Sunday, April 25, 2021

The Devotion of Youth

“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride ...”

Bible students familiar with the books of Exodus and Numbers, in which Israel’s failings during their period of wilderness wandering are thoroughly documented, may be excused if they find these words from Jeremiah unlikely and supremely generous. I suffer a similar bout of cognitive dissonance when I read Peter’s words about Lot: “That righteous man lived among them day after day ... tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard.”

Really? The guy who slept with not one but both his daughters? The guy who voluntarily chose to live among the Sodomites? The guy whose wife was so in love with that corrupt society that she turned back and became a cautionary tale so memorable that “pillar of salt” references still appear in secular literature from time to time almost 3,700 years after it happened?

That Lot?

The Editor Sums It Up

Yes, that Lot and yes, that Israel. After all, it is the editorial comments in scripture, whether made by Peter, Paul, the Lord Jesus, or God to his prophets, that are really the final word on interpreting the historical portions of scripture, isn’t it? If Peter wrote that Lot was characteristically righteous, we can take his word for it. The Holy Spirit said so. An apostle’s take trumps my personal impression every time.

Bible history is given to us to build us up in our faith, to warn us against misconduct, to teach us about the character of God, and for many other reasons. But in the absence of editorial observations, history can be interpreted many different ways. If we are honest, the lens through which we view the actions of Old Testament saints and sinners independent of New Testament commentary is very much a product of our own backgrounds and experience. The woman whose own husband has committed adultery may reasonably have a much less charitable view of David than I do. She has a better idea how much pointless pain he caused. She felt it personally. The man whose wife cannot be persuaded to turn away their drug-addicted son at the door only to find he has made off with her jewelry for the tenth time may find himself sympathizing with Joab as he thrusts Absalom through. I might too. What’s wrong with people who never seem to recognize a lost cause?

Higher Than Our Ways

If we attend to them, the editorial comments in scripture preserve us from reading our own personal prejudices and default assumptions into the stories we know so well. They remind us that God’s ways our higher than ours, and that while man looks on the outward appearance, God looks on the heart. They are the final word on the meaning of history. They remind us that while Lot, David and the rest of the Old Testament saints we read about made mistakes, some of them very significant, their lives as a whole were about more than that.

So if God says Israel’s youth was characterized by devotion, I accept that my own view of those wilderness years may be in need of a little balance and modification. I get occupied with Massah and Meribah. I remember the plagues and the fire in the camp and snake bites and Korah’s rebellion. Hey, all that is true, and it’s there for our instruction. But there is another side to the story.

Here’s what God has to say in Israel’s favor:

“I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness, in a land not sown. Israel was holy to the Lord, the firstfruits of his harvest.”

So then, what is there about Israel’s early years following God out of Egypt that is commendable? Well, it turns out there is actually a fair bit. Bear in mind that in all these things, Israel acted in concert. Imagine getting millions of people to comply with some of these instructions all at the same time.

Ten Commendable Acts of Devotion

  1. They obediently followed a set of highly improbable directions. Canaan was northeast from Goshen, but God sent Israel south around the Sinai peninsula rather than having them make a beeline directly toward the land of the Philistines. Who wouldn’t question that? If we are leaving Chicago, headed home to Michigan, then instead I promptly drive off in the direction of Louisville, Kentucky, will you not think me a bit directionally challenged? How about if I ask you to walk it with me; will you not question whether it’s my plan you ought to be following? But youthful Israel did as they were told.
  2. They walked into a seabed with two great walls of water looming over them. Who does that? Youthful Israel did. It must have been terrifying.
  3. They sang about it and praised God’s deliverance. Having witnessed and experienced God’s deliverance, youthful Israel responded gratefully and appropriately, by praising and singing, saying some wonderful things about God that have been preserved and repeated for thousands of years.
  4. They fought Amalek at Rephidim and triumphed. This was not an easy victory, but a see-saw back-and-forth battle in which youthful Israel, with zero experience of war, was from time to time against the ropes. But they prevailed with God’s help.
  5. They ratified the covenant at Sinai. Having the entire law laid out for them, youthful Israel responded with these words, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” They didn’t, of course, but in that moment they surely meant to. Their hearts were in the right place. They just didn’t yet comprehend the weakness of their own wills.
  6. They gave generously for the construction of the tabernacle. The outpouring of voluntary offerings to construct a place for their God to dwell among the people of youthful Israel was so great that the people had to be restrained from bringing more. That speaks to a fair bit of gratitude and devotion.
  7. They obediently followed the pillars of fire and cloud. When God said “go”, youthful Israel got up and went, no matter the time of day or night. When God said “stay”, youthful Israel stayed. Sure, the nation had its problems, but they didn’t refuse basic marching orders.
  8. They arranged their dwellings after the pattern given to Moses. In the wilderness camp, there was no “Pick a nice spot and we’ll set up there.” God gave a very specific set of instructions about how Israel was to arrange their tents in the wilderness, after which it is written that “According to all that the Lord had commanded Moses, so they camped.” When Balaam saw this, he cried, “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your encampments, O Israel!” It wasn’t just their sheer numbers that knocked him for a loop. It was that youthful Israel had followed God’s instructions, and the resulting impression was overwhelming.
  9. They devoted the cities of the Canaanites to destruction. Other than in the matter of Achan, when instructed to destroy perfectly good stuff, youthful Israel generally complied, including entire cities. That probably didn’t go down easily.
  10. They crossed the Jordan and took Canaan. A new generation of youthful Israelites crossed the Jordan at Joshua’s direction and took Canaan as God instructed them. Other than Caleb and Joshua, none of these had passed through the Red Sea, so watching the river pile up around them from all the way back to the city of Adam, then obediently stepping into its dry bed, required a brand new test of individual faith.

Examples might be multiplied, but these will do. Youthful Israel responded obediently to their God on many occasions. Equally, they failed him on many, many others. And yet, when God makes his complaint against adult Israel through Jeremiah, he has elected not to bring up these occasions of youthful rebellion, disobedience, grumbling and complaining. In comparison to their current state of obdurate idolatry, these indiscretions are not worth mentioning. In the end, God had brought them into the land he had promised them despite their failings. And sometimes Israel even played along ... for a while at least.

What can we say about this? Well, our God is unbelievably gracious, isn’t he?

The Judgment Seat of Christ

In 1 Corinthians, Paul makes this statement in connection with what must surely be the judgment seat of Christ: “Then each one will receive his commendation from God.” I have heard it taught from the platform that this means the Lord will have something good to say about every single believer, no matter how unaccomplished and struggling.

How can that be? Surely not every believer will have conducted themselves in such a way that would enable God to praise them. In fact, in the previous chapter the apostle mentions those who will be “saved, but only as through fire”, their work “burned up” and worthless.

And perhaps that is the case. Perhaps by “each one will receive his commendation”, Paul means nothing more than “at that time, each one who really deserves commendation will receive it”.

Or maybe our God, who sees not just the failed efforts but the intentions of the immature heart, is far more generous in his assessments than we can ever anticipate.

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