Key Texts: Jeremiah 2
Jeremiah Against the Backdrop of History
The standard Sabbath School study guide takes this second lesson to survey the history of Israel up to the fall of Jerusalem during the time of Jeremiah. The “theme” for the lesson points to the sad truth that Israel had suffered not only from external enemies but also from internal decay as a result of the allure from surrounding cultures. That was true before the monarchy, during the monarchy, and after. For reference, here is a list of the major epochs in the history of God’s people. Note that BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era) are modern devices that enable non-Christians to adopt common dates without confessing faith in Jesus Christ.
|1875 BCE||Call of Abraham|
|Patriarchs: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob
Slavery in Egypt
|1445 BCE||Exodus from Egypt (dated by some around 1290 BCE)|
Israel in Canaan: Joshua and the Judges
|1050 BCE||United Monarchy Established|
|Saul, David, Solomon|
|931 BCE||Division of the Kingdom|
|Kingdom of Judah in the South: Rehoboam and Successors
Kingdom of Israel in the North: Jeroboam and Successors
|722 BCE||Fall of Northern Kingdom (Samaria/Israel)|
|Selective Deportation of the Ten Tribes by Assyria|
|621 BCE||Josiah’s Reform and Discovery of the Law|
|586  BCE||End of the Monarchy|
|Fall of Southern Kingdom (Jerusalem/Judah)
Exile and Deportation by Babylon
1. Question: Why do modern Christians tend to emphasize the continuity of faith (the ideal) rather than recognizing the dramatic impact of sin on God’s people as reflected in their history and customs?
Note: One of the more astonishing verses in the Old Testament is Joshua 24:2 which indicates that Abraham’s own family, perhaps Abraham himself, worshiped other gods. The labels “High Road” and “Low Road” point to the two contrasting ways of looking at the history of God’s people. High Road emphasizes continuity, the good news, the ideal – like Hebrews 11 does in the New Testament. Low Road emphasizes the bad news, the fall from the ideal – like Jeremiah does. See chapter 2 from Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God? at the end of this lesson.
2. Question: How does one understand the effectiveness of parental guidance when so many examples in the Old Testament show that the children of good men are so often evil and the children of evil men are often so evil?
Note: In the early history of Israel, godly Eli was the father of ungodly Hophni and Phineas, while godly Samuel raised two wayward sons. Moving closer to the era of Jeremiah, the alternating pattern in the lives of the kings of Judah is simply astonishing: evil Ahaz was the father of Hezekiah, one of Judah’s best kings, but Hezekiah was the father of Manasseh, one of Judah’s worst. According to the author of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Manasseh repented, but his son Amon was evil, choosing not to follow the example of his repentant father. But though Amon was evil, his son was the good king Josiah. Yet none of Josiah’s four sons earned the label “good.”
3. Question: Given the track record of great men (Eli, Samuel, Hezekiah, Samuel), would it be safer simply to have no family at all? That was God’s explicit command to Jeremiah (16:1-3).
Chapter 2, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?
By Alden Thompson
[Gonzalez, FL: Energion Publications, 2011]
Behold it was very good and then
it all turned sour
And God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good. – Genesis 1:31
The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth…. – Genesis 6:5
When I step back and try to picture the sweep of the entire Old Testament, and, in fact, of the whole Bible, I see something very similar to the scene suggested by the chapter title: a glorious idea that has somehow gone terribly wrong. I would hasten to add, however, that for all the wrongness and evil to which the Bible testifies, a generous portion of good still remains. And what is more, out of the wreckage of this beautiful creation God has conceived something even more beautiful and awe-inspiring: a plan of redemption, a theme that we shall look at more closely in chapter 7.
Because the Bible presents such an intricate tapestry, woven with the evil as well as the good, the horrible as well as the magnificent, a distorted view of the whole is quite possible. In fact, Christians have often shown a tendency to focus on one element or the other. Some have so greatly praised their Maker that they have neglected to take seriously the tragic consequences of sin. On the other hand, some have been so deeply scarred by sorrow and tragedy, that even the glories of a this-worldly sunset can scarcely quench the longing for a better world. The difference between these two emphases can be clearly seen in the contrasting hymn titles: “This is my Father’s world” yet “I’m but a stranger here, heaven is my home.”
