Biblical Interpretation from Someone with no Training in Biblical Interpretation
A lot of people get confused when they read the Old Testament. After being introduced to Christ’s amazing Gospel of love they turn back and realize that the formats of the pre-Jesus parts of the Bible are quite a bit different. There are laws, punishments, vengeance, and of course lots and lots of wrath. Take Isaiah for example; when he’s not predicting the coming of our Lord and Savior, he’s prophesying the destruction of Israel’s neighbors (and Israel itself too). What are we supposed to do with this? Is the God of the Old Testament the same Lord we find sacrificing himself in the Gospels? He seems to think so; because in Malachi 3:6 the Lord states, “I the Lord do not change. So you, O descendants of Jacob, are not destroyed.” And this is backed up in the New Testament where we read, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8). But how can a loving God completely destroy whole nations?
As I was reading through a set of destructive prophecies, begging the Lord to make some sense of them, the Holy Spirit drew my attention to Isaiah’s prophecy against Moab. It starts about how you may expect,
An oracle concerning Moab:
Ar in Moab is ruined,
Destroyed in a night!
Kir in Moab is ruined,
Destroyed in a night!
Dibon goes up to its temple,
To its high places to weep;
Moab wails over Nebo and Medeba.
Every head is shaved
And every beard cut off.
In the streets they wear sackcloth;
On the roofs and in the public squares
They all wail,
Prostrate with weeping.
Heshbon and Elealeh cry out,
Their voices are heard all the way to Jahaz.
Therefore the armed men of Moab cry out,
And their hearts are faint (Isaiah 15:1-4).
With an opening like this I pondered how fast we can lose all we have and how everything we know can be taken away in just a night- and that’s a good message, but not today’s. You see, things get weird in Isaiah 15:5,
My heart cries out over Moab;
Her fugitives flee as far as Zoar,
As far as Eglath Shelishiyah.
They go up the way to Luhith,
Weeping as they go;
On the road to Horonaim
They lament their destruction.
God says that his heart cries out for the destruction of Moab. “Hold the phone here, God!” I said, “What’s going on?” The Spirit pressed me to read on. I thought maybe the destruction of Moab wasn’t caused by the Lord, but sure enough it was God-sanctioned. For the Lord says,
We have heard of Moab’s pride-
Her overweening pride and conceit,
Her pride and her insolence-
But her boasts are empty (Isaiah 16:6).
So they were an arrogant, selfish, and rebellious country. This was compounded by idol worship, which God mentions in Isaiah 16:12,
When Moab appears at her high place,
She only wears herself out;
When she goes to her shine to pray,
It is to no avail.
So indeed Moab was a sinful nation, and as expected, their sins were their downfall. For we read,
Therefore the Moabites wail,
They wail together for Moab.
Lament and grieve
For the men of Kir Hareseth.
The fields of Heshbon wither,
The vines of Sibmah also.
The rulers of the nations
Have trampled down the choicest vines,
Which once reached Jazer
And spread toward the desert.
Their shoots spread out
And went as far as the sea (Isaiah 16:7-8).
So because of their sins, the Lord promised to destroy Moab.
…But God wasn’t happy about it. While taking credit for the nation’s impending destruction, the Lord actually laments for Moab. He proclaims,
So I weep, as Jazer weeps,
For the vines of Sibmah.
O Heshbon, O Elealeh,
I drench you with tears!
The shouts of joy over your ripened fruit
And over your harvests have been stilled.
Joy and gladness are taken away from the orchards;
No one sings or shouts in the vineyards;
No one treads out wine at the presses,
For I have put an end to the shouting.
My heart laments for Moab like a harp,
My inmost being for Kir Hareseth (Isaiah 16:9-11).
Not only does he morn, but he Lord even tells Israel to help the Moabites in Isaiah 16:4,
“Let the Moabite fugitives stay with you;
Be their shelter from the destroyer.”
The oppressor will come to an end,
And destruction will cease;
The aggressor will vanish from the land.
How is it that an evil nation, under God’s wrath, is to be helped by God’s people? We can actually find the answer in the middle of another destruction prophecy. The book of Obadiah is about the end of Edom. In it, God cites his reason for Edom’s destruction,
Because of the violence against your brother Jacob,
You will be covered with shame;
You will be destroyed forever.
