Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon”
The Influence of Psalm 137 and the surmised influence of the By the Waters of Babylon story in Honest Hearts
About Honest Hearts
The Fallout video game series takes a player on dangerous adventures through various regions of the United States after a future nuclear war with China has taken place. The series is one of the more successful in the “role playing game” (RPG) genre, taking place in “post-apocalyptic” times (2161 and forward). “Honest Hearts” is a 2011 add-on to the Fallout New Vegas game of 2010, taking place in what is Zion National Park in the real world, year 2281. While it’s obvious that people died in the park due to the historic nuclear cataclysm, the park itself is mostly unscathed by this point in time.
There are two outside leaders, both Mormon and both from the recently destroyed “New Canaan,” who lead two neighboring tribes, the “Sorrows” and the “Dead Horses,” in Zion Canyon. However, these two leaders have wildly different backgrounds and, not surprisingly, their views on how to handle the invading “White Legs” tribe are miles apart. It is no secret that the White Legs want to kill the Zion Valley inhabitants, just as they destroyed New Canaan. But what will the player do? Aid Joshua Graham and the tribals that wish to stay in Zion by meeting the White Legs head on, or will you side with the more pacifist Daniel and help the Sorrows flee the valley for a new home?
This post, which is the first of three, is a summary of sorts of C.S. Lewis’s work, Reflections on the Psalms (1955; the edition of this book used here is found in The Inspirational Writings of C.S. Lewis, published in 1994 by Inspirational Press). Note that word spellings as found in the book are kept in this essay. I hope you are blessed by Lewis’ insight and these easily accessible summaries!
[This is a slightly edited version of the article I originally published at Examiner.com.]
Psalms and the Christian: Judgment and Cursing?
Judgement in the Psalms
Judgement itself is not too controversial since there are, in fact, many verses related to it in the New Testament. Jesus is the “judge of the living and the dead” (Acts 10:42), and we expect Him to return and judge the earth: “. . . He has set a day on which He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man [Jesus] He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:31).
However, the psalmists tend to have a different focus than we do when it comes to judgement. As Christians, we know that we are sinners and that if we had to go before a court to be judged, we would be defendants, not plaintiffs. We look to Jesus to have our “case against us” dismissed, and we speak to others of this salvation. But the Jews rarely used judgement in this context; rather, they were the plaintiffs and they wanted God to bring their enemies into judgement. They wanted justice, if not vengeance, and they didn’t often see themselves as part of the problem.
There is one verse in the New Testament that is more like the Old Testament’s focus on judgement, and that is found in Revelation 6:9-11:
“When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed.”
At first, this is pretty shocking (well, it was for me), since the New Testament teaches us to forgive and pray for our enemies, and to leave vengeance to God. The martyrs here do leave vengeance to God, but they do not seem forgiving and they are not rebuked by God. I thought I had a clever explanation for this before I studied what others had to say about it. It is reckoned that these are the prophets of the Old Testament and that the others to be killed are the tribulation saints. If this is correct, then they are expressing the exact sentiments we see in the Psalms and there is no need to reconcile them with New Testament teachings.
Most calls for judgement, however, are very morally sound. Some examples are:
“For he who avenges blood remembers; he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted” (9:12); “A father to the fatherless, a defender of widows, is God in his holy dwelling” (68:5); “He will judge your people in righteousness, your afflicted ones with justice” (72:2).
The psalmists cried out in this way because, simply put, peoples in biblical times did not have honest judges! Well, a judge may have given a good ruling, but you had to pay him for it. One of Jesus’ parables, which provides some instructing us regarding prayer, illustrates this norm about judges in Luke 18:1-8. A widow kept pestering a particular judge for justice, and he finally gave her a ruling—not because she was wealthy and could pay him, but because he didn’t want to be bothered by her anymore. Normally, only the wealthiest people were able to obtain a judgement and get justice. Of course there were no international courts either; people needed a hero to act on their cries for justice. So justice is sought from God.
What is more difficult to swallow and understand than calls for judgement in the psalms are the cursings, which we look at next.
If God is in all of the bible, how do we take the cursings? As Christians, we are called to forgive, not curse, so how do we use the verses that contain curses? Examples of “curses” are:
“May the table set before them become a snare; may it become retribution and a trap. May their eyes be darkened so they cannot see, and their backs be bent forever” (69:22-23); “May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord; may the sin of his mother never be blotted out” (109:14); “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is he who repays you for what you have done to us—he who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks” (137:8-9).
