Do Prophecies Sometimes Fail?

Robert B. Chisholm

We often think a biblical prophecy is genuine only if it comes to pass, as Deuteronomy 18:21–22 seems to support: “When a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the word does not come to pass or come true, that is a word that the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously.” But using this passage to explain the nature of all biblical prophecy is inaccurate. Prophecies sometimes did fail—by God’s design.

Micah’s Postponed Prophecy

In the late eighth century BC, the prophet Micah, like his contemporary Isaiah, confronted the people of Jerusalem with their sin. He told the city’s corrupt leaders that the threatening Assyrian army would destroy the city: “Therefore because of you Zion shall be plowed as a field; Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins, and the mountain of the house a wooded height.” Yet this threatened destruction didn’t happen. God spared the city, miraculously delivering it from the Assyrians (Isa 37:36–37).

Several decades later, the prophet Jeremiah warned the leaders of the same city that judgment was coming. The priests and false prophets arrested him, seeking to execute him for treason. But the people and the elders protested, and in doing so they give us insight into Micah’s earlier prophecy and into the way prophecy works:

Micah of Moresheth prophesied in the days of Hezekiah king of Judah, and said to all the people of Judah: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, ‘Zion shall be plowed as a field…’ ” Did Hezekiah King of Judah and all Judah put him to death? Did he not fear the LORD and entreat the favor of the LORD, and did not the LORD relent of the disaster that he had pronounced against them? But we are about to bring great disaster upon ourselves (Jer 26:18–19).

According to the elders, Hezekiah’s positive response to Micah’s prophecy prompted the LORD to relent, and the disaster was averted. Micah’s prophecy was conditional. To explain what happened here, we need to think about the nature and function of prophecy.

Predisposed to Forgive

Prophecy typically consists of exhortation (forth-telling) and prediction (foretelling). Prophets confronted the people with their sin and exhorted them to change their ways. Then they offered predictions of what judgment might befall the people if they didn’t repent. Yet God didn’t desire to carry out the predicted judgment—after all, He takes no delight in the death of sinners (Ezek 18:23, 32; 33:11). God explains it clearly in Jeremiah 18:7–8: “If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it.” The LORD may pronounce judgment, but if people repent, He will alter His plan and show mercy.

Failure to follow through on a threat doesn’t mean God is unreliable—it means He is merciful. God is predisposed to forgive sin. He gives people a glimpse of where disobedience will take them so they—and He—won’t have to go there.

Conditional Prophecy: The Exception or the Norm?

The account of the eighth-century BC prophet Jonah provides another example of a conditional prophecy being postponed by repentance. Jonah journeyed to Nineveh and announced, “Yet forty days and Nineveh shall be overthrown” (Jonah 3:4). Without knowing if the threat was conditional, the Ninevite king declared, “Let everyone turn from his evil way and from the violence that is in his hands. Who knows? God may turn and relent and turn from his fierce anger, so that we may not perish” (Jonah 3:8–9). To Jonah’s dismay, God did relent, sparing the city (Jonah 3:10).

Rather than rejoicing in God’s mercy, Jonah explained that this was why he had run away from God’s call to begin with. He recognized that God typically relents from judgment. “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish,” he complained, “for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).

However, repentance doesn’t give people the excuse to live as they please. Repentance buries sin, and with it the threatened judgment. If people dig up that sin, they unearth the judgment with it. The Ninevites returned to their sinful ways, and the city was destroyed in 612 BC. Micah’s prophecy likewise came to pass: The people of Judah returned to their sinful ways, and in 586 BC, the Babylonians destroyed the city.

Unconditional Prophecy as a Litmus Test

The Bible demonstrates that some prophecies are conditional; they are designed to cancel themselves out by encouraging people to repent. The prophetic test given in Deuteronomy 18:21–22 is limited in scope. It applies to short-range prophecies, not prophecies of the distant future—people needed to know at the time if a prophet could be trusted. It appears that a true prophet put his authority to the test by making a short-range prediction (e.g., 1 Kgs 22:28).

