say that Jesus:
– was “subverting our nation” (Lk. 23:2).
– “stirs up the people all over Judea by His teaching” (Lk. 23:5).
– was “inciting the people to rebellion” (Lk. 23:14).
– “It is by the prince of demons that He drives out demons” (Mt. 9:34; 12:24).
– was “called Beelzebul (Satan or the prince of demons)” (Mt. 10:25). Here He was accused of being a deceiver.
Also, the Israelites were told in the Pentateuch that a prophet that urged them to follow other gods “must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God” (Dt. 13:1-5). So false prophets were to be put to death (Dt. 18:20-22). Furthermore, during Christ’s religious trial, the high priest Caiaphas accused Him of blaspheme, which was punishable by death under the law of Moses (Lev. 24:16; Mt. 26:65-66).
Dead Sea scrolls
Is Jesus mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls (DSS)? Scholars have dated the scrolls from approximately 200 BC to 70 AD (the date of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans). According to scholars most of the scrolls were written before Christ’s birth and so we wouldn’t expect Jesus to be mentioned in them. That’s why most scholars have dismissed any connection between the community that hid the scrolls in caves at Qumran about 2,000 years ago and the earliest followers of Jesus. Therefore, they assume that Jesus isn’t mentioned in the Dead Sea scrolls. And this preconceived idea may influence how they translate the text of some of the scrolls.
It has been suggested that words such as “dove”, “nail”, “cross” and “mourning” in DSS fragment “4Q451” may refer to Jesus. And “11QT54” says that a person who is a “glutton and drunkard” and a traitor is to be crucified. But it is debatable as to whether these refer to Jesus or not.
Skeptics are biased towards doubting the existence of Jesus. Because the contents of these documents differ from their bias, they usually doubt the authenticity of these passages. But if we discard so many different passages, then we are in effect saying that any ancient document is unreliable and that we know very little about ancient history.
Because of the temporal spread of these documents, it’s unlikely that all the statements about Jesus were interpolated into the original texts. Together with the consistency between these passages, this is strong evidence of the existence of Jesus. The documents stated that:
– Jesus lived in Judea/Palestine.
– Jesus was a wise man and a teacher.
– Jesus did “surprising works” (miracles) which the Jews said was magic.
– Jesus was Jewish and had a brother called James.
– James (who was martyred in AD 62) was a contemporary of Josephus.
– Some people said Jesus was the Christ (that is, the Jewish Messiah).
– Jesus was accused by the Jews.
– Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, during the reign of Tiberius.
– Jesus had followers (called Christians) who were persecuted for their faith in Christ.
– Early Christians believed Jesus was GOD.
– Early Christians upheld a high moral code.
– Early Christians met regularly to worship Jesus.
– Early Christians were persecuted and some were martyred.
– Christians were named after Christ.
– Within 85 years, Christianity spread from Judea to Asia Minor and Rome and the Christians in Rome were well-known, with many members, and with good internal organization.
So there is significant evidence outside the Bible for the existence of Jesus. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. By the way, the mere existence of someone in history is (often) easily established on the basis of small textual samples (sometimes even a single name in a list or sentence). So, we are confident that Jesus lived in history. These historical sources rule out the option that the story of Jesus was a fabrication (it was made up).
There are no “contemporary” accounts of Jesus. But the fact is, almost no ancient historical figure has contemporary accounts of their existence, including Alexander the Great, and we don’t see anyone questioning his existence.
It’s also instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest manuscript) for these historical documents. For the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek, the copy gap was about 800 years and for the Annals of Tacitus it was about 1,000 years. On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap was about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was copied in 300-325 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for these other Roman and Jewish historical documents.
Extracts from ancient Roman and Jewish extrabiblical literature confirm that there is a historical basis for the existence of Jesus outside the Bible and outside early church history. So the evidence that Jesus existed is conclusive. Furthermore, these independent extrabiblical sources are consistent with the biography of Jesus given in the gospels of the Bible. This means that the story of Jesus isn’t a Christian myth or conspiracy. And we are confident that the Jesus described in the Bible lived in history.
Appendix A: Pliny’s letter (AD 111)
“It is my rule, Your Majesty, to report to you anything that worries me, for I know well that you are best able to speed my hesitation or instruct me in my ignorance. I have never in the past been present at the investigations into Christians, and so I am at a loss to know the nature and extent of the normal questions and punishments.
I have also been seriously perplexed whether age should make some difference, or whether the very young should be treated in exactly the same way as the more mature. Should the penitent be pardoned, or should no mercy be shown a man who has recanted if he has really been a Christian? Should the mere name be reason enough for punishment however free from crime a man may be, or should only the sins and crimes that attend the name be punished?
Till I hear from you, I have adopted the following course towards those who have been brought before me as Christians. First, I have asked them if they were Christians. If they confessed that they were, I repeated, my question a second and a third time, accompanying it with threats of punishment. If they still persisted in their statements, I ordered them to be taken out (executed). For I was in no doubt that, whatever it was to which they were confessing, they had merited some punishment by their stubbornness and unbending obstinacy. There were others possessed by similar madness, but these I detailed to be sent to Rome, for they were Roman citizens.
Soon, as I investigated the matter, types began to multiply as so often happens, and charges started to spread. An anonymous notebook was presented with many names in it. Those who denied that they were or ever had been Christians I thought should be released, provided that they called on the gods in my presence, and offered incense and wine to your statue (which I had expressly brought in with the images of the gods for that very purpose), and, above all, if they renounced Christ, which no true Christian, I am told, can be made to do. Others informed against admitted that they were Christians but later denied it; they had been, but had given up, some three years past, some further back and one person as long as 25 years ago. All of them reverenced your statue and the images of the gods, and renounced Christ.
They stated that the sum total of their fault or error was as follows. On a fixed day they used to assemble before dawn to sing an antiphonal hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath not for any criminal purpose, but to commit no fraud, no robbery or adultery, to bear no false witness, and not to deny any debt when asked to pay up. After this it was their custom to separate and to reassemble to eat a communion meal, all together and quite harmless. They claimed that they had stopped even that after my edict in which I followed your commands in banning society meetings. So I felt it all the more necessary to find out the truth under torture from two slave girls whom they called Deaconesses. But I found nothing but a depraved and groundless superstition.
So I postponed my inquiry to consult you. The matter seemed worth your attention, especially since the number of those slipping is great. Many people of all ages and classes and of both sexes are now being enticed into mortal peril and will be in the future. The superstition has spread like the plague, not only in the cities but in the villages and the countryside as well. I feel it must be stopped and checked. It is true that everyone is agreed that temples once deserted are now being attended once again, and that sacred ceremonies once neglected are again being performed. Victims for sacrifice are everywhere on sale, for which only an odd buyer could be found a short while ago. All this goes to show how many men could be saved if there is room for repentance.”
Appendix B: Emperor Trajan’s reply
“You have acted quite properly, Pliny, in examining the cases of those Christians brought before you. Nothing definite can be laid down as a general rule. They should not be hunted out. If accusations are made and they are found guilty, they must be punished.
But remember that a man may expect pardon from repentance if he denies that he is a Christian, and proves this to your satisfaction, that is by worshiping our gods, however much you may have suspected him in the past. Anonymous lists should have no part in any charge made. That is thoroughly bad practice and not in accordance with the spirit of the age.”
Written, January 2017
Also see: Jesus:history or myth?
Geographic names in New Zealand often reflect its native people and European settlement. Some place names were given by Māoris, explorers, surveyors and administrators. Others are named after British places and battles, historical events, immigrant ships, and important people (explorers, cultural heroes, political heroes, government officials, pioneers, and royalty). Each geographic name has a story associated with it. So, where is Zion and what’s its story?
“Zion” is a word that’s associated with God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Hebrew word translated “Zion” Tsiyyon (Strongs #6726) occurs 152 times in the Old Testament (mainly in the Psalms and prophets).
Hill of Ophel
In about 1,000 BC, king David captured the fortress of Zion from the Jebusites (2 Sam. 5:6-10; 1 Chron. 11:4-9). The Jebusites were Canaanites (Gen. 10:15-16; Jud. 19:10) and their city Jebus (Jerusalem) was a natural fortress because it was on a ridge that was surrounded on three sides by steep valleys (Kidron, Hinnom, and Tyropoeon). This site was also called the “hill of Ophel”, which was in Jerusalem near the Water Gate and Gihon Spring (2 Chron. 27:3; 33:14; Neh. 3:26NIV). The spring was an essential water supply for the fortress. About 250-300 years after David’s victory, Kings Jotham and Manasseh strengthened the fortifications at Ophel.
