You can read this through, since often one taught point leads on to another than qualifies it. But for an overview, see the list of what God has taught and for the context in which he taught each thing, see the beginnings and the history. Click here for home page.
Perhaps the most visible indication that God did not think worship to be that important was when King David, after he had felt settled and secure in his political position, went and said to God with:
"Here I am living in palaces but God only has a tent. I want to build God a house (temple) fit for him."
"No! I have never asked you for a house. I have not even told anyone else that I wanted a house."
Now God said quite a bit more, but it is worth separating out that opening statement because its thrust usually gets lost in the subsequent detail. The thrust is that God did not value religious paraphernalia like temples, rituals and wonderful worship as much as we human beings seem to. If this was the only indication of this revelation then we would ignore it here, but it fits a pattern that pervades the whole of Scripture, as we shall see. If God had thought temple worship important would he not have told his people "The first thing you must do when you have settled into the land I give you is to build a temple for me; that way you will honour me as I deserve. It will be a sign to yourselves and the surrounding nations that your victory was due to me and not to your own strength." But he said nothing of the kind. Isn't that strange?
There are several reasons we find this strange: time, geography and assumptions. All through time we have tended to ensure that religious ritual plays an important part in our relationship with God. It is, after all, one means by which the rich and flamboyant can show off their wealth (though many wealthy patrons had better motives). All over the world, among many peoples, religious ritual and worship of deities is practised. To Vedic Hinduism ritual was the most important component, and despite the emergence of a philosophical component, it remains the central thrust of much village and private Hinduism in India to this day. The Pillars of Islam are essentially religious (even turning alms-giving into a religious act). Among many pagan or animist religions there is both an appeasement of feared deities and a hope that by ritual we can please them.
But it is probably our assumptions that are the deepest reason. Our assumptions are unquestioned beliefs and reasons that guide and justify our more explicit beliefs and actions at a deep level.
(Now God said some more about a 'son' of David's building a house for God, which David took to mean Solomon, and God accepted that, but perhaps God was speaking of his promised Messiah who was to be called 'Son of David'.)
A clear lesson that came through during the period of settled life as a model society and demonstrator, was how land (and other resources) should be cared for. We in the industrialized, urban cultures might think this was merely because in their society (as in so-called primitive societies today) the land was their food source, but that with industrialized agriculture today land is less important. We would be wrong.
Land was seen not just as food source, but also as wealth, security, dignity, and spiritual roots. It was the inheritance of a family. It was involved with justice, and with 'spiritual' issues like trust in God.
The 'fertile crescent' in which God settled his people was fertile, so that their food production was blessed, but it was also extremely fragile. If the people did not treat it aright, its effective fertility dropped, and famine could result. In this was it was a sensitive indicator of the people's activity. This link with the land was spiritual, not just biological or economic. It comes across many times in the prophets that it was when the people abandoned the Living God for idols that the land would not produce for theme.
But we also find interesting positive statements. The people were to let the land rest every seventh year, to give the very land a sabbath rest just as they gave themselves every week. The land is seen in God's terms as a responsive and important being that is not merely there for human purposes, but is to be treated with respect. In fact God tells the Israelites that they are not the owners of the land; he is. On the land sabbath, the people were to trust God that the land would provide their needs without their planting anything. In this way there was the spiritual purpose of the land to teach dependence on God.
The land was a topic for justice too. Every fifty years, it was to be redistributed (the Year of Jubilee when also all debts were to be cancelled), so that no family could accumulate land at the expense of others forever. The effects of misfortune on a family (when they had to sell their land to a neighbour to get income) would last a few years, but not beyond fifty years. Each person might feel the effects of their own mismanagement, folly or even downright sin, but the family would not thereby be condemned to everlasting poverty thereafter. This has been called a non-socialist means of redistributing wealth that did not breed a dependency culture.
In addition to land redistribution, cultivated land was also an important part of the nation's social security infrastructure. The poor were allowed by law to glean any landowner's fields at harvest time and, by law, the landowner's harvesters should only go round the field once, so that a decent amount was left for gleaning.
So we begin to see that land was much more important than we conceive of it today in urban cultures. In God's design, it was an integral part of human life, society and religion. It is just possible that the Biblical emphasis on the importance of land was relevant only to a primitive rural society, and that we don't need to bother with it today, but it would be very dangerous to assume so. If we are wrong then, given God's special love for the poor, we would be under his judgement. ==== written hastily.
As time passed, it became clear that being a model society was only one part of a much wider plan. A theme that keeps recurring is that of God's chosen servant. Many references to it are ambiguous, not clear whether they refer to a single person or the chosen people of God. I used to worry about this ambiguity, but now I wonder whether perhaps it was deliberate, speaking more about the general role of being Servant and Ambassador of the Most High God, whoever fills that role.
As we shall see, the servanthood took many forms. First, Adam and Eve and their offspring were to be his stewards. Then Abraham was an ambassador for the Living God in a small way. Then the people of Israel were supposed to his Servant to the nations. Then the Messiah would be the One in whom all such servanthood was perfected. Then, lastly, those into whom the Messiah sent God's Holy Spirit, would continue his perfect servanthood and ambassadorship.
