Is God really in control of things? This was doubtless a question in the minds of the exiles in Babylon, who probably thought that he was, and the exiles in Egypt, who probably though that he wasn’t! This question is partly answered as we study the prophecies given for nine nations in Jeremiah chapters 46-51.
- How God reigns
There is no doubt at all that God is the God of the universe over which he exercises a kingly rule. Psalm 93 begins with these words: ‘The Lord reigns.’ Psalm 97 begins with the same statement and goes on to state, ‘6 The heavens proclaim his righteousness, and all peoples see his glory. 7 All who worship images are put to shame, those who boast in idols – worship him, all you gods!’ The creation itself speaks of God’s greatness and his rule. The contrast between manufactured gods is stark – put your faith in these and you’ll be disappointed. This was the issue in Judah – the people ignored the God of the universe and worshipped man-made gods made of wood and metal who needed help to stand upright (Jeremiah 10:3-4)! Psalm 103 expands on this notion of God’s rule over the universe: ‘19 The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all.’ There is nothing outside of God’s universal kingdom. The extent of God’s kingdom means that no matter where we are or how far we travel we cannot escape God’s presence: ‘Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? 8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there (Psalm 139).’
If God’s kingdom is overall and its scope is unlimited, how does God interact with his realm, how does he intervene? It seems that rarely God acts directly in this world, but rather his typical way of working is what we might call providential – he works indirectly through circumstances and what we might consider ‘normal’ events to bring about his plans and purposes. When Joseph was mistreated by his brothers and sold as a slave, apparently random circumstances brought about a remarkable turnaround in Joseph’s (and the family’s) fortunes. Ultimately Joseph recognised God’s hand in this when he said to his brothers: ‘20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives (Genesis 50).’ Similarly, God used a sleepless night to save a nation from genocide planned by a wicked man! The wicked, boastful and treacherous Haman plotted to have all the Jews living in Media and Persia killed. He was a cunning politician and meticulously planned for the leader of the Jews, Mordecai to be executed. What he didn’t know was that Mordecai had uncovered a plot against the king and saved the king’s life. Mordecai’s good deed largely went unnoticed, but it was recorded in an obscure record of government. When wicked Haman’s plans were finalised, approved by the king and seemingly unstoppable, the king couldn’t sleep. “Read me something boring and that will soon get me over” he effectively said. Guess which obscure record was read! The truth was revealed through the means of a sleepless night. The following day, the pole erected by wicked Haman to have Mordecai executed was the very pole on which Haman was impaled! There is no doubt that God was using events to preserve his people and to bring about his plans and purposes.
This is all very well, but it does not tell the entire story. One is left wondering why, if God exercises such control, conditions on earth are not as we would wish. There remains war and strife, disease and ill health, oppressive governments, dire poverty and injustice. How could an in-control God preside over such a mess!
When Jesus taught the disciples to pray he asked them to pray for something that revealed a different aspect of God’s kingdom; ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.’ If as the Psalmist says, ‘The Lord reigns,’ why then pray for his kingdom to come? Why pray for God’s will to be done on earth if as the Psalmist declares he already reigns? But this is what Jesus taught the disciples to pray! How can we understand this?
Within the realm of God’s universal kingdom, there is a delegated kingdom in operation, it’s a kingdom that is concerning and limited to the world. This dominion of the world, what some have dubbed the ‘mediatorial kingdom’ (mediatorial because there is a mediator between God and the realm of the earth) was given to Adam. Through Adam’s disobedience the mediatorial kingdom was taken by Satan. We find that we now inhabit a kingdom in which God’s will is not being done. The remedy for this situation requires a new mediator, one who is like Adam in that he is a human being, but one who is not blighted by the sin nature. God’s programme is aimed to rescue mankind from the sin inherited from Adam and restore the mediatorial kingdom on earth. The seed of the woman would crush the rule or head of Satan. The Messiah would restore a righteous rule, but he would accomplish this by accepting a crown of thorns as well as a crown of kingship. Interestingly this would be accomplished through a nation, the nation of Israel. The new king would sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem. This restored mediatorial kingdom will transform the conditions on the earth. Many of the Old testament prophets looked forward to the time when the Messiah would bring about this rule of justice and righteousness, Isaiah 9: ‘For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. 7 Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and for ever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.’
Why is this important as we study these passages in Jeremiah which concern the future of nations? Simply because the coming of the Messiah and his reign through the nation of Israel will be of benefit to the nations – Zechariah 8: ‘20 This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Many peoples and the inhabitants of many cities will yet come, 21 and the inhabitants of one city will go to another and say, “Let us go at once to entreat the Lord and seek the Lord Almighty. I myself am going.” 22 And many peoples and powerful nations will come to Jerusalem to seek the Lord Almighty and to entreat him.’ 23 This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘In those days ten people from all languages and nations will take firm hold of one Jew by the hem of his robe and say, “Let us go with you, because we have heard that God is with you.”’ What a marvellous promise!
Having put this context around the future of the nations and the two dimensions of God’s rule we must now consider the fate of two nations; Philistia and Moab.
We all know something about the Philistines! They were the people who were always in conflict with Israel at the time of King Saul and King David. It was a Philistine giant that the young David felled with a single stone from his sling. The Philistines occupied an area that is roughly where Gaza is today. It is still an area of much trouble, now with rockets and bombs rather than slings and arrows!
