Sunday, March 27, 2011

When One Oath Becomes Two

Their laughter rings out several stores ahead of me, echoes reverberating around the dome-like ceiling of our local mall. It's Friday night, and I'm in the minority--one who isn't a teenager or the parent of a teenager.

As I walk to meet my husband for dinner, I weave around clumps of adolescents who act like logjams in a steadily flowing river.

This clump ahead of me is more animated than most. While I can't make out the words yet, their wide eyes and broad smiles tell me it's a story worth hearing. Then, the girl storyteller suddenly swings her right hand heavenward, as if taking an oath in a court of law, and says, "Really! I swear to God!!"

I cringe. It's not as if I expect God to send lightening from heaven or have the earth open to swallow her up for flippantly using His name, but my body physically recoils from the impact of those words anyway.

The phrase may be used without any intent to disrespect God, but as I've learned lately, the content of the words is always serious...sometimes deadly serious.

I'm back in the reign of King Zedekiah--Israel's last king.

Over the past few months, you've likely read a lot about him here. Zedekiah is the one who listened to prophets who counseled rebellion against the Lord. The one who asked the prophet Jeremiah for prayer, but who really wanted God to change His holy mind. The one who ultimately refused to choose faith in God over fear of others, resulting in horrific pain and suffering for himself, his family, and his people.

We've talked about this king's "end." But I've never delved into what started his downfall.

That beginning came when King Nebuchadnezzar captured Judah, carted all the important people back to Babylon, and set Zedekiah on the throne. It was a smart move on Nebuchadnezzar's part--Judah could be a quite profitable vassal state if it could "behave."

In order to ensure Zedekiah remained subservient to Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar made another smart move--he "made him take an oath in God’s name" (2 Chron. 36:13). The covenant involved Zedekiah swearing on the name of Israel's one true God, Yahweh.

The prophet Ezekiel confirms that Nebuchadnezzar "took one of the royal family [Zedekiah] and made a covenant with him, putting him under oath. He also took away the mighty of the land, that the kingdom might be in subjection, not exalting itself, but keeping his covenant that it might continue" (Ez. 17:13).

It made perfect sense to make a man swear by what he revered, respected, and feared most...even if Nebuchadnezzar didn't believe in Yahweh.

The problem was that Zedekiah and the people of Israel weren't really fearing or respecting God at this point in their history, and sure enough, not too long after Zedekiah entered into this covenant with Nebuchadnezzar, he broke it and "rebelled against him [Neb.] by sending his envoys to Egypt that they might give him horses and many troops" (v. 15).

So much for great tactical moves. One covenant broken as easily as it was made.

Thirty-five times in the Old Testament, God's people use the phrase "As the Lord lives" or "As surely as the Lord lives" when making an oath, a covenant. While Scripture doesn't record Zedekiah using this exact phrase in his oath with Nebuchadnezzar, I would bet he did because when God condemns Zedekiah's actions, He uses that same phrase: "'As I live,' declares the Lord GOD" followed by "Surely in the country of the king who put him on the throne, whose oath he despised and whose covenant he broke, in Babylon he shall die" (v. 16).

A few verses later, God uses the same covenant-making phrase again, but now in reference to a covenant Zedekiah made with God, Himself: "As I live, surely My oath which he despised and My covenant which he broke, I will inflict on his head...I will bring him to Babylon and enter into judgment with him there regarding the unfaithful act which he has committed against Me" (v. 19-20, my italics).

Although it may sound like it, God is not referring to two separate covenants--they are one and the same.

When Zedekiah said something akin to the modern-day "I swear to God," he only thought he was making a mere covenant between himself and a foreign king whom he neither respected or revered. In all likelihood, he was just saying the words to please Nebuchadnezzar and had no intent on keeping the oath in the first place.

Yet, his speaking the words, his taking an oath in God's name meant he was also making a covenant between himself and God--and God takes His name quite seriously.

Christ, Himself, warned against taking oaths: "Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.’ But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one" (Matt. 5:33-37).