One aspect of this servanthood is that God's people were to be a model society, as we have seen. Another was to be God's ambassador to the nations around. A third was to effect some of God's saving and blessing actions upon earth among the peoples, and, as we shall see, this could only be ultimately fulfilled by God himself.
However, in all three, the emphasis of the theme of servanthood is that of bringing God's blessing and health and joy to all people and the whole of creation.
The prophet Micah says that God's people will be "like refreshing dew sent by the Lord to many nations" (5:7). Not only does his model people fulfil a communicative function but also a restorative one, healing the hurts suffered by God's beloved creation. Isaiah 42:6,7 and 49:6 tell how God's servant will bring light. We see echoes of this in Matthew 5:13?, Rom 8:19ff.
So, God's servant is to be means of converting the world from a stagnant, rebellious, sick state, to one of vitality, harmony, health. God's servant is not merely to be a model to stimulate the world, not merely to be a public standard against which the world would be judged, but God's servant is also to be the means of changing the world.
However, as we shall see, God's chosen people took it another way: they saw it as a mark of status differentiating themselves from the rest of the nations and the creation. And thus it was all the more necessary for God to come as his own servant, in the Messiah, to be the perfect model, the perfect standard, the perfect refresher and saviour and accomplisher, and the perfect ambassador of the Holy God. (This repeats the old theme of the inability of humankind to be what God meant us to be, and it was only much later that the way was opened up for humankind to become as God meant us to be.)
Do we do the same?
(From Fifth Communication - Experience in a settled society.)
The Bible has no heroes, only people. It has been said that every human spoken of in the Bible is shown to have some fault or sin, with the exception of Daniel, and he is reported as confessing his own sins. Some of the great names in the Bible are shown to be faulty in many ways. We saw earlier that, in that selfish cheat, Jacob, God uses very deficient people in his purposes. But, we find the same theme recurring throughout history. Abraham lied. Isaac, as well as Jacob, had favourites. Moses murdered and had a temper. Samson was a pleasure-seeking, vengeful activist. David committed adultery, murdered the husband to cover it up, and then proved a poor parent and role model to his children.
This is a salutary message. It means that there are no heroes. We will find this expanded later when we consider the equal standing of people, but here we consider only that it teaches us that no human being is worthy of a relationship with God. But we can learn several things from this.
In spite of being barred from the Promised Land, Moses tasted something of priviledge, and this theme became clear for Israel as a whole in its settled state. God's people do enjoy (or are meant to enjoy) some priviledges however, even as they bear the responsibility of representing God. In the days of Israel, these priviledges were seen partly in material or political terms. As long as they remained oriented toward God, their crops tended to be good, they were healthy, they grew in reputation, and they tended to be successful in military activities. With the exception of the last, perhaps, these are the kinds of needs that Maslow's famous hierarchy of needs speaks of. And such benefits spread throughout society; God had promised and commanded, "There shall be no poor among you."
The priviledge of being God's people extends to this day, but perhaps in a richer way. Not only does God look after the types of needs that Israel enjoyed - the Maslow needs - but they take on a different quality. John Newton summed it up very well in the last lines of his hymn Glorious things of thee are spoken:
Solid joys and lasting treasure
None but Zion's children know.
Not only do we have all our needs met, but we find joys and 'treasure'. Not only do we have joys and treasure, but they are of a very different quality than those enjoyed without God. Everything is more meaningful, more lasting, less corrupting, less threatening, less demanding. They are, in Philip Larkin's word, 'unmolesting'; they bring joy but without molesting us.
In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells of the start of a growing relationship she had with a young man, which was suddenly broken off. In her distress, her father advised her, "God loves Karel - even more than you do - and if you ask him he will give you his love for this man, a love nothing can prevent, nothing destroy. Whenever we cannot love in the old human way, Corrie, God can give us the perfect way." She whispered the enormous prayer, "Lord, I give you the way I feel about Karel, my thoughts about our future - oh, You know! Everything! Give me your way of seeing Karel instead. Help me to love him that way. That much." And, in after years, her memories of times with Karel were joy and delight, not regret and torture. Solid joys and lasting treasure cannot be obtained apart from the Living God.
But beware: don't think you're safe if you're one of God's people. The priviledges of being God's people can too easily lead us to take our eyes off him, their source. God had to teach his people not to be complacent nor presumptious. He first gave warnings about this when he gave the law through Moses, but the main lesson came many centuries later.
There is a strong link between being turned towards God and prosperity, and being turned towards ourselves and disaster. This is not just financial prosperity, but of a much more holistic nature, more like our current views of sustainability. The Hebrew word for it was shalom. This is one of the central pillars of the so-called Christian-inspired philosophy of Herman Dooyeweerd: as we keep God's normative laws in a variety of aspects then things go well with us, but when we do not, then things start to go badly. It might even be related in modern times to the dialectic process coined, it is popularly believed, by the philosopher, Hegel.
