Take your pick
Daniel 4: Make a clean break with your sins…quit your wicked life…then you will continue to have a good life.
Nebuchadnezzar’s been dreaming again. This time he dreams of a larger-than-life tree that commands the landscape and provides for all around it. In the dream God orders the tree to be cut down but the stump be saved. Nebuchadnezzar wants to know the meaning of the dream and Daniel comes through for him. The king’s “statue” dream was about his kingdom. His “tree” dream is about him personally. The Lord’s weary of Nebuchadnezzar’s ignoring him. When there are miraculous events that declare God Almighty to him Nebuchadnezzar gives God lip service, but goes on living his own way. This time, the Lord will touch his life directly to humble him enough that he’ll stop merely declaring the Lord to be God but will start acting as though he believes it. After explaining the dream to Nebuchadnezzar Daniel pleads with him to respond now and avoid the reality of what he’s dreamed. In other words, through the dream and Daniel’s interpretation of it Nebuchadnezzar is being given a choice. If he continues as he is the dream will become reality. If he repents right now and changes his ways he can continue “to have a good life.” I see this as an example of the openness of God. Nebuchadnezzar’s future isn’t already set, but based on how he responds to this warning, it’s already known. If he heeds this warning from God things will go one way. If he ignores it, things will go the other. In this I see the Lord as knowing, not just one set future, but all possible futures. In this application we see God not only warning Nebuchadnezzar, but offering him a much more desirable alternative. Still, the Lord won’t negate his free will…the ball is in Nebuchadnezzar’s court.
Take Away: The Lord has granted us free will, but he holds us accountable for our exercise of that free will.
Gog and Magog
Ezekiel 39: I’ll use them to demonstrate my holiness with all the nations watching.
The prophet has encouraging words for the broken people of God. The Lord will breathe life back into their dry bones and the nation will be brought back from the destruction that has come. It’s at this point that Ezekiel turns his attention to the “distant future” and the mysterious “Gog and Magog.” From what I can tell, the more down to earth commentators think that Ezekiel’s original audience knew just who he was talking about and that this prophecy is much like those given against Egypt, Tyre, Sidon, and other nations in the region. Taken at face value, then, Ezekiel is prophesying that in a more distant future, after the restoration of Israel, another regional power will come against God’s people. When that happens, the Lord will move to defend them and will destroy the invaders. However, there are two things that get the attention of many. First, this nation from “the north” isn’t clearly identified in history. Second, “Magog” is mentioned in a similarly vague way in Genesis and then Gog and Magog make a major appearance in the book of Revelation as part of the wind up of history. If we conclude that the “distant future” Ezekiel’s talking about is still in our future we find ourselves swimming in the deeper waters of prophecy. I hate to disappoint you, but I’m not ready to go there. I think it’s more likely that Ezekiel is talking about a nation well known to him and his listeners and that the distant future isn’t “book of Revelation distant.” I think that when John writes Revelation he’s reminded of Ezekiel’s words: an attack on God’s people by a coalition of enemy forces. He uses that reference to describe the scene of the final battle. To me, the key to the whole passage is God’s promise to defend his people and to “demonstrate his holiness” to the world. That concept plugs into both the Ezekiel and the Revelation prophecies. It also plugs into my life: when everything seems to be against me the Lord knows how to rescue me as one of his people. Rather than getting all mystic about this passage, I’d rather find here yet another promise of God’s faithfulness even in the most difficult of circumstances.
Take Away: Even when it seems everything is falling apart God is still God and God is always faithful to those who trust in him.
Looking upward, seeing hope
Ezekiel 17: I, God, made the great tree small and the small tree great.
