Reap the whirlwind

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Hosea 7-8

“Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”  Paul’s saying from Galatians 6:7 is a common biblical theme.  The judgement which befalls the wicked is not an alien imposition.  It is the way they’ve been heading all along.  It’s simply the fruit of their lives.

Hosea looks on the northern kingdom, about to feel the force of the Assyrian super-power.  And he says:

“They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”  (Hosea 8:7)

Israel has been chasing after foreign gods like a harlot chasing lovers.  Now Israel will experience what it’s like to have them as lords. We talk about “playing with fire” and getting burnt – Hosea speaks of investing in high winds and getting a hurricane as a pay-out.

What is most chilling is not God’s judgement.  It is the madness of the human heart which reaps its own doom.  This is especially tragic since, all the while the Bridegroom – Christ – pursues harlots like us to win us back.  He stands between sinners and hell with arms outstretched.  If we want Him we can have Him.  If not, we shall reap what we sow.

When we picture judgement, we should not imagine the hurling of unwilling reprobates into perdition.  Instead it’s the handing over of hell-bent sinners to their heart’s desire.  Judgement is when God gives people what they want.  They have sown the wind, they shall reap the whirlwind.

Play the harlot

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Hosea 1-3

How would you feel if your yearly work review summed up your performance as, “Unfaithful?”  You might expect negatives like “incompetent” or “lazy”.  But, “unfaithful”?  What if your your work was described as“adulterous”?  Adulterous? Surely you’re not married to your job!

And yet, throughout the Bible, the LORD says to His people, “You are unfaithful…  You are adulterous…  You play the harlot…  You play the whore.”

We expect verdicts like “disobedient” or “wicked” or “transgressing”, but “unfaithful”?  Are we meant to be married to the LORD?  Yes.

You see the Bible is a love story.  It begins with the marriage of Adam and Eve.  It ends with the marriage of the Lord Jesus to His people (Revelation 19).  And all throughout we are told that our relationship to the Lord is likea marriage.  He is not simply our Master, but our Husband as well.

But the course of true love never did run smooth.  Which brings us to Hosea.  He was a contemporary of Isaiah, living in the northern kingdom in the 8th century BC.

Essentially the LORD said to Hosea, “I’ve got a task for you.  You’re going to experience what it feels like to be Me in the great Love Story.”  This is what happened:

“The LORD said to Hosea, Go, take unto thee a wife of whoredoms and children of whoredoms: for the land hath committed great whoredom, departing from the LORD.  So he went and took Gomer.”  (Hosea 1:2-3)

When Hosea marries the prostitute Gomer, the world is shown a little of how we treat the LORD.  True to form, Gomer doesn’t stick around for long  She leaves the marital home and returns to the brothel.  But Hosea’s job was not over.  Even though she left him, God called him to pursue her and to win her back.   This is what He tells poor Hosea:

“Then said the LORD unto me, Go yet, love a woman beloved of her friend, yet an adulteress, according to the love of the LORD toward the children of Israel, who look to other gods, and love flagons of wine. 2 So I bought her to me for fifteen pieces of silver, and for an homer of barley, and an half homer of barley:  3 And I said unto her, Thou shalt abide for me many days; thou shalt not play the harlot, and thou shalt not be for another man: so will I also be for thee.”  (Hosea 3:1-3)

Hosea has to go to the brothel and pay 15 shekels – the prostitute-price – to get his wife back.

Can you imagine it?  Banging on the brothel door.  “I’m here for Gomer…  I’m her husband…  Fine, I’ll pay whatever it costs, I just want her back.”

He is so vulnerable. He’sputting his heart on the line once again with a woman who keeps spurning his love. Why should he pay for his own wife?  Because that’s what the LORD is like.

When we look to the Cross, we see a Husband who has left His home, come to our house of slavery, begs us to return and who pays the price to redeem us.  He is vulnerable, and shamed, arms outstretched to receive us back.

What is your view of the LORD?

An impersonal force?  A Sergeant-Major in the Sky? A Heavenly Slave-Driver?  A Moral Policeman?  A Cosmic Headmaster?  If we’ve inherited such views, it’s not been from the Bible.

In the Bible, the LORD is a Bridegroom.  A Husband.  A Royal Prince, who pledges Himself in marriage to we who “play the harlot.”

