3.2.6 Man: Volition
Volume 3: Living Symbols—Chapter 2.6
At first blush, it would seem a bit odd to perceive symbolic significance in mankind. After all, we humans are apparently the whole point of creation, from Yahweh’s point of view. We permeate His scriptures almost from one end to the other, and within them (as this study is demonstrating) God introduced hundreds of symbols and metaphors designed to teach us what we need to know about Him. But could our own nature comprise one of these symbols? Are we the object as well as the subject of Yahweh’s lesson plan?
In a way, I think we are. I speak of man, however, in his mortal state, realizing that the way we see ourselves in the mirror (and in scriptural metaphor) isn’t our true or ultimate nature—we’re destined for an infinitely larger and more glorious reality, if we’ll allow God to transform us into the beings He has intended for us to be all along. That being said, there is something about our present form—this vulnerable, temporary, gifted, God-aware physical state—that is an essential component of the race we are meant to become. That component, that symbolic object, is volition: free will, the ability to make moral choices, the privilege of making personal decisions that affect our relationship with the very Creator of the universe.
No animal is gifted with this attribute. Even really smart ones, like apes, dogs, or dolphins, react and calculate based only upon their own previous experiences—if not raw instinct. Yes, your dog may show “guilt” for having chewed up your slippers, even before you discover their mangled drool-soaked corpses; but that’s only because he’s gotten in trouble before and is anticipating your puzzling (to him) outburst of anger. (Cats, of course, don’t show any guilt for having turned your expensive couch into a chia pet because they presume you bought the furniture for them. They merely conclude that yelling and waving your arms is normal, inexplicable human behavior.) A lion doesn’t feel guilty about “murdering” a gazelle, any more than a bacterium shows remorse for invading your body and making you sick. Humans are absolutely unique in their awareness of guilt and their desire to do something about it.
The reason for this singular propensity is explained (sort of) in the creation account. “Then Yahweh, God, formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature.” (Genesis 2:7) Although the kinds of lives enjoyed by the entire animal kingdom had been described by the Hebrew phrase chayah nephesh—the living soul, that which made them physically alive—man was given another component, the “breath of life,” or neshamah chayah, in addition to the soul. It is this neshamah that explains (at least logistically) how God created humanity “in His own image.” “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, after Our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (Genesis 1:26-27) We have been given a fundamentally different kind of life than animals have (which is, in turn, fundamentally different than the kind of life plants enjoy—though Yahweh is the source of them all). We humans have a unique type of life: we are cognizant of our creator, aware of His existence and (since the fall) of our relative inadequacy before Him.
But it’s not like the rest of creation doesn’t honor Yahweh—in whatever way He has enabled that expression: “Ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of Yahweh has done this? In His hand is the life of every living thing and the breath [ruach—spirit] of all mankind.”of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10) It never occurs to animals, plants, rocks, or sky to question their origins or their destiny. They are not made with the capacity to deny the God who made them. Only man has that ability.
So it is this facet of man’s nature—the unique ability to perceive his Creator and make choices concerning Him—that serves as the foundation for man as a scriptural symbol. The whole topic is as counterintuitive as it is unavoidable. We’re forced to deal with it, though, because Yahweh uses “man” as a metaphor for His own nature—at least twice in scripture. In the previous section, we looked at the vision presented in Ezekiel 1, where Yahweh’s presence among us was characterized by four symbolic entities, the ox, the lion, the eagle, and man. There we learned that all four attributes were always present, but their emphasis shifted depending upon which direction the “four living beings” were moving at any given time. And then we reviewed John’s vision in Revelation, where he saw the very same symbols used, though with slightly different imagery: “And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living [beings], full of eyes in front and behind: the first living [being] like a lion, the second living [being] like an ox, the third living [being] with the face of a man, and the fourth living [being] like an eagle in flight. And the four living [beings], each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!’” (Revelation 4:6-8)
Man in his mortal state is many things, but few of them make any sense as metaphors for the nature of God. Yahweh, unlike man, is neither fallen, sinful, vulnerable, limited, nor subject to death and decay. But He is intrinsically able to make His own choices—to do things “His way”—as long as doing so doesn’t violate His other attributes, like love, justice, mercy, grace, and creativity. (Yahweh is not susceptible to nonsense, however. Asking whether He is able to make a rock so heavy He can’t lift it is pointless and silly, and as far as I can tell, God doesn’t dodo silly.)
The exercise of free will implies the application of power—the means to bring about what one has chosen to do, at least to some extent. The Greeks used two basic words for such power. Dunamis is inherent strength, power, or ability, the power residing in a thing by virtue of its nature. ExousiaExousia, on the other hand, is the power of choice, the exercise of authority, the liberty to do as one pleases, with the presumption that there is no physical factor to prevent it. (Several other Greek words describing power, such as bia, ischus, kratos, and energeia, don’t really apply in this context). It seems clear that the sort of “power” man wields in the exercise of his free will is usually exousia, but such power can only be derived from Yahweh’s unlimited dunamis. If volition has a “first cause,” that cause must ultimately have no inherent limitations. In other words, man has free will only because God gave it to him. Our freedom to make moral choices is thus a clue to the nature of Yahweh: He, by virtue of His unlimited self-existent nature, has the power to do whatever He wants, and He has authorized mankind to exercise that same kind of power—within limits, of course.
And as long as we’re looking at definitions, let’s review the words commonly rendered “man” in scripture. The most common Hebrew word for “man” (at 1,639 occurrences) is ’iysh: a man, a male, husband, human (as opposed to God), servant, mankind, or champion. ’Adam, a Hebrew word used 522 times, means man, mankind, or human being. It seems to stress the idea of man as being a creature “of the earth.” And a lesser-used Hebrew word translated “man” is enowsh, stressing our mortality: man, mortal man, a person, or mankind. In the Greek, one word is used predominantly (with 559 occurrences)—anthropos: a human being, male or female, male human, or husband. So not only is “man” an extremely common theme in scripture (which shouldn’t be surprising, since our redemption is the whole point), the definitions also overlap to a great degree. In an effort to pursue the “man-as-symbol” quest, I have tried to limit myself to scriptures that help to illuminate the generalized “mankind” aspect—and through it, what makes us unique among God’s creatures: volition.
This wonderful gift God gave to mankind, however, was also a curse. Like fire or the alphabet, the ability to make moral choices brought with it the potential for both great good and catastrophic evil. I liken it (having crossed that bridge a number of times) to handing your teenager the keys to the car for the first time. Along with the prospect of increased responsibility, maturity, trust, and broader experience comes the possibility of disaster, tragedy, and fiery, gruesome death. Parents know that we can’t give our kids the good stuff without risking the bad. So we teach them, train them, warn them, and equip them for success as best we can. But at some point, we have to let them take the wheel themselves.
All of this is the legacy of the conundrum Yahweh faced when He created man. He had already created animals, ranging from mindless microbes to quite intelligent beasts, beautifully suited to the environment into which He had placed them; and He had created what we call angels, immortal spirit beings with awesome capabilities. But since animals and angels alike were made without free will, none of these beings had the capability of loving their Creator, since love requires choice. The animals (I’m guessing) had no direct awareness of God’s existence: they just did as God had programmed them to do—eat, procreate, nurture their young, and survive for as long as they could, in harmony with the world as they found it. Their very existence, the fact that they had living souls, was eloquent testimony to their source—the essential life of Yahweh.
Angels, on the other hand, are hyper-aware of their Creator, for they are immortal spirits (in essential form, like God Himself), designed to dwell and serve in His personal presence—something that mortal man cannot do and still survive. In a way, angels are like soldiers: although they’re capable of functioning autonomously, they do not have permission to operate “outside of mission parameters.” We are told (mostly through allegorical hyperbole) that the greatest of the angels let pride get the better of him, and he mutinied against his Creator-Commander, taking a third of the heavenly host with him. This rebellion was not the result of Satan’s exercise of free will, however, but was more like an army lieutenant refusing to carry out the direct and lawful order of his general, and instead taking up arms against him. It was treason, treachery, grounds for dishonorable discharge and a life sentence in the brig.
This was where the “curse” associated with the gift of free will for mankind came into existence. Yahweh knew that for choice to be meaningful, there had to be alternatives: you couldn’t choose something if it were the only entree on the menu. So He postponed the imprisonment of Satan and his demon-dupes in order to provide man with an option to receiving and reciprocating His love. We all know the story, as fraught with symbolism as it appears to be: Adam and his wife, the first humans created with the neshamah—the “breath of life”—were instructed by Yahweh’s theophany to refrain from eating the fruit from a specific tree in the Garden of Eden. The instruction itself posed a choice, but unless both sides of the “debate” were voiced, the choice wouldn’t have been (as one cable news channel puts it) “fair and balanced.” So Satan was allowed to visit the Garden and voice his opinion. God had instructed, “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) But Satan countered, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
That’s a clear choice, pro or con: show that you trust God by doing what He said, or trust someone else’s promise of “benefits” that God never saw fit to give you, demonstrating your decision by disobeying the command. We all know what happened: Eve was deceived by the serpent (which was bad enough), but Adam deliberately rebelled against God when faced with a choice between Yahweh’s instructions and his wife’s wiles. “Then Yahweh, God, said, ‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever.’ Therefore Yahweh, God, sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.” (Genesis 3:22-23)
The provocative question is: who told the truth, Yahweh, or Satan? At first glance, remarkably enough, it looks like Satan did! Adam and Eve didn’t fall over dead that day. Adam, in fact, lived on for another 930 years. He got demoted and evicted, but his body didn’t immediately die. Moreover, Satan’s promise that their “eyes would be opened,” and that they would “be like God, knowing good and evil,” had also become reality (sort of), not that Eve got remotely what she’d bargained for. She had been willing to give it all up for knowledge. What she actually got was experience—and all the frustration and pain that goes with it. The couple had never known anything but good up to this point; now they would see both sides—up to and including physical death. If you understand the operation of the neshamah, Adam and Eve did die that day, for the Spirit of God that had made their souls immortal departed. The life they had lost was not physical, however, but spiritual—not bios, but zoe (if I may refer to the Greek terms defining the difference).
So Satan, who is not gifted with free will, was allowed by God to be the vehicle through which our free will could be tested. The only way Yahweh’s volition could be transferred to mankind was to present us with a choice. This temptation was dangerous, but essential, which explains why Yahshua said, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!” (Matthew 18:7) From this moment on, Adam’s race would be defined by our fallen, sin-prone nature. In a sense, we are born the most miserable of creatures: equipped with a neshamah—the capacity for spiritual indwelling—but bereft of spirit. Instead, within us is, as Pascal would later put it, a “God-shaped vacuum,” one that nothing but Yahweh can adequately fill. Yahweh knew we would fail, of course, and He had a plan ready through which each of us could be restored to life in His Spirit, if only we would choose to do so. That God-given ability—the right to choose—is what makes mankind a symbol that reveals Yahweh’s nature.
But if this is true—if mankind has the freedom to make moral choices—then we find ourselves faced with a dichotomy, a fundamental disconnect between God’s revealed nature and the nearly universal teaching of the Church. Although few would put it this bluntly, that core teaching is that “You must love God or He will torment you forever in hell.” This has been the tacit Christian world view virtually from the beginning, and it’s a natural extrapolation of traditional Jewish perception, reflected in Yahshua’s tale of Lazarus and the rich man in Luke 16. According to Josephus, Christ’s depiction of sheol being divided into two sections—one for the blessed, called Abraham’s bosom, and another for the damned, where the rich man ended up in fiery torment—was pretty much as the Jews of His day pictured it. The Hebrew scriptures don’t speak of “heaven” and “hell” per se, at least not in terms of man’s eternal destiny. The Tanach says almost nothing of the afterlife beyond sheol—the grave, the pit, the “place of inquiry.” I have no reason to suspect that this picture isn’t accurate, but I’m convinced it’s not remotely the whole story.
Here’s the problem. In John 3, Yahshua defined being “alive” (in the eternal, essential sense), as being “born from above” in (or of) the Holy Spirit—making God one’s “heavenly Father.” He also characterized the powerful religio-political elite, the scribes and Pharisees, as a “brood of vipers,” having been “born from below” (so to speak), which makes Satan their “spiritual father.” Because all spirits, created or not, are immortal, this would make the soul of someone who chose Satan to be his spiritual father immortal in precisely the same way that the souls of Yahweh’s children become immortal through His Spirit’s indwelling. In eternity, we share the destiny of whatever spirit indwells us, whether glorious or ignominious. And as one can have only one human mother, you can’t be born first to Satan’s spirit and then to Yahweh’s, in succession. Spiritual birth, like physical birth, happens only once, if it happens at all.
So far so good. But since mankind’s fall into sin in the Garden of Eden, we have all been born as spiritual “blank slates,” indwelled with neither Yahweh’s Spirit nor Satan’s. In order to “live forever,” we must select and invite an immortal spirit to inhabit and define our souls. We may (and should) choose Yahweh’s Spirit, available to us through the redeeming blood of Yahshua. But we can, as did the Chief Priests and Pharisees who had Christ crucified, choose an indwelling with Satan’s spirit instead. The result of that choice is hell: the eternal waking torment of remorse, defined by the horrifying knowledge that you’ve proactively elected to identify yourself with a false, evil god.
But let’s be honest: most people never choose either thing. They’re not exactly antagonistic to Yahweh, but they’re not particularly interested in knowing Him, either. Or perhaps they’re ignorant victims of their religion, culture, and customs, for whom the truth is simply not available, through no fault of their own. It should be obvious that failing to be born from above in Yahweh’s Spirit is not the same thing as having proactively chosen to receive Satan’s. Since the fall, we are born empty vessels, capable of being filled with either spirit—or neither of them. Or, to use another of my dumb car analogies, if I don’t buy a Ford, it doesn’t mean I’ve bought a Chevrolet instead. I might have bought a Honda, or a bicycle, or nothing at all, for that matter. No matter how compelling the implications can seem at first glance, these facts are completely independent of each other. And yet, I was taught from my youth in a solid, Bible-believing, evangelical Protestant church that if I hadn’t “been saved” by “accepting Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior,” that I was destined to an eternity of torment in hell. This doctrine made quite an impression on an eight-year-old boy, I can tell you. It took me half a century to figure out that it wasn’t necessarily true. That’s not to say hell doesn’t exist—it most certainly does. But like heaven, you can’t go there unless you choose to.
