OUR MISERY, HIS MERCY
By Steve Zeisler
If your family is like ours, you've been watching the Olympics a good bit
this last week, reacquainting yourself with luge, Nordic combined, and other
obscure sports no one thinks about between the Olympic years. This year's
Olympic Games in addition to being entertaining, testify to the political
changes in the world. As we think of the changes that have taken place-the
breaking up of the communist world---the obvious conclusion to draw is that
the West has won the Cold War, and we have much to rejoice about in that.
Why, then, is this nation with no military threat poised against us anywhere
in the world, so aggressively ruining itself? There's almost a death wish
in our culture, a self-destructiveness and decay from within that are accelerating
at about the same rate that the enemies on the outside are losing their
ability to threaten us.
The current election campaign and the primary in New Hampshire have put
before us a field of presidential candidates who trivialize each other and
a press that is focused on nonessentials. The former head of the Ku Klux
Klan in Louisiana ran a creditable campaign for governor of that state.
The Clarence Thomas hearings, the William Kennedy Smith trial in Florida,
and other things have put our national leaders in the worst possible light.
The free speech clause of the Bill of Rights has been used in San Francisco
to defend a group of pedophiles who want to hold meetings in a library in
a neighborhood with children everywhere around them; the political leadership
of the city did nothing about it until there was a public outcry on the
part of parents. In Southern California the police are on trial for a five-on-one
beating of a black citizen stopped for a traffic violation. Considering
the nation as it's portrayed, you wonder what those outside wanting to be
like us think as they look on at these things.
I say all these things because this morning we are going to re-enter a study
of the book of Judges. Please turn to the tenth chapter with me. The period
of Israel's history covered by the book of Judges was very much like the
period we are living in today in this culture. They experienced cycles of
decline and decay, in which the nation's loss of faith and righteousness
brought about its own demise.
A New Cycle
Let's begin reading at verse 1, chapter 10 and then we'll set the context
a bit more:
Now after Abimelech died, Tola the son of Puah, the son of Dodo,
a man of Issachar, arose to save Israel; and he lived in Shamir in the hill
country of Ephraim. And he judged Israel twenty-three years. Then he died
and was buried in Shamir.
And after him, Jair the Gileadite arose, and judged Israel twenty-two years.
And he had thirty sons who rode on thirty donkeys, and they had thirty cities
in the land of Gilead that are called Havvoth-jair to this day. And Jair
died and was buried in Kamon.
Now, Tola and Jair are minor judges. We don't know very much at all about
their stories; we barely meet these two men. At the end of chapter 11 we're
going to meet three more minor judges, each of whom gets a verse or two.
I'm convinced that these stories are told at this time and with these details
primarily to help us understand the story of the man Jephthah. He is the
major figure we're going to consider next week. The book of Judges has a
number of such major figures: Ehud, Deborah, Gideon, Gideon's dastardly
son Abimelech, then Jephthah and Samson. Next week I'll describe how these
two minor judges help us understand Jephthah better.
Then the sons of Israel again did evil in the sight of the LORD,
served the Baals and the Ashtaroth, the gods of Aram, the gods of Sidon,
the gods of Moab, the gods of the sons of Ammon, and the gods of the Philistines;
thus they forsook the LORD and did not serve Him. And the anger of the LORD
burned against Israel, and He sold them into the hands of the Philistines,
and into the hands of the sons of Ammon. And they afflicted and crushed
the sons of Israel that year; for eighteen years they afflicted all the
sons of Israel who were beyond the Jordan in Gilead in the land of the Amorites.
And the sons of Ammon crossed the Jordan to fight also against Judah, Benjamin,
and the house of Ephraim, so that Israel was greatly distressed.
The Lord God is committed to building character in us,
bringing about change that lasts forever
Verse 7 gives us another note of context so that we can begin to see where
we are in the book and where we're going. It says that the Lord in his anger
sold his children into slavery. He took his hands off them, let them have
what they insisted on having. As a result of that, two primary oppressors
took over. From the east, the Ammonites attacked them and made their life
miserable, and Jephthah's story is of the breaking of the Ammonite oppression.
The next major figure we'll meet in Judges, Samson, is going to deal with
the Western foe---the Philistines.
