Does God judge and punish because He hates others? Does God hate evildoers and desire their suffering? Is God a merciless and pitiless destroyer of others? What is your view of judgment and punishment? Do you view it as bad luck? Do you see it as your fate to suffer? Do you see punishment as the consequence for incorrect actions that you take responsibility for and accept? Do you see it as vengeful and petty and pointless? Or do you see it as correction meant to guide you along the straight and narrow path? And what does the Bible say? Let us examine this issue today using ancient Israel as an example.
If You Will Keep My Covenant
The Bible gives us ample evidence to understand that God truly loved Israel. The Bible also gives us ample evidence to see that He had great plans for Israel if they would obey Him. Let us look at three elements that Exodus provides us about Israel’s view of God. First, let us look at the conditional promises that God made Israel if they would obey Him. Then, let us examine the response of Israel to God’s power and glory. Finally, let us examine how the absence of God’s awesome visible presence allowed Israel’s true feelings about obedience to show not very long afterward.
What promises did God make to Israel if they would follow Him? We find out in Exodus 19:1-8. Exodus 19:1-8 gives the promises of both God and Israel to each other at the beginning of what is called the Mosaic covenant. It reads as follows: “In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on the same day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai. For they had departed from Rephidim, had come to the Wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness. So Israel camped there before the mountain. And Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel: ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine. And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.” So Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before them all these words which the Lord commanded him. Then all the people answered together and said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” So Moses brought back the words of the people to the Lord.”
What does this mean? Like at a wedding, both God and Israel made covenant promises here to each other. Israel promised to obey God, to follow His every commandment and instruction. God promised, if Israel would obey, to make Israel His holy nation and chosen people. We should remember that God has made us these same promises in 1 Peter 2:9-10, if we obey Him and keep His commandments. Did Israel fulfill their side of the covenant?
Shortly thereafter, immediately after being told the Ten Commandments, Israel saw a small taste of God’s power. We read of this in Exodus 20:18-21. Exodus 20:18-21 gives the response of the people of Israel to seeing God’s power: “Now all the people witnessed the thunderings, the lightning flashes, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they trembled and stood afar off. Then they said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die.” And Moses said to the people, “Do not fear; for God has come to test you, and that His fear may be before you, so that you may not sin.” So the people stood afar off, but Moses drew near the thick darkness where God was.”
This is an amazing picture. How many of us would want to see the dramatic presence and power of God? I know that I would find such a miracle awe-inspiring. And all of Israel, young and old, got to see God’s power and glory on that mountain in the desert. And what did they do? Did they respect God? No. Did the sight lead them to honor Him? No. Instead, they were afraid that God would kill them. Moses told them that God’s presence and power was there as a reminder to them not to sin, but all they could think about was that God was powerful enough to kill them, even though they had promised to obey Him. What a wasted opportunity of a miracle.
So, after all this fear of God’s power, did Israel remember God’s might when His visible presence, and that of Moses, was no longer around? What do you think? We find the answer, as well as God’s response, in Exodus 32:1-10. Exodus 32:1-10 reads as follows: “Now when the people saw that Moses delayed coming down from the mountain, the people gathered together to Aaron and said, “come, make us gods that shall go before us; for as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” And Aaron said to them, “Break off the golden earrings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” So all the people broke off the golden earrings which were in their ears, and brought them to Aaron. And he received the gold from their hand, and he fashioned it with an engraving tool, and made a molded calf. Then they said, ‘This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!” So when Aaron saw it, he built an altar before it. And Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow is a feast to the Lord.” Then they rose early on the next day, offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play. And the Lord said to Moses, “Go, get down! For your people whom you brought out of Egypt have corrupted themselves. They have turned aside quickly out of the way which I commanded them. They have made themselves a molded calf, and worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, “This is your god, O Israel, that brought you out of the land of Egypt!’” And the Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, and indeed it is a stiff-necked people! Now therefore, let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them. And I will make of you a great nation.”
This is serious business. After less than two months of being without God and Moses (at least in their own minds), and not seeing God’s visible presence, the children of Israel behaved corruptly. They worshiped idols made with the gold from their own earrings, and became promiscuous in sexual immorality. For this God threatened to destroy them in His wrath. He offered Moses the chance of fathering a great nation after God wiped out the unworthy Israelites. Fortunately for some of us here, Moses refused the offer, reminding God of His promises to Israel, however unworthy they were. But God never forgot their stubborn disobedience, and Israel never truly followed God’s covenant as a godly nation.
They Shall Not Enter My Rest
What does that mean for us? It’s very easy to make fun of the lack of faith and obedience of ancient Israel, but do we do any better ourselves? Do we recognize the seriousness of the stakes of this life? Do we take God at His word? What did God do to ancient Israel because of their disobedience, and does the Bible directly connect that with our own responsibility as Christians? Let us find out.