The prophet pictures the monarchy of Judah as a majestic cedar; a strong, enduring fixture on the landscape. Then the imagery changes and Judah is seen as a fruitful vine, not as majestic as before, but now under the dominion of Babylon and transplanted there. Ezekiel says that in rebelling against Babylon this “fruitful vine” will also be uprooted and then allowed to die out. It seems that this is just another gloom and doom message. That’s just what it is until we reach the final paragraph of the chapter. The illustration appears to leave us with a destroyed Judah, with no leadership, rejected by God. Then Ezekiel adds a new dimension to his illustration. Once again we find ourselves looking at a mighty cedar. This time, God, personally, takes a cutting from the very crown of the tree. The great tree will be destroyed, but out of that cutting a new monarchy, a new King, will rise to lead Judah. This new cedar will be the greatest of all. Ezekiel has given us a parable of the Messiah. This Chosen One will rise out of the line of David, but will rule as none of the old line ever ruled. He’ll be King of kings, and Lord of lords.
Take Away: The Lord always keeps his promises.
Looking into the future
Jeremiah 43: He’ll set up his throne on the very stones I’ve had buried here.
I don’t believe that the future is mapped out in detail because I firmly believe God has given us the gift, and responsibility, of free will. However, I certainly believe that some things about the future are preordained. It isn’t that the Lord has looked into the future and seen things happening; it’s just that he’s Sovereign and he’s declared he’s going to bring certain things to pass. When the Almighty says he’s going to do something, that’s just as sure as if it already happened. In this passage we find Jeremiah in Egypt. I’m not sure why Johanan and the others brought him along. Apparently, it’s similar to why King Zedekiah kept Jeremiah locked up but couldn’t resist going to him for the latest word from the Lord. Jeremiah’s message to them is unwavering. The Lord said, “Don’t go to Egypt” and they’ve gone to Egypt anyway. The Lord said, “If you go to Egypt you’ll find the death and destruction you’re fleeing.” Now, Jeremiah drives that point home by having some stones laid along the walkway that leads to one of Pharaoh’s palaces. He says that the day’s coming when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will sit his throne right on top of those stones as he claims the gem of Egypt for Babylon. Again, I don’t see every detail of the future as predetermined. Still, there’s plenty that God has already declared to be certain. For instance, Jesus is coming back, Judgment day is sure, and everyone will spend forever somewhere. I have the freedom to prepare for those certainties or not, as my future isn’t predetermined. By the grace of God that much is up to me and my eternity hangs in the balance based on that decision.
Take Away: Certain things about the future are sure but how I respond to the grace of God in preparing for that future he leaves to me.
Knowing the future
Jeremiah 25: Once the seventy years is up, I’ll punish the king of Babylon.
It’s pretty clear to me that the prophets like Jeremiah are mostly involved in proclaiming God’s message to their contemporaries. However, once in a while they do what we often associate with the ministry of the prophets: telling the future. This prophecy doesn’t contain hidden terms and double meanings. Instead, it’s a clear statement about the future. God is angry, Jeremiah says, and the new king of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar, is going to be used to bring judgment on the people of Israel. That judgment will last for seventy years. After that Babylon itself will be judged. In this message Jeremiah’s naming names and setting dates. Some people say this is an example of God seeing the future, but I think it’s better understood as God telling what he’s going to do in the future. After all, if the Almighty says he’s going to do something I can take it to the bank. I think there’s much about the future that hasn’t been foretold because God hasn’t set a specific agenda for it. Mainly, he wants me to trust him and believe that no matter what happens he’ll see me through. I also think that the big themes are already decided; some very specifically and some in more general terms. For instance I believe that Jesus is coming back, the dead will be raised, Judgment day is sure, and everyone will spend forever somewhere as a result of that Judgment. I don’t need to sweat the details any more than Jeremiah has to detail every single event leading up to the judgment of Babylon, over seventy years in the future. He’s given an outline of the future and that’s what he tells. I also have an outline of the future, though it’s not as specific as was Jeremiah’s. My responsibility is to prepare for that future, and to live through the unknown details of every day with an eye toward the known “big day.”
Take Away: We don’t know all the details of the future but we do know about the big stuff – and it’s the big stuff that we’d better get ready for.