Any alert citizen of planet earth can testify that life is composed of the bitter and the sweet, the good and the bad, but it is a rarer gift to be able to enjoy this world while longing for a better one. To claim that this world is absolutely filthy is false. Nor can any sober person say that this little corner of the universe is a beauty spot which has no rival. For the Christian, a balanced view is vital: the thorns must not be allowed to ruin the roses, nor should the roses obscure the thorns. That is a principle which is significant not only for daily living, but equally for understanding the Old Testament.
In Chapter 1, I noted briefly that one can use two rather different emphases in interpreting the Old Testament: the “high road” approach and the “low road.” “High road” refers to an emphasis on the “goodness” in the Old Testament, particularly in the lives of the men of God. The most straightforward example of this approach is found in Hebrews 11 where men of great variety and diverse experiences are all marked with the label “faith.” By contrast, “low road” refers to the approach which calls attention to the great depths to which humans had fallen, including those people that God claimed as his own.
Because the “low road” approach has been so helpful in enabling me to come to grips with the Old Testament, I tend to emphasize that way of reading the biblical accounts. The “high road” has marvelous potential for immediate inspiration, and perhaps that is why it has tended to predominate in Christian circles. But such an approach does not really prepare one for actually reading the Old Testament stories. In other words, one could become so accustomed to a “high road” diet that reading the Old Testament itself could lead to indigestion! I think that both approaches are possible and useful, yet in actual practice it is difficult to follow them both with equal enthusiasm.
Perhaps one reason why the “low road” approach has been neglected stems from the recognition that the discovery of the shadow side of the Old Testament characters has not always produced positive results. In fact, the sins of the saints have often been turned against Scripture and its God and have been used as weapons to attack the authority of the Word of God. Nevertheless, the “low road” approach is in some ways a two-edged sword which can cut either way. For example, one could turn to any nineteenth century devotional writer who is defending the Bible against its detractors. To the statement, “If your God condones things like that, then I want no part of your religion,” he can answer, “But it is precisely that point that vindicates the word of God, for here we have a realistic picture of fallen humanity accompanied by a picture of a God who stoops to help.” So what is taken as a great hindrance to faith by one man is seen as a pillar of faith by another. The psychological and sociological reasons behind those two opposite reactions to the same evidence are undoubtedly complex and cannot be explored here. But I do think it is important to recognize that there is much in the Old Testament that offends refined tastes. When we ignore those aspects, we lay the groundwork for the loss of faith. We must take them seriously and show how God can bring about his purposes even out of that kind of situation.
The “high road” approach has often led to the aggravation of one more point of tension in the interpretation of the Old Testament, namely, that between those who see the religious experience of the Old Testament as evolving naturally, and those who see it as stemming from divine revelation. Much of the modern scholarly study of the Old Testament is based on the assumption that every aspect of man’s experience is evolving, following principles of natural development. In such circles, then, it has become quite standard procedure to describe Old Testament people as developing from the primitive towards the sophisticated, from superstitious beliefs to a mature, intelligent faith. In accordance with such a scheme, those parts of the Old Testament judged to be primitive are said to be most ancient, whereas the more “developed” parts of scripture are said to be of later origin. Thus the stories of Genesis 2 and 3, for example, are said to be early and primitive because God is depicted very much like a man: he walks in the garden, forms man of the dust of the earth, he operates on Adam and builds Eve. By contrast, Genesis 1 is said to be the very latest (and greatest) theology in the Old Testament, written towards the end of the Old Testament period, because God is depicted as transcendent, quite removed from the mundane affairs of life; he creates by his word and does not get his “hands” dirty with the dust of man’s creation.
A PARTIAL REVELATION OF GOD
Such an approach to the Old Testament has often been so completely foreign to conservative Christians that we have failed to take it as a serious effort to explain some difficult aspects of the Old Testament. Conservative Christians have often tended simply to quote the New Testament view of the Old Testament and to use the “high road” approach for purposes of affirming faith in God and in his word without seriously attempting to explain the Old Testament. The specter of an evolutionary approach to the Old Testament has often made it impossible for conservative Christians even to listen to scholarly discussions about the Old Testament, to say nothing of actually participating in the dialogue.