I wonder if those in the audience remembered back to a king who broke covenant with man and God, resulting in a complete destruction of Israel...or if they had already grown so desensitized to hearing God's name used in oaths that they didn't give a second thought to using the phrase.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Words that Counsel Rebellion

Eight years of teaching in the classroom, presenting face-to-face lectures and holding one-on-one student/teacher conferences didn't require me to choose my words half as carefully as now when I teach solely online.

As one whose classroom is located not within any four literal walls but in the unconfined realm of cyberspace, it's ironic that I now must more carefully counsel my students in how to revise their essays. In any grade dispute, a classroom teacher might get into a he-said/she-said debate and be protected because of lack of evidence; yet, in my line of work, there is evidence enough to slay a small forest of trees.

On the other side of the screen, without my facial expressions to guide them and without my presence to pepper with immediate questions, students (and their parents paying the college tuition) will pick apart each critical word that flows from my fingers...and they'll be able to read and reread those words blackened in Times New Roman, maybe forever.

Teaching others, counseling others in truth--it's a dangerous business.

The prophet Jeremiah may have lived in a time before Twitter, email, and Face book etched "truth" in tiny pixels of light, but the consequences of bad counsel were severe...perhaps even more so than today.

Way back in Moses' time, God had warned that a false prophet must be "put to death, because he has counseled rebellion against the LORD your God" (Deut 13:5, my italics).

Jeremiah uses those same Hebrew words, "counseled rebellion" in reference to two so-called prophets of his day.

The first time he uses this phrase is after the prophet Hananiah speaks a peace and prosperity gospel to Jeremiah "in the house of the LORD in the presence of the priests and all the people, saying, ‘Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, 'I have broken the yoke of the king of Babylon. Within two years I am going to bring back to this place all the vessels of the LORD'S house, which Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon took away from this place and carried to Babylon. I am also going to bring back to this place Jeconiah the son of Jehoiakim, king of Judah, and all the exiles of Judah who went to Babylon,' declares the LORD, 'for I will break the yoke of the king of Babylon'" (Jer 28:1-4).

Jeremiah welcomes the good news, but cautions Hananiah and those being counseled by him that most prosperity prophets of old were false.

Maybe Hananiah didn't like the implication that he was a liar and felt the need to reinforce his words with an on-the-spot visual aid because in the next verse, he walks up to Jeremiah and breaks the literal yoke of wood from around his neck, then repeats the same prophecy, just in different words.

Later, Jeremiah receives a word from the Lord and reveals Hananiah for the false prophet he is: "Therefore thus says the LORD, 'Behold, I am about to remove you [Hananiah] from the face of the earth. This year you are going to die, because you have counseled rebellion against the LORD" (Jer. 28:16, my italics).

His crime? Counseling rebellion against God. His punishment? Death.

In the next chapter, Jeremiah deals with yet another false prophet, this one living in Babylon with the exiles. He writes a letter to the exiles, "saying, 'Thus says the LORD concerning Shemaiah the Nehelamite, 'Because Shemaiah has prophesied to you, although I did not send him, and he has made you trust in a lie,' therefore thus says the LORD, ‘Behold, I am about to punish Shemaiah the Nehelamite and his descendants; he will not have anyone living among this people, and he will not see the good that I am about to do to My people," declares the LORD, "because he has preached rebellion against the LORD’" (Jer. 29:31-32, my italics).

Translated here as "preached," it's the same Hebrew word translated "counseled" in the other two places. And again--the punishment is death.

Strong's defines counseled as “to speak” or “to promise” while rebellion translates as “a departing, withdrawing; hence… departure from Jehovah”*

Using these definitions, the prophets' counsel was a spoken promise to the people. And by making them believe a lie, they were inciting the people to depart from God, His truth, and His plan for them during their 70 years of punishment/exile in Babylon.

To counsel rebellion against God is serious business and it's not something just done thousands of years ago. Warnings against false prophets and warnings for teachers to be careful permeate the New Testament (2 Peter 2:1-3).

According to the Hebrew definition, anyone who teaches the Word of God is "counseling." And what most people don't realize is teachers, pastors, conference speakers, and deacons aren't the only ones who fit into the role of "teacher."

