The Track Record of God's People

The tragedy of life and of the world is not that men do not know God;
the tragedy is that, knowing Him, they still insist on going their own way.

--William Barclay, The Revelation of John (Vol. II) [1961]

Under the New Covenant--which Jesus put into effect at the Last Supper--we who believe in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob enjoy better and greater and stronger promises and provisions that Israel did under the Old Covenant. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews elaborates on these greater promises our better covenant, in great detail. Perhaps that is why the church has lasted nearly two Millennia--while the history of Israel from the Exodus to the Babylonian Captivity was less than a thousand years.

But human nature has not changed, not has God, nor His standards for living in His presence. The Law of Moses simply tells us what God is like as a Person. If we are to serve the living God we have to adjust to who He is and discover how to live lives which he finds acceptable for knowing Him.

There are several places where the Old Testament record jolts the reader with regard to our general unwillingness to respond to God and to follow Him consistently.

At Mt. Sinai, Moses came down from the mountain with the tablets of the Law which were then solemnly ratified by all the people:

So Moses came and told the people all the words of the LORD and all the judgments. And all the people answered with one voice and said, "All the words which the LORD has said we will do." And Moses wrote all the words of the LORD. And he rose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain, and twelve pillars according to the twelve tribes of Israel. Then he sent young men of the children of Israel, who offered burnt offerings and sacrificed peace offerings of oxen to the LORD. And Moses took half the blood and put it in basins, and half the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the Book of the Covenant and read in the hearing of the people.

And they said, "All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient." And Moses took the blood, sprinkled it on the people, and said, "This is the blood of the covenant which the LORD has made with you according to all these words." Then Moses went up, also Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel, and they saw the God of Israel. And there was under His feet as it were a paved work of sapphire stone, and it was like the very heavens in its clarity. (Exodus 28:3-10)

One does not have to read much further in Exodus to see the first major failure in Israel's "good intentions." Exodus chapter 32 records the incident of the Golden Calf and Israel's lapse into their Egyptian idolatrous living. It was a terrible failure. It was not the last. The intercession of Moses on behalf of the people, (Exodus 32ff) vividly reveals God's displeasure but also His utter faithfulness to his promises in spite of human failure.

Some months later the people of Israel came to Kadesh Barnea where they had God's blessing to enter the Promised Land. They failed to move forward in faith, though the door to the land was clearly standing wide open. The consequence engine was running--as it always does when we do things our own way. Israel paid a big price in the death of an entire generation, and forty years of wandering in the wilderness. Faith means risk on our part: stepping out and acting on what He has said and leaving it to Him how He manages the future. "without faith it is impossible to please God"

When forty years had passed and the new generation was ready to enter the Land. In a long and detailed sermon Moses gave all of Israel a thorough review of all the conditions and terms of their Covenant with God (Deuteronomy 29-3). There were again explicit instructions about the eradication of the Canaanites living in the land. The land God gave to Abraham--and to them--was their land forever--but their right to live in that land was conditioned upon their obedience. Did Israel follow through on this? No, not really. Joshua 1:21-36 records the failure of at least six tribes who "did not drive out" the people God wished removed from His land.

After the death of Joshua the lapses recorded in Judges show that God's people don't do well when they have to look to an invisible God for guidance. "In those days there was no king in the land. Every man did what was right in his own eyes."

Samuel gave the people the first of their Kings, Saul of the tribe of Benjamin after warning them that they were not making a wise move in wanting a king over them "like all the other nations." Knowing this would happen ahead of time God had already included in the Law of Moses a list of guidelines for future kings (Deuteronomy 17:14-20). Did the kings do well? Mostly not. Did they heed the guidelines Moses had left them? Hardly ever. All of the twenty kings of the Northern tribes were "bad" (meaning they ignored God), and out of twenty kings over Judah and Benjamin, only six were good or sort of good.

