Bel and Nebo, the gods of Babylon, bow as they are lowered to the ground. They are being hauled away on ox carts. The poor beasts stagger under the weight. Both the idols and their owners are bowed down. The gods cannot protect the people, and the people cannot protect the gods. They go off into captivity together. [Isaiah 46:1-2 (NLT)]

The Israelites were surrounded by various pagan peoples who worshipped foreign deities. Baal ruled over Canaan and Phoenicia, Chemosh over Moab, and Marduk/Bel and Nebo over Babylonia. The Philistines’ had Dagon and the Ammonites worshipped Molech. These gods usually had a domain over which they ruled. For example, Baal’s domain was rain, storms, and the harvest. Moab’s Chemosh presided over war and mountains. As patron deity of Babylon, Marduk/Bel was supposed to protect the city and rule over storms while Nebo’s purview was wisdom and science. The Philistines’ chief god Dagon presided over death, the afterlife, war, and agriculture while Ammon’s Molech reigned over the underworld, which may explain his association with child sacrifice in the Old Testament.

In spite of their reputed special powers, those pagan gods were nothing more than powerless idols who had to be carried around on ox carts and would be taken captive along with their worshippers! Marduk/Bel couldn’t protect Babylon from Cyrus or Alexander the Great and Baal, the god of rain and storms, couldn’t even make it rain after Elijah called for a drought or muster up a bolt of lightning to ignite a fire! In contrast, upon Elijah’s prayer, the God of Israel immediately flashed down flames and turned water-soaked wood into an inferno.

Perhaps, the ultimate test of any god is prophecy because only a true God can know all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. In Isaiah 41, the Lord called out those false gods because they couldn’t prophesy when He, the God of Israel, could! It wasn’t just His prophet Isaiah who accurately forecast the future; many others did as well. For example, Jeremiah accurately foretold Jerusalem’s destruction, King Jehoiakim’s death and the end of his line, Babylon’s fall, the length of captivity, and the exiles’ return to Judah. When interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel accurately foretold the different empires in historical progression—from Babylonian to Medo-Persian to Grecian and then to Roman. In 536 BC, more than 213 years before it happened, he predicted the division of Alexander the Great’s kingdom into four weaker nations. In fact, the book of Daniel predicted political history for the next 370 years!

Since true prophecy is the living word of God, I suppose the historic accuracy of those fulfilled prophecies shouldn’t surprise us. Their accuracy tells us that God exists, that there are no other gods, and that, just as He controlled the past, He is in full control of the future. There are, however, several prophecies yet to come. For example, Daniel’s predictive prophecies didn’t stop at 166 BC with the Maccabees and Antiochus IV. He continued on with end-time predictions of the antichrist, the tribulation, and humanity’s resurrection. The accuracy of past predictive prophecy tells us that those prophecies not yet fulfilled will come to pass. Will you be ready when they do?

I’ve read the last page of the Bible. It’s all going to turn out all right. [Billy Graham]

“Present the case for your idols,” says the Lord. “Let them show what they can do,” says the King of Israel. “Let them try to tell us what happened long ago so that we may consider the evidence. Or let them tell us what the future holds, so we can know what’s going to happen. Yes, tell us what will occur in the days ahead. Then we will know you are gods. In fact, do anything—good or bad! Do something that will amaze and frighten us. But no! You are less than nothing and can do nothing at all. [Isaiah 41:21-24a (NLT)]

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Only I can tell you the future before it even happens. Everything I plan will come to pass, for I do whatever I wish. [Isaiah 46:10 (NLT)]

Sunset Wednesday begins the 14th day of Adar in the year 5782 of the Hebrew calendar. Instead of anticipating St. Patrick’s Day and corned beef and cabbage, our Jewish brothers and sisters will begin celebrating Purim. One of the most joyful days of the Jewish calendar, its reason for being is found in the Book of Esther—an account filled with suspense, conspiracy, reversals, twists of fate, and an abundance of what some might call coincidence.

Although the Book of Esther is the only one in the entire Bible in which God’s name is never mentioned, His fingerprints are all over the story. Was it just luck that, out of all the beautiful young virgins in the entire kingdom of Persia, it was the Jewess Esther who pleased King Xerxes so much that she became his queen? Did she just catch a good break when Hegai, the eunuch in charge of the harem, took a special liking to her and helped her, not once, but twice? Was it by chance that Esther’s uncle Mordecai happened to be at the city gate precisely when two guards plotted the king’s assassination? Was it mere coincidence that, when Mordecai foiled the plot, Esther made sure his name got written in the account of the event?