As we can see from a cursory look at the history of Israel as a settled people - and also of many ages of God's people since then - there seems to be cycles of success and failure, prestige and ignominy, influence and irrelevance that correlate with where our faith and dependency lie: in God or in ourselves. We can detect at least seven such cycles in the book of Judges, in which it is said "The people turned away from God ... so he let them be conquered by ..." (and more in the later historical books):
Note that, because of the time delays in the cycle, the effects might not be felt for years or decades, and repentance might be slow in coming.
This clarifies what it means that "I will visit the iniquities of the fathers upon the children". It is not God being wrathfully unfair but rather the slow, steady working of the prosperity cycle, a cycle intended to ensure that at some point we do return to him and gain prosperity again. Without this cycle, we would merely decline, and there would be no hope. Once we had turned away from him then we would stay away because of what has been called "the deceitfulness of sin" (Hebrews 3) and our hardness of heart.
C.S. Lewis applies some of this idea in his famous book The Problem of Pain, though mainly to individuals. Pain is neither a mere causal result of certain actions, nor is it God's revenge (even if a just retribution); rather it has an important purpose of bringing us (back) to God. Pain (and disaster) cuts through our rotten self-dependence like nothing else can.
The prosperity cycle should also warn us of the dangers of success. If we have a degree of prosperity, peace, prestige, influence or success of any sort, if we have shalom, then we should watch out. We should be careful to recognise that it arises only because of our dependency on God, and take steps to ensure we stay that way for as long as possible.
We can see the history of Western nations written into this history. If many people in the nation turn to God in a genuine and sustainable way then that sows the seeds for prosperity and status a hundred years later. Think of Britain: a top nation in the 1800s, after many had turned to God in the 1700s. Think of the USA: many turned to God in the 1800s and early 1900s, and it is top nation as we enter the 21st century.
The prosperity cycle is particularly relevant to organisations, whether businesses, societies, churches, etc. If they are based on evil or idolatrous orientations they might flourish for a season, but they usually decline, having done a lot of harm, and do not cycle. But those that are based on justice or start as a 'work of God' (missionary societies, charities, ethical businesses, etc.) find themselves in the cycle. They start well, but then grow self-dependent, and deteriorate after a good start. But - let us be encouraged and stimulated - because for those organisations or nations or other groups that are based on justice or on God, it is a cycle and not a slide, there is scope to return.
The requirement for return is repentance, however, a turning back to God. Not merely an internal reorganisation, 'business process reengineering' (popular in the 1990s), or an attempt to redefine our corporate mission. Too often, the return of a once godly organisation is delayed because instead of repentance two other attitudes prevail. First, there is an effort to 'keep the work going'. We are not doing so well because we are not committed enough. The answer therefore is more commitment - and burn-out for the few who are committed. Second, there is a warm glow in basking in old glories. It is much more 'encouraging' to look back to glorious beginnings and rehearse the wonderful acts of God of old, than to face the uncomforatble present. Yet neither of these are the answer, and only serve to delay the operation of the cycle. Commitment is certainly needed, but only commitment in the context of being utterly dependent on God. Giving thanks to God for past glories is good, but only when we treat them as dispensed by God and not for our comfort or to give us a buzz. Once-great churches, and those (like mine) who aspire to greatness, take note! We return to the need for repentance below.
(Now, of course, the picture I paint is over simplified. Many an organisation becomes less effective or exciting for other reasons. One is that it was set up to meet a particular need in a context and either the need has been met or the context is changed. However, in most cases, the prosperity cycle still operates, and understanding it will help us see what to do.)
One part of the prosperity cycle, the bottom part of the cycle, seems to pertain particularly to individuals. It seems that adversity is actually beneficial to human beings, but that did not become clear until much later.
(From Fifth Communication - Experience in a settled society.)
This lesson, like that of the prosperity cycle, is learned not directly from texts but by standing back and seeing the overall pattern, and there is no single era in which it became suddenly clear. The early Israelites could see something of this in Moses, as he worked tirelessly for the good of all the people rather than for his own advancement ("The man Moses was more meek than anyone else on earth), though it did not stand out markedly because of the special circumstances in which Moses functioned. We can also see it in the Law.
We start to see it more clearly in action in the Judges, who went around Israel giving good judgements. Then we find David, who "reigned over all Israel doing what was just and right for all his people" (II Sam 8:15) on the one hand, but whose stealing of another man's wife was likened to the rich plundering the poor, on the other. It was understood by the writers of the Proverbs: "The lips of a king speak as an oracle, and his mouth should not betray justice" Prov. 16:10. But it really becomes clear with the prophets. Ezekiel 34 says:
"Woe to the shepherds of Israel who only take care of themselves. Should not the shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool, and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. ... This what the Sovereign LORD says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock."
Then, the Messiah worked among the poor, and Paul seemed to take for granted that power or gifting should be used for others rather than for oneself.
This theme is an enrichment and refinement of the theme of God's pity for the oppressed, by virtue of humankind being in God's image and that God's people should represent him by being like him. Later it became clear that God is love. So, to use our power for others is not a sacrifice so much as a privilege and joy; we are sharing with God in his own way of relating and working when we do so. It makes sense of why, even though God has authority he lets us choose and often retifies our choices.
