Sounds like: a’seer, a’sahr, sow’har
A short story called “Last Day of a Condemned Man” was published in 1829. It was a compelling novella written by my favourite novelist, Victor Hugo. Hugo passionately advocated for the abolishment of capital punishment and along with that he exposed the appalling prison conditions that existed in his day. “Last Day of a Condemned Man” was a social commentary which brought these issues to light. Hugo envisioned a future where the compassion and mercy of Yeshua (Jesus) would envelop the world of criminal/penal management (which he called “The Code”). He wrote:
Civilization is nothing but a series of transformations. For what then do I ask your aid? The civilization of penal laws. The gentle laws of Christ will penetrate at last into the Code, and shine through its enactments. We shall look on crime as a disease, and its physicians shall displace the judges, its hospitals displace the galleys. Liberty and health shall be alike. We shall pour balm and oil where we formerly applied iron and fire; evil will be treated in charity, instead of in anger. This change will be simple and sublime. The Cross shall displace the Gibbet. That is all.
The time when prisoners would be treated like patients would not arrive in Victor Hugo’s life… and it might not arrive in ours either. Prisoners are easy for us to despise and dismiss. They did a crime and, the feeling is, they should pay the price. Yeshua, also “did a crime” (in the eyes of the religious officials) and He paid a most terrible price.
The Imprisoned Chosen Family
Although Yeshua was arrested, held for trial, condemned and crucified, He did not spend a significant amount of time in prison. However his cousin, John the baptizer, did. John was imprisoned and executed (Matthew 14:3, 10 & Mark 6:17, 27, Luke 3:20) at the hands of king Herod. In fact, many of Yeshua and John’s forebears were imprisoned:
- Joseph was imprisoned by the Egyptians (Genesis 39:20-23)
- Samson was imprisoned by the Philistines (Judges 15:10-13; Judges 16:21-25)
- King Manasseh of Judah was imprisoned by the Assyrians (2 Chronicles 33:11)
- Hoshea, the last king of Israel, was arrested by the Assyrians (2 Kings 17:4)
- Jehoahaz king of Judah was imprisoned by Pharaoh Neco of Egypt (2 Kings 23:33)
- The Hebrew people of Judah were imprisoned by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 40:1)
- Jehoiakim, king of Judah, was imprisoned by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon (2 Chronicles 36:6)
- King Zedekiah was imprisoned by the Babylonians (Jeremiah 52:11 & 2 Kings 25:7)
In the scroll of Isaiah the king of Babylon symbolically represented the “big bad”… he was an image bearer of the evil one. What could be said of the king of Babylon could also be said of YHWH’s most prolific enemy, ha-Satan (the Adversary). Isaiah 14 identified the king of Babylon as one who wanted to rise above God:
“But you [king of Babylon] said in your heart,
‘I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God, and I will sit on the mount of assembly In the recesses of the north. I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High.’
Nevertheless you will be brought down to Sheol, to the recesses of the pit. Those who see you will stare at you, they will closely examine you, saying,
‘Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms, who made the world like a wilderness and overthrew its cities, who did not allow his prisoners [a’siraw] to go home?’”
The king of Babylon held people back from going to their homes, but for God-followers their true home was being with YHWH, face to face. Prisoners were not meant to be held back from God, they were to be released to God.
God Leads the Prisoners Into Prosperity
There was no indication, anywhere, that God approved of imprisonment.
He understood that humanity placed a social stigma on those who had been incarcerated. But He made it clear that He did not despise any of His people who found themselves imprisoned:
For YHWH hears the needy, and does not despise those of His who are prisoners [a’siraw].
Actually, the Bible promoted YHWH as the Great Liberator:
This will be written for the generation to come, that a people yet to be created may praise YHWH:
For He looked down from His holy height; from heaven YHWH looked upon the earth, to hear the groaning of the prisoner [asir], to set free those who were doomed to death, so that people may tell of the name of YHWH in Zion, and His praise in Jerusalem, when the peoples are gathered together, and the kingdoms, to serve YHWH.
