Pay Attention

“Say thus to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God: “As I live, surely those who are in the ruins shall fall by the sword, and the one who is in the open field I will give to the beasts to be devoured, and those who are in the strongholds and caves shall die of the pestilence. For I will make the land most desolate, her arrogant strength shall cease, and the mountains of Israel shall be so desolate that no one will pass through. Then they shall know that I am the Lord, when I have made the land most desolate because of all their abominations which they have committed.” ’

“As for you, son of man, the children of your people are talking about you beside the walls and in the doors of the houses; and they speak to one another, everyone saying to his brother, ‘Please come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.’ So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them. And when this comes to pass—surely it will come—then they will know that a prophet has been among them.” (Ezekiel 33:27-33)

When people hear new things, most of the time the words just go in one ear and out the other. Ezekiel’s first vision and call to the role of prophet occurred when he was about thirty years old (Ezekiel 1:1). He had been taken into captivity in Babylon, along with many of the upper classes of Jerusalem, during the reign of Jehoiachin, king of Judah, who had also been taken into captivity as well. This happened about a decade before Nebuchadnezzar would destroy Jerusalem and burn the temple down.

Ezekiel’s ministry was primarily to his fellow captives, warning them about what was going to happen to the people left behind in Jerusalem and Judah. But God explained that until his prophesies came true, the people would not believe him. For them, Ezekiel was merely a source of entertainment. Nothing more. No one took him seriously.

The people claimed that they heard him, they mouthed all the right words. But in reality, they cared nothing about God or his prophet. Just because people hear the words of God doesn’t mean they’ll choose to change their lives.

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Burning Man

By the word of the LORD a man of God came from Judah to Bethel, as Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make an offering. He cried out against the altar by the word of the LORD: “O altar, altar! This is what the LORD says: ‘A son named Josiah will be born to the house of David. On you he will sacrifice the priests of the high places who now make offerings here, and human bones will be burned on you.’ ” That same day the man of God gave a sign: “This is the sign the LORD has declared: The altar will be split apart and the ashes on it will be poured out.”

When King Jeroboam heard what the man of God cried out against the altar at Bethel, he stretched out his hand from the altar and said, “Seize him!” But the hand he stretched out toward the man shriveled up, so that he could not pull it back. Also, the altar was split apart and its ashes poured out according to the sign given by the man of God by the word of the LORD.

Then the king said to the man of God, “Intercede with the LORD your God and pray for me that my hand may be restored.” So the man of God interceded with the LORD, and the king’s hand was restored and became as it was before. (1 Kings 13:1-6)

God’s gift of a throne didn’t come without strings. Solomon’s son lost the ten tribes of the north because of his idolatry. God had told Jeroboam that he would become their the king. But Jerusalem remained the place where people went to worship God. It was also where the king of Judah, David’s heir, ruled. Fearful that his new kingdom would be undermined by continued faithfulness to God in Jerusalem, Jeroboam decided to establish new places of worship to secure his political position. He built golden calves and set them up in Dan and Bethel. He established a separate priesthood to officiate at the shrines he had built. (see 1 Kings 12:25-33)

He did all this, despite the fact that God had given him his kingdom. He simply didn’t trust God. For his unfaithfulness to God, because of the sin he led his people into, God eventually sent a prophet to proclaim judgment against him.

Jeroboam’s reaction to the words of the prophet are predictably unwelcoming. But God protected his spokesperson and even granted healing to Jeroboam in the midst of the pronouncement of judgment. But Jeroboam never repented of what he had done: he maintained the false religion he had created for political purposes, and so the prophet’s words came true.

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You’re the Man!

Nathan then said to David, “You are the man! Thus says the LORD God of Israel, ‘It is I who anointed you king over Israel and it is I who delivered you from the hand of Saul.

‘I also gave you your master’s house and your master’s wives into your care, and I gave you the house of Israel and Judah; and if that had been too little, I would have added to you many more things like these!

‘Why have you despised the word of the LORD by doing evil in His sight? You have struck down Uriah the Hittite with the sword, have taken his wife to be your wife, and have killed him with the sword of the sons of Ammon.

‘Now therefore, the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife.’

“Thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I will raise up evil against you from your own household; I will even take your wives before your eyes and give them to your companion, and he will lie with your wives in broad daylight.

