If God’s prophets were meant to be peculiar, John the Baptist did not disappoint. Eccentric is too mild a description for this wilderness dwelling preacher who wore odd clothes and lacked both a sense of tact and a balanced diet. His message, though, was right in step with a long line of prophetic predecessors. He called for Israel’s repentance and baptized those who came forward in the Jordan River.
John was awestruck when Jesus came to be baptized by him. Then he watched in amazement as heaven opened wide and the Spirit of God came to rest on Jesus. John and those with him were astonished to hear the voice of the Father Himself broadcasting His divine approval. The community of God had gathered to bear witness to their incarnation. The Spirit then led Jesus to a lonely wilderness, where he spent the next 40 days in one-on-one combat with Satan, the enemy of God. He confronted Satan’s evil temptations obediently through scripture.
John the Baptist denied claims that he was Messiah, pointing to Jesus and announcing, “Look, the Lamb of God.” Andrew heard John’s message and rushed to tell his brother, Simon Peter, and others that Messiah had come. Jesus gathered His band of followers and began training them with marvelous words and miraculous ways. His first miracle took place when He went to a wedding in Cana with his mother, Mary, and his disciples. When the wine ran out, Mary turned to Jesus to remedy the situation. Jesus instructed the servants to fill six jars with water and serve the guests. When they did, the guests marveled how the finest wine had been kept a secret until now. Jesus’ disciples realized they had caught their first glimpse of the One who shared creative power with His Father.
The disciples became increasingly aware that Jesus was indeed their long-expected Messiah, but others were not so sure. A religious leader, called Nicodemus, had a secret encounter with Jesus to find some answers. Jesus’ simple reply was, “You must be ‘born again’….of the Spirit. For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” Jesus had a similar conversation with a Samaritan woman who had come to draw water from a well. With her, he spoke of ‘living water,’ but the message was the same: accept His gift and be saved. When she mentioned the Messiah, Jesus confirmed His identity. She believed and shared the news with her entire village, as the second missionary of the new Messiah.
Jesus traveled the area, taught in the synagogues, and healed the people. He cast out demons and cleansed socially exiled lepers. The crowds grew and so did His critics. On one occasion, four men dug through the roof of a house so they could bring their paralized friend to Him. Before he healed him, Jesus forgave the man, while the religious teachers grew indignant over such blasphemous claims. But Jesus validated His authority by commanding the paralyzed man to get up and walk. The Pharisees missed the miracle and were irritated that Jesus had violated tradition by healing on the Sabbath.
This Sabbath violation, coupled with his absurd claim to be the Messiah Himself, on top of his questionable social circles, quickly turned the establishment against Him. So the conspiracy to kill Jesus began. While many debated, questioned, and wondered about Jesus’ identity; one thing was certain: Jesus was controversial. Some saw hope, but others hated Him and wanted only to be rid of Him. John the Baptist had loved Him from the beginning but now, languishing in prison, he began to doubt as well, demonstrating that even the best of us have our faith tested under difficult circumstances. But throughout this chapter, His baptism, His triumph over temptation, His miracles, and His message confirm Him as the long expected One who defies expectations, is drawn to the least and the lost, and whose message is indeed for all, from the graduate professor, to the immoral woman, to the leper – the Anointed One indeed.
How did Jesus use healings and miracles to advance his ministry and message?
Heaven had been very quiet for 400 years. No burning bushes. No splitting seas. No visions. No dreams. No prophets. No message from God…just silence.
Then, in a magnificent yet uneventful way, a word – but not just a word, The Word came. At the time, the event seemed trivial to all but a blue-collar carpenter and his teenage bride. In fact, the Word of God had taken on flesh and blood and was first heard in a baby’s cry. His birth was less than humble, yet His presence dispelled darkness and cast an unexplainable ray of light across history then and now. God’s promises to Abraham and David had found fulfillment at long last. Jesus would bless all nations and would take His rightful place on David’s throne. It is this event to which everything thus far in The Story has pointed.
