Stubbornness in Heart

“Lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away this day from the LORD our God, to go to serve the gods of those nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall and wormwood; and it come to pass, when he heareth the words of this curse, that he bless himself in his heart, saying,
‘I shall have peace, though I walk in the stubbornness of my heart,’
to destroy the moist with the dry. The LORD will not pardon him, but then the anger of the LORD and his jealousy will smoke against that man, and all the curse that is written in this book shall lie upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. And the LORD will set him apart unto evil out of all the tribes of Israel, according to all the curses of the covenant that is written in this book of the law (Deuteronomy 29:18-21).

Deep down most of us want our cake and to eat it as well. We can’t.

Moses Pleading with Israel (crop)

Moses has established the “words of the covenant” between YHWH and Israel, renewed in the land of Moab (Deuteronomy 29:1). Moses grounds obedience to the Law in terms of the recognition of what YHWH has done for Israel: they saw how YHWH devastated Egypt, rescued them from bondage, etc., but they did not fully perceive what it all meant until the present (Deuteronomy 29:2-4). YHWH has sustained Israel in the wilderness so that they would know He is their God; He gave them victory over Sihon and Og (Deuteronomy 29:5-8). YHWH’s saving and victorious hand is the reason why Israel should keep the covenant so they can prosper (Deuteronomy 29:9). All Israel stands before YHWH that day to enter into that covenant: not just those physically alive and present, but in a real and binding way, those who are not yet alive but will be born or otherwise grafted into that covenant for generations (Deuteronomy 29:10-17). Moses brings up the universality of the moment for good reason: he wants to make sure that no one thinks they have an “out” or an escape, as he explains in Deuteronomy 29:18-21, either in the present or in the future to come (cf. Deuteronomy 29:22-28).

What kind of “out” would people think to have? Moses imagines a person who is standing there at that moment, having seen all YHWH had done for Israel and yet allows his heart to be turned away from Him to serve the gods of the nations (Deuteronomy 29:18). Such a one is imagined to say, in the stubbornness of his heart, that he will have peace (Deuteronomy 29:19). He thinks he will have peace, but Moses says such a one will “destroy the moist with the dry”; a proverbial expression, likely indicating that destruction or difficulty will come to the good as well as the bad in such a circumstance (Deuteronomy 29:19). Moses wants it to be perfectly clear that such attitudes are right out: this person is actually a source of gall and wormwood, toxic to the health of the nation, and upon whom the anger of YHWH will be fully expressed, experiencing the full weight of the curses of the covenant (Deuteronomy 29:18, 20-21). The person may not even be physically present at the moment; even if it is a child of a later generation, the same suffering will take place, and Israel will be as Sodom and Gomorrah, a by-word and parable for the nations (Deuteronomy 29:22-28). Moses wants one thing to be plain: YHWH is not messing around. Do not think that you can present a false front of adherence to YHWH while nursing idolatry and wickedness in the heart. The stubbornness of your heart will be exposed for what it is and it will not go well with you!

Unfortunately all Moses warned about would come to pass: many Israelites pursued the stubbornness of their hearts, served other gods, and it led to exile for Israel and Judah (cf. 2 Kings 17:7-23). The stubbornness of Israel’s heart was evident in the way they treated the prophets YHWH sent to them. They did not listen; they refused to hear; they paid the penalty.

We can all see these things and nod in assent. It is easy to see how they did not hear because they were stubborn in their hearts. But do you really think that they would have really said in their hearts that they would have peace though they walk in the stubbornness of their heart (Deuteronomy 29:19)? Were they really that self-aware?

While there are always exceptions to the rule, in general, most of the Israelites who believed they would have peace despite maintaining rebellion against YHWH through serving idols would not have considered themselves as being stubborn in heart. Moses is “putting words in their mouths” to explain the situation. In reality they are being stubborn in heart, yet they are most likely deceived, thinking that they know better, understand better, or expect that things will be alright because YHWH will surely not abandon His people, etc. (e.g. Jeremiah 7:1-15). They were being stubborn, but they didn’t think that way about themselves!