Furthermore, the test would work only in cases where an unconditional prophecy was in order, not in cases where judgment was meant to prompt repentance. This explains why the Israelites didn’t reject Micah as a false prophet when his prophecy did not come to pass. People knew that the test from Deuteronomy did not apply in his case.

Biblical prophecy may seem replete with threats and warnings, but ultimately these passages illustrate God’s mercy and patience. God warns sinners of approaching judgment, gives them a chance to repent, and then relents from judgment when they do. Yet He is also just—if His people abuse His mercy and return to their sinful ways, He will send judgment.

Pick up Robert B. Chisholm’s Handbook on the Prophets at Logos.com/ChisholmHandbook

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2

Love and Commitment: Not Always Synonymous

John D. Barry

1 Kings 3:1–4:34; Mark 3:1–3:35; Proverbs 1:13–19

Loving God and living fully for Him are not necessarily synonymous. If I love someone, does that mean I always show untainted respect and unfailing loyalty? Love should command complete devotion and commitment—but our lives are rarely as pure as they should be.

Like his father, David, Solomon acted out of passion and love, but his commitment and respect for Yahweh faltered at the same time: “Solomon intermarried with … the daughter of Pharaoh and brought her to the city of David … Solomon loved Yahweh, by walking in the statutes of David his father; only he was sacrificing and offering incense on the high places” (1 Kgs 3:1, 3).

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Solomon didn’t marry Pharaoh’s daughter because he needed Egypt’s protection. Egypt, Israel’s ancient enemy, had enslaved God’s people once before, but it was not an imminent threat. Worse, Solomon committed himself to Pharaoh, an ally who viewed himself as a deity. This alliance introduced the worship of foreign gods into the chambers of the king who was supposed to steward God’s kingdom.

Solomon’s behavior is particularly ironic in light of his own words: “My child, do not walk in their way. Keep your foot from their paths, for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood” (Prov 1:15–16). Solomon may have avoided the wars and violence of his father’s generation, but he walked into a spiritually enslaving sin. Solomon’s problems epitomize Jesus’ words: “And if a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom is not able to stand” (Mark 3:24). By bringing Pharaoh’s daughter into his household, Solomon divided Yahweh’s kingdom against itself.

Was it lust that drove Solomon to make this decision, or a lack of faith, or a desire for peace? We cannot know for certain, but no matter the reason, this episode shows us something about ourselves. When we ally ourselves with God’s opponents or when we lust after what God has condemned, we do more harm than we realize. We divide what God is building in us and through us against itself by tainting His pure plan.

What are you wrongly allying with or lusting after? What are the long-term effects of doing so, and how can this perspective help you change course?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.


John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.

As We Forgive Others

Stephen Witmer

I lay awake, staring into darkness, mentally replaying a conversation from earlier that day. My friend had misunderstood me and then condemned me for it. I felt deeply wronged. I also felt a toxic mixture of anger, self-pity and self- righteousness creeping through my veins. It is often much easier to pray, “Forgive us our trespasses” than, “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

While the Bible didn’t provide me with an answer for my particular conflict, I found insight in the message of the eighth-century prophet Amos.

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The book of Amos opens with the Lord “roaring” from Zion (1:2). This forceful expression of judgment is directed toward nations who don’t acknowledge God. Amos 1:2–2:3 presents a thorough indictment of the sins of Damascus, Gaza, Tyre, Edom, Ammon and Moab.

The indictments reveal God’s passion for the humane treatment of others. He condemns the Ammonites for the brutality of their attacks on pregnant women (Amos 1:13), and He calls Tyre to account for forsaking its “covenant of brotherhood” with Israel (1:9).These charges are based on keeping covenant obligations. They also demonstrate that the whole world—not just Israel—must answer to the one true God, the author and sustainer of all creation (5:8–9).

I take comfort in this reminder that God sees every act of injustice and holds wrongdoers accountable. I may not know exactly why God allows me to be treated unfairly, but I know He is aware when it happens. I can trust Him to work out justice in the way He sees fit.

But there’s another feature of this passage that makes me decidedly uncomfortable.