First, we can look at the culture in which these were written. At that time, it was considered OK to express your anger in this way; it wasn’t considered crazy or rude. Another aspect of their experience is that the times were more violent (at least compared to those of us who live in “the west” today) and definitely more bloody. Remember, blood sacrifice was a common occurrence.
Second, these cursings help us to remember a simple fact: when a person is hurt by someone, the natural reaction is to do a hurt back. A hurt person may never fully recover from the wrong done to them. Even if that person forgives, and forgives again, the hurt is not obliterated and there are consequences or repercussions from the hurt. Though it is a natural feeling to curse or want vengeance, it is wrong for the Christian. It is possible that hurtful actions will cause a lifetime of difficulties for another person, difficulties that can lead them to sin, and this Christians are to avoid.
Another aspect of the cursings shows that the Jews were closer to God than many Pagans, or people today. “What?!,” you’re thinking. Let me explain. Very simply, the Jews expressed indignation: righteous anger. And they expected God to act on it since He is a righteous God. There are many people in the world who, when confronted with evil, shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, that’s just the way things are.” They don’t care about evil much, and they certainly don’t get offended on God’s behalf, as the Jews did. As Lewis stated: “If the Jews cursed more bitterly than the Pagans this was, I think, at least in part because they took right and wrong more seriously” (p. 147).
Christmas is such a secular holiday anymore that a person is made to feel like they’re offending someone if they unselfishly wish someone a “merry Christmas.” Instead, it’s all about having “happy holidays” or enjoying “the season” (my Christmas cards for this year say that . . . but what “season”? Winter? The season of blessing retailers with books in the black?). It’s gotten so strange that some claim that you don’t need Christ in Christmas. That makes sense . . . nowhere. I’m surprised that calling it simply “the giving season” hasn’t caught on, akin to the calling of Thanksgiving “turkey day.”
I’m not complaining so much as noting the secular trend, in full swing now, to eliminate Christianity from public life. Christmas, however, gives us the opportunity to enlighten people about God’s word, possibly more than any other holiday. When it comes to Easter, people need to accept the New Testament witness regarding Christ’s resurrection. With Christ’s birth, however, there are prophecies from the Old Testament (or Tanakh) that are pretty clear, and, there is no good reason to think the prophecies weren’t written centuries before Jesus was born. These prophecies are from the books of Isaiah and Micah.
First, and no doubt very familiar, is Isaiah 7:14. With verse 13 for context: “Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.'” This prophecy is announced as fulfilled in Matthew 1:22-23. Here it is in context (Matthew 1:20b-23):
“an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).”
Some critics like to point out that the word “virgin” is not specifically used in Isaiah, but, in the historical and cultural context, a young unmarried woman (a translation of the word used) meant the same thing as “virgin.” It’s an odd criticism in any case, since, what else would God have meant? Would an unchaste girl getting pregnant be any kind of sign from God?
Another criticism, and one without merit, is that the book of Isaiah may have been altered later. There is no end to such criticisms of the Bible generally. However, Isaiah is consistently viewed as ancient by scholars, even if some moderns like to imagine that it was written by two or three authors during three periods (the youngest being from about 400 BC). More importantly, the birth prophecy is in the early part of the book, universally believed to be written in the 700s by Isaiah. Regarding complete authenticity of the writings, a confirmation came via a Dead Sea Scroll of the entire book of Isaiah. This scroll is from about 150-125 BC. Having confidence in the authenticity and the ancientness of Isaiah, we can enjoy the related prophecies in Isaiah 9 (1b-2, 6-7):
“. . . in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful[,] Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this.”
There is another prophecy, from Micah 5 (2 & 4), that is quoted in Matthew and is therefore considered fulfilled. As written in Matthew 2:6:
“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”
The book of Micah was written about the same time as Isaiah was. There are more prophecies regarding Jesus Christ, of course, some fulfilled and some yet to be. You can view some of them in a linked list at Prophecies Jesus Fulfilled.
