I’ve been working on self-guided lessons for my church designed to walk people through some of the seminal moments in Scripture to help others acquire a stronger understanding of the big story of the Bible. I started the process of writing some lessons on the promise of God to Abraham and His descendants, then realized I didn’t really have much of a grasp on how that played itself out from Genesis 12 through Malachi.
God’s promise to Abraham, which is the promise God is still fulfilling through us, is as follows:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and youth father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who curse you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
With this promise in mind, I skimmed through the Bible from Genesis 12-Malachi, looking for reiterations of this promise, examples of this theme, and how this promise plays out in Scripture. I skipped Job because it predates the promise. I skipped Psalms because I suspected it had more variations on God revealing Himself to nations and Israel being a blessing than I wanted to write down. One assumption I brought to the text is that revealing God to other nations is in itself a blessing to those nations. I’m sure I missed many examples of the playing out of the promise in Scripture, but here are some things I saw along the way.
Outsiders to Israel recognize YHWH and his power because of His blessing of Israel. Abimelech recognizes God’s blessing of Abraham and his son Isaac, becoming afraid of both, asking for treaties and asking them to leave the area because God’s blessing has made them a potential threat. Jethro sees Israel has been freed from Egypt and declares YHWH is greater than all gods and sacrifices to Him. Deuteronomy mentions that Israel is blessed beyond all nations and that other nations will see this blessing by God. The Queen of Sheba sees the kingdom of Israel God blessed Solomon with and blesses YHWH the Lord of Israel.
Sometimes God’s people put on display God’s power over creation in a way that outsiders see God. The Egyptian magicians, when they see what God does through Moses say that it must be the finger of God. Elijah blesses a widow with food that doesn’t run out and the saving of her son and the widow discovers YHWH is God. Naaman the Syrian is healed of leprosy and states that YHWH is God.
One way other nations recognize the power of Israel’s God is through YHWH’s destruction of Israel for their disobedience. I only found one reference to this in Jeremiah 22.8-9. I suspect there are more I didn’t see in my skim-through, but one is enough.
After Israel’s destruction, Isaiah makes the point multiple times that other nations will recognize YHWH as Lord when He restores Israel. They will see God’s holiness by bringing back the kingdom of His people. Both the destruction and the restoration are a part of God’s covenant keeping. His covenant faithfulness put on display will be His vindication to the outsiders of Israel. Moses’ makes two appeals to God to keep His promise to Israel in order that other nations might see God’s covenant keeping.
In Exodus 19 Israel is consecrated as a kingdom of priests. I don’t recall seeing this language used to describe Israel after this point. Thinking through it, a priest is a person who does the work of God to bring others to God. Israel had separate priests to bring them to God. Presumably, for Israel to function as a kingdom of priests they would be bringing people to God who were not priests – other nations. The way Israel was to do this includes, at least: worshipping YHWH alone, following their law which was distinct from other laws and so reflecting YHWH, inviting foreigners to participate in their worship of their God, proclaiming God’s freedom, and by putting God’s blessing on display.
There are a lot of stories in Scripture about Israel and people of Israel blessing other nations and people from other nations. I already mentioned a few of these above. Joseph blesses Potiphar of Egypt and the Pharoah with a dream interpretation. Joseph then goes on to bless many nations surrounding Egypt by storing up food and keeping them from starvation during a time of famine. Daniel interprets a dream to Nebuchadnezzar, saves the wise men in doing so, and the result is Nebuchadnezzar’s blessing of YHWH.
One part of the original promise is that those who bless Israel will themselves be blessed. We see this in the story of the widow and Elijah, the widow blesses Elijah with a meal and the widow is blessed with food and the life of her son. Ruth blesses her mother in law with her presence and so is blessed with husband, child, and becoming a full member of the people of God. Rahab blesses Israel by keeping its spies secret and is blessed with being saved from death and integration into Israelite nation. Ebed-Malech the Ethiopian saves the prophet Jeremiah and is himself saved from the coming destruction of Jerusalem.
The ESV phrasing of the promise is interesting, “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” I don’t know Hebrew, so I don’t know whether it should be translated “in” or “through” or something else. Regardless, one way the descendants of Abraham bless the families of the earth is by integrating them into their community. Stories of people who became a part of Israel pop up all over the Old Testament (Ruth, Uriah, Moses’ wife). Many of the commands to read the Law together and share in the Passover supper include a clause about foreigners in Israel participating in the reading of the Law and the meal. In doing so, these foreigners are integrated into the community and become a part of the nation God is blessing. People from all families of the earth become an Israelite and so are blessed by being “in” Israel.