Walking in the stubbornness of the heart is the perennial danger of the people of God. We easily imagine that “God will understand,” “God surely will not abandon us,” or perhaps even worse, “God will be pleased with this,” despite the fact that what we are doing is contrary to His revealed will and purposes in Jesus Christ. The danger is real; we are easily tempted, when hearing what God has condemned, to try to carve out some exceptions, to make it seem less dangerous, or to otherwise justify our current perspective or behavior. We are tempted to conform to the habits and views of those around us just as Israel was (Romans 12:2); for them it was serving a pantheon of gods and engaging in customs contrary to the Law, while for us it involves the cultural relativism, elevation of empiricism and materialism, and drunkenness through consumerism rampant in our culture. It’s tempting to want to straddle the fence, to act as if we can serve God fully while adhering to these cultural concepts in the stubbornness of our hearts.

God is gracious; we are all dependent on His grace and mercy (Ephesians 2:1-10). But what if God “will not understand”? What if confidence that “God surely will not abandon us” is misplaced? What if we have actually called evil good, and good evil? How will it go for us on the day of the Lord Jesus? Let us learn from the example of Israel, and let us not bless ourselves in our hearts when we should mourn, and seek to perceive the deceptive stubbornness in our hearts so as to root it out and subject ourselves to God in Christ!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Christian and the Government

Let every soul be in subjection to the higher powers: for there is no power but of God; and the powers that be are ordained of God. Therefore he that resisteth the power, withstandeth the ordinance of God: and they that withstand shall receive to themselves judgment. For rulers are not a terror to the good work, but to the evil. And wouldest thou have no fear of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise from the same: for he is a minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is a minister of God, an avenger for wrath to him that doeth evil. Wherefore ye must needs be in subjection, not only because of the wrath, but also for conscience’ sake (Romans 13:1-5).

For 1,700 years the controversy has centered on Romans 13.

For all the New Testament teachings regarding Jesus’ spiritual Kingdom, its pages provided precious few declarations regarding earthly nations and their governance. Only in Romans 13:1-7 is earthly government discussed in any substantive and meaningful way. Little wonder, then, that once Christianity gained societal respectability and earthly authorities began professing it, Romans 13:1-7 would feature prominently in justification of and argumentation regarding how governments would act.

To this end the text has been stretched and bended far beyond anything its original author would have intended. In the middle of the seventeenth century, the king of England and loyal political philosophers laid ahold of Paul’s declaration that the earthly government is ordained by God (Romans 13:1-2), and used it to justify the doctrine of the divine right of kings, suggesting that since God ordained the king to be in charge, the commands of the king were as the commands of God. Yet, by the end of that century and into the next, some Enlightenment philosophers laid ahold of Paul’s reasoning behind the existence of the earthly government as the agent of God’s wrath toward those doing evil in Romans 13:3-4, inferred that any ruler terrorizing good conduct and good people and not sufficiently punishing evil has lost their divine mandate, and thus suggested that it was justifiable to overthrow any government which had thus “lost” its divine mandate. Within two centuries the same text could be used to justify both the establishment of a dictatorship as well as its overthrow.

The government and the Christian’s relationship to it is a sensitive topic today. As we can see, the main text describing that relationship has been used to justify all sorts of attitudes toward government for centuries. What shall we do?

We do well to honor one of the most fundamental principles of Biblical interpretation: first understand the text in context. When Paul writes what is found in Romans 13:1-7, he does not have in mind the British monarchy or the American democratic republic per se. Instead, he writes to the Christians living in the capital of the Roman empire in the early days of the Emperor Nero.