Mary was the first to hear the news. In the midst of wedding plans and setting up house, the angel Gabriel pronounced that she had been chosen to give birth to the Son of God. Nothing could have been further from her mind…or her to do list. Mary was engaged and a virgin. The power of the Most High would take care of everything, he said. So Mary rejoiced. She accepted her position as God’s servant and praised Him with purest trust in His plan. Joseph was the next to know. He considered pursuing a quiet, legal termination of their relationship to save them both from the humiliation of an illegitimate pregnancy. However, he received his own angelic visitor, who confirmed Mary’s innocence and gave his blessing on their marriage. Joseph wed Mary and soon after made the journey to Bethlehem to pay his taxes as required by law. The town was bustling, and the inn was full – so the Son of God was born in a lowly stable.
Angels delivered the birth announcement and shepherds became the welcoming committee for the King of Kings. They hurried to see for themselves, and found a surprisingly unassuming setting for a king: a baby in a feeding trough, accompanied by his mother, earthly father, and the local livestock. God also sent signs in the stars and faraway magi charted their course with gifts in hand. King Herod felt threatened by the birth of another monarch, so he ordered the massacre of all the baby boys in the surrounding areas that would have been of Jesus age. God sent angels again so His redemptive plan would stay its course. They warned Joseph in a dream to flee to Egypt until it was safe to return.
Joseph, Mary, and Jesus returned to Israel only after Herod’s death and they made their home in Nazareth. Jesus grew up there as the precocious son of reverent Jews. He and His family traveled to Jerusalem every year to celebrate Passover. When Jesus was 12, He stayed behind in the temple unbeknownst to his frantic parents. They found Him sitting with the teachers who were amazed at His words, “in his Father’s house” as young Jesus said . Jesus grew up as all boys do and Scripture tells us that He increased in wisdom and favor with God and with people.
God’s Upper Story intersects with His Lower Story at the birth of Jesus Christ, the God-man. God’s redemptive story approaches its climax as the Son of God from eternity past becomes the Son of Man for eternity future. Messiah has finally come.
What is your favorite part of the Christmas story? Who could you share the good news with?
It’s no surprise that the Hebrew people were homesick after 70 years of foreign captivity. At this point, it had been 80 years since King Cyrus first gave the green light for the exiles to return to their beloved Jerusalem. Zerubbabel was among the first to go. Fifty thousand former slaves packed their bags and joined him on the trek back to the holy city in 537 B.C. But many remained beyond the borders of God’s promise.
Ezra had earned the favor of Persia’s King Artaxerxes during his time in Babylon. The king authorized Ezra to take a second contingent of Israelites back home. Ezra was a faithful scribe and teacher, and he was given permission not only to teach God’s law but also a mandate to appoint judges and a bottomless expense account to finance his journey.
Nehemiah remained in the palace of Susa as the favored cupbearer of the Persian king. He was dismayed to hear that the walls of Jerusalem remained in disrepair, for without walls, no city would be secure. The king gave Nehemiah a leave-of-absence so he could lead 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem. His first order of business was to assess the condition of the walls and the people. He quickly rallied the city leaders to rebuild.
Sanballat and Tobiah were none too pleased. As leaders of nearby nations, they were threatened by the prospect of Jerusalem’s comeback. They retaliated with intimidation and made repeated attempts to out-maneuver Nehemiah and his rebuilding project, but Nehemiah was undeterred. He encouraged his leaders and armed his people. Some worked while others stood guard. Some carried supplies with one hand and a weapon in the other, but the threats continued. Even when Israel’s enemies enlisted an Israelite as a false prophet to undermine the progress, Nehemiah was not shaken. He refused to entertain empty lies, and the wall was rebuilt in record time—only 52 days!
As Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, Ezra set out to rebuild God’s people. He began by teaching them the Scriptures for the next 13 years. The people gathered to hear Ezra read and other priests joined in to teach as well. At last, they got it! They grasped the reality of God’s great story and celebrated the Feasts of Booths as Moses had written of so long before. The people and the priests hungered to worship God and God’s people were restored in the Land of Promise.
Yet old habits die hard and the people’s fervor soon dwindled. The priests and the people became apathetic, so God commissioned the prophet, Malachi, to speak His words of divine warning. The priests had begun to dishonor God with sacrifices that were less than the best. They treated their wives poorly and wondered why God was not pleased with their worship. They withheld their offerings and the whole community began to again turn away from God.
Malachi prophesied the return of the prophet Elijah as sign of things to come. God had restored His people and protected His faithful remnant. He had protected Judah’s royal line in keeping with His promise to David. He spoke His final words of warning and promise through Malachi and then God was silent. God’s people would not hear from Him again until the promised Elijah would step forth as God’s new messenger. God’s redemptive story, for now, was quietly marching toward history’s climactic event.
The Levites, whose role was to serve in the temple, were present during the reading of the Law of Moses to help people understand the words being read, essentially being small group leaders. Who do you study scripture with or who could you help to better understand scripture?
King Xerxes of Persia had reason to party. His vast empire was powerful and prosperous. His queen was lovely. His palace was ideal for a celebration befitting such a monarch. His merrymaking continued for six months when Xerxes summoned Queen Vashti so he could put her on display for the inebriated revelers. She refused. Kings do not like to be refused. With his advisers’ support, he stripped Vashti of her crown and banished her from his presence.
Kings also do not like to be queen-less. The king commissioned a kingdom-wide beauty pageant and young women from every province were whisked into the king’s harem for a year-long visit at the royal spa. One such woman was a Jewish girl named Esther who had been raised by her cousin, Mordecai. Esther won everyone’s heart, including the king’s. He made her queen but did not know she was a Jew. Soon after, Mordecai learned of a plot to kill the king. He passed the news to Esther; the king was rescued and the conspirators hanged. Xerxes’ scribe recorded Mordecai’s service in the annals of the king.
Haman was King Xerxes’ right-hand man. Haman reveled in his high standing and enjoyed having all the royal officials kneel at his feet. Mordecai refused to pay such homage. Haman was enraged. To exact his revenge, Haman deceived the king into issuing a decree to exterminate Mordecai and his people, the entire Jewish population of Persia. He cast a lot (pur) and chose a single day of unfettered violence against the Jews.
Mordecai sent word to Esther asking her to beg the king for mercy. Queen Esther feared for her life because no one could legally go before the king without prior permission. Mordecai’s immortal words persuaded her: “Who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” Her courageous response was, “If I perish, I perish.”
She and the Jews in Susa fasted, and Esther approached the king. Xerxes welcomed her and offered to grant her heart’s desire. She invited the king and Haman to a private banquet. Haman was delighted. Esther invited them both to another fancy but ultimately fatal feast. Haman was elated to be the exclusive royal guest but still enraged over Mordecai’s insolence. With all the satisfaction of a Cheshire cat, he erected a pole on which Mordecai could be impaled.
Kings with full stomachs must not sleep well, so Xerxes spent the midnight hours reading the royal records. He discovered the account of Mordecai’s report that saved his own life and wondered how he might honor such a man. The king asked Haman for advice on how he might honor one of his favorites. Assuming that he was the king’s favored, Haman dreamed up an elaborate ceremony. Within moments, a mortified Haman was giving his nemesis the king’s robes, leading him through the streets and singing his praises. Haman later enjoyed the queen’s second banquet until Esther exposed his plot to destroy her people. The king left the room in a fury only to return and discover Haman appearing to assault his queen. He ordered that Haman be impaled on the very pole intended for Mordecai.
