Only God can speak of the future with certainty
Isaiah 14: Exactly as I planned, it will happen.
The topic is still the downfall of mighty Babylon. The very subject likely sounds like so much wishful thinking to many. After all, Isaiah is talking about an unstoppable world power that dominates the entire region. Any suggestion that Babylon will come crashing down must be an excursion into fiction. Still, that’s Isaiah’s message. Even though no power on earth can challenge this mighty army, a Power above earth has it in His sights. Now, some have used this passage as a proof that God has either fully mapped out the future or somehow travels through time or even exists in all of time at once. I accept the possibility of the first, but can’t see the “time travel” versions. For one thing, everything we know about God is what he’s told us or shown us about himself. We might read something in the Bible and conclude that God did it, or knew it, because he “looked ahead in time.” However, to do that is to come to our own conclusions, and not because we’ve been given a Biblical insight about God. Well, so much for the “time travel.” The first suggestion is that God mapped it all out. As I said, I believe that’s possible. That is, I believe the Almighty has the power and authority to do just that. The problem for me isn’t in that arena at all. Instead, it’s that such a view destroys the possibility of free will. In other words, God could map everything out, but he can’t plan it all and still grant free will to human beings. That leaves me with a view of God that concludes he “could” have designed a universe in which he could travel through time, but we have no evidence that he did and that he could have written the entirety of Creation out on day one, but he couldn’t have done that and given human beings anything greater than the illusion of free will. So what do I do with a passage in which God says things will happen as he planned? I’ll simply accept it. Babylon has displeased the Almighty who says, “Because you have acted as you have, I’ve decided just how I’m going to do away with you.” Things will happen to Babylon as God has said because God is going to bring it to pass. It’s not because he’s already seen it, looking into the future or because he intended, from the beginning, for Babylon to fail as it will. Rather, it’s God, in Sovereign authority, declaring what he is going to bring to pass.
Take Away: It’s fun to think about the nature of time and the foreknowledge of God, but we’d better not get too theologically invested in our musing.
Free will and accountability
Isaiah 8: No, we’re going to study the Scriptures.
While telling of future events wasn’t the major job of most prophets, it’s the one we immediately think of when we think of the work of the prophets. Actually, these men of God mostly “forth-told” rather than “fore-told.” Even when they speak of the future it’s often spoken of in a conditional way: “If you do this, then that will happen; if you do that, then this will happen.” In fact, a major theme of these men of God is to remind the people of their free will. That doesn’t mean God is helpless, but it does mean, at least in this context, that the Lord allows people the freedom to decide, and then makes them accountable for their decisions. As Isaiah goes about proclaiming what’s coming if these people stay on the road they’re on, people say to him, “When I want to know what’s coming, I’ll go to a fortune teller or hold a séance.” Isaiah says, “If you want to know what’s coming, take a look in the Scriptures.” He isn’t saying that the Scriptures contain some kind of secret road map to the future. Instead, he’s saying that there’s plenty of evidence in the Scriptures that God won’t forever put up with their foolishness. Repeatedly, in the Scriptures, the Lord has warned them and it doesn’t take some supernatural experience to see what’s coming. Talk about a timeless truth, this is one! Today, I don’t need a fortune teller. There’s plenty of information already available to me in the Bible about how God responds to sin and rebellion. If I insist on ignoring God I don’t need a crystal ball to know what’s coming.
Take Away: The Bible is quite clear as to the intentions of the Lord.
Free will with strings attached
Proverbs 19: People ruin their lives by their own stupidity, so why does God always get blamed?
The Proverbs have a strong undercurrent of self-determination that runs counter to the mysticism I hear so often. For instance, a person uses tobacco for years. When they’re diagnosed with cancer, they say, “God gave me cancer as punishment for smoking.” The wise man of the proverbs would say, “No, you gave it to yourself, don’t blame God for it!” Now, I do believe God is active in this world and touching our lives in many ways. Still, I’ve been given free will and with that freedom comes responsibility. I can’t have things both ways, declaring that I’ve been granted the freedom to choose and, at the same time, think that everything that happens to me is brought about by divine intervention. The Lord will walk with me and will guide me in my choices if I’ll allow it. However, he’ll also let me make dumb choices if I insist. When I, in my own free will, decide to get on some toll road I shouldn’t be surprised when I come to a toll booth!
Take Away: The Lord is willing to help us with our choices, but, ultimately, we’ve been granted the freedom to choose.