When David took up residence at Ophel he “called it the City of David” (2 Chron. 32:30; 33:14). It was his royal city, where he built his palace and ruled over Israel. After David brought the ark to Ophel (Zion), it also became a sacred place where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God (2 Sam. 6:10-19; 1 Chron. 16:1-38). David called it God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 3:4; 15:1ESV). So Ophel (Zion) was the key place in Israel for government and worship during the reign of King David. And it was still called Zion when king Solomon dedicated the temple in 966 BC (1 Ki. 8:1; 2 Chron. 5:2).
So in the first instance, Zion referred to the hill of Ophel which was the site of a Jebusite fortress and the City of David.
During David’s reign the city of Jerusalem expanded towards the north. And after king Solomon built the Israelite temple on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Chron. 3:1), it became known as Mount Zion. This hill had been called Mount Moriah in Abraham’s time about 880 years earlier.
When the temple was dedicated, it was filled with a cloud which represented God’s presence (1 Ki. 8:10-12; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3). In this aspect it was similar to the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38). The temple was God’s dwelling place (Isa. 8:18; Ps. 132:7, 13). That’s where the Israelites went to meet God (Jer. 31:6). And that’s why Mount Zion was called, “the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 18:7). This cloud occupied the temple for about 375 years until it departed in the days of Ezekiel (Ezek. 10).
Because the temple was the centre of Israelite praise and worship, God calls Mount Zion “my holy hill” (Ps. 2:6ESV). The temple gave it holiness. That’s where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God. That’s where Jewish men travelled to three times a year for major religious festivals (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Dt. 16:16). So the temple was the center of their spiritual life. It was the center of Jewish religion.
So in the second instance, Zion referred to the temple mount which was north of the hill of Ophel.
The word “Zion” can also refer to Jerusalem – it’s often used as a synonym for Jerusalem (2 Ki. 19:21; Ps. 69:35; Isa. 1:8; 40:9). This is clearest in poetic passages where “Zion” is the parallel term to “Jerusalem” (Ps. 51:18; 76:2; 102:21; 135:21; 147:12; Isa. 2:3; 33:20; 37:32; 40:9; 41:27; 62:1; Jer. 26:18; 51:35; Amos 1:2; Zeph. 3:14). In these instances, “Zion” and “Jerusalem” can also be figures of speech for the inhabitants of Jerusalem or for the land of Judah or Israel or for the Jewish people as a whole.
Jerusalem is also called God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 48:1NET)(Jer. 31:23; Dan. 9:6; 20ESV). The city is said to be holy because it includes the temple. Joel gives a warning in Zion, God’s holy hill and promises future peace (Joel 2:1; 3:17). Likewise, God promises to return to Zion, the holy hill, and bring back the Jews to restore Jerusalem after their Babylonian captivity (Zech. 8:3).
In Psalm 48, Jerusalem is called “Zion”, “Mount Zion”, “the city of the Lord Almighty” and “the city of our God”. In Psalm 87, Jerusalem is called “Zion” and “city of God”. In captivity, the Jews said “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-5). The Babylonians had asked them, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”, but they couldn’t do this because they were committed to not forget Jerusalem.
So in the third instance, Zion referred to the city of Jerusalem or its inhabitants or the kingdom associated with Jerusalem.
Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the name Zion was assigned to its present location across the Tyropoeon Valley (see Josephus). Apparently the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover (Mk. 14:15; Lk. 22:12) and the room where the disciples gathered after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:13) were in this area. So, today the more dominant western hill is called “Mount Zion”.
So in the fourth instance, Zion refers to the hill west of the Tyropoeon Valley. This means that “Zion” has been used to describe three hills in Jerusalem: the hill of Opel, the temple mount, and the western hill.
In the coming millennial kingdom “the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” (Isa. 24:23). In that day Jerusalem will be the religious and political capital of the world (Isa. 2:2-4; 25:6-8; Mic. 4:1-3, 7). Once again, God calls Zion “my holy hill” (Joel 3:17). That’s where Christ reigns and where people worship Him (Ps. 99:2,9). As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the fifth instance, Zion refers to the city of Jerusalem. This is similar to the third instance only Christ will be personally present, and not just represented by a cloud.
The Greek word translated “Zion” (Sion, Strongs #4622), occurs seven times in the New Testament. Five of these are synonyms of Jerusalem from the Old Testament prophets (Mt. 21:5; Jn. 12:15; Rom. 9:33; 11:26; 1 Pt. 2:6). Another seems to refer to the second coming, which results in Christ’s Millennial reign in Jerusalem (Rev. 14:1). We will now look at the other instance of “Zion” in the New Testament.
In the New Testament “Mount Zion” refers metaphorically to the heavenly Jerusalem, God’s holy, eternal city. Hebrews says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). This is the eternal dwelling place of God and His people (Rev. 21:2 – 22:5).
Just as there is an earthly Mount Zion in Jerusalem, so there will be a heavenly Mount Zion and new Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25-26). As the Bible progresses, the word Zion expands in scope and takes on an additional, spiritual meaning. As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the universe from the new heavenly Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the sixth instance, Zion refers to the new heavenly Jerusalem inhabited eternally by God and His people.
Lessons for us
So the story behind Zion stretches from about 3,000 years ago into the eternal future. Zion was a holy place for the Jews because that was where God dwelt. This was true for the hill of Ophel, the Temple Mount and for the city of Jerusalem. But according to the Bible, God the Holy Spirit now lives in Christians. They are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit. This means that instead of holy places, we now have holy people. Does our practice match our position? Do we respect each other as being holy?
In the coming stages of God’s plan of salvation, Zion is associated with both Christ’s earthly reign from Jerusalem and with God’s eternal reign from the new heavenly Jerusalem. Are we looking forward to this time? Does it encourage us in our Christian lives?
Written, August 2016
Tasmania’s electrical power shortage has reached crisis levels. 30% of the power usually comes from Victoria by cable, but the cable has been broken since December 2015. 60% of the power usually comes from hydro-electric systems, but dam levels are at a record low capacity of 14% and falling. An old gas-fired power station has been brought back into operation and temporary diesel generators acquired. And major manufacturers have cut production to conserve power.
After Jesus died and rose again, He told His apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn. 14:16; Acts 1:4, 5, 8). When the Holy Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, the church era commenced replacing the era of the law of Moses. In this post we look at the meaning of a passage from Joel, quoted by Peter as an explanation to the Jews.
“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.
Even on my servants (slaves), both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days, and they will prophesy” (Acts 2:17-18NIV).
We will see from this passage that God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit.
Context of Acts 2
Luke wrote the books of Luke and Acts in the Bible. Acts, written about AD 63, is a selective history of the first 30 years of the church. It describes the church in Jerusalem (Ch 1-7), in Judea and Samaria (8:1 – 9:31), and elsewhere in the Roman Empire (9:32 – 28:31). It was written for Theophilus who was probably Luke’s patron (Lk. 1:3-4; Acts 1:1). The main theme of the book is to describe the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem across the Roman Empire and to indicate the major challenges to this.
After His resurrection, the Lord Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to His followers, so they could be His witnesses (1:3-8). Then the Lord ascended into the sky and the disciples were promised that He would return in a similar manner (1:9-11). While they waited in Jerusalem for the Holy Spirit, Matthias was chosen to replace Judas (1:12-26).
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came and indwelt the disciples (2:1-13) and Peter addressed the crowd of Jews and Jewish proselytes who were in Jerusalem (1:14-41). As a result of Peter’s message about 3,000 people came to faith in Christ and joined the infant church. Then Luke summarized the activities of this pioneer church (2:42-47).
Peter’s message on the day of Pentecost included:
– an explanation of recent events (v.14-21)
– the gospel of Jesus Christ; His death, resurrection and exaltation (v.22-36)
– an exhortation to repentance and baptism (v. 37-40).
Peter explained what happened on the Day of Pentecost by saying they weren’t drunk and quoting from the prophet Joel (Joel 2:28-32).
Context of Joel
Joel was a prophet of God to Judah prior to the Jewish exile (his book is difficult to date more precisely). The key phrase of the book is “the day of the Lord”, found five times (Joel 1:15; 2:1, 11, 31; 3:14). It’s a time when the wicked are judged and the repentant are saved (Joel 3:15-16).
Up to 2:18 Joel addresses the desolation that would come on Judah. After that the repentant are promised deliverance. The book is structured as follows:
– Plague of locusts (Ch 1). This probably also symbolized the Lord’s army on the day of the Lord.
– An army is approaching (2:1-11)
– Call to repentance (2:12-17)
– They are promised material prosperity (2:18-27)
– They are promised an outpouring of God’s Spirit (2:28-29)
– Wonders in the heavens and earth (2:30-32)
– Judgement of the Gentile nations (3:1-16a)
– Promises restoration and blessing for the Jews (3:16b-21).
The people of Judah had turned away from the Lord (Joel 2:12-14). They had broken their covenant with the Lord. Consequently, the locust plague and drought was God’s judgement. Joel urges Judah to repent, but when they continually resist, God’s judgement is inevitable. Those who repented were promised prosperity, restoration, and an outpouring of the Holy Spirit.
