Does God Destroy? – If So, But How?
The principles of interpretation laid out in the previous chapter can now be applied to the problem of reconciling otherwise contradicting statements. In this case the concern is over the declarations that God does not destroy versus those which say He does. These principles, properly applied, are guaranteed to establish a perfect harmony where confusion previously reigned.
The application is a practical exercise. Let’s begin by selecting a scripture that has frequently been offered as proof that God steps forth in almighty power and cuts down the rejecters of His mercy.
Then the LORD rained brimstone and fire on Sodom and Gomorrah, from the LORD out of the heavens. So He overthrew those cities, all the plain, all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground (Genesis 19:24, 25).
Ponder now upon those words. Just what picture do they suggest to you? Ask the question, “what do these words tell me God did?
The normal understanding is the view that God, after working with great love and patience to bring these rebels to repentance, finally laid aside the garments of his mercy, took hold of the mighty power of fire, and personally poured it out on their unsheltered heads. The result was total obliteration so that no trace of those cities can be found today.
But the Word of God expressly advises God’s ways are entirely different from humanity’s. The difference is not in one point or another but is completely so in every area. Because of this when Christ came to earth, He presented to mankind that which was exactly contrary to the representations of the enemy in regard to the character of God.
Therefore, as surely as it is established that Gods ways are different from our ways, then there must be another explanation to these verses. This alternative is not found by casting around in the human mind for other possibilities. The Bible, under the illumination of the Holy Spirit, must be its own interpreter. When it is learned from scripture how such words are to be understood, the correct concept of God will be gained.
Within the Word of God, the same terminology Is used consistently when describing God’s actions in the destruction of people and cities. God does not provide a careful explanation of what He means by these words in every case, but there are two or three places where He does, and this is sufficient to inform us how every such expression is to be interpreted. Thus the truth is established in the “mouth of two or three witnesses” (Matthew 18:16). I call this the three-text rule. All doctrine, and all interpretations of scripture are based on at least three supporting texts.
Reference will be made to three such witnesses to clarify from the Word itself how such statements are to be understood when used to describe God’s actions. The method used in the Scripture to make the meaning clear is to express the same truth in two different places in two different ways. In the first case, what God did will be clearly stated. Then the Lord himself will use his own method of expressing or describing what He did. By putting these two together it will be clearly seen what God means when He says, “I destroyed them.”
Remember that it is not important what we think the Lord meant when He uses certain expressions. Our task is to be sure of what the Lord meant when he used those words.
The first reference to be considered is in regard to the death of Saul, the first king of Israel.
The battle became fierce against Saul. The archers hit him, and he was wounded by the archers. Then Saul said to his armor bearer, “Draw your sword, and thrust me through with it, lest these uncircumcised men come and abuse me.” But his armor bearer would not, for he was greatly afraid. Therefore Saul took a sword and fell on it. And when his armor bearer saw that Saul was dead, he also fell on his sword and died. So Saul and his three sons died, and all his house died together (I Chronicles 10:3-6).
This is a simple, and therefore easily understood, account of Saul’s death. Therefore it is a background to this event that is but the climax of that which went before. After a certain critical point in the king’s life, he persistently rejected the appeals of mercy. By this means he took himself further and further outside the circle of God’s protection until it was impossible for the lord to help him. This was not because the Lord would not, but only because he could not. Because God cannot force himself on anybody, therefore He cannot force himself where he has been rejected.
Thus, when he went forth to the final battle, Saul went without the Lord’s protection, and he knew it. It was for this reason Saul sought guidance from the witch at Endor. Without God’s presence, there was nothing to save Saul from the dreadful power of the Philistines, resulting in his destruction. As Saul’s life is considered, it will be seen that he took himself away from God, placing himself where there is no defense from Satan’s power, and thus, in fact, he destroyed himself.
Having seen clearly, then, what the Lord did in respect to Saul’s destruction, we are now ready to see how He described what he did.
So Saul died for his unfaithfulness which he had committed against the LORD, because he did not keep the word of the LORD, and also because he consulted a medium for guidance. But he did not inquire of the LORD; therefore, He killed him, and turned the kingdom over to David the son of Jesse (I Chronicles 10:13, 14).
But we know that God did not raise His hand to slay Saul. Saul killed himself just in time to save the Philistines from doing it. The Scriptures, which are the very expression of God’s thought, describe that in these words. “Therefore, He (the Lord God of heaven) killed him.”