YHWH did not want to imprison anyone; he was a God of mercy and justice, and He cherished sincerity, honesty and liberation:
For the Lord will not reject forever, for if He causes grief, then He will have compassion in proportion to His abundant mercy. For He does not afflict willingly or grieve the sons of mankind.
To crush under one’s feet all the prisoners [a’sirey] of the land, to deprive a man of justice in the presence of the Most High, to defraud someone in his lawsuit— of these things the Lord does not approve.
YHWH did not just free His people, but He continued to care for them and lead them into comfort and well-being:
A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows is God in His holy dwelling.
God makes a home for the lonely; He leads out the prisoners [a’sirim] into prosperity; only the rebellious live in parched lands.
Living in a Prison of Death and Darkness
Prison was certainly a very real place, but there was also a metaphorical prison. Although most of us live and breathe freely, oftentimes our choices put us behind virtual bars. Turning our back on the Creator and rejecting His light, places us in darkness… and darkness leads to death. This was what happened in the Garden of Eden.
When Adam (humanity) disobeyed God in the Garden, he cursed himself. The Garden of Eden was no longer available to him; he would have to work for his living:
“Cursed is the ground because of you; with hard labour you shall eat from it all the days of your life.
Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; yet you shall eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, until you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”
But YHWH wouldn’t leave His people in a cursed state forever; ultimately He wanted to free them from the confinement that lead to death which hung over their heads:
There were those who lived in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners [a’sirey] in misery and chains, because they had rebelled against the words of God and rejected the plan of the Most High.
Therefore He humbled their heart with labour; they stumbled and there was no one to help.
Then they cried out to YHWH in their trouble; He saved them from their distresses. He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death and broke their bands apart.
This was the Good News of the Tanakh (Old Testament). YHWH would save and set us free from the prison in which we placed ourselves.
As for you also, because of the blood of My covenant with you, I have set your prisoners [a’sirayik] free from the waterless pit.
Return to the stronghold, you prisoners [a’sirey] who have the hope; this very day I am declaring that I will restore double to you.
Recognizing You’re a Prisoner
We are all prisoners to death. It waits for us and we cannot escape it. But YHWH’s conviction was that those who put their trust in Him would go through death and come back into life. We would die as we came, on our own, without a penny in our pocket, but YHWH would be there to welcome us home:
Now what will you do in the day of punishment, and in the devastation which will come from afar? To whom will you flee for help? And where will you leave your wealth?
Nothing remains but to crouch among the captives [assir] or fall among those killed. In spite of all this, His anger does not turn away and His hand is still stretched out.
However, those who were active adversaries of YHWH would be imprisoned by their own actions, and YHWH’s hand would not be stretched out to receive them:
So it will happen on that day, that YHWH will punish the rebellious angels of heaven on high, and the kings of the earth on earth.
They will be gathered together like prisoners [assir] in the pit, and will be confined in the dungeon; and after many days they will be punished.
Then the moon will be ashamed and the sun be put to shame, for YHWH of armies will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and His glory will be before His elders.
The key to the kingdom was to have a relationship with the Creator. Talk to YHWH, lay your concerns at His feet, and praise Him.
In the Bible there are twelve Psalms of Asaph (identified in the Masoretic text) and he often wrote communal laments in which he cried out to God, on behalf of all the people. He called on God to release the people from the prison of sin and death:
[Asaph:] Do not hold us responsible for the guilty deeds of our forefathers; let Your compassion come quickly to meet us, for we have become very low.
Help us, God of our salvation, for the glory of Your name; and save us and forgive our sins for the sake of Your name.
Why should the nations say, “Where is their God?”
Let vengeance for the blood of Your servants which has been shed be known among the nations in our sight.
Let the groaning of the prisoner [asir] come before You; according to the greatness of Your power, let those who are doomed to die remain. And return to our neighbours seven times as much into their lap their taunts with which they have taunted You, Lord.