The Old Testament Jewish prophets had two main messages about the future: God’s judgement (the “day of the Lord”) and God’s blessing—the Messiah will come and lead their nation. The passage quoted by Peter on the day of Pentecost mentioned God’s blessing (Joel 2:28-29; Acts 2:17-18) and God’s judgment (Joel 2:30-32; Acts 2:19-21).
Joel 2: 28-29
“And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your old men will dream dreams, your young men will see visions. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my Spirit in those days” (Joel 2:28-29).
As the context is “afterward”, these verses may apply after the day of the Lord. So after God punishes the rebellious, He rewards repentant Jews with the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
In Old Testament times, the Holy Spirit is generally among the community of Israel, but not in the individuals (Is. 63:11). Instead, the Holy Spirit only came upon particular people for particular tasks. For example:
– The Holy Spirit empowered Joseph (Gen. 41:38), Moses and Joshua.
– The Holy Spirit empowered craftsman (Ex. 31:2-5) and Gideon and Samson (Jud. 6:34; 14:6)
– The Holy Spirit empowered prophets (Ezek. 11:5; Mic. 3:8; Zech. 7:12; Acts 28:25)
– 70 elders prophesied when the Spirit of the Lord came on them (Num. 11:24-30).
– The Spirit of the Lord came on David and departed from Saul (1 Sam. 16:13-14).
When the task was accomplished, the Holy Spirit would leave the person. David said, “Do not cast me from your presence or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps. 51:11). So, in Old Testament times the empowering of individuals by the Holy Spirit was selective and temporary.
Joel 2:28-29 predicts a change where the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all kinds of people. Instead of selected individuals, God says it will regardless of gender (“sons and daughters”, age (old and young), or social class (includes slaves) and maybe race (includes Gentile slaves). The example given is prophesy which was a message from God enabled by the Holy Spirit. This is different to the rest of the Old Testament because it indicates the Holy Spirit coming on people in general and not only particular individuals. Instead, it’s similar to the promised new covenant, which included “I will put my Spirit in you” (Ezek. 36:26-27).
Of course, the Holy Spirit’s current role of indwelling believers and abiding with them “forever” is also a great contrast to the Old Testament situation (Jn. 14:16).
Joel 2: 30-32
On the day of Pentecost, Peter also quoted from, “I will show wonders in the heavens and on the earth, blood and fire and billows of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved; for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls” (Joel 2:30-32).
The day of the Lord is the time of judgment associated with the blessing given in Joel 2:28-29.
What did Joel 2:28-32 mean then?
Joel was given a revelation of a future time when a period of judgment (v.30-32) is followed by a time of blessing (v.28-29). Wonders in the heavens and on earth precede the judgment (day of the Lord). As judgment was often associated war, the meaning to the Israelites of that time could be that they will by invaded by an enemy, but God would deliver the faithful who would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. As afterwards “all people” have faith in God, it seems as though all the unfaithful people are destroyed in the judgment. Or it could mean that Israel is physically delivered from God’s judgment and its enemies destroyed. When the prophecy was given their enemies were the Phoenicians, Philistines, Egyptians and Edomites (Joel 3:4, 19).
The phrase “all people” (Strongs #3605, #1320) could mean every person, people from all categories in society, or all nations. As the context is “Your sons and daughters”, “Your old men” and “Your young men”, it probably means every Israelite. To call “on the name of the Lord” meant to trust and respond to God the Father (Mt. 7:21; Jn. 6:29). It shows God’s mercy in offering a way of escape to those facing judgment. They will survive the day of the Lord.
The principle of Joel 2:28-29 is that in future God will empower all the faithful Israelites with the Holy Spirit.
What does Joel 2:28-32 mean now?
With the benefit of additional revelation in the New Testament and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand more about Joel’s prophecy.
The law of double reference helps to understand some of these Old Testament prophecies—some of them had both an immediate partial fulfilment and a distant complete fulfilment. Some of the Jewish prophecies about the “day of the Lord” were partially fulfilled when Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 B.C and by the Romans in AD 70. But John also prophesised about the day of the Lord in AD 95 (Rev. Ch. 6-20). So the final day of the Lord is yet to come. It’s associated with Christ’s second advent.
What about times of blessing? It’s difficult to identify periods when Israel has been blessed since Joel’s time. The only clear application of Joel’s prophecy to times of blessing is that made on the day of Pentecost by Peter, which is the subject of this post. Soon after this Peter said that the promised time of blessing was still future (Acts 3:21). It’s associated with Christ’s millennial kingdom.
So we understand that Joel 2:28-32 is a prophecy about events associated with Christ’s second coming and His millennial kingdom.
When Peter quoted from Joel, he changed the introduction from “And afterward”, to “In the last days”. As he is speaking to Jews and it was before the New Testament was written, they would have understood the “last days” from the Old Testament where it can mean the coming tribulation or the Millennial kingdom (Dt. 4:30; Isa. 2:2; Dan. 10:14; Hos. 3:5; Mic. 4:1).
Peter also added “God says” to the quotation to emphasise that these were the words of God written by the prophet Joel. This is like a prophet saying “The word of the Lord came to me, saying” (Jer. 1:4).
Peter changed the word “dreadful” to “glorious” when describing the day of the Lord (Joel. 2:31; Acts 2:20). The reason for this maybe that He was associating this occasion with Christ’s second coming (Ti. 2:13).
Peter also added “and they will prophesy” at the end of v.18. This phrase is repeated from the previous verse for emphasis. Also he stopped half way through Joel 2:32 omitting, “for on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there will be deliverance, as the Lord has said, even among the survivors whom the Lord calls”. This could be so he could finish the quote with “And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” to indicate what his audience needed to do when they were convicted of their sin (Rom. 10:13). In this context, they are spiritually saved from God’s judgment. And “the Lord” is Jesus Christ. Also, he didn’t want to make the application to deliverance from an army.
There is another difference between what happened on the day of Pentecost and Joel’s prophecy. The spiritual gift that occurred on the day of Pentecost was speaking in other languages, while Joel referred to prophecy. So the emphasis is on the Holy Spirit who gives the gift, not on the particular spiritual gift.
With the benefit of additional revelation in the New Testament and the benefit of hindsight, we can understand more about Peter’s sermon. He was announcing to the Jews that what they saw on the day of Pentecost was a fulfilment of Joel’s prophecy. But this is only a partial fulfilment because John also prophesised about the day of the Lord in AD 95 (Rev. Ch. 6-20). Also, the Holy Spirit was poured out on believers, not “on all people”. Also, there were no wonders in the heavens on the day of Pentecost (Mt. 24:29; Acts 2:19-20). Although some argue they were fulfilled at the crucifixion or figuratively on the day of Pentecost. So the final day of the Lord is yet to come. This is associated with Christ’s second advent and His millennial kingdom.
Peter was announcing to the Jews that through Jesus Christ, God had now brought in the promised new covenant. This meant that the Holy Spirit will be poured out on all kinds of people regardless of gender (“sons and daughters”, age (old and young), or social class (includes slaves) and maybe race (includes Gentile slaves). The example given is prophesy which was enabled by the Holy Spirit. Updating the principle from Joel 2:28-29 to the day of Pentecost gives: God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit.
Who were “all people” who received the Holy Spirit? It wasn’t every Israelite. Afterwards, Peter preached, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children (Jews) and for all who are far off (Gentiles)—for all whom the Lord our God will call” (Acts 2:38-39). So, on the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit was given to those who repented and were baptized. Although they were mainly Jews, Gentiles weren’t excluded. They were people of every gender, age and social class.
It was also a fulfilment of Christ’s promises to send the Holy Spirit (Lk. 24:49; Jn. 7:37-39; 14:16-26; 15:26 – 16:15; Acts 1:3-5; 2:33).
What does Acts 2:17-18 mean?
It meant that from that time onwards, all those who accepted God’s gift of salvation through Christ would receive the Holy Spirit. This was the new era of the church age which replaced the era when the Israelites lived under the Law of Moses. It doesn’t mean that all will prophesy. Instead the New Testament teaches that each believer will have at least one spiritual gift.
Today, we are still in the church era, and the Holy Spirit still indwells all believers. But the church’s foundation was laid almost 2,000 years ago. It is founded on Christ’s completed work (1 Cor. 3:11) as taught by the apostles and New Testament prophets (Eph. 2:20; 3:5). This work was completed in the first century AD and we have a record of this foundation in the New Testament. So, in this sense, we no longer have apostles or prophets in the church today because these gifts are no longer required now the church’s foundation has been laid.
Peter was pointing out a similarity between what happened on the day of Pentecost and events associated with the second coming of Christ. This involved the activity of the Holy Spirit.
What doesn’t it mean today?
