2.13 Covenant Relationship With God
2.13 Through baptism, the promises to Abraham and David apply to us; we really do have the hope of salvation in the Kingdom; we are spiritual Israel, in covenant relationship with God, and therefore the people of God and separated from this world. Abraham becomes our spiritual father. The New Covenant means that the Old has been done away.
The covenants with Abraham and Isaac are spoken of by David as a law, in the sense that they required certain things of those within those covenants (1 Chron. 16:15-19). And those same covenants are binding upon all baptized into Christ (Gal. 3:27-29), and the hope of the Kingdom which they bring likewise becomes a law governing our behaviour.
2-13 Covenant Relationship With God
It has been commented that the Lord's last words are prophesied in the Psalms: " Into thy hands I commit my spirit" , and that the Psalm goes on to say: " Thou hast redeemed me, Lord God of truth" (Ps. 31:5), suggesting that these were the very first thoughts of the Lord on resurrection. If this is so, then there was a strong awareness in Him that Yahweh was the " God of truth" . This is a title associated with the promises; in which case, His first awareness on resurrection would have been that the Father had faithfully fulfilled His promises to Abraham and David in raising Him. Such was the place which the promises had in the Lord's awareness. And in David's too; 'mercy / lovingkindness and truth' is a technical term for the promises, and it was these things that were ever " before mine eyes" , and the way of life in which he walked (Ps. 26:3). The promises of God are so sure of fulfillment that we can see them, and should seek to feel them, as having been effectively fulfilled to us already in prospect. Heb. 10:36 speaks of 'receiving the promise'. We must fill in the ellipsis: 'receive the fulfillment of the promise'. God's promise is effectively it's fulfillment.
The real import of the covenant-relationship with God which we have is brought out by David in 1 Chron. 16:15-18: Be ye mindful always of his covenant; the word which he commanded to a thousand generations; Even of the covenant which he made with Abraham, and of his oath unto Isaac; And hath confirmed the same to Jacob for a law, and to Israel for an everlasting covenant, Saying, Unto thee will I give the land of Canaan, the lot of your inheritance. The covenant, the promise that Gods people really will inherit the land, becomes a law, a word which he commanded, something which should be thought about all the time. The sure promise of entering the Kingdom, the knowledge that by grace, according to the covenant, we will be there, cannot be accepted passively. The covenant-certainty of that great salvation becomes a command to action. Well now look at some of those actions in practice. Reflect a moment upon the sheer power and import of the fact that the Father promised things to us, who are Abrahams seed by faith and baptism. The Law of Moses was a conditional promise, because there were two parties; but the promises to us are in some sense unconditional, as God is the only one party (Gal. 3:19,20). And as if Gods own unconditional promise isnt enough, He confirmed those promises to us with the blood of His very own son. Bearing this in mind, it's not surprising that Ps. 111:5 states that God "will ever be mindful of His covenant". This means that He's thinking about the covenant made with us all the time! And yet how often in daily life do we reflect upon the fact that we really are in covenant relationship with God... how often do we recollect the part we share in the promises to Abraham, how frequently do we feel that we really are in a personal covenant with God Almighty?
David wrote another Psalm, Psalm 50, which is really a commentary upon the implications of covenant relationship. Those who have |made a covenant with me by sacrifice (Ps. 50:3) are not to respond to this merely by a thoughtless offering of sacrifices; but rather, if they take my covenant in thy mouth they are to declare Gods statutes and love instruction (Ps. 50:16,17). They are to live a life of praise that is based around a Godly lifestyle (Ps. 50:23). Thus if we are in covenant relationship, we will declare that to the world; and it will elicit a committed lifestyle from us. Being in covenant with God led David to be instructed; and he implies that those who truly know the covenant will declare it in witness to others (Ps. 50:16,17).
Separation From The World
We will not even consider courting or marrying the men or women of this world, nor voting for their politicians. We are a separate people. We have been redeemed from them by the precious blood of Christ. We are spiritual Jews. What God spoke to men like Jacob, He therefore spoke to us (Hos. 12:5; Gen. 28:15 cp. Heb. 12:5,6). We therefore will seek all our associations only within the people of God; the things of the people of God will dominate our thinking, it will be our natural desire to meet with them and feel that the ecclesia (in whatever sense) is our preferred environment. Salt was a symbol of covenant relationship with God (Lev. 2:13); yet in the NT this salt stands for love, peace and kind speaking the one to the other (Mk. 9:50; Col. 4:6). This is the result of true membership in covenant relationship; a true and abiding love for all others in covenant. Abraham's example of consciously shunning the things of this world will be matched in us his children. The very fact we have received the promises should mean that therefore we separate ourselves " from the corruption that is in the world" (2 Pet. 1:4). We will be happy to have a light hold on possession of property, knowing that this earth is ours, it's just that for now, we are just passing through it, surveying it, after the pattern of Abraham.