The king could not repeal his original edict declaring the destruction of the Jews. But he enabled
Mordecai to issue a counter-edict providing for the Jews to take up their own defense. The day planned for destruction became a day of deliverance. Though the lot was cast, God remains the author of the story. Even in exile, God protected His people, and in Esther, we see God’s heart for saving us all.
Esther was willing to risk her life for the good of her people. Are you?
After generations of idolatry, God’s people had been defeated by the empires that controlled the ancient world. The Assyrians had conquered the Northern kingdom, deported the people, and re-populated the land with exiles from other countries. Their practice was to redistribute people from conquered nations throughout their vast empire. The foreigners who were resettled in northern Israel intermarried with the few remaining Jews and became the half-breed Samaritans.
The Babylonians were next on the world scene. After each of their three conquests of the Southern Kingdom, the Babylonians deported Jewish captives to enclaves in Babylon and sought to assimilate them into their culture. Now, 70 years of captivity had elapsed. Kings and kingdoms rise and fall; world empires come and go.
The next world power, Persia, was more benevolent. They preferred the benefits of high taxation and the favor of the various gods. So King Cyrus issued a decree to return all aliens to their homelands while allowing them some degree of self-rule. And thus the people of Israel began their journey home.
Under the guidance of the Hebrew leader, Zerubbabel, nearly 50,000 Jews returned to Jerusalem. They were intent on rebuilding, and the temple was the first priority. They rebuilt the altar and prepared sacrifices in accordance with the Law of Moses. Fifty years had passed since the temple had been torn down by the Babylonians, and at last God’s people were again able to worship as God had instructed. The foundation of this humble temple could not compare to the magnificence of its predecessor, but the process had begun, and God was leading the way.
The locals didn’t necessarily roll out the welcome wagon for the returning Judeans. They made a backhanded offer of help as an attempt to sabotage the temple rebuilding project. Zerubbabel didn’t fall for their scheme, but the Jews were intimidated and construction halted.
Sixteen years later the prophet, Haggai, spoke on God’s behalf. He twice urged his people, “Give careful thought to your ways.” He reminded them that the temple had to be built as a place of honor and glory for God. The LORD encouraged His people and they returned to their work. Though the new temple would not have the splendor of the old one, God promised that His unsurpassed glory would return. Zechariah agreed; Jerusalem would again bustle with life and prosperity because the people would live righteously. God promised to shower Jerusalem and Judah with His goodness and make Israel a blessing to the world.
When the building resumed, a new antagonist, Tattenai, wrote to King Darius hoping to obstruct progress. Darius searched the royal archives and discovered that his predecessor, King Cyrus, had given his royal thumbs up to the rebuilding of God’s temple. In a fitting twist of events, Darius penned a letter back to Tattenai charging him with responsibility for funding the temple reconstruction. The plot backfired, and in 516 B.C., the temple was completed.
It had been 70 years since the people were first taken captive. This long and painful season of discipline brought much needed change to the hearts of God’s people. In the Lower Story, God brought them out of captivity again. He returned them to the Land of Promise where they rebuilt His temple and their lives.
But the Upper Story once again rings with echoes of delivery from bondage. The LORD had redeemed His people from foreign captivity as God’s great, over-arching plan continued unabated. This story of liberation and restoration is a poignant reminder that this world is not our home. Like Israel, we wait in joyful anticipation of our journey to a land of eternal promise (Heb. 11:16) where all things are new and home will be forever.
Do you need to realign your priorities in your life like the Judeans did with building God's temple?
Judah’s best and brightest were deported to Babylon when Jerusalem was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar’s armies. Daniel and his trio of friends were among their ranks. King Nebuchadnezzar introduced them to their new homeland by enrolling the four young men in his exclusive three-year “How to Live Like a Babylonian” Training Academy. Students were lavished with food and wine from the king’s table and invited to enjoy the cosmopolitan pleasures of the world’s most sophisticated city. Daniel and his companions graciously resisted. They asked for vegetarian meals so they could stay faithful to Jewish dietary laws. The king’s official worried that their meager diet might leave them pallid and weakened, but God blessed their choice with academic success and physical stamina. They flourished and the ruler of the world’s greatest empire took notice.