Wishing you a warm and love-filled Christmas, I also leave you with a couple of songs for you to enjoy:
Happy Easter everyone! Or, if you don’t like to call it that, Blessed Resurrection Day! Thank you Lord for all that you did and are doing! Here is a link to a very informative and I’d say concise treatment of the meaning of, and verses relating to, Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection. The web site it’s on is distractingly and annoyingly messy (to me, anyway), but hey . . . it’s meant as a basically informational site for pastors, I guess.
I need to “get out” more on the internet, as I hadn’t seen this until today. Nice little article. It’s funny how some defenders of humanism, in the comments, complain that he didn’t mention the guys on their side. Why should he, specifically? He did mention them in passing, as having weak arguments. It can be viewed as being more polite and academic to not attack everyone, but to primarily present one’s argument instead. And the high rhetoric of some of humanism’s defenders is very funny too – it’s exactly the point. Without a basis for claiming their moral authority, they end up looking like self-promoters of humanity, which often leads to despotism. And around the web, there are no shortage of little bully despots running around daily, blindly insulting anyone who doesn’t agree with him. What a wonderful, happy, and moral world the humanists are creating!
Here is an example from the academic realm of how humanists or naturalists (I can’t say for sure based on the info provided) equate belief in God with stupidity, and that somehow their views are superior. They can’t even see how their opinions show that they think their views are obviously superior, instead of letting people have faith, and, actually talking about their differing views as equals. They said that the man in question, Ben Carson, claimed that evolutionists could not have the same level of ethics as theists (basically). This is a philosophical argument, if it’s true what they said, and they need to address it seriously instead of whining about it.
Honestly, I never thought it would be so difficult to find a good summary of the various theological views on Christ’s second coming, or what is more technically called parousia. By this I mean a summary of the liberal view, and who promoted it and why, that proclaimed that Christ’s second coming was a misinterpretation of scripture – that despite the incredible amount and quality of verses to affirm that Christ and Paul and everyone else actually meant what they said – but that really Christ’s parousia is only His presence with us (so they tried to claim). So, that means, basically, I guess, that there’s no rapture (no glorified bodies, ever . . . .?), no hope that Christ will actually reign amongst humans, that we can build up His kingdom now and that’s about it, etc.
When I look around, when I experience my daily life with other people, when I read history, I suuuurrrre don’t see that Christ’s kingdom is blooming, growing, and all that. It seems to me that the opposite is true, that the great apostasy is upon us. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3-4) (kind-of sounds like the liberal theology teachers themselves). Not to say that Christ isn’t among us doing His work, and we with Him. The Lord is indeed showing His love and Himself to many in many ways.
So what is my point? Well, I am doing some research for an extensive blog article that involves (it is not at all the main topic) this liberal, anti-parousia, “we can usher Christ’s kingdom in ourselves since that’s all the New Testament says anyway,” idea, and it’s just sad and difficult dealing with it. But the main thing is that I wanted to pass on some reading materials to show what is actually in the New Testament, and that our hope is not in man and what he obviously can’t do– that our hope is not misplaced in an elaborate myth (what some “Christian theologians” insist the New Testament is). The number one source is the Bible itself. Read the entire New Testament a few times and tell me if you really think it’s basically “made up.” Here is a good short but information packed essay on Christ’s second coming: Second Coming of Christ. This is a short, easy read on it: What is the Second Coming of Jesus Christ? And, I don’t necessarily agree with all that is in this article – maybe I just don’t know the right Christians – but it’s contents are worth considering: The Theology of the End and the End of Theology.
Christ is the suffering servant and the King, as outlined in the Old Testament. He was the suffering servant during His time on earth, and when He returns it will be in His role as King. Jesus said, “I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am” (John 14:3). “Men of Galilee . . . why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Act 1:10-11; see also Matthew 24:29-30). “And now, dear children, continue in him, so that when he appears we may be confident and unashamed before him at his coming” (1 John 2:28; see also John 3:3).
“The atheist has it almost right: humans regularly do make gods in their image. Yet the biblical God isn’t the kind we make up. He refuses to be manipulated by human schemes. He makes us all—including his true devotees—uncomfortable, which in the end is what we truly need to overcome our self-centeredness. ‘Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it’ Matt. 16:25)” (Copan p 193).