The prophets had little praise for the nation's behavior under their Kings. Israel was a religious people but soon lost their intimate, personal relationship with God. For long sections of their national history they were a nation of hypocrites. (See for instance Isaiah 58)

God called Israel "His wife" but then went on to point out again and again that His wife had been unfaithful to Him from the time she left Egypt. Hosea brought this message to the Northern Tribes, Isaiah said the same thing to Benjamin and Judah a few years later. Ezekiel used vivid language to tell the same thing to the captives from Jerusalem taken off to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar--see Ezekiel 16, 24.

The Lord told Ezekiel when he first arrived in Babylon that he had a tough challenge ahead. Ezekiel was only 25 years old at the time and had been studying for the Levitical priesthood when Nebuchadnezzar took him to Babylon in 597 BC. God told the young man:

"Son of man, stand on your feet, and I will speak to you." Then the Spirit entered me when He spoke to me, and set me on my feet; and I heard Him who spoke to me. And He said to me: "Son of man, I am sending you to the children of Israel, to a rebellious nation that has rebelled against Me; they and their fathers have transgressed against Me to this very day. "For they are impudent and stubborn children. I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, 'Thus says the Lord GOD.' "As for them, whether they hear or whether they refuse--for they are a rebellious house--yet they will know that a prophet has been among them. "And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them nor be afraid of their words, though briers and thorns are with you and you dwell among scorpions; do not be afraid of their words or dismayed by their looks, though they are a rebellious house. "You shall speak My words to them, whether they hear or whether they refuse, for they are rebellious. "But you, son of man, hear what I say to you. Do not be rebellious like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you." (Ezekiel 2:1-8)

Sure enough the people ignored Ezekiel's vivid messages that Jerusalem was about to be destroyed. The exiles were never to return to their families, and their temple, and their city. When news of the city's fall reached them seven years later in 586 BC did they then turn to God? Not hardly.

"As for you, son of man, the children of your people are talking about you beside the walls and in the doors of the houses; and they speak to one another, everyone saying to his brother, 'Please come and hear what the word is that comes from the LORD.' "So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words, but they do not do them; for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain. "Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them." And when this comes to pass--surely it will come--then they will know that a prophet has been among them." (Ezekiel 33:30-33)

Meanwhile back in Jerusalem the prophet Jeremiah had personally witnessed the 18-month siege of Jerusalem and the terrible loss of life and destruction of the city. Did the survivors in Jerusalem turn to the Lord? Not really. A few perhaps, but not the majority. The following discussion between the prophet and the surviving leaders in Jerusalem is revealing:

Now all the captains of the forces, Johanan the son of Kareah, Jezaniah the son of Hoshaiah, and all the people, from the least to the greatest, came near and said to Jeremiah the prophet, "Please, let our petition be acceptable to you, and pray for us to the LORD your God, for all this remnant (since we are left but a few of many, as you can see), "that the LORD your God may show us the way in which we should walk and the thing we should do."

Then Jeremiah the prophet said to them, "I have heard. Indeed, I will pray to the LORD your God according to your words, and it shall be, that whatever the LORD answers you, I will declare it to you. I will keep nothing back from you."

So they said to Jeremiah, "Let the LORD be a true and faithful witness between us, if we do not do according to everything which the LORD your God sends us by you. "Whether it is pleasing or displeasing, we will obey the voice of the LORD our God to whom we send you, that it may be well with us when we obey the voice of the LORD our God."

And it happened after ten days that the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah. Then he called Johanan the son of Kareah, all the captains of the forces which were with him, and all the people from the least even to the greatest, and said to them, "Thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, to whom you sent me to present your petition before Him: 'If you will still remain in this land, then I will build you and not pull you down, and I will plant you and not pluck you up. For I relent concerning the disaster that I have brought upon you. 'Do not be afraid of the king of Babylon, of whom you are afraid; do not be afraid of him,' says the LORD, 'for I am with you, to save you and deliver you from his hand. 'And I will show you mercy, that he may have mercy on you and cause you to return to your own land.'