So we Your people and the sheep of Your pasture will give thanks to You forever; to all generations we will tell of Your praise.
Asaph spoke for the people. He wanted freedom for God’s people and He expected YHWH to be the Great Liberator.
Commissioned to Free People
YHWH would free His people, and now it’s our job to free others. We are to reflect the character of God on this broken world… and we can do that by freeing people from the dungeon they’ve placed themselves in:
This is what God YHWH says, who created the heavens and stretched them out, Who spread out the earth and its offspring, Who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am YHWH , I have called You in righteousness, I will also hold You by the hand and watch over You, and I will appoint You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners [assir] from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.
I am YHWH , that is My name; I will not give My glory to another, nor My praise to idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, now I declare new things; before they sprout I proclaim them to you.”
YHWH appointed us, His image bearers, to bring light to humanity, to open their eyes to God, and to free all who are living like prisoners in a dark dungeon. We are to exemplify God’s word so that people can be freed from the chains of death.
This is what YHWH says,
“In the time of favour I will answer You; I will keep You and appoint You to be a covenant for the people, to restore the land, to apportion its desolate inheritances, to say to the prisoners [la-a’surim], ‘Come out,’ and to those in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’
Messiah, the Liberator
God’s plan to free humanity from the chains of death rested in the life of His Anointed Son Yeshua ha-Mashiach (Jesus the Messiah). Isaiah recorded the sentiment of the Messiah’s life-purpose:
[The Anointed One:] The Spirit of the Lord YHWH is on Me, because YHWH has anointed Me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent Me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and freedom to the prisoners [w-la-a’surim], to proclaim the year of YHWH’s favour and the day of our God’s vengeance, to comfort all who mourn, to console the mourners in Zion- to give them a crown of beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning, and a garment of praise for a spirit of despair.
So they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of YHWH, that He may be glorified.
These words, recorded by Isaiah, were the same words Yeshua quoted when He read the scriptures in His hometown synagogue in Nazareth:
And He [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where He had been brought up; and as was His custom, He entered the synagogue on the Sabbath, and stood up to read. And the scroll of Isaiah the prophet was handed to Him. And He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written:
“The Spirit of the LORD is upon me, because He anointed Me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to set free those who are oppressed, to proclaim the favourable Year of the LORD.”
And He rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down; and the eyes of all the people in the synagogue were intently directed at Him. Now He began to say to them, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
This was a bold claim for Yeshua to make. Everyone had been waiting for the Messiah and they knew that this Isaiah scroll identified the character of the Messiah to come. By reading this scroll, Yeshua was publicly proclaiming that He was the long-awaited Messiah. But the people had hoped that YHWH’s Anointed One would come and release them from the oppression they were under as subjects of Roman occupation. They were prisoners in their own home and wished for nothing more than freedom from their oppressors.
They lived as captives but they held onto their faith that YHWH would come to rescue them:
Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in YHWH his God, the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them. He remains faithful forever.
He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry.
YHWH sets the prisoners [a’surim] free, YHWH opens the eyes of the blind, YHWH lifts those who are weighed down, YHWH loves the righteous.
YHWH protects the foreigners; He sustains the fatherless and the widow, but the ways of the wicked He frustrates.
YHWH reigns forever, your God, O Zion, for all generations.
There was great hope that YHWH would be faithful and send the Messiah to execute justice for the oppressed. They were oppressed by Rome and they hoped YHWH would bring vengeance on their behalf! YHWH claimed to send the prisoners free, and they certainly qualified as prisoners under Rome. As a result, they faithfully waited for the Messiah to come and set them free.
When Yeshua entered the scene there was great hope that He would be the Great Warrior Messiah who would take down Rome and release them from the chains of tyranny. But Yeshua was not the kind of Messiah they had hoped for. The Messiah was never meant to be a Warrior. YHWH was not a God who promoted war, death or destruction. YHWH was a God of life, and love and liberty… and violence would have no part in His Salvation plan.