On the day you stood aloof
While strangers carried off his wealth
And foreigners entered his gates
And cast lots for Jerusalem,
You were like one of them (Obadiah 1:10-11).
Because they didn’t help Israel, they brought misfortune on themselves. God goes on to say,
The day of the Lord is near
For all nations.
As you have done, it will be done to you;
Your deeds will return upon your own head (Obadiah 1:15).
The Lord says that as Edom acted, so it will be done to them. That is to say: if they had been helpful to their brothers, they would have found help. Hmm, this sounds an awful lot like a New Testament message: “For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15). To that end, as the perfect example, Christ died that we might find forgiveness first, so that we would in turn forgive others (and find more forgiveness when we slip up). Therefore, Paul writes, “Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you” (Colossians 3:13). This is all motivated by God’s greatest aspect: love, “And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity” (Colossians 3:14).
Ok, ok, let’s put the brakes on here. Apparently, God loves the Moabites and wishes for their best; just like he apparently loves everyone else; since we all know “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” (John 3:16). Now if that’s true, then why destroy the Moabites!? This goes back to our introduction: God doesn’t change. In fact, he says of himself in Numbers 23:19,
God is not a man, that he should lie,
Nor a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Does he speak and then not act?
Does he promise and not fulfill?
Sin is sin, and there’s a big ole’ list of punishments for rebellion against the Lord in Deuteronomy 28; including,
The Lord will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young. They will devour the young of your livestock and the crops of your land until you are destroyed. They will leave you no grain, new wine or oil, nor any calves of your herds or lambs of your flocks until you are ruined. They will lay siege to all the cities throughout your land until the high fortified walls in which you trust fall down. They will besiege all the cities throughout the land the Lord your God is giving you (Deuteronomy 28:49-52).
To be fair, the list in Deuteronomy is especially catered to Israel. But again and again God warns all of Israel’s neighbors of coming destruction if they don’t repent of their pride and idolatry; and the Lord is a God of his word.
Just because God is compelled to bring his wrath though doesn’t mean he likes it. Scripture records in Ezekiel 18:23, “Do I take any pleasure in the death of the wicked? declares the Sovereign Lord. Rather, am I not pleased when they turn from their ways and live?” [Note: the missing quotation marks in the verse are because God is actually saying “declares the Lord” himself in the passage rather than Ezekiel quoting him.] The Lord doesn’t like bringing the hammer down. He just has to do it from time to time as a reminder to us that we should repent and seek God. Jesus echoes this mindset after a tragedy had recently occurred in Jerusalem. We read,
Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them- do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish (Luke 13:4-5).
God wants everyone to come to repentance and seek salvation. In fact, he’s even holding back the apocalypses in order to save as many people from wrath as he can. We’re told about this by the apostle Peter,
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.
But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare (2 Peter 3:9-10).
The Lord wants to save as many people as possible. To that end he sent his Son to die in our stead, so that we may come to Christ and find forgiveness and atonement through him.
Even to the survivors of Moab’s destruction the Lord extended his promise of Christ and the coming righteousness. We read,
In love a throne will be established;
In faithfulness a man will sit on it-
One from the house of David-
One who in judging seeks justice
And speeds the cause of righteousness (Isaiah 16:5).
Keep in mind that the verse above comes in the middle of all of that destruction and mourning we already read about. Anyway, just as the prophecy predicted, from the line of David (technically) God came down in the form of his son, Jesus Christ. We were all condemned to eternal death for our sins, but Christ died in our place, and now righteousness and forgiveness is near to all. For Paul tells us,
But the righteousness that is by faith says: “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend to the deep?’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming…(Romans 10:6-8)
The Word is near, and salvation is so close! Paul continues,
…That is you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. As the Scripture says, “Anyone who trusts in him will never be put to shame” (Romans 10:9-11).
Believe and be saved my friend! I know there’s tons of death and awful bad stuff happening; but rather than build a case against God, open your eyes and listen to him cry out from Ezekiel 18:32: “For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!”
Amen! Praise be to God!