Be careful of using Acts 2:17-18 to over-ride other verses in the New Testament. For example, it doesn’t mean that:
– every Christian has the gift of prophecy regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race, or
– every Christian can prophesy (or preach or teach) at a church meeting regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race.
Instead, prophecy was used to illustrate the fact that every Christian is indwelt by the Holy Spirit regardless of gender, age, or social class and maybe race.
There are similar messages to this in other New Testament Scriptures. For example, when the household of Cornelius accepted the gospel message, “The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on Gentiles” (Acts 10:45). Now Gentiles could be God’s people who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
Also, in the church people of various genders, ages, social classes and races are empowered by the Holy Spirit:
“There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all” (Col. 3:11).
Quotation from the Old Testament
According to Fruchtenbaum, Peter’s quotation in Acts 2 of Joel 2 is a literal fulfilment of an application from the Old Testament.
“Virtually nothing that happened in Acts 2 is predicted in Joel 2. Joel was speaking of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the nation of Israel in the last days. However, there was one point of similarity, an outpouring of the Holy Spirit, resulting in unusual manifestations. Acts 2 does not change or reinterpret Joel 2, nor does it deny that Joel 2 will have a literal fulfilment when the Holy Spirit will be poured out on the whole nation of Israel. It is simply applying it to a New Testament event because of one point of similarity.”
We have seen that Acts 2:17-18 shows that Joel’s prophecy (Joel 2:28-29) had a partial fulfilment on the day of Pentecost, but the complete fulfilment is still future. The thing they had in common was the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Since the day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit indwells all believers. But in a coming day after the wicked have been judged, everyone will be empowered by the Holy Spirit as prophesised by Joel.
The fact that God now empowers all His followers with the Holy Spirit is a challenge and an encouragement. Do you have this power in your life? If the answer is yes, does the presence of the Holy Spirit encourage you to live for Jesus Christ?
Fruchtenbaum A.G (1992) “Israelology: The missing link in Systematic theology”, p. 844-845
Written, March 2016
Apple products are declared “obsolete” if they haven’t been manufactured for at least 7 years; and “vintage” if they haven’t been manufactured for at least 5 years. Spare parts and service isn’t available for all obsolete products and for most vintage products.
Today we will see that the Jewish temple is now obsolete. Because Christ’s sacrifice atoned for our sin, we no longer need a temple where priests offer animal sacrifices. Instead of living in a special building, God now lives in His people. This means that congregations of people are more important than the buildings they use.
In about 1450 BC, the Hebrew tabernacle (a tent) was built in Sinai and transported to Canaan, where it was later superseded by the temple in Jerusalem. The first temple, completed by king Solomon in about 950 BC, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The Babylonians were God’s agents in this judgment of Judah’s idolatry which was called “the day of the Lord” (Jer. 1:14-16; 4:5-17; 5:15-19; 9:11; 12:7-15; 19:3, 11; 21:3-7; Zeph. 1:1-18). The temple was rebuilt after the Babylonian exile by Zerubbabel in 538-515 BC. Later, king Herod renovated and expanded this temple, commencing in 19 BC (Jn. 2:20). It took 46 years to complete the main building and another 36 years to finish the entire Temple complex.
The house of the Lord
The term “the house of the Lord” (Strongs #1004 #3068) appears about 221 times in the Old Testament. It meant a place of worship such as the tabernacle and the temple. The following verses show that it’s synonymous with the “temple” (#1964) of the Lord.
“One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek Him in His temple” (Ps. 27:4NIV).
“He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men” (Ezek. 8:16).
“This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Now hear these words, ‘Let your hands be strong so that the temple may be built.’ This is also what the prophets said who were present when the foundation was laid for the house of the Lord Almighty.” (Zech. 8:9).
The tabernacle/temple was a place for God to live amongst His people the Israelites (Ex. 25:8-9; 29:45-46; 2 Chron. 6:2; Isa. 8:18). God’s presence was shown by the cloud above them (Ex. 40: 34-38; 1 Ki. 8:10-11). Although Solomon said that God lived in the temple, he knew that God wasn’t restricted to one place (1 Ki. 8:13, 27). Before the end of the first temple, Ezekiel had a vision of God’s glory departing from the temple because of the people’s idolatry (Ezek. 8-10).
The tabernacle/temple was where the Jews offered sacrifices to God (Lev. 1:1 – 7:27) and celebrated their festivals, particularly the Passover, Pentecost and the Tabernacles (Dt. 16:16). On such an occasion David said, “I rejoiced with those who said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the Lord.’” (Ps. 122:1).
After Solomon finished the first temple, God said that if the Israelites turned away from obeying the Lord, then “this temple will become a heap of rubble” (1 Ki. 9:8; 2 Chron. 7:21). And the temple was destroyed for this reason in 586 BC. While Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple, Daniel predicted that it would be destroyed likewise after the Anointed One (Christ) was put to death (Dan. 9:26).
The fact that the curtain of Herod’s temple was torn in two when Christ died symbolized that His death opened new access to God (Mt. 27:51; Mk. 15:38; Lk. 23:45). Priests and animal sacrifices were no longer required. Although the temple was now obsolete, the Jews kept offering animal sacrifices. But God put an end to this when Herod’s temple was destroyed by the Romans in AD 70 (like he used the Babylonians to destroy Solomon’s temple in 586 BC) and it wasn’t rebuilt. These two destructions both occurred on the 9th day of Av (5th month in the Hebrew calendar; which is in July-August in the modern calendar)! As predicted by Jesus, Herod’s grand temple was completely dismantled (Mt. 23:38; 24:2; Mk. 13:2; Lk. 13:35; 19:44; 21:6, 20-24).
God’s house today
What is the “house of God today”? The Bible says that God doesn’t live in a building (Acts 7:48; 17:24). Instead the Christian congregation (church) is said to be “God’s temple”; “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you?” (1 Cor. 3:16NLT). In this figure of speech, the collective body of believers is like the temple. In a similar metaphor, they are said to be a “spiritual house” (1 Pt. 2:5).
“But Christ is faithful as the Son over God’s house. And we are His house, if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory” (Heb 3:6). Here the writer explains what God’s house is today. It is made up of all true believers in Christ. Their endurance in the faith (holding firmly to their “confidence” and “hope”) shows the reality of their faith. Those who don’t endure aren’t true believers (Heb. 3:7-19).
As Christ is the head of the church, He is the leader of the “house of God”. The book of Hebrews says He is metaphorically like a great high priest; “we have a great priest over the house of God” (Heb 10:21).
And each Christian’s body is a metaphorical temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19). So Christians, individually and collectively, are the “house of God” today! What was a physical term in the Old Testament is now a metaphorical one.
Lessons for us
We have seen that God tore the temple curtain when Christ died and He used the Romans to destroy the temple in AD 70. Because Christ’s sacrifice atoned for our sin, we no longer need a temple where priests offer animal sacrifices. So the Jewish temple is now obsolete. Instead of living in a special building, God now lives in His people. This means that congregations of people are more important than the buildings they use. So let’s keep the right balance between people and buildings.
Also, because the “house of the Lord” is no longer a building, we shouldn’t call a church building “the house of the Lord”. God’s people are the house of the Lord (God’s temple) today, whether they are aware of it or not!
Written, November 2015
The Melbourne Cup, a popular Australian horse race, was held today. Just before the race, the news media showed predictions of the first five horses, which were based on betting information. But these horses came 13th, 20th, 4th, 22nd and 11th respectively, and the race was won by an outsider! So the predictions were wrong! This shows how difficult it is to predict the future. In this post we see that Jeremiah was a prophet to whom God revealed the future.
Jeremiah was an Israelite prophet who was born about 650 BC and preached for about 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC). God used prophets to send messages to the Israelites and many of these messages are included in the Old Testament of the Bible. In this article we are looking at the final chapter of the book of Jeremiah, chapter 52.
The previous 51 chapters have described Jeremiah’s call to be a prophet (Ch 1), his messages to Judah (Ch 2-35), his sufferings and persecution (Ch. 36-38), the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath (Ch. 39-45) and his messages to other nations (Ch 46-51).
His messages are mainly about four topics (see diagram): people’s sinfulness; God’s punishment for this sinfulness; and two responses. Firstly, if people repent, the punishment is delayed and deliverance/restoration is possible. And secondly, if people don’t repent, then punishment is inevitable. In particular, he reminds Judah of their disobedience and rebellion demonstrated by their ongoing idolatry.
Chapter 52 follows a message to Babylon in chapters 50-51, which was read out aloud to the inhabitants of Babylon. It predicted the invasion of Babylon by an army, which was fulfilled in 539 BC by the Medes and Persians.
What more can Jeremiah say? Nothing! At the end of Chapter 51 it says “The words of Jeremiah end here” (NIV). This looks like a scribal note saying that chapter 52 was written or compiled by someone else. No one knows exactly who. Was it Baruch? Was it Ezra? Or another compiler of the book of Jeremiah?