When the king’s chief administrator, Haman, plotted the extermination of the Jews, was it just a stroke of luck that, when casting lots to determine the date of their extermination, the fateful day was nearly a year distant, giving Esther and Mordecai time to respond to the threat? Was it just an accident that Xerxes, unable to sleep one night, had an attendant read him the history of his reign or that the selected passage just happened to be the account of Mordecai saving the king’s life? Realizing Mordecai was never honored for his good deed, the King decided to reward him. Was it just fortuitous that, at that very moment, the evil Haman appeared at the king’s door? Haman came seeking permission to execute Mordecai but was sidetracked when the king asked how to honor a man who pleased him. Thinking Xerxes was speaking of him, Haman forget about Mordecai as he described a lavish and public reward. What a delightful twist of fate when it was Haman who led his nemesis Mordecai about on horseback while proclaiming the Jew’s honor. Coincidence or God’s perfect timing?

When Esther exposed the evil plot, the enraged king went into the garden. Haman remained and pled for his life from Esther. Just as the panicked man fell on her couch, Xerxes re-entered the room. Since it looked like Haman was assaulting Esther, the evil man’s fate was sealed. Did Haman trip because of bad luck or had divine intervention caused him to fall?

The providential reversals continued as Haman ended up impaled on the pole once intended for Mordecai’s execution. Although the edict directing the slaughter of the Jews could not be rescinded, Xerxes signed another one allowing the Jews to defend themselves and kill anyone who attacked them. When the new edict arrived, many of the people of the land became Jews themselves and, when the day of massacre arrived, the Jews defended themselves and 75,000 Persians died. God’s kingdom was expanded without one mention of Him in the entire narrative. Nevertheless, we can’t help but ask if all of those events were mere coincidences or God-ordained events.

The Book of Esther illustrates that seemingly random and insignificant events are actually controlled by our sovereign God. With His wisdom and foresight, God puts people in places at specific moments to accomplish His purpose. What may seem coincidence to us is managed by a supreme God who knows the past, present and future. What seems inconsequential or random eventually may be of major importance to us or someone else. Unexplained events, unplanned meetings, unexpected calls are all part of God’s plan. God was present in Esther’s story and He is present in ours.

Is there something He want us to do “at just such a time as this?”

Don’t think for a moment that because you’re in the palace you will escape when all other Jews are killed. If you keep quiet at a time like this, deliverance and relief for the Jews will arise from some other place, but you and your relatives will die. Who knows if perhaps you were made queen for just such a time as this? [Esther 4:13-14 (NLT)]

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THE MARBLE (Jonah – Part 4)

I am the LORD, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me? [Jeremiah 32:27 (NLT)]

snowy egretWhen talking with my husband about the story of Jonah, he said that the fish story was a “little too hard to swallow”— too incredible to believe. Miracles! The Bible is full of them and, since they are supernatural events, they’re all hard to accept as true. Improbability is the nature of miracles. Along with the fish saving Jonah, the story is filled with other miracles: the immediate calming of the storm once Jonah was thrown in the sea, the deliverance of the prophet from the fish safely onto the beach, Nineveh’s immediate repentance, the appointment of the plant, worm and scorching east wind as teaching tools, and even God’s revelation of Himself directly to Jonah! Yet, if we believe the Bible is God-breathed and without error, we don’t have the privilege of picking and choosing which miracles we will believe and which ones we won’t. We have only one choice to make—all or none!

James Dobson tells a story of a prisoner locked in solitary confinement in a pitch-dark cell. Unknown to his jailers, he had a marble. The isolated man managed to maintain his sanity in the blackness by tossing the marble in the air and then finding it again by listening for the sound when it dropped. One day, after tossing the marble into the air, there was dead silence. Sure that the marble must have dropped somewhere, the prisoner asked, “How can that be?” He felt all along the floor but the marble wasn’t to be found. Every day he searched for the missing marble but, unable to solve the mystery, he lost his mind. After the crazed prisoner died, the guard turned on the lights as he entered the cell to remove the man’s body. High in the corner was a large heavy cobweb and, inside the web, was a brightly-colored marble. Looking up at it, the jailer asked, “How can that be?”