The people of Israel may be cheering for Amos as he lets loose on the nations, but there’s a troubling trend in the prophecies: The indictments are getting closer and closer to home. Amos begins with the surrounding nations and their great cities (e.g., Damascus, Gaza, Tyre) before dealing with Israel’s “cousin” nation, Edom, and then with its “sister” nation, Judah. Then, in Amos 2:6, the lion roars against Israel—and it continues to roar for eight chapters. Yes, Israel has been wronged, but it has also done grievous wrong.

This passage speaks to the sin that we so often gloss over, reminding me that I must carefully weigh my own actions. I am rarely free of sin, and if I justify my own sin while decrying the sin of others, I tread dangerous waters. Although I may be misunderstood and unfairly criticized, God calls me to acknowledge my own sin in every conflict.

The good news is that I can freely acknowledge my faults because God has made full provision for my forgiveness. The book of Amos declares God’s justice, but it ends with tender mercies of a forgiving God (9:11–15). God promises to show mercy to His people through a future king in David’s line. The earliest Christians knew that prophesied king was Jesus (Acts 15:13–21), and so do we. Through Jesus, we’re forgiven.

These truths have helped me to forgive. I trust God to work justice, and I thank Him for His abundant mercy. He’s at work in my life, using even this conflict to make me, slowly and sometimes painfully, more like Jesus.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2

Opening the New Testament

Stephen Witmer

I confess I’ve often found genealogies pretty boring. They’re for people who enjoy family reunions, and I’m not particularly interested in hearing how Aunt Mabel’s second cousin Joyce was the oldest daughter of the third child of Larry’s brother-in-law’s niece. So the biblical genealogies have tended to be the red-headed stepchild of my Bible reading: dutifully tolerated, largely ignored, and never enjoyed. But reading Matthew’s genealogy in light of its historical and literary context has helped me overcome this aversion. I now realize that the connections it makes to history are vital for understanding the person and work of Christ. At the beginning of his Gospel, Matthew manages to establish three ideas about who Jesus is and why He came.

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Jesus Is God.

When reading closely, we see that Matthew’s genealogy doesn’t actually work. It’s patrilineal, tracing just the father’s line all the way to Joseph in Matthew 1:16 and using the repeated phrase “x was the father of y.” But halfway through 1:16, that pattern is broken. Matthew says: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus, who is called the Christ.” The pronoun “whom” refers grammatically to Mary, not to Mary and Joseph. Why the change? Because, as we’ll learn in the rest of Matthew 1, Jesus is “from the Holy Spirit” (1:20). While the genealogy places Jesus in human history, we are told He is special, and only adopted into Joseph’s line.

Jesus Is the True King of Israel.

In Matthew 1:1, Matthew identifies Jesus as the “Christ” (the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Meshiach, meaning “the Anointed One”). “Anointed one” has both prophetic and kingly elements, as people could be anointed to either kingship or prophetic ministries. The passage also refers to Jesus as the “son of David.” The genealogy in Matthew 1:2–17 underlines the truth and importance of this claim in two ways.

Back in 2 Samuel 7:11–16, God promised David that He would establish His royal house through one of David’s descendants. By tracing Jesus’ lineage through the line of His earthly father by adoption, Joseph (a descendant of David), Matthew shows that Jesus is in David’s royal line. Matthew’s structure reinforces this. If we compare the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, it’s clear that Matthew has omitted several names. Matthew 1:17 explains why: Matthew wants to present the key events of Israel’s history as being 14 generations apart. He likely does this because the numerical values of the Hebrew consonants in David’s name (D-V-D) add up to 14 (4 + 6 + 4). 1 Matthew’s organization points to the central importance of David, and thus emphasizes Jesus’ role as the true king of Israel.

Jesus Is the Savior of the World.

By stating in Matthew 1:1 that Jesus is “the son of Abraham,” we are shown that Jesus is also the savior of the world. He fulfills God’s promise to Abraham that “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (see Gen 12:1–3).