Many today find fault with the God of the Old Testament (OT) because they read of the violence He commanded, or they read and accept unlearned and biased commentary about it. Yet they ignore all that God presents about Himself, the contexts of the situations, and the hugely over-riding context of God’s benevolent plan for mankind. If the critics used such thought processes with their family and friends, they would have no relationships! Their assertions and arguments are unscholarly and simple, stemming from an ideology that seeks to eliminate God.
Is God mysterious and some of His ways unknowable? Yes. But is God compassionate? Can we discern that He is compassionate by what is presented in the OT (since God’s compassion is very clear in the New Testament, we are focusing on the OT here) without being accused of only wishful thinking? Yes, and we can know that God’s compassion was not for the Israelites only. Perhaps the most obvious example of God’s love and patience outside of Israel involves the Ninevites, since a whole book—Jonah—provides the evidence. (This book also foreshadows Jesus and His work.)
Now, Jonah is a fun book, especially if you take the time to imagine what is going on and maybe do some research in commentaries. The gist of the story is that Jonah is called by the Lord to go and convey to the Ninevites—a cruel people and bitter enemies of Israel—that God has seen their evil and it has gone on long enough. Judgment is coming. Jonah, knowing that God might be compassionate towards them (instead of destroying Israel’s enemy), ran from the Lord’s calling; “you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity” (Jonah 4:2b).
Indeed, after Jonah finally gave the Ninevites the message of God, the Ninevites repented and God did not harm them. Jonah was so upset about this that he told God that he wanted to die. This represents man’s view. But God answered with His view: “Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?” (Jonah 4:11).
At least some of you came here thinking, “OK, but how can the Canaanites be an example of God’s compassion?” After all, God commanded the Israelites to destroy many of the Canaanite groups: Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites (Deuteronomy 7:1-5; they were to leave alone Moab, Ammon, and Edom). God commanded this through Moses, prior to Joshua leading the Israelites into the “promised” land around the Jordan River.
This command of God’s seems out of character to many people. The God of the New Testament would not command such a thing . . . would he? Jesus’ disciples understood that God had made judgments in the past, and when a Samaritan town would not help them at a certain time, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” “But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village” (Luke 9:54b-56). Jesus provided another example about how, during this new era, God’s judgment is postponed. As part of His instructions when sending out his disciples, Jesus said: “If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust off your feet when you leave that home or town. I tell you the truth, it will be more bearable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town” (Matthew 10:14-15).
As we saw earlier, the sin and cruelty of Nineveh had gone on long enough when God decided to judge them. He sent Jonah beforehand, however, to preach to them God’s thoughts, and the Ninevites actually repented. God therefore held off judgment. A far different example is that of Sodom and Gomorrah, as mentioned above by Jesus. God knew those towns were devoid of righteous people, and so they were eventually destroyed because of their overall wickedness. Yet another example commonly known of is the great flood. God found the people evil and corrupt, so he gave Noah 120 years to build the ark before the flood waters came. In all that time, the earth’s inhabitants did not repent. God is very patient and longsuffering, and does not execute judgment until He knows the point of no return has been reached.
Which now brings us back to the Canaanites. Way back before the Israelites even traveled to Egypt and subsequently became slaves, God knew of the Canaanite’s evil ways. While God was making his covenant with Abram (later called Abraham), He told him this prophecy:
“Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions. You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites ¹ [Canaanites] has not yet reached its full measure” (Genesis 15:13-16; emphasis added).
The Exodus out of Egypt took place around 1446 BC, and they entered Canaan round 1406 BC. To be clear, Israelites were not being given the land around the Jordan River because they were righteous, but because they were to be an instrument of judgment and because they serve an ultimate future purpose (Deuteronomy 9:5). Also, since Israel did not keep a standing army and did not pay any soldiers, God was proving to the other nations that He is God and more than able to overcome their “gods.”
But what did the Canaanites do that was so bad? They did those things God forbade in Leviticus 18: incest, sodomy, bestiality, and sacrificing children (by burning them alive) to the god Molech. The Amalekites had done additional damage by murdering the slower persons at the end of the Israelite line while they traveled from Egypt; the Amalekites had acted wickedly and purposefully worked against God’s reputation. It should be noted that God did not order the destruction of any people for a lack of faith in Him, but for horrendous moral behavior (see Amos 1 -2 for more on God’s thinking).