The king awoke one morning having been greatly troubled by a dream. He demanded an explanation of its meaning from his wise men and also expected them to tell the dream itself as a guarantee of accuracy. Failure was no big deal except for the accompanying death sentence. The request was impossible, of course, except that God revealed both the events of the dream and their meaning to his servant, Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of a four-layered statue. Its head of gold represented Babylon’s might. The remaining layers of silver, bronze, and iron symbolized world empires that had not yet risen to power. Daniel’s interpretation satisfied the king and saved his life and the lives of all the magicians and wise men in the kingdom. King Nebuchadnezzar promoted Daniel to ruler over Babylon, made high-level officials of his three friends, and worshipped Daniel’s God.
This devotion, however, was only temporary, as the king’s advisors played to his pride. He built a gold statue in his own honor and all were commanded to bow down and worship at its feet. Daniel’s three friends, Meshach, Shadrach, and Abednego, were faced with a grim choice: idolatry or death. They refused to bow. The king was enraged and ordered them to be thrown into a fiery furnace. They defied the king’s last chance order and chose to remain faithful even in the face of death. The fire was stoked and the young men were bound and thrown into the inferno. An astonished king watched a fourth man join them as they walked unbound and unharmed through the fire. And once again the king praised their God.
Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by Belshazzar. King Belshazzar threw a grand party using the holy goblets they had stolen in the raid of Jerusalem’s temple. The LORD sent him a mysteriously written message that appeared on the wall of the banquet hall. The king was terrified…for good reason. Daniel explained that the message said the king would soon meet his Maker. That same night the Persian army invaded Babylon. Belshazzar was killed and Persia became the silver layer in the statue King Nebuchadnezzar had dreamed of years before.
The new king, Darius of Persia, gave Daniel a promotion. Daniel’s rivals were jealous and plotted his death. They deceived Darius into signing an irrevocable decree forbidding prayer to anyone except the king. The penalty was a single night stay in a cave of hungry lions. Daniel responded by doing as he had always done; he knelt and prayed. Of course, the king’s officials felt “duty bound” to bring such dangerous activity to the king’s attention and Darius was forced to throw his trusted servant to the lions. So, the king spent a restless night and rose in the morning to find that Daniel was safe and sound in the lions’ den. And the great King of Persia worshipped Daniel’s God.
While Daniel, his friends, and the other exiles were kept in Babylon during the seventy years of captivity. The prophet Jeremiah carried out his duties in the ravaged city of Jerusalem. Jeremiah sent a letter of hope to the captives reminding them that God would one day bring them back to Jerusalem and encouraging them to prosper even as exiles in a foreign land. Daniel had done just that. He watched the rise and fall of kings and kingdoms and remained faithful. In the great Upper Story of God, Babylon had been a detour rather than a destination.
What are you prepared to take a stand against in today's world to grow God's kingdom, just as Daniel did?
Legacies are fragile things. Hezekiah had been King of Judah for nearly three decades. His reforms were sweeping and his achievements were notable. He is listed among the few who “did what was right before the LORD His God.” After his death, his son Manasseh ascended to the throne and unraveled his father’s spiritual heritage. Manasseh’s reign marked a spiritual relapse from which the kingdom of Judah would not recover. He made a mockery of Hezekiah’s faithful reign and did more evil than any of his predecessors.
King Manasseh set up altars in the LORD’s temple where worshipping the stars accompanied worship of Jehovah, filled Jerusalem with the blood of innocents, and turned his own heart and his people’s away from God. Manasseh was eventually captured by the Assyrian king and led off to Babylon in humiliation. At last, he turned to the LORD who had compassion on him and eventually allowed him to return to Jerusalem. God re-enters the story to give ultimate forgiveness even to the worst of kings.