Of course, as a practical matter, the heaven-or-hell theory worked just fine. It’s like comparing Newtonian physics to quantum mechanics: it’s only in the theoretical realm that you run into trouble. In your daily life, stuff still obeys the laws of gravity, mass, momentum, and thermodynamics. Apples still fall from trees, even if we can’t figure out where Schrödinger’s cat is. So I could have gone my whole life (what’s left of it) quite nicely without asking the hard question: if you “must love God or He’ll send you to hell” (as I was taught), how does that square with free will? If we’re compelled by threats of hell fire to “love” God, the definition of “love” has become skewed beyond all recognition, and the concept of choice has been rendered meaningless. No one could possibly love God under these conditions. We might surrender, submit, obey, or worship, but love cannot be gained in this way, nor could it logically be construed as a loving act on God’s part to threaten us with eternal torment if we don’t “love” Him in return.
Some Christians, on the other hand, believe that we have no free will—that because God had “called the elect to be saved,” the others must logically be predestined to damnation. But the entire Bible incessantly encourages us—everyone—to make good, wise choices, to hear and heed His word. Why would scripture do that if Yahweh had already selected our destiny for us? No, predestination (in the sense that God has made our eternal choices for us) is totally antithetical to the broad sweep of God’s word (except as an expression of the choices we make: if we choose “Cause A,” then we are naturally “predestined” to experiencing the corresponding effect). The fact is, real free will gives the chooser permission to choose poorly—or not to choose at all. The rub is that every choice carries consequences with it. Having built us, Yahweh knows what will benefit us, and what will do us harm. That’s why He pleads with us to hear and heed His words: doing so will be good for us. God’s love compels Him to reach out to us. But having gifted us with free will, He won’t force us to do anything: invite, encourage, and counsel, yes—force, no.
It’s clear in scripture that choosing to be “born from above” in Yahweh’s Spirit will result in untold blessings—the heart of which is eternal fellowship with God Himself. Christ describes it: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And it’s equally obvious that choosing to born in Satan’s spirit will result in the converse fate: the reigning Son of Man will declare to those who’ve done so, “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Matthew 25:34, 41) But what of those (the majority, I’m guessing) who have chosen neither, whether out of ignorance, apathy, suppression of the truth by others, or simple bad luck (as is the case with abortion victims, for example). Without an indwelling immortal spirit, their souls will simply perish when separated from their bodies—just as with any animal.
That may come as a shock to those who (like me) were taught the “eternal bliss vs. everlasting torment” doctrine all their lives, but it’s amply supported by the actual Hebrew and Greek text, the words used in the Bible to designate a “bad” fate from which Yahweh wishes to spare us. They aren’t all what we’d call “hell.” While some of them do necessitate existence and consciousness (requirements for eternal torment), others merely describe death, destruction, annihilation, the state of ceasing to be (which, while bad, are still much to be preferred over hell’s torments, you must admit). Logically, then, death and damnation cannot be the same thing. The default is death: we’re born mortal—we’re fallen creatures subject to decay and destruction. But we’re creatures of free will. If we choose nothing, that is precisely what we will receive. Of course, God doesn’t ask us to choose between death and damnation. Damnation (the fate described in Matthew 25:41—the “eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”) was never promulgated by God as a viable choice. Yahweh simply asks us to choose life—eternal, abundant, blessed, and available only through a familial relationship with Him, which is in turn available only through the atoning blood of Christ. Bottom line: if we do not elect to live, we will not.
The point of all this is that our free will, our volition, is God’s focus when He uses “man” as a symbol. This is the one feature of man’s character that uniquely defines who he is and links him to his Creator. It explains every facet of man’s predicament, the human condition. It underlies everything scripture reveals about the nature of humanity: our fallen state, our role in shaping our own destinies, and our responsibility before God. The Bible (especially in the Torah) talks incessantly about the consequences of the choices we make. And our potential for rebuilding a personal relationship with the God from whom we find ourselves estranged is defined and revealed by this unique gift: free will.
We won’t get very far, however, if we can’t (or don’t) perceive that we are a fallen race, sinful creatures alienated from our Creator through the exercise of our own free will. That explains why Satan’s favorite ploy is to try to convince us that we’re “good enough”—or at least can be—in our natural state or through our own efforts. He would like us to believe that the kind of “sin” that separates us from Yahweh is “doing the worst thing you can think of.” But it’s not. Sin is merely missing the target of perfection, if only by a little bit. It is simply failing to do what is right (by God’s standards)—flawlessly, constantly, and with an attitude of perfect love, humility, and selflessness. It’s falling short of Yahweh’s opinion, His unassailable assessment of how things ought to be (errantly rendered “glory” in Romans 3:23). You don’t have to be a serial-murdering cannibalistic child molester to be a “sinner”—you just have to get out of bed in the morning.
We can’t reason our way out of our guilt. We aren’t nearly smart enough, as Job observed: “But where shall wisdom be found? And where is the place of understanding? Man does not know its worth, and it is not found in the land of the living.” (Job 28:12-13) Many would beg to differ these days, of course. Ask any politician: he’ll tell you he has the answers. But if he isn’t factoring God’s word and will into his solutions for the rest of us (and I’ve never heard of one who did, at least in my lifetime), he’s hopelessly deluded. “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.” (Proverbs 26:12)
Part of being “fallen” is that we no longer comprehend what we’ve lost, much less how to regain it. “Yahweh looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt. There is none who does good, not even one.” (Psalm 14:2-3, cf. Psalm 52:2-3) In other words, it’s no good blaming Adam and Eve for the fix we’re in: we’ve all sinned, each of us fulfilling the potential for corruption that comprises the legacy they left us. If we had been in their shoes (okay, they didn’t wear shoes, but you know what I mean), we would have performed just as badly—and we prove it every day of our lives.
It isn’t just that we fall short of Yahweh’s standards of behavior, either. It’s that if we fail to heed the word of Yahweh, we live pointless lives, bereft of meaning or significance. As Solomon said, “I searched with my heart…till I might see what was good for the children of man to do under heaven during the few days of their life…. Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 2:3,11) Taken in isolation like this, it all looks pretty depressing. But remember, these verses describe mankind in his natural, fallen state—estranged from God and divorced from His purpose. It may not seem too bad while you’re living through it, but contemplation and reflection reveal that as benign as life without God might seem, it’s actually empty, hollow, and pointless. (And let’s face it: for most of humanity, life isn’t all that benign.)
Yahshua said essentially the same thing, but in the same breath explained how to turn a pointless, empty life into something eternally significant: “Jesus told His disciples, ‘If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?’” (Matthew 16:24-26) Gains and losses, advantages and disadvantages, are what the natural man thinks he understands. But he is a fool if his knowledge extends no further than his final breath. Earthly riches and temporal poverty alike are beside the point to someone who died ten minutes ago: “Those of low estate are but a breath; those of high estate are a delusion; in the balances they go up; they are together lighter than a breath.” (Psalm 62:9) I realize that it sounds counterintuitive—that “losing” one’s life for the sake of the kingdom of God is the only way to find it. But once again, Yahshua is talking about a fundamental transformation—exchanging one’s mortal existence for a spiritual life that will never end. And once again, the only wrench that will fit this nut is free will: we must choose to “deny ourselves” in favor of the cross. The decision will not be imposed upon us.
Yahweh is under no illusions, of course. He knows going in that most of us will choose to walk the wrong path, the broad highway that leads to destruction. There was even a time when He felt compelled to eliminate an entire generation—except for one family—because mankind had become so utterly corrupt. But that family, led by its patriarch Noah, chose to honor God, and for their sake (and ours who follow their lead) Yahweh refrains from summarily destroying us for our transgressions: “Then Noah built an altar to Yahweh and took some of every clean animal and some of every clean bird and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And when Yahweh smelled the pleasing aroma, Yahweh said in His heart, ‘I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” (Genesis 8:20-21) As Christ informed us in the Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24:36-44), the flood of Noah’s day was a “dress rehearsal” for the coming judgment—something that, as before, will be preceded by the removal of a faithful remnant out of harm’s way. The trick for God (since He always keeps His promises) is going to be dealing with the universally evil intentions of the hearts of fallen mankind while refraining from “cursing the ground” because of us. In Noah’s day, everyone with a neshamah (except for those aboard the ark) perished—see Genesis 7:22. But during the coming Great Tribulation—even though all who have kept Yahshua’s command to persevere will be kept out of the hour of trial (see Revelation 3:10) as Noah was kept out of the flood—some will come to faith in the midst of the trial. In other words, the earth will not be cursed this time.
That’s not to say man’s propensity for choosing poorly will have improved much. John’s apocalyptic prophecy tells us, “Also it [the ‘beast out of the earth,’ a.k.a. the ‘false prophet’] causes all, both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead, so that no one can buy or sell unless he has the mark, that is, the name of the beast or the number of its name. This calls for wisdom: let the one who has understanding calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and his number is 666.” (Revelation 13:16-18) Remember what Yahshua said about gaining the whole world but losing your own soul? Those who receive the mark of the beast will forfeit their souls in an attempt to “gain” something that falls woefully short of “the whole world”—a few short months of respite from a “new world order” that would otherwise be irrationally bent on hunting them down and killing them. But note that the number describing the mark of the beast is said to be “the number of a man.” If my observation that the primary and unique characteristic defining humanity is our free will, then I must conclude that whatever else it is, the mark of the beast will comprise the ultimate expression of man’s choice. By receiving it, he is choosing to remain fallen, to reject Yahweh’s remedy for his mortal condition in favor of a satanic counterfeit. But rejection of the mark (which will be the 21st century permutation of “taking up your cross and following Christ”) will be an effective demonstration that he is willing to risk losing his life in order to find it—Yahshua’s very challenge.
Those neo-believers who miraculously survive until the end of the Tribulation will comprise the blessed “sheep” of Yahshua’s familiar Olivet Discourse parable about the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46). Having chosen life by risking death for the sake of God’s promise, these “sheep” will repopulate Christ’s earthly kingdom, spawning new mortal generations for the next thousand years (much as Noah’s children did in the postdiluvian world). Paul once wrote of gentiles, unschooled in the Torah, who nevertheless tried to do as God’s instructions commanded, acting solely on the basis of the dictates of their consciences. “They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 2:15-16) The neo-believers of the Tribulation will not have the opportunity or leisure to study the scriptures in order to arrive at a reasoned and rational theological position. They will simply know (based on raw conscience and some timely angelic warnings) that the schemes of the beast are inherently evil, and are thus antithetical to the plan of the true and living God—about whom they admittedly know next to nothing. Based upon this empirical knowledge alone, they’ll exercise the greatest privilege ever bestowed by God upon any living being: they’ll choose to reciprocate His love.
In the poem Invictus, William Ernest Henley communicated the incredible degree of arrogance the human mind can display before God. The last stanza reads: “It matters not how strait the gate / How charged with punishments the scroll / I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.” Having the courage and determination to prevail in the face of temporal obstacles is one thing; it’s something else entirely to shake your fist in the face of God and tell him your soul is “unconquerable.” As poetic as it sounds, that’s just plain dumb.
It’s kind of funny when you think about it: fallen man likes nothing more than to imagine he’s in charge of his own fate, the director of his own destiny. God, meanwhile, spends an inordinate amount of energy teaching us to trust Him, for He knows we’re incapable of extricating ourselves from our own self-induced predicament. And yet, Yahweh has given man the authority to choose for himself who will be in charge of his affairs, who will call the shots, who will be responsible for his welfare, and who will ultimately direct his destiny. To my mind, it’s sort of like handing a three year old the keys to the family car, and telling him, “Drive it, if you think you can, but my plan is to let you figure out for yourself that your feet don’t reach the pedals, you can’t see over the dashboard, and you really don’t know where you want to go anyway, so it’s better if you let mom or dad do the driving.” It may seem silly (on God’s part) when we phrase it in these terms, but His offer is serious and bona fide, I assure you.
The first of our race to “take the wheel” were Adam and Eve. The fact that they were deceived did not change the outcome of their actions. “But the serpent said to the woman, ‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked.” (Genesis 3:4-7) They had calculated that Yahweh’s word wasn’t any more reliable that the serpent’s—that the benefits of eating the forbidden fruit would be worth the risks. And they found out the hard way that they were wrong. Too late in the game, they discovered the truth of what Solomon would later say: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death.” (Proverbs 14:12)
Sin starts small. With Eve, it was a tiny seed of doubt, planted by Satan, watered by her own exaggerated version of what Yahweh’s instructions had actually been (the first permutation of religion in the Bible), and nurtured through curiosity, covetousness, and compromise. The harvest was death—even if that death wasn’t quite what she had expected it to be. Moses warned Israel of that same subtle trap: “Beware lest there be among you a man or woman or clan or tribe whose heart is turning away today from Yahweh our God to go and serve the gods of those nations. Beware lest there be among you a root bearing poisonous and bitter fruit, one who, when he hears the words of this sworn covenant, blesses himself in his heart, saying, ‘I shall be safe, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart.’ This will lead to the sweeping away of moist and dry alike.” (Deuteronomy 29:18-19) A little yeast leavens the whole loaf; a single spark can set the entire forest ablaze—and one person willing to doubt or disregard Yahweh’s clear instructions is able, potentially, to infect an entire family, city, or nation with rebellion and heresy.
It’s not inevitable, of course. Each individual among us has the power to choose whom to trust, upon whom to rely. A bit later in the same sermon, Moses made that unmistakable: choice is our prerogative: “See, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.” Gee, that’s a tough one, Mo. Let me think on it and get back to you. “If you obey the commandments of Yahweh your God that I command you today, by loving Yahweh your God, by walking in His ways, and by keeping His commandments and His statutes and His rules, then you shall live and multiply, and Yahweh your God will bless you in the land that you are entering to take possession of it.” This, of course, can apply in principle to any people, in any age. Note that although God is perfectly capable of blessing individuals who honor Him within nations that don’t, the promise is primarily national, not personal. This is true of the converse as well: “But if your heart turns away, and you will not hear, but are drawn away to worship other gods and serve them, I declare to you today, that you shall surely perish. You shall not live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to enter and possess. I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Therefore choose life, that you and your offspring may live, loving Yahweh your God, obeying His voice and holding fast to Him, for He is your life and length of days.” (Deuteronomy 30:15-20) There it is again: the flat declaration that the choice is ours to make: life or death, blessing or cursing, God’s way or man’s way.
