2.8 Man & God: Promise vs. Perfection
Volume 2: Studies in Contrast—Chapter 8
Man & God: Promise vs. Perfection
On the surface, contrasting man and God would seem a fool’s errand. Anyone who’s spiritually attuned knows intuitively that God is greater than man in every way—and not just superior, but infinitely so. We’re not comparing apples to oranges here; it’s more like the Milky Way galaxy versus a Fourth of July sparkler: the only reason man might even seem comparable to God is the vast difference in their apparent proximity.
And yet, man does, on occasion, worship man—which should at least make us aware that there’s a systemic misconception that needs to be addressed. Worse, there have been men throughout history, from Nimrod to Nero, from Herod to Hitler, who have demanded the worship of others , as if they were God—going so far as to seize for themselves Yahweh’s prerogatives over life and death.
I’m not talking about silliness like lionizing our political candidates, or calling some musician a “rock god,” however talented an individual he might be. (Aging guitarists like me can remember the ridiculous “Clapton is god” hype of decades past, but I imagine he was more comfortable with the self-deprecating moniker “Slowhand.”) No, I’m talking about arrogance like this: “They asked for peace, because their country depended on the king’s country for food. On an appointed day Herod put on his royal robes, took his seat upon the throne, and delivered an oration to them. And the people were shouting, ‘The voice of a god, and not of a man!’” The reference is to Herod Agrippa I, grandson of the Herod “the Great” who reigned at the time of Christ’s birth (not to be confused with Herod Antipas, the tetrarch who presided over Yahshua’s execution). Herod Agrippa wasn’t really even a “king” in the formal sense, since the real temporal ruler was ultimately the emperor of Rome. Think of him as upper-middle management in the corporate hierarchy of the empire, like the CEO of a small subsidiary company. “Immediately an angel of the Lord struck him down, because he did not give God the glory, and he was eaten by worms and breathed his last.” (Acts 12:20-23) According to Josephus, Herod was struck down in the middle of his oration (in 44 AD), lingering in agony for five days before proving (by his death) that he was most definitely not a god.
Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon (somebody who could be—and was—rightly referred to as a “king of kings”) might have been tempted to fancy himself a “god” among men. But he had the rare privilege of having among his foreign captives a devout young Israelite prince named Daniel, who taught the king in unmistakable terms what the real God, Yahweh, was like. In one of the most unlikely political dramas of the age, Nebuchadnezzar completely lost his mind for seven long years, yet through the diplomatic skill of Daniel and others, he was able to return to his throne when his senses returned. Nebuchadnezzar had been singled out by Yahweh to be taught the ultimate lesson in humility.
This is his testimony: “At the end of the days I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High, and praised and honored Him who lives forever, for His dominion is an everlasting dominion, and His kingdom endures from generation to generation. All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing, and He does according to His will among the host of heaven and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay His hand or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’” Nebuchadnezzar arguably wielded more personal power than any other monarch who ever lived, before or since. In spite of this (or more likely, because of it) he was given the privilege of being humbled before God and living to tell the tale. “At the same time my reason returned to me, and for the glory of my kingdom, my majesty and splendor returned to me. My counselors and my lords sought me, and I was established in my kingdom, and still more greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are right and His ways are just; and those who walk in pride He is able to humble.” (Daniel 4:32-37) Perhaps more clearly than any other man in history, he was allowed to experience the difference between the most exalted of men and the living God.
Nebuchadnezzar’s “temporary political death” may be one of the oddest Messianic prophecies in the Bible. (Or I may be seeing something that just isn’t there—I’ll let you decide.) I see distinct parallels between Nebuchadnezzar and Yahshua. The seven-year madness of Nebuchadnezzar seems analogous to the humbling of the Son of God as He came to walk among us as a man. The fall of Nebuchadnezzar into insanity is nothing compared to what the Messiah relinquished on our behalf, of course, but at least it paints a picture.
What happened during the “humbling experience?” The king’s servants honored him as if in absentia, refusing to place someone else on his throne and running his kingdom as if they expected him back at any time. Is that not how we’re instructed to conduct Yahshua’s affairs in His absence? And what transpired after the king returned? The “glory, majesty, and splendor” that were rightfully his were rendered in even greater measure unto him by the same “counselors and lords” who had waited so faithfully for his return. And in the end, God was honored and glorified above all. Is this not a revealing picture of the impending return of King Yahshua? Of course, one may argue that considering the general lack of respect He received, Yahshua was “crazy” to come at all. But no one will question His sanity—or His right to rule—when He returns.
Anthropologists and sociologists, for all their education and research, can’t for the life of them seem to be able to tell the difference between God and religion. James Lynne opines, “We invented God so we could use him as a tool to dominate and control others, so that we could have hope of more than the here and now, and so that we could rationalize what we do not comprehend in life. Sociologically we can trace the god-concept to early man and then follow the god thread into the present. Having a God to believe in validates the human need to feel there is more to our existence than only the present. We invented god out of our inability to understand the complexity of the universe.” Sorry, James: while all of those things may be true of religion, none of them are true of God Himself.
I, on the other hand, would describe the dichotomy between creator and creature this way: God invented man who, finding himself endowed with the gift of free will, chose to turn his back on his Creator—only to discover that his rebellion had left a gaping spiritual chasm in his soul, a vacuum (as Pascal would put it) that only God could fill. So man invented religion in a lame attempt to reconnect with the God whom he had betrayed. While religion may work reasonably well as a tool with which to “dominate and control others,” while it helps us to “rationalize what we do not comprehend,” and serves to “validate the human need to feel that there’s more to our existence” than what we see before us, it actually impedes our quest for reconciliation with our Maker, for it serves as a psychological substitute for the god it claims to represent—whoever or whatever that god is. In other words, religion itself is a counterfeit deity.
At its core (that is, stripped of its cultural baggage), religion isn’t a declaration that you’ve chosen to worship one god instead of another. Rather, it’s the selection of a method of approaching the divine entity with which your empty soul is begging to be filled. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not saying that the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, and the Secular Materialist all worship the same God that Christians and Jews do (i.e., Yahweh), for they do not. I’m saying that they are all responding to the same impetus. Everyone knows there’s something missing within them; everyone shares a longing, however nebulous and ill defined, for our lost and forgotten Source, our vaguely perceived Destiny. It’s like the old Kevin Costner movie Waterworld: even though nobody had ever seen “Dry Land,” they all knew it must exist because they were equipped with feet, not fins. In our unguarded moments, we all crave God because He designed us to share a relationship with Him. The Psalmist puts it like this: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for You, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. When shall I come and appear before God?” (Psalm 42:1-2) The problem with religion is that you could end up trying to quench that thirst with sea water—or alcohol. Only the real God—Yahweh—will satisfy your craving and fill your longing; anything else will only add to your problem.
After survival and procreation, slaking our thirst for God is one of the strongest instincts universal to man. But if we don’t know that “God” is Yahweh, the deity revealed in the Bible, we’ll be apt to try to fill the void with whatever’s at hand: we’ll either invent a religion around what we imagine god ought to be like (which, for some strange reason, invariably looks something like the worst sort of man) or we’ll settle for substitutes: pleasures and pursuits, heroes and habits, distractions and deceptions, toys and traditions. None of it satisfies because none of it addresses the way God built us: “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) This may explain why man sometimes mistakes himself for God: we are made in God’s “image.” Since God is spirit, however, this can’t refer to our physical form. Rather, it describes certain similarities between God’s nature and man’s that He built into our species. What we sometimes miss is that these things not only explain how we’re “like God.” They also explain what God is like.
