Previous article in this series: February 1, 2012, p. 208.
Perhaps you will recall that a year ago we started in this rubric what we hope to be a series of articles on the very beginning of New Testament Bible history. We began, however, with a quick review of the end of Old Testament history—not for its own sake but, as we said at that time, “for the perspective that the Old gives to the New. For it is out of the scattering of the people of Israel and the ruins of the house of David that there comes the glorious kingdom of David’s greater son.”
In five articles we focused on the demise of the Kingdom of Israel—that is, the Israel of the ten tribes, the northern kingdom. The last of the five concluded with this note: “Next time: Israel’s treacherous sister.” At long last we make good on that intention, focusing now on the end of the Kingdom of Judah, Israel’s treacherous sister, and, again, much from the perspective of the prophets. We turn first, as one might expect, to the prophet Jeremiah, who brought God’s word to Judah right to the bitter end.
“Hast thou seen that which backsliding Israel hath done?” the Lord asked the prophet Jeremiah. “She is gone up upon every high mountain and under every green tree, and there hath played the harlot. And I said after she had done all these things, Turn thou unto me. But she returned not.”
Then this: “And her treacherous sister Judah saw it. And I saw, when for all the causes whereby backsliding Israel committed adultery I had put her away, and given her a bill of divorce; yet her treacherous sister Judah feared not, but went and played the harlot also” ().
What were those “causes” that Judah had seen?
The northern kingdom, the kingdom of the ten tribes, had been founded in apostasy. Under Jeroboam I, Israel, in their rejection of the house of David and abandoning of the worship of God in Jerusalem’s temple, had in effect rejected Christ, both with respect to His kingly and His priestly office. And the golden calves at Dan and Bethel led to an addiction to idolatry—an addiction that, even in the face of repeated admonitions from prophets of the Lord, they steadfastly refused to abandon. On every high hill and under every green tree the people of Israel had prostituted themselves to idols.
And, like an unfaithful wife, she was divorced. God put her away. He cast her out of the land that He had promised to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and to their seed forever in the way of obedience. The Jews of the northern kingdom were scattered among the nations, never, as a people, to return.
That was what Israel’s sister Judah saw. And, instead of taking warning, she went and “played the harlot also.”
“And the Lord said unto me,” says Jeremiah, “the backsliding Israel hath justified herself more than treacherous Judah” (). That is, backsliding Israel was not so bad as, was more righteous than, her sister Judah.
How is that so? Part of the reason is surely this, that Judah saw what Israel did, witnessed her ruin because of it, and did not take to heart the warning. Judah observed the demise of her sister “at a distance, as it were from a watchtower; yet she saw it without any advantage. …she thought not of repenting, when she had such a striking example of vengeance set before her eyes” (Calvin).
Significantly, the prophet Ezekiel, a younger contemporary of Jeremiah (though himself already a captive in Babylon), compared the iniquity of Judah not only with that of her “elder sister” Samaria (Israel) but also with that of her “younger sister”…Sodom! And Judah was declared to be the worst of the lot. “They [thy two sisters] are more righteous than thou” ().
“Son of man,” the Lord said to Ezekiel, “cause Jerusalem to know her abominations” (). Cause “Jerusalem” to know—that is, Jerusalem as she represents the nation, Judah, the Jews as a people. Cause them, the Lord says, to know.
But, we might ask, was there among them, the Jews, no knowledge? Indeed there was. The words of the apostle Paul come to mind. “What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them was committed the oracles of God” (). Unlike their heathen neighbors, the Jews had the Scriptures. And they studied them. They had also the temple, the priesthood, and the throne of David—all in Jerusalem. Jerusalem was therefore a place of knowledge. But Jerusalem did not know her sin. Hence the word of the Lord to Ezekiel: “…cause Jerusalem to know her abominations.”
Hence also the word of the Lord to Jeremiah: “Stand in the gate of the Lord’s house, and proclaim there this word, and say, Hear the word of the Lord, all ye of Judah, that enter in at these gates to worship the Lord. Thus saith the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, Amend your ways and your doings, and I will cause you to dwell in this place” ().
But…why here? Why at the gate of the temple? Why to those who are coming to worship the Lord? Is this not like ‘preaching to the choir’?
Decidedly not. In fact, if it is permissible in this instance to speak of levels of abominations, we could say that those who brought lambs to the temple in Jerusalem did worse than those who burned incense to Baal on high hills and under green trees.