At this point in Israel’s history, however, it was all somewhat theoretical. Yes, their parents had chosen poorly: by calculating that they were not strong enough to take Canaan in their own strength, they had dishonored Yahweh, who had promised to fight on their behalf, providing their victories for them. But since then, a whole new generation had arisen, one that had known nothing but Yahweh’s care and provision in the harshest of circumstances. This generation crossed the Jordan, did battle with the Canaanites, and—as long as they followed Yahweh’s lead—prevailed. But a generation later, when much of the land had been occupied, the issue of whom to trust was once again broached. Joshua, now an old man, admonished Israel, “‘Now therefore fear Yahweh and serve Him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve Yahweh….” Put them away? Had they not jettisoned Egypt’s gods long ago? Not completely, it would seem—and that was a problem.
“And if it is evil [Hebrew ra’a: bad, harmful, displeasing, injurious, causing misery] in your eyes to serve Yahweh, choose this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your fathers served in the region beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you dwell. But as for me and my house, we will serve Yahweh.’” It’s a lesson we Christians need to relearn in every generation: no matter who you are, you’re going to serve somebody or something—either Yahweh or something vastly inferior (like, for instance, yourself). The most insidious, destructive idolatries are those we never even think about—ingrained in our culture and endemic in our traditions. Joshua, like Moses, offered the people a choice of whom to serve—the same choice we all face today. And he wasn’t coy about declaring where his own allegiance lay: with Yahweh. “Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake Yahweh to serve other gods, for it is Yahweh our God who brought us and our fathers up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight and preserved us in all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed.” (Joshua 24:14-17) This generation chose wisely, but it wouldn’t be long before their children and grandchildren (having failed to drive the Canaanites and Amorites completely out of the land, as they’d been instructed) began to drift back into idolatry and error.
So in an ironic twist, it transpires that in a way, man actually is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul. He still can’t atone for his own guilt, you understand, but every individual, in every generation, must make his or her own choice as to whom to serve, whether Yahweh or somebody else. In a very real and terrifying sense, it is every person’s responsibility to determine his own eternal destiny—not by solving his own problems, but by selecting his own savior.
That goes a long way toward explaining why Yahweh was so adamant that no one was to commit murder: if your life has been cut short through the action of another, you have been cheated our of your God-given opportunity to spend your natural lifetime (however long or short that might be) deciding whom to trust with your eternity. One factor that makes this crystal clear is that even animals who kill men are to pay for their offense with their lives. Yahweh explained it to Noah: “And for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it, and from man….” Animals don’t exercise free will, so they don’t make moral choices. The death penalty for them is no deterrent whatsoever. Yet they are to be “put down” if they kill a person, just as if they were human murderers. Why is that, if they aren’t morally “guilty” in God’s eyes? Animals aren’t given the death penalty for killing other animals. Nor is killing a beast considered a crime for men (unless it belonged to someone else, in which case the offense was theft, not murder). So the issue, strictly speaking, is not the taking of life (in the bios sense).
The key is victimology. “From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in His own image.” (Genesis 9:5-6) Since man is made in the image and likeness of God, he is to be given the freedom to—as Paul put it—“work out his own salvation with fear and trembling.” In other words, he must exercise his privilege of choice in the matter of who to serve—for as long as God has given him. Others are not to take it upon themselves to abridge his natural lifespan.
So no one, man or beast, is given the unilateral authority to prematurely end a man’s life—with one exception. “Whoever takes a human life shall surely be put to death.” That’s right: Yahweh believes in—actually, He insists on—the death penalty for murderers. And as we saw above, it is man (not God) who is to perform the execution. It’s all part of man’s having been given dominion over the entire biosphere (see Genesis 1:26, 28). And it’s the natural result of following the golden rule. “Doing unto others as we’d have them do unto us” establishes a paradigm of fairness, justice, and restitution. If someone stole something or broke something belonging to another, he was required under Torah law to make it good, as the passage goes on to explain: “Whoever takes an animal’s life shall make it good, life for life. If anyone injures his neighbor, as he has done it shall be done to him, fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth; whatever injury he has given a person shall be given to him.” (Leviticus 24:17-20) But what can someone do if his life has been stolen? It is beyond the ability of the murderer to restore it. So since restitution is impossible, the rule becomes retribution: the guilty life must be surrendered in place of the innocent one he took.
We’ve all heard the saying, “An eye for an eye, and the whole world will go blind.” But it just isn’t true, not under God’s law. Although it isn’t quite as catchy or politically correct, God’s rule is actually, “An eye for an eye, and people will soon learn to appreciate vision.” The Torah is scrupulous about establishing guilt before punishment is meted out. In the case of murder, two or three eyewitnesses are required in order to convict. Even though forensic evidence might serve as one of the three “witnesses” (I’m guessing), that puts a heavy burden of proof on the prosecution: God’s system would much rather see a guilty person walk free than see an innocent man wrongly punished. After all, Yahweh can always opt to exact justice in His own time and in His own way—and He knows before the trial even begins who is guilty, and who is not.
By the way, all of this fairness-based law designed to give each individual his full allotted opportunity to choose his own destiny is made a mockery if he opts to choose nothing—as is (I fear) the case with the majority of humans. I fully realize that our opportunities for receiving knowledge vary greatly. But we are all born with consciences, with curiosity, with the witness of nature’s glory, and with the neshamah—that capacity for spiritual indwelling that internally, and universally, compels man to seek his Creator. Yahweh has given all of us the means and motive to at least wonder about Him—even if we’re never given the chance to actively explore our intuition.
This fact gives the concept of “murder” a whole new dimension. Those who have taken it upon themselves to repress the thirst for God that happens so naturally in those around them are guilty of “spiritual murder.” John writes, “This is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another. We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous. Do not be surprised, brothers, that the world hates you. We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brothers. Whoever does not love abides in death. Everyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him.” (I John 3:11-15) Remember, God’s penalty for physical murder is death. Do you suppose He sees spiritual murder any differently? No; the former is the symbol for the latter.
Solomon tells us, “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways, for the devious person is an abomination to Yahweh, but the upright are in His confidence.” (Proverbs 3:31-32) The attitude that manifests itself as violence in the physical realm becomes deviousness and deception in the spiritual. To my mind, the most devious way to spiritually “murder” someone is to enslave them in religion. Since man’s natural inclination is to seek for his Creator, Satan’s ploy is to distract him with a well crafted counterfeit. He uses man’s godly impulses (kindness, generosity, devotion, piety, etc.) to deceive him into thinking he’s following God. With luck, he figures, those gullible humans will never even figure out they’ve been fooled. The really “good” counterfeits, like rabbinical Judaism and pagan Christianity, blend truth and falsehood together so smoothly, it’s hard to sort out what’s real and what isn’t. The “bad” ones, like Islam, simply use threats, force, and intimidation to keep the “faithful” in line. But however you slice it, Satan can’t perpetrate frauds like these on his own: he needs the help of willing human accomplices—“useful idiots” who’ll do his heavy lifting in hopes of gaining power, prestige, prosperity, or pleasure for themselves.
Yahshua could spot these fakes a mile off, and He warned us against acting like them: “Beware of practicing your righteousness before other people in order to be seen by them, for then you will have no reward from your Father who is in heaven.” Not that getting “rewarded” by God for our good deeds is the point. It’s a question of motivation: good deeds like alms or devotion are the natural byproduct of knowing Yahweh, but they can be simulated by those who don’t. “Thus, when you give to the needy, sound no trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, that they may be praised by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites. For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:1-6) The religionistas (to coin a word) do “good” things in public in order to impress other people with their piety and devotion. They’re presenting the fiction that they have exercised their free will in honoring God. But the “god” they’re honoring is often one of their own imagination, and their motivation is as phony as their deity: praise from (or power over) other men. Of course, Yahshua was using Judaism as an example familiar to his audience. In Islam these days, “good works done to be seen by men” might include strapping on a suicide vest and blowing up a Tel Aviv bus stop. In pagan Christianity, it might be browbeating the faithful into contributing to questionable causes that elevate not God but the religious machine itself. With the religion of secular humanism, it might be joining in a protest march, sit-in, or riot. In all of these cases, the ultimate objective is to enslave, impress, or intimidate men—it’s the antithesis of loving them. It represents a “spiritual choice” one has made, alright; but the choice is ultimately to align oneself with Satan’s spirit in lieu of Yahweh’s.
That’s not to say that everything we do with improper motives is automatically a sign that we’ve sold our souls to the devil. We all make mistakes, and among those mistakes is listening to Satan when he whispers nonsense into our ears. This very thing happened to David—by all accounts Yahweh’s favorite human, a faithful servant-king who loved God with all his heart, despite his occasional lapses in good judgment. At one point, David was tempted (by Satan himself, the record states) to take a census of Israel. As sins go (you may be thinking) this doesn’t seem to be a particularly heinous crime. But the object of the census was to determine the military strength of the nation—in terms of human resources, the same criteria by which any monarch might have assessed his ability to wage war. What David had forgotten was that Israel’s true strength lay, as it always had, in Yahweh, not in the number of available troops. God had proved it over and over again. (See Judges 7 for one extreme example.)
Once David had the results of his military census, he realized that he’d been duped. He promptly repented, but the damage had been done: there were consequences to be paid. And here is where the concept of human volition before God really comes into focus: “So [the prophet] Gad came to David and said to him, ‘Thus says Yahweh, “Choose what you will: either three years of famine, or three months of devastation by your foes while the sword of your enemies overtakes you, or else three days of the sword of Yahweh, pestilence on the land, with the angel of Yahweh destroying throughout all the territory of Israel.” Now decide what answer I shall return to Him who sent me.’ Then David said to Gad, ‘I am in great distress. Let me fall into the hand of Yahweh, for His mercy is very great, but do not let me fall into the hand of man.’” (I Chronicles 21:11-13) Yahweh honored David’s choice (a fact remarkable in itself). The plague He sent killed 70,000 men. So much for strength in numbers.
But here’s where the story takes on “Biblical proportions.” David’s eyes were opened, and he actually saw the angel who was killing everybody off, standing there between earth and heaven with a drawn sword. Falling to his knees in repentance, David pleaded with Yahweh to spare the innocents of Israel—and to slay him instead. Yahweh, true to character, relented from the slaughter, right then and there. In thanks, David noted where they were—at the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite (a.k.a. Arunah), on Mount Moriah, in the middle of Jerusalem. In a flash of inspiration, David connected this location with God’s everlasting mercy, and purposed to build an altar to Yahweh on the spot. He paid Ornan 600 shekels of gold for the place—its full market value. (By the way, this is the only historical record we have of anyone actually buying the temple mount. Every subsequent “owner” simply stole it from its rightful owners—the Jewish royal family.) Ornan, a faithful gentile farmer who had also seen the angel of death, offered to give it to the king. But David declined, saying “I won’t take what belongs to you in order to give it to Yahweh, and I won’t offer up that which cost me nothing,” a principle today’s religionistas would do well to learn. This event—the abrupt end of the plague in response to David’s prayer—is what inspired the king to build a “permanent” temple to replace the wilderness tabernacle that had been in use for the past half a millennium, set up nearby in Gibeon at the time. Though informed that he (being a man of war) could not build the temple himself, David spent the rest of his life preparing for his son Solomon to do it.
From that moment on, this one location in all the earth would be symbolically synonymous with the mercy of God. This idea was “set in stone”—literally—when the temple was built, based on the floor plan of the ancient tabernacle, for the tent of meeting was an architectural symbol of Yahweh’s plan for the redemption of mankind—the ultimate expression of God’s mercy toward man. Why was the temple built here on Mount Moriah, a few hundred yards from where Abraham had (according to Yahweh’s instructions) intended to sacrifice his son Isaac? It’s because this was where David had sought mercy, and this is where mercy had been granted. So we should not be surprised that this is also where Satan has tried his hardest to obfuscate the message. Since the seventh century A.D., he has maintained his own shrine here—the Dome of the Rock—commemorating everything he can think of to distract the world from the blessed mercy of Yahweh: lies, wishful thinking, apostasy, greed, the appeasement of a false god, and the forced submission of mankind—the artificial suppression of his God-given privilege of free will.
I would love to be able to tell you that scripture predicts a time when the whole world would reject Satan’s broad agenda and choose instead the narrow path of Yahweh’s mercy. But alas, I’d be lying to you. In the few years remaining between now and the inauguration of the Millennial reign of Christ, the vast majority of humanity will choose either to ignore the plan of God or oppose it. Paul writes, “But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” And what will make life so hard to bear, so dangerous and harsh? The evil nature of mankind will no longer be effectively repressed by law and custom, bubbling to the surface only sporadically. Rather it will become the norm. “For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.” (II Timothy 3:1-5)
Throughout most of history, man has generally been ruled either by conscience, custom, or clout. Individuals behaved badly from time to time, of course, but society—even in pagan, idolatrous cultures—invariably fostered a “don’t rock the boat” mentality. In more primitive societies, fear of the unknown kept people in line. As civilization “advanced,” powerful, often repressive, governments tended to keep a lid on dissent, innovation, and nonconformity in thought and action. And occasionally (though alas, all too infrequently) societies arose that were generally receptive to God’s law, placing folks who behaved as Paul described out of step with the majority, sometimes to the point of becoming pariahs or outcasts. So one way or another, due either to repression or reverence, overtly evil behaviors like the ones against which we were warned were never able to overrun entire populations. Until now.
What changed? The answer may come as something of a shock. It’s the outbreak of democracy in today’s world. Throughout most of history, only the powerful, the elite, the privileged of society could openly exhibit the traits on Paul’s list and expect to get away with it. You couldn’t succeed as a selfish, arrogant, abusive, reckless narcissist unless you were first a warlord, prince, priest, merchant, or politician—with the means of enforcement (whether real or merely psychological) at your disposal. But now, thanks to the great American experiment in democracy—one we’ve done our best to impose on the whole world for the past century or so—every two-bit lowlife, revolutionary, or academic now feels entitled to do whatever he feels like doing, without regard to morals or consequences. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not opposed to democracy, which is, in the end, merely the institutional permutation of Yahweh’s gift of free will. But I’ve been preaching for years that democracy can only work for good in a society driven and guided by Judeo-Christian principles. America used to be such a place, but we have largely turned our back on God in the interests of greed, political correctness, and a false sense of entitlement. When he’s restrained by brute force or by conscience, man tends to keep his evil propensities in check. But teach an unredeemed man that he’s only an animal, tell him that there’s no such thing as absolute truth or a holy God who loves him, and then give him freedom, and he’ll invariably begin to exhibit the attributes on Paul’s list.