Perhaps the extent of your teaching God's Word is in the role of witnessing to a colleague, friend, or your own child. Yet, even in those small instances, you are still teaching, counseling in God's Word.

Therein lies the danger of teaching "rebellion," something so easy to do.

Perhaps rebellion comes in the form of teaching a half gospel or promoting certain sins as OK because they're not the "big ones" anyway. Perhaps rebellion comes in the form of calling a "sin" a "lifestyle" because it's politically incorrect to do otherwise. Perhaps rebellion comes through a personal belief you teach your children even though it explicitly contradicts the Word of God.

Knowing that I am a teacher of God's word is frightening enough. The thought that one day God could say I was a false prophet because I counseled others to depart from God's truth in favor of an easier to swallow lie--that is beyond words.

*Definition from Strong's Concordance. htttp://

Sunday, March 13, 2011

And So Creation Groans...

The death toll was 48 yesterday morning when I went outside to work in the yard. By this morning when I went to worship, it was thousands. Now in the quiet of evening, it's more than 10,000...but officials expect that number to spiral upwards as the word "missing" is replaced with "dead." One article stated, "In one town alone, only 15,000 out of 75,000 were able to evacuate; the rest remain missing."

"Missing" is a safe, inkling-of-hope word that covers the horror of death covering Japan's shores this weekend. It's not just an entire family that's gone, not even an entire building--we're talking an entire city that had only 15 minutes' notice the end was near.

50,000 people (or more), just swept out to sea...gone. I don't know how to grasp the magnitude of that. My mind simply cannot wrap around that huge a loss.

But my mind can grasp the meaning behind this disaster. I don't even have to ask, "Oh Lord, why? I know.

Creation is groaning.

In Disney's movie Pocahontas, the lyrics in one song read, "You think you own whatever land you land on / The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim / But I know every rock and tree and creature / Has a life, has a spirit, has a name."

That's not how we Christians tend to think of the earth because we try so hard to distance ourselves from other cults that worship creation, itself, instead of the Creator.

Mankind does have an effect on creation. But more than that, we need to recognize that God's creation is a living entity with feelings, emotions, and a purpose.

Several key Scriptures indicate some of the roles creation plays in God's kingdom.

1. Creation cries out when mankind is not giving glory to God.

In Luke, the pharisees encourage Jesus to make his crowd of followers tone it down a bit and stop yelling things like, "BLESSED IS THE KING WHO COMES IN THE NAME OF THE LORD; Peace in heaven and glory in the highest!" Jesus replies, "'I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!'" (Lk. 19:38, 40).

These words were prophetic, for several days later when Christ hung on the cross, when most all his disciples had run to hide...when no one was speaking words to glorify His name, creation stepped up and did just that.

The sun cried out the only way it could--by refusing to shine: "Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour"(Matt. 27:45).

Then, the tectonic plates of the earth cried out by shifting in a great earthquake while the rocks literally cried out by breaking apart: "the earth shook and the rocks were split. The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised" (Matt. 27:51-52).

2. Creation groans for the return of Christ.

We tend to forget that in Genesis 3 when mankind sinned, Adam and Eve weren't the only ones punished. Creation was also cursed as a result. God said, "Cursed is the ground because of you" (Gen. 3:17).

In other words, just as we are enslaved by sin, creation, too, has been enslaved by the consequences of sin and death...and it longs to be set free, liberated from its bondage to death and decay.

Paul writes, "For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now" (Rom. 18-22).

3. Creation mourns over sin.

Hosea writes that "There is swearing, deception, murder, stealing and adultery. They employ violence, so that bloodshed follows bloodshed. Therefore the land mourns" (Hos. 4:2-3)

God even sent a prophet to speak to the land as it mourned, sharing with it a vision of fruitfulness and vindication for its mistreatment. He told Ezekiel, "Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel and say to the mountains and to the hills, to the ravines and to the valleys, 'Thus says the Lord GOD, 'Behold, I have spoken in My jealousy and in My wrath because you have endured the insults of the, O mountains of Israel, you will put forth your branches and bear your fruit for My people Israel; for they will soon come. For, behold, I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you will be cultivated and sown" (Ez. 36:6-9).