Although there was a clear answer to each man’s question, it was one neither man would ever know or understand. That’s our problem with miracles—there is an explanation but one that we never will comprehend. God can do things we can’t—things that we’ll never understand, not that we won’t try to unlock their mystery. Some people explain the parting of the Red Sea by saying the Jews actually waded through a “reed sea” in 6-inches of water. Their explanation falters, however, when they can’t explain how Pharaoh’s army managed to drown in a puddle. Some say that Moses knew the tides, in which case it is still a miracle that the Jews were there during low tide and the Egyptians were fool enough to cross at high tide. Others say a 63-mph wind was blowing that pushed back the water and exposed a land bridge for the Jews. Again, it’s a miracle that Moses was at the right place at exactly the right time to make a safe crossing and that the wind miraculously stopped at the perfect instant to flood the Egyptians.

The existence of a physical explanation for a miracle isn’t necessary and it is useless to expect one. We can’t dismiss the Bible’s miracles as fabricated tales of wonder or base our faith only on those acts of God that can be replicated. Just because something is beyond the scope of a scientific explanation or our limited understanding doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. God created the world and designed the laws of nature and He can follow or suspend those laws as He so chooses. God is God and we are not.

With more than 150 miracles recorded in the Bible, I’m not going to try explaining the how of Jonah being saved by a fish, three men emerging unscathed from a fiery furnace, manna appearing every morning, a widow’s never-ending supply of flour and oil, a burning bush that doesn’t incinerate, Lazarus rising from the dead, or any other Biblical miracle. Finding a logical explanation for what transcends science and nature can make us as crazy as the man with the disappearing marble.

Miracles are not contrary to nature, but only contrary to what we know about nature. [Saint Augustine]

Come and see what our God has done, what awesome miracles he performs for people! [Psalm 66:5 (NLT)]

Let each generation tell its children of your mighty acts; let them proclaim your power. I will meditate on your majestic, glorious splendor and your wonderful miracles. Your awe-inspiring deeds will be on every tongue; I will proclaim your greatness. [Psalm 145:4-6 (NLT)]

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NINEVEH’S FATE (Jonah – Part 3)

The Lord is a jealous God, filled with vengeance and rage. He takes revenge on all who oppose him and continues to rage against his enemies! The Lord is slow to get angry, but his power is great, and he never lets the guilty go unpunished. [Nahum 1:2-3 (NLT)]

Lucerne - city wall - museggmauerWhen God sent Jonah to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh, it was to warn the people that they would be destroyed for their sins. While we tend to focus on the miracle of Jonah and the sea creature, the real miracle in the Book of Jonah is the city’s response to the prophet’s message—Nineveh immediately repented of its sinful ways. Some forty years later, however, the Assyrians were once again back to their old behavior: rejecting God’s authority and worshipping idols. Around 740 BC, they attacked northern Israel and, in 722, they invaded the remaining kingdom and took Samaria, just as both Hosea and Amos had prophesized they would. The northern kingdom’s population was resettled elsewhere in the Assyrian Empire and Samaria became the center of a new Assyrian province.

Nineveh was located along the eastern bank of the Tigris River at what now is Mosul, Iraq. With a circumference of about 60 miles, it was an “exceedingly great city.” With over 1,500 towers and both an inner and outer wall, Nineveh was considered impregnable. That inner wall was over one hundred feet tall and thirty feet wide—an expanse that meant three chariots could ride side by side on it. Believing themselves invulnerable, the people of Nineveh put their faith in the city’s walls instead of God and fell back into their sinful ways. No matter their size, however, neither towers nor walls can protect us from God’s judgment!