Once again, I feel compelled to draw a distinction between liberty and license, between freedom and anarchy. Our choices carry consequences—if only bankruptcy and desolation for future generations. Free will is good, but only if you choose what is good for you. The great irony is that it is possible to use the freedom Yahweh has given us to choose to become enslaved. The power is in our hands. Good news, bad news.
In Yahweh’s plan, then, it is man’s responsibility to make good choices. Or put another way, “They said to [Yahshua], ‘What must we do, to be doing the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.’” (John 6:28-29) He then proceeded to inform them, through His words, deeds, sacrifice, and ultimately His resurrection, precisely who it was that God had sent—Himself. What we choose to do, whom we elect to trust, invariably reveals itself in our lives. Addressing the scribes and Pharisees, Yahshua explains: “Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” (Matthew 12:33-37) In other words, the things we do and say will eventually reveal the choices we’ve made. If we’ve chosen a relationship with Yahweh, that choice will be reflected in the love we show toward our fellow man. If we’ve chosen an alliance with Satan, our character profile will look more like what Paul warned Timothy to look out for in the passage we just reviewed. However, if we’ve chosen nothing, our lives will be a big zero, neither good nor bad, like a fig tree with no fruit on it—just taking up space, sucking up resources, neither helping nor harming anyone, not even ourselves.
Most of Christ’s imprecations, of course, were directed toward the “brood of vipers” (read: children of the serpent, Satan) known as the scribes, Pharisees, and chief priests of His day who made it their mission to achieve and maintain mastery over the hearts and minds of the people. These “snakes” (like their slithering prototype in the Garden of Eden) chose and promoted something far inferior to what Yahweh had intended for mankind. So Yahshua didn’t mince words: “For the sake of your tradition you have made void the word of God. You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: ‘This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me; in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’ And He called the people to Him and said to them, ‘Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.’” (Matthew 15:6-11, cf. Mark 7:7-8) His immediate point (addressing the scribes’ complaint) was that failing to keep the rabbinical interpretation (and expansion) of the Levitical dietary rules wasn’t what defiled someone in the eyes of God; rather, it was what one said, and what he taught. It was an abomination, then, if what someone put forth as “God’s Law” was actually only man’s rules.
But the broader issue was that of whose authority a person accepted. Was his deference to God’s word a pretense, or was it genuine? Put another way, do we see ourselves as having been made in God’s image, or have we “made” Him in ours—defining and shaping the supposed characteristics of the One we claim to worship in terms of our own preconceived notions and desires? Paul points out that you can’t have it both ways: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10) For some, this thought should come as a stunning epiphany. We are commanded in the Torah to love our fellow man. But here Paul warns us against seeking man’s approval, of doing things calculated to “please” him. Thus by definition, loving someone is not the same thing as “making him feel good” or “stroking his ego” or “giving him everything he wants.” Rather, love is doing our best to meet his needs—as defined and exemplified by Yahweh.
This may include telling him truths he doesn’t want to hear or warning him about the consequences of his sin. Meeting needs is not necessarily a comfortable or pleasant experience for the recipient. But it’s not a loving act to let a man drown, simply because throwing him a lifeline might imply that he’s not a very good swimmer. He’s dying, already: toss him the rope. Worry about his delicate sensibilities later. It’s our responsibility to offer help; it’s his responsibility to choose whether to accept it or drown in his sins. Of course, it doesn’t help to be harsh and judgmental: we’re all sinners, after all. But if we have the means to help someone in need and we fail to do so, we have broken the law of love. Nor does it require a “special anointing,” a seminary education, or unlimited resources to show your love. We need only have reverence for our God—the most basic of human conditions. “Who is the man who fears Yahweh? Him will He instruct in the way that he should choose. His soul shall abide in well-being, and his offspring shall inherit the land.” (Psalm 25:12-13) We don’t even have to be smart enough to choose the correct path. Face it: sometimes the “road” through life looks like a bowl of spaghetti. The twists and turns can fool us. But if we choose to honor Yahweh, He promises to inform us what route to take.
In broad strokes, there are three possible paths we can follow through life (if we’re willing to see the symbolism presented here): “And Yahweh spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, I am Yahweh your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not walk in their statutes. You shall follow My rules and keep My statutes and walk in them. I am Yahweh your God. You shall therefore keep My statutes and My rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am Yahweh.” (Leviticus 18:1-5) These three “paths” reflect the three distinct eternal destinies between which Yahweh has asked us to choose: life, death, and damnation. He, of course, wants us to choose life, for His whole point in creating us was that we might dwell forever in harmony and fellowship with Him. So He has issued rules, statutes, commandments, and laws—that is, instructions for living. Couched in these terms, it may sound as if we have no choice in the matter: “You shall keep My statutes and follow My rules.” But Yahweh is this adamant only because of the disastrous consequences we’d face by choosing the alternative: death, or worse. The fact is, we do have a choice, though in the final analysis, choosing anything other than life in Yahweh is unthinkable.
The second “option” listed is Egypt, symbolizing bondage in the world. This is a “life” (though you can’t really call it living) that leads nowhere. It has no point, no purpose, nothing to look forward to. Egypt is, so to speak, where we were all born, and left to our own devices, we’ll die there. It is the state of being “condemned already” about which Yahshua spoke in John 3:18—a state that can only be escaped through the second birth in the Spirit of Yahweh. The only way out of Egypt, as you’ll recall from the story of the exodus, is indemnification from death through the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb—Yahshua Himself. In eternal terms, Egypt is death, the total cessation of life, both physical and spiritual.
There is a third “option,” however, a far worse fate that having died in bondage in Egypt. “Doing as they do in the land of Canaan” is metaphorical of proactive false worship, the purposeful rejection of Yahweh’s gift of life in favor of false gods invented by man and promoted by Satan. Another name for this path is Babylon—the home of institutionalized evil in the world, and a place from which we’re repeatedly warned to flee. Historically, of course, they’re identical: the Canaanites were practicing religious rites that had first been invented a few generations after the flood in Nimrod’s capital city, and their refusal to repent was what ultimately prompted Yahweh to consign them to destruction, at least within the land He had promised to Abraham. Actually, though, Babylon’s pantheon showed up with little but the names changed all over the ancient world. Permutations of it are still lurking just beneath the surface in the rites of pagan Christianity. Bottom line: if Egypt represents death, then Canaan/Babylon symbolizes damnation—eternal waking torment (a.k.a. hell) in the knowledge that you have purposely opted to wage total war against Almighty God.
Becoming Yahweh’s, choosing to be His children, is never “automatic”—the result of following cultural norms or even one’s own conscience—for these things, as helpful as they can be, can also lead us astray. Moses pointed out the difference to the children of Israel as they were about to enter the Land: “You shall not do according to all that we are doing here today, everyone doing whatever is right in his own eyes, for you have not as yet come to the rest and to the inheritance that Yahweh your God is giving you.” (Deuteronomy 12:8-9) His point was that they were still in the wilderness: much of the Torah could not be practiced until they settled in the land of promise. And although he didn’t say so here, it is also true that they would no longer be able to practice the Torah in all of its detailed glory if they someday rebelled against Yahweh and got themselves thrown out of the Land—something he had warned against repeatedly.
The entire Torah is symbolic of a larger reality—even the “practical” parts like the dietary rules and property laws. One example among hundreds: if you had no fields under cultivation, it would be impossible to literally leave the edges and corners unharvested for the benefit of the poor of the land. It was thus meaningless to feign “Torah observance” until they actually entered the Land. But once they were dwelling there, their choice to heed God’s instruction (or not) became a matter of evidence: the faithful man would refrain from gleaning the edges of his field. He would, rather, invite the poor to provide for their needs from the bounty God had provided to them through his faithfulness and obedience. The unfaithful man, on the other hand, would be harvesting every last kernel he could, for his trust was in himself, not in the God who had caused his crops to grow in the first place. In the final analysis, it’s all relatively simple: “The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep His Commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14) Our duty, our responsibility, is to revere Yahweh and heed His instructions—in the letter if we can, but in spirit without fail.
It’s all a matter of choice, of free will, of volition. But since we can’t perceive the unabridged glory of God, we aren’t really choosing to keep His commandments on the basis of who He is—for that is something that must remain hidden from us as long as we inhabit these mortal bodies. In the end, we’re merely calculating cause and effect, based on what little we do understand—what we think we know. So Yahweh, through David, says that it’s okay to pursue a good, prosperous, peaceful life, as long as you understand that the sole source of such a life is God Himself. “What man is there who desires life and loves many days, that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Turn away from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. The eyes of Yahweh are toward the righteous and His ears toward their cry. The face of Yahweh is against those who do evil, to cut off the memory of them from the earth.” (Psalm 34:12-16) Again, Yahweh is asking us to choose the good and reject the evil—for our own benefit.
In the West, where our culture is based on Judeo-Christian principles, we tend to assume that nobody wakes up in the morning and decides he’d really like to have a crappy life. But in societies where the love of Yahweh is unknown, an entirely different paradigm can come into play. Hatred and covetousness can in themselves become self-perpetuating goals. Earlier I mentioned that in late 2001, I went to Israel to do research for a novel (Tea with Terrorists) with my co-author, and we got to interview a group of Palestinian terrorists. One of the questions we asked them was, “If you could have one or two of the following things, but not all three, which would be your biggest priority: possession of this land, political autonomy, or a productive economy—an end to poverty?” They all agreed that they didn’t really care about prosperity, and that political self-rule would come in a distant second (which sort of surprised us, considering all the vague complaints they’d had about how the Israelis were suppressing them). All they really wanted was undisputed possession of all the land that Israel occupied. They didn’t care if they lived forever in squalor and slavery—they were used to that. They merely wanted whatever the Jews had, and they didn’t care what they had to do to get it—a goal that ultimately included genocide against their self-proclaimed adversaries. Their idea of “seeking peace and pursuing it” was to drive the Jews into the sea. (Actually, the Islamic scriptures greedily envision the same fate for all “infidels.” We are to be enslaved—it’s called “dhimmitude”—and eventually compelled either to submit to Islam or be executed. Just so you know.)
Thus Yahweh’s ideas of what constitutes a “good life” (as expressed in David’s Psalm) and Muhammad’s are diametrically opposed to each other. Knowing what Islam is all about brings a certain degree of clarity to the issue of choice. With Yahweh, a logical choice results in life, longevity, goodness, honesty, and real peace with God and man. Without Him, human logic (if Islam is any indication) leads to covetousness, premature death, misery, poverty (even if one amasses a great deal of wealth—poverty of soul), deceit, war with your fellow man, and enmity with God.
Our attitudes toward war can be illuminating. If the polls are to be trusted, Americans overwhelmingly honor their fighting men and women, but despise the politicians who send them into harm’s way with one hand tied behind their backs—burdened with “rules of engagement” that all but preclude any semblance of “victory.” But naïve solutions like “give peace a chance” aren’t the answer either. Yahweh is not a pacifist, but He is very selective about why and how He asks His people to go to war, and His motivations and methods are the antithesis of political correctness. Check the record: Yahweh goes to war only (1) to eradicate irredeemable evil, (2) to protect His people from contamination (or destruction), and (3) with the goal of the enemy’s complete and utter destruction. In other words, Yahweh doesn’t wage wars to gain territory, resources, or subjects. He doesn’t do “police actions” designed to keep people who dishonor Him from hurting each other. He doesn’t fight to prop up dictators expected to show favor to Israel or Christianity. He doesn’t do it in order to impose democratic forms of government on people. He doesn’t ally Himself with pagans to fight apostate Judaism, Crusaders to fight Saracens, Communists to fight Nazis, or Islamists to fight Muslim megalomaniacs. He doesn’t compromise, negotiate, or keep “strange bedfellows.” People who self-righteously declare that “God is on our side” are invariably mistaken. Unless I’ve forgotten something, Yahweh has only authorized His people to wage one “war” in the entire history of man: the conquest of Canaan by Israel—a war against seven specific (and now-extinct) nations, confined to a tiny flyspeck of territory hugging the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, and intended to be over within a single generation (if only Yahweh’s people had been faithful)—not stretched out over half a millennium.
No, war for Yahweh is an exceedingly rare tactic. His usual modus operandi is to teach us how to love each other, one on one. For instance, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” That seems simple enough, notwithstanding the fact that the whole unredeemed world is apparently living instead by the vendetta, saying “Don’t forgive, just get even—and then some.” But in the same breath, Yahshua goes on to caution us about our attitudes and motivations: “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others.” (Matthew 6:14-16) It’s not enough to perform “good works,” He says. In order for our deeds (like forgiving others, or fasting) to have any real merit, they must be done in the context (not to mention the power) of God’s love. Good works done for any other reason—like the praise of men, American-style tax write-offs, Catholic-style bribes, or Islamic-style forced alms (whether the obligatory zakat or the onerous jizyah imposed upon dhimmis)—are worth nothing. They are their own reward.
It should be patently obvious that life, longevity, goodness, honesty, and peace—the natural results of one’s relationship with Yahweh—are going to be elusive goals if we don’t share God’s love with our neighbors. That’s why the “golden rule” is such an important and oft recurring theme in scripture: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) Note that it’s not how we feel about them that matters; it’s not the extent of our philosophical agreement or similarity in religious practice. It’s what we do that matters. It is thus—once again—a matter of choice: the conscious determination to treat those we meet with love and respect—to the extent that we can do so without violating Yahweh’s commandments to remain holy and to turn away from God’s overt enemies (as described in II Timothy 3:1-5, as we saw a few pages back).
Part of that “love and respect” that we are to “do unto others” is to be honest and open about who it is that we worship: if we’re followers of Christ, we should make that fact evident to those we meet, in our words and our walk: “So everyone who acknowledges Me before men, I also will acknowledge before My Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies Me before men, I also will deny before My Father who is in heaven….” As I see it, we needn’t be obnoxious and pushy about our faith (since we can’t drag people kicking and screaming into the Kingdom of Heaven anyway), but we shouldn’t be “chameleons,” either. That is, we should present ourselves as who we really are, without regard to the crowd among whom we find ourselves. Ask yourself: do I behave the same way when I’m in Las Vegas for the annual industry convention as I do when I’m in church? If not, something’s wrong.