At the risk of sounding terribly conservative to some of my scholarly friends and dangerously liberal to some of my conservative friends, I would like to propose, as a first step towards understanding the Old Testament, that we simply accept the scheme of “history” which the Old Testament itself suggests. I don’t think that is asking too much, regardless of whether one assumes a scholarly or a devotional approach to the Old Testament, or whether one happens to be liberal or conservative.
Now if we do let the Old Testament speak for itself, a rather surprising picture emerges; surprising, at least, for one who has been accustomed to taking an exclusively “high road” approach to the Old Testament. Perhaps a brief summary can serve as an outline of the discussion which follows:
- God creates a perfect world and calls it good (Genesis 1).
- Man exercises his free will to turn against God. (Genesis 2-3).
- After the “fall,” God’s beautiful world is marred by repeated outbreaks of sin and tragedy:
- Cain murders his brother (Gen. 4:1-16)
- Cain’s line develops into a hateful and hated race (Gen. 4:17-24)
- Noah’s generation rebels, leading to the Flood (Gen. 6-8)
- Noah’s son Ham mocks his father (Gen. 9:20-28)
- The Tower of Babel shows humanity as still being rebellious (Gen. 11).
- Abraham’s own family worships other gods (Josh. 24:2)
- With Abraham, God begins a fresh attempt to reveal himself to mankind, to people who now know very little of God’s plan (Genesis 12).
This prologue to the Old Testament is extremely important for understanding what follows, for it sets the stage for all the degenerate and “primitive” acts which follow. Beginning with Abraham, God seeks to reestablish his way in human hearts, hearts which have fallen far from the natural purity and knowledge of the first human pair.
Now right at this point I would like to note a more serious problem that arises out of the “high road” emphasis, namely, the assumption that virtually the full content of the “gospel” was both known and essentially preserved from the time of creation through the line of the “sons of God” (the patriarchal line). Whatever the reasons for that view, it causes real problems when one observes the behavior and ethical standards held at various points throughout the Old Testament period. Christians have always claimed that what one believes about God has a direct impact on the way one lives. In other words, good theology leads to a noble live. If that principle holds true, as I think it must if Christian theology is to make any sense at all, then how could it be that the Old Testament saints had in their possession virtually the complete “gospel” while their behavior falls far short of such a theology? All the evidence from Genesis suggests that Abraham did not consider it wrong to take a second wife. His loss of faith was wrong, something that he himself came to realize according to the Genesis story. But the principle of polygamy is never discussed. In the Jacob story it is even more evident that polygamy is an accepted way of life. By reading between the lines in the light of later Christian standards we can certainly surmise the tragedies caused by polygamy, but Genesis does not moralize about it. To cite further examples, Exodus does not moralize about slavery, nor does the Old Testament grant an “enlightened” status to women.
This tension between theology and ethics evaporates if we read the Old Testament in its original setting and do not insist on finding full-blown New Testament standards everywhere in the Old Testament. In fact, the New Testament itself contrasts the many and various ways of the Old Testament with the way of Jesus Christ (Heb. 1:1-2) and speaks of the shadow pointing to the reality (Heb. 10:1). Perhaps we could even borrow another famous New Testament phrase: “seeing through a glass darkly” (1 Cor. 13:12). A type is never as clear as the reality, nor is the shadow as clear as the subject itself. Why then should we insist that the Old Testament be as clear as the New in its picture of God? For all practical purposes, the New Testament contradicts the claim of a complete Old Testament revelation while confirming that the Old Testament believer had quite adequate evidence on which to base faith (cf. John 5:46-47).
The point of all this is to emphasize that if one is going to understand the Old Testament, one must let the Old Testament speak for itself, something which conservative Christians have had considerable difficulty in doing.