When we take a moment to strip away the layers of assumptions and inferences in order to try to get back to Paul’s original premise, we find that Paul’s primary purpose in Romans 13:1-7 is to legitimate the existence of an earthly governmental authority, consistent with what Peter will write in 1 Peter 2:13-17 as well. If we think about it, this concern makes a lot of sense, for one of the principal proclamations of the Gospel is that Jesus is Lord (kurios; cf. Acts 2:36). If Jesus is Lord of all, that means that Caesar is not, and many of the opponents of the Gospel seized upon this (cf. Acts 17:6-7). Meanwhile, the Roman authorities were ambivalent toward or hostile against the faith: the recently dead Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome, possibly because of the preaching of Jesus as the Christ (cf. Acts 18:2). There were already whispers about the darker side of Nero’s personality and conduct, and that ugliness would only become more evident as time wore on. If Jesus is really Lord, and the government sometimes stands in the way of Jesus’ purposes, why have a government at all? Why obey and submit to these earthly, pagan, ungodly rulers, if Jesus is really Lord?

Paul provides a rebuke to such “Christian anarchism.” Paul declares that God has all power, and therefore earthly governments exist because God has granted them the ability and power to exist (Romans 13:1-2). They have a good reason for existence: government exists to punish evil behavior (Romans 13:3-4). If a Christian is busy doing good, he or she should have little to fear from the governing authorities; therefore, to ask for them to be in subjection to governing authorities is not really asking too much, on account of wrath and conscience (Romans 13:3-5). For the same reason, tax, tribute, and honor should be given to such authorities, since their existence is justified before God (Romans 13:6-7).

While such things are said to the Roman Christians in the context of the Roman empire, it is evident from the way in which Paul speaks that the message is not limited only to such persons. What Paul says is true regarding the Christians of Rome and their relationship to the Roman Empire would be equally true for Christians living under a monarchy, dictatorship, aristocracy, oligarchy, or democracy. Paul says nothing about how the governing authorities obtained their power or how well they adhere to the rules or guidelines which theoretically govern that country. He does not make explicit any of the inferences derived from this passage, either to justify whatever a ruler says or to justify revolution against a government. We do well to wonder why that is.

Paul insists that Christians should be subject to the governing authorities, as does Peter in 1 Peter 2:13-17. Peter will go on to speak about slaves and how they should be subject to their masters, not just the good and gentle ones, but also those who are “froward,” unreasonable or unjust (1 Peter 2:18). Peter goes on to describe the gracious matter of suffering unjustly while doing what is good and right and holy, reminding the Christians of his time how Jesus had done the same for them (1 Peter 2:19-25).

There is quite the lesson to be learned there: in many ways, the Christian’s relationship to the government is like the Christian slave’s relationship to his master. It is for the Christian to submit no matter the type of master, save in that which is against what God has decreed (cf. Acts 5:29). The Christian is never justified in acting according to a rebellious or contrary spirit; the reason for disobedience against any earthly authority is because of obedience toward God. It is not given for the Christian to weigh the fitness of the rulers before deciding to submit to them, contrary to what some have said. It is also not for the rulers to fancy that whatever they say ought to be as if God Himself had said it, contrary to what others have said. God will judge Christians for how well they respected rulers and obeyed them, and the rulers for how well they governed according to the principles of righteousness, as can be seen from Romans 13:1-7.

In Romans 13:1-7 Paul sees a separation between Christians and their government: “you” are the Christians and “he” is the authority in the passage, and we do not see the two meet. How Christians are to relate to a government in which they have the opportunity to voice their beliefs and to shape policy is not explicitly outlined but certainly would not be in opposition to what God has revealed through Paul in terms of how Christians are to relate to any government. Christians are to show proper respect and honor for their rulers and should be subject to them, obeying the laws of the land. Whether the rulers are good and fair or immoral and unjust is irrelevant; Christians are not given the right to treat the rulers differently on the basis of their conduct. There may be times when Christians will find themselves on the wrong side of civil laws because they are obeying God; such does not justify a spirit of rebellion. In all cases of such “civil disobedience” that we find in Scripture, the Christians remained respectful of government and willingly suffered the civil consequences of their behavior. Early Christians never agitated for the overthrow of the government.