That’s not to say being consistent and forthright as a believer won’t make some folks uncomfortable: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword.” That’s not a call for bloodshed, but rather a provocative way of stating our need for holiness—separation from the world’s values and standards. “For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person’s enemies will be those of his own household.” (Matthew 10:32-36) Being at peace with God clearly outweighs remaining at peace with people, if that “peace” entails denying or concealing one’s relationship with Christ. But the “war” we wage with the lost of the world should be one-sided. They can (and do) attack what they don’t understand—what they’re afraid of. But it is our job to turn the other cheek: we believers should never forget that, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” (Proverbs 15:1) How we respond to attacks against our faith is a matter of choice. Even if you hate the message, love the messenger.
Though we are held responsible by God, by virtue of the free will He has given us, to make moral choices in this life, it does not follow that He doesn’t care which option we choose. Our bad choices don’t hurt Him, of course—not directly, anyway—but He nevertheless instructs us incessantly on how to choose wisely, for our choices carry consequences. Why does He do this? Because He loves us: He desires that we enjoy the good things in life—beginning with a relationship with Him. Yahweh knows (having built our world) that disobedience to His precepts will naturally result in a less-than-ideal outcome for us. You don’t have to “punish” someone for disobeying your “command” not to jump off a rooftop: the consequences he’ll suffer when he hits the ground are natural and inevitable—not to mention avoidable. God has “commanded” that we refrain from jumping to our deaths. But He refuses to chain us to the guardrail to ensure our compliance. The choice, in the end, is ours alone.
So, although it may seem odd for a God who built us with free will to always be telling us what to do, that’s precisely what we see from one end of the Bible to the other. Actually, Yahweh’s commandments are given to us because we have the intrinsic capability to do as we please. I have been known to “command” my grown children to drive safely, but I could (theoretically) keep them safe by simply locking them in a closet so they couldn’t go out and encounter danger in the wide world. We say we trust God, and that’s a very good thing. But it may come as a shock to discover that God trusts us as well. Like any good parent, He trains His children, instructs us, equips us, but then He trusts us to make good choices, choices that reflect the nurturing that He has lavished upon us.
That being said, it should be obvious that not everyone is a child of Yahweh. So when we walk out of our Father’s front door to face the world, we’re going to encounter people who will contradict everything He’s taught us. He has warned us about them as well: “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of Yahweh, and on His law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers….” To be “blessed” (Hebrew: ’esher) is to be happy, fortunate, in a joyful state of mind—he is to be congratulated. The Theological Wordbook notes, “To be ‘blessed,’ (’esher), man has to do something,” hence, the exercise of choice is implied. The consequences of not keeping evil company, behaving as unredeemed sinners do, and mocking the path of righteousness, is to be happy and prosperous—precisely the opposite of what the world would have us believe. The passage goes on to describe this state of blessed contentedness as being observant of Yahweh’s instructions, thoughtful, and productive.
But what of the scoffing sinners whose counsel we were warned to avoid? “The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand [i.e., endure or prevail] in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for Yahweh knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1) No matter how much “air time” the scoffers are given, their lives and influence are a flash in the pan; their opinions won’t hold up to scrutiny or to the test of time. They’re dead where they stand. And once again, their disastrous end will be the direct result of having made bad use of the God-given privilege of free will.
The degree of intelligence each of us has is a measure of Yahweh’s individual gifting, like athletic ability or physical attractiveness. So what are we to make of this? “The stupid man cannot know; the fool cannot understand this: that though the wicked sprout like grass and all evildoers flourish, they are doomed to destruction forever.” (Psalm 92:6-7) The “stupidity” (Hebrew ba’ar) being spoken of here is not simply a low I.Q., but rather (according to the Dictionary of Biblical Languages), “senselessness, stupidity, folly, i.e., to lack understanding, implying arrogance or stubbornness…pertaining to lacking understanding, but implying other negative moral imperfections as well.” In other words, this is the kind of stupidity one brings upon himself. If I may offer a bit of personal insight, among my adopted children, several proved to be of “average” intelligence, two were so mentally (and physically) handicapped their I.Q.s were in single digits, two hovered in the 60-80 range—low functioning by any standard—and two were extremely bright. In other words, my kids run the gamut. Of the brightest of my children, one is a now successful and productive professional woman, well traveled, respected in her field, and extremely well paid. The other is doing a 128-year stretch in a California prison for his crimes. Intelligence is apparently what you make of it. And of my “slow” kids, both display a trust in God (despite their cognitive challenges) that comprises eloquent testimony to His mercy and grace. As the Psalmist says, “Yahweh preserves the simple.” (Psalm 116:6) So I must conclude, one’s native intelligence has nothing to do with his ability to discern right from wrong, or his choice of which moral path to follow. These things, rather, are a matter of attitude and free will.
Providing balance, Isaiah provides another look at the contrast of consequences between those who choose to do good and those who do evil: “The meek shall obtain fresh joy in Yahweh, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel….” The word translated “meek” (’anaw) means humble, unpretentious, showing humility—the quality of sincere and straightforward behavior. And “poor” is the Hebrew ’ebyown, meaning needy, in want, subject to oppression or abuse. The prophet’s point—something not really addressed in Psalm 1—is that our temporal circumstances here on earth are not necessarily the only criteria by which the blessings of choosing Yahweh’s path might manifest themselves. We can, even in humble or adverse circumstances, have joy in Yahweh’s love. We can celebrate in triumph, for we have an eternity of blessed fellowship with our God to look forward to, no matter how oppressed we are at the moment.
Conversely, it matters not how prosperous our oppressors seem to be: their time is short. “For the ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off, who by a word make a man out to be an offender, and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate, and with an empty plea turn aside him who is in the right.” (Isaiah 29:19-21) Basically, Isaiah is revealing the specific consequences of violating the Ninth Commandment: “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.” (Exodus 20:16) Is it just me, or do I detect a stern rebuke here against the way politics and jurisprudence are conducted in America these days? Slander and betrayal are evidence of having chosen badly. I suppose the ultimate example of this would be the betrayal of Christ—not only what Judas Iscariot did, but what we humans do every time we refuse to rest in Yahshua’s finished work. “The Son of Man goes as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that man if he had not been born.” (Matthew 26:24)
David too discusses the consequences of man’s poor choices: “They [the wicked] hold fast to their evil purpose; they talk of laying snares secretly, thinking, who can see them? They devise iniquities, saying, ‘We have perfected a shrewd scheme, for the inward mind and heart of a man are deep!’” Yes, the arrogance of man is thing of wonder sometimes. Not that it has any basis in reality: “But God shoots His arrow at them; they are wounded suddenly. They are brought to ruin, with their own tongues turned against them; all who see them will wag their heads. Then all mankind fears; they tell what God has brought about and ponder what He has done.” (Psalm 64:5-9) Of course, we haven’t seen the second half of this passage come to fruition yet. Man, for the most part, is still under the illusion that he has God outsmarted. But the story isn’t over. The consequences of our choices are yet to be revealed.
Here and there throughout scripture, we’re given glimpses of how these consequences can play out. One such scenario involved a man named Korah, who led a rebellion against the God-ordained leadership of Moses and Aaron in Israel. Moses (who hadn’t really wanted the job in the first place, but who accepted the role when faced with the reality of Yahweh) recognized Korah’s insurrection for what it was: rebellion against God Himself. So rather than defending himself before Israel, he merely asked Yahweh to personally confirm His own choice—and do it dramatically. “Moses said, ‘Hereby you [Israel] shall know that Yahweh has sent me to do all these works, and that it has not been of my own accord. If these men die as all men die, or if they are visited by the fate of all mankind, then Yahweh has not sent me. But if Yahweh creates something new, and the ground opens its mouth and swallows them up with all that belongs to them, and they go down alive into Sheol, then you shall know that these men have despised Yahweh.’ And as soon as he had finished speaking all these words, the ground under them split apart. And the earth opened its mouth and swallowed them up.” (Numbers 16:28-32) Lest we assume that this is just an interesting bit of history (or worse, a mere myth), I would be remiss in failing to point out that a similar miraculous disaster (actually, a whole series of them) is scheduled to descend upon the world in which we now live—and for virtually the same reason: rejection of Yahweh’s sovereignty in favor of man’s solutions. In fact, the coming Antichrist (a latter-day “Korah” if there ever was one) is prophesied to meet his end in roughly the same way: by being cast alive into hell. (See Revelation 19:20.)
Korah and his co-conspirators chose their fate—even if they were blissfully unaware of the consequences of their actions until it was too late. And the same thing is true of our generation. The basics haven’t changed since Yahweh began interacting with man in the Garden of Eden. But it was Moses who really laid it out for us, in terms no sane person could misunderstand. “And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that Yahweh, the God of your fathers, is giving you….” These statutes, rules, precepts, and laws were Instructions for life and blessing. Our keeping them did nothing for God, and very little for the people He placed in positions of responsibility. (Note: I didn’t say “positions of power.” No one had political power in Israel’s theocracy.) All the “rules” did for the priests and Levites was give them a ton of work to do, while putting their prospects for temporal prosperity squarely in the hands of the people, who were instructed by God to take care of them through faithfully rendering the tithe. No one would ever get rich off the tithe, but if the people failed in their responsibility, the Levites suffered. No, the instructions benefited only one group of people: those who chose to follow them. And, as I have mentioned before, for the system to work as Yahweh intended, the nation as a whole would have to observe the Torah—it wouldn’t do much practical good for a few scattered individuals to adhere to the statutes if everybody around them ignored God’s law.
So Moses admonishes Israel, “See, I have taught you statutes and rules, as Yahweh my God commanded me, that you should do them in the land that you are entering to take possession of it. Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.…’” Here, a second purpose for all these statutes and precepts is introduced, and it draws us closer to their true and ultimate purpose. The laws weren’t really intended to be an end unto themselves (though many of them were eminently practical, resulting in a well-ordered society), but they were, rather, to be symbolic of a larger reality, an overarching, earthshaking truth: they described how fallen mankind could be reconciled to a holy God. That explains why, for the vast majority of precepts, there was no overt enforcement provision, at least none that people were instructed to carry out. There was no police force, standing judiciary class, or penal system. A guilty person’s status might change (he might be “cut off” from his people, sent outside the camp, or be forced to seek shelter in a city of refuge), and he might be required to make restitution for something he had stolen or destroyed, but only in very rare instances was a “sentence” (like burning at the stake or stoning) to be carried out by the congregation—and then invariably in response to overt idolatry or an act (like adultery) that symbolized idolatry. The point was that the surrounding nations—that’s everybody else, the gentiles—were to observe Israel’s idyllic life under Yahweh’s law, and realize that it was infinitely superior to whatever they were doing. It was, in fact, a window on the ultimate spiritual truth—the only such window in all of creation.
The consequences of idolatry—which in the end is anything that takes precedence over Yahweh in our affections or motivations—were spelled out as well: “If you act corruptly by making a carved image in the form of anything, and by doing what is evil in the sight of Yahweh your God, so as to provoke Him to anger, I call heaven and earth to witness against you today, that you will soon utterly perish from the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess. You will not live long in it, but will be utterly destroyed. And Yahweh will scatter you among the peoples, and you will be left few in number among the nations where Yahweh will drive you.” As usual, Yahweh doesn’t say how the punishment will be effected, only that it will. Both literally and figuratively, the consequences of our poor choices are natural phenomena. God doesn’t have to “punish” you for stepping out in front of a moving bus. “And there you will serve gods of wood and stone, the work of human hands, that neither see, nor hear, nor eat, nor smell. But from there you will seek Yahweh your God and you will find Him, if you search after Him with all your heart and with all your soul.” (Deuteronomy 4:1, 5-6, 25-29) What’s the punishment for idolat/emry? Ironically, it’s that you’ll end up worshiping idols instead of Yahweh. But while life (whether individual or national) remains, repentance is possible. If we seek Yahweh sincerely and intently, He will make Himself known—even to those who have wandered away. That being said, if someone has received Satan’s spirit instead of God’s—a condition known as “the unforgiveable sin” (see Matthew 12:31-32)—repentance is precluded: such a person never seeks Yahweh. But the truth should be self evident: if we keep our eyes and hearts focused on Yahweh and His Messiah, we’ll never fall into idolatry in the first place.
The ultimate “idol” is not some false deity like Ba’al, Allah, or even Satan. It’s humanity itself, the “god” of the most insidious religion of all: atheistic secular humanism. As he puffs out his chest and declares proudly, “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul,” man is merely demonstrating that he has a head of wood and a heart of stone—just as Moses had warned him. Jeremiah’s message was a bit more direct: “Thus says Yahweh: ‘Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his strength, whose heart turns away from Yahweh. He is like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see any good come. He shall dwell in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land….” The Mephistopheles legends notwithstanding, nobody really trusts Satan (although that may change in the Last Days). During the past century or so, however, it has become fashionable to worship man. The Communists in Russia and China developed this man-centric, anti-god philosophy into an art form, and their populations (just as Jeremiah had predicted) shriveled and died by the hundreds of millions. Nazism, though pagan at heart, is another political religion that “trusts in man and makes flesh his strength,” and we all know what happened to Germany under the rule of Hitler’s “master-race.”
Another example of this principle: the “purest” popular form of Satan worship on the planet today is Islam, in which people are told they must submit to Allah and express their prophet’s hatred for Jews and Christians (and everybody else) by fighting in Allah’s cause with their lives and property—“with full force and weaponry,” as the Noble Qur’an phrases it—a phenomenon called jihad. But for some odd reason, it never occurs to Muslims that their god does nothing: he doesn’t fight their battles, provide for the needs of life, or answer prayer—or at least, he never has in any demonstrable way. If Muslims want something—even if it’s the destruction of their god’s enemies—they have to get it for themselves. Allah doesn’t help—ever. All he does for them (if the Islamic scriptures are to be allowed as evidence) is threaten eternal torment in hell for everyone whom he didn’t personally predestine to inhabit paradise. In Islam, god does nothing productive; man must do everything. So the shocking fact is, Muhammad didn’t really honor Allah at all. The black rock of the Ka’aba was merely recruited as a focal point, a means to get everybody bowing in the same direction. No, Muhammad “trusted in man, and made flesh his strength.” He and his followers are therefore “cursed” to endure a dry, barren existence. It is my experience that the poorest follower of Yahshua is “richer” than the wealthiest Muslim.