When we read that the faithful saw the promises although they didnt receive them, we are surely meant to understand that they saw the fulfilment of the promises (Heb. 11:13). The promises are so sure of fulfilment that the phrase is put by metonymy for the fulfilment of the promises. And because of their utter certainty, we are to be strangers and pilgrims, and unworldly (Heb. 11:13,14). There is therefore an obvious link between doctrine and practice. A doctrine believed leads to us coming out of this tangled world. Likewise 1 Jn. 5:5 teaches that we overcome the world by believing an idea- that Jesus is the Son of God [as promised to Abraham and David].
Motivation To Commitment
All those in true covenant relationship with God will realize the fullness of commitment to us which He has entered into, and will likewise make a whole-hearted response and sacrifice (Mal. 2:4,5). Ps. 103:18 parallels " such as keep his covenant" with " those that remember his commandments to do them" . Covenant relationship brings a natural desire to live within the atmosphere of God's spirituality. For Israel in covenant with God, absolutely nothing- not sex, menstruation, the content of clothing fabric, diet- could fall outside the scope of their covenant relationship. And so in principle it is with us under the new covenant. Such a relationship also precludes the worship of any other God. Moses said that God had made a covenant with every member of Israel " lest there should be among you man, or woman, or family, or tribe, whose heart turneth away
to go and serve the gods of these nations; lest there should be among you a root that beareth gall" (Dt. 29:14-18). The height of the demand, the extent of the implication of being in covenant with God ought to preclude the possibility of worshipping anything else. The covenant we have entered has constant and binding claims upon our loyalty. This is the implication of the promises to Abraham which form the basis of that covenant. It is worth observing that at times of Israel's apostacy, God reconfirmed Israel's covenant relationship with Him (Jer. 11:2). By reminding them of the nature of their covenant relationship, they were being led to realize that the life of sin was not for them. And so there should be a like awareness in us when at least weekly we are reminded of our covenant bond.
Living The Kingdom Life Now
After David received the promises about the future Messianic Kingdom, he went out and established his Kingdom, attacking Israel's enemies and driving them out of the land (1 Chron. 18:1-3). Our response to the future Hope of the Kingdom, which we too have through the very same promises, should be to try to live the Kingdom life now, as far as we can. " Mercy and truth" is a phrase often relevant to the promises; David rejoiced in God's " mercy and truth" when for a time he had to live " among lions...them that are set on fire, the sons of men, whose teeth are spears..." (Ps. 57:3,4,10). He believed that mercy and truth, the fulfillment of the promises, would be revealed against those who cursed him; because of his identity with Abraham's seed, he believed it would be true of him that whoever cursed him would be cursed. Ps. 57 was written as David hid in the cave from Saul; and he perceived Gods sending forth of help in time of crisis as related to the sending forth of the mercy and truth of the promises to Abraham. In Davids crisis- he thought of the promises!
Likewise our part in the promises should enable us to live Godly in this present evil world. Ps. 89:1-3 records David breaking forth into joy simply because of the promises made to him. Although Israel were in covenant relationship with God, there was no " truth nor mercy nor knowledge of God in the land" , but rather the very opposite: swearing, lying etc. (Hos. 4:1,2). If they had truly believed the " mercy and truth" of the promises to Abraham and the covenant based around them, they would have been merciful and truthful. But they knew these promises but didn't believe them. Having expounded the deeper aspects of the promises to Abraham in Romans 9-11, Paul spins the argument round to practical issues: " I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God [a technical term for the promises- 'the sure mercies of David', Is. 55:3], that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice" (Rom. 12:1).
We must remember that baptism means that we are now the seed of Abraham, and the blessings of forgiveness, of all spiritual blessings in heavenly places, and God's turning us away from our sins are right now being fulfilled in us (Acts 3:27-29). Israel were multiplied as the sand on the sea shore (2 Sam. 17:11; 1 Kings 4:20), they possessed the gates of their enemies (Dt. 17:2; 18:6)- all in antitype of how Abraham's future seed would also receive the promised blessings in their mortal experience, as well as in the eternal blessedness of the future Kingdom.
Unity Amongst Us
Gal. 3:27-29 explains that through baptism into the Abrahamic covenant, there is a special unity between all in that covenant. Slave and free, male and female, Jew and Gentile are all thereby united, as they were in the early church. David Bosch comments: " The revolutionary nature of the early Christian mission manifested itself, inter alia, in the new relationships that came into being in the community. Jew and Roman, Greek and barbarian, free and slave, rich and poor, woman and man, accepted one another as brothers and sisters. It was a movement without analogy, indeed a sociological impossibility" (1). Likewise ecclesial life today can seem " a sociological impossibility" , but through the power of the most basic facts of the Gospel preached to Abraham, this incredible unity is possible. As a nexus " without analogy" , the true Christian community of itself ought to attract the attention of earnest men and women- just as the Lord predicted. Our unity should be the basis of our appeal to men. And yet our divided state is a tragic witness against us in this regard. Because there is neither Jew nor Gentile in Christ means that in practice, amongst those that " have put on the new man [a reference to baptism into Christ]
there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcision and uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bondman, freeman [clear allusion to Gal. 3:27-29]. But Christ is all, and in all. Put on therefore
a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; forbearing one another and forgiving one another" (Col. 3:10-13 RV). These things are what the promises to Abraham are all about in practice! Because we are all now united in Christ in our status as Abraham's seed, therefore we must see to it that through kindness, patience etc. there really is not Jew and Greek, or division of any kind, between us.