Preview of the crucifixion
Isaiah 53: It was our sins that did that to him.
The prophet’s description of future events is as powerful a passage as there is in the Bible. His words are so clear that we tend to just “blend” them in with the contemporary accounts from the Gospels of the crucifixion of Jesus as though Isaiah is another Gospel writer. This, though, is an amazing description of an event hundreds of years before it happens. What a picture it is: God’s chosen one, the Savior, being brutalized; ripped and torn and crushed. Isaiah’s description causes us to wince and maybe to turn the page to something else. However, if the picture of horror he paints for us is greatly disturbing, the reason for it is even more disturbing. The Messiah, our Hope, is suffering in this horrible way for our sins: for my sins. As hymn writer John S. B. Monsell put it, “My sins, my sins…oh how sad on Thee they fall.” Isaiah saw it in all its terribleness. He also recognized it for what it was. Our sins, my sins, are the reason for it all.
Take Away: Why did Jesus suffer as he did? For an answer, look in a mirror.
God keeps his word
Isaiah 44: From the beginning, who else has always announced what’s coming?
These pages of Isaiah are some of the most encouraging in the whole Bible. God has such good news for his people. Salvation is coming to their spiritually dry lives like streams flowing into a parched desert. This promise is so great that people can hardly get their minds and hearts around it. To help them do that, the Lord puts his credentials on display. He says he’s the first and the last and “everything in between.” He’s always trustworthy and he’s the one who can speak about his future actions with absolute certainty. I know some see this passage as ammunition for “God’s knowledge of the future” discussions but it’s more correctly seen as “God keeps his word” material. The Lord isn’t passively watching events unfold and he’s not letting history proceed in whatever direction it happens to find. This God is on purpose in his dealings with Creation. As he speaks to a fallen Israel he has promises to make. Salvation will come because he’ll keep his word. How does God know salvation will come? He knows it because he’s going to do it. Generations later, God’s promise is kept in a stable in Bethlehem.
Take Away: The Lord is the only one who can speak of the future with absolute certainty.
Living in the “right now”
Isaiah 43: Forget about what’s happened; don’t keep going over old history.
This passage was especially meaningful to me several years ago when I was going through a major change in my life. At the time, I was dealing with some “baggage” from the past even as I prepared to move forward. As I read this portion of Isaiah the Lord seemed to highlight these words. I needed to focus on what God was doing right then and move forward into that. This passage inspired me to look forward with confidence. The Lord was about to do a new thing and he was going to let me be a part of it. How about you? Is there something from your past that needs to be forgotten? If so, let the Lord help you to do that. The place to start is to refuse to keep thinking about it. “Don’t keep going over old history.” Every time it comes to mind, reject it. Then, replace those memories by concentrating on the “new thing” God is doing in you and through you. Live in what God is doing right now rather than in some past disappointment.
Take Away: Is there something from your past that needs to be forgotten?
Looking to the distant future
Isaiah 11: The whole earth will be brimming with knowing God-Alive, a living knowledge of God ocean-deep, ocean-wide.
Isaiah doesn’t spend all his time looking to the future but when he does, he does it big time. He describes not only a 700 year distant future and the coming of the promised Messiah, but an even more distant future, thousands of years ahead. That future is my future too. People generally think that they have to go to the book of Revelation to look forward, but here in Isaiah we are also able to turn to the end of the story. It ends with a world that knows God. That “knowing” is anything but superficial. It’s as deep and wide as the ocean. Here we not only get a profound look forward, but a look backward as well. This is our purpose, God’s intention when he walked with Adam in the Garden. He desires a deep and intimate relationship with human beings who are the crowing act of Creation. Even as Isaiah describes the strong medicine that’s coming to his generation, he gives a glimpse of what that medicine is intended to accomplish. In this case, it’s to move people one step closer to what the Lord created humanity for in the first place.
Take Away: From the beginning our purpose has been to know the Lord and to live in a deep relationship with him.