This theme is unpacked in the genealogy. In Jewish genealogies, it is unusual to mention women. Yet Matthew says Boaz was the father of Obed “by Ruth” (Matt 1:5). It’s possible that Matthew references her because she was a Gentile (a non-Jewish person) from Moab. Throughout his Gospel, Matthew emphasizes that Jesus’ authority extends to all nations—from the Gentile magi at the beginning of the Gospel to the Great Commission at the end. God has a plan to bring salvation through His Messiah to all the nations of the world.

Matthew’s genealogy also shows that Jesus comes for the most marginalized and despised. Matthew mentions three other women—Tamar, Rahab and the wife of Uriah—with dubious sexual pasts. That’s not a coincidence. The final woman mentioned in the genealogy, Jesus’ mother Mary, also had rumors of an illegitimate birth swirling around her. That Jesus came from questionable people helps us to see that He came for questionable people. He comes to reach the despised and the outcast.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1


1. See Craig Blomberg, Matthew, page 53.

A Tale of Courage We Never Teach

Michael S. Heiser

Moses’ encounter with God in Exodus 4:21–26 is arguably one of the strangest, most confusing events recorded in the Bible. In this passage, Moses is en route to Egypt—seemingly following God’s call to deliver the Israelites from Pharaoh’s vice-like grip. But then something shocking happens:

And the Lord said to Moses, “When you go back to Egypt, see that you do before Pharaoh all the miracles that I have put in your power. But I will harden his heart, so that he will not let the people go. Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the Lord, Israel is my firstborn son, and I say to you, “Let my son go that he may serve me.” If you refuse to let him go, behold, I will kill your firstborn son.’ ”

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At a lodging place on the way the Lord met him and sought to put him to death. Then Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin and touched Moses’ feet with it and said, “Surely you are a bridegroom of blood to me!” So he let him alone. It was then that she said, “A bridegroom of blood,” because of the circumcision.

This passage is not only difficult and confusing, but it raises numerous questions. Why would God want to kill Moses right after calling him to deliver Israel? In addition to this theological conundrum, there are other uncertainties. We’re startled and confused when Zipporah, Moses’ wife (Exod 2:21), deals with this threat by immediately circumcising her son Gershom and touching the foreskin to Moses’ “feet.” What does that mean? And why would her action pacify God’s wrath?

Doing the Wrong Thing: Moses’ Negligence

If we look at the original Hebrew text of this passage, we would notice that the name “Moses” does not actually appear in the phrase translated as “touched Moses’ feet.” The text literally reads, “touched feet.” Consequently, Zipporah could have taken the foreskin and touched either Moses or Gershom, which would affect our interpretation. However, since Moses is the major character in the wider context, it seems logical to conclude that God is angry with Moses, not Gershom.

Why is God angry? We can infer the answer from two considerations: the difference between Egyptian circumcision and that prescribed by the Abrahamic covenant (Josh 5:2–9; see Gen 17), and the circumstances of Moses’ birth and childhood (Exod 1–2).

Circumcision was practiced in Egypt, but Egyptian circumcision did not remove the foreskin; instead, the foreskin was split. Any Israelite born in Egypt who was circumcised in this way would not have been in accordance with God’s covenant. Since Joshua 5:2 says some Israelite men were being circumcised “a second time,” we can infer that something was unacceptable about their Egyptian circumcision. Therefore, the ceremony in Joshua 5 would be a second circumcision for some men, but the first circumcision for those males born in the wilderness (Josh 5:4). Circumcision was not only a sign for Israelite men, but also for women, who needed to be certain they were marrying Israelites and not men who worshiped other gods. Every married Israelite man was thus a “bridegroom of blood”—a man who had undergone the blood ritual of circumcision.

Since the other Israelite males were circumcised prior to the conquest at Gilgal (some a “second time”; Josh 5:2), we can reasonably assume that Moses had never been circumcised or was circumcised according to Egyptian custom. Had he been marked by Hebrew circumcision, he would likely have been in danger in Pharaoh’s household.