It’s not my fault, God made me do it
1Kings 12: God was behind all this…
I’m a firm believer in the God-given gift of free will. As someone said, “In his Sovereignty, God granted human beings the freedom to choose.” There are plenty of scriptures that speak to this concept but this isn’t one of them! Just to set the story: Solomon sins against God and because of that the Lord says he’ll rip the larger portion of Israel from his descendants’ rule. Then, when his son Rehoboam assumes the throne he foolishly follows the wrong advice and that brings about a split in the nation. At that point we come to the statement that “God was behind all this.” This leaves me playing defense on the topic of free will. Does God cause Rehoboam to do something stupid to bring about the split between Judah and Israel? And, if that’s the case, is Rehoboam responsible for what God causes him to do? Does God suspend free will in this specific circumstance? I don’t have a sweeping answer to these questions, but I don’t think God over-ruled himself on the topic of free will. Maybe this can work if I think in terms of “influence” rather than direct cause. For instance, God knows Rehoboam’s heart — that he’s a stubborn, selfish man. The Lord knows that Rehoboam’s friends are like him. It doesn’t take God’s pulling strings like a puppeteer to get Rehoboam to go along with the bad advice he receives. A slight suggestion is all it takes to accomplish that. Once I start thinking in terms of “influence” I more easily see how this works in both negative and positive ways. If my desire is to please the Lord in all I do, it won’t take much of a nudge from God to get me moving in the right direction. I’m not claiming that I’ve resolved all the “free-will verses God’s sovereignty” issues here, but I think it is a step in the right direction.
Take Away: I’ve been granted free will. Will I or won’t I use that gift to allow the Lord to positively influence me in the decisions of my life?
1 Samuel 31: Saul…died…that day.
He came to a pitiful end. Saul, as a young man, was chosen by God, himself, to lead Israel. His very stature dominates a room. Even strong warriors were willing to follow his leadership. This capable man could bring order, peace, and safety to those under his command. But he’s also a deeply flawed man who could hear the direction of God and then ignore it to do what seems best to him at the time. Also, he’s an empty man. When he rejects God’s authority in his life God rejects him. From that day onward, life drains out of Saul, leaving him just a shell of what he could have been. Now, pursued by his enemies and fleeing in defeat, he meets his end on Mount Gilboa, wounded and then falling on his own sword. Saul’s story is one of unfulfilled possibilities. He had every reason to go down in history as Israel’s first and greatest king. Instead, he dies without God and without hope. He arrives here because of his own decisions. His epitaph simply reads, “A disappointment.”
Take Away: It all starts with our simply obeying the voice of the Lord in our lives.
1 Samuel 15: Then God spoke to Samuel: “I’m sorry I ever made Saul king. He’s turned his back on me. He refuses to do what I tell him.”
God has given Saul explicit orders. He’s to attack Amalek and utterly destroy all life. Saul leads his army into the battle and follows God’s command. Well, not quite. Agag, king of Amalek, is captured rather than killed. Also, some of the choice animals are brought back alive. Now, I’m troubled by all this killing and I’ve written about it before so I’m going to move on to another important feature of this passage. God says he’s “sorry” he made Saul king in the first place. Some say that this is just God speaking in human terms, that he isn’t “sorry” in the sense that he regrets having made Saul king. The reason that they believe this is because taking this statement at face value doesn’t fit their theology. They see time as somehow pre-existent and that God can see into the future. “God knows everything,” they say, “so he has to know the future.” I think that such logic contains a fatal error: that the future already exists as something to be known. If time is a “thing” then, no doubt, God knows all about it. But if time is simply a measure of the flow of events, and if human beings really have free will, then God don’t know the future. Before you drag me out to be stoned, let me add two things. First, God knows what he’s going to do. Throughout the Bible he says, “If you do this, I will do that — if you do that I will do this.” God knows, because he’s going to act, not because he’s looked into the future and seen what he’s going to do but, instead, because he’s God Almighty and if says he’s going to do something that thing is absolutely certain to happen. Second, God could know the exact future if he wanted to. I am not saying that he somehow “limits his vision.” Rather, that if God wanted to force events to flow in a specific way he has the power to do so. However, doing that in the lives of individuals would violate the free will he granted human beings. If you’re still with me, let me conclude by adding that God had every reason to believe Saul would be a terrific leader of Israel and to be disappointed when he isn’t. In fact, that’s what God believed would (or at least “could”) happen. Saul’s failure disappointed the Almighty but it didn’t ruin his plan. The Lord goes about replacing Saul with another king, giving Israel a second chance.
Take Away: The Lord may not pre-ordain what I’m going to do, but he can handle whatever I do.