There are three factors listed here, three things that are specific clues to God’s nature that we humans are designed to reflect. First, God is creative. He makes stuff out of nothing. He has ideas and brings them to fruition. He builds, invents, directs, and improves. And mankind is designed to follow in these footsteps, not that all of us do. God’s creative nature may seem obvious until we consider the alternative. Our adversary, Satan, has none of these characteristics. His assigned function was to follow orders, so all he knows is submission. He doesn’t have a creative bone in his body, so his envy drives him to copy, to counterfeit what has been done by Yahweh (or even by His “creative creation,” us), or failing that, to destroy what has been built by God and men. Thus by examining the works of people claiming to follow their god, we can determine what “god” they’re following. If they’re creative, inventive, and industrious, Yahweh’s influence is being demonstrated. But if all they seem to be able to achieve is to force others to submit, to destroy, steal, or copy what others have built, and to seize and squander whatever resources they find, then Satan’s agenda is in evidence.
The second attribute of God reflected in the design of man is “dominion” over the remainder of the created world—specifically, its living component. Authority naturally “rolls downhill,” that is, it is always derived from a higher source, traceable all the way back to God. (It can be usurped, of course, but only temporarily. In the end, all authority in heaven and on earth will rest upon the shoulders of Yahshua the Messiah-King—see Matthew 28:18 and Isaiah 9:6.) The Hebrew verb used in Genesis 1:26, translated “have dominion,” is radah, which (according the Dictionary of Biblical Languages with Semantic Domains) means, “to rule over, dominate, direct, lead, control, subdue, i.e., manage or govern an entity, people, or government with considerable or forceful authority.” I find it telling that the same verb means, “to scoop out and hold in one’s hands,” (like Sampson’s honey in Judges 14:9). This places the emphasis of radah on management, not domination. In other words, you’re responsible for the well-being of whatever you rule over—in man’s case, the entire biosphere (no pressure or anything, guys). Note that man was not given dominion over man, but only over the animals. Man himself remained under the radah-authority of Yahweh.
The third attribute listed may come as a bit of an epiphany. It says, “Male and female He created them.” We’ve previously discussed the “gender roles” of Yahweh and His Holy Spirit, and this reinforces what I observed there: Yahweh can’t be strictly defined by gender. “He” exhibits both “male” and “female” attributes, and these are reflected in the way He built us—male and female. Yahweh is generally seen in His male persona—father, provider, protector, savior (when it comes to that) and ultimate authority, while His Holy Spirit is manifested through attributes that stress God’s maternal side—life giver, comforter, confronter, convicter, and fierce defender. One side looks outward, the other, inward. You know how it works: Father is the one who (traditionally, at least) goes out and does battle with the world on behalf of the family; Mom, on the other hand, is in our hearts and in our heads, knowing even before we do when we’ve screwed up. (How does she do that, anyway?) It’s no accident that Yahweh commands us to honor both our fathers and our mothers (Exodus 20:12): they both teach us about God’s nature and His relationship with mankind. Religions that make women second class citizens (Islam springs immediately to mind, but there are others) are reflecting Satan’s desire to obfuscate Yahweh’s pattern and plan. Both men and women are created in the image of God—and both sexes are designed to show us who God is.
God’s creation of mankind, as well as His calling us out of the world, is characterized in scripture as a “birth,” of sorts. Chastising Israel, Moses reminds them, “You were unmindful of the Rock that bore you, and you forgot the God who gave you birth.” (Deuteronomy 32:18) The word for “bore you” (yalad) is the all-purpose Hebrew word for childbirth, used, if you’ll recall, of father, mother, and even the midwife, a concept linked (ever since the fall) to physical distress. In other words, Yahweh brought us forth, though our unwillingness to heed His word causes Him pain. As a human parent, I can relate to that: our children don’t always meet our hopes, or even our expectations. The occasional disappointment and frustration we feel with our kids are tempered with joy and pride (or is that relief?) when they do well, but there are no guarantees.
One thing I know human children don’t comprehend is the sheer amount of “junk” their parents endure just so their kids can have a life—the pain, expense, sacrifice, planning, and risk. (Adopting kids, as my wife and I have done, at least forces you to go into it with your eyes open.) Don’t get me wrong: it’s worth every penny, every sleepless night, every drop of blood, sweat, and tears. But from decorating the nursery to paying for college, there are ramifications to “bearing children” (yalad) that most kids never think twice about—until they have children of their own, that is.
We should not be surprised, then, to find that God (“…who gave you birth”) invested far more in us than we normally acknowledge. He says, “I made the earth and created man on it…. For thus says Yahweh, who created the heavens (He is God!), who formed the earth and made it (He established it; He did not create it empty, He formed it to be inhabited!): ‘I am Yahweh, and there is no other.’” (Isaiah 45:12, 18) Before He created us, God had to create a world for us to live in—an entire universe, in fact. When’s the last time you thanked Him for doing that? Think about it: wouldn’t you just love to sit your kids down and explain to them everything you’ve done on their behalf—explain that they aren’t merely the semi-accidental result of a moment of shared passion sometime in their distant past, but rather the treasured end product of their parents’ combined love, commitment, and optimism? Yes, there was pleasure, but also sacrifice, expense, and hard work. If they really understood all that it took to give them a life, they might act a bit differently; they might not take so much for granted—they might actually honor their father and mother. So is it really so hard for us to understand that our Father, Yahweh, wants us to understand the same sorts of things about Him? Would we behave as we do if we really understood the incredible lengths to which God went in order to see us walking before Him? Whatever we feel about our kids, God feels about us—only more so. And if that thought terrifies you, then maybe you’re beginning to see why “The fear of Yahweh is the beginning of wisdom.”
When I was a young packaging designer, I had a life-changing epiphany one day. After months of sparring with sales people and their clients over what I should have done, it occurred to me that my job was simply to be a competent designer; it was not my job to read minds. If they required something specific and unexpected (or merely stupid), they’d have to tell me about it. This took a tremendous burden off my shoulders, and strangely enough, it made me a better designer, for I began making fewer assumptions (read: guesses) and started asking tougher questions before I began each project. I bring it up now because there’s a corollary in the relationship between God and man: He does not demand that we have abilities that He Himself didn’t give us.
I’m not discounting the responsibilities implied by free will, of course, but you can’t choose to do the impossible. I can elect to go and visit my kids in Florida; I cannot choose to fly to the moon on gossamer wings. God asks nothing of us that’s beyond our ability—even though it may be beyond our current state of faith and trust. When recruiting Moses at the burning bush, Yahweh (showing considerably more patience that we might have) “discussed” the matter with the man He had chosen for the task of liberating Israel before he was even born. Moses tried to “beg off,” claiming (with ample reason, no doubt) that he couldn’t cut it as a public speaker. Yahweh countered, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, Yahweh?” (Exodus 4:11) In other words, God was telling Him, What I’ve given you is adequate for the task I’ve asked you to do. Okay, so you’ve got a speech impediment. You’ve also got a brother who speaks quite well, so we’ll count him among your assets. My grace is sufficient for you. That’s a lesson we all need to learn.
Of course, compared to the Living God, we can’t do anything significant. Without Yahweh’s power, Moses—even with brother Aaron as his wing man—couldn’t have made a dent in Pharaoh’s resolve to keep his slaves in bondage. And although God could have freed Israel in a heartbeat without resorting to such flawed and clumsy human representation, He chose not to. Like a doting father letting his young sons “help” with the chores, or a loving mother encouraging her little girls to “assist” in the kitchen, Yahweh wants us to participate, even though He could get things done a lot more efficiently without us. In His eyes, our participation is the whole point. God doesn’t need our help, but He does want our involvement: “Yahweh looks down from heaven; He sees all the children of man. From where He sits enthroned He looks out on all the inhabitants of the earth, He who fashions the hearts of them all and observes all their deeds.” (Psalm 33:13-15) “Fashioning the hearts of men” may sound suspiciously like “controlling their desires,” but it’s not like that at all. Having been “made in the image of God,” we possess the privilege of choice—an essential component in the capacity for love. That’s how are hearts are fashioned—with the ability to choose our own destinies.