Faithfulness To Each Other
Mal. 2:8,10,14 speaks of how a broken covenant with God is related to a broken covenant with ones brethren and ones partner. The nature of our covenant relationship with God is reflected in our relationships with each other.
Strength Against Materialism
Abraham was promised that his seed would have Yahweh as their personal God, and would eternally inherit the land. In a sense, the promises that the seed would inherit the land, and that God would be their God were fulfilled straight after God said them. He became Isaac's God (Gen. 31:42,53 refer to this), the God of Abraham's son. Time and again God reminds Israel that He is their God. And that land in a sense was given to the Jewish fathers (Gen. 15:18; Dt. 28:63; 30:5 NIV; Josh. 1:2-9; 21:43; 1 Kings 4:20,21). David could praise God simply because He was ''my God'' (Ps. 118:28)- an allusion back to the Abrahamic promise. Of course, the main fulfillment of this promise will be in the Kingdom; but in principle, the promise has already been fulfilled to Abraham's seed- i.e., us! This earth on which we live is ours! We are rulers of all we survey. All things are ours (1 Cor. 3:21). We are just strangers here, waiting for the call to rise up and take what is now ours. This is fundamental. We are brainwashed by capitalist materialism to think that we must work our hearts out to achieve ownership of things and land now; so we can put a fence round it and say it's ours, buy a security system or rent a guard to make sure it stays ours, buy insurance to make sure no 'act of God' will take it from us... all this is quite contrary to the most essential teaching of the promises to Abraham. Personal 'ownership' of property and possessions may well be something which is inescapable for us; but let's never forget that actually all things are ours, and we buy these things with the same feeling Abraham must have had when he had to buy part of his own land in which to bury his wife. It was his land, but he hadn't at that time received it. And so with us, with the whole world and all that is in it.
Reflect on what the Lord was really saying in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus. It was Abraham who showed the rich man how useless were human riches. The rich man thought that his natural ancestry was enough- he appeals to father Abraham. But the point of the parable was surely that the rich man was not a true son of Abraham because he had been materialistic and had neglected the needs of his poorer brother. This was and is the implication of being a true son of Abraham.
The promises God makes involve a solemn commitment by Him to us- the serious, binding nature of His oath to us is easy to forget. God swore to David by my holiness (Ps. 89:35). The Hebrew for holiness is the very same word translated dedication. Davids response to Gods dedication to him was to dedicate [s.w.] all the silver and gold which he had won from this world, to the service of Gods house (1 Kings 7:51; 1 Chron. 26:26; 2 Chron. 5:1). Our response to Gods dedication to us should be a like dedication of what we have to Him. Covenant relationship with God requires much of both Him and us. The case of David is a nice illustration of the meaning of grace. David wanted to do something for God- build Him a house, spending his wealth to do so. God replied that no, He wanted to build David a house. And He started to, in the promises He gave David. And Davids response to that grace is to still do something- to dedicate his wealth to Gods house, as God had dedicated Himself to Davids house. This is just how grace and works should be related in our experience.
The letter to the Hebrew Christians describes salvation and the Kingdom with the idea of inheritance. The believers had possessions (Heb. 10:34), had been generous to others (Heb. 6:10), and yet needed the exhortation to "not live for money; be content with what you have" (Heb. 13:5) and to "share what you have with others" (Heb. 13:16). We could surmize that this audience weren't unlike many of us today- not overly wealthy, but sorely tempted to be obsessed by posessions and material advantage. And to them, as to us, the writer emphasizes that salvation in Christ is the ultimate inheritance or posession (Heb. 1:2,4,14, 6:12,17; 9:15; 11:7; 12:17); this is the ultimate "profit" (Heb. 13:17). Hence Esau was quoted as an example- he gave up his inheritance for the sake of a material meal (Heb. 12:15-17). The eternal inheritance which is promised to us in the Gospel, rooted as it is in the promises to the Jewish fathers, should make us not seek for great material inheritance in this present world.