This is certainly not the way we would use the words, “He killed him.” Describing human behavior, we would imagine the slayer coming to the victim and bringing the sword down upon the head of the guilty person. This is not how we describe the way God kills. God moves away from the person, handing them over to the victim of other forces.
So foreign is this form of expression to what we are accustomed to that it is initially difficult to think in this new terminology. Yet, in order to truthfully understand God’s thought as expressed in His word, the mind must be re-educated to think this way when reading about God’s ways which are distinctly different from our ways. There certainly will be no difficulty in seeing that the way in which God uses words and the way in which we use them are contrary to each other.
The presentation of one witness is never sufficient to establish the truth of the Bible. A second must be added.
As it was with Saul, so it was with the entire nation of Israel. Centuries of loving appeals were spurned, the prophets were persecuted, and in some cases martyred. Eventually the Son of God Himself came with a personal message from the Father. But they rejected Him even more emphatically.
The time came when Christ recognized that they had passed the point of no return. What did He say and do? He declared that Jerusalem was beyond hope, and then, instead of launching fiery balls of destruction upon the city, He quietly left them to their fate. Again, He did not do this because he wanted to but because there was nothing else He could do that was consistent with His character of love. Here are His words.
“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! See! Your house is left to you desolate; for I say to you, you shall see Me no more till you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’” (Matthew 23:37-39).
For the same reasons, and in harmony with the same principles, God left Israel exactly as He had left Saul. Thus was removed from them the only effective defense from their many enemies.
The Jews had forged their own fetters; they had filled for themselves the cup of vengeance. In the utter destruction that befell them as a nation, and in all the woes that followed them in their dispersion, they were but reaping the harvest which their own hands had sown. Says the prophet, “O Israel, thou has destroyed thyself;” “For thou hast fallen by thine iniquity.” Hosea 13:9-14:1. Their sufferings are often represented as a punishment visited upon them by the direct decree of God. It is thus that the great deceiver seeks to conceal his own work. By stubborn rejection of divine love and mercy, the Jews had caused the protection of God to be withdrawn from them, and Satan was permitted to rule them according to his will. The horrible cruelties enacted in the destruction of Jerusalem are a demonstration of Satan’s vindictive power over those who yield to his control.
But when men pass the limits of divine forbearance, that restraint (placed upon Satan) is removed. God does not stand toward the sinner as an executioner of the sentence against transgression; but He leaves the rejecters of His mercy to themselves, to reap that which they have sown. . . . The Spirit of God, persistently resisted, is at last withdrawn from the sinner, and then there is left no power to control the evil passions of the soul, and no protection from the malice and enmity of Satan. The destruction of Jerusalem is a fearful and solemn warning to all (regarding) the certain punishment that will fall upon the guilty.
Of particular value is the reference made to the common interpretation of what was done there. “Their sufferings are often represented as a punishment visited upon them by the direct decree of God.” In other words, this is the way in which most people view God’s actions in this incident:
“With loving appeals the Lord seeks to woo and to win until the time comes when his patience is exhausted. Then, having passed judgment upon them, He personally decides what form of punishment He will send. Will it be a fearful earthquake, a fire, a volcanic eruption, or pestilence, or shall He send their enemies among them? In the case of Jerusalem, God decided that He would send the Romans’ Having made this decree, He called them to the terrible office of being the personal executioners of His vengeance on the Jews.”
This is the view most people have of the judgment on the Jews in CE (AD) 70. This is the interpretation that comes of thinking that God’s behavior is the same as humanity’s and of defining Bible words according to dictionary meanings. While these methods are employed, it is impossible to come to any other conclusion.
Again, we read: Their sufferings are often represented as a punishment visited upon them by the direct decree of God. It is thus that the great deceiver seeks to conceal his own work.
Then there is laid down forever the precious truth that “God does not stand toward the sinner as an executioner of the sentence against transgression; but He leaves the rejecters of His mercy to themselves, to reap that which they have sown. What befell the Jews was the natural outworking of their own course of action. It was not something brought upon them by God. They had sown the seed: now they had to gather the certain harvest.
We have before us a revelation of the course God pursued toward the Israelites, which is the same as that with Saul. It is now necessary to find how God himself describes what He did.
In the death of Israel’s first king and the destruction of the nation in CE (AD) 70, God consistently followed the same course. In both cases He worked with infinite love and patience to win them to the ways of righteousness and safety, but they utterly rejected it, forcing Him to withdraw and leave them to the fate that lay nearest. For Saul, it was the invasion of the Philistines, for Jerusalem, the Roman onslaught.