Jeremiah isn’t mentioned in chapter 52. Instead the focus in on the fate of Jerusalem and its inhabitants. Also, it includes an event in Babylon that Jeremiah wouldn’t have been aware of because he would have either been elderly (almost 90 years of age) or dead, and well away in Egypt.
There are two main sections in chapter 52: the fall of Jerusalem (v.1-30), and Jehoiachin released (v.31-34).
There are 5 paragraphs about the fall of Jerusalem and its aftermath: Zedekiah captured (v.1-11), Jerusalem destroyed (v.12-16), temple articles taken (v.17-23), execution of leading citizens (v.24-27a), and Jewish prisoners taken into exile (v. 27b-30).
The fall of Jerusalem isn’t in chronological order. The most likely sequence of events is: city walls breached (v.7), prisoners taken (v.8-11, 15-16, 24-27a), plunder removed (v.17-23), and city destroyed (v.12-14).
Most of the content in chapter 52 isn’t unique; it’s repeated elsewhere in the Bible. Verses 4-27 are summarised in 39:1-10. Why is it repeated with more detail? The extra information is: the Babylonians took all the gold, silver and bronze from the temple; and the execution of 74 senior officials. It seems to show the fulfilment of the many predictions made by Jeremiah.
Verses 1-27, 31-34 are virtually the same as 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:21, 27-30. So Jeremiah has the same ending as 2 Kings! Again, this material is probably included here because it is a record of the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s prophesies. There are many references in Jeremiah 52 to earlier passages of the book that confirm the prophet’s predictions. It enables one to read his prophecies and their fulfilment in the same scroll or book.
The writers of 2 Kings and Jeremiah 52 probably had access to the same written sources. According to the NIV Study Bible, it’s unlikely they copied from each other since each has peculiarities characteristic of the book they conclude. In a few passages, Jeremiah is fuller than Kings. The minor differences in the two accounts may be due to either copy errors (v.12, 22, 25) or to different ways of reckoning (counting or measuring). As this chapter is much closer to the 2 Kings account than to Jeremiah 39, this is consistent with it being added by an editor or compiler and not written by Jeremiah.
Zedekiah captured (v.1-11)
This is the same account as in 2 Kings 24:18 – 25:7. King Zedekiah was another wicked king. After he rebelled against the king of Babylon, the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem for 18 months from 588 BC. When the food ran out the city wall was breached, and the Judean army escaped. But Zedekiah was captured and taken to king Nebuchadnezzar. They killed his sons and then put out his eyes and took him to Babylon where he was a prisoner until he died. So Zedekiah was punished when Jerusalem was destroyed. Note that Zedekiah could have prevented the destruction of Jerusalem if he had listened to Jeremiah (Jer. 38:14-28).
Jerusalem destroyed (v.12-16)
This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:8-12. The Babylonians burned all the houses in Jerusalem including the temple, which was about 424 years old. They pulled down the city walls and took more prisoners, leaving only the poorest to work the vineyards and fields. The upper class had been taken into exile with king Jehoiachin in 597 BC. They destroyed the city to make it beyond repair.
Temple articles taken (v.17-23)
This is a similar account to 2 Kings 25:13-17, but with more detail of the pillars. The Babylonians took to Babylon all the gold, silver and bronze from the temple as plunder. The items taken are listed and described. It was robbery of valuable items. But in the mind of the Babylonians, it also signified a victory of the Babylonian gods over the God of Israel.
Execution of leading citizens (v.24-27a)
This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:18-21a. 74 senior officials and “people of the land” (probably the landed gentry) are taken to king Nebuchadnezzar and executed. The Babylonians ruthlessly destroy the influential people and potential leaders.
Jewish prisoners taken into exile (v. 27b-30)
This account isn’t matched in 2 Kings, but some numbers are given there of the people deported. There were four main phases of deportation of prisoners of war to Babylon (605 BC, 598 BC, 587 BC, and 582 BC). The Hebrew word heglah (Strongs #1540), translated “exile”, is mentioned twice (v.28, 30). It says that 4,600 people went into exile as prisoners. This is different to the 10,000 mentioned in 2 Kings 24:14. Maybe the lower number is male adults.
So because they continually disobeyed God, the kingdom of Judah was destroyed. The land was conquered and the people killed or deported to Babylon. Perhaps 20,000 Jews were taken into captivity. This is the fulfilment of Jeremiah’s predictions.
Jehoiachin released (v.31-34)
This is the same account as in 2 Kings 25:27-30. King Jehoiachin was exiled in 597 BC and released in 561 BC when Awel-Marduk replaced Nebuchadnezzar as king of Babylon. So, after 37 years in prison, Jehoiachin was released to live in Babylon. He was given a position of honor above the other vassal kings in Babylon. Apparently it was a common practice for a victorious king to keep captive kings at his court as a reminder of his victories and as a warning to the subjects of that king not to rebel.
As it includes this incident in 561 AD, the book of Jeremiah must have been finalised after this date. But Jeremiah would have finished his part when he was taken to Egypt 20-25 years before this date (Ch 44).
The endings of 2 Kings (25:27-30) and Jeremiah 52:31-34) are the same! They have a happy ending! Jehoiachin was released to eat at the king’s table. The Jews aren’t destroyed or the line of David. And Jehoiachin is included in Joseph’s genealogy (Mt. 1:11-12).
Why was it written?
Why is this chapter in the book of Jeremiah? It serves the following three purposes.
First to show that Jeremiah’s predictions were fulfilled. Nearly every verse in this chapter is a fulfilled prophecy. Jeremiah was vindicated. He was right and the false prophets were wrong. It proves that he was a true prophet of God (Dt. 18:21-22).
Second it contrasts the fate of king Zedekiah and his nephew king Jehoiachin. Zedekiah died in prison (v.11), while Jehoaichin was released and ate regularly with the king of Babylon. So all wasn’t lost.
Third it provides a glimmer of hope at the end. Some were saved in captivity, including the line of David. Is this a hint of better days ahead?
Three themes can be identified in chapter 52.
The predictions made by a true prophet are fulfilled. It happened like Jeremiah predicted.
God punishes sinfulness. Continual sin by the people of Judah led to the destruction of their civilization and their deportation to a foreign land. “It was because of the Lord’s anger that all this happened to Jerusalem and Judah, and in the end He thrust them from His presence” (v.3). The sin led to God’s anger, which was expressed in the punishment. That’s what Jeremiah was warning them about.
God always offers hope. Although it looked like the end, they weren’t obliterated. Because they weren’t all destroyed, and the line of David was preserved, there was a glimmer of hope for the future. It would have helped the exiles believe Jeremiah’s prediction that they would be able to return after 70 years of captivity (25:11; 29:10-14).
Questions that arise
Jehoiachin seems to be criticized in Chapter 22, which is headed “Judgment against wicked kings”, but he is rewarded in Chapter 52. This doesn’t seem to be consistent. As Jeremiah predicted, Jehoiachin died in Babylon without going back to Judah (22:24-27). But who does 22:30 apply to? It says, “none of his offspring will prosper; none will sit on the throne of David, or rule anymore in Judah”. It follows a paragraph on Jehoiachin (22:24-28), but seems to be part of an address to Zedekiah (Ch 21-22 and maybe further). One commentator thinks that along with 22:1-9 it applies to Zedekiah. But maybe it can apply to either.
Is there a glimmer of hope in chapter 52 or not? The future seems uncertain. Will the glimmer of hope come to anything? Immigrants are usually assimilated into their new nation within a few generations by intermarriage. In Ezra and Nehemiah we see how some returned to their homeland 70 years later.
What does it mean to us today? Let’s look at each of the themes.
The predictions made by a true prophet are fulfilled. Because Jeremiah’s predictions about the Babylonian conquest were fulfilled, those that haven’t yet been fulfilled will be fulfilled in future. So the predictions of national unity and restoration for Israel will be fulfilled in a coming day (Rom. 11).
Because God’s prophets in the Old Testament were true prophets, the writers of the New Testament were also true prophets and all they wrote is true. So the promises made to Christians in the New Testament will be fulfilled. They are reliable. They can be trusted.
God punishes sinfulness. The conquest of Jerusalem and the Jewish exile were God’s punishment for their sinfulness. This truth still applies today. God still punishes sinfulness: “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 6:23NLT). Sin has consequences in this life and afterwards if we haven’t accepted God’s gift of salvation. We reap what we sow (Gal. 6:7). We harvest what we plant. But the outcome isn’t always bad because a major loss can shock people into returning to the Lord.
God always offers hope. Even though it seems that ungodliness is prevalent, some are still faithful to God. After facing opposition in Corinth, Paul was told “Do not be afraid; keep on speaking, do not be silent. For I am with you, and no one is going to attack and harm you, because I have many people in this city” (Acts 18:9-10). There are always some people who are faithful to God.