A choice is like a promise: it’s a conscious declaration of which path one has decided to follow. Men however, being finite and fallible, change their minds—we make “course corrections”—throughout life. God expects us to do so. But since Yahweh is infinite and immutable, what He chooses stays chosen: “God is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind. Has He said, and will He not do it? Or has He spoken, and will He not fulfill it?” (Numbers 23:19) Yahweh isn’t ever surprised at how things turned out, so there’s no reason for Him to change His mind. Unlike us, He has no use for regret or remorse. “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)
So what are we to make of passages like this? “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel. If at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, and if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will relent of the disaster that I intended to do to it. And if at any time I declare concerning a nation or a kingdom that I will build and plant it, and if it does evil in My sight, not listening to My voice, then I will relent of the good that I had intended to do to it.” (Jeremiah 18:6-10) At its core, this is one of the most amazing statements concerning God’s relationship with man in the entire Bible. As we have seen, Yahweh “is not man, that He should lie, or a son of man, that He should change His mind.” But here His stated intention is to modify His actions based upon whatever “course corrections” we make—for better or worse. In other words, we get to call the shots concerning the destiny of our own civilization. That’s an awesome amount of power to hold in our hands. As with the helm of a ship, we (in a sense) control something huge (the wrath or mercy of God) through something relatively insignificant—our own volition. We can either point the ship toward its intended destination, or steer it toward the rocks.
Perhaps the best example of this principle is Yahweh’s treatment of Nineveh—capital of the Assyrian empire—at the time of the prophet Jonah (about 760 BC). Their repentance (even though the grumpy prophet didn’t bother mentioning that such a thing might avert the looming disaster) bought the city another hundred years of peace. In the same way, Israel’s eventual repentance and acceptance of their Messiah—prophesied hundreds of times in scripture—will precipitate the most astonishing incidence of national restoration the world has ever seen. But alas, it hasn’t happened yet.
It’s important to note that both the “destruction and disaster” and the “building and planting” God has promised are national phenomena, first Israel’s, but also applying to other nations or kingdoms. (Pay attention, America.) We are not talking about individual spiritual destinies here, but corporate and temporal ones. When dealing with individuals, Yahweh’s position never changes, for the simple reason that individual salvation is defined not by our behavior (though that’s certainly an indicator of our spiritual condition) but by the presence of God’s life—His Spirit—within the soul of each believer, something that once given, is never taken away. As Yahshua said, “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born [from above].’” (John 3:5-7) Or put more bluntly, “Whoever has the Son has life; whoever does not have the Son of God does not have life.” (I John 5:12) A nation’s “lifespan” is negotiable with God; a person’s is not.
In the Jeremiah passage above, we read, “Behold, like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in My hand, O house of Israel.” Isaiah too reports, “But now, O Yahweh, You are our Father; we are the clay, and You are our potter. We are all the work of Your hand.” (Isaiah 64:8) The point is that as the potter forms his creations in clay, it is his prerogative alone to destroy a flawed piece, and then reform it—the clay doesn’t get a vote. God is like the potter in this respect (the difference being that He had to make his own “clay” out of nothing). Yahweh reserves the right to squash any nation back into a shapeless lump and start all over again with it, if in His estimation it can’t be salvaged. Indeed, Isaiah goes on to bemoan Israel’s state: “Be not so terribly angry, O Yahweh, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, please look, we are all Your people. Your holy cities have become a wilderness; Zion has become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised You, has been burned by fire, and all our pleasant places have become ruins. Will You restrain yourself at these things, O Yahweh? Will You keep silent, and afflict us so terribly?” (Isaiah 64:9-12) Huh? These words were written at least a hundred years before Babylon’s armies sacked Jerusalem and destroyed Solomon’s temple. But the clay on the wheel was already starting to wobble and fold: it was only a matter of time before Yahweh would have to “relent of the good that [He] had intended to do to it.”
It never ceases to amaze me how men treat God with such flippant familiarity. They’re perfectly willing to admit his superiority, of course, but their conception of scale is totally off base. Some of us behave as if we thought God was someone with whom we can deal mano a mano. We act as if, though He’s admittedly more powerful, His strength (compared to ours) is at least somewhere in the same order of magnitude. No, it’s not! Not even close. And it’s not just a question of who’s in charge (as in the metaphor of the potter and the clay). It’s a matter of an almost incomprehensible disparity in comparative glory. Man is alive; God is life itself. Man’s glory is derived; God’s is intrinsic. Man reasons, calculates, and makes progress; God’s wisdom is eternal, His understanding unfathomable. Man assembles; God creates. Man aspires; God condescends. Man occasionally does things of which he might be proud; God doesn’t even have peers to whom He might boast. The contrast between God and man is revealed in differences not of degree, but of kind.
Human language (not to mention our limited powers of perception) prevents us from adequately conveying the vast discrepancy between the awesomeness of Yahweh and our own mortal condition. David gave it a pretty good shot, though: “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) That’s the question, isn’t it: “What is man that You are mindful of him?” If it were not for the fact that God created us specifically for the purpose of sharing fellowship with Him—enjoying the same kind of close familial relationship we experience in miniature through our parents, children, siblings and spouses—we would be so far beneath God, we would not even be able to perceive His existence. It would be like a virus contemplating California—inconceivable. And yet, we not only perceive His presence, we underestimate it.
David has explained the reason why we find it so hard to comprehend the extent of the dichotomy between Yahweh’s greatness and our own: God has elevated us in wisdom and ability far above the rest of his living creation, placing us in charge of every living thing He put on this planet (with the exception of other men, as we saw in Genesis 1:26). It helps to be reminded that we aren’t number one in the universe; we aren’t even number two. Though “crowned with glory and honor,” man must take a distant back seat not only to God, but also to the angelic spirit messengers He created to serve Him. It kind of reminds me of the state of Texas: it used to be the undisputed biggest state in the Union, and they were insufferably proud of it. But in 1959, Alaska became the 49th state, and the mortified Texans were told to shut up and stop complaining or they’d split Alaska in two and make Texas the third largest state!
We humans have a lot to be thankful for, but little to boast of. All we are and all we have we owe to our Creator. “Know that Yahweh, He is God. It is He who has made us, and not we ourselves; We are His people and the sheep of His pasture. Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. Be thankful to Him, and bless His name. For Yahweh is good. His mercy is everlasting, and His truth endures to all generations.” (Psalm 100:3-5) The only reason we are allowed to get this close to our matchless Creator is that He wants it this way. There is no other explanation.
To compare man to God is of necessity to compare the temporary to the permanent. Yes, we are built in the image of God, so thoughts of “forever” are part of our nature: “He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11) You don’t have to believe the Bible to yearn for heaven (or dread hell, for that matter). The dream of an afterlife is endemic in humanity, even (oddly enough) among people who don’t believe in God. But as far as our universal experience is concerned, people don’t last forever. They’re born, they live, and then they die. The only reason we can even conceive of a life beyond this one is that God has—one way or another—told us about it. He has put eternity into our hearts.
The Psalmist spells it out: “‘O my God,’ I say, ‘take me not away in the midst of my days—You whose years endure throughout all generations!’ Of old you laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You will remain; they will all wear out like a garment. You will change them like a robe, and they will pass away, but You are the same, and Your years have no end.” (Psalm 102:24-27) Even the “permanent” bits of the physical creation—the heavens and the earth—are vulnerable to the insidious ravages of the Second Law of Thermodynamics, but God is not. The Psalmist’s tacit prayer, then, is that we frail believers might be allowed to personally participate in Yahweh’s eternal nature.
In the very next Psalm, David affirms that this is not only possible, it’s actually Yahweh’s plan. He begins by telling us what we already knew: “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 about as far as our common mortal experience takes us. We’re here today and gone tomorrow. “But the steadfast love of Yahweh is from everlasting 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 103:15-18) If His love extends from “everlasting to everlasting,” then the recipients of that love must logically be rendered “everlasting” as well. This requires that the permanent nature of Yahweh somehow be bestowed upon man. But not to all men. Three “conditions” for everlasting status are listed (all of which pretty much indicate the same thing).
