The culture of the ancient Jews revolved around ideas that we struggle to identify with in some modern cultures today. For example, the whole concept of God residing in a physical place sounds bizarre to us. Yet to the ancient Jews, the idea of Yahweh dwelling in their midst was one of their core beliefs in life—it was an essential fact of their existence which greatly affected how they viewed this life and the next one. When Jews see visions of Heaven in the Bible, God shows them one with a Temple, because He knew it was simply inconceivable for them to picture going to be with God and God not having a physical house. Today, this is very strange to us Christians. We didn’t grow up fantasizing about what went on inside those sacred rooms which only consecrated priests could enter. In an atheistic culture like America, we don’t think of gods as having physical addresses or being bound to certain patches of land or groups of people. Yet in the world of the Old Testament, this is how people thought. And from the very beginning of His relationship with them, Yahweh made a huge deal out of the fact that His Presence was abiding with His people. From the pillar of clouds that drifted ahead of them in the wilderness, to the holy Ark that no one could look at, to the sacred Tabernacle and later the ornate Temple, God drilled it into His people that His Presence was with them in a very physical way. We have to try and get into the mind of an ancient Jew to fully appreciate how traumatic it would be to have Yahweh ditch His own people. To just leave them behind—abandoned to the power of ruthless pagan armies and scary pagan gods. Surely Yahweh would never just up and walk away, would He?
And yet one time, He did. In 1 Samuel 4-7, we read the shocking account of how the Philistines attacked Israel and walked off with the Ark of the Covenant as part of their spoils. We read this account today and don’t think much of it, yet this was one of the most traumatic moments in Israel’s history—an event that is referred back to over and over again throughout the rest of the Old Testament. Even though it was the Jews who intentionally brought the Ark out of its designated place in the sacred Tabernacle at Shiloh, and even though it was their idea to take it onto the battlefield like a magic charm in hopes that it would bring them sudden victory, when the Ark was captured, the Jews didn’t look back and say, “Wow, that was a dumb move on our part.” Instead, they interpreted the whole thing as Yahweh leaving them. Listen to how the psalmist reflects back on this event:
Yahweh abandoned the Tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent He had set up among humans.
He sent the Ark of His might into captivity, His splendor into the hands of the enemy.
He gave his people over to the sword; He was furious with His inheritance.
Fire consumed their young men, and their young women had no wedding songs;
their priests were put to the sword, and their widows could not weep. (Ps. 78:60-64)
Why on earth did Yahweh allow a bunch of idolaters to walk off with the gold box which represented His Presence to the Jews? If we back up a few verses, the psalmist tells us why:
But the Israelites put God to the test and rebelled against the Most High; they did not keep His laws.
Like their ancestors they were disloyal and faithless, as unreliable as a faulty bow.
They angered Him with their high places; they aroused His jealousy with their idols.
When God heard them, He was furious; He rejected Israel completely.
He abandoned the Tabernacle of Shiloh, the tent He had set up among humans.
He sent the Ark of His might into captivity, His splendor into the hands of the enemy. (Ps. 78:56-61)
Whenever you hear a reference to “high places” in the Old Testament, it usually means people worshiping idols. They would set up shrines and altars and other worshiping equipment on some hill that someone decided was “sacred”, and then they’d do all kinds of detestable rituals right there in God’s sight. The Israelites were rampant idol worshippers. They had more high places than anyone could count. Yahweh did not allow His people to worship Him like this. All sacrifices had to be brought to a central place—wherever the Tabernacle or Temple was set up. There was none of this “do it yourself” business. Levites had to be involved as well—consecrated priests . God wouldn’t just take some sloppy offering that someone threw together on a pile of rocks. He was very particular about how His sacrifices were to be handled, and what kinds of sacrifices He would accept. He would not accept children—burning children alive at the altar of some grotesque statue was a popular pagan practice but one that Yahweh found utterly detestable. Yet for some unfathomable reason, the Jews decided that it was preferable to worship demonic idols who required infanticide, self-mutilation, and a host of other nasty rituals over the kind and generous Yahweh who only wanted things like animals, grains, and incense. The fact that Yahweh so strongly condemned child sacrifice, temple prostitution, and self-mutilation actually set Him apart as a refreshing change from many of the satanic gods that Israel’s neighbors worshiped. Yet the Jews still chose the monster gods over Yahweh. Yahweh commanded His people to do rituals—only a lot of His rituals were fun. He put several required holidays on their annual calendar to make sure everyone took some time off to eat, drink and be merry together. But no, the Jews preferred bestiality and cutting themselves instead. When we understand just how grotesque many of the pagan religious practices were, we can begin to appreciate why Yahweh was so offended by His people’s rejection of Him. It wasn’t just that they were shoving Him away—it was what they were choosing to embrace instead.