God’s anger at Moses in Exodus 4 is apparently due to Moses’ negligence in obeying God’s covenant ritual as a free man in Midian after he had fled Egypt. Exodus informs us that the Midianites knew the God of Sinai and practiced circumcision—Zipporah knew how to perform the ritual (Exod 4:25). Since God chose Moses as His representative to deliver Israel, Moses’ laxity in covenant obedience became an issue. Doing the Right Thing: Zipporah’s Courage

What about the meaning of touching the foreskin to the “feet”? This is not part of the normal circumcision ritual. However, the Hebrew word translated “feet” (רגל) is also used as a euphemism for genitalia or genital functions, including sexual exposure (see Judg 3:24; 1 Sam 24:3; Ezek 16:25; Ruth 3:4, 7). The phrase in Exodus 4:25 makes sense only if Zipporah circumcised her son, Gershom, and then symbolically transferred that circumcision to Moses by taking the foreskin and touching Moses’ genitals.

Performing this rite was not only prudent, but courageous. Circumcision in Israel was performed only by religious duty—and only by men. Moses had neglected the ritual, and now he, Zipporah, and little Gershom were already on the road back to Egypt. A circumcised Moses would be unable to travel, so Zipporah performed the ritual on Gershom and, symbolically, on Moses. Her deed was unprecedented, but necessary. Zipporah acted in faith, and God relented. She saved Moses’ life and also atoned for his negligence. Moses was now a proper “bridegroom of blood.”

Will It Preach?

We shouldn’t shy away from the difficult passages of Scripture. By exploring the context of this passage, we understand God’s anger. This odd episode also presents us with several lessons. We must not neglect to do what God requires. Had Moses been obedient to the covenant ritual of circumcision after leaving Egypt, his life—and his role as God’s servant—would not have been in danger. We also need the courage to do what’s right, even if it seems out of place. Failure in any of these regards will create obstacles to God’s desire to use us for His glory.

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1

Bizarre Visions for the Worst of Times

Michael S. Heiser

We are prone to make assumptions about God and His favor when life has us down due to sin, mistakes or incomprehensible circumstances. Of all the Scripture passages we might turn to during these times, the bizarre vision that opens the book of Ezekiel would not register high on our list. However, reading this passage with its original ancient context in mind reveals a powerful message for its original recipients and for every believer.

The Babylonian Context

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Ezekiel had his vision in Babylon as one of the captive exiles (Ezek 1:1–3). Comparing his vision to Babylonian iconography reveals that Ezekiel saw a divine “throne chariot” of the heavens—widely described in the ancient biblical world. Just as human kings had chariots, so did deities. A deity would traverse the heavens in his chariot throne, inspecting his domain and exercising authority over it. In Ezekiel’s vision, this throne sits atop the “expanse” (רקיע, raqia, 1:26)—the same word used in Genesis 1:6–8 for the heavens (see also Psa 29:10) and to describe God’s abode (Psa 150:1).

Wheels supported the chariot throne, along with four unusual creatures (identified as cherubim in Ezek 10:4). Each creature had four faces: human, lion, eagle and ox (Ezek 1:10). 1 Next to each cherub were four gleaming wheels (Ezek 1:15–16). These wheels were set on edge, since they are described as “tall” (Ezek 1:18). They had wheels within them—that is, each one had at least one concentric circle within it. The vision describes the outer edge, or “rim,” of each wheel as having “eyes” (עין, ayin). The prophet Daniel, who was also in Babylon, described the very same blazing throne with wheels (Dan 7:9).

The Vision in Context

The four faces of the four animals or cherubim correspond to the iconography of the Babylonian zodiac. Each represents a seasonal constellation in Babylonian astrology, and each face or constellation also represented one of the four directions (N, S, E, W) or quadrants of the sky. Babylonians knew that the heavens were connected to what happened on earth (times, seasons, crops, weather, etc.), and they believed their gods controlled those functions. Information about the stars was laid out on Mesopotamian astrolabes, clay tablets whose concentric circles could well correspond to the “wheels within wheels” imagery.