Paul could write with such indifference to the fate of any particular government because he understood that Jesus is really Lord, and the only way of salvation was through the message of the Gospel (Romans 1:16). The advancement of the Gospel and the Kingdom of God is all that is really important (Matthew 6:33). Earthly authorities are to be respected and obeyed but they are not our saviors or redeemers. Only Jesus can do that. Let us obey God in all things, including showing proper respect toward and subjection to the earthly authorities!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Trust Test

Then said the LORD unto Moses, “Behold, I will rain bread from heaven for you; and the people shall go out and gather a day’s portion every day, that I may prove them, whether they will walk in my law, or not” (Exodus 16:4).

The LORD had done most impressive things for the people of Israel. It had not been that long ago that the Israelites were hopeless servants of the mighty Pharaoh of Egypt. The LORD then struck Egypt with ten plagues, led Israel through the Red Sea on dry ground, and drowned the Egyptian army (Exodus 6-14). Israel believed in the LORD and feared Him on the basis of these experiences (Exodus 14:31). But how deep was that belief and trust?

It was now God’s intention to test the people of Israel to see whether they would really follow His law or not. After all the great demonstrations of God’s loving kindness toward Israel, would Israel lean on its God?

They were now in the wilderness– an inhospitable desert. They would not be able to find much food or drink “naturally.” They would have to rely on God if they were to survive!

God would provide the people with food. They were to go out and gather a day’s portion daily save for the sixth day, when they would gather for two days (Exodus 16:4-5). The next morning, after the dew evaporated, a “fine flake-like thing” covered the ground– the “manna” that would sustain the people for the next forty years (Exodus 16:14-15). They were to gather an omer, or about two quarts, per person (Exodus 16:16). These were very simple and straightforward instructions.

Yet many in Israel did not listen. They gathered less or more than an omer per person, and discovered that no matter what, each had his omer (Exodus 16:17-18). Moses then told them to entirely consume it on that day and leave nothing over (Exodus 16:19). Yet again, some did not listen, and they discovered the next day that it had worms and was rotten (Exodus 16:20).

On the sixth day they gathered two omers per person, and Moses commanded the people to prepare it all but save half for the next day, the Sabbath day, a day of solemn rest (Exodus 16:22-23). They were to do no work on the Sabbath day, and they should not expect manna to fall on that day (Exodus 16:25-26). Yet many of the Israelites went out to obtain manna on the seventh day (Exodus 16:27). God was quite displeased with them because they kept refusing His commandments, and then and only then did they abide within His law (Exodus 16:28-30)!

This whole episode reflects mankind’s natural fearfulness and desire to test boundaries. In effect, God is testing Israel to see whether they will truly trust Him or not. Will they follow the commandments regarding the food He provides for them or not? At every turn, many fail to trust God. Some do not go out and get all of the required omer, and others try to get much more. Many do not trust, at first, that there will be manna out there every morning, and so they try to preserve some for the next day. And when God provides extra manna that does not go bad overnight, the people still try to go out and get more on the Sabbath day!

Israel has to learn to trust God, apparently, for they are not doing well at trusting God’s good will toward them and that what He says, goes. They have to find that out for themselves.

Every generation, in some sense or another, goes through the same process. Each generation is warned sternly about the pitfalls of life, and yet plenty of people in each generation must learn the “hard way” through experience. Humans are too bent on their own way!

Wisdom teaches us that it is best to learn from the mistakes of our own past and the past of others. Wisdom also would teach us to follow God’s commands, for they are designed for our own benefit (1 John 5:3). He establishes His will for us for our own good, to help us be more like Him (Romans 8:29, Galatians 2:20). In a sense, God tests every one like He tests Israel: He has decreed His guidelines in the Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:16-17), and He will see whether we will follow Him or not, and whether we truly trust in Him.

Therefore, will we trust in God’s loving kindness, or will we doubt and have to push the boundaries like Israel did? Will our faith prove to be only skin-deep, or will we prove ourselves to truly trust in God no matter what? Let us strive to pass the trust test and not be like Israel!

Ethan R. Longhenry