If God knows the names of the stars, why not the names of every tree? every rock? every grain of sand?

When the earth shakes, creation is glory of Christ our King, in frustration at its bondage to decay, in anticipation of Christ's return, in sadness over mankind's sin.

Photo from The Earth from Above. "Mountainous countryside near Maelifellssandur, Myrdalsjökull Region, Iceland. Once the young lava fields of Iceland cool down, life begins anew little by little. Ice, wind and water flatten and carve out shapes to begin with, then, during the summer, bacteria, lichen and fungi prepare the soil for plants, in particular mosses which adapt to an environment which remains difficult. These plants colonise the most favourable sites and terrain little by little, forming a new ecosystem" (© Yann Arthus-Bertrand).

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Extreme Environmentalists--What!? You Aren't One!?

If you haven't been bombarded yet with "Go Green" advertisements explaining how you can do your part to save planet earth for the next generation, you will be.

It's a little over a month and a half away--Earth Day 2011. As one who lives pretty close to the land on our family's hay farm, it's not an important day circled in red on my calendar. But, it's been on my mind lately, perhaps because my husband and I spent yesterday planting about 40 one-year-old saplings around our place--cherry bark oak, bald cypress, lob lolly pine, green ash, river birch, and black gum.

This year's Earth Day slogan is "A Billion Acts of Green". Whether you think man is destroying the ozone layer and the ice caps will melt until Mel Gibson's Waterworld is a reality or whether you believe what we're experiencing is just part of a greater environmental cycle--either way, the earth is your home, and for that reason, it is worth celebrating and protecting.

I'm going to let you in on a little secret, though. Environmentalists have it all wrong.

Saving the earth isn't going to happen by planting trees or recycling aluminum cans, carpooling or switching to fluorescent light bulbs.

You want to make an extreme difference in your land? Then, don't pollute it with your heart.

Yes, I'm serious--the state of a person's heart will make the biggest difference in the environment.

Imagine my jaw-dropping surprise when I was reading along in Scripture and realized the prophet Jeremiah was a 2600+ year old environmentalist!

Jeremiah writes:

"God says, 'If a husband divorces his wife
And she goes from him
And belongs to another man,
Will he still return to her?
Will not that land be completely polluted?
But you are a harlot with many lovers;
Yet you turn to Me,' declares the LORD.
'Lift up your eyes to the bare heights and see;
Where have you not been violated?
By the roads you have sat for them
Like an Arab in the desert,
And you have polluted a land
With your harlotry and with your wickedness" (Jer. 3:1-2, my italics).

Polluted. Hebrew word "Chaneph".

Literally, the word means "to be profaned, be defiled, be polluted, be corrupt"*

In the two verses above, Jeremiah speaks of two ways one can pollute the land...and neither involves littering or greenhouse gasses.

In verse one, Jeremiah speaks of physical adultery. Then, in verse two, he speaks of spiritual adultery--playing the harlot with God by speaking His name in one breath and living out wickedness with the next.

David uses this same word for "polluted" in the Psalms: "They [Israel] even sacrificed their sons and their daughters to the demons, And shed innocent blood, The blood of their sons and their daughters, Whom they sacrificed to the idols of Canaan; And the land was polluted with the blood" (Ps. 106:38).

Here, the blood of children sacrificed to false idols pollutes the land.

Consider what Jeremiah and David are saying to us about how to care for our planet.

It's pretty simple.

When we commit spiritual or physical adultery, we pollute the land the Father gave us.

Want to make a difference in the earth? Sure, plant a tree, find small and large ways to reduce your carbon footprint.

But want to make an extreme difference in the state of this earth? Then, determine where your heart's affections lie. Ask God if you are worshiping the idol of money, sports, television, shopping, knowledge, busyness....

Guard your heart from spiritual adultery. And who knows how big a difference you can make.

Image: This well-known heart-shaped piece of land is this incredible mangrove in New Caledonia, captured by Yann Arthus Bertrand and featured on the front cover of his book, Earth From Above.