But first, let us examine whether we would do any differently in our own lives than the children of Israel did. When Moses was away and God seemed far, far away, the people of Israel acted according to their own evil lusts. They showed their true lack of faith in God, disobedience to Him, and the selfish gratification of their fleshly lusts for food and drink and sex without any thought of the future. If we point fingers at them, would we do any better ourselves? If the Achans [teachers] here all appeared to go away for weeks, and you all thought there was no one watching you, would you obey the rules? Would you follow curfew, or stay separated between the boys and girls, or keep your music down at night? If we wouldn’t obey the rules without knowing that someone was watching us, ready to correct or punish us right away, we are no better than the ancient Israelites. Think about that.
After all, what did God do the ancient Israelites for their continual rebellion and disobedience against Him? Let us find the answer in Psalm 95:6-11. Psalm 95:6-11 uses the example of the Israelites in the wilderness as an object lesson hundreds of years later for others. It reads as follows: “Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the Lord our Maker. For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you will hear His voice: “Do not harden your hearts, as in the rebellion, as in the day of trial in the wilderness, when your fathers tested Me; they tried Me, though they saw My work. For forty years I was grieved with that generation, and said, “It is a people who go astray in their hearts, and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest.’”
How seriously do we take this warning? The people of Israel rebelled time and time again against God, as we have read in Exodus 32 concerning the golden calf when they could not see God watching them. And so God scattered their bones in the wilderness, and they did not enter the Promised Land. Nor did they enter God’s kingdom because of their unbelief. But do we have the same mindset as they did? Do we continually test God? Do we have hard hearts against His ways? Do we only act righteously when someone is watching us, or is it a part of our normal habits? We can answer that question only for ourselves, but God knows.
Does the warning in Psalm 95, given about three thousand years ago to ancient Israel, have any relevance for us as Christians? Absolutely. Let us turn to Hebrews 3:12-19. After quoting the last part of Psalm 95, which we just read, the author of Hebrews says the following in Hebrews 3:12-19: “Beware, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief in departing from the living God; but exhort one another daily, while it is called “Today,” lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin. For we have become partakers of Christ if we hold the beginning of our confidence steadfast to the end, while it is said: “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” For who, indeed, having heard, rebelled? Indeed, was it not all who came out of Egypt, led by Moses? Now with whom was He angry forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose corpses fell in the wilderness? And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who did not obey? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief.”
This is a very interesting passage. For one, the author of Hebrews connects obedience to God to faith and belief. If we do not obey God and follow His commandments, ultimately we are not believers. Likewise, we should not assume that God has changed his just nature simply because we are covered by Christ’s blood, for we will only share eternal life if we continue in our faith and confidence until the end. For God scattered the bones of the unfaithful and rebellious Israelites in the wilderness. Do we wish to tempt God to do the same to us, or do we wish to enter the rest of His kingdom? Only we can answer that question for ourselves. But we need to ask it to ourselves, daily if necessary.
Let us continue this passage in Hebrews 4:1-13. Hebrews 4:1-13 reads as follows: “Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter My rest,” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. For He has spoken in a certain place of the seventh day [the Sabbath] in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all His works;” and again in this place: “They shall not enter My rest.” Since therefore it remains that some must enter it, and those to whom it was first preached did not enter because of disobedience, again He designates a certain day, saying in David [the Psalms], “Today,” after such a long time, as it has been said, “Today, if you will hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” For if Joshua had given them rest, then He would not afterward have spoken of another day. There remains therefore a [Sabbath] rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His. Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience. For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.”
This passage reminds us that if we are going to follow the example of the Israelites and be faithless and rebellious, only obedient when we know someone is watching, then we forget that God is always watching and that no matter what we get away with here and now, we will have to answer to God and be accountable for all that we think, say, and do. I, like everyone else, seek the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ to cover my sins, but we must recognize that we will all be judged. The Sabbath remains to be kept by God’s people in part because it still points to a rest still to come, a rest that we will only enjoy if we are obedient to God’s laws. If we follow the example of disobedience of the ancient Israelites in the wilderness, we will receive their fate. Is that what we want?
We have discussed today some of the questions that were asked at the beginning. We have seen that God had high plans for Israel if they had obeyed Him. He showed them His power and they were afraid, but they did not obey Him and rebelled against Him, so in His wrath he cast their bones in the wilderness. They were judged not because God was cruel or hated them, but because God is just and demands obedience. He demanded it of ancient Israel, and they hardened their hearts against Him. He makes the same demand of us today as Christians. Will we profit from the biblical warning in Psalm 95 and Hebrews 3 and 4?