But God’s people would not return to Him. They ignored the prophet’s warnings. So God did what He said He would do—He sent foreign armies to raid Judah. Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar laid three sieges against Judah and Jerusalem. The first against King Jehoiakim and the second against King Jehoiachin. Nearly 10,000 Judeans were captured and taken to Babylon. The king and the prophet Ezekiel were among their prisoners.
Ezekiel’s visions are some of the most colorful in all ancient literature and foretold of Jerusalem’s certain doom. God commissioned Ezekiel to speak truth to the exiles who disregarded their guilt, even when faced with such stern judgment. He refused to give up. He called Jeremiah to alert the adulterous people to own up to their reckless sin. And God also sent word that the worst was yet to come.
Zedekiah was Judah’s last and most pitiful king. His government was controlled by Babylon and he and the people rejected God, broke His Law, and defiled His temple. The time for judgment had come, so God arranged the final battle: King Nebuchadnezzar vs. King Zedekiah. The outcome was certain. An 18-month blockade left Jerusalem’s inhabitants weakened by famine. Zedekiah made a last ditch plea for help from the prophet Jeremiah, but no one much cared for Jeremiah’s response. He reported that Jerusalem would not be saved and he urged surrender as their only hope of survival. Most regarded his claims as treasonous.
In 586 BC, the Babylonian army broke through the walls of Jerusalem, demolished the city, looted the temple, and led the people away to Babylon. Jeremiah was among the few who were left behind. He grieved the loss of his beloved city and the sin of God’s people. He knew that Judah could have been saved, but even in his sorrow, he stood firm on the sure promises of God. He trusted that God would have compassion on the remnant who remained in Jerusalem.
It had been eight centuries since God delivered His people from slavery in Egypt. Now they were exiles in Babylon. Hope vanished. But God told Ezekiel that all was not lost. He reminded His people that He would one-day cleanse and restore them. He assured their return to the homeland. And He promised that He would be their God.
To illustrate His point, God showed Ezekiel a valley of dry bones and asked, “Can these bones live?” When Ezekiel spoke God’s message to the bones, they came to life and stood like a vast army. This astonishing demonstration confirmed that even exile in Babylon would not hinder God’s great Upper Story and foretold a future resurrection for the faithful. Life would return to Israel’s dried up bones. God would make them a nation again. He would bring them back to their land, as only He could.
What are some ways we can put our hope in God, seek Him, and wait quietly for Him and His timing?
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For 209 years, the northern kingdom of Israel had endured one evil king after another. Their failure to keep God’s covenant meant they would be expelled from the covenant. They had been chosen to be a blessing to all other nations, but now they would be delivered over to those very nations.
Shalmaneser, King of Assyria, set up a puppet government for the northern tribes of Israel and
appointed Hoshea as king. Hoshea was as defiant of Shalmaneser as he was of God, the true King of Israel. He stopped paying tribute and as a result, the Assyrian army destroyed the capital city of Samaria and captured Hoshea. The king, along with many of his fellow Israelites, was deported by Shalmeneser’s successor, Sargon II. By resettling them throughout Assyria, God was settling His own accounts. Idolatry, disobedience, and stubbornness provoked God’s anger and led Him to expel the northern kingdom from His land.
Meanwhile, just to the south in the kingdom of Judah, godly King Hezekiah was nervously watching these world-shaking events on his northern border. Hezekiah stands out from all of the other kings of Judah for his efforts to remove every vestige of idolatry in the land. He rebelled against the new Assyrian King Sennacherib. The Assyrians sent envoys, claiming that they wanted to negotiate a peaceful surrender with Hezekiah in Jerusalem. Their reasoning was faultless: What other nation had been able to stand against the Assyrian might? Had not God Himself commissioned them for this task? Sennacherib’s commander appealed directly to the populace of Jerusalem, speaking to them in Hebrew.