This means the LORD is not looking for soldiers, slaves or moralists, He’s not seeking good intentions, good efforts or good works.  He’s calling Gomers to come home.

Forever and ever

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Daniel 7

Given the suffering of this world, how can anyone believe in a good God, or a happy ending?

In Daniel 7, the prophet has a vision of horrific cruelty.  It was a “vision by night” that left him, in his own words, “grieved in my spirit… and the visions of my head troubled me.” (v15)  “My cogitations much troubled me, and my countenance changed in me.” (v28)

This is what caused him such consternation: a vision of four ruthless kingdoms, devouring everything in their wake.

The first kingdom was like a lion with the wings of an eagle.  It was fast and powerful in its conquests.  The second was like a merciless bear which devours its people.  The third was like a leopard with four wings – bringing swift destruction.  And the fourth?  This is like nothing Daniel had ever seen.  It is “dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly” (v7).  From the fourth kingdom will come a king who will be an anti-Christ figure.  Verse 25: “He shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws.”  Unsurprisingly, as an anti-Christ, he does the opposite of Jesus.  He blasphemes the Father, oppresses His children and tampers with the Bible’s teaching.

And so Daniel is faced with the ruthlessness of earth and the rebelliousness of hell – all of it worked out in the warring power-plays of this world’s kingdoms.  And then comes verse 18:

“But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.”

There is a good God who is “high” over this suffering world.  And there is a happy future “for ever and ever.”  How can this be?

Well the vision of the four kingdoms gives way to a vision of heaven, and that makes all the difference:

“I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire. A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.”  (Daniel 7:9-10)

With our eyes fixed on the earth, all we see are monstrous power plays.  Daniel looks up to see One called the Ancient of Days – One who has seen it all before.  This figure is not indifferent to evil.  A fiery stream flows from His throne to judge the beasts (v11-12).  The evil of earth and hell will be consumed by the judgement of heaven.  All wickedness will meet its end in the judgement of the Ancient of Days.  That’s good news – but how will the Most High destroy evil without ending us too?  Haven’t we contributed to the beastliness of the earth?  How can we have a happy future “for ever and ever”?

From verse 14 we seen another figure approaching the Ancient of Days.  He is not beastly :   He is quintessentially human – the son of man.

I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.  (Daniel 7:14-15)

The Son of Man approaches the Ancient of Days.  He is not swept away in the blazing purity flowing from God the Father.  He belongs in the presence of the Most High.  And to Him is given “everlasting dominion.”

There is a way from the evil of earth to the thrones of heaven – that way is the Son of Man.  This Son enters heaven not in His own name, but on behalf of His people.  And everything that is given to Him belongs to His people also.

Take verse 27 for instance.  It says:

“the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to…”

… we might expect the verse to end, “the Son of Man.”  After all, verse 14 tells us that everlasting dominion belongs to Him.  But now in verse 27 we read that everlasting dominion is given to…

“the people of the saints of the most High.”

The Son of Man does not inherit the kingdom for Himself alone.  He inherits it for all those who belong to Him.  When Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, He took us with Him.  All that is His is ours.

Can we believe in a good God?  Yes, there is a Most High seated on the throne.  And from His blazing goodness, judgement will flow out to consume the evil of this world.

Can we believe in a happy ending?  Yes, there is a Son of Man who, on the cross, fought upstream through a fiery judgement to bring us into an unshakeable kingdom.

In Jesus we have a good God and a happy ending – for ever and ever.

Daniel in the lion’s den

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Daniel 6

The Bible is all about dramatic reversals.

Perhaps Mary said it best when she was told that the Mighty Christ would be born into her humble circumstances:

He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree. He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.  (Luke 1:52-53)

Christ brings dramatic reversals into this world.  He is the Mighty Lord who becomes meek to exalt “them of low degree.”  And He is the Servant who rises to topple the proud.

Not surprisingly the Bible is filled with phrases to describe these great reversals.

On the one hand we have the victory of the underdog.  There’s the “giant killing” of David and Goliath.  There’s escape “by the skin of my teeth“.  We remember that “Blessed are the meek” (Matthew 5:5).   We speak of Lazarus back from the dead (John 11).  And we glory in the biblical taunt “Where O death is thy sting!”  (1 Corinthians 15:55).