It’s easy to say words like “mercy” and “longsuffering patience.” But when we stop to realize just how horribly the Jews were treating God, we can’t even get our minds around the fact that He gave them centuries of time in which to repent and return to Him. Centuries, not a few days or months or even years. Decades upon decades; generations upon generations. All throughout the Old Testament, He dispatched prophet after prophet to go and call His people back. The prophets would all say the same thing over and over again: “Repent. Yahweh loves you. There’s still time.” And the people would always respond the same way, “Shut up. We don’t care. We’re sick of hearing Yahweh’s Name.” This is what their attitude would be over and over again. As Yahweh said to His prophet Isaiah:
For these are rebellious people, deceitful children, children unwilling to listen to Yahweh’s instruction.
They say to the seers, “See no more visions!” and to the prophets, “Give us no more visions of what is right!
Tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions. Leave this way, get off this path, and stop confronting us with the Holy One of Israel!” (Isa. 30:8-11)
After going countless rounds with His people, and disciplining them every way that there was, Yahweh finally decided there was nothing left to do but annihilate them. The chosen nation would have to be completely destroyed, her population mowed down and scattered all over the world. So that is what He did. But before He did it, He gave His usual billion warnings.
Now when you’re called to be a prophet, you get used to God using your mouth to make threats that you never see Him go follow through with. For many generations, God kept warning His people that “One day My patience will come to an end and I will completely destroy this nation.” But what happens when we hear the same threat over and over again without seeing any action? We start thinking “yeah, right.” We start mocking the ones making the threats. All the prophets got mocked. Instead of appreciating the fact that God was still graciously giving them more opportunities to repent, the Jews would get mad and beat the prophets up—even kill them.
Now wait a minute—where is all this anger coming from? After all, the Jews didn’t care about Yahweh. They had dozens of other gods that they were consumed with worshiping instead. They treated Yahweh like some shelf god who they had shoved to the far back and even knocked out of sight. They turned His Temple into a temple for worshiping many other gods. They moved in statues, altars, and whole staffs of people who sat around making idol worship paraphernalia. Yet still, the fact of Yahweh’s existence gnawed at them. There was something about Him that made it so the Jews just couldn’t succeed in totally shoving Him out of their culture and minds. Well, fine. If they can’t get rid of Him, they could put words in His mouth and pretend that He was giving prophecies they wanted to hear. This is what they did. Scores of false prophets ran around Israel saying “thus says Yahweh” and “I’ve received a new vision from Yahweh.” Sound familiar? We have the same idiots running around in the Church today, declaring a bunch of carnal rot “in the Name of Jesus.” Why not? Once a few upstarts try it and no lightning falls from the sky, everyone soon accepts the idea that mocking God and bantering His Name about is no big deal. False prophets are ragingly popular in the Church today—and that’s because the rest of God’s people are cheering these liars on and applauding their blatant irreverence. This is how it’s always been—God’s “faithful” people acting anything but faithful as they drag His Name through the mud.
Oh, but let’s not have God get mad about it. After all, we’re His chosen people and God can’t get mad at His chosen people, right?
Well, in Jeremiah 26, we find Jeremiah delivering a message in the courtyard of the Temple. It’s just like countless other messages he’s been delivering up to this point: “God is really getting mad. Repent while you still can.” Yet on this particular day, Jeremiah’s message hits a nerve. Perhaps it’s because the people can sense God’s Authority when he speaks. Perhaps it’s because this time, God reminds them all about Shiloh. He left them before, and He’s about to leave them again.