(From Fifth Communication - Experience in a settled society.)
The link between turning to or away from God and the results of doing so had a time delay. Only after there had been a turning towards God for some time did the results come through. Similarly there was a time delay between turning away from God and feeling the consequences. These delays were of the order of decades.
This meant that the link could not be immediately perceived, and required a societal memory (which is maybe partly why God told them to keep reciting and memoirzing his words). It also left some space for what God valued more than mere activity, namely trust and faithfulness, the orientation of the heart, not just of the actions. If the results had been immediate, people would have had more motivation to turn with their actions and religious duties rather than with their hearts.
The time delay of decades should be salutory for us who are tempted to expect the speed of physical causality - immediate results, immediate answers to prayer, etc.
But, these timescales of decades are tiny when compared with God's timescales as a whole, which extend across centuries and millennia. We actually gained a clear statement of God's timescales when he told Abraham that his descendants would be in Egypt for 400 years, until the time was right. There was another 400 years during which the Jews awaited the Messiah. It has been 2000 years since Messiah returned to heaven, and we still await the consummation of the ages that has been promised.
But it is during the settled period of the people of Israel, and during that of the prophets that we have the clearest demonstration that "The wheels of God grind exceeding slow, but they grind exceeding fine." God did not act impulsively, but with great patience, as his people went away from him, and he sent a champion to save them. After 200 years, the people craved the political mechanism of monarchy and one-person leadership, but God had foreseen this and prepared for it. After another 120 years of the kindgoms of Saul, David and Solomon, during which heroic human activity was visible, they entered another 400 years of many kingdoms, during which the people kept turning away from God, and God sent them prophets, and sometimes they would return. Gradually, the average spirituality got worse and worse, until God sent his people to scattering or exile. The exile lasted 70 years, what would have seemed an interminable time to us.
But during the period of the prophets, hints arose of an even longer term plan: the extending of God's blessings to the whole world. And this is part of his cosmic plan that is working itself out throughout history.
It seems that there are layers of timescales:
It helps now and then to take a step back
and take a long view.
The Kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
it is even beyond our vision.
We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny fraction
of the magnificent enterprise that is God's work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the Kingdom always lies beyond us.
No statement says all that can be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection,
no pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the Church's mission.
No set of goals and objectives include everything.
We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water seeds already planted
knowing that they hold future promise.
We lay foundations that will need further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects far beyond our capabilities.
We cannot do everything,
and there is a sense of liberation in realising that
This enables us to do something and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete
but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
an opportunity for the Lord's grace to enter and do the rest.
We may never see the end results.
But that is the difference between the master-builder and worker.
We are not master-builders,
ministers not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.
Part of the reason is that we do not learn. The history of Israel shows the prosperity cycle quite clearly, and the need to maintain loving dependence on God, but we don't take it to heart. Perhaps we don't want to learn, perhaps we can't be bothered, perhaps we think we have progressed and are in a different culture. It is our privilege to think that, but at our peril.
Our tendency to forget is itself clearly shown in the history of Israel. In a number of places God castigates them for forgetting his love towards them and the consequences of leaving him. It was because they forgot God, forgot lessons, forgot their history, that they went around the prosperity cycle so many times. Our human tendency to forget was well known to God even before the cycles began (but he had to demonstrate it to us) and he told the Israelites soon after their exodus that they should take care to write the law down and take practical steps to keep it in the centre of their attention. Practical steps he suggested included writing it on doorposts, tying a copy to the forehead, and reciting it each day in the home. Some Jews today still maintain the ritual element of these things.
But education and re-education is not enough. While they can help us remember and ameliorate the effects of the cycles, we need something more.
Not just as a group but individually - we have to listen, interpret, learn and apply, individually. ==== to be written
Other cultures have tried other means of preventing or countering evil. One answer - that is unpopular with Western democracies - is authority. That is, an authority figure tells us what is good and bad, rewards the good and punishes the bad. The Christian apostle, Paul, recognised that the Roman Empire used this method. ====Acknowledge the importance of authority. But ==== show the limits of authority. We can learn this too from the long history of Israel. For one thing, in the reigns of some of the good kings, the people themselves did not all commit themselves wholeheartedly to God. For another, if the person who wields the authority is either evil (e.g. Jeroboam, Manasseh, etc.) or ineffective (e.g. Saul), then authority acts in the wrong direction.
A solution more favoured in the liberal West is examples or, as they have come to be known, role models. Expose to public view and acclaim those people considered to show good traits or behaviour, and hope that the majority of people will follow their example. ==== Acknowledge the importance of good examples. However ==== show limits. Throughout its history, God sent special people - judges and prophets in particular - who often gave a good example. Yet the people did not follow.
Another answer sometimes offered is reward and privilege. If we reward good behaviour and people, and make it easier to do good rather than evil, then human beings will tend toward good, will they not? If God only made it easy and natural to keep our orientation toward him, will we not remain so orientated? Whilst it is important, in the structure of society, to ensure that good and God-orientation are made easy, it is not enough. Israel had enormous privileges and rewards from God, and it was made easy for them to keep their minds on him - yet they went away.