In contrast, “Blessed is the man who trusts [batach: to have confidence in] Yahweh, whose trust [mibtach: security or safety] is Yahweh. He is like a tree planted by water, that sends out its roots by the stream, and does not fear when heat comes, for its leaves remain green, and is not anxious in the year of drought, for it does not cease to bear fruit.’ The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick. Who can understand it? I, Yahweh, search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” (Jeremiah 17:5-10) There is a place for work, of course—for human endeavor leading to prosperity and security. God expects us to work. Adam had a job to do even before he left the Garden. But the issue isn’t who’s performing the labor; it’s who we’re trusting for the increase. The natural man trusts himself; the child of Yahweh trusts his heavenly Father. We all have “enemies,” whether of the human variety, our temporal circumstances, or our own mortality. The man who goes about his life’s work trusting Yahweh to bring it to fruition is blessed. He who doesn’t, isn’t. It’s the lesson of the Sabbath: in the end, we can’t work to obtain favor with God; we must rather rest in His grace.
Consider the words of Yahshua: “I tell you, everyone who acknowledges Me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God.” (Luke 12:8-9) What does it mean to “acknowledge” Him before men? To admit that He once lived upon the earth, taught in the streets of Israel, and died like a criminal upon a Roman cross? No, those are mere historical facts, like admitting the sky is blue or water is wet. “Acknowledging” Christ is personally embracing the fact that He was the fulfillment of the Torah’s sacrificial symbols, the means provided by Yahweh to redeem us from our bondage in sin and to reconcile us to Himself. Furthermore, it includes taking a stand before men, publicly expressing one’s faith in this truth. Notwithstanding the fact that you can get folks to say almost anything you want by torturing them, it is impossible to publicly deny Christ while privately receiving Him. And by the way, the converse is also true: it is impossible to convincingly and consistently pose as a child of God while denying Him in your heart. Oh, you may deceive some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool Yahweh for a nanosecond.
That which we believe will invariably be revealed by what we do and what we say. A classic example of this is the report of the twelve spies who were sent in to the promised land to assess its potential and its pitfalls. They all agreed that it was a bountiful place, a land of milk and honey. But ten of the spies, being of a mind to “trust in man and make flesh their strength” (as Jeremiah would later put it), perceived only well armed giants in “a land that devours its inhabitants.” Pharaoh and the Egyptian army hadn’t exactly been pushovers either, but the ten spies had completely forgotten the miraculous circumstances through which Israel had left their chains behind. Only Joshua and Caleb factored in what they all should have remembered: that Yahweh was fighting their battles for them. Recalling the scene later, Moses said, “Yahweh’s anger was kindled on that day, and He swore, saying, ‘Surely none of the men who came up out of Egypt, from twenty years old and upward, shall see the land that I swore to give to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, because they have not wholly followed Me, none except Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kenizzite and Joshua the son of Nun, for they have wholly followed Yahweh.’” (Numbers 32:10-12) “Wholly following Yahweh” doesn’t mean that Joshua and Caleb were sinless. It means that they trusted Yahweh to be as good as His word. The spies had all seen the same thing. Canaan was a fertile, well-watered land that had been promised to their ancestors by God Himself, but at the moment it was overrun with hordes of large lads with bad attitudes. Joshua and Caleb “acknowledged Yahweh before men” and lived to enter the promised land—kicking some serious nephilim butt in the process. The other ten proclaimed their “secular humanist” proclivities before the congregation, so they died in the wilderness, suffering the inevitable consequences of their own poor choices.
Let us not deceive ourselves. Although we all like to imagine that we would have sided with Caleb and Joshua when the chips were down, in the real world the issues are often not quite so clearly delineated. Have you ever been tempted to compromise your integrity at work for fear of the unemployment line? Have you ever noticed your “patriotic duty” conflicting with the will of God? What do you do when you feel you ought to vote, but the only choices offered on the ballot are a godless weasel and a self-serving moron? Do you “play it safe” when an opportunity to serve God looks like it might be politically incorrect or financially unwise? Paul admonishes us: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. We know that the judgment of God rightly falls on those who do such things. Do you suppose, O man—you who judge those who do such things and yet do them yourself—that you will escape the judgment of God?” (Romans 2:1-3) While it is our responsibility to judge between alternative responses to life’s challenges, we are not to condemn other people who make bad choices. People do dumb things. We should consider their experiences to be valuable lessons for us, knowledge we can apply to better our own lives. If we examine the consequences of the choices others have made, we might be able to use the information to make the world a better place. Identifying mistakes can be helpful; placing blame seldom is.
The consequences of our choices, whether bad or good ones, are not restricted to ourselves. They also affect those around us. Yahshua told His disciples: “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:13-16) Other people see what we do. They perceive our motivation, and they weigh the good we intended against the unintended consequences of our actions—and lay the blame (or credit) at the feet of the God we say we’re following. (This is true no matter what deity we claim to follow, whether Yahweh, Zeus, Allah, Brahma, or the guy in the mirror—true God or false, it doesn’t matter.) It therefore behooves Christians to walk circumspectly in the world, for the people who see what we do will either bless Yahweh or curse Him, based solely on what we do. I know: it’s not fair. Deal with it.
For His part, Yahweh never fails in His “responsibilities.” That is, He always keeps His promises, for better or worse. The young King Solomon, fully intending to honor Yahweh throughout his reign, prayed that Yahweh would keep the promises He had made to David his father: “O Yahweh, God of Israel, there is no God like You, in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and showing steadfast love to Your servants who walk before You with all their heart, who have kept with Your servant David my father what You declared to him. You spoke with Your mouth, and with Your hand have fulfilled it this day. Now therefore, O Yahweh, God of Israel, keep for Your servant David my father what You have promised him, saying, ‘You shall not lack a man to sit before Me on the throne of Israel, if only your sons pay close attention to their way, to walk before Me as you have walked before Me.’ Now therefore, O God of Israel, let Your word be confirmed, which You have spoken to Your servant David my father.” (I Kings 8:23-26) God eventually did precisely what He had promised, but Solomon should have paid more attention to his own words. The line of kings—ending in the Messiah—would be contingent upon David’s sons “paying close attention to their way, and walking before Yahweh as David had walked before Him.” As an old man, Solomon would (in order to please his foreign wives) allow and facilitate idolatry in Israel. So in keeping His word, Yahweh saw to it that the Messianic line would be traced not through Solomon, but through his faithful half-brother Nathan, whose direct descendant was Mary, the mother of Yahshua. The consequences of Solomon’s poor choices in later life cost him dearly. Legally, the Messiah would still be his royal heir (since Yahshua’s adoptive father, Joseph, was of Solomon’s line). But biologically, Solomon had disqualified himself by abandoning the exclusive worship of Yahweh. There’s a lesson for us in there somewhere.
Once we get past the rather surprising fact that Yahweh uses “man” as a symbol with which to communicate one facet of His own nature—inherent volition—we shouldn’t let the thought pendulum swing too far in the other direction and begin imagining that God and man are somehow equals, evenly matched on some level, whether as colleagues or adversaries. That would be as big a mistake as concluding that since God is infinitely greater than we are, He couldn’t possibly relate to or care about us on a personal level. We are neither gods nor worms, but are rather sentient creatures uniquely equipped to respond to Yahweh’s love.
The Bible therefore goes out of its way to make sure we know the score. God and humanity are contrasted at every turn. We must resist the temptation to ascribe human foibles to Yahweh, the way the ancient Greeks imagined their gods: evocative of universal human character traits or natural phenomena, powerful but petty, emotional, venal, selfish, and covetous. The God of the Bible is nothing like that. He is not a product of the universe, but external to it—its Creator and Sustainer. So Moses informs us, “God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind.” (Numbers 23:19) Later, we read, “The Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for He is not a man, that He should have regret.” (I Samuel 15:29) Of course, there are several instances in scripture in which Yahweh apparently did change His mind, stating His intention to destroy a group of people, only to relent in the face of genuine repentance or the sincere prayers the righteous on behalf of the guilty. Is there an inconsistency here? Not really, when we factor in the omniscience of Yahweh. Not only are His “threats” designed to encourage repentance leading to restoration, and not only does His foreknowledge (the ability to see things that haven’t actually happened yet) render Him incapable of miscalculation, but His very character—love personified—makes it impossible for Yahweh to remain angry with us when we have genuinely turned away from our sins. Forgiveness is in His nature (though we should always remain cognizant of the natural consequences of disobedience—things in which the purposeful “wrath” of God plays no role at all, such as the diseases that can visit us as a consequence of violating His dietary instructions).
It was a constant source of amazement to the writers of scripture that Almighty God was interested in man. Part of it was our comparative fragility, the consequence of our fallen nature: “O Yahweh, what is man that you regard him, or the son of man that you think of him? Man is like a breath; his days are like a passing shadow.” (Psalm 144:3-4) Part of it was our apparent inability to live in holiness—no matter how much we wanted to: “What is man, that You make so much of him, and that you set Your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment?” (Job 4:17-18) Part of it was our utter insignificance in comparison to what we can perceive of Yahweh’s creation: “When I look at your heavens, the work of Your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet You have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; You have put all things under his feet.” (Psalm 8:3-6) We weren’t even the “best” kind of creature God made. There was an entire order of created being that had capabilities far in excess our own—by God’s design. Why then would He assign us, and not the more powerful angels (literally: messengers), to administer His affairs here on earth? We are admittedly the “B” team, the junior varsity. But we are gifted with one attribute the angels do not have: the privilege of choice. Angels are ordered to obey Yahweh; we are asked.
It’s not unheard of for men to mistake angels (or their fallen counterparts, demons) for “gods.” The Hindu pantheon lists millions of them. But although they’re considerably more capable than people, angels can’t be equated with Yahweh any more than we can. “Behold, God puts no trust in his holy ones, and the heavens are not pure in his sight; how much less one who is abominable and corrupt, a man who drinks injustice like water!” (Job 15:15-16) Yahweh is in a class of one: Creator, not creature; Sovereign, not subject; Source, not derivative; eternal, not temporal. So when mere men demand to be worshiped as if they were deity, the One True God is not amused: “The word of Yahweh came to me: ‘Son of man, say to the prince of Tyre, thus says the Sovereign Yahweh: ‘Because your heart is proud, and you have said, “I am a god; I sit in the seat of the gods, in the heart of the seas,” yet you are but a man, and no god, though you make your heart like the heart of a god.” (Ezekiel 28:1-2) It’s not just the ludicrous comparison, it’s that people under the control of such an arrogant madman are invariably robbed, to some extent, of their free will.
So Yahweh cautions us not to heed men as we would God, rendering undue honor, deference, or obedience to them. Rather, “Stop regarding man [Hebrew: adam] in whose nostrils is breath, for of what account is he?” (Isaiah 2:22) The word translated “breath” here is our old friend neshamah, the attribute of Adam’s race that distinguishes us from mere animals, gives us volition, and defines us as having been made in the image and likeness of God. We are told to “stop regarding” men, that is, cease treating them like gods, abandon our receptiveness to their pretensions, refrain from empowering them, and refuse to see them—even the best of them—as anything more significant than fellow creatures in need of God’s love. We tend to idolize our heroes and vilify those who disappoint us. If we heeded Isaiah’s admonition, however, we would tend to demand less of our fellow man at his best, and be more forgiving of him at his worst, for we all have the same potential for greatness—and for failure. Stop regarding man; loving him is quite enough.
As Scottish poet Robert Burns reminded us, “The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft a-gley.” Wise men know, however, that Yahweh’s plans never go awry. As Solomon put it, “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from Yahweh…. The heart of man plans his way, but Yahweh establishes his steps.” (Proverbs 16:1, 9) God and man both share the attribute of volition, but only Yahweh also has the ability to carry His plans out: what He wishes, how He wishes, and when He wishes. Perfect foreknowledge allows God to avoid any and all unforeseen or unintended consequences. Why then, you may well ask, do things go wrong in our world? Much of it is that He has turned over to His children—us—the keys to the workshop. He could easily hammer that nail into the board by Himself, but He wants us to learn how to do it. So He hands the hammer to His six-year-old and tells him to take a swing. Sometimes we hit the nail on the head; sometimes it even sinks into the wood a little. Sometimes, however, we hit our thumbs, or worse, our brother’s thumb. But how else are we to learn, to progress, to mature?
We don’t have all of the answers. As a matter of fact, we often don’t even know what questions to ask. It should not be surprising, then, to discover that we are usually poor judges of our own motives. “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but Yahweh weighs the spirit. Commit your work to Yahweh, and your plans will be established.” (Proverbs 16:2-3) The better we come to know our God, the more adept we’ll become at assessing what we ourselves are doing. A personal illustration may help to get the point across. As a teenager, my eldest son was very interested in cars; no big surprise there. As a loving parent, I didn’t want him making the same sorts of mistakes my generation had—building high powered hot rods and racing muscle cars (the kind of thing immortalized in innumerable Beach Boys songs). But I didn’t want to stifle his creative spirit, either. So (in addition to surrendering my garage to him for two years so he could restore an ancient Volkswagen) I taught him how to use my radial arm saw and other woodworking tools, knowledge he used to build a custom speaker enclosure for the woofers in his car’s stereo. Next thing I knew, he had a full-blown cottage industry going, building earsplitting automotive sound systems for his friends: I had created a monster. Sure, my son’s “ways were pure in his own sight,” but there were things he hadn’t factored in—like the fact that we lived in a quiet, peaceable neighborhood, and I wanted to keep it that way. I didn’t make him shut down his fledgling little business, but I did insist that he familiarize himself with our city’s noise abatement ordinances, and prohibited him from “test-firing” his thumping Richter-scale 4.0 creations in our driveway. (I never did tell him of my own noisy adventures as a garage band guitarist when I’d been his age.) Somehow, we all survived my son’s “boom box” phase, because he “committed his work” to his father’s broader, more comprehensive outlook. We too would do well to heed our Father’s (i.e., Yahweh’s) advice and counsel in matters we don’t fully understand—like life itself. If we do, our “plans will be established.”
I once saw a bumper sticker that said, “Don’t follow me. I’m lost.” Outside of the knowledge and experience that can only be gained by walking with Yahweh, all of us could well say the same thing. Jeremiah puts it like this: “I know, O Yahweh, that the way of man is not in himself, that it is not in man who walks to direct his steps. Correct me, O Yahweh, but in justice; not in your anger, lest You bring me to nothing.” (Jeremiah 10:23-24) This speaks to the fundamental dichotomy that exists between man and God. We are not able to save ourselves, to guide ourselves, to give ourselves life in any lasting sense. Only Yahweh is able to do that. But in order to access the life we intuitively know is possible, we must voluntarily submit to His direction. He corrects our course through life not because He wants to maintain control over us, but because we won’t—we can’t—find our way home any other way.
