Looking into the future
Jeremiah 43: He’ll set up his throne on the very stones I’ve had buried here.
I don’t believe that the future is mapped out in detail because I firmly believe God has given us the gift, and responsibility, of free will. However, I certainly believe that some things about the future are preordained. It isn’t that the Lord has looked into the future and seen things happening; it’s just that he’s Sovereign and he’s declared he’s going to bring certain things to pass. When the Almighty says he’s going to do something, that’s just as sure as if it already happened. In this passage we find Jeremiah in Egypt. I’m not sure why Johanan and the others brought him along. Apparently, it’s similar to why King Zedekiah kept Jeremiah locked up but couldn’t resist going to him for the latest word from the Lord. Jeremiah’s message to them is unwavering. The Lord said, “Don’t go to Egypt” and they’ve gone to Egypt anyway. The Lord said, “If you go to Egypt you’ll find the death and destruction you’re fleeing.” Now, Jeremiah drives that point home by having some stones laid along the walkway that leads to one of Pharaoh’s palaces. He says that the day’s coming when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon will sit his throne right on top of those stones as he claims the gem of Egypt for Babylon. Again, I don’t see every detail of the future as predetermined. Still, there’s plenty that God has already declared to be certain. For instance, Jesus is coming back, Judgment day is sure, and everyone will spend forever somewhere. I have the freedom to prepare for those certainties or not, as my future isn’t predetermined. By the grace of God that much is up to me and my eternity hangs in the balance based on that decision.
Take Away: Certain things about the future are sure but how I respond to the grace of God in preparing for that future he leaves to me.
Have it your way
Jeremiah 2: When things go badly, they don’t hesitate to come running.
Jeremiah’s charge against his people is that they’re addicted to pagan gods and that they run this way and that way in search of something that will satisfy them. They ignore God until things go wrong, then they don’t hesitate to run to him for help. The Lord says, “You’ve plenty of gods, let them take care of you; let them save you from the bad times.” I’ve seen it. I’ve known people who know God’s purpose for them but don’t want any part of it. When the wheels come off, they “get religion” and want God to rescue them. I know the Lord is gracious and forgiving and long suffering. As one of his people I want those qualities to be evident in my life. At the same time, there’s a fair word of warning in this. At some point, the Lord yields to our decisions and allows us to have it our way. We shouldn’t presume on the grace of God.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for his grace – at the same time don’t be so foolish as to see just how far you can push the Almighty.
Free will and accountability
Isaiah 47: You’re acting like the center of the Universe.
God Almighty hands his chosen people over to Babylon, the powerhouse of that day. His purpose is to humble Israel and bring this rebellious people back to himself. However, Babylon goes farther than God intends and now the Lord rebukes Babylon for going too far. I think there’s a case to be made here for the doctrine of free will. God gives Babylon the power and position to dominate the region. Then when Babylon behaves in cruel ways God says they’ve gone too far and that he’ll now knock them off their high horse. They think they’re the “center of the universe” but the real “Center of the Universe” is about to put them in their place. Another thing that comes to mind here is the underlying theme of God’s love. God has been stern with Israel, but it’s out of love. He’s willing to use Babylon to bring them to submission but there’s a limit to how far God wants that to go. I’m reminded of how in the book of Job that God gives Satan permission to strike Job, but in doing so the Lord also tells him that there’s a limit to how far he can go. On one hand, therefore, I see here my accountability to God as to what I say and do, even when I’m operating within the providence of God. On the other hand, I see that God loves me, and when I’m on the receiving end of hardship that he’s set boundaries, not allowing me to be tempted beyond what I can bear.
Take Away: The Lord’s discipline of us is governed by his love for us.
Not blind trust
Isaiah 45: I am God. I work out in the open.
Isaiah speaks to people who have incorporated idol worship into their religion. The religions of other nations have greatly influenced them, causing their view of God to include lots of mystery and magic. In his message, Isaiah includes the words of the Lord who reminds them that he’s never told them to, “Seek me in emptiness, in dark nothingness.” In fact, the Lord has done just the opposite. He’s told them his plans ahead of time. He’s even offered them choices: “do this and I will do that, or do that, and I will do this.” This God doesn’t work in the darkness and serving him doesn’t involve a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. Serving God certainly requires faith on our part. There’s much about that Almighty that’s transcendent, beyond our understanding. However, his desires for us are an open book. As Isaiah says it, “Turn to me and be helped —saved! — everyone, whoever and wherever you are!” Living in a relationship with God isn’t an exercise in ignorance. This God partners with us, directing our lives, but, at the same time, allows us to operate freely within his purposes. This God prefers light to darkness and is, in fact, the Creator of Light (both physical and spiritual). We serve him in absolute trust, but, since his purposes for us have already been clearly stated, it isn’t blind trust.
Take Away: Living in a relationship with the Lord isn’t an exercise in ignorance.
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 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.