The bigger they come…
1 Samuel 13: God is out looking for your replacement right now.
On the surface, Saul’s failure seems minor. All he’s doing is offering his own sacrifice instead of waiting for Samuel to do it for him. Beneath that, though, is a fault line that means catastrophe. Any king of Israel must rule only as a servant of God. Things are to be done God’s way. From the beginning of Saul’s story his position has been clearly defined. Samuel is the man chosen by God to provide spiritual leadership and that includes making ritual sacrifices. Saul has crossed that line, claiming authority that’s not his. Because of that God is rejecting him as king. Since he doesn’t accept God’s way of doing things another king will be found. I need to remember here that Saul isn’t making a mistake in this incident. Rather, he’s acting with full knowledge of what he’s doing. Simply put, he’s pushing God’s will to the side and taking what he thinks is a better course of action. While it’s true that God is testing him with the circumstance of Samuel’s late arrival it’s also true that he miserably fails the test. The Lord seeks another king because Saul, by his own decision, makes himself unworthy to be king. As I apply this to my life, I see that I must never forget that he is Lord. I’m not free to do whatever I want to do. While I know God is gracious and merciful, I also know that, in my own free will, I can push God too far. It doesn’t have to be that way, but I know that it remains a tragic possibility.
Take Away: If I’m to be God’s man I have to do things God’s way. He’ll have it no other way.
The big bang!
1 Samuel 12: God, simply because of who he is, is not going to walk off and leave his people.
Talk about “multi-media!” As Samuel brings his farewell sermon, he tells them how displeased the Lord is with them over their insistence on having a king. Then, to illustrate that displeasure, Samuel prays up a thunderstorm! Now, that’s an “attention-getter!” The storm scares them to repentance and they plead with Samuel to pray for them. He promises his prayers and also assures them that God can work through the king arrangement. It may not be God’s first choice, but he can handle it as long as king and people cooperate with him. And, even though the Lord’s disappointed in their poor choices, he isn’t giving up on them. How does Samuel know this? He knows it because his knows God. “Because of who he is, he will be faithful to you.” Wow! What a relief! It’s great to know that my relationship with God isn’t performance- based. That doesn’t give me license to ignore God and do my own thing, but it does encourage me today. Even when I’m functioning at peak capacity I tend to mess up. I’m glad for this reminder that God doesn’t walk out on people who make poor decisions.
Take Away: The Lord can work through even our poor decisions if we walk humbly with him.
Vacuum of leadership
1 Samuel 8: They are not rejecting you. They’ve rejected me as their King.
Samuel has been a faithful, capable, Spirit-filled leader of Israel for decades. Now he’s getting old and some of his responsibilities are falling on his sons. But they aren’t up to it. They have the authority of their father but lack his relationship with God. Ever since the great revival and victory over the Philistines many years earlier, Israel has served God under the faithful guidance of Samuel but now people are wondering what’s coming next. Clearly, Samuel can’t continue forever and his sons are miserable spiritual leaders. So what will they do? The decision is to ask for a king. Samuel is heartbroken but takes their request to the Lord. God says, “Samuel, don’t take it personally — this is about my relationship with them and isn’t about you.” What’s going on here? We have before us a failure to trust God. The people are correct in recognizing the leadership problem. However, they’re mistaken when, instead of going to the Lord and asking his direction, they come telling him what they want done. As we turn the pages of Scripture to look into their future we see that there are some good kings coming. However, by and large their kings fail them, leading to their destruction. How different the story might have been had they come to Samuel and said, “You’re getting old and your sons aren’t the spiritual leaders that you have been…pray to the Lord and ask him what we’re to do next.” How often do I limit what God can do in my life by telling him what I want him to do rather than asking him what he wants me to do?
Take Away: The Lord is willing to work with us; to hear our requests. The wiser route though, is to seek his will first.
The God of Second Chances
Judges 16: But his hair, though cut off, began to grow again.
Samson, lacking both self-control and common sense, has ruined everything. His undisciplined behavior with women and specifically his inability recognize Delilah for the traitor she is has cost him everything. His pride, strength, freedom, and eyesight are gone. The phrase “his hair began to grow again” is powerfully symbolic of what’s happening in Samson’s heart. As he does the work of an animal, grinding out grain, somehow, through his darkness, he begins to see God. However, a word of clarification is needed here. This isn’t a Samson story; rather, it’s a God story. We aren’t to focus on Samson’s strength or his stupidity, but on the marvelous grace of God. Samson had been raised up to be a deliverer of his people and even in his miserable state the Lord’s still willing to work in his life to that end. “His hair began to grow again” is a hopeful word in a terrible situation. This is a picture of our God of Second Chances at work. Samson’s end is not the conclusion to the glorious story as it could have been. In the exercise of his free will Samson sabotages his own life. However, even when everything’s messed up we find God at work salvaging even this destroyed life. That’s the kind of God I serve.
Take Away: God is the God of Second Chances, full of grace and mercy, offering us undeserved restoration.