The judgment of God against the peoples of Canaan had at least two purposes, and His purposes have compassion. One is that, sooner or later, evil needs to be dealt with and justice served, and the Canaanites were given plenty of time to change their ways. A great deal of wickedness was removed from the earth, or would have been sooner, if God’s commands were actually carried out. A great compassion, as I see it, is that God was trying to put a stop to the systematic and torturous murder of innocent children. Second, God’s compassionate plan for the redemption of all willing humans rested on the survival of Israel. God warned again and again that if the Canaanites were allowed to survive, and if Israel intermarried with them, that they would sin and turn from God. This indeed happened often, as God said.
It is mentioned above that not all Canaanites were killed, even though God commanded their destruction.² This is where it becomes imperative that God’s word is read carefully. While God commanded the destruction of seven Canaanite tribes in Deuteronomy 7:1-5 (and other places), a bit further down in Deuteronomy God said: “The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you” (7:22). Indeed, archaeological evidence shows that Canaanite culture and religion were nonexistent in Israel by 1000 BC, about 400 years after Israel entered that land.
To conclude, God is the God of all and God loves all, not just Israel (or Christians). However, He is also just and knows of the suffering people experience from evil. In Old Testament times God pronounced prophecies and judgments, oftentimes with warnings. In the case of Nineveh, the people repented and God did not execute judgment. At other times, Israel itself committed evil, did not repent, and God judged them. In the case of the Canaanites, God saw their evil ways and also foresaw their lack of repentance; He used Israel as His instrument of judgment against them. In this Christian era (the beginning of which depended on the survival of Israel), God seeks to save the lost prior to His judgment and eventual renewal of the whole earth. Since Adam and Eve fell from grace, God has been working on His plan of redemption for all willing humans and even nature itself. His periodic elimination of evil historically, and His compassionate interventions otherwise, all work toward drawing His rebellious but beloved creation back to Himself.
Amorite and Canaanite are basically interchangeable, referring to peoples that lived in the “land of Canaan.” Canaan was a son of Ha, who was a son of Noah. Amorite could more specifically refer to those dwelling in the hills, while Canaanites were those in the valleys.
So what do we make of the book of Joshua, then, where in contradiction to other biblical passages, it is claimed that Joshua destroyed the Canaanites? Bible scholar Nicholas Wolterstorff has studied Joshua and it’s relation to other biblical passages that clearly indicate that Canaanites survived Joshua’s attacks (Flannagan 255-286), and came to a number of instructive conclusions. Foremost is that Joshua is hagiographic and includes hyperbolic war language that is basically identical to that used by other regional nations, and thus should not be taken literally. When reading Judges and other books that mention the Canaanites, books that read like regular history, we can take them literally as opposed to Joshua’s military claims.In addition, the words used for “destroy” and “drive out” are interchangeable and perhaps confused. The same language was used of Adam and Even being driven out from the Garden of Eden; obviously, they weren’t destroyed (other similar passages involve Cain and King David). Leviticus 18:26-28 also mentions the driving out of the Canaanites, not their destruction. Yet another consideration is what the bible says about the Amalekites. In 1 Samuel we read of God ordering the utter destruction of the Amalekites, and then King Saul carrying that order out. However, later in the same book (!), we read of King David running into living Amalekites–there was even an Amalekite army! It becomes obvious that the bible contains the exaggerated war rhetoric of those times. However, while these explanations serve to placate critics over issues of God-ordered genocide, they seem to overly dismiss God’s legitimate role of all-knowing judge.
This article was edited at various times and expanded in January 2015. It was originally published by the author at Examiner.com.
Sources: Copan, Paul, Is God a Moral Monster? (Baker Books 2011); Flannagan, Matthew, “Did God Command the Genocide of the Canaanites?” in True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism (Kregel Publ.s 2013, pp 255-286); Kaiser et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (InterVarsity Press 1996); The Bible (NIV 1984). Image: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Nineveh_Adad_gate_exterior_entrance_far2.JPG
As a Christian, I believe John’s statement: This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (John 1:5). Yet, there are verses in the Bible—mostly in the Old Testament—where God says He causes calamity, the hardening of hearts, even sinful behavior. Critics and skeptics ask about these, and in light of the evil and suffering in the world, wonder at the goodness or even existence of God.
So which verses are we talking about? Here are some of them:
Exodus 9:12: But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart and he did not listen to them, as the Lord had told Moses.