Instead, Yeshua did the unthinkable. He would save the life of everyone by laying His own life down for His friends:
“This is My commandment, that you love one another, just as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that a person will lay down his life for his friends.”
And that’s exactly what Yeshua came to do. He came to die so that we could live. He would die painfully on the cross, go to the grave, and rise up again, bringing back the keys to the Kingdom. Yeshua wouldn’t conquer Rome through bloodshead and death; no, He would conquer death so that we could live. That’s the kind of Creator God that the Bible tells us we have… a God who celebrates Life over Death… Order over Chaos… and Creation over Destruction.
But what this all means is that while we are on earth, we must reflect God in the same way that Yeshua reflected God… we must lay our lives down instead of raising our fists up. Yeshua made it clear… we may experience persecution, but by living humbly, with non-resistance, we reflect God’s character. Yeshua made the point that by laying our lives down, we become a living testimony:
[Jesus:] “But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, turning you over to the synagogues and prisons [Greek: phylakas], bringing you before kings and governors on account of My name. It will lead to an opportunity for your testimony.”
We were never meant to be warriors. We were meant to be givers. Yeshua shared a story of how God felt about His followers. Those who showed kindness and compassion to the vulnerable had the keys to His Kingdom:
“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in; naked, and you clothed Me; I was sick, and you visited Me; I was in prison [Greek: phylake], and you came to Me.’
Then the righteous will answer Him, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry, and feed You, or thirsty, and give You something to drink? And when did we see You as a stranger, and invite You in, or naked, and clothe You? And when did we see You sick, or in prison [Greek: phylake], and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it for one of the least of these brothers or sisters of Mine, you did it for Me.’
Life was about love and compassion and kindness. It wasn’t about raising arms and tearing down. The way Yeshua dealt with His oppressors, the men who wanted to kill Him, was how we were meant to deal with our oppressors. Fighting back would not bring God’s Kingdom forward, but humbly laying our lives down in order to lift others up was a much more radical rebellion. It was the shocking twist to the story. Victory wasn’t a conquest on a battlefield; it was so much more profound than that.
Just before Yeshua was arrested, tried and condemned, Peter boldly stated that He was ready to follow Yeshua into His fate:
But he [Peter] said to Him [Jesus], “Lord, I am ready to go with You both to prison [Greek: phylaken] and to death!”
But He said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow today until you have denied three times that you know Me.”
Peter was full of bravado, but when it came right down to it He would be as human as possible… fighting to stay alive. He had yet to learn the lesson. Fighting wasn’t the way; becoming a servant was the way to bring God’s Kingdom forward to all humanity.
After Yeshua’s death, Peter had learned his lesson, and he preached it in his letters:
1 Peter 2:16-25
Act as free people, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bond-servants of God. Honour all people, love the brotherhood, fear God, honour the king.
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to those who are good and gentle, but also to those who are harsh. For this finds favour, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person endures grief when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favour with God.
For you have been called for this purpose, because the Messiah also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you would follow in His steps, He who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being abusively insulted, He did not insult in return; while suffering, He did not threaten, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself brought our sins in His body up on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live for righteousness; by His wounds you were healed. For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.
We know that, in certain countries, people are still imprisoned for following Yeshua. Most people recognize that the freedom to follow your faith is a human right, but there are still many sitting in prison cells because they call on YHWH as their God and Yeshua as the Saviour. Under God’s love we can be free, even if the world puts shackles on us.
So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, “If you continue in My word, then you are truly My disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
They answered Him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, ‘You will become free’?”
Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave of sin. Now the slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son sets you free, you really will be free.“
If you have imprisoned yourself in guilt, doubt, and self-loathing, those are tight chains to be released from. But you were not made to be a slave to sin, you were meant to be God’s reflection… a free being, loved unconditionally by your Creator, so that you can love others in the same way. Don’t let your brain make you a prisoner… release yourself from your self-applied chains. Yeshua died to set you free… and you are free indeed!
Next week: SLEEP