English translations of Ezekiel’s vision often break down at the point where the prophet describes “eyes” (עין, ayin) on the rims of the wheels. Ayin occurs a number of places in the vision, but it is not always translated. Taking the esv as an example, ayin occurs six times in chapter 1 (vv. 4, 7, 16, 18, 22, 27) but is left untranslated three times (vv. 4, 7, 27). In the vision’s description of the wheels, the word ayin is translated once as “sparkling” (Ezek 10:9). Since ancient astronomical texts commonly describe shining stars as “eyes,” ayin can refer to stars or their sparkling appearance. Many translators miss this possibility, failing to consider the astronomical context portrayed by the four faces.

The Meaning of the Vision

During their time of exile, the Jewish captives might have easily believed Yahweh had abandoned them forever. Likewise, the Babylonians could have simply assumed their gods had defeated Yahweh and ruled the heavens and the earth unchallenged. But Ezekiel’s imagery sends a message to the Jews in exile—and to their Babylonian captors: Both assumptions are flawed. Yahweh has not been defeated, nor has He turned away from His people, Israel. He remains seated in His chariot throne at the center of His domain—the entire cosmos. 2 When we read Ezekiel 1 through ancient eyes, we can feel the same hope today: Even in the midst of difficult circumstances, we can know that an all-powerful God is active and present in our lives.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1


1. Ezekiel 10:14 lists the face of a “cherub” instead of the ox. This is easily explained since the vision is of Yahweh’s throne-chariot. Ancient sculptures reveal that the cherubim supporting such thrones often had bodies of oxen. There is no contradiction.

2. This is why some Jewish synagogues (e.g., Beth Alpha) featured decorative zodiac mosaics with God’s chariot throne at the center. The statement was theological: Our God rules the heavens, and no other god has that sovereign authority.

Judgment: It’s Tricky

John D. Barry

Ezekiel 19:1–20:49; Revelation 9:1–21; Job 34:31–37

Judgment is both a curse and a blessing. If you judge others, you might be judged yourself—especially if you judge them incorrectly. Yet if you know how to judge right from wrong, you can discern truth from fiction. Although judgment can be a wretched thing, there is a time for it: When God has confirmed something in your heart, and the Bible verifies your view, you must stand up for it. When Jesus tells us not to judge, He is not declaring that we should be passive (see Matt 7:1–6; see also Matt 7:15–23, where He condemns false prophets and false followers). Instead, Jesus is saying that we should be careful about what we say and do, for we could be the one at fault.

Ezekiel also deals with the very fine line of judgment. Yahweh says to him, “Will you judge them? Will you judge them, son of man?” (Ezek 20:4). This question implies the very point Jesus makes: Is Ezekiel capable of dealing out judgment? Certainly not, but with the power of Yahweh, he can speak the truth. Yahweh goes on, “Make known to them the detestable things of their ancestors” (Ezek 20:4). He follows this with a commentary on “the detestable things” accompanied by a comparison to how Yahweh has treated His people despite their disobedience (Ezek 20:5–8).

Judgment is tricky, but fear of “getting it wrong” should not keep us quiet in the midst of misdeeds and misconduct. Instead, we must speak up—let’s just be sure that we first pray and examine our thoughts in light of the Bible.

What have you previously been quiet about that you should speak up against?

This article was originally posted in Connect the Testaments: A One-Year Daily Devotional with Bible Reading Plan.


John D. Barry is the CEO and founder of Jesus’ Economy, a nonprofit dedicated to creating jobs and churches in the developing world. To empower the extreme poor, Jesus’ Economy also has an online fair trade shop. John is also the general editor of Faithlife Study Bible and the former editor-in-chief of Bible Study Magazine. Learn more about John’s work with Jesus’ Economy at www.jesuseconomy.org.

Shelf Life Book Review: The Words of the Wise Are Like Goads

Miles Custis

The Words of the Wise Are Like Goads: Engaging Qohelet in the 21st Century
Eisenbrauns, 2013

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In this resource, Mark J. Boda, Tremper Longman III and Christian G. Rata present essays on Ecclesiastes in five categories. The first set of essays discusses how Ecclesiastes was understood throughout history by early interpreters, rabbis, Reformers and Puritans. Essays in the second section relate to the history, form, and rhetoric of Ecclesiastes, while part three examines specific passages—such as the epilogue or Ecclesiastes 7:23–8:1—or key concepts, like the use of Hebrew words throughout the book. The fourth section deals with technical examinations of the language and grammar of Ecclesiastes, and the final section discusses practical issues of interpretation.