Inspiration To Forgiveness
The promises to David are described as the mercy of God (Is. 55:3; Ps. 89:33,34). God having a son is the sign of His love for us, and this must elicit a response in us. David himself marvelled that such mercy had been shown to him: " Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house
thou knowest thy servant" (2 Sam. 7:18-20). And yet in the very next chapters, we read of how David made a renewed attempt to show mercy to the house of Saul. Mephibosheth says that he is " thy servant
what is thy servant, that thou shouldest look upon such
as I am?" (2 Sam. 9:8). Mephibosheth is using the very words which David used to God; David is showing mercy to Mephibosheth in the very way in which the promises of God to him were the " mercies" shown to David. Appreciating that the promises concern us personally, and that they reveal such loving grace from the Father, can only lead to a similar response in showing love and grace through entering into the lives and destinies of others.
Personal Relationship With God
The most oft repeated feature of the promises to Abraham can for that very reason be easily overlooked. Notice how the personal pronouns are the key words: " I will establish my covenant
between me and you and your descendants
to be your God
I will be their God" (Gen. 17:6-8). God Almighty is committing Himself to Abraham and Abraham's seed in a way so insistent and so awesome that only contemplation of it can elicit the true sense of wonder which we ought to have at being in covenant relationship with God Almighty. The fact that the basis of our relationship with God is an eternal covenant means that we do not drift in and out of fellowship with God according to our awareness of Him. We are His people. Every hour of every day. This is why Asaph can rejoice that despite his low moments of being brutish
as a beast before thee, nevertheless I am continually with thee (Ps. 73:22,23).
When Israel enter the new covenant of forgiveness, then they will loathe themselves for their sins -and this is the effect which the assurance of forgiveness in the new covenant should have upon us. The new Spirit / attitude which the new covenant inspires is one of contrition.
The sure mercies of David result in the wicked man forsaking his way (Is. 55:3,7). The description of the promises to David as sure mercies (1 Chron. 17:13) may perhaps be with a reference to his sin with Bathsheba; his forgiveness in that incident is typical of that which we all receive (Rom. 4:6-8). The very existence of the mercies of / to David therefore inspire us in forsaking sinful thoughts and wicked ways (Is. 55:7).
Such is the wonder of Gods promise to us that we really have no excuse to sin. Every sin is in a sense a denial of His promises. God told David that he had no excuse for what he did with Uriah and Bathsheba, because he had given him so much, and if that had been too little, I would have added unto thee
(2 Sam. 12:8). Too little sends the mind back to 2 Sam. 7:19, where the promises to David are described as a little thing; the promises were so wonderful that David should not have allowed himself to fall into such sin. And us likewise.
David was humbled when he received the promises, just as we should be by realizing that we really are in covenant relationship with God. Who am I
? was his response (2 Sam. 7:18). Like Jacob, he felt himself unworthy of all the mercy and truth shown him in the promises (Gen. 32:10).
Abraham rejoiced to see the day of Christ (Jn. 8:56)- and this is surely an allusion to how he laughed [for joy] at the promise of Isaac. He " gladly received the promises" (Heb. 11:17 RV). And realizing that through baptism the promises are made to us ought to inspire a deep seated joy too. Eph. 1:11 speaks of how we have obtained an inheritance through being in Christ. This is just another way of expressing the great truth of Gal. 3:27-29- that through baptism into Christ, we receive the promise of the inheritance promised to Abraham. But Paul continues in Eph. 1:12: That we should be to the praise of his glory, who first trusted in [Gk. into- through baptism] Christ. The fact we are in Christ by baptism and thus have the Abrahamic promises leads to praise of Gods grace. Yet we will only achieve this if we firmly grasp the real, pointed relevance of the promises to us; that we who are baptized are each one truly and absolutely in Christ, and the promises apply to me personally. An advantage of reading versions that use ye and thou is that one can discern at a glance when you plural and you singular is being used. Gal. 3:26-29 speaks in the plural: Ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ...and if ye be Christs [by baptism into Him], then are ye Abrahams seed and heirs. The very same ideas are then repeated a few verses later, but with the singular you: And because ye are sons...wherefore thou art no more a servant but a son; and if a son [not sons], then an [singular] heir of God through Christ (Gal. 4:6,7); and just to press the point home, he reverts to speaking of you [plural] in the subsequent verses. Its as if Paul is talking generally, in the plural, of us all as a baptized community, heirs together of the promises, all in covenant relationship with God; but then he as it were swirls in upon us each individually; these promises really apply to us each one personally. And the outcome of this must be a deep seated joy and gratitude for Gods grace.
Israel turned back in the day of battle, they lost their faith and nerve, because they kept not the covenant (Ps. 78:9). Keeping the covenant had an effect upon the crises of life. And keeping it was not a matter of mere outward obedience, it was rather a state of the heart. Thus their heart was not right with him, neither were they faithful in his covenant (Ps. 78:37). The covenants /promises made to Abraham and David above all take a grip upon the heart- and we have to keep remembering that those same covenants are made with all who are in Christ.