"But if you say, 'We will not dwell in this land,' disobeying the voice of the LORD your God, "saying, 'No, but we will go to the land of Egypt where we shall see no war, nor hear the sound of the trumpet, nor be hungry for bread, and there we will dwell'-- "Then hear now the word of the LORD, O remnant of Judah! Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: 'If you wholly set your faces to enter Egypt, and go to dwell there, 'then it shall be that the sword which you feared shall overtake you there in the land of Egypt; the famine of which you were afraid shall follow close after you there in Egypt; and there you shall die. 'So shall it be with all the men who set their faces to go to Egypt to dwell there. They shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence. And none of them shall remain or escape from the disaster that I will bring upon them.' "For thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: 'As My anger and My fury have been poured out on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so will My fury be poured out on you when you enter Egypt. And you shall be an oath, an astonishment, a curse, and a reproach; and you shall see this place no more.' "The LORD has said concerning you, O remnant of Judah, 'Do not go to Egypt!' Know certainly that I have admonished you this day. "For you were hypocrites in your hearts when you sent me to the LORD your God, saying, 'Pray for us to the LORD our God, and according to all that the LORD your God says, so declare to us and we will do it.' "And I have this day declared it to you, but you have not obeyed the voice of the LORD your God, or anything which He has sent you by me. "Now therefore, know certainly that you shall die by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence in the place where you desire to go to dwell." (Jeremiah 42:1-22)

What happened next? Did the people do as they had promised? Did they listen to, and respond to, the clear word they had been given from the Lord? Not hardly! They accused Jeremiah of lying. They went to Egypt anyhow--dragging the prophet with them. Not long afterwards his own countrymen put Jeremiah to death in Egypt, but not until the faithful prophet had predicted the invasion of Egypt by Nebuchadnezzar (which came in 568 BC). (Jeremiah 43-44).

The men's group which has been meeting in my home for a dozen years came recently to 2 Kings 17. This summary of Israel's track record struck us vividly as somehow very relevant for us today. We spent two weeks thinking and praying about this great chapter of God's Word. The superficial Christians lives we live today may be no better a track record than that of ancient Israel's. On top of that we have much greater light and knowledge today. We are ten or a hundred times more accountable and God judges people by what they know and how we respond to what we know. Second Kings 17 says,

In the twelfth year of Ahaz king of Judah, Hoshea the son of Elah became king of Israel in Samaria, and he reigned nine years. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, but not as the kings of Israel who were before him. Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against him; and Hoshea became his vassal, and paid him tribute money. And the king of Assyria uncovered a conspiracy by Hoshea; for he had sent messengers to So, king of Egypt, and brought no tribute to the king of Assyria, as he had done year by year. Therefore the king of Assyria shut him up, and bound him in prison. Now the king of Assyria went throughout all the land, and went up to Samaria and besieged it for three years. In the ninth year of Hoshea, the king of Assyria took Samaria and carried Israel away to Assyria, [722 BC] and placed them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes.

For so it was that the children of Israel had sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them up out of the land of Egypt, from under the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt; and they had feared other gods, and had walked in the statutes of the nations whom the LORD had cast out from before the children of Israel, and of the kings of Israel, which they had made. Also the children of Israel secretly did against the LORD their God things that were not right, and they built for themselves high places in all their cities, from watchtower to fortified city. They set up for themselves sacred pillars and wooden images on every high hill and under every green tree. There they burned incense on all the high places, like the nations whom the LORD had carried away before them; and they did wicked things to provoke the LORD to anger, for they served idols, of which the LORD had said to them, "You shall not do this thing."

Yet the LORD testified against Israel and against Judah, by all of His prophets, every seer, saying, "Turn from your evil ways, and keep My commandments and My statutes, according to all the law which I commanded your fathers, and which I sent to you by My servants the prophets."

Nevertheless they would not hear, but stiffened their necks, like the necks of their fathers, who did not believe in the LORD their God. And they rejected His statutes and His covenant that He had made with their fathers, and His testimonies which He had testified against them; they followed idols, became idolaters, and went after the nations who were all around them, concerning whom the LORD had charged them that they should not do like them. So they left all the commandments of the LORD their God, made for themselves a molded image and two calves, made a wooden image and worshiped all the host of heaven, and served Baal. And they caused their sons and daughters to pass through the fire, practiced witchcraft and soothsaying, and sold themselves to do evil in the sight of the LORD, to provoke Him to anger.

Therefore the LORD was very angry with Israel, and removed them from His sight; there was none left but the tribe of Judah alone.