Perhaps the most universally assumed remedy for evil is law. Could setting up a good and effective system of Law, prevent evil, or reverse the decline? Law is such an important topic that we consider it separately.
(From Fifth Communication - Experience in a settled society.)
Often, when we wish to promote Good or prevent Evil, our first impulse is: make a law or rule about it. Then people will stop doing the Evil and turn to the Good. This impulse is particularly prevalent among Christians, who spend enormous amounts of energy arguing about what laws should or should not be passed (e.g. Abortion Acts) and we get a reputation for being law-and-order freaks. But we are misrepresenting God and his ways, as becomes plain if we stand back and view Scripture from a distance to get the big picture. God showed clearly that law is not the way to achieve good nor to avoid evil.
The people of Israel had been given the Law, which had no equal. They had been given demonstrations of how seriously God took the Law. They had been given promises of his blessing when they kept the Law, and had seen those promises in action. They had been given special resources, not only of a fertile land but also of God's provision beyond that. They had the true God, not a local idol. They had all these privileges - yet they went astray. They turned, and kept turning, to injustice and cruelty, away from the Living God, their source of life. Law did not keep them from evil, nor did it make them good. We can see this clearly by standing back from their history, viewing it in the long.
When there is a deep chasm in the ground that people might fall into, a fence is placed around it to prevent people from getting too near the edge and falling in. The further from the edge it is placed, the less chance of anyone falling in. So, if we (erroneously; see below) see God's laws as a device for preventing people falling into sin, then the further away from sin we erect our fence, the less likely people will fall. So the Jewish thinkers in the period 400 to 0 BC(E) started to erect a complicated system of fences around the original laws of God, in an attempt to keep people 'in the right'.
One example is that Jews today never let milk and meat come into contact. This practice, part of their laws about Kosher food, started from the little law "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk." Easy, we might think: just do not boil a kid goat in the milk of its own mother. But, if you have some milk, and some meat from a young goat, how can you be absolutely sure that the milk is not from the kid's mother? Better to be safe, and erect a fence that says "Never use goat's milk with goat's meat." Then, is a 'kid' only from a goat, or did 'kid' refer to a generic idea of young at that time? Erect a wider fence: "Do not use milk with the meat of any young animal." But how can you be sure that the meat is from an old animal? Erect another fence: "Do not use milk with meat." And so the fence erected around the original law gets wider and wider, in an effort to avoid any possible transgression of the original rule.
While in Israel recently I was told the following joke by our Jewish guide:
God: "You must not boil a kid in its mother's milk."
Moses: "Yes, Lord. We will not eat milk and meat together."
God: "You must not boil a kid in its mother's milk."
Moses: "Yes, Lord. We will keep 6 hours between eating milk and meat."
God: "You must not boil a kid in its mother's milk."
Moses: "Yes, Lord. We will use separate dishes, cutlery and saucepans for milk and meat, use separate dishwashers, and even have separate kitchens."
God: "Oh, have it your own way!"
I asked our guide why the Jewish scholars had erected these fences, and the answer was: "Wouldn't you swim across a river for One you love?" Because of our love for God we are willing to restrict ourselves even when we don't need to.
(What is the real meaning of this rule; why did God give it; what is the principle that it expresses? My wife suggested: "We must not milk a mother and then immediately slaughter its young; that's an obscenity, an obscenity against life, an obscenity against the animal." That aligns well with the lesson that God loves his whole Creation.)
The main consequence of erecting fences was a harsh legalism that came to treat human beings as being there for the sake of Law rather than Law being there for our sake. (The legalism arose especially in the 400 years before the Messiah came, and was possibly influenced by the ideas of Aristotle who said that the main thing we can say about God is that he is the highest Authority.)
So, it would be natural for us to ask, "Is Law a Bad Thing?" The answer to that turned out to be "No, but it has a different purpose." But it was not for another thousand years that the true purpose of Law became clear.
If law cannot ensure Good and prevent Evil, what can? Can education, authority, example, privilege? If we look at the history of Israel, it seems the answer is: nothing can. Indeed, one major lesson that all humanity should learn from God's public demonstration of Israel is that human beings will always turn away from him. Long experience shows us that even God's people tend to turn away from him, and that we do so even when we remember. (Church history shows this is just as true since Pentecost as before.) It is not just outsiders who tend to turn away from God; God's people do too.
Human beings have what is called an apostate heart, one that tends always to turn away from God, our maker, friend, supporter, supplier, meaning-giver, helper and lover, to try to find these things in something or someone else. Solomon was perhaps the first major example of this. God gave him great wisdom, wealth, success, but he turned apostate. And few of his successors were any better. And we still have this apostate tendency today.
Christians have developed the theme of apostasy into the theological doctrine of Original Sin. This tells us that no human being can ever be good enough in God's sight, that our inability to be good enough is built into our very nature, and that this has been true since the first Man turned away from God. It has been seen as a harsh doctrine, because liberal humanists want to hear something more optimistic and ego-boosting, but in fact it is actually quite merciful, as I argue in an article The Beauty of Original Sin.