The prophets contain one of the strongest discussions of how all the families of the earth will be blessed through Israel. This is the message of the future kingdom of Israel. These men speak about how: all flesh will know God, all nations will see salvation, ends of earth will bow before God, the proclamation of God’s freedom to the ends of the earth, all flesh will know God as savior, righteousness and praise sprouting among nations, etc. Truly the greatest way Israel could bless other nations is by bringing them salvation into a worshipful relationship with the one true God. As we know, this blessing to all nations is fulfilled in and is being fulfilled in Jesus.
If you’re interested in glancing at my list, that can be found here.
“But if any nation or kingdom will not serve this Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and put its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon, I will punish that nation with the sword, with famine, and with pestilence, declares the Lord, until I have consumed it by his hand. So do not listen to your prophets, your diviners, your dreamers, your fortune-tellers, or your sorcerers, who are saying to you, ‘You shall not serve the king of Babylon.’ For it is a lie that they are prophesying to you, with the result that you will be removed far from your land, and I will drive you out, and you will perish. But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, to work it and dwell there, declares the Lord.”
Even as Israel insists upon its own rebellion and the armies of Babylon loom outside the gates, YHWH gives Israel a way out. YHWH pleads with Israel to take the way out. There’s no need to die. There’s no need to suffer the destruction of the city and the the destruction of people. Bend to Babylon and live. Certainly this isn’t a pleasant way out. Submitting to a foreign ruler isn’t a great way to live, but it is the way to live. Israel refuses to accept it.
They don’t have to accept, because everyone else they look to, prophets, diviners, dreamers, fortune-tellers, and sorcerers, tells them its not true. They seek for another opinion from a different presumed authority on the matter, and they find people willing to tell them what they want to hear. The truth of impending destruction is too distasteful, so they look for others to tell them lies which are more palatable. Their refusal to trust YHWH’s difficult truth is their undoing.
Telling people unpleasant truth is neither a fun business nor a profitable one. It’s not fun hearing it either. Telling people lies they want to hear is a much more enjoyable experience and lots of people, even in churches, are willing to pay to hear it. People want to hear lies when the truth is irksome and will look for others to confirm their sweet deception.
The problem is lies don’t do any good. Living in a pleasant false reality is fine for a moment but will bring destruction in the end. Surround yourself with those who speak the truth, even, maybe especially, the truths that are tough to swallow. Those who telling you only what you want to hear are leading you into darkness and destruction. Those who speak truth will guide you into light and life.
Then the priests and prophets said to the officials and all the people, “This man deserves the sentence of death, because he has prophesied against this city, as you have heard with your own ears.”
Then Jeremiah spoke to all the officials and all the people, saying, “The Lord sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard. Now therefore, mend your ways and deeds, and obey the voice of the Lord your God, and the Lord will relent of the disaster that he has pronounced against you. But as for me, behold, I am in your hands. Do with me as seems good and right to you. Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will bring innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the Lord sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears.”
- Jeremiah 26:11-15
We’ve been through this again and again, and we will continue to, because it is beautiful. The people of Israel, as a whole, are doing some very destructive things. They are worshipping wood and stone. They are treating the poor with contempt. They are falsely accusing the innocent and letting the guilty go unpunished. They are in a constant state of hypocrisy by trying to follow the conflicting rules and rituals of multitudinous religions. They engage in killing each other, and sometimes sacrifice their own children to idols.
YHWH still won’t give up on them. God still longs to bless them. When Jeremiah is facing potential capital punishment for speaking against these heinous behaviors, God doesn’t use this time to speak a final curse upon Israel. God uses Jeremiah to speak of repentance. YHWH speaks words of forgiveness for the past if His people would stop destroying their relationship with God and others. YHWH speaks of protecting Israel from the violent destruction they are on the cusp of.
The reason God’s patience is so striking is because YHWH has no need for Israel. God was never in need of humanity at all, and He certainly didn’t need one small tribe in the middle east. YHWH certainly could have found another group of people to accomplish His purposes in the world. He had no debt to Israel. He owed them nothing and He needed nothing from them, but He wanted to relent, He wanted to bless them, because YHWH loved them so much. So so much.
I too infrequently discover Jesus in the God of the Old Testament. But in passages like these, I see Messiah Jesus. I see a YHWH whose arms are constantly outstretched toward humanity even when their backs are turned. I see a God who refuses to stop caring no matter how much He is ignored. YHWH humbles Himself to humiliation in His pleas for relationship. YHWH will do all He can to draw His children into a restored relationship with Himself and with each other. YHWH is the Jesus I know.