On the other hand we read of devastating come-downs for the rich and powerful.  How the mighty are fallen.  Pride goeth before a fall, etc, etc.  And in Daniel we’ve already seen mighty empires with feet of clay and the the writing on the wall for an arrogant king.

These dramatic reversals continue in chapter 6 as Daniel enters the lion’s den.  Again Daniel is shown to be a righteous and humble servant.  In Daniel 6 all he does to deserve the lion’s den is to pray to the LORD.  Yet royal advisers, jealous at Daniel’s success, tricked King Darius into outlawing such prayer.  Darius liked Daniel but his hands were tied – “the laws of the Medes and Persians” were irrevocable, (a famous phrase of its own).

And so the righteous servant of the LORD was cast into the pit to be devoured by roaring lions (see 1 Peter 5:8 where the devil is described as the ultimate “roaring lion”).  Daniel is very Christ-like in his righteous suffering.  What would happen next?

We pick up the story halfway through Darius’s sleepless night:

“Then the king went to his palace, and passed the night fasting: neither were instruments of musick brought before him: and his sleep went from him. 19 Then the king arose very early in the morning, and went in haste unto the den of lions. 20 And when he came to the den, he cried with a lamentable voice unto Daniel: and the king spake and said to Daniel, O Daniel, servant of the living God, is thy God, whom thou servest continually, able to deliver thee from the lions? 21 Then said Daniel unto the king, O king, live for ever. 22 My God hath sent his angel, and hath shut the lions’ mouths, that they have not hurt me: forasmuch as before him innocency was found in me; and also before thee, O king, have I done no hurt. 23 Then was the king exceeding glad for him, and commanded that they should take Daniel up out of the den. So Daniel was taken up out of the den, and no manner of hurt was found upon him, because he believed in his God.”  (Daniel 6:18-23)

Even as Daniel enacts the part of Christ, he is also saved by Christ.  He proclaims to the King: “My God hath sent His Angel.”  How was Daniel saved?  Not through a bolt of lightning from on high.  No, this is how the Father always saves – by sending His Son into the midst of the trouble.  The Angel of God (or “God’s Sent One”), descends into our plight to rout all our foes.  This is the power, the pattern and proto-type for all the great reversals of the Bible.

When Christ descended into our pit, on the cross, He spoke of the roaring lions that surrounded Him (Psalm 22:13).  Jesus endured the horror of what Daniel was spared.  And through His sufferings, we too are spared from the great judgement.  Therefore we can cry out, with Daniel: “My God hath sent His Angel!”  The Mighty One has descended and we the helpless are rescued.  Hallelujah!

The writing is on the wall

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Daniel 5

In the Fuhrerbunker, Hitler married Eva Braun and his generals toasted the “Thousand Year Reich.”  But “the writing was on the wall”.  This phrase denotes a judgement of doom that gatecrashes the dinner party.

The original party-pooping judgement happened to the Babylonian King, Belshazzar.  In all probability, the invading Medes were upon them and so the royal family decided to enjoy life while they could.  Instead of turning to the LORD of Israel, (whose temple furnishings lay in the palace), they decided to use the LORD’s things to have one last hurrah.

“Belshazzar the king made a great feast to a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand. 2 Belshazzar, whiles he tasted the wine, commanded to bring the golden and silver vessels which his father Nebuchadnezzar had taken out of the temple which was in Jerusalem; that the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, might drink therein.  3 Then they brought the golden vessels that were taken out of the temple of the house of God which was at Jerusalem; and the king, and his princes, his wives, and his concubines, drank in them. 4 They drank wine, and praised the gods of gold, and of silver, of brass, of iron, of wood, and of stone. 5 In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace: and the king saw the part of the hand that wrote. 6 Then the king’s countenance was changed, and his thoughts troubled him, so that the joints of his loins were loosed, and his knees smote one against another.  (Daniel 5:1-6)

The mighty king is reduced to a quivering wreck, even before he reads the writing on the wall .  Once again Daniel must interpret this message from God.  He tells Belshazzar the story of his father, Nebuchadnezzar from Daniel 4.  Nebuchadnezzar had humbled himself before the Most High God and had acknowledged God’s reign through the Lowliest of Men (Daniel 4:17).  In contrast, his son has exalted himself and despised the LORD God and His Christ.  Therefore Daniel translates the writing, pronouncing God’s judgement:

This is the writing that was written, MENE, MENE, TEKEL, UPHARSIN. 26 This is the interpretation of the thing: MENE; God hath numbered thy kingdom, and finished it. 27 TEKEL; Thou art weighed in the balances, and art found wanting. 28 PERES; Thy kingdom is divided, and given to the Medes and Persians.   (Daniel 5:25-28).