Sometime between 663 and 612 BC, the Judean prophet Nahum pronounced God’s anger against Assyria and its capital city Nineveh. By this time, Assyria was the most powerful nation on earth with a reputation for brutality, torture, and oppression. Nahum warned that the Assyrians were being judged for their idolatry, pride, deceit, rebellion, cruelty, slaughter, and injustice. God had given them a chance, but now His patience was exhausted.  He was not about to allow Nineveh’s evil to continue. “What sorrow awaits Nineveh, the city of murder and lies!” declared Naham. [3:1]

In 612 BC, Nineveh was attacked by the Medes, Babylonians, and Scythians who drove the Assyrians out of the city. The city was completely destroyed—literally flattened to the ground and so thoroughly destroyed that archeologists didn’t even discover and identify its remains until the 1840s. The Assyrian empire came to an end and the Medes and Babylonians divided its provinces between them. Indeed, Naham’s prophetic words that, “You will have no more children to carry your name. … There is no healing for your wound; your injury is fatal,” were true. [1:14,3:19]

In Psalm 86:12, we read, “But you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” Indeed, God is slow to get angry and will always give His people a chance to repent and change as He did in Jonah’s day with the forty days He gave Nineveh. Let us not forget that Scripture also tells us that God will not let evil go unpunished. Nothing can protect us from His judgment. As Jonah learned, there is no place we can hide from the Lord and, as the people of Nineveh eventually learned, God will settle all accounts. Sin will not go unchecked forever and judgment will come. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather learn God’s lessons from the Bible than from personal experience!

The Lord is good, a strong refuge when trouble comes. He is close to those who trust in him. But he will sweep away his enemies in an overwhelming flood. He will pursue his foes into the darkness of night. [Nahum 1:7-8 (NLT)]

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THE ABOUT-FACE (Jonah – Part 2)

Jeroboam II recovered the territories of Israel between Lebo-hamath and the Dead Sea, just as the Lord, the God of Israel, had promised through Jonah son of Amittai, the prophet from Gath-hepher. [2 Kings 14:25 (NLT)]

daisy fleabaneSince Nineveh was famous as the religious center for the worship of Ishtar (Astarte), the goddess of fertility, we might wonder why this pagan city repented after hearing Jonah’s prophecy? Jonah was an Israelite not an Assyrian—he believed in Jehovah and the people of Nineveh were pagans. Some speculate that the Ninevites had learned of Jonah’s miraculous delivery from the fish but Nineveh was about 500 miles from the sea and, since the fish delivered Jonah onto the beach, that seems highly unlikely! Was Jonah such an eloquent speaker that the heathen people of Nineveh would respond to him when, more often than not, the people of Judah and Israel ignored the words of warning they heard from the prophets who were their own countrymen? What caused the king and 120,000 of his subjects to make such an immediate turnaround?

Perhaps a little history lesson explains Nineveh’s response. We know from 2 Kings 14 that Jonah prophesized during the reign of Jeroboam II (793 – 753 BC). While Jeroboam II did “evil in the Lord’s sight,” he was the most notable and longest reigning king of the northern kingdom. For Israel, this was a time of prosperity, power, and military success. Scripture tells us that it was Jonah who prophesized the king’s victory in battles that restored the borders of the northern kingdom to what they were during Solomon’s time. With Jonah’s proven track record of fulfilled prophecies, perhaps his reputation preceded him.

Moreover, in the realm of international politics, while Israel was on the upswing, Assyria was in decline. Having fragmented into various governor-ruled states, there had been a series of rebellions and attempts to usurp the crown. Preoccupied with internal security, the nation also was threatened by the kingdom of Uratu to the north and powerful Israel to the south. When Jonah proclaimed the city’s destruction, he wasn’t talking about an earthquake. The word he used was haphak which meant overthrown or conquered. Considering the political climate at the time, being conquered seemed a likely possibility to Nineveh and its king. Known for their excessive brutality, few armies were as hated as the Assyrians. Perhaps, when facing the possibility of being conquered, the Ninevites repented in the hope they’d escape such merciless treatment at the hands of their conquerors. Putting the story of Jonah’s prophecy into historical context helps us understand Nineveh’s response to the reluctant prophet and why they believed God’s message. Upon learning that their city would be overthrown within forty days, they proclaimed a fast, donned sackcloth as a symbol of their contriteness and remorse, and repented of their wicked ways. In the story of Jonah, we see God’s mercy extended to Gentiles and a concealed prophecy that was fulfilled by Jesus.

Without even seeing the miracle of Jonah’s “resurrection” from the fish, 120,000 Ninevites were saved but, when someone “greater than Jonah” resurrected, His own countrymen refused to listen and believe—even after seeing the empty tomb! Comparing Jesus to Jonah, however, is a bit like comparing the sun to a match or the entire universe to a tiny pebble. We’ve been warned, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.” [Matthew 4:17] What is our response?

