Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Riches of Delayed Judgment and Eternal Mercy

On Sunday nights we’re considering the book of Numbers. Last Lord’s Day evening we looked at chapter 21, where, for the first time, Israel engages in warfare during the wilderness wanderings. Some of the ethical questions that rise up when reading Joshua also come up here.

“When the Canaanite, the king of Arad, who lived in the Negev, heard that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them captive. So Israel made a vow to the LORD and said, ‘If You will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.’ The LORD heard the voice of Israel and delivered up the Canaanites; then they utterly destroyed them and their cities. Thus the name of the place was called Hormah” (Numbers 21:1-3).

Too often we allow the atomistic tendencies of biblical scholarship to govern our reading of the Scripture. We don’t consider Numbers in its greater context as part of the first five books of the Bible (I have no problem standing with tradition and calling them the books of Moses). Numbers 21 does raise ethical dilemmas – until we consider it as the “continuing story” of a much larger saga. In verses 1-3 the Canaanites are destroyed. Why? The greater epic tells us.

These three were the sons of Noah, and from these the whole earth was populated. Then Noah began farming and planted a vineyard. He drank of the wine and became drunk, and uncovered himself inside his tent. Ham, the father of Canaan, saw the nakedness of his father, and told his two brothers outside. But Shem and Japheth took a garment and laid it upon both their shoulders and walked backward and covered the nakedness of their father; and their faces were turned away, so that they did not see their father's nakedness. When Noah awoke from his wine, he knew what his youngest son had done to him. So he said, ‘Cursed be Canaan; a servant of servants he shall be to his brothers.’ He also said, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant. May God enlarge Japheth, and let him dwell in the tents of Shem; and let Canaan be his servant’” (Genesis 9:19-27). The curse of Noah on Ham and his descendants begins to come to fruition centuries later in Numbers 21. The sin of their father is visited upon them.

What about the Amorites? “...Israel sent messengers to Sihon, king of the Amorites, saying, ‘Let me pass through your land. We will not turn off into field or vineyard; we will not drink water from wells. We will go by the king's highway until we have passed through your border.’ But Sihon would not permit Israel to pass through his border. So Sihon gathered all his people and went out against Israel in the wilderness, and came to Jahaz and fought against Israel. Then Israel struck him with the edge of the sword, and took possession of his land from the Arnon to the Jabbok, as far as the sons of Ammon; for the border of the sons of Ammon was Jazer. Israel took all these cities and Israel lived in all the cities of the Amorites, in Heshbon, and in all her villages...thus Israel lived in the land of the Amorites. Moses sent to spy out Jazer, and they captured its villages and dispossessed the Amorites who were there. Then they turned and went up by the way of Bashan, and Og the king of Bashan went out with all his people, for battle at Edrei. But the LORD said to Moses, ‘Do not fear him, for I have given him into your hand, and all his people and his land; and you shall do to him as you did to Sihon, king of the Amorites, who lived at Heshbon.’ So they killed him and his sons and all his people, until there was no remnant left him; and they possessed his land (Numbers 21:21-25,31,35).

Again, seeing this passage as part of the greater story answers some of our questions. “God said to Abram, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years. But I will also judge the nation whom they will serve, and afterward they will come out with many possessions. As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age. Then in the fourth generation they will return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite is not yet complete’ (Genesis 15:13-16). God’s plan was declared for this land and people centuries prior to the judgment. If we don’t consider this, Numbers 21 will seem unfair and even cruel. In light of Genesis 15:16, however, it is the end of an extremely long delay in judgment. What does the Bible say about this? “Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance? But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to each person according to his deeds” (Romans 2:4-6). Hundreds and hundreds of years of delayed (and deserved) judgment was a display of “the riches of His...patience,” but they never repented.

Judgment may be delayed, but it is never cancelled. It begins to fall in Numbers 21.

One day in Athens the apostle Paul stands in the Areopagus and speaks to the gathered intelligentsia: “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things; and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation, that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’ Being then the children of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man. Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead(Acts 17:24-31).

Why did God create the nations of people, giving them boundaries and limited times? “...that they would seek God...” And, after centuries of existence with God’s patience but no repentance, judgment comes.

“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me...” (Exodus 20:3-5//Deuteronomy 5:7-9). Unfair? No. Because each generation not only receives the consequences of the previous generations’ sin, but embraces this sin and makes the lawlessness its own.

“...through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned...for as through the one man's disobedience the many were made sinners” (Romans 5:12,19).

A nation of people exists in a certain time and certain place for the sole purpose of seeking God. When they reject this purpose generation after generation, two things are happening. First, they are rejecting the wealth of God: His patience. Second, they are compounding the coming judgment by not only rejecting repentance, but taking their parents’ sin upon themselves and making it even greater in their generation.

Too many believers have a low view of the sinfulness of humanity. They conceive of humanity as full of “good” or “well-meaning” or even “innocent” people. So passages like those in Numbers 21 shock and disturb us. The Bible teaches a deep and eternally deadly lostness among all of humanity without exception.

There is a sobering application here, of course. From God’s promise to Abram in Genesis 15 to the fulfillment of that promise in Numbers 21 is something like 800-1000 years. The U.S.A. (just to use one example) is 238 years old. Delay is not suspended or non-existent judgment, especially since two centuries is a very small period of time compared to the average in human history.

Preach the Law, contemporary violation of it, salvation from its consequences in Christ, and command repentance in your preaching, Church (Matthew 3:2; 4:17; Mark 1:15; 6:12; Luke 13:3,5; 24:47; ; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 5:31; 11:18; 17:30; 20:21; 26:20). May God’s rich patience and sweet grace bring revival so that instead of compounding the coming judgment we pass on an inheritance of blessing: “...I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God...showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments” (Exodus 20:5,6//Deuteronomy 5:9,10).

This is not just a promise from the Law, but also of the Gospel:
  • “And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, ‘All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age’” (Matthew 28:18-20).
  • “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him...if anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him. He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father's who sent Me” (John 14:15,21,23,24).
  • “Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love. If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father's commandments and abide in His love” (John 15:9,10).
  • “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected” (1 John 2:3-5).
  • “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and observe His commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments; and His commandments are not burdensome” (1 John 5:2,3).

Judgment is promised and inevitable, but the blessing of forgiveness, eternal life, and the riches of God Himself are freely given in His Son. “...the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). Repent and believe today. For those who do, the riches of delayed judgment today become the song of a rich mercy throughout eternity: “so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:7).

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