The words are all units of currency – a mina (meaning counted), a shekel (meaning weighed) and half a mina (therefore with the idea of divided).  And the words to Belshazzar are words to all those who would scoff at the judgement of the Most High and His Servant King:  Our days are numbered, our lives are found wanting in the scales of God’s justice and judgement will fall.

For Belshazzar, and those at his table, it was too late – the writing was on the wall.  His was the tragic case of a king lifting himself up in arrogance.  Yet chapter 5 ends with Daniel being clothed in scarlet and made ruler.  The exalted king is struck down.  The humble servant is raised to honour.

As that judgement fell, the question was this: with whom do you stand?  Do you raise a glass to the reigning king and try to distract yourself from the inevitable?  Or do you stand with Daniel, the Spirit-filled servant?

The future does not belong to the king of this age.  The writing is on the wall for the whole race of Adam – it is condemned already, (John 3:18).  The future belongs to Christ, the Lowliest of men – and to those who belong to Him.

Feet of clay

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Daniel 2

It’s the biblical equivalent of an Achilles’ heel.  When a leader has a flaw that makes him vulnerable he is said to have “feet of clay.”

The phrase originates in the book of Daniel which, like Ezekiel, is set in the Babylonian captivity.  Daniel, along with others, is carried away to Babylon and then hand-picked to serve in their civil service.  Just like Joseph, Daniel rises through the ranks of this foreign land through the wisdom of the Spirit.  And like Joseph, he gains prominence through the interpretation of a dream.

King Nebuchadnezzar dreams of a giant statue that is destroyed by a rock:

32 This image’s head was of fine gold, his breast and his arms of silver, his belly and his thighs of brass, 33 His legs of iron, his feet part of iron and part of clay. 34 Thou sawest till that a stone was cut out without hands, which smote the image upon his feet that were of iron and clay, and brake them to pieces. 35 Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver, and the gold, broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff of the summer threshing floors; and the wind carried them away, that no place was found for them: and the stone that smote the image became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth.  (Daniel 2:32-35)

Daniel gives this interpretation: the various body parts are kingdoms.  The head of gold is Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.  Following his empire will come three more kingdoms.  The fourth won’t so much have feet of clay.  The fourth kingdom is represented by feet of clay mixed with iron.

Iron and clay tell us that this kingdom will be strong but brittle.  Its demise will come at the hands of a “stone” which seemed small and inconsequential compared to such towering might.  Yet as the stone strikes a blow at this fourth kingdom, it fells it and takes over the world.  (Daniel 7 also picks up this theme of the four kingdoms and their destruction by the Rock – the Son of Man.)

And so “when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His Son,” the Rock (Galatians 4:4).  He grew up in the kingdom of iron and clay.  And He appeared to have no chance whatsoever.  He was crushed under foot by the Romans.  And yet, within three hundred years the empire that crucified Him confessed Him Lord. Today, His kingdom continues to fill the earth.

Look at the mightiest empires of today.  Think of the most immovable powers opposed to the gospel of Jesus.  They don’t just have feet of clay.  They are feet of clay.  And they must topple as every enemy is brought under Christ’s feet.  (Psalm 110:1)

Thus saith the LORD

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Ezekiel 37

“Says who?”

Children learn that phrase very quickly.  A sibling tells them to set the table.  What happens next depends entirely on the source of the command.  If the reply comes: “Thus saith mum!” things might just get moving.

Hundreds of times the Bible says: “Thus saith the LORD.”  Even when  the LORD is speaking, He continually reminds His people that these are His words carrying His authority.

This is not a mere assertion of power. “The LORD” is His covenant name.  It’s a reminder of His faithful love – like a husband saying to His wife, “You know me:  you can trust me.”