God In Covenant Relationship
We need to reflect also what it means for God to be in covenant relationship. God has allowed Himself to be bound, as any party is in some way bound once they enter such a relationship. In a sense, God gives up some freedom; for commitment and promise within a relationship involves some restrictions upon freedom. This ties in to the issues of how God appears at times to limit His power, His knowledge [cp. surely they will reverence my son], even His presence. God could exercise His sovereign and ultimate power, knowledge, foreknowledge etc., but the phenomena of His pain, hurt, surprise etc. all indicate that to some extent He chooses to limit them. To pass off these many descriptions of Gods feelings as mere anthropomorphisms seems to me to miss the essential point- for even if they are not to be read dead literally, even if they are anthropomorphisms, what would be the point of them if they do not to some extent reflect the actual feelings and experience of God?
Relationships which have integrity involve some sharing of power. One party to the relationship will not overly dominate the other one, especially by the exercise of power and physical advantage. And this giving up of legitimate power is, it seems to me, what God has done with those with whom He is in covenant relationship. Thus God can state His purpose, e.g. concerning the destruction of Israel and making of Moses a greater nation- but because He shared power with Moses, Moses was able to reason with God and actually get Him to change that stated purpose.
In the same way as God wishes us to enter fully into our covenant relationship with Him, He has very fully entered into the relationship with us. Ultimately He showed this in His even fuller entry into and understanding of human experience through the life and death of His Son, in whom He was supremely manifested. But even in the Old Testament, there are many examples of how God entered so painfully fully into the covenant relationship with His people.
God And Time
Its often been commented that God is beyond or even outside of our kind of time. God pre this present creation may have been like that, and He of course has the capacity and possibility to be like that. But it seems to me that particularly in connection with those with whom He is in relationship, He chooses to not exercise that possibility. Instead, God Almighty throws Himself into our experience, by limiting Himself to our kind of time- with all the suspense, hope, excitement, joy, disappointment which this involves. Time and again we read of how God says He is shaping evil against you and devising a plan against His enemies (Jer. 18:11; Jer. 26:3; Jer. 49:20,30; Jer. 50:45; Mic. 2:3; 4:12). For the faithful, He says that He is making plans for them for good and not for evil, to give you a future (Jer. 29:11). The Lord Jesus had this sort of thing in mind when He spoke of how the Kingdom will have been being prepared for the faithful from the beginning of the world (Mt. 25:34; Mt. 20:23). John the Baptist was to prepare the way for the Lords coming- evidently a process- in reflection of how God had been working a long time to prepare [same Greek word] the way for His Sons coming (Lk. 1:76; Lk. 2:31; Lk. 3:4). We likewise, in our preaching work in these last days, are working in tandem and in step with God. The idea of God 'preparing' implies that there is therefore a gap between the plan being made, and it being executed- hence The Lord has both planned and done what He spoke concerning the inhabitants of Babylon (Jer. 51:12; Jer. 4:28; Lam. 2:17; Is. 22:11; Is. 37:26; Zech. 1:6; Zech. 8:14).
This gap is significant when we come to consider the idea of Gods repentance or change of mind- stating something is going to happen, but then changing His mind because of human behaviour during the time gap between the statement and its execution. All we can say is that past, present and future are meaningful and significant for God. We read of God remembering His covenant (Ex. 2:24; Lev. 26:42; Jer. 14:10,21); and of God not remembering of forgetting the sins of His covenant people (Is. 43:25; Jer. 31:34). If words mean anything, this surely implies that sins which God once remembered, He then stops remembering and forgets. Such language seems on one hand inappropriate to the God who by nature doesnt have to forget and can recall all things. But my point is, that He has willingly entered into the meaning of time which is experienced by those with whom He is in covenant relationship. He allows Himself to genuinely feel it like it is. The 'gap' between God stating His plan and its actual fulfillment is the opportunity for men and women to plead with Him, as Moses did, as Abraham did regarding Sodom (Gen. 18:17-22), as so many have done... and He is most definitely open to human persuasion. Because He is in covenant with us, and this relationship involves a sharing of power, a respect and 'hearing' of each other. The very use of the terms 'remembering' and 'forgetting' suggest God is so fully willing to enter into our kind of time; for a Being cannot forget and remember simultaneously, an element of time is involved. Likewise at times we read of God being slow to anger (Ex. 34:6), at others, of Him not restraining His anger, or restraining it (Ps. 78:38; Is. 48:9; Lam. 2:8; Ez. 20:22), and holding His peace (Is. 57:11; Ps. 50:21), and being provoked to anger by the bad behaviour of His covenant people (Dt. 32:21; Ps. 78:58; Is. 65:3; Jer. 8:19). God clearly has emotions of a kind which are not unrelated to the emotions we experience, as beings made in His image. But those emotions involve a time factor in order to be emotions. We read of the anger of God "for a moment" (Ps. 30:5; Is. 54:7,8), and of His wrath coming and going, leaving Him "calm" and no longer angry (Ez. 16:42). When we sin, we provoke God to anger- i.e. at a point in time, God sees our sin, and becomes angry. This is attested many times in Scripture. But it's meaningless if God is somehow outside of our time and emotions.
