An Execution

SwordAn Execution

The flood was the first occasion when nature, out of God’s control, broke with cataclysmic fury on the unsheltered heads of humanity.  Then there was the destruction of the tower of Babel by lightening. The next incident of great note was the incineration of Sodom and Gomorrah.

After this the list lengthens.  There were the plagues upon Egypt; the returning waters of the Red Sea; various pestilences that smote the Israelites; the invasion of the fiery serpents; the swallowing of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram in the earthquake; the overthrow of the walls of Jericho; the great hailstorm in Joshua’s day; the expiration of Sennacherib’s army; the death of the children by the claws and the jaws of the bears; the fire which consumed the men who came to take Elijah captive; and many more.

In our day one disaster follows another in steady succession until each new one brings no surprise.

To examine each case would be repeating the same arguments already advanced in respect to the flood, the fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, and the plagues of Egypt.  Once the principles have been established, it can then be applied to all other situations.

Sometimes it is possible to see a scientific explanation of the disaster, but not always, for what took the lives of Sennacherib’s men is not revealed.  The withholding of this information simply provides an exercise in faith, testing the grip held upon the principles of righteousness revealed in the Scriptures.  Because no revelation is given of how they died, the temptation is to revert to the idea that God personally executed them.

Such temptation must be positively rejected.  Cling to the simple belief that God does not execute sinners but leaves them to themselves to reap that which they have chosen.  This is so emphatically revealed in the inspired Word of God that there is no excuse for losing sight of it.

The consumption of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram presents no problems.  The earth opened up and swallowed them.  What neither they, nor the rest of Israel knew, was that they were encamped over a fault that so far only the sustaining presence of God had held in check.  In like manner, human beings today are unable to predict just where and when these disasters will strike.

When those rebels sustained their defiance of God, they compelled Him to withdraw from where they were, leaving only one possible consequences.  The earthquake so long restrained was unleashed.

But there are other occasions, in some respects different from those cited above, in which God’s actions are most difficult to understand. They have so perplexed earnest Christians for centuries that some have been led to doubt the character of God and even to forsake His service. What God appears to have done denies every principle discussed so far in this series.  These incidents are those in which God commanded the Israelites to take their weapons and slay men, women, children, infants, and all livestock of other neighboring people groups. The execution of the defiant people who worshiped the golden calf, the genocide of the Amalekites, and the extermination of the Canaanites were all accomplished in obedience to God’s directions. While God Himself did not carry out the slaughtering, the Israelites followed His command. Considering that in the natural order of things, he who orders the execution is the real executioner, it appears that God filled the role of destroyer in these instances.

More than any other, the Biblical recital of these events provides those who cling to the view that God inflicts judgments on those who offend Him with the justification for their stand.  To them, these stories provide incontrovertible proof of their stances.

Indeed, these stories are difficult to understand, but not even in these situations has God acted as an executioner or destroyer.  It cannot be overstressed that success in uncovering the real truth of God’s part at the golden calf execution, the genocide of the Amalekites, the annihilation of the Canaanites, and so forth, depends upon there being complete confidence in God’s consistency.  There must be the unassailable conviction that there is no contradiction in the Word of God and that He does not make a declaration about His character and behavior in one place and then proceed to do the opposite in another.

To clarify the nature of the problem, three statements outlining God’s commitment never to use force will be quoted.  These will be immediately followed by the record of the golden calf incident, so it can be plainly seen that one set of statements appears to be directly contradicted by the other.

Rebellion was not to be overcome by force.  Compelling power is found only under Satan’s government. The Lord’s principles are not of this order.  His authority rests upon goodness, mercy, and love; and the presentation of these principles is the means to be used.  God’s government is moral, and truth and love are to be the prevailing power (The Desire of Ages, p. 759).

Earthly kingdoms rule by the ascendancy of physical power; but from Christ’s kingdom every carnal weapon, every instrument of coercion, is banished (The Acts of the Apostles, P. 12).

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 Great Controversy, p. 36).

There is no ambiguity in these statements, but they do become a problem when brought into direct contact with a story such as the slaughter of the rebels at the golden calf.  When these two are brought together, it appears that God states one thing in one place and then proceeds to do the opposite in another.  Compare the record that follows with the statement quoted above.