Also Judah did not keep the commandments of the LORD their God, but walked in the statutes of Israel which they made. And the LORD rejected all the descendants of Israel, afflicted them, and delivered them into the hand of plunderers, until He had cast them from His sight. For He tore Israel from the house of David, and they made Jeroboam the son of Nebat king. Then Jeroboam drove Israel from following the LORD, and made them commit a great sin. For the children of Israel walked in all the sins of Jeroboam which he did; they did not depart from them, until the LORD removed Israel out of His sight, as He had said by all His servants the prophets. So Israel was carried away from their own land to Assyria, as it is to this day.

Then the king of Assyria brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and from Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they took possession of Samaria and dwelt in its cities. And it was so, at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they did not fear the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them. So they spoke to the king of Assyria, saying, "The nations whom you have removed and placed in the cities of Samaria do not know the rituals of the God of the land; therefore He has sent lions among them, and indeed, they are killing them because they do not know the rituals of the God of the land." Then the king of Assyria commanded, saying, "Send there one of the priests whom you brought from there; let him go and dwell there, and let him teach them the rituals of the God of the land." Then one of the priests whom they had carried away from Samaria came and dwelt in Bethel, and taught them how they should fear the LORD. However every nation continued to make gods of its own, and put them in the shrines on the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in the cities where they dwelt. The men of Babylon made Succoth Benoth, the men of Cuth made Nergal, the men of Hamath made Ashima, and the Avites made Nibhaz and Tartak; and the Sepharvites burned their children in fire to Adrammelech and Anammelech, the gods of Sepharvaim.

So they feared the LORD, and from every class they appointed for themselves priests of the high places, who sacrificed for them in the shrines of the high places. They feared the LORD, yet served their own gods--according to the rituals of the nations from among whom they were carried away.

To this day they continue practicing the former rituals; they do not fear the LORD, nor do they follow their statutes or their ordinances, or the law and commandment which the LORD had commanded the children of Jacob, whom He named Israel, with whom the LORD had made a covenant and charged them, saying: "You shall not fear other gods, nor bow down to them nor serve them nor sacrifice to them; "but the LORD, who brought you up from the land of Egypt with great power and an outstretched arm, Him you shall fear, Him you shall worship, and to Him you shall offer sacrifice. "And the statutes, the ordinances, the law, and the commandment which He wrote for you, you shall be careful to observe forever; you shall not fear other gods. "And the covenant that I have made with you, you shall not forget, nor shall you fear other gods. "But the LORD your God you shall fear; and He will deliver you from the hand of all your enemies." However they did not obey, but they followed their former rituals. So these nations feared the LORD, yet served their carved images; also their children and their children's children have continued doing as their fathers did, even to this day. (2 Kings 17)

There is a footnote on this section of history in 2 Kings 18: (2 Kings 18:11-12)

"...the king of Assyria carried Israel away captive to Assyria, and put them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes, because they did not obey the voice of the LORD their God, but transgressed His covenant and all that Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded; and they would neither hear nor do them.

When the prophets of Israel write of Israel's future restoration of blessing it is not going to happen because they have earned it nor deserved it. God's name is attached to his people and he will act for the sake of his name and character. For example, Ezekiel said,

"Therefore prophesy concerning the land of Israel, and say to the mountains, the hills, the rivers, and the valleys, 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "Behold, I have spoken in My jealousy and My fury, because you have borne the shame of the nations." 'Therefore thus says the Lord GOD: "I have raised My hand in an oath that surely the nations that are around you shall bear their own shame.

"But you, O mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches and yield your fruit to My people Israel, for they are about to come. "For indeed I am for you, and I will turn to you, and you shall be tilled and sown. "I will multiply men upon you, all the house of Israel, all of it; and the cities shall be inhabited and the ruins rebuilt. "I will multiply upon you man and beast; and they shall increase and bear young; I will make you inhabited as in former times, and do better for you than at your beginnings. Then you shall know that I am the LORD. "Yes, I will cause men to walk on you, My people Israel; they shall take possession of you, and you shall be their inheritance; no more shall you bereave them of children." 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "Because they say to you, 'You devour men and bereave your nation of children,' "therefore you shall devour men no more, nor bereave your nation anymore," says the Lord GOD. "Nor will I let you hear the taunts of the nations anymore, nor bear the reproach of the peoples anymore, nor shall you cause your nation to stumble anymore," says the Lord GOD.'"