1 Kings 22:23: You see, the Lord has put a lying spirit into the mouth of all these prophets of yours, and the Lord has pronounced disaster against you.
Isaiah 45:7: I form light and create darkness, I make success and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.
Mark 4:11-12 (verse 12 is from Isaiah 6:9-10): He answered them, “The secret of the kingdom of God has been granted to you, but to those outside, everything comes in parables so that ‘they may look and look, yet not perceive; they may listen and listen, yet not understand; otherwise, they might turn back—and be forgiven.”
So does God really, purposefully, harden people’s hearts to that they won’t listen to Him or come to Him, tell people or spirits to go and lie for Him so that they (or others) do the wrong thing, and/or simply cause disasters?
The basic answer to all of these is that since God is sovereign and He made everything, He is ultimately responsible for everything that happens. That’s how the Hebrews saw it and that’s how they wrote, though to us today it seems odd or unsatisfactory. The Hebrews knew that persons and spirits were responsible, yet they emphasized God’s role. As is stated in Hard Sayings of the Bible, “What is reflected here is the lack of precise distinction in Hebraic thought between primary and secondary causes. Since God is sovereign, human will and freedom to decide for or against God were often subsumed under divine sovereignty” (Kaiser et al, 620).
Let’s look at each of the above verses separately, while keeping in mind the general explanation already stated by Kaiser et al. Regarding Exodus 9:12, MacDonald briefly writes: “The more Pharaoh hardened his heart, the more it became judicially hardened by God” (96). The concern is recognized in Kaiser et al.: “. . . it appears God authors evil and then holds someone else responsible. Did God make it impossible for Pharaoh to respond and then find Pharaoh guilty for this behavior?” (142). No, since Pharaoh hardened his own heart during the first five plagues (Ex 7:13, 14, 22; 8:15, 19, 32; 9:7, 34, 35; 13:15). After this, as MacDonald so concisely stated, God helped the process along since it was already what Pharaoh had decided himself.
1 Kings 22:23. In considering this verse and its context, the Hebrew habit of ignoring secondary causes is significant. There are other verses in the Bible where a command is given, but it is an affirmation of permission – as is the case when Jesus tells the demons to enter a herd of pigs (Matt 8:31), or when he tells Judas to get going with his plans (John 13:27). In the case of 1 Kings 22, King Ahab was listening to false prophets and the false prophets were responsible for their own lies; God allowed it and used it for His plans, and God even warned Ahab.
. . . the passage in question is a vision that Micaiah reveals to Ahab. God is telling Ahab, “Wise up. I am allowing your prophets to lie to you.” In a sense, God is revealing further truth to Ahab rather than lying to him. If God were truly trying to entrap Ahab into a life-threatening situation, he would not have revealed the plan to him! Even so, Ahab refuses to heed God’s truth, and he follows his prophets’ advice (Kaiser et al, 231).
In conclusion, “Without saying that God does evil that good may come, we can say that God overrules the full tendencies of preexisting evil so that the evil promotes God’s eternal plan, contrary to its own tendency and goals” (Kaiser et al, 230).
Isaiah 45:7. Much has been written on Isaiah 45:7, since part of the problem is that the King James Bible incorrectly used the word “evil” instead of disaster or some like word. The verse refers to natural “evil” (destructive forces) and not moral evil. God permits these things, and in fact natural destructive forces are a normal and necessary part of the earth’s balance and being. The verse is a strong declaration, however, that God is THE creator and that He is ultimately in control of all things, and not some other being.
Mark 4:11-12 (Isaiah 6:9-10). After having reviewed the other verses/passages, the meaning of this passage can almost be inferred. It may sound mean and controlling of God, but it is a reality that there are those people who go after and accept views and actions that are contrary to God. For those like this, God lets them continue; they have chosen their way, their path, and God does not force anyone to follow Him and accept Him as savior and Lord. (Interestingly, the author of the section on this verse in Kaiser et al. [417-419] does not agree, providing a minority interpretation that is something of a 180˚ turn.) MacDonald provides a generally accepted interpretation:
Verses 11 and 12 explain why this truth was presented in parables. God reveals His family secrets to those whose hearts are open, receptive and obedient, while deliberately hiding truth from those who reject the light given to them. . . . we must remember the tremendous privilege which these people had enjoyed. The Son of God had taught in their midst and performed many mighty miracles before them. Instead of acknowledging Him as the true Messiah, they were even now rejecting Him. Because they had spurned the Light of the world, they would be denied the light of His teachings (1330).