I recently rewrote the “what we believe” statement for my church. I tried to summarize Biblical doctrine in a manner that honors the way Scripture communicates doctrine. The following is the first draft.
Creation and Sin:
We believe God created the earth, the universe, and all that is. Humanity is the pinnacle of God’s Creation, made in the very likeness of their Creator. God made the world, saw that it was good, and put humanity in charge of keeping it good. With this charge to care for creation came power, the power to obey God and take care of the world He Created and the power to disobey God and destroy His creation. The first humans chose to disobey God and it really messed up Creation, themselves, and their relationship with God. We call choosing to disobey God “sin.”
Everything Is Beautiful and Broken:
We are living in a world created good that the sin of people has messed up. This is why the world is such on odd place, full of both incredible beauty and destruction simultaneously. Good creation gone bad is why all people can be both beautiful and ugly, loving and hateful, amazing and disgusting. The world is incredibly, but it needs to be set right again. People are amazing, but we are also broken and we interact with God, eachother, and the world in both amazing and broken ways.
Setting the World Right:
When humanity screwed up Creation, themselves, and their relationship with God, God didn’t abandon Creation or people. Rather, God set to work to fix things. He sent a flood to wash away evil and re-create the world, but sin came back. He saw humanity isolating itself from the world and becoming arrogant so he spread them over the globe to populate and care for the entirety of the earth. In all God’s efforts to make the world good again, He uses people.
Blessing the World With A Blessed People:
God called a man name Abraham to set the world right. God set apart Abraham and his descendants (Israel) to live devoted to God, obeying His voice, and receive His blessing. The purpose of this specially blessed people was to bless everyone in a world. The descendants of Abraham were to eventually become a nation devoted to God, a bright light in a dark world designed to show all people what life is supposed to look like, bringing all people into God’s blessing.
These beautiful and broken people, set apart to set the world right, were at times a part of the solution, but were often a part of the problem. Israel disobeyed God in all sorts of ways: oppressing the poor, doing injustice to the innocent, worshipping other gods, murder, adultery, prostitution, and even child sacrifice. The special people who were given God’s blessing, laws, and presence to bring all peoples into relationship with God were just as sinful and guilty as everyone else, compounding on the ruin of Creation.
God in the Flesh:
God stubbornly refuses to abandon His Creation. God sent His son Jesus to earth, who consisted of the same substance of God Himself, to save the world. Jesus was born of a woman and born of God. He lived a life without sin, in complete love of others, and in intimate relationship with God, perfectly representing His image to the world as humanity was created to do. Having brought healing, teachings of life, and hope to humanity, they put Jesus to death on a cross. Jesus, as God, took on all the violent sin humanity could throw at Him and died with that sin on Him.
The sin that brings death killed Jesus, but Jesus was resurrected from the dead. The sin which died with Jesus stayed dead. All our sin against God, the sin that keeps us from right relationship with Him and others, died with Jesus for our forgiveness. With sin dead and God alive, we have been set free from sin and all its effects and thus have been set right to be in the presence of God. Jesus freed us to live in unhindered intimacy with God and each other again.
The Church Is God in The Flesh:
Soon after Jesus, was resurrected, He ascended into heaven. Being just like His Father, Jesus did not ascend to abandon Creation, but ascended to be more for the world than he was when He was here. Jesus sent His Spirit on those who believe, now the spirit of Jesus resides with all believers across the earth. Jesus, God Himself, is still tangibly here in a visible flesh. His body is what His spirit resides in: the community of believers, the church.
Those who trust in Jesus have been given redeemed hearts, but our bodies and the world in which we live is still physically affected by sin. Our bodies still die, our psyche is still marred, we still are given to the selfish pursuit of being our own god, and Creation is still screwed up, but this is not the end. Our redemption has just begun. Our heart, our spirit, the core of who we are, has been fully redeemed by God and there will come a day when Jesus Messiah comes back to give us the same resurrection he had, a wholly redeemed physicality.
When this day comes, the kingdom God has been setting up in the midst of those who put their trust in Him will come in full. The Kingdom of God will reign over all the earth. When Jesus reigns all wounds will be healed, all tears will be wiped away, and all wrongs will be set right. Our innocence and intimacy restored, we will once again walk side by side with God. The world created good will be good again.