‘Indeed you did it secretly, but I will do this thing before all Israel, and under the sun.’ ”

Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD.” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD also has taken away your sin; you shall not die. (2 Samuel 12:7-13)

Just because God is merciful doesn’t mean there’s no punishment. David took Bathsheba to his bed, got her pregnant. Then, in attempting to hide what he had done, he had her husband put into the front lines of a battle so he would die.

David was guilty of two crimes that were punishable by death: adultery and murder (see Leviticus 20:10 and Numbers 35:31). According to the Bible, there were no mitigating circumstances, no sacrifice that could be offered, no restitution that could be paid.

But the prophet Nathan told David that God had taken his sin away and that he wouldn’t die. David got mercy, rather than full justice.

Despite the mercy, however, David still suffered. The infant born of the illicit relationship died. His first born son, Absalom, the heir to the throne, murdered his younger brother Amnon after he raped his sister Tamar. Later, Absalom led a rebellion against David and took David’s concubines as his own. Absalom died in the resulting civil war and David was restored to his throne. Bathsheba gave birth to another son, Solomon, who would take the throne after David. God was merciful—but David still suffered for his sins.

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Killing Everyone

Samuel also said to Saul, “The LORD sent me to anoint you king over His people, over Israel. Now therefore, heed the voice of the words of the LORD. Thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘I will punish Amalek for what he did to Israel, how he ambushed him on the way when he came up from Egypt. Now go and attack Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.’”

So Saul gathered the people together and numbered them in Telaim, two hundred thousand foot soldiers and ten thousand men of Judah. And Saul came to a city of Amalek, and lay in wait in the valley. (1 Samuel 15:1-5)

God’s mercy for Israel meant judgment for the Amalekites. When Israel was on its way out of Egypt, the Amalekites attacked them at a place called Rephidim. Joshua led a fight against them. Moses stood with his staff raised. While he held it up, Israel was winning. If he lowered his hands, the Amalekites started to win. So Aaron and Hur held his hands up until Joshua and his men were finally victorious. God told Moses that he would one day blot out the name of the Amalekites (see Exodus 17:14 and Deuteronomy 25:17-19).

Therefore, when Samuel told Saul to wipe out every last Amalekite, he was telling Saul to fulfill a promise that God had made Moses.

Saul, however, did not completely carry out the will of God. He spared the Amalekite king, Agag, along with the best sheep and cattle. This violation of God’s command would cost Saul his throne. Samuel told Saul that obedience was better than sacrifice and that rebellion and arrogance were like divination and idolatry. Saul was, for all practical purposes, rejecting God—just as that unnamed man in the time of Moses had rejected God by insisting on gathering wood on the Sabbath.

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Priestly Misconduct

A man of God came to Eli and said to him, “This is what the Lord says: ‘Didn’t I reveal Myself to your ancestral house when it was in Egypt and belonged to Pharaoh’s palace? I selected your house from the tribes of Israel to be priests, to offer sacrifices on My altar, to burn incense, and to wear an ephod in My presence. I also gave your house all the Israelite fire offerings. Why, then, do all of you despise My sacrifices and offerings that I require at the place of worship? You have honored your sons more than Me, by making yourselves fat with the best part of all of the offerings of My people Israel.’

“Therefore, the Lord, the God of Israel, says:
‘Although I said
your family and your ancestral house
would walk before Me forever,
the Lord now says, “No longer!”
I will honor those who honor Me,
but those who despise Me will be disgraced.

“‘Look, the days are coming when I will cut off your strength and the strength of your ancestral family, so that none in your family will reach old age.’” (1 Samuel 2:27-31)

Eli thought he loved his sons. But his choices showed he loved neither them nor God. Eli did nothing to change things. He criticized his sons and told them they should change their behavior, but he did nothing more than talk. Though he had the power to strip them of their position and to replace them with others, he abdicated his responsibility as a priest and as their father. He allowed them to continue serving.

God therefore told Eli that he would do what Eli wouldn’t: he’d remove Eli’s sons from their positions. This couldn’t have come as a surprise to Eli. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, had died simply for offering “unauthorized fire” (see Leviticus 10:1-2). Eli’s sons were guilty of far worse: greed and idolatry.