Our apostate tendency, our deep-rooted sinfulness, is such a fundamental and important fact that we might wonder why it is that only some movements of God's Spirit have it at the centre. Is it that all the others are delusions and deceptions? I think not. Rather, it might be cultural. In a community where some knowledge of God is the norm, then there is both a platform for and a need to become aware of our Original Sin. It is a truth that distinguishes those who take God seriously from the hangers-on. But in a community where God's people are a threatened minority, commitment to God is the important factor. So, for instance, in Celtic Christianity (at least as it is popularly believed today) we find little awareness of sin, because in its original days it was a minority in a pagan culture. The fact of our sinfulness is still there, and God has dealt with it, as we shall see, but whether it is given emphasis depends, rightly, on culture.
As we shall see, to have demonstrated publicly that we are apostate was an important lesson, and prepared the way for the world to recognise the need for a Messiah from God, to which we return later. But before the Messiah was to be revealed we had to learn the right response to our apostasy, in the light of God's mercy: repentance.
(From Fifth Communication - Experience in a settled society.)
(From Fourth communication - model society.)
When things went wrong, there was a need not just for trying to make amends - the pagan idea of appeasing the deity. Rather, there had to be genuine repentance. Repentance is the name given to turning to God with the heart, not just the activity.
This was made clear when the people seemed to turn back religiously to God, only to find things got no better. Their heart was not turned towards him. This need for repentance was made clearer via the prophets, see below. When we are oriented away, God yearns for us to return, for our own good, for the good of his creation which suffers when we are oriented away from God, and because he loves us.
The reason why repentance is so important, rather than merely making amends or paying back, is because of the root of our rift with God, namely proud, self-dependent orientation of heart. So only a re-orientation, towards God, will suffice. Not appeasement. Not paying debts. Not putting things right. Not changing to right beliefs. But re-orienting our hearts.
But two things must be said about making amends. The first is that making amends is not in place of repentance. It should be a result of repentance, and should be something we want to do. It should be done in a spirit of repentance. The second thing is that in almost every case the making amends is to a fellow human being, and we are not called upon to make amends to God. The reason for this is obvious, once you think of it: God owns everything, so how could we ever make amends to God! What God requires in repentance, a true turning of the heart, rather than an attempt to buy his favour.
Now, this point has not always been learned in the Christian church. In the Middle Ages there was a complex system of penances, actions that people would do after committing some sin. In the end it did very little to root out sin or change the person's heart, and even became corrupted as a means whereby rich people could, they thought, purchase pardon from God by donating a large sum of money to the church.
The Celtic church also used penances, but in a less corrupt manner. They almost made it into an art form, with the idea of Contraries, namely that for each sin there is an equivalent virtue, which should be performed as penance. For example, Columba of Ireland, after killing 3,000 people in a battle with the High King over the violating of sanctuary, became conscience-stricken, and asked his spiritual advisor what he should do; the answer was: "Leave Ireland and make as many converts for Christ as men you have killed." He did.
That example shows that things are not always clear-cut, however. It should be noted that Columba did his penance as a result of repentance, and not just as an act of making amends. So God blessed it. The results were good, in the establishment of a pure form of Christianity in the north of Britain. So, though making amends to God is not normally required by God, God can bless such actions when carried out as a result of repentance. A lot will depend on the cultural situation.
Psalm 109 is probably among the worst, and the psalmist prays about his enemy thuswise:
Choose some corrupt judge to try my enemy, and let one of his own enemies accuse him. (v.6)
May he be tried and found guilty; may even his prayer be considered a crime. (v.7)
May his life be ended; may another man take his job! (v.8)
May his children become orpahs and his wife a widow. (v.9)
May his creditors take away all his property, and may strangers get everything he worked for. (v.11)
He loved to curse - may he be cursed! He hated to give blessings - may no one bless him! He cursed as naturally as he dressed himself; may his own curses soak into his body like water and into his bones like oil! May they cover him like clothes and always be around him like a belt. (17-19)
Where we are embarrassed by such sentences in God's book, and generally ignore them, he examined them and wrestled with them, and learned useful things from theme. He did so because he was not trapped in treating the Bible as a textbook, but looked to see what it, as God's special communication, could teach us. But he had to use his reasoning powers to find the lessons; he had to dig to find the treasure. But, as he said, "Where we find a difficulty, we may always expect that a discovery awaits us. ... This particular difficulty is well worth exploring."
He first noted the earthy honesty of these passages; there was no attempt to hide unsavoury feelings; only the real truth is good enough to be included in God's communication. "Hatred did not need to be disguised for the sake of social decorum." But he did not then assume that what was expressed was good; he accepted that the sentiments expressed here were simply wrong and evil. In getting past those two hurdles, he then made two discoveries, things that are worth discovering and which, though perhaps not expressed so clearly elsewhere in Scripture are nevertheless perfectly in accord with it.
