How the faithful city has become a whore, she who was full of justice! Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow's cause does not come to them.
Therefore the Lord declares, the Lord of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: “Ah, I will get relief from my enemies and avenge myself on my foes. I will turn my hand against you and will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy. And I will restore your judges as at the first,and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.”
Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness. But rebels and sinners shall be broken together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed. For they shall be ashamed of the oaks that you desired; and you shall blush for the gardens that you have chosen. For you shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water. And the strong shall become tinder, and his work a spark, and both of them shall burn together, with none to quench them.
As this chapter draws to a close, God focuses on the state of His Covenant people, especially focusing on the city of Zion or Jerusalem. God through the giving of the Law through Moses established the cities and country of Israel, the people of Israel in righteousness (Ps. 99:4). But now God sees spiritual adultary at work, as the people prostituted themselves to foreign and false gods.The metaphor of silver (a valuable substance) becoming dross (something worthless) and the metaphor of mixing best wine with water (devaluing something good) in verse 21 shows the reality of spiritual adultary, the exchanging of something of much value for something worthless (cf Rom. 1:22-23). Such a spiritual exchange devalues those who partake of it, as the noble princes have became as it were 'rebels and the companion of theives', both in worth and in deed. Worth because they have devalued themselves by their idolatry, and deed because by abadoning God and His Law, they have soon fell into sin and actual wickedness, as the later part of verse 23 shows (loving bribes, denying justice to the fatherless and the widow).
And to this reality, God, the LORD of hosts, sovereignly proclaims judgment on His people (v. 24). Israel as it is has became the enemy of God through their adultary, at least those within the Covenant community who have violated God's laws and rebelled against Him. Thus, God will get relief from them by pouring out His wrath against them. God's design in judgment will be to destroy all false worship and profession; so as to purify His people as they turn back in repentance to Him (v. 27). As fire burns away the dross, the impurities away from the metal ore and leave behind pure metal, so the fire of judgment will purify the people of God of their syncretism. As other metals are removed so as to get the pure metal (ie gold), so the Lord will 'remove all [their] alloy' (v. 25). The image of lye (a strong caustic detergent used in biblical times) evokes an image of the harshness and absolute power God will use for such a judgment. God will spare nothing in His quest to purify His people from their sins indeed.
In verses 26 to 28, the desired end of the judgment of the Lord is hereby stated. God's intent is to restore once again purity of His people, as can be seen in the impartiality and righteousness of the judges and counselors, such that Zion could be called the city of righteousness again. This of course would only be actually fulfiled by our Lord Jesus Christ, who did establish the Kingdom of God spiriually now when He first came, which would be realized in all its fullness when He comes again (the Heavenly Jerusalem cf Rev. 21:2). But God pronounces destruction for 'rebels and sinners and those who forsake the Lord' (v. 28), those who refuse to repent of their sins despite judgment, and these people would be consumed by the wrath of God.
In the Day of the Lord, sinners will be ashamed of their sins. The oaks here described in verse 29 refers to the trees (oaks) at the high places and the gardens also. All of such places of sin and compromise sinners would be ashamed of, for they were a snare to them.
God then moves back to the present. Although the oak is a strong, sturdy tree, those who go to the high places would be like dead oaks whose leaves are withering. They are likened also to a garden without water, and thus soon to die. God thrugh this mocked their syncretism, as the symbols of strength and significance in their eyes and religious ceremonies He will destroy and show to be useless and powerless. Much as how Elijah taunted the false prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:20-29) and show their god to be no god at all even in Baal's supposed strength, the Lord God eliminates false gods and worship by judging them in their areas of supposed strength and making a mockery and display of them. God's judgment as it falls upon unregenerate sinners destroys even the strong, and eliminates them and their work (v. 31). The strength and works of those who rebel against God in the end only works for their destruction, as they are but tinder used to display the power of God's wrath against sin, and the glory of His justice.
How then can we aply what we have learned? Let us remember that our God is one who seeks righteousness and justice, not because God judges us by our works, but because they are the evidences of true regenerate hearts. God uses means, even disciplining us in judging the corporate community of believers, harshly even, in order to purify a people for Himself. Are we therefore encountering persecution or difficulties in our faith (trials and tribulations)? Rejoice, for God is at work in and through us in purifying us. Let us therefore learn not to despise the Lord's discipline, but to embrace it and continually turn to Him (Heb. 12:3-11), and not be like those who continually reject God and will be finally cast away into eternal destruction.
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