First, the recipients of Yahweh’s everlasting love “fear” Him. The Hebrew word is yare: to fear, revere, respect, venerate, or stand in awe of Him. We tend to stress the “reverence” aspect of yare today (as perhaps we should, since it is also true that “perfect love casts out fear”), but we should not neglect the “being afraid” side of this. Let’s get something straight. Pop theology notwithstanding, God is not “the man upstairs,” our “friend in high places,” or our “co-pilot.” Our relationship is not that of equals, but more like a toddler with his father. Yes, Papa loves us with all His heart, but He’s not afraid to spank us when we get out of line—if He deems that a little “pain” in our lives will encourage us to learn a valuable lesson. Does He have the power to utterly destroy us? Absolutely—so much so that He has to go to extraordinary lengths just to shield us from His own awesome glory. Every form through which Yahweh has presented Himself in our collective human experience is a radically diminished manifestation of the One True God. This purposeful restraint is the only thing preventing our untimely demise. Fear? If the raw power wielded by the One who can speak galaxies into existence doesn’t give you pause, there’s something wrong with you.
The second requisite condition for everlasting life is “keeping Yahweh’s covenant.” A perceptive student of scripture might well ask, “Which covenant?” There are many of them, made by God to different men at different times, promising different things under different conditions. Some were unilateral—Yahweh promising to do something, with no “strings attached.” In His covenant with Noah for example, God promised never again to destroy the earth with a flood, and He provided the rainbow as a sign to ratify His word (Genesis 9). Sometimes there were responsibilities required of the recipient of the covenant. Thus Yahweh’s covenant with Abraham, giving His descendants the Promised Land in perpetuity, was to be sealed with the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17). In the same way, the Mosaic covenant was confirmed through the keeping of the Sabbath (see Exodus 31:16). In the end, however, none of these individual covenants stands on its own. Properly understood, they are all but components of one sweeping promise on God’s part—an everlasting covenant of grace, in which Yahweh pledges to redeem and restore anyone who turns to Him in faith, trusting in Him, not their own works, for their salvation. (It’s no coincidence that the Savior’s name, Yahshua, means “Yahweh is Salvation.”)
The third stated condition for receiving “everlasting” status is parallel to the second: it’s “remembering to do God’s commandments.” I realize that this sounds like works-based salvation, but it’s not. These “commandments” (Hebrew piqudim—literally: precepts, directions, regulations—the responsibilities that God places upon His people) are spelled out in the Torah. The “Law of Moses” is a body of instruction that nobody has ever been able to flawlessly observe. But having studied it for years (see my resulting tome on the subject: The Owner’s Manual) I can assure you that everything Yahweh told Israel to do in the Torah was symbolic in some way of the coming Messiah—God’s fulfillment of His end of the covenant of grace of which I spoke. Everything—the sacrifices, the design of the tabernacle, the appointed holy days, the priesthood and Levitical order, civil and criminal jurisprudence, even the dietary and cleanliness rules—everything is prophetic, one way or another, of Yahweh’s solution to the problem, to wit: that we have, through our sin, separated ourselves from the God who made us and loves us.
The nature of both the problem and the solution is identified by Isaiah: “Behold, Yahweh’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or His ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.” (Isaiah 59:1-2) Our shortcomings are not “too much” for Yahweh to deal with. The only thing that curtails His power to save us is the restriction implied by His primary gift to man: free will. It was our choice to rebel; it is also our choice to repent. Everybody seems to like the idea of eternal life, but the fact is, that life is only possible through being assimilated into the One who lives forever. Eternity without God is an oxymoron.
Yahweh’s offer of grace stands, whether or not we choose to receive it. “I Yahweh do not change; therefore you, O children of Jacob, are not consumed.” Yahweh had promised Abraham that his descendants would be the beneficiaries of an “everlasting covenant” (as it’s called in Genesis 17:7). So destroying Israel for its sins was not an option, for God keeps His word. It’s worth noting, however, that God never made this kind of everlasting promise to any other nation. The covenant is there to demonstrate Yahweh’s faithfulness, not Israel’s worthiness. I love Israel, but let’s face it: spiritually, they’re about as rebellious a nation as they come. If Yahweh can keep His promises to Israel, He can keep His promises to anybody. “From the days of your fathers you have turned aside from my statutes and have not kept them. Return to me, and I will return to you, says Yahweh of hosts.” (Malachi 3:6-7) These “statutes,” as I said, were a signpost that pointed toward Christ. He was their fulfillment, the personification of their prophetic promise. Therefore, acknowledging Yahshua as the Messiah is the only possible way to “keep” God’s Law. And “keeping” the precepts of God—honoring His covenant—is, as we read in Psalm 103, the only possible way to enjoy “The steadfast love of Yahweh…from everlasting to everlasting.”
The bottom line: our eternal prospects are entirely dependent upon our relationship with Yahweh, since our existence is fleeting and ephemeral without such a relationship. “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) The irony is that without a living relationship with our eternal God, being as temporary as “a passing shadow” can only be construed as the most tender of mercies. I mean, why would anyone want to live forever separated from Yahweh’s love?
And given the truth of the saying, “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God,’” (Psalm 14:1) why would any rational person, upon acknowledging the role of God as Creator, stop there? It seems to me, the fool might also say, “Thanks for the assist, Lord. But now that I’m here, I don’t need You any more.” Really? “Have you not known? Have you not heard? Yahweh is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; His understanding is unsearchable.” There’s more to creation than just making stuff out of nothing, as impressive as that may be. “He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might He increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for Yahweh shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.” (Isaiah 40:28-31) The “benefits” of a familial relationship with Yahweh aren’t restricted to the afterlife. They begin the moment we’re born—born again into His Spirit, that is. In this life, in our mortal existence, we can achieve whatever our God asks of us, even if it’s “impossible.” The power we use is His; the stamina we need to see the job through comes from Him. The understanding and insight we need for God’s work comes from Him; all the resources we need are drawn from Yahweh’s vast treasury.
You can kid yourself, of course: you can try to do God’s work in your own strength (and, dare I say, for your own glory). But why would you want to? You’d be much more productive (and have much more fun) if you serve God on God’s terms—if you “wait for Yahweh.” I picture the difference this way: you can be a three-year-old trying to “mow” forty acres of hay on your hands and knees with a pair of blunt scissors. Or you can sit in Papa’s lap up on that big ’ol John Deere tractor, pretending to steer and giggling yourself silly. And getting the job done. It’s your choice.
Have you ever heard some misguided soul say, “I’d like to give God a piece of my mind,” as if Yahweh would surely solve all this person’s problems, if only He weren’t so dimwitted or mean-spirited? This kind of irate outburst betrays an astonishing degree of arrogance, not to mention a fundamental misperception of who God is and what our relationship with Him is supposed to be like. Yahweh is not our heavenly “rich uncle,” some kind of celestial Santa Claus, or a magical genie poised to grant us three wishes, any more than He’s a cold, distant, disinterested deity who’s got nothing better to do than angrily condemn us for being human. Such people think a “God of love” ought to bail them out of jail, cover their gambling losses, and turn a blind eye toward their crimes and misdemeanors. They think God should keep them on the payroll just because they show up at the jobsite, or give them an “A” for merely attending class. But a God who actually cares about us will do none of those things. He will, rather, encourage us to improve, to fulfill our potential: Yahweh wants to teach us.
Scripture makes it quite clear that we are not in a position to impart any information to Yahweh. Paul asks (rhetorically, of course): “Who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” (I Corinthians 2:16) As does Isaiah: “Who has measured the Spirit of Yahweh, or what man shows Him his counsel? Whom did He consult, and who made Him understand? Who taught Him the path of justice, and taught Him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?” (Isaiah 40:13-14) The unstated answer is, “Nobody did, because nobody can.” On the contrary, God measures us; He provides His counsel to illuminate us. He teaches us in the paths of justice, and shows us the way of knowledge and understanding. We must consult Him: He doesn’t need our opinions, even though He apparently loves to hear the sound of our voices.