Although God had promised Aaron’s grandson that his descendents would always serve as priests, God was forced to make a modification to his promise. Although God’s gifts, his promises are irrevocable (see Romans 11:29), the contracts he makes, like any contract, can be modified. There were other descendents of Aaron, others who could be priests. Just the one piece—Eli’s piece—of Aaron’s family would be cut off.

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Welcome to Your Execution

Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua son of Nun. When Moses had finished saying all these words to all Israel, he said, “Take to heart all these words to which I give witness today and urgently command your children to put them into practice, every single word of this Revelation. Yes. This is no small matter for you; it’s your life. In keeping this word you’ll have a good and long life in this land that you’re crossing the Jordan to possess.”

That same day God spoke to Moses: “Climb the Abarim Mountains to Mount Nebo in the land of Moab, overlooking Jericho, and view the land of Canaan that I’m giving the People of Israel to have and hold. Die on the mountain that you climb and join your people in the ground, just as your brother Aaron died on Mount Hor and joined his people.

“This is because you broke faith with me in the company of the People of Israel at the Waters of Meribah Kadesh in the Wilderness of Zin—you didn’t honor my Holy Presence in the company of the People of Israel. You’ll look at the land spread out before you but you won’t enter it, this land that I am giving to the People of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 32:44-52)

Moses would have to die before he could visit Israel. The Israelites ran out of water at a place called Meribah Kadesh. Previously, Moses had gotten water from a rock by hitting it with his staff. But this time, God told him to just talk to the rock. Instead, he angrily whacked at it while he yelled at the Israelites. The water had still come out: God intended to take care of his people regardless. Getting water from the rock wasn’t magic that required just the right incantation. The water came from God. But Moses had not obeyed God. He’d let his temper get the better of him.

Because of his disobedience, God decided to punish him by not allowing him to reach the Promised Land. God told Moses exactly where and when he would die, as if he were a prisoner on death row being led to the gallows. God would let Moses see the Promised Land, but not enter it alive.

Years later, on the Mount of Transfiguration, together with Elijah, Moses finally visited the land he’d been barred from in life, when he met with Jesus on a mountain near the Sea of Galilee (see Luke 9:28-36).

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Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

The LORD said to Moses, “Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.”

The name of the Israelite who was killed with the Midianite woman was Zimri son of Salu, the leader of a Simeonite family. And the name of the Midianite woman who was put to death was Cozbi daughter of Zur, a tribal chief of a Midianite family. (Numbers 25:6-15)

Giving into temptation doesn’t lead to happiness. Balak, the king of Moab, had asked Balaam to curse the Israelites. Instead, Balaam offered Israel repeated blessings. But he had told Balaam that he could harm Israel by sending women to seduce the Israelite men into idolatry (see Numbers 25:1-3, 31:15-16, Revelation 2:14).

When Phinehas, one of Aaron’s grandsons, witnessed an Israelite man taking a Midianite woman into his tent, he took direct action and killed them both with a single blow. The Midianites were allied with the Moabites. God praised Phinehas for his zeal and rewarded him with a promise: his descendents would always be priests before God.

Phinehas’ actions might seem disturbing to us, but as a priest, he was acting not as a vigilante, but as a representative of the people. The Israelites had made a contract with God that they would worship him alone and obey his regulations. The consequence of disobedience was severe. In fact, it was just this sort of disobedience that would lead God, a few hundred years later, to send Israel into captivity in Babylon. Phinehas was working to try to keep that from happening, just as a police officer might use deadly force if necessary to keep a criminal from harming someone.

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Among the Gods

God has taken his place in the divine council;
in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly
and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the orphan;
maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding,
they walk around in darkness;
all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods,
children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals,
and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth;
for all the nations belong to you! (Psalm 82)

Kings have no divine right to their thrones. Sooner or later, the unjust ruler will suffer God’s certain wrath. The kings of all the nations around Israel were more than just arrogant and self-absorbed. They actually believed—and the people of their nations believed—that they were, in fact, incarnations of their gods. The Pharaoh of Egypt believed himself to be the incarnation of the Sun god, Ra. The king of Babylon believed himself to be the incarnation of Marduk.

In this Psalm, the one true God addresses them sarcastically, asking them that if they really are gods, then why don’t they act like it? Instead of being righteous, they are wicked. Instead of dispensing justice, they create most of the oppression and injustice that existed in their lands.