It is the final section that sets the volume apart from other collections of essays. “The Theology of Ecclesiastes,” by Craig Bartholomew, examines the key messages of the book in light of the biblical canon. Pastors and teachers will find Daniel Fredericks’ essay, “Preaching Qohelet,” especially relevant. Fredericks provides sermon outlines and suggests useful themes—like humanity’s limitations and God’s sovereignty—that pastors or teachers can develop and share with their congregations.

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 2

Is This Where God Wants Me?

Ryan J. Pemberton

I often wondered whether business in general, and sales-related business specifically, could be amenable to the Gospel. As a 20-something young professional finding success in the business world, I began to feel uneasy about my work. “Can I follow God in this position?” I wondered. “Is this really where He wants me?”

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Search as we might, we won’t find a Bible passage that tells us whether our current job is the right one. However, there are helpful texts, such as the two stories of men meeting Jesus for the first time found in Luke 18–19. Their responses illustrate what following Jesus actually requires.

What If My Job Is Questionable?

Luke 19 tells the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus, the tax collector—a detested job if ever there was one. Luke tells us that the crowd is shocked by Jesus’ request to stay at Zacchaeus’ home. To them, he was a sinner by virtue of his trade. Luke also mentions his wealth (19:2). Not only did Zacchaeus have an unpopular career, he was good at it.

If anyone could expect to be called out of their job, it would be Zacchaeus, and yet that wasn’t the case. Instead, Jesus praises Zacchaeus for his change of heart. Brought face-to-face with Jesus, Zacchaeus says, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody of anything, I will pay back four times the amount” (19:8). Jesus recognizes Zachaeus’ generosity as a mark of his role in the family of God: “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham” (Luke 19:9). While Christians ought to refuse any work that causes others to stumble (Luke 17:1–2), Jesus appears less concerned with the “what” of our work and more concerned with the “how.”

When Our Work Obstructs Our Faith

There are some instances, though, where we must prayerfully consider whether our career hinders our pursuit of Christ.

In Luke 18, a rich man of influence comes to Jesus with a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Luke 18:18). He claims he has kept all the commandments. “What more could I possibly do?” he seems to be asking. Jesus’ response: Sell all you have, give it to the poor, and follow me (Luke 18:22).

These words hold true for us: Christ must come first. Typically our jobs are not evil in and of themselves, and we can follow Jesus while working diligently in them. But they can become an idol if we let them, and we are called to rid ourselves of idols.

In Ephesians 6:5–8, Paul advises his readers to work for earthly employers “not only to win their favor … but as slaves of Christ, doing the will of God from your heart.” We are to “serve wholeheartedly” in our work, as if we are working for God Himself, but we must be certain that God comes first. We must be careful not to allow our work or income to replace the priority of serving God and loving others.

Following God Where You Are

The Bible does not attempt to tell each Christian whether their current job is the right one. And yet, in these two examples, we see that (almost) any job can be where we are “supposed” to be—as long as we follow Christ in them, refusing to make our career an idol. If we find we cannot follow God without leaving a job, we can trust His Spirit to lead us in His will through prayer for discernment (Jas 1:5; Phil 4:6–7).

In most cases, however, God calls us to follow by selflessly devoting ourselves to Him—right where we are—as living sacrifices (1 Pet 2:5; Rom 12:1), as joy-filled agents of redemption, and as part of a complete cruciform life. Such a calling can be just as daunting as dropping our nets to follow Him.

Biblical references are taken from the New International Version (NIV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1

A Jealous, Violent and Good God

Eli T. Evans

“God is love.” So say T-shirts and coffee cups, quoting 1 John 4:8. The verse is consistently near the top of “most quoted verses” lists, and it’s easy to imagine why. Verses from the book of Nahum, on the other hand, show up near the bottom.