What Might Have Been
Although God presents Himself to us as having a memory which functions not unlike our memories, who are made in His image, there is with God the capacity for total recall of history; and hence His pain is far greater than ours, not least because He knows, with all the power of infinite analysis of possibilities, 'what might have been'. And it is the 'what might have been' syndrome which is one of the greatest sources of our emotional pain. His pain and hurt is therefore and thereby so much greater than ours. Hence the pain, the pain which comes from understanding and the potential of total recall, behind Jer. 2:2: "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness". God recalls how "When Israel was a child... the more I called them, the more they went from me... yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk" (Hos. 11). His love, like any parent, is simply such that He can't let go of the memories. He saw how they could have been sons which made Him proud, a faithful wife: "I thought how I would set you among my sons... I thought you would call me, My Father... surely as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel" (Jer. 3:19,20). Because of His capacity to imagine, to see possible futures to some extent, God feels rejected both by His children and by His wife at the same time. Hence the poignancy behind His words in places like Is. 48:18: "O that you had hearkened to my commandments!", "Oh that they would have a mind such as this always" (Dt. 5:29), "O Israel, if you would but listen to me" (Ps. 81:8,13). It's as if He could see the potentially happy future which they could've had stretching out before Him.
God's experience with the Jews in exile was a classic example. He set them up with the possibility to return to Judah, to establish there a Messianic-style Kingdom, giving them the commands in Ez. 40-47 for a glorious temple; but most of them preferred the soft life in Babylon, and those who did return proved small minded, selfish and disinterested in the vision of God's glory. In this context, Isaiah ends his restoration prophecies on a tragic note from God: "I was ready to be sought... I was ready to be found" (Is. 65:1) by the unspiritual exiles in Babylon. But Israel would not. He pictures Himself standing there crying "Here am I, here am I!"- to be rejected by a people more interested in climbing the endless economic and social ladder in Babylon and Persia.
This leads in to the implications that God doesn't actually know for sure how His people will respond to His word. The Hebrew word ulay, 'perhaps', is significant in this connection. "Perhaps they will understand", God says, in reflection upon Ezekiel's preaching ministry to God's people (Ez. 12:1-3). Of Jeremiah's prophetic work, God likewise comments: "It may be [Heb. ulay] they will listen" (Jer. 26:2,3; Jer. 36:3,7; Jer. 51:8; Is. 47:12). This uncertainty of God as to how His people will respond to His word reflects the degree to which He has accommodated Himself to our kind of time. It has huge implications for us, too. With what eagerness must God Almighty look upon us as we sit down to read His word daily! 'Are they going to listen? How are they going to respond?'. It's this which gives our relationship with God Almighty the dynamism and excitement and importance which is beyond us to paint in words. One has to experience it. It's all this which makes Bible reading, study and response to it so thrilling. This feature of our God enables Him to legitimately express a sense of hopefulness in His people, and therefore also, all the pain of disappointment and dashed hopes and expectations. Take Jer. 3:7,19: "I thought 'After she has done all this she will return to me'; but she did not return. I thought how I would set you among my sons and give you a pleasant land... And I thought you would call me, My Father, and would not turn from following me [But] as a faithless wife leaves her husband, so have you been faithless to me, O house of Israel". So on one hand, God can know the future. But it seems to me that so often, He chooses not to, and like us, faces futures which are in some sense unknown. Perhaps this explains God's apparent experimentation to find Adam a "helpmeet" in Gen. 2. The very thought that we can break the heart of God with disappointment surely motivates us to serve Him and be faithful and responsive to His word. Think of God's bitter disappointment with Israel when He invites Moses into the mount as their representative, in order to enter into further covenant with them. Down below, they started worshipping other gods. When God says to Moses "Leave me alone..." (Ex. 32:10), He may well refer to the desire for isolation / solitude which a person in extreme grief desires. And of course we are aware of how Moses reasons with God, and asks God to consider His own future and how it might turn out, and how that can be avoided. And God takes Moses seriously, with integrity, and appears to even acquiesce to his arguments. It's amazing. This God is our God. We have another example in Samuel- God tells Samuel of His rejection of Saul, and Samuel cries to Him all night. I think the implication is that Samuel was pleading with God to consider another future with Saul (1 Sam. 15:11,35; 16:1). Amos 7:1-6 is another case- God reveals His intention regarding Israel, but then Amos makes a case against this and is heard. In fact, these and other examples suggest that this is almost a pattern with God- to devise His purpose, and then in the 'gap' until its fulfillment, be open to the persuasion of His covenant people to change or ammend those plans. This could be what Am. 3:7 is speaking of: "Surely the Lord God does nothing without revealing His secret to His servants the prophets". It's as if He reveals His plans to them so that they can then comment upon them in prayer. And maybe this is why God tells Jeremiah not to pray to Him to change His stated plans against Israel (Jer. 7:16 cp. Jer. 11:14; 14:11; 15:1), and why He asks Moses to 'leave Me alone' and not try to persuade Him to change His mind (Ex. 32:10). He didn't want, in these cases, His stated plans to be interrupted by the appeals of His