God’s message through Jeremiah is dated as ‘before Pharaoh attacked Gaza,’ the date of this attack is not certain but it is thought to have occurred sometime before 610 BC: before the Babylonians had become the dominant power in the region. Last time we noted that when the Egyptian army assembled to resist the Babylonians they were akin to the annual rise of the Nile. This same idea is now applied to the army who will attack the Philistines: ‘See how the waters are rising in the north; they will become an overflowing torrent. They will overflow the land and everything in it, the towns and those who live in them (verse 2).’ The Philistines would experience a human tsunami! The human tsunami would be the Babylonian army. Nebuchadnezzar defeated the Egyptians in 605 BC and 1 year later (after returning to Babylon to take the crown from his deceased father) he attacked Philistia in 604 BC, capturing Ashkelon (source: Babylonian Chronicles: a series of tablets that record key moments in the history of Babylon). Of the five Philistine cities (Gaza, Ashkelon, Gath, Ekron and Ashdod), we learn that ‘Gaza will shave her head in mourning; Ashkelon will be silenced (verse 5)’. In fact, God would ‘destroy the Philistines.’ This was the impact of the Babylonian invasion.
The prophecy does not mention why the Philistines would be judged in this way, but we know from other parts of the bible that they were a people who worshipped invented gods. Failure to acknowledge the true God who could be discerned by observation of the creation was no doubt the cause of their judgment. Take note modern day UK!
Ancient Moab lay to the east of Israel, on a plateau east of the Dead Sea. The people who inhabited Moab were descended from Abraham’s nephew, Lot (Genesis 19:37). You may recall that it was to Moab that Elimelek and Naomi travelled to escape the famine in Judah. The young Moabitess woman who returned with Naomi to Bethlehem became the great grandmother of King David. Some of the history of the nation is known from a large inscribed stone, known as the Moabite stone, discovered in 1868 by Frederick Klein, a French-born Anglican missionary. The stone is now in the Louvre in Paris. The area covered by Moab is part of modern-day Jordan. The historian, Josephus, indicates that the country lost its independence to the Babylonian king, Nebuchadnezzar in 582 BC and the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes that the nation effectively ‘disappeared from history’ after that time.
This prophecy contains no fewer than 25 place names, archaeological efforts have identified some, but many remain unidentified.
The prophecy gives a clear indication of the faults that lead to Moab’s judgment at the hands of the Babylonians. There seem to be four distinct reasons for the judgment. Firstly, Moab trusted in its ‘deeds and riches (verse 7).’ That certainly sounds familiar! Success in the UK today is measured in personal achievement and wealth. Deeds and riches would however offer Moab no protection from coming judgment and it will offer us no protection either. Second, Moab had ‘defied the Lord’ (verse 26). It seems that since Moab was greatly influenced by its neighbour Israel, that the people had a significant knowledge of the true God, but rather than recognising the God of the Universe they worked against him and defied him. Sadly, this attitude characterises the world we inhabit today. Thirdly, Moab was proud and arrogant: ‘We have heard of Moab’s pride – how great is her arrogance! – of her insolence, her pride, her conceit and the haughtiness of her heart (verse 29).’ Probably Israel’s greatest leader was Moses. He represented the nation against the might of Egypt, successfully lead the people out of slavery, built the people into a nation, mediated and represented the people before God and lead more that 1 million ungrateful people though the rigours of wilderness wandering for 40 years. Ultimately, he brought the people to the point of entry to the promised land. For sure Moses had a career of which he could take some pride. But here’s how God described his character: ‘Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth (Numbers 12:3).’ Humility is good for you! When God’s kingdom it comes on earth, humility will be championed. As Mary realised her unique role in God’s plans, she praised the Lord after her visit to Elizabeth saying: ‘52He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble (Luke 1:52).’ He has indeed! Fourthly and finally, Moab offered sacrifices to false gods (verse 35). There is never any excuse for this. God has revealed himself through the creation – since he can be discerned from observation of creation people who serve man made idols are headed for judgment. I suspect that the judgment will be greater for those who have studied the creation in depth and who have discovered the exquisite nature of God’s handiwork. Strangely enough, people worship false gods today in our atheistic world. Evolution is worshipped as the mechanism through which we came about – it is a false god just as much as the man-made constructions of 2,500 years ago.
The judgement of Moab is described in graphic language. Space does not permit a detailed account here, but some highlights (or perhaps this should be low-lights). The keynote of the judgment is one of destruction: ‘The destroyer will come against every town, and not a town will escape. The valley will be ruined and the plateau destroyed, because the Lord has spoken.9 Put salt on Moab, for she will be laid waste; her towns will become desolate, with no one to live in them.’ Moab’s condition is likened to wine that has been left to go off. Apparently under unfavourable storage conditions wine can take on a syrupy flavour. Moab was just like such wine. Judgment was on its way: ‘12 But days are coming,’ declares the Lord, ‘when I will send men who pour from pitchers, and they will pour her out; they will empty her pitchers and smash her jars.’ One final picture: ‘40 This is what the Lord says: ‘Look! An eagle is swooping down, spreading its wings over Moab. 41 Kerioth[j] will be captured and the strongholds taken. In that day the hearts of Moab’s warriors will be like the heart of a woman in labour.’ The Babylonian judgment will resemble the attack of an eagle on its vulnerable prey – the Moabite military will have no will to resist.
This is all rather depressing, but the prophecy ends with a remarkable and unexpected statement: ‘47 ‘Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in days to come,’ declares the Lord.’ Moab has a future. As far as I can tell, Moab has yet to experience this restoration. It seems that one day, when the Messiah comes to take up his kingdom on earth that this nation will figure as one of the nations who will participate in the worship of the king! The reason for this hope is not stated in the prophecy, but I suspect that there were some in Moab who did not follow the crowd, some who recognised the God of Israel (Ruth was one!). God’s character is one of mercy! There is hope too for those who put their faith and trust in Jesus Christ.