It was this that Judah did not know. Truth is, they thought the opposite. Judah had “judged” her sisters () and smugly concluded that they (Sodom and Samaria) deserved what they got: fire and brimstone, for the one, and the punishing armies of the kings of Assyria, for the other. “But not us. The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are we” ( ).
And God gave His judgment: “They are more righteous than thou,…thou hast justified thy sisters” ()—that is, Sodom and Samaria, thy sisters, seem almost innocent, when compared with you.
We might be inclined to respond with disbelief. The sin that represents one of the depths of human depravity came to be named, for good reason, after Sodom. And do we not remember the defiant words of the people of Israel, “What portion have we in David? neither have we inheritance in the son of Jesse: to your tents, O Israel: now see to thine own house, David” ()? And did not Israel abandon the God-ordained worship of Jehovah, both with respect to place and manner? Did not Judah, in striking contrast, remain loyal, for 300 years, to the house of David, and maintain the worship of God in the house that He had chosen to put His name there, through priests of the house of Levi? Does all that count for nothing?
The Jews who still remained in Jerusalem at the time that Ezekiel spoke those words of prophecy from his exile in Babylon would have considered them absurd.
Likewise would the Jews of Jesus’ day consider His words of condemnation absurd, when He said to them, “But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee” ().
And, lest we forget, what about the church of today, far removed, in the twenty-first century A.D., from Israel, and Judah, and Sodom. It was, after all, not for nothing that the apostle Paul, in reflecting on this history of Old Testament Israel, had this to say: “All these things happened unto them for examples: and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (). In truth, no less pointedly could the admonition of Ezekiel be directed to the church today: “Cause Jerusalem to know her sins!”
What then was the character of Judah’s sins, especially when we compare them, as Jeremiah and Ezekiel did, to the sins of her two sisters? What comes to mind immediately, when comparing sins of the same kind, is the degree of light. Jesus made reference to that in His denunciation of Capernaum in the context of the verse (in Matthew) quoted above: “And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day” (). The Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s day, especially in comparison with Sodom, but also in comparison with Samaria, should have known better. The Jews profited not at all from the advantages they had, nor yet from the warnings they were given in the destruction of Sodom and the scattering of the ten tribes. This was no little aggravation of their guilt. By itself, therefore, this would be reason enough for Ezekiel to say to Jerusalem, “Neither hath Samaria committed half thy sins” ( ).
But that there is still more involved here is evident from Jeremiah’s challenge to the Jews who came to worship at the temple in Jerusalem: “Thus saith the Lord…. Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes? Behold, even I have seen it saith the Lord” ().
Jesus spoke the same language after He “overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves”—in His Father’s house. “Ye have made it,” Jesus said, “a den of thieves” ().
Jeremiah faced a different reality. But it was a profanity equally intolerable. “Behold, even I have seen it, saith the Lord”—the clear implication being “and I will not tolerate it.” “Therefore will I do unto this house, which is called by my name, wherein ye trust, and unto the place which I gave to you and your fathers, as I have done to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of my sight…. Then will I cause to cease from the cities of Jerusalem, the voice of mirth, and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride: for the land shall be desolate” ().
The Jews of Jesus’ day had become quite accustomed to the hustle and bustle of buying and selling in the temple of the Lord. And they had conveniently rationalized it all away. Admittedly, they would say, the noise level does not add anything to the solemnity of worship in this house, but the purpose of it all is to facilitate that worship. Surely this is legitimate. Why would this prophet from Galilee get so angry about this state of affairs?
And the Jews of Jeremiah’s day would have said the same. Den of robbers?? What is this prophet from Anathoth talking about? We are worshipers! Worshipers of Jehovah God! Any claim that we are making this house a den of robbers is ludicrous.
Indeed: “…cause Jerusalem to know her abominations.” She didn’t ‘know.’ She was in denial.
Jerusalem must be told that it is exactly in this respect that Samaria (and Sodom) had not committed half the sins of Jerusalem—for neither of Jerusalem’s sisters had made the house of God “a den of robbers.”
“…for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come” (). And the very next verse: “Wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (v. 12). We do well therefore, I think, to give this history a closer look, lest we be inclined to think that the primitive, pagan superstitions by which the church of the old dispensation was seduced are far removed from us who live in the enlightened, post-modern, western world.
Next time: My house, a den of robbers.