God described what he did to Saul in words very different from the ones we would use to describe what He did. God said, “I destroyed him.” We would say, “Saul destroyed himself.”
Because God is consistent, it is to be expected that He would describe the same action in the fall of Jerusalem in the same language. Therefore, it must be anticipated that He would say, “I destroyed Jerusalem and killed those murders.” This is just how He did describe that terrible destruction.
In Matthew 22, there is a parable that, in its initial application, sets out the two final calls given to the Jewish people and their rejections of those calls. When the second all is complete and is rejected, the king’s reaction is described in these words:
But when the king heard about it, he was furious. And he sent out his armies, destroyed those murderers, and burned up the city (Matthew 22:7).
This verse is inherent in symbolic language. God the Father was the king; the armies were the Romans under Titus; the murders were the Jews who crucified Christ; and the city of Jerusalem. The fulfillment of this fearful prophecy came in CE (AD) 70 as verified in Christ’s Object Lessons, page 309, where this verse is quoted, followed by these words:
The judgment pronounced came upon the Jews in the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of the nation.
If we substitute the things symbolized for the symbolic words, the verse must read as follows: “But when God heard thereof, God was wroth: and God sent forth His armies, the Romans and God destroyed the Jews, and God burned up Jerusalem.”
If these words are interpreted according to normal dictionary definitions, the only possible picture of God would be identical to earthly despots. But the inspired word quoted from The Great Controversy confirms that an altogether different understanding is to be obtained from these verses. Therefore, the position adopted depends directly on the way in which the words are understood. The choice lies between accepting a meaning according to human or scriptural language. The former is acquired by reference to a standard dictionary, the latter by the Scriptures themselves.
The third witness will also be drawn from Israel’s history. There was the occasion when the Israelites were traveling through the wilderness and once again murmured about God and Moses. Unknown to them, they were traveling through an area infested with deadly serpents and other terrors. Because of God’s protecting care, they had passed through this area unharmed until that time when they drove away His protection through their own ingratitude and sinfulness. With the shield removed, there was nothing to hold back the invasion of those reptiles, and as a result many of the people died a terrible death.
Here is the description of what happened and of what God did. It needs but little comment after the two already studied, for once again it will be seen that the Lord simply left them to what they wanted. He did not decree the particular punishment; it was lurking there all the time only awaiting the opportunity to destroy them.
As the Israelites indulged the spirit of discontent, they were disposed to find fault even with their blessings. “And the people spake against God, and Against Moses, Wherefore have ye brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? For there is no bread, neither is there any water; and our soul loathes this light bread.”
Moses faithfully set before the people their great sin. It was God’s power alone that had preserved them in “that great and terrible wilderness, wherein were fiery serpents, and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water.” (Deuteronomy 8:15). Every day of their travels they had been kept by a miracle of divine mercy. In all ways of God’s leading they had found water to refresh the thirsty, bread from heaven to satisfy their hunger, and peace and safety under the shadowy cloud by day and the pillar of fire by night. Angels had ministered to them as they climbed the rocky heights or threaded the rugged paths of the wilderness. Notwithstanding the hardships they had endured, there was not a feeble one in all their ranks. Their feet had not swollen in their long journeys, neither had their clothes grown old. God had subdued before them the fierce beasts of prey and venomous reptiles of the forest and the desert. If with all these tokens of His love the people still continued to complain, the Lord would withdraw His protection until they should be led to appreciate His merciful care and return to Him with repentance and humiliation.
Because they had been shielded by divine power they had not realized the countless dangers by which they were continually surrounded. In their ingratitude and unbelief, they had not anticipated death, and now the Lord permitted death to come upon them. The poisonous serpents that infested the wilderness were called fiery serpents, on account of the terrible effects produced by their sting. It caused violent inflammation and speedy death. As the protecting hand of God was removed from Israel, great numbers of people were attacked by these venomous creatures.
As the previous illustrations, a comparison will be made between what the Lord is described as doing and His own statement of what He did. If God is consistent, and we know He is, then He will describe this in the same way as He spoke of the previous two. Again the consistency of God stands forth without variableness or shadow of turning.
So the LORD sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many of the people of Israel died (Numbers 21:6).