God is light; in him there is no darkness at all (John 1:5b). God is not evil and does not do evil, but He does “work around” the evil in this world to further His plans for human redemption. God loves us, and sent His son for us, so that we may have new life in Him (to not be controlled by the evil in the world). If you want that, you will find it. You will find God and He will know you. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10); “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you” (Matt 7:7); “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Cor 13:12); “But the man who loves God is known by God” (1 Cor 8:3).
Sources: James Dunn and John Rogerson, ed.s, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdman’s Pub Co 2003); Tim Jackson, Did God Create Evil?; Kaiser, Walter et al, Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1996); MacDonald, William, Believer’s Bible Commentary (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub.s 1995).
Peter Kreeft, professor of philosophy at Boston College, has written that C.S. Lewis’s “argument from desire” is, apart from Anselm’s “ontological argument,” “the single most intriguing argument in the history of human thought” (p 249). This is an argument for the existence of God (and heaven). St. Augustine and Goethe also used this argument.
So what is this argument that so many have claimed is actually the best one for God’s existence? Kreeft provides a concise description: “The major premise of the argument is that every natural or innate desire in us bespeaks a corresponding real object that can satisfy the desire. The minor premise is that there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature, can satisfy. The conclusion is that there exists something outside of time, earth, and creatures which can satisfy this desire” (p 250).
You experience hunger and desire food, and the object of your desire is naturally attainable. The same can be said of sleep, sex, and friendship. But what of pangs from joy and beauty? What of that inexplicable longing at the crashing of ocean waves, or from being immersed in certain music, or desiring a love that a sexual relationship does not fulfill? We experience a thing or person, yet instead of fulfilling desire, they create another – one that is not attainable on earth. In describing Goethe’s thoughts on it, Timothy Keller in The Reason for God wrote, “We not only feel the reality but also the absence of what we long for” (p 134).
The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing (Lewis, 29).
While Kreeft addressed the philosophical criticisms of the argument in his 1989 article (see sources below), Keller takes on the more recent science-oriented critiques in his 2008 book. Evolutionary biologists believe all that we are is based on natural selection, and so belief in God and all religious feelings are the consequence of adaptation. How our awe over a beautiful sunset could be explained in these terms is mysterious, but otherwise, there is a serious flaw in this line of evolutionary thinking that some have pointed out.
The flaw is that evolutionary theory says that we cannot trust our own senses or thoughts. Our brains are conditioned for survival (adaptive behavior), and not necessarily for reality or “truth.” Richard Dawkins, Patricia Churchland, and Thomas Nagel have all said the same, as well as Charles Darwin himself. So . . . by their own claims, there is then no reason to trust their thinking on the subject. As Wieseltier wrote in the New York Times,
. . . if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else . . . . Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.
So what are you going to pay attention to? Your own inner voice and experience, or the assertions of those who claim that our thoughts are guided only by our body’s need for survival – and that “truth” isn’t necessarily beneficial? I’ll leave you with some of CS Lewis’ thoughts on this, from his “Weight of Glory” sermon (1941):
Almost our whole education has been directed to silencing this shy, persistent, inner voice; almost all our modem philosophies have been devised to convince us that the good of man is to be found on this earth. And yet it is a remarkable thing that such philosophies of Progress or Creative Evolution themselves bear reluctant witness to the truth that our real goal is elsewhere. When they want to convince you that earth is your home, notice how they set about it.
They begin by trying to persuade you that earth can be made into heaven, thus giving a sop to your sense of exile in earth as it is. Next, they tell you that this fortunate event is still a good way off in the future, thus giving a sop to your knowledge that the fatherland is not here and now. Finally, lest your longing for the transtemporal should awake and spoil the whole affair, they use any rhetoric that comes to hand to keep out of your mind the recollection that even if all the happiness they promised could come to man on earth, yet still each generation would lose it by death, including the last generation of all, and the whole story would be nothing, not even a story, for ever and ever.