people to change them. Interestingly, in both these examples, Moses and Jeremiah know God well enough, the relationship is intimate enough, for them to still speak with Him- and change His mind. Those who've prayed to God in cases of terminal illness [and countless other situations] will have sensed this 'battle', this 'struggle' almost, between God and His friends, His covenant people, and the element of 'persuasion' which there is going on both ways in the dialogue between God and ourselves. And all this opens another window on the self-questioning which is associated with God- e.g. "What shall I do with you, O Ephraim?" (Hos. 6:4; Hos. 11:8); or "How can I pardon you? Shall I not punish them for these things?" (Jer. 5:7,9,29; Jer. 9:7,9). Viewed from the understanding I've been exploring, such passages cease to be purely rhetorical questions- they come to reflect the actual and real self-questioning of Almighty God, reflective as it is of the turbulence of emotion which is part and parcel of being in a relationship which has gone painfully wrong. There even seems at times a difficulty on God's part to understand why the people He had loved could hate Him so much: "Have I been a wilderness to Israel, or a land of thick darkness? Why then do my people say, We will no more come to thee?" (Jer. 2:31); "Why then has this people turned away?" (Jer. 8:5); "Why have they provoked me to anger?" (Jer. 8:19; Jer. 2:14; Jer. 30:6; Is. 5:4; Is. 50:2). "What more could I have done for my vineyard... why did it yield wild grapes?" (Is. 5:1-7). This is so much the anguished cry of bewildered middle age parents as they reflect upon a wayward child. This Divine struggle to understand reflects the extraordinary depth of His love for them; and it warns us in chilling terms as to the pain we can cause God if we spurn His amazing love. Jer. 8:4-7 records God reflecting that even the stork 'returns' predictably; but His people have inexplicably not returned to Him. This reveals a powerful thing- that our rejection of God's love is inexplicable even to God Himself. And yet mankind persists in this utter madness. For all our education, business sense, scientific knowledge- we are revealed as inexplicably foolish in rejecting God's love and not 'returning' [repenting] to Him.
Equipped with this understanding, a new window opens upon the "Woe...!" passages in the prophets. The Hebrew word doesn't really imply 'Woe to you, you'd better watch out for what's coming on you!'; rather is it an expression used to express the pain of the speaker over a broken relationship, e.g. at a funeral. And yet the pain of God leads Him to hope, even desperate hope; and again that hope is expressed and felt in terms which are relative to our kind of time. Hence His many questions relating to 'How long?': "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe me?" (Num. 14:11,27); "How long will it be till they are pure?" (Hos. 8:5; Jer. 4:14; 13:27). These aren't merely rhetorical questions. There's an element of literality about God's question- He doesn't know how long it will be, He can only imagine and hope- for Israel has free will, and will not turn to Him just when He says so. For He is in covenant relationship with them, He loves them, and as we've emphasized, that must involve each party allowing the other to function independently and to have their own time and free choice for returning. These questions, and other similar statements from God, are almost God's probing of possible paths into the future- the future which He could, of course, choose to know, but it seems He chooses not to fully know.
All the above indicates that God has allowed Himself to be made vulnerable. Love, promises, covenant relationship, feeling for others, revealing yourself to the object of your love- this is all part of what it means for God to enter covenant relationship with us. The vulnerability and sensitivity of God is reflected in the way that He is concerned that His covenant people, His wife, who bears His Name, might profane His Name (Lev. 19:12; Ex. 20:7; Dt. 5:11). His repeated concern that His Name be taken in vain doesn't simply refer to the casual use of the word "God" as an expression of exasperation. God is concerned about His people taking His Name upon themselves (Num. 6:27) in vain- i.e., marrying Him, entering covenant relationship with Him, taking on His Name- but not being serious about that relationship, taking it on as a vain thing, like a woman who casually marries a man who loves her at the very core of his being, when for her, it's just a casual thing and she lives a profligate and adulterous life as his wife. When God revealed His Name to His people, opening up the very essence of His character to them, He was making Himself vulnerable. We reveal ourselves intimately to another because we wish for them to make a response to us, to love us for what we revealed to them. God revealed Himself to Israel, He sought for intimacy in the covenant relationship, and therefore was and is all the more hurt when His people turn away from Him, after having revealed to them all the wonders of His word (Hos. 8:12). God revealed Himself to Israel alone, in all the detail of His law and prophets (Am. 3:2). And they didn't want Him. Hence His very deep hurt; and also, His excited joy that we grasp that same word with eager minds and seek to love, understand and serve Him faithfully to the end. Given the rejection experienced by God, and the genuine and very real nature of His emotional response to it, it's natural that He would earnestly seek another relationship- and this is just the huge emotional energy He puts into searching for His new bride. He so wants intimacy, a relationship of meaning and mutuality. In our efforts to help each other perceive that, in our sharing of His word with the world and with other believers, in our efforts to help people get baptized into covenant with Him... we are working in step with His earnest desire for relationship with people. And He will bless our efforts. And as we seek to root out of our lives and characters those things which come between us and Him, we likewise will enjoy His very special and joyful blessing and empowerment.