The hypothetical absentee god of popular myth isn’t interested in our personal welfare, but the God of the Bible is—Yahweh is up to His neck (so to speak) in our affairs. He’s fully involved in this project called “man,” expending untold resources, taking unprecedented risks, and exhibiting a degree of emotional investment that we can’t even imagine. If we fail, I’m pretty sure Yahweh takes it personally. David informs us, “Yahweh works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known His ways to Moses, His acts to the people of Israel.” These aren’t two independent thoughts. There’s a cause and effect relationship: making His ways known to us is how God “works righteousness,” and the moment His justice is forsaken, we find ourselves oppressed. “Yahweh is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will He keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is His steadfast love toward those who fear Him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.” (Psalm 103:6-12)
A God of justice and righteousness has (by definition) inflexible standards of holiness and behavior. A God of mercy and love has (by definition) a burning desire to forgive. Yahweh is both things, as contradictory as that might sound. How does He fulfill both of these seemingly mutually exclusive character traits? How does He “remove our transgressions” far from us? Someone must be repaid “according to our iniquities.” Someone must be “dealt with according to our sins.” Normally, that would be us—the ones who actually broke God’s law. But Yahweh has arranged to pay the fines for us, if we’ll let Him.
This isn’t as ludicrous a concept as it sounds; it actually happens all the time. One rainy afternoon a while back, my youngest son had a minor solo automobile accident, and was subsequently “blessed” with a traffic ticket. Since he’s a stone-broke college student, I had a choice: let him suffer the consequences of his mistake, or get his car fixed myself and pay the ticket for him. Like Yahweh, I offered to pay for everything, so he could continue his studies. But my son also had a choice to make: he could have said, “Thanks, but no thanks, Pop. This was my fault, so I’m going to fix it myself. I’ll get a job within walking distance of the house, take a year off my studies, and make everything right.” While that may sound like the unselfish thing to do, it wouldn’t have achieved what his mother and I really wanted for him: to continue his education (while at the same time learning a valuable lesson about driving too fast on rain-slick roads). While we all wished that he had driven more carefully and avoided the accident, once it was done, it was done: we all had choices to make. My son (whose agenda aligned with mine in this case) gratefully accepted my help. Smart lad. As painful as it was for me to “fix” his self-imposed problem, we were both glad I did.
My question is this: if the solution was as obvious as this for a minor fender-bender, why is there such angst over the parallel (though infinitely more significant) problem of “paying” for our sins? The principle is identical: our Father didn’t want us to sin in the first place, though now that we have, He earnestly hopes that we’ll “go, and sin no more.” But because He loves us, because He’s a God of mercy as well as a God of justice, He paid everything that was required to get us back on the road of life. So David concludes, “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) Our proper response should be (1) undying gratitude, (2) a reinforced sense of godly fear, (3) the resolve to learn our lesson—to improve where we failed in the past, and (4) a determination to forgive others as we have been forgiven.
Compassion and forgiveness can only be logically bestowed by the greater upon the lesser, just as justice must be served by the stronger upon the weaker, and knowledge is taught by the master to the neophyte. Any way we slice it, by any measure, God is in the position of supremacy: “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, declares Yahweh. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9) Words fail us, of course. As we saw previously, the comparison is not that of degree, but of kind. It’s not just that Yahweh is “more worthy” than we are; it’s that His worthiness is of a different and greater sort entirely. He plays a different game, in a different league, under infinitely tougher rules. It’s not just the first day of T-ball season versus the last game of the World Series—the dichotomy is immeasurably greater than that. And we’re not merely speaking of temporal matters, either. Yahweh (being the Creator-Spirit) is fundamentally superior in the spiritual realm as well: “Can a mortal be more righteous than God? Can a man be more pure than his Maker?” (Job 4:17)
Yahshua Himself showed us where this line of reasoning leads: “When He had washed [His disciples’] feet and put on His outer garments and resumed His place, He said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’” (John 13:12-17) Washing someone’s feet in that society was considered the lowliest of tasks, the work of slaves. One might have expected God incarnate (and note that Yahshua’s divine credentials were well established by this time) to insist on being shown honor and deference by the “little people.” But Christ, exercising God’s prerogative to teach, demonstrated the counterintuitive principle that only by humbling oneself in service does one become great in the Kingdom of God.
The ultimate act of humility, of course, would be for an innocent man to die willingly to cover the sins of a guilty one—but that’s a path down which we (being guilty ourselves) would not be able to follow. So foot washing was used as an example of the kind of thing we should do on behalf of others—humbling ourselves in whatever way and to whatever degree it would take to make the love of God in our lives evident to a lost world. Note that humility doesn’t appear in a vacuum—it’s not of much use as an abstract concept. It must manifest itself in service, and not just in “glorious” modes of service (like “serving” as a senator, judge, or pastor), but in doing whatever is needful, however menial or demeaning that may seem to be.
One of the most oft-recurring themes in the Bible is God’s annoyance with the pride of man. In the presence of Yahweh, we have nothing of which to boast, no occasion for arrogance. Like bacteria under the microscope, it would seem pointless to the witness if one microbe acted as though he were superior to any of the others, and even more ludicrous if the germs banded together and challenged the observer himself. (That does happen, of course. It’s called “disease.”) This is why Yahshua made a point of washing His disciples’ feet: we are all equal before God—we are all sinners in need of grace. And yet, it is, ironically enough, God’s own benevolence that can make it seem to us as if we’re perhaps more valuable or significant than we really are. Job muses, “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 7:17-18) Good point: if God expends so much energy on our behalf, if He invests so much emotional capital into our race, then it’s only natural to conclude that we must be exceptional in some way. And we are, but as a race of creatures uniquely made in His image, not as individuals within that race.
For this reason, we must be cognizant of two parallel misconceptions that plague mankind—two systematic sins that have walked hand in hand since the days of Nimrod. The first is that individuals can rise to the status of “gods” within their societies—that is, that people who are sufficiently strong, skilled, rich, beautiful, or even fortunate, may arise to a place of adoration among their peers. As attractive or powerful as these people may seem to be, we must remember to follow God alone, to worship the Creator, not the creature. This is as true for Gandhi as it is for Hitler.
The second delusion common to man is that he—as a race—can become a “god” unto himself. This, of course, is the basis of one of the world’s most widespread religions today, atheistic secular humanism. The idea that we can solve our own problems, that we are intrinsically self-sufficient, that we by our own intellect and force of will can conquer all our adversaries, real and imagined, is what I call the pride of the paramecium—the microbe in the petri dish imagining his kind to be the very pinnacle of life in the universe. These fools think that if there were a God, mankind would surely stand on a par with Him. Job knew better. He observed, “For He [Yahweh] is not a man, as I am, that I might answer Him, that we should come to trial together. There is no arbiter between us, who might lay his hand on us both.” (Job 9:32-33)
Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel, had a similarly firm grasp on the reality of the situation: “Hannah prayed and said, ‘My heart exults in Yahweh; my strength is exalted in Yahweh. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation. There is none holy like Yahweh. There is none besides You; there is no rock like our God.’ Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for Yahweh is a God of knowledge, and by Him actions are weighed.’” (I Samuel 2:1-3) She realized that whatever strength we humans may possess is due entirely to the God who provides it, the Rock in whom we find shelter. We therefore have no basis for pride, whether as individuals or as a species. Yahweh alone is qualified to teach and to render righteous judgment, for He alone is a “God of knowledge.”
So why is it that so few in today’s world listen to Yahweh? Why are His judgments ignored and his teachings disregarded? It’s because we still have free will—the right to choose our own destiny—and the vast majority have chosen poorly. Will this be the status quo forever? No. The scriptures speak incessantly of a time when all people (led by Israel) will sit at the feet of God and learn His ways. Isaiah, in a clearly Millennial passage, says, “All your children shall be taught by Yahweh, and great shall be the peace of your children.” Israel is Israel; Israel’s “children” are the called-out assembly of Yahshua—the ekklesia, the church (see Revelation 12:17), comprised of both believing Jews and gentiles. “In righteousness you shall be established; you shall be far from oppression, for you shall not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come near you.” (Isaiah 54:13-14) Yahshua alluded to this passage, applying it to Himself, when He announced, “It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to Me—not that anyone has seen the Father except He who is from God; He has seen the Father. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes has eternal life.” (John 6:45-47) In our present age, the vast majority have declared, “We will not have this man to rule over us.” But here He has bluntly stated that the Kingdom blessings—not to mention eternal life—are available only to those who “come to Him.” The only way to see God is to look upon Christ.