And he (Moses) said to them, “Thus says the Lord God of Israel: ‘Let every man put with sword on his side, and go in and out from the entrance to entrance throughout the camp and let ever man kill his brother, every man his companion, and every man his neighbor.” So the sons of Levi did according to the word of Moses.  And about three thousand men of the people fell that day.  Then Moses said, “consecrate yourselves today to the Lord, that He may bestow on you a blessing this day, for every man has opposed his son and his brother” (Exodus 32:27-29).

Those who performed this terrible work of judgment were acting by divine authority, executing the sentence of the King of heaven.  Men are to beware how they, in their human blindness, judge and condemn their fellow men; but when God commands them to execute His sentence upon iniquity, He is to be obeyed.  Those who performed this painful act, thus manifested their abhorrence of rebellion and idolater, and consecrated themselves more fully to the service of the true God.  The Lord honored their faithfulness by bestowing special distinction upon the tribe of Levi.

The Israelites had been guilty of treason, and that against a King who had loaded them with benefits and whose authority they had voluntarily pledged themselves to obey.  That the divine government might be maintained, justice must be visited upon the traitors. Yet even here God’s mercy was displayed.  While He maintained His law, He granted freedom of choice and opportunity for repentance to all.  Only those were cut off who persisted in rebellion.

It was necessary that this sin should be punished, as a testimony to surrounding nations of God’s displeasure against idolatry.  By executing justice upon the guilty, Moses, as God’s instrument, must leave on record a solemn and public protest against their crime.  As the Israelites should hereafter condemn the idolatry of the neighboring tribes, their enemies would throw back upon them the charge that the people who claimed Jehovah as their God had made a calf and worshipped it in Horeb.  Then, though compelled to acknowledge the disgraceful truth, Israel could point to the terrible fate of the transgressors, as evidence that their sin had not been sanctioned or excused.

Love no less than justice demanded that for this sin judgment should be inflicted. God is the guardian as well as the sovereign of His people.  He cuts off those who are determined upon the rebellion, that they may not lead others to ruin.  In sparing the life of Cain, God had demonstrated to the universe what would be the result of permitting sin to go unpunished.  The influence exerted upon his descendants by his life and teaching led to the state of corruption that demanded the destruction of the whole worldly by a flood.  The history of the antediluvians testifies that long life is not a blessing to the sinner; God’s great forbearance did not repress their wickedness.  The longer men lived, the more corrupt they become.

So with the apostasy at Sinai.  Unless punishment had been speedily visited upon the transgression, the same results would again have been seen. The earth would have become as corrupt as in the days of Noah. Had these transgressors been spared, evils would have followed, greater than resulted from sparing the life of Cain. It was the mercy of God that thousands should suffer, to prevent the necessity of visiting judgments upon millions.  In order to save the many, He must punish the few.  Furthermore, as the people had cast off their allegiance to God, they had forfeited the divine protection, and, departed of their defense, the whole nation was exposed to the power of their enemies.  Had not the evil been promptly put away, they would soon have fallen prey to their numerous and powerful foes.  It was necessary for the good of Israel, and also as a lesson to all succeeding generations, that crime should be promptly punished.  And it was no less a mercy to the sinners themselves that they should be cut short in their evil course.  Had their life been spared, the same spirit that led them to rebel against God would have been manifested in hatred and strife among themselves, and they would eventually have destroyed one another.  It was in love to the world, in love to Israel, and even to the transgressor, that crime was punished with swift and terrible severity (Patriarchs and Prophets, pp. 324-326).

The people’s behavior can only be classified as rebellion. In the case of those who refused to repent of it, it was persistent and incurable.  It is clearly seen that the insurrection was overcome by force.  The Levites took their swords and slaughtered the rebels.  Thus, by force alone the rebellion was overcome.

What makes this critically different from the numerous other occasions when rebellion was been overcome by force is that God ordered this solution to be applied.  The sinners were not left to themselves to reap that which they had sown.  Rather, a direct sentence was formulated against them and summarily carried into effect.

Thus at first observation, every step God is reported to have taken denies what He laid out as His principles in the first three references quoted.  God declared that it is not His way to overcome rebellion by force, yet He directed that it be done in just that way.  He claims that He leaves the sinners to themselves to reap what they have sown, but He certainly di not do that here.

It is simple to see how quite a case can be built up against God by using this evidence.  It is argued by those who believe that god executes those who disobey Him that the only way to deny this is to make the bible read as we wish it to be read.  Before this study is over, it will become evident that those who make this charge are, in fact, the one who are guilty of doing this.