The first discovery was:
"It seemed to me that, seeing in them hatred undisguised, I saw also the natural result of injuring a human being. ... Just as the natural result of throwing a lighted match into a pile of shavings is to produce a fire ... so the natural result of cheating a man, or 'keeping him down' or neglecting him, is to arouse resentment; that is, to impose upon him the temptation of becoming what the Psalmists were when they wrote the vindictive passages."
Lewis saw that the cursings were not isolated fragments, but were usually in the context of some injustice done. (And they were usually a response to injustice of a general kind more than to a personal injury.) So, for example, in Psalm 109 we find that, in addition to the introduction which says "Wicked men and liaars have attacked me ...", we find the more general statements "They pay back evil for good, and hatred for love" and "That man never thought of being kind; he persectured and killed the poor, the needy, and the helpless." So Lewis suggests:
"It is monstrously simple-minded to read the cursings in the Psalms with no feeling except one of horror at the uncharity of the poets. They are indeed devilish. But we must also think of those who made them so. Their hatreds are the reactions to something. Such hatreds are the kind of thing that cruelty and injustice, but a sort of natural law, produce. ... Take from a man his freedom or his goods and you may have taken his innocence,l almost his humanity, as well."
That is, these psalms show clearly that not one but two people are responsible for such situations and culpable within theme. Not only is the hater responsible, but so am I when I treat a man in the way described. As Lewis discussed, ".. how do I, who provoked that hatred, stand? For in addition to the original injury I have done him a far worse one. I have introduced into his inner life, at best a new temptation, at worst a new besetting sin. If that sin utterly corrupts him, I have in a sense debauched or seduced him. I was the tempter."
So we should learn that we must be careful not to oppress or provoke another human being. This is, of course, related to the lesson on justice, but these psalms show it to us in no uncertain manner.
He then goes on to propound the idea that there is a spiritual law, that "The higher, the more in danger." We tend to assume that because of their hatred, these Jews were far from God, but, Lewis says
"The Jews sinned in this manner worse than the Pagans not because they were further from God but because they were nearer to Him. For the Supernatural, entering a human soul, opens to it new possibilities both of good and evil. From that point the road branches: one way to sanctity, love, humility, the other to spiritual pride, self-righteousness, persecuting zeal. And no way back to the mere humdrum virtues and vices of the unawakened soul. If the Divine call does not make us better, it will make us very much worse. Of all bad men, religious bad men are the worst."
That lesson leads on quite naturally to the next, one which can be learned from all of Israel's history, not just the Psalms.
That is a stern lesson for us: not to think we're safe just because we're one of God's people. The old nation of Israel should have learned this. Israel in the time of the prophets was told this quite clearly. Later on, at the time Jesus came, the lesson was still unlearned: the Jewish leaders thought they had God's protection and blessing because they were of God's people - but they were wrong. God withdrew his blessing (though not his promise), and Israel was abandoned for a time.
The prophet Jeremiah later spoke many times of this - see chapters 4, 5, 6, 9, 10, 15 and many others, of his book. God had his own special people defeated by idolatrous nations and dispersed or taken into exile.
Today we make the same mistake, perhaps. We Christians think of ourselves as 'safe', 'OK'. How wrong we might be! Jesus put it quite clearly: Many of us say "Lord, Lord" and do not do what he wants - we might do them on the surface, but do we deep down in our hearts? Many of us who seem to be highest in God's work and blessing, working miracles in his Name, will be rejected at the end (Jesus said this quite explicitly). We tend - at least in charismatic circles - to take the working of miracles in the Name of Jesus and especially the casting out of demons as a sign of some kind of spiritual greatness. But Jesus does not.
This is partly why I am compiling this 'Brief History of God'. To see just what it is that God wants us to know, to value, to do.
Early in the history of Israel, God started showing that he trounces other gods. But why? The reason could be found in the written law, but it became visible only when Israel settled as a nation. The reason is not that God feels threatened by competition, but that idolatry is serious.
Idolatry is when we acknowledge some part of creation as the ultimate, and treat it as of ultimate worth and self-dependence, and end up sacrificing things to it or for it. Only of the Living God are these attributes true, and only he is worthy of our sacrifices. So idolatry is an insult to him.
But it is more than that. As we see below, God bears insults patiently - with much more patience than we normally have. What he does not bear patiently is two things.
Both these reasons why idolatry is serious can be traced ultimately to love. As we come to see gradually down through the millennia, God is concerned about justice because of his love for all he has made. Both (this type of) jealousy and the deepest pain of adultery emanate from love, rather than from any competitive instinct.
The main thing about idolatry, therefore, is not
While some reference to idolatry is made in the original verbal law, God's superiority to idols is amply demonstrated via his actions (e.g. Dagon, and on Mount Carmel, and a thousand years later the ruler in Acts who accepted worship and died).
"First, people sever something from their immediate environment, refashion it and erect it on its own feet in a special place. Second, they ritually consecrate it and kneel before it, seeing it as a thing which has life in itself. Third, they bring sacrifices and look to the idol for advice and direction. In short, they worship it. Worship brings with is a decrease in their own power, now the god reveals how they should live and act. And fourth, they expect the god to repay their reverence, obedience and sacrifices with health, security, prosperity and happiness. They give the idol permission to demand and receive whatever it desires, even if it includes animal or human life, because they see the idol a their savior, as the one who can make life whole and bring blessing."