“Seeing God” is the undying quest of mankind, isn’t it? Throughout our history, mankind has been faced with a riddle, a conundrum: we cannot see God, and yet we long for His presence, as if we somehow know that we’re made to be with Him. It might seem reasonable to conclude that worshipping something you can’t “see” is mere superstition, and yet Job, a near contemporary of Abraham who was described as one who “feared God and turned away from evil,” knew Him only by reputation, as invisible Spirit: “Behold, He passes by me, and I see Him not; He moves on, but I do not perceive Him.” (Job 9:11) Yahweh would later speak directly to Job “out of the whirlwind,” but he still wasn’t allowed to actually see His God.
Yahweh is so awesome, He had to warn Moses (who desired in the worst way to see Him), “You cannot see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20) He did, however, give Moses the briefest glimpse of His glory, and the echo of that experience was heard by all of Israel, as he reminded them decades later: “You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain, while the mountain burned with fire to the heart of heaven, wrapped in darkness, cloud, and gloom. Then Yahweh spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice.” (Deuteronomy 4:11-12) And even that invisible voice was so terrifying, they begged Moses to intercede for them so they wouldn’t have to hear it again.
Moses descended the mountain bearing strict instructions that prohibited picturing what God might look like: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them.” (Exodus 20:4-5) We can all understand God’s prohibition against idols representing false gods, but why restrain people from making images of what they imagined the One True God might look like? Would not that make worshipping Him easier, or more straightforward, at least? Since man was made in the image of God, we have an innate creative nature. Why not give it a chance to stretch its wings a little? What would be the harm in that? (…he asked, tongue planted firmly in cheek.)
The answer, of course, is that Yahweh intended to “make” for us His own “carved image,” so to speak—Someone who would be the very picture of God, visible to all mankind, One to whom it would be proper for us to “bow down and serve.” The problem was that He didn’t exactly produce this “image” that afternoon. They—and we—had to wait many centuries for it (Him) to arrive among us. But actually, that’s not entirely true, either. Immediately after Moses received the tablets of testimony on Mount Horeb (at the end of Exodus 24), the instructions began for the building of the sanctuary and its appurtenances. This, in artist’s terms, was to be the sketch preceding the painting, the clay scale model of the bronze or marble masterpiece. The tabernacle was to be the image of the Image. That’s why John wrote, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.” (John 1:18) The “Law” was the picture of the Messiah, who was in turn the picture of the invisible God; grace and truth are the result of Yahweh having become visible to us, if only we’ll open our eyes. The word translated “declared” here tells the story: it’s the Greek verb exegeomai, meaning to lead or show the way, hence to draw out in narrative, to unfold a teaching: to recount, rehearse, describe, explain, make fully known, or provide detailed information. If we wish to comprehend Yahweh, we must get to know His only begotten Son, Yahshua, God’s very own “graven Image.”
Paul takes the same truth in a different direction: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn [i.e., the one to whom belongs the right of inheritance] of all creation. For by Him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through Him and for Him.” (Colossians 1:15-16) It’s pointless to try to sort out the pronoun “Him” here: it makes no difference whether you think of Yahshua or Yahweh as the Creator and ultimate authority, for they are the same person, the same divine entity—the one reduced to human manifestation, the other not. I expect this will be somewhat easier to comprehend when Christ reigns in glory in His Millennial Kingdom than when He first walked the earth as the sacrificial Lamb of God, of course. And lest it slip our minds, I should also reiterate that among the things created by, for, and through Him is us, the human race. Just because we’re allowed to reject Him if we choose to, it doesn’t follow that we don’t belong to Him. Our only purpose for existing is to be in Him and with Him. “He…is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality, who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion.” (I Timothy 6:15-16) Again, is he talking about Yahweh, or Yahshua? Yes, he is.
When you’ve gotten past the utter dichotomy of existence between God and man, perhaps the most practical way of seeing the inherent contrast is as between a Judge and a defendant. The job of a judge is to try the case based on the evidence and testimony presented before him, to reach a verdict, and (if the verdict is guilty) pronounce a just sentence. He is bound to uphold the law. The court (ideally) operates according to established lawful rules and procedures, not anarchy, prejudice, bribery, or personal opinion. (The fact that Yahweh Himself instituted all of the laws, rules, and procedures is beside the point for our purposes. He’s still got “rules” to follow. Because He cannot lie, He must live by His own word.) Further, the judge can be presumed to have the full authority of the government behind him.
The defendant (men as individuals, or mankind in general) finds himself standing before the judge because he has been accused of some crime. (No crime, no contact—at least in the context of satisfying the law.) It is therefore incumbent upon a defendant to either (1) demonstrate his innocence, (2) be prepared to pay the penalty, or (3) explain some reason why, though guilty, he should be pardoned. David looked at his life and knew that #1 wasn’t going to happen—for himself or anybody else: “Hear my prayer, O Yahweh; give ear to my pleas for mercy! In Your faithfulness answer me, in Your righteousness! Enter not into judgment with Your servant, for no one living is righteous before You.” (Psalm 143:1-2) But #2 would have meant his total and permanent separation from the God he loved, a fate he couldn’t bear to face. What amazes me is how many folks don’t think they’d mind being eternally separated from Yahweh, since He’s not particularly welcome in their daily lives anyway. Me? I’ve gotta go with David on this one: the very thought of being separated from Yahweh terrifies me, though I too realize that my sins have—under the law—consigned me to that horrible fate.
So there’s only one thing left to do: beg for mercy, as David did. I, of course, have a distinct advantage over David in this regard. For him, God’s mercy was theoretical, a matter of hope and trust in what amounted to some rather nebulous promises on God’s part. Mercy was assured, but how it was to be delivered wasn’t remotely clear. (See Exodus 20:6, for example, where Gods mercy is tied to our love for Him and our obedience to His commandments. But nobody was completely successful in literally keeping God’s commandments, so where did that leave us?) For me, on the other hand, the means of God’s mercy is a matter of historical record. Yahshua became the Lamb of God on our behalf, fulfilling the requirements of the Torah once and for all, and becoming the vehicle for Yahweh’s mercy toward fallen mankind. Of course, like any other vehicle, you have to get in if you hope to go anywhere.
The story of Job portrays a court case, of sorts—a strange one, for Job, the victim, becomes the defendant in a way, like a rape case in which the perp’s lawyers try to present the victim as a slut who “had it coming.” At issue is who was at fault for Job’s fall from prosperity. The narrator states from the outset that Satan—the adversary—was directly responsible. But why was he allowed to do all this damage to an ostensibly innocent man—seizing his wealth, killing his children, and afflicting him with physical torment? Job’s “friends” serve as the prosecutors. Their case is, in a nutshell, that Job must have sinned against Yahweh, and therefore his “punishment” is justified, making Yahweh Himself the perpetrator of Job’s woes. Job, for his part, remains stubbornly unwilling to blame Yahweh for any unfairness, though he maintains his innocence and can’t figure out what’s happened to him either. His defense is summed up thusly: “Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Even so, I will defend my own ways before Him. He also shall be my salvation [you guessed it: Yâshuw`ah], for a hypocrite could not come before Him.” (Job 13:15-16)
While all of us have sinned, the very first verse of the account describes Job as one who was “blameless and upright,” who “feared God and shunned evil.” So it would seem that if Job was singled out for the wrath of Yahweh, then we’re all in deep spit, and not just in the afterlife either, but now, in this world. But our experience tells us this just isn’t so. Many really bad men live to ripe old ages, and die peacefully in their sleep. So after all the arguments had been presented about why Job might have been singled out like this, the Judge, Yahweh, bangs His gavel and proceeds to set the record straight.
“Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” He’s addressing Job (the victim) but He’s speaking about his prosecutors (or is that, persecutors?), Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad. He’s basically saying, “Shut up, all of you. I’m going to ask Job some questions that will help him understand what’s going on, ’cause you guys are nowhere close.” “Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’” No matter how “good” he was, it was obvious to Job and everybody else that when faced with questions like these, he was out of his depth. Is this what is would take—for someone to be with God at creation, to in fact be God—for the trials we face in life to be undeserved?
Yahweh continues in the same impossibly demanding vein: “Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb, when I made clouds its garment and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed limits for it and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?” I might rephrase that, “Do you know how gravity works?” He’s demanding that Job explain what still stumps the most brilliant of humanity’s scientific minds, as if to say, if you’re not smarter than the smartest man who ever lived, then you have no right to stand in My presence. “Have you commanded the morning since your days began, and caused the dawn to know its place, that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, and the wicked be shaken out of it? It is changed like clay under the seal, and its features stand out like a garment. From the wicked their light is withheld, and their uplifted arm is broken.” I like the way the New Living Translation puts this: “Have you ever commanded the morning to appear and caused the dawn to rise in the east? Have you ever told the daylight to spread to the ends of the earth, to bring an end to the night’s wickedness? For the features of the earth take shape as the light approaches, and the dawn is robed in red. The light disturbs the haunts of the wicked, and it stops the arm that is raised in violence.” Basically, He’s asking Job, “Can you control the earth’s rate of rotation? And can you drive man’s evil impulses into hiding by shedding light upon them? (God, by the way, has promised to improve on even this, banishing darkness from the night altogether—see Revelation 22:5.) “Have you entered into the springs of the sea, or walked in the recesses of the deep? Have the gates of death been revealed to you, or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Declare, if you know all this.” (Job 38:1-18)
Yahweh continues pounding away with impossible questions for three agonizing chapters. The unspoken answer to every one of them was, “You can’t do any of this, Job, but I can, and I have. “And Yahweh said to Job: ‘Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it.’” A “faultfinder” is one who reproves or teaches (from the verb yasar: to discipline, chasten or instruct). Job had been reproving his friends for their errant theological conclusions, but in doing so, he had come dangerously close to “contending” with Yahweh Himself. Now he began to realize that in defending Himself, He had tacitly called into question Yahweh’s sovereignty: “Then Job answered Yahweh and said: ‘Behold, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth. I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but I will proceed no further….’”
But he wasn’t getting off the hook quite that easily. “Then Yahweh answered Job out of the whirlwind and said: ‘Dress for action like a man; I will question you, and you make it known to Me. Will you even put Me in the wrong? Will you condemn Me that you may be in the right? Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like His? Adorn yourself with majesty and dignity; clothe yourself with glory and splendor. Pour out the overflowings of your anger, and look on everyone who is proud and abase him. Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low and tread down the wicked where they stand. Hide them all in the dust together; bind their faces in the world below. Then will I also acknowledge to you that your own right hand can save you.” (Job 40:1-14) At last, God put his finger on Job’s problem: pride. Even though he realized his need for a redeemer, he was still protesting his innocence. As men go, Job was as good as they come, but here Yahweh points out that this wasn’t nearly good enough.
Finally, Job understands: “I know that You can do all things, and that no purpose of Yours can be thwarted…. I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…. I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees You; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:2-6) Reality check: where Job failed, I have failed a hundred times over. It is only by God’s grace that I don’t sit in an ash heap, scraping my boils with a potsherd. I too readily admit that “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” And yet, I feel compelled to do so again:
We have been discussing, if you’ll recall, the contrast between God as judge and man as defendant. If you’re like me, you got thrown a bit when Yahweh addressed Job’s predicament by merely pointing out what he didn’t know and couldn’t do. Perhaps this explains why he wasn’t immune to trouble. But it doesn’t explain why Job, an admittedly “righteous” man, was singled out for suffering. Upon reflection, I believe the answer to the conundrum lies in the nature of the questions Yahweh posed. He didn’t ask, “Are you perfect, sinless, and totally without fault?” Job wasn’t: nobody is. No, what Yahweh asked him (for all intents and purposes) was, “Are you God?”
Why would Yahweh ask such a ridiculous question? Upon reflection, I think it was to reveal to us that His plan was to subject Himself—manifested in human form—to infinitely more suffering than Job had experienced, in order to personally become the “redeemer” Job himself knew he needed. As comparatively “upright” as he was, Job was still a sinner. His friends suspected it, but he knew it: he couldn’t reconcile himself to God, much less do so for anyone else. But Job understood the concept of substitutionary sacrifice (see Job 1:5), a precedent Yahweh had instituted as far back as the Garden of Eden. His woes weren’t a matter of punishment for the guilty. They were, rather, a hint—a prophecy—as to how, before God, guilty souls could be miraculously transformed into innocence through the act of sacrifice.
So when Yahweh asked Job, Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth? Do you control the motion of the stars and planets? Can you manage the weather and the biosphere? Are life and death yours to administer? Job could only hang his head in shame at his own comparative insignificance. But Yahshua the Messiah, faced with the same questions, could respond, I was there—Yes, I am able to do all of this, for I am One with Yahweh the Creator. I, the Word of Yahweh, was in the beginning with God because I am God, though I am cloaked in humanity and diminished in glory. Only a Man who could answer Yahweh’s withering verbal assault in the affirmative would be worthy to act as mankind’s living redeemer (see Job 19:25), becoming the sacrifice that satisfies the legal requirement that our sins be met with punishment, that our shortcomings be recompensed with separation from our holy God. Adam and Eve had learned in Eden that only innocence can cover guilt. Job learned in Uz that only God’s righteousness can stand before God. And we learned—or should have—at Calvary that both God’s righteousness and His perfect innocence were made available to us through the sacrifice of the guiltless Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, if only we’ll allow Him to stand for us.
There are two types of “criminal” in this world. First are those who recognize the authority of the “state” but err in their performance of their acknowledged legal responsibilities—like Job did, or as in my son’s “crime” that I mentioned a few pages back. The vast majority of us are this type of lawbreaker: we all make mistakes. That doesn’t make us innocent, of course; it only makes us normal. The second type of criminal, in contrast, acts as if he believes nobody has legitimate authority over him. He steals because he covets what does not rightfully belong to him. He murders (or merely assaults) because he has no love for any life but his own. And because he recognizes no authority higher than himself, he thinks no further than his own short-term gratification, the satisfaction of his own lusts. Neither God nor government has any effect on what he wants. Only the prospect of punishment tempers his behavior.
Both types of criminal, however, (and we’re all one or the other) have one basic rule: “Try not to get caught.” And usually (in this world), we don’t: the only thing that keeps most of us out of hot water is the fact that human governments are rather inefficient in enforcing their own laws. But man’s law is only a microcosm of God’s Law—and a flawed one at that. If temporal authorities exercise dominion over us here on earth (see I Peter 2:13-17 for example), it is only to remind us that there is an ultimate Authority who rules over everything from heaven. And because He is neither temporal, flawed, nor inefficient, every infraction of God’s Law must eventually be addressed. As Solomon concluded, “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) Just because you haven’t yet been caught and punished for your sins, don’t assume it will never happen.
When “a deed is brought into judgment,” we normally think in terms of condemnation or fault finding, but, as Solomon points out, it can be “judged” as being either evil or good—mishpat is a legal term describing the act of deciding a case, making a legal decision, or rendering justice in a court of law—resulting in a separation of wrong from right. Yahweh’s decisions (based on His own precepts) are always perfect and just (which can be a scary thought if you’re still bearing your own guilt), though the same can’t be said of human judges, rendering their version of justice based on imperfect man-generated laws. David asks, “Do you indeed decree what is right, you gods?” That’s the Hebrew ’el, not improperly translated “god,” but literally meaning mighty one, a majestic or powerful “god-like” entity. “Do you judge the children of man uprightly? No, in your hearts you devise wrongs; your hands deal out violence on earth….” That explains why human jurisprudence hasn’t solved the world’s problems: man can’t do God’s job. Man’s laws are often but a silly caricature of the will of God; man’s mishpat-judgments are flawed by our own fallen natures.