Returning then to our survey of the Old Testament story, I would like to suggest, in keeping with the evidence from Genesis, that Abraham’s actual knowledge about God was most likely quite limited. He was a great man of faith who acted on the evidence which he had. And though his knowledge of God was limited, and though he was occasionally unfaithful to that knowledge, he rightly stands as one of the great heroes of faith. The story in Genesis 22 of his willingness to offer up Isaac, the son of promise, stands out as one of the great testimonies to his relationship with his God. Yet right here within this great story of Abraham’s faith lies a problem for us if we take the “high road” approach. Biblical narratives detailing the later history of God’s people clearly establish that human sacrifice was forbidden. If Abraham already knew that such “killing” was wrong, then why should we commend his faith for his willingness to do what he believed to be wrong? Such an approach puts Abraham and us in an inconsistent position. What would hinder God from coming to me now and asking me to “sacrifice” my child? And how would I know that it was the voice of God if he had clearly indicated to me by other means that such sacrifice was wrong? Would he expect me to disobey him in order to obey him? Not at all.
The explanation lies in the recognition that Abraham was most likely surrounded by a culture which assumed that the sacrifice of the heir was the highest possible gift that one could offer to the gods. It was only that cultural background which made that particular test possible. But interestingly enough, if we interpret the story rather freely, we find in it the very heart of the gospel story, for, in effect, God comes to Abraham and tells him: “Abraham, I appreciate your willingness, but you really cannot offer your son. Only I can offer my son. I will provide the sacrifice – there it is behind you.” Is that not what God says at the cross? “No merely human sacrifice can ever be adequate – I will provide the gift that brings peace.” Did Abraham see the full story? Through a glass darkly, yes, but probably not in detail. I think that is the message of Genesis 22.
A great number of perplexities that crop up in connection with the patriarchs simply vanish when we recognize that these men had entered a world that had been greatly distorted by sin so much so that the truths which God had originally entrusted to the human family had disappeared or had become greatly distorted by contact with pagan culture. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see how an original promise of a Messiah who must die for our sins could have become distorted into the practice of human sacrifice. No proof can be cited for such a development, of course, but such a possibility would certainly be in keeping with the known human tendency to transform the gift of God into a matter of our own works and pride.
THE PEOPLE OF GOD: RISE AND FALL
If we follow the Old Testament story further, we note that the period of drastic loss of the knowledge of God highlighted in Genesis 3-11 is not the only one of decline and degeneracy. The descendants of Jacob migrated to Egypt where they became enslaved for hundreds of years. The biblical account makes it clear that when the time came for God to deliver “his” people, their spiritual condition was low indeed. While the knowledge of God had not been completely lost, the book of Exodus does suggest that most of the people had virtually lost sight of the God who had revealed himself to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. No wonder Moses’ position as leader of these people was often quite tenuous; they were always on the verge of deserting this “new” God for the old ones of Egypt. And when this rough lot of ex-slaves finally arrived at Sinai, the laws which God gave through Moses provide clear evidence that these people, cowering in mixed fear and awe about the mountain, were so deeply involved with cruel customs that instant abolition of such customs was out of the question. The best that could be done in some instances was a slight “humanizing” of some of the more barbaric aspects. And I use the term “humanizing” intentionally, for I think the laws of the Pentateuch must be seen, in the first instance, as revealing the kind of people God was dealing with, and then only in the second instance, as, revealing the character of the God who had chosen these people. The thunder and smoke, the heavy hand, and the strange customs seen at Sinai, are often cited by God’s detractors as evidence against him. Because of the “high road” approach, many Christians also find these aspects troublesome even though they choose for other reasons to remain within the community of faith.
Later Old Testament writers make it clear that when human beings forget God, they also forget their fellow creatures, sinking to cruelty and abuse. So when God seeks to awaken a knowledge of himself in the hearts of people thus degraded and alienated from him, he does not seek simply to make them more “religious,” but also to make them more human. Judged by the cultures around ancient Israel, the laws given to Israel show remarkable signs of “humanization.” God took this people, in spite of the many barbaric and cruel customs which they had adopted and began to draw them to him. He wished to show them a better way. But if human beings are to be treated as real human beings who possess the power of choice, then the “better way” must come gradually. Otherwise, they will exercise their freedom of choice and turn away from that which they do not understand. I shall return to this point later, for it is a crucial one, but now I simply want to make clear the “rise and fall” of God’s people as the Old Testament itself describes it. Up to the time of the Exodus, it is mostly “fall,” and that is why the “low road” approach can be so helpful.