For those who want further confirmation of the truths revealed in this use of the Bible as its own dictionary, referral is made to the experience of the patriarch Job. Satan demanded the right to destroy him. God withdrew and left him to the power of the devil with one restriction – that he could not take his life. Everything that happened to Job was at the hands of Satan, not God. The picture of God’s behavior was the same as previously shown except for this difference. Whereas in each of the other cases, it was the sinfulness of the rejecters of His mercy that drove God and His protection away, Job was a perfect and upright man (Job 1:8). God’s withdrawal from him was not the result of Job’s sinfulness.
On what grounds, then, could the Lord leave Job to suffer at the devils hands? This is a good question that finds its answer in the following principle. Every true child of God has given his life into God’s hands to be sacrificed in His cause if thereby the work will be advanced. This is a privilege and the Lord will never deny that privilege to any one of His children when the hour comes. The hour came for Job, and the Lord did not stand in the way of his offering.
Thus there are two ways in which the Lord will remove his protection from a person and leave him to the destroyer. One is by humanity’s sinfulness, which drives off the Spirit of God, and the other is by the individual offering himself as a sacrifice for the cause of truth, a thing that every child of God does.
When the Lord came down to personally describe what He had done to Job, He again used the same language as previously noted.
Once again this is not the way we would use those words according to everyday usage. Our use of them would convey a meaning quite opposite from what God intended when He used them.
It would be impossible to arrive at the meanings of the words according to God’s usage of them, without the guidance of the Word of God. Only from there can such an interpretation be obtained. That is, it is the only dictionary which gives this definition of these words.
It may take some time to train our minds to carry these double definitions for the same words. But conscious effort must be made until it is just as natural to think of the new definition as the old. It must become second nature to ascribe one meaning to the words when they describe divine conduct and another when they deal with the human. Here is a comparison between the two.
When human being destroy, they move toward the victim with deliberate intention to kill.
When God destroys, He moves away from the subject with no intention of killing.
When human beings destroy, they carry the weapons of death in their hands.
When God destroys, He carries no weapons but lays down control of the destructive powers.
When human beings destroy, they guide the sword to its target.
When God destroys, there is no personal administration of punishment. Whatever comes upon sinners is the outworking of the forces of death that they themselves have set in motion.
At this point two questions are apt to arise. The first is, what is the essential difference between the direct act of destroying or that of departing to leave the person to die? In both cases it is God’s action that bring about the destruction, therefore, in each case, He is a destroyer.
This would be true if God’s withdrawal was His own act, but it is not. The fact is that He is driven away.
The truth of this is stated in the following way.
Christ will never abandon those for whom He has died. WE must leave Him and be overwhelmed with temptation, but Christ can never turn from one for whom he has paid the ransom of His own life.
In view of the fact that Christ died for everyone, this statement is saying that it is impossible for Christ to turn away from anyone. People turn away from God. God cannot turn away from humanity. That is impossible.
The second question is this: If God does not in fact destroy, then why does He use this word to describe His actions? Does this not tend to make the Scriptures confusing?
Again this is an excellent question. But this is the right word to use in describing God’s actions, for there is a deep and important sense in which it is true that He does destroy.
As the evidences will further here unfold, it will be seen that God comes to humanity in one role only, which is as a Saviour. But the effect of that effort is not always a saving one. With the majority, the effect is to harden them in rebellion and to cause them to withdraw themselves from the voice of loving appeal. Thus God destroys by trying to save. The more He exerts His saving power, the more that people reject His offer, thus leading to destruction. It is in this sense that He destroys.
It is not God that blinds the eyes of men or hardens their hearts. He sends them light to correct their errors, and to lead them in safe paths; it is by the rejection of this light that the eyes are blinded and the heart hardened. Often the process is gradual, and almost imperceptible. Light comes to the soul through God’s word, through His servants, or by the direct agency of His Spirit; but when one ray of light is disregarded, there is a partial benumbing of the spiritual perceptions , and the second revealing of light is less clearly discerned. So the darkness increase, until it is night in the soul. Thus it had been with these Jewish leaders. They were convinced that a divine power attended Christ, but in order to resist the truth, they attributed the work of the Holy Spirit to Satan. In doing this they deliberately chose deception; they yielded themselves to Satan, and henceforth they were controlled by his power.
It is not God that puts the blinder before the eyes of men or makes their hearts hard; it is the light which God sends to his people, to correct their errors, to lead them in safe paths, but which they refuse to accept, it is this that blinds their minds and hardens their hearts.