From the very beginning, life came through the Word of the LORD.  The Spirit hovered over the waters (Genesis 1:2).  And it’s the Spirit (or Breath, which is the same word in Hebrew) that carries the Word.  So through the Spirit and by the Word, God brings life.  That was true in creation.  But it’s equally true in salvation.  And the book of Ezekiel images this brilliantly:

Ezekiel was exiled along with the people of God in Babylon.  He had witnessed the spiritual death of the nation, estranged from both their land and their God.  But in chapter 37 he’s given a vision of how spiritual life can be breathed once again into a people who are dead in their sins.

The hand of the LORD was upon me, and carried me out in the spirit of the LORD, and set me down in the midst of the valley which was full of bones, And caused me to pass by them round about: and, behold, there were very many in the open valley; and, lo, they were very dry.  And he said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live? And I answered, O Lord GOD, thou knowest. Again he said unto me, Prophesy upon these bones, and say unto them, O ye dry bones, hear the word of the LORD. Thus saith the Lord GOD unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the LORD. So I prophesied as I was commanded: and as I prophesied, there was a noise, and behold a shaking, and the bones came together, bone to his bone. And when I beheld, lo, the sinews and the flesh came up upon them, and the skin covered them above: but there was no breath in them. Then said he unto me, Prophesy unto the wind, prophesy, son of man, and say to the wind, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.  So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood up upon their feet, an exceeding great army. Then he said unto me, Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel: behold, they say, Our bones are dried, and our hope is lost: we are cut off for our parts. Therefore prophesy and say unto them, Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, O my people, I will open your graves, and cause you to come up out of your graves, and bring you into the land of Israel. And ye shall know that I am the LORD, when I have opened your graves, O my people, and brought you up out of your graves, And shall put my spirit in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land: then shall ye know that I the LORD have spoken it, and performed it, saith the LORD.  (Ezekiel 37:1-14).

It might have seemed that Israel was too far gone to ever see spiritual renewal.  Yet the LORD showed Ezekiel the truth: they were much worse than he thought – dead.  Yet through the Spirit (or Breath), and by the Word, life could be breathed into the most moribund people.

What hope is there for our nations today?  None: at least from a human perspective.  People cannot bring themselves to spiritual life any more than corpses can assemble themselves for battle!  In the word however, there is almighty power.  As we testify to Jesus by the Spirit, God brings people out of spiritual death and puts His Spirit in us.

Do we understand the power that we unleash when we speak the name of  Jesus.  It might feel weak and foolish to tell about our Lord, about His cross, about His work in our lives, to mention the Scriptures and to name His name.  But, be bold!  There is resurrection in our weak little words.

Sour grapes

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Ezekiel 18

They looked lovely on the vine, but the acid bursts into your mouth and you realise they are unripe. You spit them out proclaiming, “I didn’t want them anyhow!”

“Sour grapes” has come to mean disparaging something you had previously desired – probably because you can’t attain it.  This particular sense originates with Aesop, though it’s difficult to know whether Aesop came before or after Ezekiel.

Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel use the phrase, but in a surprising way.

“What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel.”  (Ezekiel 18:2-3; cf Jeremiah 31:29-30)

The context is exile.  Ezekiel is with the people in Babylon and they have a popular saying: “The fathers eat sour grapes, but the children’s teeth are set on edge”. In other words, the Israelites claim to be suffering because of the sins of their ancestors.

The Lord GOD wants to set the record straight.  Ezekiel 18 refutes such fatalism.  It highlights three case studies of prominent men who either sin or act righteously.  Their actions are typical kingly behaviour and the verdicts pronounced on their lives sound very much like the verdicts given on Israel’s rulers in the books of Kings.

In verses 5-9 we have a righteous man.  He begets a son who acts wickedly (verses 10-13).  This son begets another son who does righteously (verses 14-17).

What should we take from these three case studies?  Well it’s certainly true that none of these exalted men suffer for the sins of their fathers, they are responsible for their own lives.  As the repeated saying goes: “The soul that sinneth: it must die.”

But step back for a second and we see something else: the prophet is telling us a story.  The narrative turns from a good king to a fall and finally, a return to righteous rule.  The Israelites in exile would still have remembered good king Josiah.  They knew of his sons – who ruled wickedly and presided over their exile.  But the people were waiting for a righteous royal Son to set things straight.