(We might add that our idols give us the way we see things, and that an idol delivers the opposite of what it promises.) Thus, idols are anything of the Creational order that we elevate to deity or ultimate importance. If we elevate one aspect of creation and sacrifice others to it then we grossly distort the joy-giving relationships God designed into his creation.
We can see two levels, personal and societal. On the personal level, our idols are whatever in our lives is more important than the Living God or whatever we place our dependence upon instead of him. On the societal level, the economist Bob Goudzwaard has written in Idols of Our Time of four major idols - the idols of revolution, of nation, of material prosperity, of guaranteed security. Walsh and Middleton, in The Transforming Vision, speak of the gods of scientism, technicism and economism. Societal idolatry is a set of worldview assumptions that everyone shares without question, about what is important, and how to achieve what we should.
All peoples are called to leave their idols - both personal and societal - and come to the Living God. Then we will be truly free, and the earth and the poor will no longer suffer the injustice it does as a result of our actions. Probably the biggest societal idol today is business and commerce; as an exercise, see how it fits Goudzwaard's description above.
God's special people, those who represent him on earth, are called especially. We think, believe, assume that we are free from idolatry because our church services focus on God alone. But ...
==== did have 'About God judging' here; moved to a lot earlier.
==== more to write. Even not threatened by Satan. The only thing that hurts God is because of his love.
How often we do not understand God and his ways. Part of the reason we are so often surprised by God is simply because we have misunderstood. Often God had his own long-term plans that people of the time did not understand. God is so far removed from us in nature, wisdom, knowledge and goodness that it is to be expected that, as he said, "my ways are not your ways". More: what humankind values is not what God necessarily values. Some examples:
It seems that throughout history, humankind has misunderstood what God's ways are and what God values. This is one reason why God must take action to reveal the real state of affairs, to show us what he really values and what his ways really are like. Let us scour Scripture to see the ways in which God goes against our expectations and beliefs, and let us sensitively change them.
The first strikingly clear example of "Not Man, But God" was learned by Gideon, a Hebrew who delivered Israel from the people of Midian. He was scared, but gained courage, then brought together an army of 20,000. God said this was too many; all who were scared were to leave, so 10,000 returned home. God said this was also too many, and eventually the army reduced to 300 men. God sent dreams among the Midianites, they grew scared, and were completely routed by Gideon's 300 men. This was not by human power nor strategems, but only by God.
Our pride makes us self-dependent, but, as we have seen, we should be dependent on God. We tend to think we can achieve things by ourselves, by our own power and planning, but the really significant, lasting things that are good need God.
During the era of the prophets, one prophet said,
"Not by might, nor by power, but by my word", says the Lord of Hosts.
The Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar, had to learn that the Living God gives thrones to whoever he wishes. The Messiah said
"Without me you can do nothing"
After Messiah returned, he said to Paul, who was complaining about some hindrance
"My grace is sufficient for you, because my power is made perfect in your weakness"
at which Paul understood and said "Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me." But he had to suffer for a time before he learned that lesson.
Most of us need to learn to depend on God rather than on our own various strengths, cleverness or abilities. We need to learn to obey God rather than our own desires, wishes or promptings. We need to learn that God's wisdom is higher than ours. The late Roy Hession had to learn "Not I, but Christ", as he explains in classic Calvary Road. Today's Christian songs, at least in the U.K. ('Songs of Fellowship'), contain many with this theme, such as:
But many of God's people stop with this lesson and do not go on to maturity. They keep on thinking they have to suppress their pride, and not attempt anything that might be "in my own strength" or "soulish". Many emphasise obedience to God, opposing obedience to taking any initiative. Many just do nothing, waiting for God to act, when he has in fact given us responsibility to act. But there is a second lesson we must learn, Man Like God, human beings filled and empowered and en-willed by God to become his mature 'sons', who can achieve for God and take initiative for God - but to reach such a state we must first learn this vital lesson, "Not Man, But God" - and in some of us that can take years or even a whole lifetime.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2000. Comments and queries are very welcome.
Last updated: 16 July 2000 more on heart; corrected old links. 13 August 2000 Added 'Not Man, But God'. 20 August 2000 a few minor changes. 26 September 2000 rewrote Law. 15 October 2000 .. and again, moving purpose.of.law to bhgl.ad and adding section weak.law. 10 December 2000 new comments pointer. 7 April 2001 this part redone. 17 June 2001 started Worship Not Important. 8 September 2001 link corrected. 1 August 2002 God's ways not ours extended and made into a list. 2 August 2002 added section on use of power; added a couple of relevances. Major new section on Right Use of Power. 3 August 2002 link from use.of.power to authority and lets.choose. 6 August 2002 Idolatry revamped; new section God not threatened. 30 November 2002 more on God's timescales, and poem by Oscar Romero. 20 September 2005 link corrected thanks to Roy Bryant, SEVENtwentyfour Inc..