King Hezekiah trusted in the LORD and prayed for deliverance. The prophet Isaiah promised that God would deliver them. What faith it must have taken to trust the prophet’s prediction! The angel of the LORD swept through the Assyrians army as they slept. The next morning Sennacherib’s camp was littered with 185,000 dead Assyrian soldiers. The army retreated and Judah was saved.
Isaiah had been called to be a prophet during the last year of King Uzziah’s life. In a majestic vision of the LORD, he was commissioned to speak for God to turn the people of Judah away from sin and toward their God. He warned that Judah was walking in her sister Israel’s footsteps and therefore would reap similar judgment. Unfortunately, he seldom found a listening audience.
The threat of foreign exile failed to curb the widespread social injustice, moral decay, and religious abandonment. Judah’s pride would be her downfall; God loved His people too much to allow their sin to go unchecked. And although He warned of judgment, He also promised a future restoration. When Israel perceived herself as forsaken and forgotten, her compassionate God would fully restore her. The whole world would know that the LORD is their Savior and Redeemer.
What a comfort Isaiah’s prophecies must have been to the faithful remnant of Judah: God’s Upper Story of redemption would triumph over the sin of His people. Even the godliest of kings could not overcome the sin nature of mankind. In his most memorable passage, Isaiah described a Suffering Servant, who was “pierced for our transgressions.” Looking down from the Upper Story, we can see that this was a description of the true King, who would suffer for all mankind.
What do you need to spread out before God just like King Hezekiah did with Sennacherib's letter?
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Just when you thought it couldn’t get any worse, it does. Israel sank deeper and deeper into the cesspool of idolatry under the royal wickedness of Ahab and Jezebel. They led the people further into idolatry and disregarded the God who had made them a nation. The people of promise had broken their promises. But YHWH is a jealous God who would not sit idly on His heavenly throne and allow worthless non-gods and their followers to go unchecked. So He called prophets who would speak on His behalf and demonstrate that there is no God but Himself. Sounding the alarm, these prophets warned faithless Israel that her unbelief would march her right into captivity.
Elijah warned Ahab that Israel would experience a 3-year drought because of their worship of the pagan god, Baal. The shriveled up land seemed a fitting picture of Israel’s desiccated hearts and shrunken worship. Ahab had gone so far as to build a temple for Baal in the capital city of Samaria. Then, atop Mount Carmel, the supposed sacred dwelling place of Baal, Elijah challenged the idolaters to the ultimate smackdown—YHWH vs. Baal. Baal failed to show up but the LORD made a dramatic statement when He consumed the water-logged sacrifice with fire. Elijah then put to death the 450 prophets of Baal. Ahab’s wife Jezebel, the Queen of Mean, threatened to kill him so Elijah fled into the desert. Fatalistic, fearful and not without some Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Mount Horeb. God revealed Himself there to Elijah, much like He had done nearly 600 years earlier to Moses at Sinai. He told Elijah that he had kings and prophets to anoint – one of whom was his successor, Elisha. Once again, as with Moses and Joshua, God was passing the baton to the next generation of leaders who would speak for Him.
While the two prophets were traveling together, Elijah parted the Jordan by striking the water with his cloak – another throwback to Moses. As they continued on, a whirlwind took Elijah up to heaven in a chariot of fire. The cloak fell to Elisha whose authority was confirmed when he too divided the Jordan. Similar to Elijah before him, Elisha performed many miraculous feats for the benefit of the faithful remnant in Israel. He promised a barren Shunammite woman a son. When the boy suddenly died years later, Elisha brought him back to life. When the Aramean king sent his troops to capture the man of God, Elisha prayed. He asked God to open his servant’s eyes so he could see the angels who were standing guard around them and to blind the Arameans. The prophet then led his captives to Samaria where he asked the king of Israel to prepare a feast of friendship in lieu of execution. This unconventional act of grace established peace between Israel and Aram.