Looking ahead. Although life was difficult after the fall of Jerusalem, the Jews who knew Scripture could look forward to the coming of their Messiah. Likewise, although life is difficult for Christians today, we who know Scripture can look forward to the Lord’s second coming.
Written, November 2015
Sin is serious and dangerous
A warning was given last month in Washington USA when arsonists lit several fires during a period of high fire danger. Some of the fires were started by fireworks. Authorities stressed that fires have a cost and sometimes they costs lives.
Today we look at how Jeremiah gave the Jews a wake-up call by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. We will see from Jeremiah 2-6 that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him.
The Israelites were God’s special people whom He rescued from Egypt so they could live in Canaan. The laws He gave them to follow through Moses are given in the books of Exodus to Deuteronomy of the Bible. After peaking in the days of King Solomon, their land was divided into two with Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Then in 722 BC, the Assyrians destroyed the northern kingdom of Israel, so only Judah was left.
Jeremiah preached for 40 years (626 BC to 586 BC) to those living in Judah during the reign of their last five kings about 600BC. At this time Judah was a weak nation; surrounded by many enemies including the superpowers of Egypt to the south, and Assyria and Babylonia to the north.
Jeremiah was part of a line of Old Testament prophets. He lived about 100 years after Isaiah and Micah and at the beginning he was a contemporary of Zephaniah and Nahum and later of Obadiah and Habakkuk.
The main theme of these prophets was predictions of God’s punishment and God’s restoration of His people. We will see that this is what Jeremiah prophesied as well.
At this time, the Judeans were threatened by foreign enemies and idolatry and sinfulness were prevalent. They were no longer following the laws given to Moses. So Jeremiah warns them of the consequences of their behavior.
Will Judah past the test?
Prophets like Jeremiah spoke God’s words to His people. They were like watchmen up on a city wall who see a threat and sound a trumpet to warn of danger (Jer. 6:17; 2 Ki. 17:13). Jeremiah often says: “The word of the Lord came to me”; “The Lord said to me”; and “This is what the Lord says”. That’s the sign of a prophet. These messages would have been given many times, to many people. They are important pleas, commands and predictions from God, and not just a report of historical events. They demanded a response by the people of Judah.
There are three main themes in this passage: Judah’s sin, their need for repentance, and God’s punishment. The relationship between these themes is shown in the schematic diagram which shows that because of their sin, God gives them a wake-up call (a warning) through Jeremiah. There are two possible responses. One is to take notice and repent, which leads to restoration. The other is to ignore and not repent, which leads to punishment.
What is sin? The two main Hebrew words that are translated “sin” occur at least 30 times in the book of Jeremiah (Strongs #2398 and #2403). In these verses they mean not obeying God and rebelling against God (by breaking the covenant, by worshipping idols and by rejecting Jeremiah’s messages). They are associated with wickedness, wrongdoings, crimes, and guilt. And they lead to punishment. So sin is rebellion against God (Dt. 9:7; Josh. 1:18). It’s when we prefer anything or anyone above God (Rom. 1:18-32). It’s not being God-centred. And the Bible says when we ignore God, we have a depraved mind.
What is repentance? The main Hebrew word translated “repent” (#5162) means a change of mind, particularly turning from sinfulness to follow God. It’s a change of mind that results in a change of behavior. It’s a change of attitude towards God. Another Hebrew word that means “turn back or return” (#7725) is also translated “repent” (5:3; 15:19; 34:15). So repentance is a U-turn; a change of direction.
In this passage God is testing the people of Judah like a metallurgist tests ore that has been mined (Jer. 6:27-30). How will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning? Will they pass like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore?
We will look at each of these themes in turn starting with Judah’s ongoing sinfulness.
Judah’s sin (2:1-3:10)
In a criminal court a person is charged with a crime. If they are proven guilty of the offense, a judgement is issued as punishment. In this passage Jeremiah gives God’s case against His people Judah (Jer. 2:9). Because God knows and sees everything, they are guilty of these charges.
He lists their sins (2:1-13; 20-36; 3:1-10; 5:1-5, 12-13, 20-31; 6:10-21). He says that everyone rebelled against God; the leaders, the priests and the prophets (2:8, 26). All ages were involved, including grandchildren (2:9). It happened everywhere across the land (2:20; 3:2). Instead of following the God who brought them to Canaan, they followed worthless idols (2:5, 8, 11). The term “worthless idols” is mentioned 8 times in Jeremiah. They are shonky – they can’t deliver what they promise.
It was shocking. They abandoned and ignored God and ran after worthless idols (2:12, 13, 25). So Jeremiah says, “My people have exchanged their glorious God for worthless idols” (2:11NIV). They broke off their covenant with God (2:20). The covenant was like a marriage covenant – God was like the husband and they were like the bride (2:2). It was also like a Suzerain-Vassal covenant or treaty – God was like the great king and they were like one of his subject kings. But they loved idols instead of loving God (2:25). So they forgot God (2:32).
But they ask God to rescue them from trouble (2:27)! And they blame Him for their troubles (2:29)!
They didn’t learn anything from what happened to the northern kingdom of Israel (3:6-10). About 100 years earlier Israel was conquered and captured by the Assyrians as punishment for their idolatry, but now Judah was practicing the same idolatry. They should have known that God doesn’t tolerate continual sin.
People claimed to follow God, but kept on being unfaithful and wicked (3:4-5, 6, 8, 11, 12, 14, 22). And they had no sense of guilt or shame (3:3; 6:15; Prov. 3:20). It was like leaving their spouse and committing adultery and prostitution (3:1-3). It was spiritual adultery.
They were all greedy (6:13). They oppressed the poor and needy, but say they’ve done nothing wrong (2:34-35; 5:28). No one was honest (5:1-2). They were deceitful and didn’t respect God (5:22-24, 27). Also, instead of trusting in God’s protection, they formed alliances with Egypt and Assyria (2:18, 36).
Jeremiah said, “The prophets prophesy lies (false prophets), the priests rule by their own authority (not God’s), and my people love it this way” (5:31). The false prophets predicted peace while God predicted their defeat and captivity (5:12-13; 6:14).
They ignored Jeremiah’s warning. “The word of the Lord is offensive to them; they find no pleasure in it” (6:10). It was a sad state of affairs.
In 2009, Britain’s most violent prisoner Charles Bronson said he was not ashamed about his past. He has spent 35 years in prison due to violent attacks on prison staff and other prisoners. Like the people of Judah he continued to offend and had no desire to change his ways.
What about us? Do we realise that “everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard” (Rom. 3:23NLT)? Are we aware of our sins and shortcomings? Have we trusted in Jesus as the Savior who took the punishment for these? Sin is serious because it leads to God’s punishment.
The Bible says that Christians are the bride of Christ (1 Cor. 11:2; Eph. 5:24-27). Are we faithful to the Lord, or are we guilty of spiritual adultery? How much time do we spend on worthless activities or on worthless idols? Is our conscience working? Or do we keep giving in to sinful desires and let sin control the way we live (Rom. 6:12-14)? Have we stored God’s word in our mind so we mightn’t sin against Him (Ps. 119:11)?
Jeremiah spoke to wake up the people of Judah to their sin and its consequences in order to move them to repent and change their behavior. The second theme is Judah’s ongoing need for repentance.
Judah’s need for repentance (3:11-4:4)
First God pleads for the people of Israel who had gone into Assyrian captivity to acknowledge and confess their guilt and change direction to follow the Lord (3:12-14, 22:4:1). He says “return faithless people, for I am your husband” (3:14). God is willing to forgive His people, but they are unrepentant (3:19-20). They need to repent by turning away from idol worship to worshipping the God who created the universe and gave them wonderful promises (4:1-4). Up to now God thought they would return to Him, but they didn’t (3:7, 10, 19).
If they repent while in exile, God says that He will not be angry forever and will bring them back to Jerusalem (3:12, 15). So repentance leads to restoration. This is consistent with the covenant which says that after they have paid for their sins, confessed their sins and their hearts are humbled, God will remember the covenant and restore them back to their homeland (Lev. 26:40-45).
Although the people of Judah heard this message, they didn’t repent by responding to God’s messages and punishments (5:3). Instead they hardened their hearts “and refused to repent”. But if they didn’t repent, then they too faced certain punishment (18:7-11).
Then there is a vision of the coming time when the Jews will repent (3:21-25). There will be weeping as they confess their sins and disobedience. They will feel shame and disgrace and turn to follow God once again. There is also a vision of the coming time called the Millennium when they will have a change of heart and Israel and Judah will be reunited and restored (3:15-18).
