Sunday, June 04, 2017

Some Deliverance

Divine law was not given to mankind simply as a means for us to avoid God’s wrath (though obedience to the law in any generation may defer judgment for a time).

Neither was divine law given only so that men would live happier and more productive lives (though history and the evidence of our eyes tell us societies in which God’s laws are obeyed are better places to live than societies where God’s laws are not).

Still less was divine law given as a means of justifying ourselves in the court of God. That one has never worked.

No, the law was never an end in itself, but rather a means to an end. The desired end was a flourishing relationship with the God who gave it.

IC made this point in a post about the commandments nearly three years ago now (we recycled it here), and I’ve never forgotten it. The idea seems to crop up all over scripture.

He Did Not Set His Heart

For example, King Rehoboam takes the throne of Israel from his father Solomon and in one poorly-considered political stroke drives away ten of Israel’s twelve tribes, dividing his father’s kingdom to this day. After consolidating the remaining Israelites in Jerusalem, he begins to govern. Probably figuring he had dodged a bullet, Rehoboam behaves himself until his kingdom is established and he becomes strong, whereupon we read that he “abandoned the law of the Lord, and all Israel with him.”

Interestingly, the writer of Chronicles does not specify how exactly it was that Rehoboam abandoned God’s law. He simply records that “He did evil, for he did not set his heart to seek the Lord.” For further details we would have to turn to 1 Kings, where we find idolatry was Judah’s problem, just as it was Israel’s problem during the same historical era. But there the similarities end.

Institutional and Organic Rebellion

In Israel, the nationwide move to idol worship was the brainchild of King Jeroboam, who had two calves of gold made and put them either end of his territory to dissuade his people from traveling all the way to Judah to worship Jehovah. The abandonment of God’s law was instituted from the top down, a savvy political move motivated by fear; though in the end it led to disaster for Jeroboam’s nation and family.

In Judah, however, idolatry seems to have risen organically from among the people. It appears to have been more like a bubbling up of wickedness in the general population rather than an edict handed down from above:
Judah did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all that their fathers had done. For they also built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there were also male cult prostitutes in the land. They did according to all the abominations of the nations that the Lord drove out before the people of Israel.”
Talk about an undesirable condition.

A Bullet Dodged Temporarily

In the Kings account, it is “Judah” and “they”, “they”, “they”. The nation had a hunger to behave like the pagans who had inhabited Canaan before them, and Rehoboam indulged his people in their passions and probably joined them in their revels. I don’t get the sense that the king was among the wickedest rulers of Israel or Judah, simply that he was uncommitted to enforcing the law, self-sufficient when the nation was doing well, and interested primarily in going his own way rather than serving Jehovah with a whole heart.

Sort of like a good number of folks who might call themselves Christians today. They’re not necessarily going to engage in a lot of obvious wickedness themselves, but they are wholly uninterested in speaking out against the sins of others around them or living so as to set a godly example for the world. They certainly are not about to use whatever authority God has given them to act against evil.

So five years in, Shishak king of Egypt comes up against Jerusalem and God gives him victory over Israel. After taking some good advice from a prophet, the king and his princes humble themselves and God graciously withholds the full measure of his wrath, granting them “some deliverance”.

Delayed Devastation

“Some deliverance” is a pretty sad state of affairs, if you think about it. It basically means, “I won’t completely devastate you right now, but neither will I bless you. Instead, I’ll teach you a lesson.” Here’s how God put it to Rehoboam through his prophet:
“Nevertheless, they shall be servants to [Shishak], that they may know my service and the service of the kingdoms of the countries.”
It was time to recognize, as Bob Dylan sagely put it, “You Gotta Serve Somebody”; time to try on the shackles of vassalhood and test their fit. And the answer was “not too well”. Shishak cleaned out the gold of the temple and the treasures of the king’s house. “He took away everything,” says Chronicles.

That must’ve been a kick in the teeth to Judah’s national pride.

You Abandoned Me

But back to my original point: this was not just about failing to keep some rules. It was about relationship. God took the rejection of his people very personally. Our text reads “Rehoboam abandoned the law,” but God says this:
“You abandoned ME, so I have abandoned you.”
The biggest problem with a sinful lifestyle is not that it makes us miserable in the long run, or even that it violates God’s righteous standard, though these things are certainly true. The biggest problem is that it is a personal rejection of God himself, who became incarnate not least to remind us that his yoke is easy and his burdens are light. When we live lawlessly, it is because we are abandoning HIM, not just a system, a tradition or an institution.

So many do it anyway, and they think they’re behaving autonomously, when what they’re really doing is experiencing “the service of the kingdoms of the countries”. They’re slaves, and don’t realize it. They’re living their lives on terms set by others, not themselves. They believe the default ideologies of their generation, and chase the commodities others tell them are valuable. They spout clich├ęs they have not written and frequently don’t understand.

They’re carrying around bronze shields instead of gold.

Some deliverance.

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