Even with the powerful ministries of Elijah and Elisha, the deeply embedded idolaters remained
powerful, numerous, and unrepentant in Israel. God sent Amos, a herdsman from the southern kingdom of Judah, to warn the northern kingdom of Israel that her prosperity, injustice, and sinful ways would soon be judged. He promised them that if Israel did not repent, they would be taken captive. God also sent Hosea to Israel as a living object lesson of His faithfulness and Israel’s unfaithfulness. Israel refused to hear the pleas of God to return to Him.
God’s holiness demands judgment against rebellious men, but His redemptive love always provides a way of escape. Whether it’s a mountaintop showdown, a boy raised from the dead, a vision of guardian angels, or a prophet commanded to marry a woman who would become unfaithful, God is always telling His Upper Story of redemption and compassion through His messengers.
What are some different ways the Lord shows us his love and grace each day when we don't deserve it?
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Solomon, whose name means peace, found peace slipping away during the final years of his reign. His son Rehoboam was to take his place as ruler over the 12 tribes of Israel. A large party of disgruntled leaders led by Jeroboam showed up at Rehoboam’s coronation ceremony requesting that he grant relief from the heavy burden of taxation and forced labor that Solomon had placed on them. Rehoboam rejected the counsel of the experienced elders and took the advice of his immature peers who theorized that bullying and intimidation were better leadership tactics than servanthood. Rehoboam promised even heavier taxation and more forced labor. With one decision, the nation divided and its fate was sealed.
Only Rehoboam’s tribe of Judah remained loyal to him. The other 10 tribes to the north seceded, took the name of Israel and made Jeroboam their king. Instead of appreciating the gracious gift of God, Jeroboam, like Aaron centuries before, set up idols of counterfeit worship, leading Israel into idolatry. God sent a prophet who warned of judgment for their idolatry and predicted that someday a king named Josiah, a descendant of David, would destroy their pagan worship sites (this was fulfilled 290 years later). As a sign to authenticate his message, the pagan altar split in two and Jeroboam’s outstretched hand turned leprous.
This did little to curb Jeroboam’s pagan practices. When his son became ill, he sent his wife in disguise to the prophet Ahijah to inquire about their son’s fate. Though blind, Ahijah’s spiritual sight was 20-20. He not only saw through the charade, but gave Jeroboam’s wife a message of doom predicting that her husband’s dynasty would soon end and Israel would one day be carried away into captivity. The message of doom was to be authenticated with the death of their son as soon as her footsteps crossed the entrance to the palace. And so it came to pass.
God’s chosen people were now committing the same idolatrous and immoral practices that compelled God to purge the land of its Canaanite inhabitants in the first place. God’s righteousness and covenant loyalty moved Him to jealous anger. Rehoboam allowed Judah to fall into the same idolatry as the North. The golden years of peace faded further when God judged Judah by using Shishak, king of Egypt. He attacked Judah and carried off the all of the gold and silver treasures. Rehoboam replaced them with bronze, but the decline in moral and spiritual values was even sharper than the drop in value from gold to bronze.
The Lower Story is primarily a list of idolatrous kings who lead both Judah and Israel further and further away from God. Abijah son of Rehoboam became the next king of Judah. His tenure was short and sinful like his father’s. No good kings reigned in Israel after the split of the kingdom. Things went from bad to worse with the house of Omri. His evil son King Ahab and her royal wickedness Queen Jezebel drove Israel to new lows in idolatry.
But in the Upper Story, we see two things: First, those who reject the LORD will reap His grim judgment. But second, this judgment is always designed to redirect His people and produce repentance back toward the God who still relentlessly pursues His people, through prophets like Ahijah and kings like Asa who forged a path for people to find their way back to Him. The era of the kings, despite their terrible freedom, inaugurates a path to the King of Kings, who would redeem not just this era of division and strife, but every age from everlasting to everlasting.
What is the standard used in this chapter for a good king? What kind of standards are YOU setting for the generations that will follow YOU?
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