Finding our way in life is a multi-step process. First, we need to figure out where we ought to be headed. Any destination other than Yahweh Himself will prove to be less than ideal—a dead end, a waste of time and effort. Second, we must determine how to get there. Yahshua the Messiah (as He informed us in John 14:6) is the way, the truth, and the life: no one comes to Yahweh except through Him. Third, we must choose to be born of the Spirit of God—that is, we must act upon the fact that Yahshua is the way to God. Simply knowing about it is not sufficient: we have to receive Him, trust Him, rely upon Him, and assimilate Him. It’s like food: having it is not enough. You have to eat it if you want it to do you any good.
Reliance upon Yahweh doesn’t happen in a vacuum, however. Our adversaries aren’t necessarily nebulous circumstances of nature like hunger or thirst, heat or cold. Sometimes they’re people who neither honor God nor love their fellow man, people who play by a different set of rules than we do. It’s one thing for us to admit that we must rely upon Yahweh; it’s something else entirely to have to deal with people who rely only upon themselves—rendering the rest of us potential collateral damage. Ignorance may be bliss, but only for the ignorant. Those who get in their way can find it downright inconvenient. So we read, “Asa cried to Yahweh his God, ‘O Yahweh, there is none like You to help, between the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Yahweh our God, for we rely on You, and in Your name we have come against this multitude. O Yahweh, You are our God; let not man prevail against You.’” (II Chronicles 14:11) That last thought is awfully sagacious. It points out something we all too often forget: if men seem to be “prevailing against God,” it’s not because they actually are. It’s only because Yahweh has allowed His people to experience a setback at the hands of His enemy—invariably in order to teach us something important. Asa understood that our best defense against this eventuality is absurdly simple: first, learn what He wants us to know through His instruction, so He won’t have to use ungodly people as a rod of correction; and then, ask God not to let it happen. However, we shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that “God is on our side.” God is on His own side: it’s incumbent upon us to align ourselves with Him, not the other way around. But if we have done this, we have earned the right to ask Him, “Arise, O Yahweh! Let not man prevail; let the nations be judged before You! Put them in fear, O Yahweh! Let the nations know that they are but men!” (Psalm 9:19-20)
No one who knows Yahweh would want to find himself at odds with Him or with those He loves. People who don’t know Him, however, have no qualms about attacking Israel, suppressing Christianity, and doing whatever can be done to keep lost sheep lost. So Isaiah offers this bit of encouragement from Yahweh: “Listen to Me, you who know righteousness, the people in whose heart is My law; fear not the reproach of man, nor be dismayed at their revilings. For the moth will eat them up like a garment, and the worm will eat them like wool; but My righteousness will be forever, and My salvation to all generations.” (Isaiah 51:7-8) The caveat there, of course, is that we must “know righteousness” and revere God’s Instructions, for if we don’t—if we’re merely following manmade religious tradition instead of Yahweh’s actual word—we might find ourselves like the proverbial moth-eaten wool sweater in the end: with lives full of holes.
Does this mean we must become perfect, sinless creatures in order to enjoy “Yahweh’s salvation to all generations”? Yes and no. God is under no illusions: we’re works in progress. No one attains real sinlessness in this life. What we can attain, however, is a cloak of innocence—a garment of light through which Yahweh chooses not to see our shortcomings. This metaphorical “robe of righteousness,” referred to over and over again in scripture, is available only as a gift from God: it cannot be purchased by man with gold or good deeds, for it is far too costly for us to even comprehend. Its price is beyond price: life itself, the shed blood of the Messiah, just as the Torah’s sacrifices and offerings predicted a hundred times over.
Men used to understand the vast dichotomy between God’s righteousness and our feeble attempts to do the right thing. In the Book of Job, the oldest writings in scripture, this principle is expressed time and again. Eliphaz the Temanite asks, “What is man, that he can be pure? Or he who is born of a woman, that he can be righteous?” (Job 15:14) “Can mortal man be in the right before God? Can a man be pure before his Maker? Even in His servants he puts no trust, and His angels He charges with error; how much more those who dwell in houses of clay, whose foundation is in the dust, who are crushed like the moth.” (Job 4:17-19) If Yahweh can’t even trust His angels—who are brilliant and powerful but have no inherent free will—to do what He requires of them, how can He trust man, who is relatively weak and clueless?
Job himself struggled with the same problem: “How can a man be in the right before God? If one wished to contend with Him, one could not answer Him once in a thousand times.” (Job 9:2-3) Job, being “blameless and upright, fearing God and shunning evil,” (Job 1:1) did not wish to “contend” with Yahweh in the sense of arguing with or challenging Him (though he did want to know why God was contending with him—Job 10:2). But his circumstances forced Job to defend himself before His God as he was asked (as he had feared) a “thousand” impossible questions, none of which could he—or anybody else—adequately answer. The lopsided discussion is recorded in chapters 39-41. Tellingly, we read, “Yahweh answered Job, and said: ‘Shall the one who contends with the Almighty correct Him? He who rebukes God, let him answer it.’ Then Job answered Yahweh and said: ‘Behold, I am vile. What shall I answer You? I lay my hand over my mouth. Once I have spoken, but I will not answer; yes, twice, but I will proceed no further.’” (Job 41:1-5) The point of all this confrontation was to remind Job (and his friends) that they were mere men, while Yahweh was Almighty God.
We’re supposed to know the difference, but this is something that modern man has largely forgotten (or chosen to ignore), to our shame. We arrogantly attempt to convince ourselves that God doesn’t exist, or if He does, is as we imagine Him to be rather than the way He revealed Himself. We are told that He’s a “friend of sinners” and we jump to the conclusion that He’s a lot like us, more Buddy than Sovereign. We hear that He is a God of love and mercy, and we irrationally take that to mean that He must have no standards, no opinion, and certainly no intention of punishing the wicked. So naturally, we can’t figure out why it rains on the just and the unjust alike, and why God doesn’t use His “magical powers” to extricate us from every predicament. If God has standards, why hasn’t He crushed us in retribution for our transgressions? And if God loves us, why do we still face trials? The answers take us back to who Yahweh is and how He has made us—creatures of free will whose primary responsibility in this life is to decide what to do with the love He has showered upon us: reciprocate it, or reject Him. His love precludes Him from forcing us to do anything.
Even the most hardened atheist senses, deep down, that he has character flaws—that he has failed to meet some standard of moral perfection that is apparently common to our race. Why does he know that stealing small children and eating them is wrong? Why does he congratulate Mother Teresa and castigate Adolph Hitler? He’ll try to chalk up his attitudes and trepidations to evolution, of course, but refuses to recognize that nowhere else in the animal kingdom is there even a hint of the god-sense (and resulting conviction of moral guilt) that he finds so uncomfortable, that he tries so hard to suppress. So (unless he’s mentally ill) his conscience convicts him. If there’s a God, he asks, why has He not punished me? David provides the answer: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so Yahweh shows compassion to those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust. As for man, his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field. For the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more….” That’s the natural order of things: we’re born, we live, and then we die.
But since Yahweh is not only living, but is life itself, we can, if we choose, partake of that same essential life by becoming part of Yahweh’s family. “But the steadfast love of Yahweh is from eve#160;rlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him, and His righteousness to children’s children, to those who keep His covenant and remember to do His commandments.” (Psalm 103:13-18) The reason God does not summarily destroy us the first time we step over the line into sin is that we’re born into this sorry state, whether we realize it or not. Yahshua called it being “condemned already” in John 3:18. Our mortality—the fact that left to our own devices, we’ll die at the end our lifespan—is a curse under which we all come into the world. But life needn’t end when our bodies die. Our souls can live on for eternity—if we have received Yahweh’s Holy Spirit by “keeping His covenant” and “doing His commandments.” That may sound like “doing good works,” but it’s not. The covenant and commandments are personified in the life and sacrifice of Christ, who kept God’s promise and fulfilled the requirements of the Law on our behalf. Therefore, if we have received His Spirit by allowing His blood to atone for our sins, we have indeed kept Yahweh’s covenant.
That’s not to say the whole thing isn’t awfully counterintuitive. Man never could have dreamed up such an elegant and unlikely salvation scenario. Yahshua Himself pointed this out to His disciples: “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be killed, and after three days rise again. And He said this plainly. And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him. But turning and seeing His disciples, He rebuked Peter and said, ‘Get behind Me, Satan! For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.’” (Mark 8:31-33) Peter was “only trying to help.” He thought that perhaps the Messiah was becoming discouraged, disheartened, even despondent. It never occurred to him that Yahshua wasn’t depressed about His prospects for success. He was merely revealing Yahweh’s plan for the salvation of mankind—explaining how the commandments of the Torah would all come to fruition in His own bloody sacrifice.
Still, it sounded terribly harsh to call Peter “Satan.” Was he really calling His disciple the devil? Not really. “Satan” actually means “adversary.” It’s not Lucifer’s name (actually, Lucifer isn’t really the devil’s name either) but his title, his job description: he is our adversary, our opponent, our accuser. By suggesting (in his ignorance) that Christ should sidestep the cross, Peter had place himself in an adversarial position with the plan of God. Yahshua was right to slam the brakes on this line of thought—hard. As logical as they may have sounded rolling off the tongue, man’s solutions to sin had always been ill-conceived, self-centered, and inadequate. Yahweh’s solution, meanwhile, was unexpected, counterintuitive, horribly expensive (for God), and perfectly efficacious. I for one am willing to cut Peter a little slack here: nobody saw this coming. He merely blurted out what everybody was thinking. We should not forget that it was also Peter (not two minutes before this) who had been the first to blurt out the truth about Yahshua’s identity: “And Jesus went on with His disciples to the villages of Caesarea Philippi. And on the way he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that I am?’ And they told Him, ‘John the Baptist; and others say, Elijah; and others, one of the prophets.’ And He asked them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Peter answered Him, ‘You are the Christ.’” (Mark 8:27-29) Yes, He was Yahweh’s “Anointed One.” What no one understood—yet—was the role He had been anointed to fulfill. King? Conqueror? Priest? All of those things would have to wait. For now, He was anointed to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.
Lest we lose sight of our destination while walking toward it, let us pause to review the past few pages. We’ve been exploring how Yahweh uses man as a symbol to reveal something about Himself to us. Although we’re infinitely inferior to our Creator in every way, we do share something in common—an attribute He placed within us: volition, the privilege of free will. It’s something no other creature possesses, and it’s largely what defines us as having been made “in the image and likeness of God.” Why does God let men choose our individual destinies? After all, there is risk involved: the privilege of choice implies our ability—even permission—to choose poorly. But it’s a risk Yahweh is willing to take, because it allows us, as nothing else could, to participate in His own fundamental character trait: love. Love requires free will, both on the giving and the receiving end. It is impossible, in fact, to share a loving relationship with a being who cannot choose whether or not to reciprocate it.
However, just because we’re free to choose our own fate, it doesn’t follow that it doesn’t matter (to God or to us) which fate we choose. There are natural consequences to our actions, which explains why Yahweh expends so much time and energy “telling us” what to do. His “commandments” pepper the Bible from one end to the other, but they don’t inhibit choice; they facilitate it. Yahweh’s instructions provide a clear look at the options. They help us choose whether or not to reciprocate the love He’s lavished upon us. But since love is a rather nebulous, ill-defined concept, He couches our choices in terms we’re more likely to understand: His precepts allow us to opt between blessing and cursing, between life and death. We therefore have a responsibility to make wise, well-reasoned choices—and to teach others (if they’ll listen) about their options as well. We can’t make other people’s choices for them, but we can give them sound advice—if we know the truth.
And that brings us to our final area of inquiry concerning man as a symbol. If we are to exercise our volition, if we are to make good choices, we must first understand what our needs are. I’m not talking about the sorts of things every animal knows by virtue of the instincts God has built within them—the need for food, water, shelter, procreation, and survival. I’m talking about needs unique to beings who have free will—things that are essential not merely in our mortal lives, but also in the essential, eternal lives God has made available to us. Our bodies tell us we need food, but the rumbling of our empty souls informs us of another, more basic need. Moses reminded Israel, “He [Yahweh] humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that He might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of Yahweh.” (Deuteronomy 8:3, cf. Matthew 4:4) Our first, most essential need is divine instruction—the word of God. We cannot think, work, buy, or meditate our way into Yahweh’s presence: we must, rather, listen to His voice, believe what He’s told us, and rest in His covenant.
Second, because we’re sinners, we all need forgiveness. Thus Solomon prayed, “Whatever prayer, whatever plea is made by any man or by all Your people Israel, each knowing the affliction of his own heart and stretching out his hands toward this house, then hear in heaven Your dwelling place and forgive and act and render to each whose heart You know, according to all his ways (for You, You only, know the hearts of all the children of mankind).” (I Kings 8:38-39) The “house” to which he referred, of course, was the newly built temple. But since the temple isn’t so much a building as it is a comprehensive symbol of Yahweh’s plan for our reconciliation with Him, the concept of praying “toward this house” is still valid, though the temple no longer stands. It means petitioning Yahweh in the context of His will, in reliance on His strength, in compliance with His plan, and in reference to His love.
We shouldn’t skim over that phrase “to each whose heart You know.” Our prayers—whether for forgiveness, intercession, or adoration—are only as good as our own attitudes. We may be able to feign sincerity before men, but Yahweh knows how we really feel: “Do not look on his appearance…. For Yahweh sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but Yahweh looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7) This highlights the third universal human need: wisdom, discernment, common sense—the need to be honest with ourselves and realistic about our Creator. Solomon had a great deal to say about wisdom—and man’s need for it. For instance, “Give instruction to a wise man, and he will be still wiser; teach a righteous man, and he will increase in learning. The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is insight.” (Proverbs 9:9-10) One thing we tend to forget is that worldly success (what might be referred to as “the outward appearance”) does not necessarily imply wisdom. In fact, the pride that so often accompanies worldly wealth is an impediment to godly insight. “A rich man is wise in his own eyes, but a poor man who has understanding will find him out.” (Proverbs 28:11)
This dichotomy of arrogant blindness vs. humble wisdom will come into sharp focus as we approach the last days. Jeremiah prophesied, “O Yahweh, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble, to You shall the nations come from the ends of the earth and say: ‘Our fathers have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit.’” Don’t look now, but it appears as if the world has, to a great extent, begun to come to this uncomfortable realization. After decades—or centuries—of enduring the religious dogma, the political philosophies, and the economic theories of godless men, the world (though it still has no solutions) is finally waking up to the fact that what their fathers told them is mostly lies. Unfortunately however, our race hasn’t yet summoned the wisdom to understand Jeremiah’s next observation: “Can man make for himself gods? Such are not gods!” At the moment, mankind, while rejecting the false gods of past generations, is still of a mind to make all new false gods for itself, instead of turning to the true and living God. So Yahweh says, “Therefore, behold, I will make them know, this once I will make them know My power and My might, and they shall know that My name is Yahweh.” (Jeremiah 16:19-21) It’s a vicious cycle: because man did not revere Yahweh, he never gained wisdom, but made himself a fool, incapable of knowing God. This cycle, however, will be broken during the coming Tribulation, when Yahweh will show the men in no uncertain terms who He is, and what’s in store for them if they reject His covenant. We have always had the means to perceive Yahweh’s “power and might,” but most of us have ignored the evidence, the entreaties, and the instructions. So during the last seven years of this age, God will make them know. The evidence will, for once, be unmistakable—which is not to say many won’t choose to remain “mistaken” until the bitter end.