Therefore, God told them that he was going to execute judgment against them; despite what they might think about themselves, they were mere mortals and would die like anyone else. Though they might not offer justice to their people, though they might lack mercy, God would be merciful to their people and give their evil oppressors what they deserved at last.

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Picking Up Sticks

“But if it’s just one person who sins by mistake, not realizing what he’s doing, he is to bring a yearling she-goat as an Absolution-Offering. The priest then is to atone for the person who accidentally sinned, to make atonement before God so that it won’t be held against him.

“The same standard holds for everyone who sins by mistake; the native-born Israelites and the foreigners go by the same rules.

“But the person, native or foreigner, who sins defiantly, deliberately blaspheming God, must be cut off from his people: He has despised God’s word, he has violated God’s command; that person must be kicked out of the community, ostracized, left alone in his wrongdoing.”

Once, during those wilderness years of the People of Israel, a man was caught gathering wood on the Sabbath. The ones who caught him hauled him before Moses and Aaron and the entire congregation. They put him in custody until it became clear what to do with him. Then God spoke to Moses: “Give the man the death penalty. Yes, kill him, the whole community hurling stones at him outside the camp.”

So the whole community took him outside the camp and threw stones at him, an execution commanded by God and given through Moses. (Numbers 15:27-36)

God’s judgment sometimes seems like an overreaction. But God is good, God is love, and God is just.

In the New Testament, Jesus points out that the reason the Sabbath was designed to benefit people: “the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” (Mark 2:27) But in the time of Moses someone worked on that day and was put to death for it. Nowhere else does there seem to be a death penalty associated with violations of the Sabbath. Why such a harsh judgment this time?

God made a distinction between those who sinned deliberately and those who didn’t. A deliberate choice to violate God’s command was harshly punished, while the inadvertent sinner could find mercy. The sin of this unnamed individual was a conscious, willful action, a kind of rebellion against God—not just someone who wasn’t thinking, or someone that decided his need for firewood justified his behavior.

The violation of the Sabbath by working in this case was merely a symptom of a far greater problem. Years later, when Saul disobeyed God, Samuel told him: “rebellion is like the sin of divination, and arrogance like the evil of idolatry.” (1 Samuel 15:23)

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God’s Lying Spirit

Then Micaiah told him, “In a vision I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep without a shepherd. And the LORD said, ‘Their master has been killed. Send them home in peace.’ ”

“Didn’t I tell you?” the king of Israel exclaimed to Jehoshaphat. “He never prophesies anything but trouble for me.”

Then Micaiah continued, “Listen to what the LORD says! I saw the LORD sitting on his throne with all the armies of heaven around him, on his right and on his left. And the LORD said, ‘Who can entice Ahab to go into battle against Ramoth-gilead so he can be killed?’

“There were many suggestions, and finally a spirit approached the LORD and said, ‘I can do it!’

“‘How will you do this?’ the LORD asked.

“And the spirit replied, ‘I will go out and inspire all of Ahab’s prophets to speak lies.’

“‘You will succeed,’ said the LORD. ‘Go ahead and do it.’

“So you see, the LORD has put a lying spirit in the mouths of all your prophets. For the LORD has pronounced your doom.” (1 Kings 22:17-23)

Ahab was an evil king, guilty of leading his people to worship false gods and for abusing his power. The death of a tyrant is not just a judgment against that man, it is also a relief to those he had oppressed, an answer to their prayers for mercy.

Naboth had a vineyard near Ahab’s palace in Samaria. When Naboth refused to sell it, Jezebel, Ahab’s wife, conspired to kill Naboth so that Ahab could seize the property (see 1 Kings 21). God, through Elijah, proclaimed judgment against Ahab: the place where Naboth’s blood had been licked up by dogs was the same spot where Ahab’s blood would be licked up.

Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah then visited Ahab. Ahab asked him to join him in his plan to take a city, Ramoth Gilead, that had fallen some years previous to the Arameans. Jehoshaphat suggested that they should ask God first. Ahab’s prophets all predicted success. Jehoshaphat was unimpressed, since none of them were prophets of God. Reluctantly, Ahab called upon God’s prophet, Miciah, who predicted a disaster orchestrated by God.

Ahab did not believe Micaiah; for that matter, neither did Jehoshaphat. So they went off to war against Aram. Micaiah’s words came true and Ahab was mortally wounded in battle. God’s judgment against him happened just as God had predicted—and planned.

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