Recently Special Operations Commander Craig Smith was in the middle of teaching a swift-water rescue class on Texas’ Comal River, when he spotted a child who had been swept out of his inner tube by a fierce current and dragged under the water. So he jumped in with a line and pulled the boy to safety. He said the near-drowning served to show how dangerous the water can be. Likewise sin is dangerous unless we are rescued by confessing our sins.
Paul told people to repent and turn to God by trusting that Jesus paid the punishment for our sins (Acts 20:21; 26:20). They needed to change their minds about Jesus. When we confess our sins in this way we are forgiven by God because Christ’s death paid the penalty for our sins – past, present and future. Our destiny changes from hell to heaven and we can enjoy daily fellowship with God. Have we told God we are sorry for our sins in this way? Many of those who believed in Ephesus showed their repentance by publicly burning their sorcery scrolls (Acts 19:17-19). Is our new allegiance obvious to others?
Sin spoils a Christian’s fellowship with God. When we confess our sins they are forgiven by God and our daily fellowship with God our Father is restored. “If we confess our sins to Him, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all wickedness” (1 Jn. 1:9NLT). Do we tell God we are sorry for our sins in this way (1 Jn. 1:5-2:2)?
The third theme is Judah’s punishment if they are unrepentant.
Judah’s coming punishment (4:5-6:30)
One of God’s tests is to send a drought to see if they will turn away from their unfaithfulness (3:3; 5:24-25). Drought was one of the punishments for disobeying the covenant (Lev. 26:19-20; Dt. 28:22-24). They should’ve known this, but they continued in their wicked ways. As they continually refused to repent, the time came when punishment was inevitable.
So Jeremiah predicts that the Babylonians will come from the north and conquer Jerusalem after a siege and take them into exile as slaves (2:14-19, 37; 4:5-31; 5:6-11; 14-19; 6:1-9, 12, 22-26). It will be a terrible time and they are told to “mourn with bitter wailing”. Towns will be destroyed and the land ruined in this disaster. They would lose their houses, fields, wives and children. But a remnant would survive (5:10, 18). The Babylonians are God’s instrument of punishment. It’s punishment for their disobedience as promised in the Pentateuch (Lev. 26:31-35; Dt. 28:32-37, 49-68). This happened near the end of Jeremiah’s ministry.
As mentioned earlier, how will they respond to Jeremiah’s warning (6:27-30)? Will they pass the test like good ore or will they fail like worthless ore? They fail because they “rejected the word of the Lord”, which came through Jeremiah (Jer. 8:9).
In July 2015 the annual pilgrimage to the mountain of Croagh Patrick in Ireland was cancelled due to treacherous weather conditions. Powerful winds, heavy rain and thick fog reduced visibility to less than 3 meters. However, several hundred people, including families with young children, ignored the warnings and attempted to set out from the base at Murrisk. Some people were treated by medical volunteers, including a 14-year-old girl suffering from hypothermia. So, people ignore warnings today, just like the people of Judah ignored Jeremiah’s warnings.
What about us? The Bible says, “We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. For since the message spoken through angels was binding (the Mosaic covenant was given by angels; Acts 7:53; Gal. 3:19), and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard Him” (Heb. 2:1-3). If the Jews disobedience was punished, as it was, then disregard for the good news about Jesus will bring greater punishment. Do we pay careful attention or ignore this great salvation?
We have seen that Jeremiah warned the Jews by reminding them of the dangerous situation that threatened their lives and their nation. Continual sin is serious and dangerous. Jeremiah’s message was that God will punish them because of their continual sinfulness and the only way out is to repent and turn around and follow Him. And the punishment is that the nation was conquered and the people were taken as salves to Babylon. But those who repented were able to return to restore the nation 70 years later.
Today God also says that we are in a dangerous situation. Sin is serious and dangerous. Unless we follow Jesus, we face God’s punishment. Because we’re all sinners, we’ll all die unless Christ returns beforehand. What happens after death depends on whether we have decided to follow Jesus or not. Those who don’t repent face eternal torment, while those who do repent face eternity with our creator and redeemer.
Let’s spread the message about the seriousness of sin and ignoring what God has done for us. We need to recognise our sinfulness and repent by turning around and accepting that Jesus took our` punishment.
Written, October 2015
God’s message for Jews in captivity
In World War 2, 22,000 Australian servicemen were taken captive as prisoners of war (POW) by the Japanese. They went through brutal and horrific experiences, including beatings, starvation, transportation on cramped ships, and long jungle marches in south-east Asia. Many worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. 8,000 (36%) of them died in captivity.
In this post on Isaiah 40 we see that Isaiah told the Jews that their descendants would be POWs. These captives would be discouraged and weary. But if they trusted in God and longed for the fulfilment of His promises, He would give them confidence, comfort and strength.
Isaiah prophesied for 60 years from 740BC to 680BC. During this period Judah was threatened by the Assyrians. In 722BC Assyria conquered the northern kingdom (Israel) and they were taken into captivity. So the southern kingdom of Judah feared the Assyrians.
The book of Isaiah was written to the people of Judah in about 700BC. The oldest copy of Isaiah is one of the Dead Sea Scrolls dated about 200BC. Isaiah has two main sections. Chapters 1-39 describe the Assyrian threat, which was God’s judgement for their idolatry. Chapters 40-55 describe how in 100 years time they will be defeated by the Babylonians and taken captive as prisoners for 70 years and then delivered and restored as a nation.
In chapters 36-37, we read that God saves Jerusalem from the Assyrian army. In chapter 39, King Hezekiah recovers from a serious illness and representatives of the king of Babylon come with a gift. Hezekiah shows them all the wealth of his kingdom. Then Isaiah predicts that this wealth and some of the people will be captured and taken to Babylon. This happened about 100 years later.
In Isaiah 41, Isaiah ridicules the Babylonian idols that the captives were tempted to follow and he predicts that God will raise up Cyrus, king of Persia who will allow the captives to return to Judea. This happened 170 years after the prediction was made. So chapter 40 is framed before and after by accounts of the Jewish captivity in Babylon. It is addressed to those in exile. As a promise of deliverance from captivity, it aims to encourage and strengthen them when they are discouraged, tired and weak.
Note that Isaiah 40 has a poetic structure and that prophecies like this can have multiple fulfilments. We will look at what it meant to those in captivity and how it can apply to us today.
God’s promise (v.1-11)
In this section God promises to deliver His people from captivity. Verse 2 mentions the Jews “hard service has been completed” and their “sin has been paid for”. This refers to their slavery in Babylon. They would have been discouraged and weary because the exile lasted for 70 years. But now they had been fully punished for their sins (received double). They needed comfort and encouragement and that is the theme of this chapter (v.1). “Comfort, comfort” means great comfort. The message of deliverance would give them encouragement, comfort and hope.
In verses 3-5 they are told to “prepare the way for the Lord” by building a highway in the desert so “the glory of the Lord will be revealed” in their deliverance from exile in Babylon. This highway is a figure of speech for repentance and dealing with the sinful things in life that needed to be straightened out. The promise is that the Lord is returning to Jerusalem when the Jews return to Judea. Nations will be amazed when this happens and realize that the Jews have a great God. It’s unusual for a conquered nation to be resurrected like that.
Then there is a contrast between the temporary and the permanent (v.6-8). It says people are like grass and flowers. They wither and fall, but God’s word endures forever. When it was written they were afraid of the Assyrians. But the Assyrian threat will pass. When they were in exile they were ruled by the Babylonians. But the Babylonian rule will pass. This is repeated in v.23-24, where he says that rulers of this world are temporary and will soon vanish. For them it meant that the power of Assyria and Babylonia would soon vanish. On the other hand, God’s word is permanent (Mt. 24:35). Also, because humans fail, their only hope comes from the eternal word of God.
Next they hear the good news of deliverance from Babylon (v.9-11). It’s like another exodus. This is a prediction of what was to happen about 170 years later. God “comes with power” in the form of the Persians who conquer the Babylonians (v.10). The reward of those who were faithful to the Lord is that they could return to their homeland. God is a ruler that cares for them like a shepherd cares for his sheep.
“He gathers the lambs in His arms
and carries them close to His heart;
He gently leads those that have young” (v.11)
So even though God’s people are in a bad place in captivity in a foreign land, God promises to care for them and bring them safely back to their homeland. That’s the comfort and encouragement mentioned in v.1. This Hebrew word (Strongs #5162) is used elsewhere in Isaiah to describe their deliverance from exile (Is. 49:13; 51:12; 52:9).
In June 2014 the Al Jazeera journalist Peter Greste was sentenced to seven years in prison on charges of aiding the Muslim Brotherhood and spreading false news that defamed Egypt. Two other journalists were also imprisoned. They were framed as terrorists and spies. But all denied the charges against them and said their trial was a sham and that they were simply reporting the news. When they were about to begin a hunger strike, there was great joy in February 2015 when Peter was released after spending 400 days in an Egyptian jail. Deliverance is good news!