This story is the real antidote to fatalism.  The LORD’s answer is not a proclamation of individualistic self-determination.  Instead it’s a proclamation of the coming King, who determines us for life and not death.

Ezekiel writes of Him in places like chapter 34.  There the LORD says,

“I will set up one shepherd over them, and he shall feed them, even my servant David; he shall feed them, and he shall be their shepherd. And I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them; I the LORD have spoken it. And I will make with them a covenant of peace”.  (Ezekiel 34:23-25)

When fatalism threatens, individualism is no response.  God’s answer is the reign of a Messiah whose kingdom brings righteousness to wayward sheep like us.  Through a stronger King, God is for life and not death:

“I have no pleasure in the death of him that dieth”, saith the Lord GOD: “wherefore turn yourselves, and live ye”.  (Ezekiel 18:32)

Great is thy faithfulness

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Lamentations 3

The Bible’s description of exile sometimes sounds like it is at a distance. It happens to those people who deserved it for having committed those sins.  Lamentations feels very different.  Here the anonymous author (traditionally thought of as Jeremiah), lays bare the horror of Jerusalem’s destruction.  It’s a first person lament.  Jeremiah identifies fully with both the sin and the sorrow of his people.

This is an arresting combination.  We have a category for sin and a category for sorrow but find it difficult to unite the two.  A sinner deserves judgement without pity.  A poor wretch receives sympathy but not censure.  Yet Lamentations holds both things together – the people are wicked and pitiable.

Behold, O LORD; for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled; mine heart is turned within me; for I have grievously rebelled: abroad the sword bereaveth, at home there is as death.  (Lamentations 1:20)

The author pleads with the LORD to “behold” with kindness.  Yet for much of the book, the LORD is described as an enemy of the people.

He hath bent his bow like an enemy: he stood with his right hand as an adversary, and slew all that were pleasant to the eye in the tabernacle of the daughter of Zion: he poured out his fury like fire. The LORD was as an enemy: he hath swallowed up Israel, he hath swallowed up all her palaces: he hath destroyed his strong holds, and hath increased in the daughter of Judah mourning and lamentation.  (Lamentations 2:4-5)

Behind the enemy forces of Babylon stands the God who has ordained their brutalities.  He is justly punishing His people for their sins.  And this punishment seems to be falling uniquely on the author:

I AM the man that hath seen affliction by the rod of his wrath. He hath led me, and brought me into darkness, but not into light.  Surely against me is he turned; he turneth his hand against me all the day.  (Lamentations 3:1-3)

One man seems to stand at the head of the people, bearing the brunt of God’s just judgement.  And yet, his statement of faith is at the very heart of the book.  One man, suffering in the place of the people, sees through the enmity of the LORD and hopes in His mercy and compassion:

This I recall to my mind, therefore have I hope.  It is of the LORD’s mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not.  They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.  The LORD is my portion, saith my soul; therefore will I hope in him.  The LORD is good unto them that wait for him, to the soul that seeketh him.  It is good that a man should both hope and quietly wait for the salvation of the LORD.  It is good for a man that he bear the yoke in his youth.  He sitteth alone and keepeth silence, because he hath borne it upon him.  He putteth his mouth in the dust; if so be there may be hope.  He giveth his cheek to him that smiteth him: he is filled full with reproach.  For the LORD will not cast off for ever:  But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies.  For he doth not afflict willingly nor grieve the children of men.  (Lamentations 3:21-34)

In our writings we emphasize something by putting it at the beginning or the end.  In Hebrew the important part is in the middle.  These words are the centrepiece of Lamentations.  Surrounded by suffering, death and judgement, they rise up like Mount Zion proclaiming the LORD’s great faithfulness.

How can the author trust in God when He seems to be the cause of their woes?  How can he seek refuge in the very One who brings judgement?

This man has incredible faith.  He takes the punishment at the head of his people, he bears the yoke, turns the other cheek and waits to be vindicated.  In the morning he is certain that he shall see the great faithfulness of the LORD.

This man of sorrows is pointing us to Christ.  Christ voices our laments before the Father and He takes responsibility for our sins.  Christ entrusts Himself entirely to Him who judges justly (1 Peter 2:23).  On the cross He is the true Temple that’s torn down.  On the cross He endures the ultimate exile for sin.  Nonetheless, He maintains an unshakeable faith in His merciful Father.  He knows that God “will not cast off forever” and that the new morning will bring mercy.