The Pain Of God In The Cross
The things we have discussed above lead us ultimately towards another window onto the sufferings of God in the death of His beloved Son. God speaks of being burdened by Israel's sins (Is. 43:24)- and yet this is a prelude to the passages which speak of the Lord Jesus bearing our sins on the cross (Is. 53:4,11,12). We even read of God being wearied by Israel's sins (Is. 7:13; Jer. 15:6; Ez. 24:12; Mal. 2:17). Even though God does not "grow weary" (Is. 40:28) by nature, it seems to me that in His full entering into His people's situation, He does allow Himself to grow weary with the sins of those with whom He is in covenant relationship. It was this kind of capacity which God has which was supremely revealed in His 'sharing in' the crucifixion of His Son. God's long term 'holding His peace' at Israel's sins resulted in a build up of internal forces within God: "For a long time have I held my peace... restrained myself, now will I cry out like a woman in travail, I will gasp and pant" (Is. 42:14; 63:15; 64:12). God crying out, gasping, panting... leads straight on, in the context, to the suffering servant. This is the same idea as God's heart growing warm and being kindled in internal struggle about His people in Hos. 11:8,9. And all this went on supremely at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus. I have elsewhere commented upon the very intense connection between Father and Son at that time. Crucifixion meant humiliation. God's experience with Israel had led to His humiliation before the nations. For example, seeing the ark represented the very presence of God, the capture of the ark was in a sense the capture of God (1 Sam. 5:7,11 cp. 4:7). Ps. 78:61 comments: "He delivered his power to captivity, his glory to the hand of the foe"
In the death of Jesus we see the Son whom God had so dearly hoped His people would reverence- but they rejected Him. As something of each of us dies in the death of those we love, so "God was in Christ", sharing in His sufferings and death. It was not of course that God died. But He fully shared in the sufferings of His Son unto death. There is in the Hebrew text of Jud. 10:16 something which defies translation. We read there that God was so hurt by Israel's sufferings that in sympathy with them, "His nephesh ["soul"] was shortened" or expended. The phrase is used in Num. 21:4 and Jud. 16:16 about death or the diminishment of life. God's pain was such that this was how He felt, because He so internalized the sufferings of His people. And how much more in the death of His Son? He even feels like that for the sufferings of Gentiles- in the same way as Moab would weep for their slain sons, so God says that His heart would cry out for Moab, "therefore I weep [along] with the weeping of Jazer... my soul moans like a lyre for Moab" (Is. 15:5; Is. 16:9,11). God "pitied" Nineveh- a Hebrew word meaning to pity with tears (Jonah 4:11). The mourning of the prophets over Tyre (Ez. 27:1) and Babylon (Is. 21:3,4) was an embodiment of God's grief even over those not in covenant with Him. And how much more does He weep and suffer with His people Israel in their sufferings (Jer. 12:12; 23:10; Hos. 4:2,3); "my heart yearns / moans for him" (Jer. 31:20). Note in the context of Jer. 31:20 how Rachel is weeping for her children and would not be comforted, and then God as it were takes up that weeping for the same children (Jer. 31:15,20). God mourns over the fact that He can see in the future how His people will be mourning their children in the streets (Am. 5:17,18). In all this we see that God is not only a judge, but a judge who suffers with those to whom He gives punishment. And yet how much more did He weep for His beloved Son, suffering as He did not because He had sinned. And He weeps for us too in our weeping. There are tears and the yearnings of God in Heaven. We are told to weep with those that weep- and this is a reflection of how God weeps for and with us.
God is outstanding in His forgiveness of us. But what is forgiveness? It worries me that so many of us actually haven't thought through basic questions like this. It seems to me that forgiveness is far more than a vague decision in the mind; I like the definition of forgiveness which my wife thought up, and which I jotted down as profound: "A valuing of the relationship more than and above the hurt caused by the sin". It is on the basis of His relationship with us, and His valuing of that relationship so highly, as a covenant relationship, which empowers God to forgive us so wonderfully. And the same should hold true for us in our forgiveness of others in covenant relationship with us.
(1) David Bosch, Transforming Mission (New York: Orbis, 1992)