Before taking up the question as to why God allowed man to fall so low, I should perhaps draw attention briefly to some other “low” points in the progression of the Old Testament narrative. Have you read the book of Judges lately? Maybe you haven’t been brave enough. In chapter 6 we will discuss in some detail one of the frightful stories at the end of the book of Judges, but the whole of that period is one of apostasy, rebellion, and degeneration with very few glimmers of light. If unstable characters such as Samson and Jephthah were the best that God could find for his judges, you can imagine the condition of the rest of the people. At the beginning of the settlement period, even that fine young man Joshua, one who generally occupies a position of honor on the “high road,” sometimes acts in a shocking manner, at least when judged by our standards of right and wrong. Take the story in Joshua 10 as an example. When five Canaanite kings had been captured, Joshua commanded his men of war: “Put your feet on the necks of these kings.” With a few words about the Lord’s continuing presence and assistance, he then killed the kings and hung the corpses on five trees until sundown (Josh. 10:22-27). What would a modern Christian church do with a military leader who treated his enemies in such a way? Reflection on such questions simply emphasizes how far these great men of ages past were from holding the kinds of standards that we would consider right. Yet these were God’s men and God chose to use them. What does that tell us about God? Either that God is very cruel – or that he is very patient. I much prefer the latter alternative, for that is the kind of God I find revealed in Jesus Christ. With that deep Christian bias which I readily admit, I choose the alternative which best fits the larger picture.
Glimpses of two other periods in the history of Israel should be sufficient to give at least the flavor of the Old Testament story. The key names are Hezekiah and Josiah during the period of the monarchy, and Ezra and Nehemiah from the post-exilic period. During the approximately four hundred years of Israel’s monarchy, her religious experience was wildly erratic. Some great and good names do stand out, including those of Hezekiah and Josiah, both of whom initiated great religious reforms. Hezekiah’s reform and Passover preceded Josiah’s by about eighty years and are described at some length in 2 Chronicles 29-31. Why does the Chronicler give this story so much space? Perhaps because in Hezekiah’s day, the Passover was quite a novel idea, so novel, in fact, that the priests could not consecrate themselves in time. Levities had to be drafted to help administer the sacrifices (2 Chron. 29:34). The Passover itself had to be delayed for a month so that everything could be done as the law required. The people were so taken with this “new” thing that everyone agreed to extend the feast for another seven days (2 Chron. 30:23).
Now one might think that such a glorious Passover would establish the pattern for generations to come, but how does the biblical record describe conditions when Josiah came to power a few decades later? The Chronicler’s detailing of Josiah’s own development is most illuminating and deserves a closer look.
As told in 2 Chronicles 34, Josiah’s religious experience grew as follows: he was only a lad of eight when he began to reign (v. 1), but he apparently did not begin to “seek the God of David” until he was sixteen (v. 3). What had he been doing for religion before this? Use your imagination. The Bible doesn’t say. After beginning to seek the God of David at the age of sixteen, he finally decided to do something concrete to establish the faith; he began to break down the idols and destroy the pagan altars, but that didn’t actually take place until he was twenty (vv. 3-7). One would think that by now he must have been a devout worshiper of the true God and would have had most aspects of the faith firmly under control. Not quite, for it was only when he was twenty-four years of age that he decided to restore the temple, the official place of worship (v. 8). While the temple renewal was underway, Hilkiah the priest found the book of the law (v. 14). The Bible itself does not clearly identify the book that was found, but many scholars think it was the book of Deuteronomy or at least part of it. In any event, Hilkiah brought the book to the king’s secretary who in turn rushed it to the king. Whatever the precise contents may have been, the king was greatly surprised and shocked (v. 19). Can you imagine both the priest and the king being ignorant of the book of the law – and that so soon after Hezekiah’s great reform? And if the king and priest were ignorant, what was the condition of the average citizen?