A Powerful Indictment
Verse 6 deserves particular attention: "Then the sons of Israel again
did evil in the sight of the LORD," and served in succession seven
different idols or groups of idols. The end of the verse says: "...thus
they forsook the LORD and did not serve Him." This is the most powerful
indictment in the book. Both earlier and later we're told in brief that
the Israelites deserted the Lord, served the Baals, and suffered for it.
But here we're given the names of seven specific idolatries. And three times
in this verse the author points that they abandoned the Lord. The general
note is made first: They did evil in the sight of the Lord. Then it says
they served the Baals, they forsook the Lord, and (toward the end of the
verse) they did not serve him. Their rebellion was repeated, widespread,
and whole-hearted. Seven is a number indicating completion in scripture;
this is a full-blown and active rebellion.
Now, we might well ask, since the people of God had at least the books of
Moses available to them in scripture and a knowledge of their own history,
why they would be attracted to what Canaanite deities would offer. If we
can discover what attracted them to make such a decision, we might very
well discover the same issues in ourselves. It's worth taking a moment to
talk about Canaanite gods.
The nation of Israel today is roughly the same geographical size as the
nine Bay Area counties; it is not a lot of territory. Within this relatively
small area we have seven different idols or kinds of idols mentioned here;
one of the things that we need to understand about Canaanite religion is
that it is very localized. Each god is a small god. They each have their
own tribe. They have their own hill on which they are to be worshiped. They
have a territory where they are counted on to be effective at bringing rain
for crops and increase to livestock. They're limited in geography; you can't
take an idol with you and make it work someplace else. They're also limited
in time; they are brought into being, they wax in power and potency, and
then they grow impotent and tired.
The contrast to the God of Israel is dramatic. Yahweh, the Lord God, is
absolutely without limits. He existed before the creation of time, space,
energy, matter, and everything that's created. He existed from eternity
and will exist into eternity beyond. He is infinite in power and in wisdom.
He is without rival. He has no beginning and no end. There is no place in
the universe where he is not Lord of all. He is pure, holy, and immutable.
The Quick Fix
Again we ask, why would his people choose to aggressively reject the infinite
One and follow a Canaanite deity? The succinct answer is that Canaanite
deities pay off more quickly; they give you what you want sooner. What the
Lord God is committed to is building character in us, bringing about change
that lasts forever. It requires humility to benefit from knowing him. We
must reduce ourselves and glorify him.
We might think of it as the difference between having relief and being renewed.
When we're suffering with a problem, often what we are willing to settle
for is short-term relief from the problem or an anaesthetizing of the pain.
What the infinite, limitless Lord God is interested in is renewing us. It's
the long, character-building work of making us different people. But what
the limited Canaanite god will offer us is perhaps short-term relief, some
kind of anaesthesia, a way to set the problem aside and ignore it for the
Further, it's the difference between building real community and settling
for conformity. What the limitless Lord God, Yahweh, is interested in among
his people is building real love in community, where barriers are broken
down, knowledge of one another is established, and caring across divides
takes place. But the quicker fix that a Canaanite deity (a modern one as
well as the ancient one) would offer is conformity, where everyone dresses
alike, looks alike, sounds alike, and appears to be united in that sense
without any work being done on the heart.
Finally, it's the difference between being offered pleasure and being offered
joy. The Lord God, the limitless One, has in mind for us that our lives
be infused with joy. But joy has to come from the heart. It means that we
understand who he is and what his purposes are, so that even in the midst
of difficulties like those of Paul and Silas in the Philippian jail, hymns
are being sung as the stocks are clamped down and the earthquake strikes.
Joy comes from someplace very deep inside. It doesn't come easily or quickly;
it is the long work of God. Pleasure, on the other hand, can be had very
quickly indeed. It's the quick fix, the short-term jolt.
Canaanite gods offer the quick fix. That's the advantage of serving them.
They promised that crops would grow if orgiastic rites were performed to
their honor. And the ancient people of God in times of peace would often
settle for the quick fix, for the same reasons that you and I are willing
to do so.