Walking hand in hand with wisdom is mankind’s fourth fundamental need: moral courage—the determination to do what we know is right even if we can expect negative consequences. There were those who fell into this trap when Yahshua walked the earth: “Many even of the authorities believed in Him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.” (John 12:42-43) The Pharisees were the opinion-shapers of Israel. They were the ones whose way of thinking “counted” among the masses and in the halls of power, for although their numbers were small (there were never more than six thousand of them, in a nation of several million) they had convinced the populace that they—by virtue of their strict observance of the Torah and traditions of Israel—had God in their back pocket. Yahshua, of course, understood that they had missed the point of the Torah entirely—that it wasn’t a set of onerous rules and regulations designed to appease God, laws that could only be kept (more or less) through herculean effort and single minded determination, but rather a prophetic picture of what He Himself had come to accomplish—nothing less than the salvation of mankind.
Thus the Pharisees compelled folks in positions of authority to make a choice: keep your mouth shut and remain a respected member of society, honored in the synagogue and esteemed by the masses, or openly acknowledge your belief in the mission and identity of Yahshua—and suffer expulsion from the synagogue (the rough equivalent of excommunication) and the loss of prestige among the people. It was the same sort of “cover-your-butt” attitude that had originally prompted Nicodemus (a member of the Sanhedrin) to wait until nightfall to approach Yahshua with his questions. Nicodemus didn’t stay “in the closet,” but many did. It was a subtle form of idolatry. By refusing to openly acknowledge their beliefs concerning Yahshua, these leaders were stating, ever so eloquently, “You may be the Messiah, Yahweh’s emissary, the chosen One—but we hold the cultural clout of the Pharisees in even higher esteem. Anointed or not, you’re not worth the risk of losing our positions of prominence in this community.”
This ugly phenomenon is still endemic in American society—a place (one of the last) where nominal Christianity is still tolerated. If an “authority,” that is, someone who holds a position of leadership or influence in our nation, comes out publically in favor of an unabashed, unmitigated view of who Christ is—a position in line with scripture—then he or she can expect to be vehemently attacked in the mainstream media as being unbalanced, narrow-minded, and bigoted against people of other faiths. The “powers that be” in this country are happy to tolerate any belief system that honors a manmade caricature of god, a feel-good watered-down religious philosophy, or a shades of gray situational moral code. But it’s impossible to hide their obvious squirming discomfort with an unapologetic alliance with the true and living God—Yahweh and His Messiah, Yahshua. Ordinary folks are left alone, of course, for we don’t represent a threat to the status quo. We’re written off as being eccentric but harmless—as long as we have no voice, to speak of, in the world.
On the other hand, in many places in our world today, being an unapologetic public proponent of Yahweh can get you killed. Israel may have rejected Him first, but they were merely ahead of the curve. Nowadays, the whole world rejects Yahweh and His Messiah, except for small pockets of believers with an unshakable testimony but little real influence (as prophesied of the Church of Philadelphia in Revelation 3:8). This too was prophesied: “This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you [Israel], the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” (Acts 4:11-12) I am happy to report that Israel will remain ahead of the curve as the world reawakens to the reality of Yahshua’s sovereignty during the Tribulation of the Last Days. They will be the first nation to turn back to Yahweh, at last gathering the moral courage to stand for the truth they have belatedly come to believe. And they will remain steadfast throughout the Millennial reign of King Yahshua.
The fifth fundamental need of man—also linked to our volition—is empathy. Among all of God’s creatures, man alone is given the privilege of interceding with Yahweh on behalf of our fellows. In scripture, we frequently see godly men imploring Yahweh to have mercy on other people, as long as they’re not hopelessly wicked. Abraham enquired of God how few righteous men would have to be found in Sodom for God to spare the city: his empathy for his nephew Lot would have gladly extended to others in Cesspool Central, if there had been any. In the wake of Korah’s rebellion, Yahweh’s intention (as far as Moses could tell) was to destroy all of Israel. But I’m pretty sure God merely wished to elicit an expression of empathetic intercession from Moses, and He was not disappointed: “Yahweh spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying, ‘Separate yourselves from among this congregation, that I may consume them in a moment.’ And they fell on their faces and said, ‘O God, the God of the spirits of all flesh, shall one man sin, and will you be angry with all the congregation?’” (Numbers 16:20-22)
Moses knew all too well that no one in the entire congregation was without sin—beginning with himself. Yahweh therefore had a perfect right to “consume” them all in His anger—as He does us, for we have all sinned against Him. So what, precisely, was the basis for Moses’ request for mercy (for everyone except the leaders of the rebellion)? It was that Yahweh, being a loving and merciful God, had shown empathy toward us: “As a father shows compassion to his children, so Yahweh shows compassion to those who fear Him. For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust.” (Psalm 103:13-14) He had already provided His people the means of atonement and cleansing, knowing that we mortals could not maintain sinlessness for a New York minute. It would therefore have been contrary to His own nature to destroy the people before they had had a chance to avail themselves of Yahweh’s forgiveness—first by performing the symbolic sacrificial rites of the Torah, and ultimately by receiving what those rites prophesied: the offering up of God’s Messiah on our behalf. So far, so good, but why, then, weren’t Korah and his co-conspirators similarly spared, anticipating their potential repentance? It’s because they had already exercised their free will by choosing to defy Yahweh to His face. Our empathy need not extend to God’s overt enemies (by His definition, not our). But the world’s victims, the lost, the sleepers, the apathetic, the foolish, the oppressed, and those being lied to are all the proper subjects of our compassion, our intercession, and our love.
The ultimate expression of empathy, of course, is Yahweh Himself, in the form of Yahshua our Messiah. He not only fulfilled the requirements of the Torah by offering Himself up for our transgressions, in doing so He became the ultimate intercessor between God and man—the High Priest from heaven: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:15-16) Yahshua didn’t have to partake in our sin to experience our painful predicament. But He did have to subject Himself to every temptation we do, and assume our guilt—all of it.
This sacrifice made Christ the ultimate solution for the sixth universal human need: leadership. As Isaiah prophesied, “He [Yahshua] was wounded for our transgressions; He was crushed for our iniquities. Upon Him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with His stripes we are healed.” This was all necessary because “All we like sheep have gone astray. We have turned every one to his own way; and Yahweh has laid on Him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5-6) If we hadn’t been lost sheep, in desperate need of divine leadership, Yahshua (theoretically) wouldn’t have had to play the roll of “good shepherd”—you know: the one who takes his job so seriously he lays his life down to protect the sheep.
In a scene fraught with prophetic portent, we see Moses, near the end of his long life, worried about the fate of the nation he had led for the previous four decades. Having spent the forty years before that tending his father-in-law’s flocks in the wilderness of Midian, he knew what kind of trouble unsupervised sheep could get themselves into. “Moses spoke to Yahweh, saying, ‘Let Yahweh, the God of the spirits of all flesh, appoint a man over the congregation who shall go out before them and come in before them, who shall lead them out and bring them in, that the congregation of Yahweh may not be as sheep that have no shepherd.’ So Yahweh said to Moses, ‘Take Joshua the son of Nun, a man in whom is the Spirit, and lay your hand on him.’” (Numbers 27:15-18) On the surface, this is no particular surprise. Joshua had been Moses’ protégé and “chief of staff” for the previous forty years—ever since the Israelites’ defeat of Amalek on their way out of Egypt (Exodus 17). But closer examination of Moses’ request, and Yahweh’s answer, reveal a much more far-reaching truth. Moses asked God to provide a leader for Israel—the nation being symbolic of humanity in general—one who would protect them (i.e., us), guard them, and guide them. And Yahweh specified “Joshua, the son of Nun” as the right man for the job. Most folks know that “Joshua” is actually the same name invariably translated “Jesus” in the New Testament, so Yahweh’s selection of a leader for Israel was undoubtedly more significant than it appears at first glance. More on that name in a moment.
But first (since names in Hebrew are usually significant and often prophetic), what does Nun mean? The proper name is based on a Hebrew verb that means (according the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains): “to continue, always be, i.e., a state or indefinite period of time occurring that does not end.” Thus we read, “His [Yahweh’s] name shall endure forever; His name shall continue [nun] as long as the sun. And men shall be blessed in Him; All nations shall call Him blessed.” (Psalm 72:17) The concept of “Nun,” then, is that of being perpetual, continuing, eternally propagating, ever increasing—an apt description of Yahweh Himself. “Joshua” is said to be the “son” of this person.
And what of the name of God’s designated leader-shepherd—Joshua/Jesus, the one I’ve been referring to in this book as Yahshua? As you might imagine, rendering Hebrew names into English is often as much art as it is science, and as if to prove my point, there are innumerable variants in the lexicons, Bible versions, and common usage. Depending on who you consult, the name in question is alternatively rendered Yahowsha’, Yahuwshuwa’, Yahushua, Yəhowsu‘a, Yâhowshuwa`, Yâhowshu`a, Yehowshu‘a, Yehoshua, Yĕhôšûă‘, Yeshua, Yahoshua, Yeshuwa’, Y’shua, or Yahshua. Thus it’s not particularly surprising that the name has invariably been transliterated in English into something that can actually be pronounced by someone who doesn’t speak Hebrew—as Joshua or Jesus. But the “J” didn’t appear in the English language until the 17th century—even the King James Bible didn’t start rendering the Messiah’s name “Jesus” until the 1629 edition; before that, it was Iesus.
The purist (or the merely pedantic) may disagree with me, but I have settled on “Yahshua” as a good way to render the Messiah’s name, not so much because it’s the definitive version of the name (that is, more correct than any other variant, which I’m pretty sure it isn’t), but for far more practical reasons. While sounding similar to the familiar “Joshua” (and at the same time allowing us to distinguish which Yâhowshuwa` we’re talking about—there are about ten of them in scripture, not counting the Messiah) “Yahshua” incorporates (as does the original Hebrew) the self-revealed name of God: Yah—the short form of Yahweh (alternatively rendered Yahowah, Yehovah, or Yahuweh—or the relatively recent English variant, Jehovah).
To my mind, the only really important thing is what the name means. And here there is no disagreement in the reference works: Joshua / Jesus / Jeshua / Yahshua (or however you render it for English ears) means “Yahweh is salvation.” So when Yahweh selected Joshua to lead Israel, He was telling us (in so many words) that the “man He would appoint over the congregation,” His designated Leader and Shepherd, would be characterized—even personified—by what the name means: “Yahweh is Salvation.” It’s what gives Yahshua (however you choose to pronounce it) the right to lead.
If humans have a need for leadership, then it is axiomatic that we will (and must) follow someone: it’s how we’re built. It is critical, therefore, that we choose our leader carefully. Christ’s disciples did: “Passing alongside the Sea of Galilee, [Yahshua] saw Simon and Andrew the brother of Simon casting a net into the sea, for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. And going on a little farther, He saw James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, who were in their boat mending the nets. And immediately He called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired servants and followed Him.” (Mark 1:16-20) Yahshua wasn’t a stranger to these men. They had all heard John the Baptist declaring Him to be “the lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” They had seen (or at least heard about) the baptism of Yahshua, when the Spirit of God had descended upon Him in the form of a dove—the very sign John had been told to expect—and Yahweh Himself had audibly voiced His approval from the heavens. In the person of Yahshua of Nazareth, the disciples found the leader they had been seeking, and much more. He met all of the needs that had arisen in light of mankind’s signature characteristic—volition: Yahshua provided divine instruction, showed us how to obtain forgiveness, imparted godly wisdom, demonstrated moral courage, and personified the ultimate expression of empathy—that of Almighty God for fallen man.
There was but one fundamental human need left to be met: the seventh—relationship. Humans are rare (if not unique) among God’s creatures in this respect. We are designed to mate for life. The human gestation period is unusually long, and both parents are personally involved in the enterprise. We expend an extraordinary amount of time and resources raising our young, and even when they’re all grown up, they’re still considered family members until someone dies. The death of a family member (though inevitable) is considered a tragedy, an event for which mourning is appropriate, even necessary.
All of this is a product of the way we’re built—a biological metaphor of Yahweh’s would-be relationship with us, either as individual children or as a beloved bride. John saw it in these terms in his apocalyptic vision: “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, ‘Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give Him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready. It was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure’—for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, ‘Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.’ And he said to me, ‘These are the true words of God.’" (Revelation 19:6-9) The simile of the bride is seen in slightly different terms a bit later: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be His people, and God himself will be with them as their God.’” (Revelation 21:1-3) Don’t let the shifting imagery throw you. In God’s eyes (I suspect) the city—the New Jerusalem—is equivalent to the redeemed people who dwell there. We are His beloved bride, His wife, the object of His affection, the focus of His attention.
But only if we choose to be. Here too, volition—the exercise of our free will—plays a central role. The God of love is pursuing us as an ardent suitor, but it is our privilege, our right, to rebuff His advances if we choose to—to consider Him not a suitor, but a stalker. If we tell Him to “get lost” often enough, He will stop asking, stop calling, stop sending flowers and candy. That will leave us with two choices, neither of them pretty. We can either remain unattached for the rest of our short, miserable lives, finally dying alone, unattached, and unmourned, or we can hook up with the local “bad boy,” that coarse, crass, abusive hoodlum our mother warned us about.
That’s the thing about choice. Just because we humans have been given the ability and privilege to make up our own minds, it doesn’t follow that all of the options before us are equally beneficial. Choose wisely./strong