On Easter Sunday, Jesus came through the judgement of God and He offers us refuge on the far side of destruction.

Whatever is lamentable in our own lives – whether sin or sorrow – we need to know that Christ has taken up our laments Himself.  And He has come through to innumerable mercies.  Know for certain that the cross gives way to resurrection and so allow Christ’s faith in the Father to be yours.  Our songs of lament will turn to hymns of praise.

“Great is Thy faithfulness,” O God my Father,
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
“Great is Thy faithfulness!” “Great is Thy faithfulness!”
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided—
“Great is Thy faithfulness,” Lord, unto me!

Summer and winter, and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon and stars in their courses above,
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy and love.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!

Can a leopard change his spots?

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Jeremiah 10:1-25; 13:15-27

Can people change?  Really change?

Aristotle thought so.  Here’s how:

“it is by doing just acts that the just man is produced, and by doing temperate acts the temperate man.”

If you want to change, then perform righteous acts and you will become righteous.  It’s ancient wisdom.  But it’s very modern too.  Pick up any magazine and it will instruct you in the 5 steps to a flatter stomach, a de-cluttered house, a cholesterol free diet and a whole new you.  Do and you will be.  Aristotle lives today!

This is exactly why Martin Luther called Aristotle “a damned, conceited, rascally heathen”.   In fact Luther said, “Should Aristotle not have been a man of flesh and blood, I would not hesitate to assert that he was the Devil himself.”  Luther said this because Aristotle’s philosophy is the opposite of the Bible’s.  Aristotle says, Do and then you’ll be.  The Bible says No.  The problem is our being. And no amount of doing can change that!

Can a leopard change its spots?  No!  The leopard by itself can only be a leopard.  It can be an aggressive leopard or a tame leopard but it can’t stop being a leopard.  And the Bible applies this truth to humanity.  In Jeremiah chapter 13, we read the prediction of imminent doom which was facing the people of God.  Judgement is coming, the Babylonians will sack Jerusalem, the people will be carried away into exile.  They cannot escape:

Judah shall be carried away captive all of it, it shall be wholly carried away captive. Lift up your eyes, and behold them that come from the north… And if thou say in thine heart, Wherefore come these things upon me? For the greatness of thine iniquity are thy skirts discovered, and thy heels made bare.   Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil.  (Jeremiah 13:19-23)

Judgement is coming upon the people for their sins.  But the LORD is adamant that they cannot avert it and they cannot change themselves to deserve salvation.

At this point, the Aristotles of this world are fuming.  Surely we just need to apply ourselves, to learn best practice, to try harder and never give up?  No, responds the Bible, our doing does not have the power to affect our being, any more than a leopard can change its spots.

In Matthew chapter 7 Jesus would say something very similar, but using a horticultural illustration instead:

Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?  Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.  A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.  (Matthew 7:16-18)

Just as a tree brings forth fruit, so our being brings forth our doing.  Our behaviour can no more change our being, than an orange tree can become an apple tree by stapling on Granny Smiths.

If we are to be saved, our very being needs to change.  But we cannot effect such change ourselves.  Instead, Jeremiah directs our gaze to the One who is truly righteous.

“Behold, the days come”, saith the LORD, “that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS”. (Jeremiah 23:5-6)

There is One who is truly good and who brings forth judgement and justice from His own righteous being.  Notice too that He is called “a righteous Branch.”  It’s a suggestive botanical reference, especially given Jesus’ quotation above.  King Jesus will not merely be the righteous Branch for Himself.  He will become THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS.  The Branch shares His life with us such that His righteousness becomes our righteousness.

We cannot become righteous through righteous deeds.  But we can be grafted into the righteous Branch – Jesus.  If we come to Him we have a change of being. Instantly, we are righteous in Him.

And out of our new natures comes a new kind of righteous doing.  This is the glory of the “new covenant” which Jeremiah speaks of:

I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts.  (Jeremiah 31:33-34)

People can change.  Really change.  But not through our own efforts.  It takes “Christ our righteousness” to surround us and the Spirit of Christ within us.  But, organically, from our new beings springs forth new behaviour.

Aristotle was wrong.  Righteous acts do not make righteous people.  But those made righteous in Christ will start to do righteous acts.