But Jesus replied, “Only an evil, adulterous generation would demand a miraculous sign; but the only sign I will give them is the sign of the prophet Jonah. For as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish for three days and three nights, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. The people of Nineveh will stand up against this generation on judgment day and condemn it, for they repented of their sins at the preaching of Jonah. Now someone greater than Jonah is here—but you refuse to repent.” [Matthew 12:39-41 (NLT)]

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I knew that you are a merciful and compassionate God, slow to get angry and filled with unfailing love. You are eager to turn back from destroying people. … The Lord replied, “Is it right for you to be angry about this?” [Jonah 4:2,4 (NLT)]

sunrise on the GulfThe first thing to clear up when writing about the Book of Jonah is whether it was a fish or a whale. Both the Hebrew word (dahg) and the Greek word (ketos) in later translations were used to describe this sea creature. In 785 BC, at the time of this story’s writing, neither language had a word that could identify the exact species so it could have been a fish, shark, whale or some other now extinct large sea creature. For those who choose to use this discrepancy to attack the Bible’s veracity, it’s probably wise to remember that Linnaeus’ classification of living things occurred in the 18th century and not 2,800 years ago when Jonah was swallowed by something huge in the sea. When learning the story in Sunday school, most of us were told it was a whale. Having seen Disney’s Pinocchio with Geppetto living in a whale’s belly, it was easy to picture Jonah doing the same.

When God told Jonah to prophesy God’s judgment to the people of Nineveh, a powerful and wicked city in Assyria, the prophet immediately set sail in the opposite direction to Tarshish. God sent a great storm that threatened his ship and everyone else on it. Knowing the storm was his fault, the prophet told the crew to save themselves by throwing him into the sea. Once done, the storm immediately ceased and Jonah was swallowed by a great nameless sea creature. Unlike Geppetto, Jonah didn’t build a fire to escape. Instead, he prayed to God, repented his disobedience, and miraculously was delivered onto the beach. My Sunday school lesson ended at that point with the message that there is no hiding from God. There is, however, far more to the story.

Although Nineveh was a powerful and wicked city, Jonah didn’t run away because he was afraid for his own safety or that his message would be rejected. He was afraid that the people of Nineveh actually might listen to God’s word, repent and be saved! His contemporaries were the prophets Amos and Hosea—men who prophesized that Israel would be conquered, exiled, and forced to serve Assyria. Why would Jonah want to save the very people who eventually would defeat his nation?

Once safely on the beach, God again told Jonah to deliver His message to Nineveh and this time Jonah reluctantly obeyed. After being told that within forty days their city would be destroyed, the Ninevites immediately repented of their wicked ways but, instead of being pleased about their salvation, Jonah was angry. He threw himself a pity-party because God would not destroy the city. Although God mercifully gave Jonah a second chance when he repented, Jonah didn’t want to share God’s mercy and forgiveness with his enemies.

With one more lesson for Jonah to learn, God planted a leafy plant above his head to shade the despondent prophet as he waited to see what would happen to the once sinful city. Grateful for the shade, Jonah became upset when God caused a worm to destroy the tree and a scorching east wind to blow. God pointed out that Jonah was angry about the death of a tree he never planted and then asked a question. “Nineveh has more than 120,000 people living in spiritual darkness…Shouldn’t I feel sorry for such a great city?” [4:11]

Jonah begrudged God’s mercy shown to a hostile pagan nation. Sometimes we are like Jonah—although we want to be saved, we want to see our enemies suffer and be punished. While we want God’s love, mercy, forgiveness, and compassion, we’re not willing to share it with the people who have hurt us. This story was a lesson for Israel—that their purpose was to be a blessing to all nations by sharing God’s message—and later a lesson for the church—that Jesus’ came to save Jew and Gentile alike. Let’s remember that Jesus isn’t our own private savior; He’s meant to be shared. We all belong to Him and His mercy is a gift for everyone and anyone who repents and believes.

If I announce that a certain nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down, and destroyed, but then that nation renounces its evil ways, I will not destroy it as I had planned. And if I announce that I will plant and build up a certain nation or kingdom, but then that nation turns to evil and refuses to obey me, I will not bless it as I said I would. [Jeremiah 18:7-10 (NLT)]

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