The Bible says that the glory of the Lord (v.5) is also revealed at Christ’s first and second advent (Lk. 2:9; Rev. 1:7). John the Baptist applied v.3 (“prepare the way for the Lord”) to himself when he told the people to prepare for the Messiah by repenting of their sins (Mt. 3:1-8; Mk. 1:2-8; Lk. 3:2-17; Jn. 1:23). Are we prepared for Christ’s return? Have we confessed and repented of our sins?
Do we have a sense of the temporary and the permanent? The troubles of this life are temporary, while the promises of heaven are permanent. Do we live as though God’s word endures forever? Peter uses this passage to say that the new spiritual life is eternal (1 Pt. 1:23-25).
Are we in a bad place? If we trust in God, He will care for us and bring us safely to be with Him in heaven.
But how do the captives know that God can do what He promised?
God’s greatness (v.12-26)
Next they are given three examples of God’s greatness. This section has many rhetorical questions to persuade the people to trust in the Lord.
First, He is a great creator (v. 12). He made and controls the oceans, the stars and planets, the earth’s surface including the dust, the mountains and hills. Isaiah uses personification saying that God measures the oceans in the hollow of His hand and measures the universe with the breadth of His hand. And God weighs the mountains and hills.
God made the earth and the stars (v.21-26). This should be obvious to the Jews because they have the account of creation in Genesis. So God rebukes them,
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood since the earth was founded?” (v.21).
He’s saying, are you dull? Don’t you understand? He reminded them of something they already knew.
Who created all the stars (v.26)? It must be someone who existed before the stars. It must be God Himself. Who controls them? He guides the stars in their paths across the sky. He knows each by name and “because of His great power and mighty strength” none of them go missing!
God creates and sustains without outside help (v. 13-14). He is the ultimate cause; no one instructed or taught Him, and no one else can understand what He does (Rom. 11:33-34; 1 Cor. 2:16). He has incredible wisdom.
The second example of God’s greatness is that the other nations are insignificant compared to God (v.15-17). And all the forests of Lebanon aren’t sufficient fuel and all its animals inadequate for a worthy burnt offering to Him.
The third example is that God is greater than any man-made idol (v.18-20). He says they are useless. The rich make them out of gold and silver, while the poor use wood. He uses satire and sarcasm. Saying they are made by craftsmen, who need to make sure they don’t topple over. An idol can’t even stand up by itself! Instead, God is incomparable. There is no one like Him.
In those days people believed that when one nation was conquered by another, the gods of the conqueror were stronger than the gods of the vanquished. Some of the Jews in exile may have thought the gods of Babylon were stronger than their God. So God asks them, “to whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” (v.25). The answer is no-one.
At that time the pagan nations worshipped the sun, moon and stars (Is. 47:13). The Jews also began to worship these as gods (2 Ki. 17:16; 21: 3, 5; Jer. 19:13). But here they are being told that their God is greater than these gods, because He made them!
The Sun is a star, and life on Earth depends on this powerful source of energy. It’s the greatest power in our solar system. Every second, the sun radiates a million times more energy than the entire United States consumes in a year. Quasars are among the brightest and most powerful objects in the universe. They can emit enormous amounts of energy, up to a thousand times the total output of the hundreds of billions of stars in our entire galaxy. But God is even more powerful!
Do we marvel at the wonders of the physical world? Do we believe that God is the ultimate cause? The greatest creator and sustainer?
Do we know what our idols are? What’s our perception of them? What influence do they have? Do they rule our lives?
But the captives think that God has forgotten them while they are in exile in Babylon (v.27). They are discouraged and wonder if God still cares for them. So they complain.
God strengthens the weary (v.27-31)
So God rebukes them once again,
“Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and His understanding no one can fathom.” (v.28).
Once again He’s saying, are you dull? Don’t you understand? This is said to those who don’t trust God. It’s Hebrew poetry where two lines are often grouped together to express one thought.
They needed to know that …
“The LORD is the everlasting God”.
He’s different to the man-made idols you see in Babylon. They are temporary; but He is permanent. He existed before everything else existed. He is a unique God.
“(He’s) the Creator of the ends of the earth”. He created all the earth. He won’t forsake what He has made.
“He will not grow tired or weary”. He’s not like us. He doesn’t get tired and weary. He hadn’t forgotten them. No problems are hidden from God, or too much for Him to handle.
“His understanding no one can fathom”. No one can understand like God (Rom. 11:33). He’s in a totally different realm to us. His ways are right, even though we don’t know or understand them.
Next he promises new strength for those who trusted God. Because of God’s attributes, “He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak” (v.29). Those who trust in Him are strengthened when they are weary and empowered when they are weak as was the case for the captives. Because He cares for the stars, He also cares for His people.
“Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.” (v.30-31).
“Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall”. As human beings we all get tired and weary. We run out of energy. We all can stumble and fall. There are times when we can’t go on. Our human resources are used up. We need rest. We need sleep.
“but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength”. The Hebrew word translated “hope”, is translated “wait” or “trust” in other translations. That’s the key word for God’s promises in Isaiah 40. It means an eager and confident expectation. These Jews in Babylon were ready to start the journey when the time came. They were waiting to be released, but they didn’t know exactly when it would be. God gives spiritual strength to those who trust in Him. They are empowered by the Holy Spirit. They are given the strength and power required for the day and the task.
“They will soar on wings like eagles”. It takes lots of energy to fly. In fact we can’t do it without using the power of the wind or an engine. God can help us get through a challenging day or task.
“They will run and not grow weary”.
Running takes less energy than flying, but more energy than walking. God can help us get through a busy day or task.
“They will walk and not be faint”. Walking takes less energy than running. God can help us get through a normal day or task.
What did this mean to the Jewish exiles in Babylon? They would have been tired of living in a foreign country under foreign rulers. But it was a long journey back to their homeland. Ezra took four months to travel the 1,400 km (880 miles) (Ezra 7:8-9). That’s about 12km per day. It’s walking pace. They would have thought, how can the weary and weak travel this far? The weary and weak would have included the elderly, the sick, and the disabled. Was it worth travelling so far from a civilised country where they had learnt a new language and a new way of life to a city in ruins? This would encourage them to look forward to returning to their homeland. And whether they travelled fast or slow, God would empower them on the journey.
We have seen how the Jews were encouraged spiritually when they were tired and weak. What about us? Do we live as though we have an “everlasting God” who always cares for us and doesn’t get tired or weary? And who doesn’t forget.
If we trust in God, He will care for us and help when we are in need. Do we seek His supernatural power and strength when we are weary and weak? Jesus told His followers to “always pray and not give up” (Lk. 18:1).
Paul said that because of the hope of our resurrection to be with the Lord, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day” (2 Cor. 4:16). Although we may be tired and weak and our health may fail, the Holy Spirit renews us inwardly each day.
The writer of Hebrews urges us to fix our eyes on Jesus “so that you will not grow weary and lose heart” (Heb. 12:1-3).
Did you know that God encourages us so we can encourage others? “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God.” (2 Cor. 1:3-4)
More good news
I mentioned that prophecies like this can have multiple applications and fulfilments.
What was the impact on the Jews when they first heard it in 700BC? The Biblical principle is the same – if they trusted in God and longed for the fulfilment of His promises, He would give them confidence, comfort and strength. But the application is different. They were still in Jerusalem before the captivity. Their response could be to repent of their idolatrous ways in order to try to prevent the exile. But they could be confident that as God’s people, even if they went into captivity God would bring them back to their homeland.
The idea of deliverance from captivity is used in the New Testament where the Greek word for “good news” or “gospel” is used to describe deliverance from being slaves to sin (Acts 13:32; 1 Cor. 15:1-4). Here good news (v.9) is applied to the salvation that Christ brings to those who trust him.
So although we live in a different era to Isaiah, we are also promised deliverance from suffering. In our case it’s the suffering due to sin and heaven is the promise. As the Jews looked forward to returning to Jerusalem (or Zion) where God was present in the temple, we can look forward to being with the Lord Jesus in heaven. Do we look forward to our deliverance?
Although there is a similarity, there is also a difference. They took the full punishment for their sins in Babylon (v.2), but Jesus took the full punishment for our sins at His crucifixion.
So the principle for us is that if we trust in God and long for the fulfilment of His promises, He will give us confidence, comfort and strength.
Isaiah 40 finishes with,
“those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint”
We have seen from Isaiah’s prophecy that when the Jews were in captivity, God promises deliverance. It’s good news from an everlasting all-powerful God that encourages and strengthens those that are tired, weak and weary. And they look forward eagerly to their deliverance.
Today God also promises His people deliverance from the sufferings of this sinful world when they get to heaven. In the meantime, with God’s spiritual strength, we can face whatever lies ahead of us.
Let’s remember that if we trust in God and long for the fulfilment of His promises, He will give us confidence, comfort and strength.
Written, August 2015