Football fans among us will know who Lyle Alzado is. He's a former football
player who played for the Raiders and the Broncos. He took heavy doses of
steroids in college and during the pros, and his body ballooned up well
beyond the size it ought to have been. Steroids have the effect of making
you artificially large, strong, and nasty. He was very successful. The problem
is that now he's dying. He has numerous cancers, and his body is withered.
The steroid treatment that he took all those years has finally had the effect
of reaching its limits. Canaanite gods wax and wane and their potency runs
out. Eventually the steroid treatment that made Lyle Alzado an All-Pro will
kill him. A relatively young man who wanted power, strength, authority,
and dominance was willing to listen to a siren song that offered it to him
quickly and falsely, and now he's dying. I think many women who have augmented
their physical attractiveness with silicone for purely cosmetic reasons
wonder if they haven't bought the same kind of lie.
Similarly, there are people who went to work for General Motors twenty or
thirty years ago with the notion that it was the most powerful automobile
manufacturer in the world; it was without rival and it was secure. Now they
are finding out that they may be among the twenty-five or thirty thousand
being laid off over the course of the next few years. Today's New Age guru
who offers some kind of life-changing course for his or her followers will
be forgotten like Werner Erhardt and all those other people we can't remember
anymore because they don't last very long. Whether it's religion, economics,
or whatever, there are Canaanite gods everywhere that can do only a little
bit, last only for a little while, having limited capacity to bless.
An Inevitable Crash
Inevitably, the result of following Canaanite gods, ancient or modern, is
a crash. Verses 8 and 9 make the point clearly. The Lord took his hands
off, and they became slaves of their enemies, who afflicted and crushed
the sons of Israel for eighteen years. In verse 9, the sons of Ammon crossed
the Jordan, marched on them, and fought against Judah, Benjamin and the
house of Ephraim, taking more and more territory. The result, in the final
statement in this paragraph, was that "Israel was greatly distressed."
In anguish, the house of cards comes down.
Picking up in verse 10, what happened when the crash occurred, the affliction
and difficulty arose?
Then the sons of Israel cried out to the LORD, saying, "We
have sinned against Thee, for indeed, we have forsaken our God and served
the Baals." And the LORD said to the sons of Israel, "Did I not
deliver you from the Egyptians, the Amorites, the sons of Ammon, and the
Philistines? Also when the Sidonians, the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed
you, you cried out to Me, and I delivered you from their hands. Yet you
have forsaken Me and served other gods; therefore I will deliver you no
more. Go and cry out to the gods which you have chosen; let them deliver
you in the time of your distress."
Oops! Once again it's, "Oh, Lord, deliver us. We're sorry, we've gotten
ourselves in this mess again. Oh, gosh, we've really stepped in it this
time. Please come and deliver us." Only instead of sending a deliverer
as before, what does he say? "You've chosen another god. You've appealed
to the Baals, Molech, Ashtaroth, Dagon, and the gods of the peoples around.
You said that they were the ones you would serve. Well then, let them get
you out of the trouble you're in. Are they strong enough? Where's the deliverance
from them?" He reminds them of his acts of deliverance in the past,
"Go back to the exodus from Egypt, to the period of wilderness wanderings,
to the times of earlier judges. Over and over again you've abandoned me,
gotten yourselves in trouble, and called out for help. And over and over
again I've delivered you. Enough is enough. What would make you presume
on me that I should do it again?"
But the account doesn't end there:
And the sons of Israel said to the LORD, "We have sinned,
do to us whatever seems good to Thee; only please deliver us this day."
So they put away the foreign gods from among them, and served the LORD;
and He could bear the misery of Israel no longer.
The last phrase of verse 16 is some of the best news you will ever hear.
I don't think the Lord God was much impressed at all with the quality of
their repentance. He rejected the first statement of repentance in verse
10. But they came back to him later and said in verse 15, "We have
sinned. Do to us whatever seems good to Thee." Now, if they had stopped
right there, that would have been a sign of a broken heart. "Lord,
all we can do is cast ourselves on your mercy. Do whatever seems good to
Thee." But they don't stop there: "Do whatever seems good to Thee,
only deliver us." But they don't even stop there: "Only deliver
us today." They are not repenting of their sin in any deep or profound
manner. They just want out of trouble. So they're calling out to the Lord,
"Do whatever seems good to you, only get us out of this thing, and
get us out of it now!" And by rights, the Lord ought to have reacted
as he did in verse 14.