“This is what Yahweh says: If you do not listen to Me by living according to My instruction that I set before you and by listening to the words of My servants the prophets I have been sending you time and time again, though you did not listen; If you don’t obey Me, I will destroy My Temple in Jerusalem as I destroyed My Holy Tent at Shiloh. I will make Jerusalem an object of cursing for all the nations of the earth.” (Jer. 26:4-6)
Suddenly the crowd gets explosively angry. They grab a hold of Jeremiah and shout:
“You must surely die! How dare you prophesy in the Name of Yahweh, ‘This temple will become like Shiloh and this city will become an uninhabited ruin’!” (Jer. 26:8-9)
God’s chosen people have a way of becoming suddenly sensitive whenever the topic of God’s wrath or God’s rejection comes up. Christians today go around with their rebellious chins in the air, assuring one another that God wouldn’t ever dare to turn His angry side towards them on earth—His REALLY angry side, that is. An occasional trial is one thing—Christians can blow off most of their problems using the atheistic excuses of bad luck and “that’s just a part of life.” But the idea of God intentionally removing His favor from His people and tearing them apart in rage—well, that’s just not allowed under the New Covenant. Of course, the Bible doesn’t say that’s not allowed. There’s nothing at all in the New Testament which says that God would never get nasty with His own. In fact, we have accounts of Him striking Christians dead, and making them ill as a way of punishing their irreverence. And then there’s Jesus who talks in Revelation about vomiting Christians out of His mouth because they’re so spiritually insipid. Yet while we attend our shrines to carnality every Sunday and soak in the flesh driven concerts that are put on in the name of “spreading the Good News” (or at least, spreading some good adrenaline), we tell ourselves that God couldn’t possibly have a valid complaint with His people. After all, we’re not THAT bad.
Funny, isn’t it? That’s what the ancient Jews thought, too.
Then the priests and prophets said to the officials and all the people, “This man deserves the death sentence because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.” (Jer. 26:11)
These people are making a reasonable judgment, right? After all, it’s an unpardonable sin to make someone feel convicted in their spirit. Ever have someone do that to you? A close friend or family member? Or worst of all—someone you didn’t even like or someone you were jealous of? They get in your face and nail your rebellious attitude head on, and what’s your response? You get mad of course. Out comes the huffy pride trip and a bunch of whining that they didn’t “speak the truth to you in love.” Because tone is more important than truth, right? And real friends aren’t supposed to try to save your soul, they’re just supposed to pet your ego. How do you respond to God’s conviction when it comes through the mouths of other people? Are you a brat about it or do you listen? Do you run off to your carnal buddies and retell the whole thing like it was Satan attacking Jesus? Do you then tell yourself that you’re justified in adding hate and grudge holding to your list of unrepented sins? If so, then you would have fit in quite nicely with this murderous mob that had Jeremiah surrounded in the Temple.
Then Jeremiah said to all the officials and the people, “Yahweh sent me to prophesy all the words that you have heard against this Temple and city. So now, correct your ways and deeds and obey the Voice of Yahweh your God so that He might relent concerning the disaster that He warned about. As for me, here I am in your hands; do to me what you think is good and right. But know for certain that if you put me to death, you will bring innocent blood on yourselves, on this city, and on its residents, for it is certain Yahweh has sent me to speak all these things directly to you.” (Jer. 26:12-15)
It’s pretty obvious when God sends someone to convict you of your sin. The first clue is: they’re right. You ARE harboring a rotten heart attitude towards God and being a defiant little brat. If you were cooperating with Him at all, He wouldn’t have had to bother with dragging a third party into it. We only have ourselves to blame when God embarrasses us with public conviction. If we would listen to Him in the first place, He would gladly keep the whole matter private.
The people think about Jeremiah’s comeback. He’s made it clear he’s not going to resist if they try to kill him—how can he? They’ve got him completely outnumbered. But that comment about innocent blood is rather upsetting. After all, God did say somewhere in His Law that He would avenge innocent blood.
