Pop quiz: What do these three biblical figures have in common?
Answer: According to the Word, they are the most likely candidates to save an unrepentant city from the wrath of God. According to the Word, they are also solidly incapable of doing it.
Before we wave this off as an intriguing (if morbid) bit of biblical trivia, we need to see what the prophet Ezekiel had to say about this trio.
“Son of man, when a land sins against Me by persistent unfaithfulness, I will stretch out my hand against it; I will cut off its supply of bread, send famine on it, and cut off man and beast from it. Even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness,” says the Lord GOD.
“If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they empty it, and make it so desolate that no man may pass through because of the beasts, even though these three men were in it, as I live,” says the Lord GOD, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters; only they would be delivered, and the land would be desolate.
“Or if I bring a sword on that land, and say, ‘Sword, go through the land,’ and I cut off man and beast from it, even though these three men were in it, as I live,” says the Lord GOD, “they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but only they themselves would be delivered.
“Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out My fury on it in blood, and cut off from it man and beast, even though Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live,” says the Lord GOD, “they would deliver neither son nor daughter; they would deliver only themselves by their righteousness.” (Ezekiel 14:13-19, NKJV)
We must consider the weight of this. This discourse is not just an impassioned prophet getting over-excited about his favorite heroes of the faith. This is the explicit word of the Lord. He is never arbitrary or wasteful with His words. So why did He pick out these three men?
Noah, along with his family, lived in a time when the earth was grossy polluted with lawlessness. Genesis 6 gives us the grisly picture of a time where “…the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and… every intent of the thoughts of [man’s] heart was only evil continually” (Gen 6:5). The Lord, who is and has always been gracious, merciful, compassionate, and slow to anger, was grieved by this and determined (rightly!) that the only solution was to wipe out the entire human race and start over. There was only one exception–a righteous man named Noah. He and his family would be the only people allowed to survive the righteous judgment of God. Noah responded to every seemingly crazy request God made of him with complete and unhesitating obedience, and preserved the line of both human and animal life into the post-flood world.
In short: Noah was an incredibly righteous man.
Daniel was actually a slightly older contemporary of Ezekiel. When the prophet was penning this burden, Daniel was in a place of power and influence in Babylon. He was employed in the richest, most powerful, and — unsurprsingly — most wicked city in the known world. He stayed steadfast in the midst of this adverse environment, praying faithfully, speaking boldly before rulers, and refusing to compromise the Word of God. He is one of very few major biblical figures of whom we do not have a record of sin. Were it not for Romans 3:23, we might conclude he never stumbled at all. He is a clear friend of God and stellar example of righteousness.
In short: Daniel was an incredibly righteous man.
Job, though sometimes wrongly maligned in sermons, is hailed through prophetic history as a deeply holy person. He was so much on the right track that the Lord pointed him out to Satan as someone who was uniquely “…a blameless and upright man, one who fears God and shuns evil” (Job 1:8). Literally, the Lord said that Job was more righteous than every other human on the planet. That’s nothing to sneeze at. And even after Job had suffered unimaginable torment, including derision from his friends, God vindicated Job, saying he had “spoken of Me what was right” (Job 42:8). The Lord then wildly blessed Job and honored him for his continued faithfulness and unoffended heart.
In short: Job was an extremely righteous man.
Remember that this is not just a prophet making observations. This is the Lord Himself selecting the most righteous men who had ever lived, and highlighting Noah, Daniel, and Job.
Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord (Gen 6:8). Daniel was known through heaven as the “man greatly beloved” (Daniel 9:23, 10:11,19). Job was God’s servant, unparalleled on the earth (Job 1:8). God really, really likes these guys. Surely He can’t resist that triple-play. Surely if these three got together in a city and asked God to deliver it, He would.
Yet this was not the case for Jerusalem in Ezekiel’s day. Jerusalem was a city that had given itself to “persistent unfaithfulness” (Ezek 14:13). The city as a whole had consistently and clearly rejected the Lord for a very long time. Even if three of the Lord’s favorite people pleaded for it, He could not righteously stay His hand of judgment. He would deliver the righteous from its midst. But the city itself was marked for the most severe discipline anyone could imagine.
Our God is a tremendously personal God. He always hears the prayers of those who fear Him. He delights in mercy. His heart is deeply moved by intercessors.
But even as God so skillfully and kindly deals with the heart of individuals, He is also a God who deals with whole cities, regions, and even nations. Because He is perfectly just — and because He is unfathomably kind — He does not pass over the iniquity of a corporate people forever. He is wise and capable enough to shepherd His saints through the judgment. But He is also wise and capable enough, as the God of mercy, to by no means clear the guilty (Ex 34:7).
God does not deal with corporate entities in exactly the same way as He deals with individuals. This is basic good leadership. You don’t address a crowd of 10,000 the same way you talk to your friend across the table. You don’t tutor a child the same way you teach a class. You can’t lead an army the same way you coach an individual athlete. And God doesn’t deal with regions the same way he deals with individuals. Ezekiel 14 shows it as plainly as one could hope for.
Does God relent from judgment on whole regions? Most definitely. He did it with Nineveh (Jonah 3:10). He even did it with Jerusalem in an earlier generation (Isaiah 37). But He did so when the entire city repented, from the top down.
The reason I write this (if it hasn’t become obvious by now) is the current state of things in America. In a message Daniel Lim gave us on Sunday, he showed us that statistically, only about 4% of my generation are believers actively involved in church. This means that roughly 96% of Americans 30 years old and younger — which is the biggest chunk of our population — don’t care about, or even actively hate, the Lord.
This would be alarming enough if all we were worried about was preserving our nice religious tradition. But this is terrifying in light of a real, living, righteous Judge of the earth who loves us too much to allow us to persist in wickedness forever. When a city or nation requires a big wake-up call, He is faithful to give it. When it gets to that point, it’s never pretty.
I am deeply concerned that we –myself most certainly included — all too often fall into lethargy when we consider this. I think there is a part of most of our hearts that thinks we are safe because there are still Christians in this country. A part of us likes to comfortably think to ourselves, Yes, things are pretty messy; yes, there’s a lot of sin, but we’ve still got some believers, right? We’ve still got the founding fathers’ groundwork of biblical ideology, right? Surely God wouldn’t judge us like He judged Israel. God forgives me of my sin all the time and delivered me from Hell; surely He forgives America of its sin and spares it judgment, too.
I firmly believe that God would be immensely pleased to not have to judge this nation. But we need more than a relative handful of believers hanging on to faith with their heads in the sand for that to happen. Just as you and I were saved by turning our hearts to God, America will only be saved if we corporately return to Him. We want more than just a remnant left over when the dust settles. We want mercy and deliverance for our whole nation. We need revival on par with the Great Awakening.
It is in a time like this that Rees Howell’s famous quote really strikes home: “History belongs to the intercessor”. We can’t afford to ride this one out and see how it lands. We must rend our hearts today before the just and merciful Judge and plead for revival in this land. We must have clarity on what the Lord is doing, and proclaim it boldly to those who need to hear it. It is good to be a Noah, Daniel, or Job who will be saved from the midst of judgment. But how much more so to cry out to the Lord and see the entire nation turn? It has happened before. It can happen again. But it will not happen as we look the other way and assume safety because there are a few righteous names in America. It will only happen as the people of God gather and pray according to Joel 2.
“Now, therefore,” says the LORD, “Turn to Me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.” So rend your heart, and not your garments; return to the LORD your God, for He is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness; and He relents from doing arm. Who knows if He will turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind Him?… (Joel 2:12-14).