Moved By Their Misery
But he didn't react that way, because he couldn't stand their misery. He
loved them too much. That's why I'm convinced that this is some of the best
news that we can read--it doesn't even matter ultimately if our motives
are mixed, if we don't understand ourselves very well, if our weakness is
greater than we're even able to describe. Ultimately that doesn't matter
because he is going to forgive us and intervene, because he can't stand
to see us hurting, because he loves us too much. We don't deserve it. That's
the amazing testimony of Romans 5: "While we were yet sinners, Christ
died for us." He died for us not because we were good, nor because
we sought him out, nor because we deserved it, but for no other reason except
that he loves us, and he can't stop loving us.
We took communion together this morning, and we were urged to examine ourselves.
Communion, for me and I'm sure for most of you, is a time of confession
and of honesty. Scripture says that we're not to partake in an unworthy
manner, and I don't want to be offensive to God. And yet I confess the same
sins and concerns at communion over and over again. I don't often see dramatic
improvement. Or if there's improvement in one area, that usually just gets
me up to the top of the hill so I can see a whole new territory of sin and
rebellion that is as ugly as whatever I just crawled out of.
Joy doesn't come easily or quickly; it is the long work of the
Perhaps sometimes you want to say, "Lord, I hate to bring this up again.
I know we've been over this a lot of times, but I need help. I'm still weak,
frightened, and burdened." Or we say, "Lord, this time I really
mean it! This time for sure I'm going to turn over my life to you; it's
never going to be the same again. This time I'm serious." And as much
as we know ourselves when we make such statements, we're telling the truth.
But we don't really understand very much about ourselves at all. Yet, thankfully,
the quality of our repentance is not the basis on which we're forgiven.
It's the heart of God, which cannot bear the misery of his people, and so
he acts to save. Our hope is anchored in his loving heart, for before we
ever thought to seek him out, he sought us out, and he'll continue to do
Let me just conclude by asking you what sort of world you live in. You and
I have to choose a path to go on. We have to seek after some idea or person
that will make sense of life, give us direction, and offer us hope. We may
choose to listen to, become disciples of, and be changed by the limitless
Lord God of scripture, whose truth works in every location, in every time,
who wants to bring out real change from the inside. Or we may choose to
serve a Canaanite god-the god of the quick fix, the short-term advantage,
the pay-off now with the accounting to come later.
Yesterday afternoon I was with my family in a park nearby. There were great
puddles all over and one particularly outstanding puddle in the middle of
a basketball court. We were watching little boys play in the puddle, and
right nearby was a homeless woman with a shopping cart holding her personal
belongings, who as far as I could tell lived in that park. It was just getting
ready to rain as we left, and I was thinking about the rainstorm. The rains
we're having today can be interpreted differently by different people, can't
they? There are weather forecasters who approach them technically. There
are ordinary citizens like us who are concerned about drought. There are
farmers and others who are concerned about crops. There are little boys
who like puddles, something little boys haven't had a chance to play in
in this community for a long time. But then you have someone else who has
to live outside, and her perspective on the rain is totally different from
that of any of the above: It is more threatening to her. She's praying against
all those who are praying for rain.
The same set of circumstances, the same storms are interpreted differently
by different people depending on the lenses we look through, the allegiances
we have, who we are and who we're becoming. Judges presents us with an option.
We can serve a God whose mercy extends to us even when our repentance is
shallow, and we're immature and prone to foolishness, even when our weaknesses
seem to clutch at us, when our sins are embarrassing for us to face. In
all of that, he cannot bear the misery of his people, so he extends mercy
toward us. We can serve that kind of God, whose power, purity, and wisdom
are infinite. Or we can listen to some set of lies that says we can have
it all much sooner and much more easily, without any breaking of our pride,
without any learning of hard lessons. But if we seek to have it all quickly,
we will find ourselves over and over again "crashing and burning,"
afflicted, sold into slavery. The choice is ours.
Catalog No. 4313
February 16, 1992
Copyright © 1992 Discovery
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