The outstanding example of this outworking is the history of Pharaoh of Egypt. The Scripture says, “And I will harden Pharaoh’s heart, and multiply My signs and My wonders in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:3).
To harden is to destroy. It is not physical destruction but spiritual. This spiritual destruction if the prelude to the physical, which must inevitably follow. The Scriptures plainly say that it was God who did it and He did, but every reference that throws light on what God did shows that His action was to send spiritual light and loving appeals to Pharaoh. These were designed to soften and save, not to harden him, but that which was sent to save, destroyed him instead because he rejected it. Note carefully that it was not the light, but his rejection of it that hardened and destroyed him.
Every rejection of light hardens the heart and darkens the understanding; and thus men find it more and more difficult to distinguish between right and wrong, and they become bolder in resisting the will of God.
Every additional evidence of the power of God that the Egyptian monarch resisted, carried him on to a stronger and more persistent defiance of God. Thus the work went on, finite man warring against the expressed will of an infinite God. This case is a clear illustration of the sin against the Holy Spirit. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” Gradually the Lord withdrew his Spirit. Removing his restraining power, He gave the king into the hands of the worst of all tyrants, self.
The patience and long-suffering of God, which should soften and subdue the soul, has an altogether different influence upon the careless and sinful. It leads them to cast off restraint, and strengthens them in resistance.
The truth laid out in these statements is a very important one. When it is truly appreciated, there will be no careless attitude toward the revelations of that which are brought to us. There will be the dread of having the heart hardened and the spiritual sense benumbed.
Let ministers and people remember that gospel truth ruins if it does not save. The soul that refuses to listen to the invitations of mercy from day to day can soon listen to the most urgent appeals without an emotion stirring his soul.
We must clearly understand that the only effort God puts forth is to save. That effort can and does produce two opposite effects. In the hearts and lives of those who accept God’s work, it achieves its intended result. It softens, changes, cleanses, and restores. It is unto life eternal.
But in the lives of those who reject that saving ministry, there is a terrible work of destruction going forward. It is a destroying work that breaks down every spiritual response within, hardens the heart in rebellion, develops every sinful trait, and compels the Spirit of God to withdraw His presence and His protection. This leaves the individual to the choice he or she has made – a position where there is no protection whatsoever from the destructive malice of Satan and sin.
God destroys, but not as human beings destroy. Every effort on God’s part is to save, but it has an altogether different result in the lives of those who reject that saving power. Therefore, we can know that, in fact, God is a Saviour and a Saviour only. He destroys by trying to save. The more His saving power is manifest in the world and that power is rejected, the more swiftly and terribly are the rejecters destroyed by the simple outworking of the forces involved.
This principle will come through with greater clarity and force as the individual cases of the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the plagues of Egypt, the crucifixion of Christ, the seven last plagues, and the final judgement are studied. These will be progressively examined. For now it is sufficient to establish the principle that the way in which the Lord destroys is by seeking to save. Thus His way of destroying is entirely different from humanity’s ways. Once this is clearly comprehended, it is possible to view all God’s actions in a new and enlightened way. As a result, the whole of Scriptures will emerge as one great harmonious truth.
In our next post on this subject we will explore “The Supreme Revelation”
We will attempt to answer or shed light on the question. Is the Father the wrathful One, standing by to execute vengeance upon sinners, while the meek and gentle Jesus interposes to persuade Him to hold back His retribution?
What does it mean that Christ and the Father “are one”?
Is there really no difference between the Father and Son in how they relate to humankind?
Was the Old Testament revelation not enough to know the truth about the character of God?
Was the Old testament revelation of God and the coming of Christ simply a shifting of emphasis from one aspect of God to another, implying that Christ’s revelation of the character of God was incomplete?
If you have not previously read the other posts on this subject I invite you to read them prayerfully and carefully examining what God is trying to tell us.
|01 He Wanted to Teach Respect||05 Approaching the Study of God|
|02 Why a Tree to Teach Respect02 Why a Tree to Teach Respect||06 The Constitution of the Government of God|
|03 The End of the Great Controversy||07 A Perfect Law|
|04 Isaiah’s Wonderful Prophecy||08 God’s Principles Tested|
|09 A Summary of God’s Constitution||13 The Supreme Revelation|
|10 Contrasting Statements||14 Urged to Destroy|
|11 Statements and Principles||15 Magnifying the Law|
|12 Does God Destroy – But How?||16 Go the Second Mile|