Commandments

Axe or the Hand? The Wielder or the Wielded?

Let’s be honest what I have been saying is hard to swallow and few will want to accept it (cf. John 6.60).

People get nervous when you speak of “ought to do and ought not to do” (the Law of God).  People become uneasy when you tell them that God is full of wrath and hates sin and will judge them for it in this life and the life to come (i.e. negative sanctions, eternal consequences).  People want to cry foul when they are confronted with the idea that they are ultimately left to the whims and desires of the Creator of all things (i.e. God is Sovereign and does as He pleases).  And so, the resultant thought process is this: God’s love is unconditional; His Goodness is equally distributed to all and He never commands (or wills) that which is detrimental to any human being.  God wouldn’t do that because He values human life too much. He’d never force anyone to do anything against their will, our freedom is too precious.

I was once challenged by a fellow minister in an apologetic’s course in grad school for believing the early chapters of the Bible.  The man told me “people like you are the reason why we don’t get a fair hearing in the world. Your belief in the Flood or the Tower of Babel hinders apologetic ministry.” 

What was the problem?  I took God’s Word at face value.1 If the Bible teaches it, I fully accept it.  When I come to passages that assault my sensitivities I am left with either humbling myself (acknowledging my personal limitations) to its precepts or denying them looking for a humanistic rational; either explaining it away or flat out denying that it is original to the canon.

Sometimes, I think the knee jerk reaction to steer clear of the type of things I’ve said is due to ignorance.  No, I’m not “name” calling here.  Being ignorant just means that you don’t know.  That’s O.K. there are many things that we are all ignorant of.  For example, I’m ignorant of quantum physics.  It sounds cool, but I have no idea what it entails. Therefore if someone were to call me ignorant I would hope that I have the wherewithal to say, “Yeah, I am” without getting defensive because my feelings were hurt.

The fact is a lot of professing believers are biblically illiterate.  Who has time to study (let alone read) the Bible when your life’s schedule is full of obligations? We get up early and work all day (or night). If we have kids, then we are probably running to and fro from this activity to the next. Then by the time we get home, what do we want to do?  We want to relax, that’s what.  We want to unwind, and so pulling out our Bibles (or touching the app on our phones, tablets, etc.) is probably not high on the list.

I get it.  I’ve been there. But, let’s be honest with ourselves…that’s really not a good excuse. What ends up happening because of our normal weekly routine is we are left ignorant of what the Bible teaches.  Oh, we may squeeze in some quiet time here and there, but we merely scratch the surface.

Thus, when we hear something unfamiliar about biblical teaching we are naturally a bit skeptical.  I’m not denying being skeptical can be a good thing, but not when our skepticism is rooted in ignorance.  We should be skeptical as the Bereans were when Paul came to them, and then check the Scriptures to see where or not those things are true (Acts 17.11).

Does God ever command (will) bad things to come to pass?

After the reign of Solomon, king of Israel, the kingdom was split. The Northern ten tribes retained the name Israel (and at times Ephraim), whereas the Southern kingdom took the name Judah in reference to the tribe who stayed there.  In time, because of covenantal unfaithfulness both kingdoms fell.  The North to Assyria, the South to Babylon.

Israel fell to the Assyrians in approx. 721 B.C. The Assyrians were known for their prowess in battle and their brutality.  Who commanded Assyria to conquer? Who gave them the authority and power to do so? God did.

  • “Woe to Assyria, the rod of My anger, the staff in their hands is My wrath. I will send him against a godless nation; I will command him to go against a people destined for My rage, to take spoils, to plunder, and to trample them down like clay in the streets” (Isa 10.5-6).2

Here Isaiah the prophet explains why Assyria was able to conquer, who sent them and why they were sent.  God commanded (willed) that they should go, and so they went.  Regardless of how athletic you are, you are unable to remove God of responsibility for sending them and using them as an instrument of His Holy wrath, by doing hermeneutical gymnastics.

God desired for Assyria to carry out His wrath, which was His purpose (cf. Prov 21.1).  The Divine command (will/purpose) is not the same as man’s.  While, God was motivated by righteousness, the king Assyria was motivated by a sinfully proud heart/mind.

  • “But this is not what he [Assyria] intends; this is not what he [Assyria] plans. It is his [Assyria’s] ]intent to destroy and to cut off many nations…For he [Assyria] said: I have done this by my own strength and wisdom, for I am clever.  I abolish the borders of nations and plundered their treasures; like a mighty warrior, I subjugated the inhabitants.  My hand has reached out, as if into a nest, to seize the wealth of the nations. Like one gathering eggs, I gathered the whole earth. No wing fluttered; no beak opened or chirped.” (Isa 10.7, 13-14).

This, the king of Assyria thought and said in his own heart, one that God reveals is full of arrogance (Isa 10.12). God commanded (willed; divine decree) that he should go.  God gave him the power and authority to accomplish victory, and even gave him the right of the spoils.  However, God did not command the king of Assyria to sin, to boast in his own strength, to wickedly desire the destruction of all in his path…that came from his own heart/nature.

The temptation is to remove God from the equation of what the Assyrian king did.  The argument often goes “if God hates evil, then He’d never command (will for) evil to take place.  If God hates sin, then He’d never be party to one whose actions are sinful.” The problem lies in our inability to separate categories between divine commands and human commands, divine will and human will, divine purpose and human purpose, etc.

God did not just allow or give permission for the Assyrian king to act; God was involved in the activity.  God wielded the Assyrian king for His purpose and then judged the man on the grounds of his own sinful heart.  The Assyrian king could do nothing outside the divine decree:

  • “Does an ax exalt itself above the one who chops with it? Does a saw magnify itself above the one who saws with it? It would be like a staff waving the one who lifts it! It would be like a rod lifting a man who isn’t wood!” (Isa 10.15).

Axes do not wield themselves, neither do saws saw through wood on their own, nor does a staff cause itself to be lifted into the air.  These are all tools wielded by the wielder.  It is the hand that wields the tool by the power of His strong arm that brings about what comes to pass not the other way around. In other words, God is the wielder and man is the tool that He wields for His glory.

The Assyrian king was judged not for what he did, because it was God who sent him in to conquer (kill) and enjoy the benefits of his enemy’s wealth (plunder), but for the motivations of his heart (Jer 17.10).  He, though moved by God, was unwilling to acknowledge God in his life.  Like Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon after him, the king of Assyria exalted himself as the builder of his own domain, as the reason for his dominion (cf. Dan 4) and as a result was rightfully judged.

There is one last lesson I want to draw upon, but not today, after which I plan on moving to another subject of interest.  For now, chew on this…

____________________________

ENDNOTES:

1 I tend to shy away from using the word “literally” because not everybody defines the usage of this term the same.  Some take a “wooden-sense” which puts the stress on the meaning according to the presuppositions of the reader, without any consideration to literary genre.  And so, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth….” takes on the meaning of plucking out someone’s eye or pulling out their tooth as a form of punishment/justice/retribution.  Literal means “according to the letter” that is to say the natural reading of the text based on contextual clues; or, how the writer intended it to be meant (interpreted).  Therefore, “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth…” is understood as equitable justice—i.e. the punishment meted out fits the crime/offense in question.  Justice in this understanding is balanced in the scales of righteousness.  If someone steals from me it would be unjust for them to lose a hand (or their life), but it would be just (eye for an eye) by making them pay restitution for what they had stolen.

2 Unless otherwise noted all Scripture shall be of the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB).

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