Moreover the word of the LORD came to me, saying: "Son of man, when the house of Israel dwelt in their own land, they defiled it by their own ways and deeds; to Me their way was like the uncleanness of a woman in her customary impurity. "Therefore I poured out My fury on them for the blood they had shed on the land, and for their idols with which they had defiled it. "So I scattered them among the nations, and they were dispersed throughout the countries; I judged them according to their ways and their deeds. "When they came to the nations, wherever they went, they profaned My holy name--when they said of them, 'These are the people of the LORD, and yet they have gone out of His land.'

"But I had concern for My holy name, which the house of Israel had profaned among the nations wherever they went. "Therefore say to the house of Israel, 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "I do not do this for your sake, O house of Israel, but for My holy name's sake, which you have profaned among the nations wherever you went. "And I will sanctify My great name, which has been profaned among the nations, which you have profaned in their midst; and the nations shall know that I am the LORD," says the Lord GOD, "when I am hallowed in you before their eyes. "For I will take you from among the nations, gather you out of all countries, and bring you into your own land. "Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols. "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. "I will put My Spirit within you and cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will keep My judgments and do them. "Then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers; you shall be My people, and I will be your God. "I will deliver you from all your uncleannesses. I will call for the grain and multiply it, and bring no famine upon you." And I will multiply the fruit of your trees and the increase of your fields, so that you need never again bear the reproach of famine among the nations.

"Then you will remember your evil ways and your deeds that were not good; and you will loathe yourselves in your own sight, for your iniquities and your abominations.

"Not for your sake do I do this," says the Lord GOD, "let it be known to you. Be ashamed and confounded for your own ways, O house of Israel!" "The desolate land shall be tilled instead of lying desolate in the sight of all who pass by. "So they will say, 'This land that was desolate has become like the garden of Eden; and the wasted, desolate, and ruined cities are now fortified and inhabited.' "Then the nations which are left all around you shall know that I, the LORD, have rebuilt the ruined places and planted what was desolate. I, the LORD, have spoken it, and I will do it." 'Thus says the Lord GOD: "I will also let the house of Israel inquire of Me to do this for them: I will increase their men like a flock. "Like a flock offered as holy sacrifices, like the flock at Jerusalem on its feast days, so shall the ruined cities be filled with flocks of men. Then they shall know that I am the LORD."'" (Ezekiel 36:6-38)

Twice the New Testament tells us that the Old Testament record was written down for our benefit:

Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank of that spiritual Rock that followed them, and that Rock was Christ. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play." Nor let us commit sexual immorality, as some of them did, and in one day twenty-three thousand fell; nor let us tempt Christ, as some of them also tempted, and were destroyed by serpents; nor complain, as some of them also complained, and were destroyed by the destroyer. Now all these things happened to them as examples, and they were written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the ages have come. Therefore let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you except such as is common to man; but God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it. Therefore, my beloved, flee from idolatry." (1 Cor. 10:1-14)

We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me." For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God. (Romans 15:1-7)

The point of all this is that American Christians are not in general doing nearly as well as we think we are. We are hardly a holy, separated people walking in obedience to God. Like the Samaritans who lived in the land of Israel after the Northern captivity we, too, are synergistic. The real God is our part time God. He's there like a life insurance policy--someone to call on when we really need help. Otherwise it is each man for himself. Our lives are our own and let's do as we please. This is a very dangerous place for us to be!

"Therefore we must give the more earnest heed to the things we have heard, lest we drift away. For if the word spoken through angels proved steadfast, and every transgression and disobedience received a just reward, how shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation, which at the first began to be spoken by the Lord, and was confirmed to us by those who heard Him, God also bearing witness both with signs and wonders, with various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit, according to His own will? (Hebrews 2:1-4)

May 7, 2004.

lambert@ldolphin.org