If Lewis could say this in 1941, how much more could he say today, when Naturalism has had one or two more generations to influence the population? So many today don’t even try and pretend that there is an inner voice, an inner knowledge or longing, of a future beyond death. We are evolved,* purposeless, and mortal.
Sources: Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Dutton 2008); Peter Kreeft, “C.S. Lewis’s Argument from Desire,” in The Riddle of Joy: G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis (M. Macdonald and A. Tadie, editors; Eerdmans 1989), CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (Touchstone 1996).
[A version of this appeared previously in Examiner.com, by the author]
Do we have a hard time wrapping our head around Christian freedom? It seems so, as some will say that we Christians need to follow laws and rituals in order to do our part in our own salvation. Others will go to the opposite end of the spectrum, saying that Christians can do whatever they want because they are “free in Christ.” Neither assertion is valid. The first denies the work of Christ, which does not come with an “also” list for salvation; we only need to believe in Him and surrender ourselves to Him (in other words, have faith in Him). The second denies the indwelling of Christ in the believer and the work of The Spirit; God with us and in us will not allow for a life of sin.
But then, what is Christian freedom? In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is upset that those whom he helped lead to Christ and who learned the gospel, were now being lead astray by legalists who were teaching that works of the flesh were also necessary for salvation.
“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (2:15-16). “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (2:21).
Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? I guess Paul thought so too, since he next exclaims, “You foolish Galatians!” (3:1). Paul believed that the Galatians received God’s Spirit, as he goes on to ask them if they received that Spirit by observing the law, and if they were going to reach their goal of salvation by the law after having received the Spirit. Abraham and others, prior to the giving of the law, were righteous because of their faith (see also Romans 4). So why was the law given?
“The law was given to a nation of sinners. They could never obtain righteousness by keeping it because they did not have the power to obey it. The law was meant to show men what hopeless sinners they were, so they would cry out to God to save them by His grace. God’s covenant with Abraham was an unconditional promise of blessing; the law resulted only in cursing. The law demonstrated the unworthiness of man to receive free and unconditional blessing. If man is to be blessed, it must be by the grace of God” (MacDonald p 1885).
The law was like a guardian for God’s child. Israel was seen as God’s immature child, and the child had to follow the rules set forth by the Father until the child reached the right age. In practical terms, the child was a slave to the law. The child was an heir of God, but could not come into his inheritance until the right time. The child could not come into his inheritance if he did not obey all the laws, either, since the consequence of disobedience was death (now that’s one tough guardian!). At the right time, however, God sent Messiah so that the heir might come into his inheritance. “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes” (Romans 10:4).* Believers receive God’s Spirit, are redeemed from the law, and are no longer slaves to the law. Because they are in Christ, they cannot suffer death due to legal disobedience.
What the Galatians were doing, then, was making themselves slaves to the law all over again! They were making the law an idol. Were they the children of Hagar the slave woman (representative of the Law), or children of Sarah the free woman, whose offspring are children of God’s promise?
“These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent the two covenants” (4:24a; emphasis mine). “But what does the Scripture say? ‘Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.’ Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman” (4:30-31).
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (5:1a). Legalism is of no value – “the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love” (5:6b). “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (5:13). Since we have the Spirit and are not under the law, we are to live by the Spirit. The Spirit is contrary to sin, so those with the Spirit will not live a life that is enslaved to the sinful nature. Contrary to the “easy believism” types, a person who has God in them is not going to abuse Christian “freedom” by living life “in the flesh.” In fact, we are free from being under the control of sin and are slaves to righteousness (Romans 6:15-23). Although we all sin at times–since we are still physical beings in a corrupt world–we are awakened spiritual beings who have the Spirit of God to give us guidance and strength. Our lives will not be characterized by sin but will exhibit the fruit of the Spirit.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:19-24)
Therefore don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is the Messiah (Colossians 2:16-17).
* Interestingly, Paul was not alone in his thoughts regarding the change of status or make-up of the law relating to the Messiah. Many rabbis thought that the Torah was for the age prior to Messiah, and that a new Messianic age would mean changes of some sort to the law (Kaiser et al, pp 564-565).
Cabal, Ted, General Editor. The Apologetics Study Bible. Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 2007.
Garrett, Duane A, General Editor. NIV Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.
Kaiser Jr, Walter, et al. Hard Sayings of the Bible. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1996.
MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1995 (1989).