“The righteous will rejoice when he sees the vengeance; he will bathe his feet in the blood of the wicked. Mankind will say, ‘Surely there is a reward for the righteous; surely there is a God who judges on earth.’” (Psalm 58:1-2, 10-11) Sadly, we have become accustomed to seeing the wicked “get away” with his crimes, leaving the innocent to suffer in silence, without redress or recourse. But scripture assures us that this will not be the case forever: there will come a day when Yahweh will right the wrongs—and not just in the afterlife, but in this world. We need to come to grips with the fact that the insipid (or nonexistent) version of “justice” we see taking place in our world today is not as God ordained it. Yahweh intends to take His “vengeance” during the seven-year bloodbath known in scripture as the Tribulation. That squishy “wading in blood” reference is a literal allusion to the aftermath of the Battle (if you can call it a battle) of Armageddon (see Revelation 14:20, 19:21), which is not to say it isn’t figuratively true of the entire Tribulation. During this time, upwards of half of the world’s population will perish—and perhaps well upwards: there will be no shortage of ways to die, none of them pleasant.
A couple of things bear mentioning: (1) This gruesome death of the wicked is not, in itself, cause for rejoicing. Yahweh and His saints would much rather see them repent and enjoy eternal life in Christ than suffer this ignominious end. The choice is theirs, although rebellion against Yahweh won’t be tolerated forever. (2) The “rejoicing of the righteous” (among whom I would include the raptured saints, the repentant nation of Israel, and the “neo-ekklesia,” those gentiles who, like Israel, came to faith belatedly, too late to avoid the world-wide trial) will be occasioned by the realization that Yahweh—in the person of the glorified King Yahshua—has kept all of His promises, including exercising the prerogative of judgment. (3) The “reward for the righteous” consists of witnessing the judgment of God upon the earth. For the redeemed, the justice meted out by the returning King will be sweet vindication of their faith, notwithstanding the horrors to be suffered by the wicked. “But You, You are to be feared! Who can stand before You when once Your anger is roused? From the heavens You uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still, when God arose to establish judgment, to save all the humble of the earth.” (Psalm 76:7-9) Note that the group formerly referred to as “the righteous” are now characterized as “the humble.” These are interrelated concepts.
There’s no indication that Paul was thinking in purely eschatological terms, however, when he wrote, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth….” He doesn’t say when this happens. My guess? A nanosecond after you die. Singled out for condemnation are those who not only sin themselves (a category that includes us all), but specifically those who “suppress the truth” for their own evil purposes. The world is a sinking ship: it’s one thing to refuse to get into the lifeboat yourself; that’s your privilege. It’s something else entirely to prevent others from doing so.
It’s not like these spiritual murderers were merely mistaken or deceived, as if they couldn’t have known the truth: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God [not personally, of course, but by nature, conscience, and reputation], they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.” (Romans 1:18-21) It’s like somebody who refuses to believe in telephones—the “crazy” idea that you can hold a conversation with someone who is not physically present. He knows such devices exist; he just doesn’t accept the idea that they could possibly work. Bottom line: though it’s his choice not to use the phone himself, it’s not his choice to forcibly prevent you from calling 911 in an emergency because of his disbelief.
That being said, the usurpation of man’s God-given privilege of choice will be an ever-increasing trend, I’m afraid, between now and the end of the age. The “suppression of truth in unrighteousness” of which Paul spoke is already a more or less ubiquitous phenomenon, though the wrath of God is seldom overtly “revealed from heaven” in response—yet. In fact, close examination of prophetic scripture reveals that Yahweh’s proactive wrath (as opposed to man’s unrestrained evil) will not be in evidence until the midpoint of the Tribulation. For those last three and a half years (defined by the reign of the Antichrist), however, God will be personally involved in judging the earth: “The second angel poured out his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing died that was in the sea. The third angel poured out his bowl into the rivers and the springs of water, and they became blood. And I heard the angel in charge of the waters say, ‘Just are You, O Holy One, who is and who was, for You brought these judgments. For they have shed the blood of saints and prophets, and You have given them blood to drink. It is what they deserve!’ And I heard the altar saying, ‘Yes, Lord God the Almighty, true and just are Your judgments!’” (Revelation 16:3-7) Yahweh, the Righteous Judge, is seen “throwing the book” at the blatantly guilty defendants of planet earth. Why is mercy and patience all of a sudden in such short supply? It’s because no one will remain apathetically uninformed anymore: everyone at this point will have decided either to receive Yahweh or reject Him, to trust Him or attack Him.
Unfortunately (for those who have chosen to reject God’s love) the death of their mortal bodies isn’t necessarily the end of their trials. Daniel was told, “And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time.” That’s the Tribulation of which we have been speaking. “But at that time your people [Israel] shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.” (Daniel 12:1-2) Those who “awaken” from the dust—whose souls are resurrected from death—fall into two categories: blessed and cursed. (Note that Daniel wasn’t told that all of the sleepers would awaken—only “many.”) There are several “harvest” events for Yahweh’s redeemed described or implied in scripture, the “rapture” being the most well-known. Eventually, every believer from every age—through the end of the Millennial Kingdom—will receive an immortal, spiritual body, one built for everlasting life with Yahshua (see I Corinthians 15 for a description of this body). These people, though every one of them is a sinner, will receive no condemnation or punishment, for their sins have been atoned—covered—by the blood of Christ. Their works will be evaluated, but they themselves have already been pardoned: the case against them in Yahweh’s court has been dismissed.
But what of those who awaken to “shame and everlasting contempt?” They are made to stand before the divine Judge, as we see in this vignette from Daniel: “As I looked, thrones were placed, and the Ancient of days took His seat; His clothing was white as snow, and the hair of His head like pure wool; His throne was fiery flames; its wheels were burning fire. A stream of fire issued and came out from before Him; a thousand thousands served Him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before Him; the court sat in judgment, and the books were opened.” (Daniel 7:9-10) These “books” contain the record of their deeds and words: the evidence against them (not to be confused with the “book” we saw in the Daniel 12 passage above, in which is written the names of those who “shall be delivered.”) Note the awesome majesty displayed by the divine Judge—the reigning Yahshua. I get the feeling that words can’t really convey the glory Daniel saw in his vision. But one thing is clear: those standing before the Judge aren’t going to talk their way out of this one.
John describes this final judgment, and how the books are used: “Then I saw a great white throne and Him who was seated on it. From His presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them.” This, of course, is the same person Daniel identified as the “Ancient of Days.” It’s none other than Yahshua, the glorified reigning Messiah. “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life.” The “books” fall into two categories. One record describes what we did and said: our works, words, and walk. The other describes whose we are, that is, it’s the record of our adoption into the family of Yahweh—the state of having been “born from above” in Yahweh’s Spirit, as Yahshua phrased it in John 3. If this family relationship cannot be established, all the Judge has to go on are the defendants’ works—which by definition and observation fall short of Yahweh’s standard. “And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done…. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-12, 15) Again, think of what I said about my son and his “accident.” It was only because he is my son, legally adopted according to the law of the land—written in my “book of life,” as it were—that I was willing to pay his fine and spring for the repairs on his car, as expensive as they were. There were any number of accidents that rainy day, and any number of tickets written, but I cared only about that one incident. It’s the same with us and our sins against God: the only way for us to “beat the rap” is to swallow our pride and ask our Father to pay the fine. If our Father is Yahweh, He has, in fact, already done so.
Yahshua alone can say, “I was there—Yes, I am able to do all of this, for I am One with Yahweh the Creator. I, the Word of Yahweh, was in the beginning with God because I am God, though I am cloaked in humanity and diminished in glory.”
(First published 2013)