The Future Kingdom In The Present:
The people of God, the church, are charged with bringing the future kingdom now. Because the spirit of Jesus reigns in the church, the kingdom of God is present in the the church. We are to live free from the sin which bars relational intimacy. Healed of our wounds, we are free to be Jesus to the rest of the world, setting wrongs right, freeing those still held captive to sin, and inviting others into a life of love. Equipped and empowered by God’s spirit, we have the honor of showing the world the beautiful love of our Creator God.
Thoughts? What am I missing? What should I throw out?
Prophets are those who speak the words of God to others. The primary purpose of the prophet is to reveal the will of God to a person or group of people to exhort them to follow Him. Often while speaking the words of God to others, prophets talk about what will happen in the future. Sometimes these predictions are very general, like “I will prepare destroyers against you” (Jer 22:18) Sometimes they are more specific, even including a timeframe for events, like this.
Moreover, I will banish from them the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the grinding of the millstones and the light of the lamp. This whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, declares the Lord, making the land an everlasting waste.
- Jeremiah 25:10-12
The basic idea of this prophecy is that God is going to allow Israel to be sent into exile for seventy years. After seventy years, Babylon, the nation that has the superior strength to take Israel into exile, will be brought down for its own sinful idolatry and mistreatment of others. The implication of Babylon’s destruction is Israel’s freedom. With their oppressor powerless, Israel is free to return to the land of the promise (Jer. 29:10). The people of Israel and Judah who trusted YHWH fully expected to be back in their land at the end of seventy years.
The whole action of the book of Ezra is based on this expectancy of a return after seventy years.
In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing… “[The Lord] has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem” – Ezra 1:1-2
The time when this was occurring? About 70 years after exile. In a very real way, YHWH was bringing Israel back to their land that they might be His people and He might be their God. In another sense, this form of return, where a foreign king sends some Israelites to go to their land and rebuild the temple under his authority, appears to be much less than the escape from exile Jeremiah talked about. That’s true too.
In Daniel 9 when Daniel noticed the seventy years had passed, he wondered about Israel’s return to their land, because despite being exile, Israel didn’t repent. Daniel said “we have not entreated the favor of the Lord our God, turning from our iniquities and gaining insight by your truth” (Dan 9:13). God responds with news of a delay in Israel’s full return from exile because of their disobedience. It was now no longer seventy years, but 490 years.*
About these 490 years, Daniel is told:
Seventy weeks are decreed about your people and your holy city, to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, and to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal both vision and prophet, and to anoint a most holy place. Know therefore and understand that from the going out of the word to restore and build Jerusalem to the coming of an anointed one, a prince, there shall be seven weeks… After the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary… And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.
- Daniel 9:24-27
Guess what events happen in the last few decades of this time period? Yeah. Ministry of Jesus, his death, resurrection, and the destruction of the temple in CE 70 also predicted by Jesus in Daniel-like language. With those events are the end of the sacrificial system, the death blow to sin, atonement for iniquity, an everlasting righteousness, and a new covenant made with many. However, there’s a nagging question that remains after reading the Daniel passage. Jeremiah’s prophecy was about Israel’s return from exile in seventy years. Daniel’s prophecy of 490 years doesn’t come across that way. Wouldn’t the time extension from seventy to 490 mean the exile would end just a little later.
It does. The end of exile was always the people of God being free to live where God is and where God reigns. With the sacrificial system and temple gone and sin deceased, there is no need for a centralized location to atone for sin. With the gift of the Holy Spirit, God is now wherever his people meet and God reigns wherever his people obey him. Home is now wherever the people of God are being the people of God. Jesus not only freed Israel from exile as prophesied by Jeremiah, but Jesus made it impossible for the people of YHWH to ever be in exile again.**
* If you read Daniel 9, it says seventy weeks. It’s a little complex, but the way the book of Daniel as a whole uses days, it’s pretty clear that it uses a day to represent a year (people sometimes call it a “prophetic day”). Seventy weeks is 490 days. 490 days in Daniel represent 490 years.
“Like these good figs, so I will regard the exiles from Judah… I will set my eyes on them for good, and I will bring them back to this land. I will build them up, and not tear them down; I will plant them, and not uproot them. I will give them a heart to know that I am the Lord, and they shall be my people and I will be their God, for they shall return to me with their whole heart.