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Nahum could be low on the list for a number of reasons. It’s a short book—the Minor Prophets are minor, after all. Also, it is a single prophetic oracle against the city of Nineveh that was fulfilled centuries before Christ. But the real issue with Nahum is that it paints a portrait of God that offends modern sensibilities. The book begins and ends with God’s wrath, and throughout the chapters He is angry, jealous, vengeful and brutally violent. For those who want to portray the God of the Old Testament as cruel, Nahum has some good lines. It starts right out with, “The Lord is a jealous and avenging God; the Lord is avenging and wrathful” (Nah 1:2). God claims direct responsibility for Nineveh’s bloody fall (Nah 2:13), even declaring that He will treat Nineveh like the “whore” she is by stripping her naked and throwing “filth” at her (Nah 3:5–6). You won’t see that on a coffee cup any time soon.

Nevertheless, Nahum calls all of this “good news” (Nah 1:15). More to the point, it’s the good news.

First of all, Nahum isn’t alone in calling God “jealous.” This description is right in the first commandment (Exod 20:5). Exodus 34:14 even says that His name is “Jealous.” For you or me, jealousy would be a character flaw, but for God, it is an attribute: He is jealous over His relationship with His people. And Nahum isn’t the only one who says “vengeance” belongs to God (Deut 32:35, 41–43). The psalmist sings along: “O God of vengeance, shine forth!” (Psa 94:1). For us, revenge is a sin, but for a perfect God whose insight penetrates every heart, it is a pure expression of justice (see Rom 12:17–19).

Nahum’s God is the same “Father of Lights” we meet in the New Testament. “For God so loved the world” may be the most familiar passage in the Bible, but keep reading: “[W]hoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him” (John 3:16, 36). Jesus also says that we should “fear [God] who can destroy both the soul and body in hell” (Matt 25:31–46). Paul explains that “the wrath of God” is coming for everyone because “all have sinned” (Rom 1:18; 3:23).

According to Nahum, the only escape from God’s wrath is to trust in His goodness—a thread that runs throughout the Old Testament. “The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,” declares Nahum 1:3; nevertheless, He “will by no means clear the guilty” (compare Exod 34:6–7; Pss 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2). Faith is the only difference between those who receive God’s mercy and those who don’t: “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble; he knows those who take refuge in him” (Nah 1:7). This is the same means of salvation articulated throughout the New Testament (e.g., John 10:14, 27; 1 Cor 8:3; 2 Tim 2:19).

As Nahum puts it, “Behold, upon the mountains, the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace!” (1:15; compare Isa 52:7). Unfortunately, “peace” cannot come unless those who “plot against the Lord” are utterly destroyed (1:9). Similarly, the “good news” of the New Testament is good not only because of the salvation of those who believe in Jesus, but also because of—not in spite of—the total destruction of everyone else. In Revelation, the “smoke of their torment goes up forever,” and the response in heaven is jubilant (Rev 14:11, 18:9, 21:1–8; compare 2 Thess 1:5–10).

Nahum says, “Never again shall the worthless pass through [Israel]” (Nah 1:15). This is a genuine pronouncement of hope for Israel at the time—the same hope that John expresses for eternity in Revelation: “[N]othing unclean will ever enter [the New Jerusalem], nor anyone who does what is detestable or false” (Rev 21:27).

Will It Preach?

Modern sensibilities may rankle at the idea that violence is ever the solution; yet a heaven filled with violent and wicked people wouldn’t be heaven at all. It would just be this cursed earth all over again. Nahum knows that violence begets violence, and only God can break the cycle. God, for His part, takes no pleasure in this (Ezek 18:23; 33:11; 1 Tim 2:4; 2 Pet 3:9), and neither should we. God’s just prerogative to destroy wickedness doesn’t sanction human-to-human violence—that’s exactly why Nineveh is being judged.

Justice is God’s, and that’s good because He is the only one who can bring it fairly. And it’s also good that justice is coming because, at some point, the pain must stop, and the violence we do to one another must end.

Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Faithlife Corporation. Originally published in print, Vol. 6 No. 1