I can well remember my reaction when the events of 2 Chronicles 34 finally made an impression on my mind. My “high road” picture of faithful kings, priests, and prophets, who held high the “banner of truth,” needed to be remodeled to fit the picture that the Old Testament itself gives. What a struggle it was for God to reveal himself to those people, people who so easily and so quickly fell so far.
Our last snapshot picture from the Old Testament comes after Israel had been dragged into Babylonian captivity, the just reward for her sins as the biblical account so dearly states. Nebuchadnezzar’s final capture and destruction of Jerusalem is usually dated at 586; the first feeble group of returning exiles apparently headed back for Judah in 536, but morale was a problem. After a half-hearted attempt to rebuild the city and the temple, local opposition discouraged the people and they simply let the temple remain in ruins. Finally, around 520, under the inspiration provided by the prophets Zechariah and Haggai, a drive was begun which resulted in the completion of the temple.
We have no biblical narrative which describes what took place during the next few decades. All we know from the biblical account is that when Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in 458/57, the state of religion was appalling. He and Nehemiah worked together to restore the city walls and the faith of the people. But a most sobering insight is provided by the last chapter of Nehemiah. Ezra had now passed from the scene and Nehemiah has had to return to the court of the Persian king, though the biblical account does not explain why. Upon his return to Jerusalem some twelve years later, which would probably be no earlier than 425, Nehemiah was appalled by the conditions he found. Some of the very reforms that he and Ezra had established earlier had been reversed entirely. Read the story yourself in Nehemiah 13 and you will discover further evidence of the “low road” on which Israel so often traveled! In Nehemiah’s absence, the people had given over part of the temple to one of Israel’s avowed enemies, Tobiah the Ammonite; the priests and Levities had simply been left to fend for themselves; the Sabbath had been disregarded; and the Israelites were still marrying foreign wives, contrary to God’s law. That last point was precisely one that Ezra and Nehemiah had “reformed” earlier.
Nehemiah’s response to this multiple threat was vigorous and passionate. In his own words: “I contended with them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair; and I made them take an oath in the name of God” (Neh. 13:25). Tough lines, but perhaps not too surprising considering the circumstances.
Descriptions of the history of Israel often suggest that the Babylonian captivity cured Israel once and for all of the worship of pagan deities and turned her to the religion of law, an emphasis that is altogether too clear by New Testament times. But even that religion of law was not easy to come by. The evidence from the Old Testament suggests that virtually throughout her history, even after the exile, God’s people were mostly traveling the “low road.” One could hardly accuse Israel of worshiping God wrongly when she was not even worshiping Him at all! But that must have been the case more often than we have been inclined to admit.
After tracing the above scenario, we must now ask the question as to why God would allow such frightful degeneration. Why would he create a world and then let it slide away from him? Why would he choose a people and then not keep them close to him? Those questions have often been asked and they are the right ones to ask. The problem of evil and sin is an ominous cloud over our world. When God’s children either cannot recognize or cannot understand his activity among men, they turn away from him. I do not presume to know the full answer, but I would like to suggest a way of interpreting God’s activity that has helped me to see the Old Testament and the New Testament as part of a consistent revelation of a good God.
A COSMIC STRUGGLE BETWEEN GOOD AND EVIL
The claim of both the Old Testament and of the New is that God is all-powerful, all- knowing, and the source of everything good. How could such a God be the architect of this world with its sin and tragedy? The Bible does not really attempt to answer that question in a philosophical manner, but there are some hints in Scripture that point in the direction of a possible explanation of the course that this world has taken. When these hints are drawn together, a picture of a great cosmic drama begins to emerge. John Milton’s Paradise Lost is perhaps the best known popularization of this drama, but the elements are present in Scripture, and Milton himself draws heavily on scriptural imagery. As the writings of C.S. Lewis attest, the motif is still popular in our modern era.
The drama centers on the great struggle between good and evil, between God and the Enemy of the good. The Old Testament treatment of this drama will be discussed more specifically in the next chapter, but the hints appear very early in the biblical narrative. The serpent of Genesis 3, although more crafty than any of God’s other creatures, is somehow also God’s opponent, raising questions about God’s manner of dealing with man. He claims that God arbitrarily has withheld something good from man. Traditional Christianity has attributed personal qualities to this serpent and has depicted him as the Great Opponent of God, usually under the name of Satan or simply the Devil.