But… Like the bag figs that are so bad they cannot be eaten, so will I treat Zedekiah the king of Judah, his officials, and the remnant of Jerusalem who remain in this land, and those who dwell in the land of Egypt. I will make them a horror to all the kingdoms of the earth, to be a reproach, a byword, a taunt, and a curse in all the places where I shall drive them. And I will send sword, famine, and a pestilence upon them, until they shall be utterly destroyed from the land that I gave to them and their fathers.”
- Jeremiah 24:4-10
There are a lot of interesting things going on in this passage.* One thing that stuck out to me is who YHWH says will have the land He promised to Israel. It is not the ones I would naturally expect to inherit the land. Those who stay in Jerusalem and try to keep it are those very people who will lose it. Those who voluntarily depart from Jerusalem into exile are the people God promises will have the land and God’s blessing. The people who abandon the land are the people who will keep the land.
To be fair, this isn’t some arbitrary decision by God to bless those who leave and let those who stay die, He already warned very clearly that destruction was coming upon the city and that the way out was to surrender to the attackers (Jer 21). Those who believed God’s words are those who are saved. It’s pretty fitting in light of the rest of Scripture. Still, it’s an odd circumstance to think about. Israel is in the land of the promise, but in order to inherit the land of the promise later, they have to abandon it now.
Their abandonment of the land YHWH promised them is actually an act of obedience to Him. Those who left the land are those who cling to God’s words in the presence and not the blessings of the past. Those who choose to remain in Jerusalem are protecting their city, their homes, their families, their lifestyles – God’s blessings. In protecting these blessings from YHWH they are abandoning YHWH. Those who are willing to abandon YHWH’s blessings are protecting their relationship with Him.
What are you protecting? What are you clinging to?
*References to other parts of the book abound in this little section: This passage directly references uprooting, planting, tearing, and building which are all a part of the section on the first chapter in Jeremiah we discussed. Told you it was one of the “broader themes of the book.” The prophet warned Israel not to go to Egypt and told them they would be safe if they left the city in peace of their own free will. The two groups who didn’t listen to this are specifically singled out as bad figs due to their insistence on rejecting God’s words spoken through this sections. The true people of God are those who hear and obey, and thus even amongst the Israelites YHWH distinguishes between his people and those who have rejected Him. Like so many other parts of this prophecy, we see God through Jeremiah talking about the increased culpability of those who have power.
I really hope some of you are reading through the book of Jeremiah with me. It’s pretty powerful stuff, and I found chapter 23 to be particularly rich.
“Behold, I will attend to you for your evil deeds, declares the Lord. Then I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the countries where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multipy. I will set shepherds over them who will care for them, and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall any be missing, declares the Lord. Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’
- Jeremiah 23:2-6
The sins of Israel and Judah were going to bring them into exile. YHWH made it very clear that Jerusalem’s self-destruction was going to be manifested in the complete obliteration of the city and the departure of its people into a foreign land. That was going to go down, but when God deals with evil, He doesn’t just end the destruction, He brings back the good. The great hope of exiled Israel was a glorious return to their own land where they no longer had fear or dismay and where none were still exiled. Their great hope was to be led by a good shepherd who would direct their paths and guide their interactions with YHWH. The great hope of the exiled people of God was to have a descendant of David back on the throne, his wise rule bringing justice and peace to the kingdom of YHWH. Israel’s great hope is that the Lord would be their righteousness.
Because of the faithfulness of YHWH, our people’s greatest hopes have become our reality. Jesus has brought the promises of God to fulfillment. The good shepherd has come, he is guiding us into all righteousness, is set on keeping us close to Himself, and he is the Love who sets us free from fear. All who were once in exile are back in the kingdom of YHWH, for wherever the Shepherd King is, His kingdom reigns. The righteous Branch of David has come: he walked into Jerusalem, declared Himself King, and took his throne. He brought justice and righteousness by taking all the injustice unrighteousness the world could throw at him and putting it to death. Jesus is alone in truly deserving the name, “The Lord is our righteousness.” We live in a reality that was once our people’s greatest hope.
Still, in a world where the kingdom of God has come in part and is coming in full, we can still live in exile. We can still live in fear. We can still be dismayed. We still experience and enact injustice. Yet, our reality is one of hope fulfilled.
All of these things have been taken care of ultimately and are being taken care of day by day. They are all passing away. The fulfiller of promises has shown he will stop at nothing to set the world to rights. He has removed all the roadblocks on the way home. Jesus has defeated injustice with forgiveness. He has overcome all barriers to relationship to be close enough to encourage us until the dismay dissipates and he will hold us until love has replaced all fear. We live in a time of hope fulfilled. Let us live with our hope filled full.