“Stay far away from a false accusation. Do not kill the innocent and the just, because I will not justify the guilty.” (Exodus 23:7)
Do they really want to risk having Yahweh come after them for the death of His prophet? Now that they think about it, Jeremiah’s message might be right. After all, the prophet Micah said something similar back in his day.
Some of the elders of the land stood up and said to all the assembled people, “Micah the Moreshite prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah and said to all the people of Judah,
‘This is what Yahweh of hosts says: Zion will be plowed like a field, Jerusalem will become ruins, and the Temple mount a forested hill.’ Did King Hezekiah and all the people of Judah put Micah to death? Didn’t the king fear Yahweh and plead for Yahweh’s favor, and then didn’t Yahweh relent concerning the disaster He had pronounced against them? We are about to bring great harm on ourselves!” (Jer. 26:17-19)
The more they think about it, the more the people decide that it might not be the smartest move to kill Jeremiah. Yahweh might take personal offense and come after them—the same Yahweh who is threatening to abandon them once again if they don’t start obeying Him. Well, obeying turns out to be too much of a hassle for our murderous mob, but they let Jeremiah go…for now. After all, there’s only one of him and plenty of them. They can beat him up and throw him into prison later on if need be. That would get him out of their faces, and that’s all they really care about.
What about you? What would you have done? What are you doing now in the privacy of your own heart? Are you listening to God or stonewalling Him? Are you only keeping Him around like a last resort that you can turn to when all your other better options fail? We Christians like to talk about God’s patience, but never about that patience running out. The Bible clearly teaches that it does. History teaches that it does. We don’t need a Bible to tell us that God has been the One behind every major disaster and epic slaughter of humanity that’s ever happened in this world. Oh sure, there’s the usual surface excuses: politics, religion, greed. But the Bible teaches us that these human factors are what God uses to hook us into doing His will. When He wants an army to invade someone, He knows how to make its leaders lust for more territory. When He wants to punish a certain people group, He knows how to rile up petty prejudices and jealousies. God uses people to punish people and He uses people to convict people—we’re all helping to carry out His will down here whether we want to be or not. God kept Pharaoh’s heart hard until He was done pummeling Egypt. He gave King Nebuchadnezzar glorious military victories until He was done pummeling Israel. Then He turned around and spanked the men who so arrogantly thought they could get away with evil in God’s universe.
Let’s be clear: there’s a big difference between carrying out God’s will intentionally and doing it accidentally. Jeremiah was intentional. He was acting on specific orders from God. A fellow like Hitler was accidental. He was all about promoting himself, and God used his ego to spank the whole world. All wars have God behind them, as do all evil rulers who ascend to positions of power. This is what the Bible teaches us: nothing in this world happens by accident or just because humans want it to. God is working all of our carnal plans out in a way that ultimately suits HIS agenda for this Creation. That agenda boils down to one thing: the creatures properly revering their Creator. If we just can’t be bothered, God has endless options for how to get back at us.
We are absolute fools if we think we can go through this life treating God like some trivial object that we just can’t be bothered with, and then escape ever having to pay any consequences for our actions. Yes, Jesus died for us—and that’s why we’ll never have to pay the FULL consequences and end up roasting in Hell. But being eternally separated from God is not the only negative consequence possible for Christians. Before we throw away opportunities in eternity that we don’t even know about yet, we need to realize that starting us off on this planet is a very intentional act on God’s part. While we’re here, He is sifting us: seeing who will choose to be truly devoted to Him, and who is content with just playing religious games. The way we respond to the Holy Spirit matters far more than we think. No, God isn’t going to tell us everything that’s at stake up front. He prefers to keep the next life shrouded in mystery and only drop a few strong hints that our decisions today will have serious ramifications in eternity. Will we take His warning seriously? Or will we follow the pattern of the ancient Jews and decide to blow Him off until it’s too late?
Revere Yahweh or Die: Lessons Learned when the Philistines Stole the Ark
Confronting Your Convictions (What to do when you can’t find the courage to obey.)