The suggestion of a great cosmic struggle between this Adversary and God is further amplified in the book of Job. The Adversary accuses God of favoritism, implying that God virtually has bribed Job to serve him; remove the hedge and Job’s allegiance would simply evaporate. In short, the book of Job sets a drama in which the Adversary attacks the very heart of God’s ways with man. If God is to prove his case, he must throw his man Job to the lions, so to speak. Job suffers, argues, talks back to a silent God, but never abandons his faith in God’s justice. Thus, through Job’s endurance, God’s character stands vindicated.
Two additional Old Testament passages,, Isaiah 14: 12-15, the famous “Lucifer” passage, and Ezekiel 28:11-19, both suggest further elements in the traditional Christian interpretation of the cosmic struggle. In particular, the aspect of selfish pride is prominent in both of these passages. It requires only a small step to arrive at the two great points of tension in this cosmic drama: the selfishness and pride of the Adversary over against God’s self-sacrificing love, a contrast that has been much developed in the Christian understanding of the mission of Jesus.
The New Testament intensifies the focus on this cosmic drama. When the “seventy” returned from their successful mission, Luke records that Jesus exclaimed: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven” (Luke 10:18). In addition, both Matthew and Luke record the personal confrontation between Jesus and the Adversary (Matthew 4; Luke 4). Both accounts hint at a cosmic significance when the devil offers the world to Jesus if he will fall down and worship him.
Much additional New Testament evidence could be cited, but for purposes of defining the cosmic struggle, the final book of the New Testament is one of the more important New Testament points of reference. Revelation 12-14, and 20, in particular, throw the struggle into bold relief; the dragon and Michael are at war (Rev. 12:7). The dragon is defeated and cast to earth where he pursues those who are faithful to God’s commands (Rev. 12:17). The dragon carries on his warfare through the beast of Revelation 13. The beast and his allies attack virtually every part of God’s realm. As the struggle climaxes, its religious character becomes more evident, for another beast follows in the authority of the first, demanding that all should worship the image of the beast or be killed (Rev. 13:15). Thus the human family is inevitably drawn into the struggle. Those who refuse the demands of the beast are described as saints who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus (Rev. 14:12).
Throughout the book of Revelation the theme of judgment is prominent, a judgment
which is ultimately for God and his holy ones and against the dragon and his demons. Revelation 14:6 declares that the hour of judgment has come and in the chapter which describes the final demise of the devil and his angels, Revelation 20, judgment is committed to the saints (Rev. 20:4). The language of confrontation simply dominates the book.
Now it is perhaps noteworthy that where this cosmic struggle is given any kind of content, the enemy accuses God of being arbitrary: in Genesis 3, God is accused of arbitrarily withholding something good from man. In Job, God is accused of arbitrarily favoring Job. Yet interestingly enough, these same passages suggest that God actually grants remarkable freedom: in Genesis, the power of choice and the right to rebel; in Job, the right of the Adversary to viciously attack Job, Job’s family, and Job’s possessions. In short, the biblical writers seem to present the evidence for a freedom-loving God who has no fears of granting freedom also to his creatures and even to the Adversary himself. But in the context of the great cosmic struggle, when the Adversary accuses God of being arbitrary, the only possible way of putting the accusation to rest is for God to do precisely what he did in Job’s case: he must throw Job to the lions. Refusal to let Satan attack Job would simply have left the accusation all the more believable, and the reputation of God’s government all the more in doubt. But now let us apply the above suggestions to the interpretation of biblical history as a whole. If the course of history can be seen to be taking place within a great cosmic struggle in which God is accused of governing in an arbitrary manner, then we have a hint as to how we might understand his willingness to create a good world – but then watch it fall into serious decay. Who would be the mastermind of that decay? The Adversary.
The suggestion that the Adversary is in some sense the master of this world as well as the mastermind behind its pain and agony, appears in the book of Job. At least when the sons of God gathered together, the Adversary reported that he had come from the earth. This may also be the origin of the references in the gospels to “the ruler of this world” (John 12:31). The devil’s willingness to “concede” rulership to Jesus (for a price!) as noted in the temptation accounts also implies a certain demonic lordship over creation. Placing this demonic control in a framework similar to that provided by the book of Job, we can imagine that a good world has been thrown to the lions. Thus, the entire creation must endure a Job-like experience at the hands of the Adversary.
If God’s ultimate authority is to be established, then the full impact of demonic rule must be allowed to develop. The “benefits” and “blessings” of demonic rule must be allowed to develop for all to see, if God’s lordship is to be finally regained. So just as God had to remain silent during Job’s agony, just as he allowed Satan to destroy Job’s innocent children, just as God allowed circumstances to deteriorate to the point where Job’s wife could say: “Curse God and die,” so it is with the world which God has created. Demonic forces must be granted the right to rule. Man must be granted the right to rebel without the threat of immediate and sudden punishment. And so we have the tragic sequence of Genesis 3-11, a somber reminder of the devastation caused by rebellion, but at the same time, a testimony to a God who loves freedom so much that he even grants us the privilege of ruining our lives and the lives of others.
Yet God has not abdicated completely his responsibilities and control. Just as he set limits on Satan’s attack on Job, so he has put some limits on the spread of evil. And just as God finally broke his silence with Job, so he also came in a special way to Abraham to renew the knowledge of God and to lead Abraham into a new relationship as an example of what a divine-human relationship could mean. But if God is the kind of God who loves freedom, then he cannot force us to grow towards him. Growth can come only as we choose to respond to the divine invitation. That is why the Old Testament stories provide such a mysterious blending of good and evil. In some of the narratives the distinction between good and evil is clear enough: human beings simply failed, revolting against what they knew to be right. But in other cases, divine wisdom apparently saw that man was not yet ready for the next step upward. Reforms cannot be hasty, otherwise all can be lost, For freedom’s sake, God had been willing to let the demons have a fair crack at his creation; now God must defeat the demons, the false deities who had inundated the earth.
If we apply this suggested interpretative framework to Abraham’s situation, we can see that if God had moved too quickly in his attempt to win the heart of Abraham, Abraham would have had plenty of other “gods” to choose from. He was by no means bound to serve the God who had called him from Ur of the Chaldees. There must have been many things that God desperately wanted to tell Abraham, but he didn’t dare. Abraham was not yet ready to move from milk to meat!
Thus when the larger picture of a cosmic struggle forms the background of the Old Testament, I find it much easier to understand the activities of God. It now seems strange to me that the Old Testament God has the reputation of having a short fuse. A God of incredible patience is a much more accurate description. Judged by New Testament standards, life in the Old Testament was often at a very low ebb. Yet God was there – working, inviting, winning.
We must not assume, however, that the upward path was a continuous one once God had come to Abraham. The graph actually looks much more like a roller-coaster ride! Freedom means we may grow or fall, depending on whether we respond to the divine invitation or turn from it. When one of God’s children chooses to turn away, the memory of the divine presence can very easily fade completely. Very little time is required to obliterate even important traditions from the human experience. I have known families who have become alienated from the Christian community and have turned away, taking their children with them into isolation. Given a few years of such isolation, the children have no memory of that which had at one time been so important to their parents. So it is with the rebellions and apostasies in the Old Testament. The example cited earlier of the loss of the knowledge of God between Hezekiah and Josiah is almost the rule rather than the exception, more typical than remarkable, though still very much a tragedy.
To summarize the argument of this chapter, we can say that God did create a good world. In this world he placed free creatures. They chose to rebel and align themselves with the Adversary. His attacks on God set the stage for demonic rule, a rule which a freedom-loving God chose to allow as necessary evidence in the cosmic struggle between good and evil. The Old Testament gives ample evidence of the impact of the demonic rule. At the same time, however, it testifies to God’s patient interest in his own people, a people through whom he hoped to demonstrate to the world that there is a God in heaven who is the source of everything good. God had much that he wanted to show and tell his people. As soon as they were ready, he passed on the good news. The tragedy was that they were so seldom ready. Yet God was still willing to watch and wait. That is the glory of the Old Testament and the glory of our God.