When rightly understood, scriptural records will show that the golden calf God did nothing in violation of His stated principles.

How is it, though, that the vast majority have failed to rightly perceive the work of God at the base of the mountain?  Why has He been viewed as the maker and executioner of the sentence? Why has no real difference been made between the behavior of God and earthly monarchs?

It is because one vital factor, being completely overlooked is never taken in to consideration.  When it is, it makes all the difference to understanding the case. Then the charges leveled against God will be redirected where they rightly belong.

The factor that we will be discussing is the Israelites introduction of the sword into their lives.  Adopting the sword was an extremely serious and tragic step that placed them on a different relationship with their divine Leader.  It amounted to the institution of humanities procedures in place of God’s.  Israel exercised their freedom of choice, and Jehovah could not and, therefore, did not compel them to discard it.  All He could do was to labor to save them from the worst effects of what they had elected to do.

Their decision to take up weapons of coercion and destruction was not made in complete ignorance of God’s will.  The heavenly Father had faithfully communicated to them that the sword was to find no place among them whatsoever.

They were named after their revered father Israel, whose history of victory over his foes was well known to them.  God designed that this should be a witness to them of His ways.  The lesson was especially pertinent, for there was a distinct parallel existing between Israel’s situation and theirs.  As he was a prisoner of his scheming uncle, Laban, and desired to depart for the promised land, so they were held in Egyptian bondage and longed to leave for Canaan’s land.

When the patriarch set forth on his journey, he was pursued by Laban who was determined to bring his son-in-law back with him.  It cost Laban seven days to overtake Jacob, seven days in which his temper had time to reach fever heat.  When he found Jacob, “He was hot in anger, and bent on forcing them to return, which he doubted not that he could do, since his band was much stronger. The fugitives were indeed in great peril” (Patriarchs and Prophets, P. 193).

Jacob, knowing full well. That he would be pursued, made every provision possible to prevent his being forced to return.  But in all his careful planning for the security of the ones he loved so dearly, he made no move to arm his servants with swords and spears.  He put his entire trust in God as his Protector, and the Lord filled that commission so effectively that not only did Jacob not go back to Laban’s home but not one of his household was even so much as scratched.

This peril gone, with the pacified Laban returning to his place, Jacob pressed on to meet the greater peril of Esau who reportedly was coming to meet him with six hundred armed men.  Esau had only one objective in mind – to ensure that Jacob could never dispossess him of their father’s wealth. The only way to assure this was to slaughter Jacob and his band.  That would settle the question for all time.

As this deadly peril threatened Jacob, there were at least two different courses he could have adopted.  The common human reaction is to turn to the power of weapons.  Accordingly, Jacob could have chosen to divert from his course to spend time in arming and training his servants.  He did not do this, for he rightly understood that this was not Gods way.  Instead, he continued without deviation, his entire confidence resting in the assurance that God would faithfully fulfill his responsibility of protecting him and his entourage. On the night before the encounter, he turned aside to pray, his deep concern arising from the fear that unconfessed sin would obstruct God’s work and leave him exposed to his enemy.  There was no lack of faith in God’s power to deliver him. His only fear was that his own spiritual condition would make that power unavailable. The long hours of agonized wrestling brought the victory.

God did not force Esau to leave his brother unmolested. Instead, He sent an angel to reveal to him the true character of Jacob, his sufferings, his spirit, and his intentions.  Thus Esau was led to view Jacob in a new light.  He realized that Jacob was not a threat to him, and therefore, did not need to be eliminated.  His rage was replaced by sympathy, and the outcome again was that not even one from Jacob’s household received so much as a scratch.

Here is a point worthy of emphasis.  Whenever the children of Israel gave God the task of protecting them, not one of them lost their lives or suffered injury, but when they took the sword, there was nearly always loss of life, which in some cases was very heavy.

From Jacob’s experience, we gain a vision of how we should rely on God for deliverance. It is the same message reiterated by the psalmist.  “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore, we will not fear, even though the earth be removed, and though the mountains be carried into the mist of the sea; though its water roar and be troubled, though the mountains shake with its swelling” (Psalm 46:1-3).

“The angel of the Lord encamps all around those who fear Him, and delivers’ (Psalm 34:7).

The great controversy is not between us and Satan but between Christ and Satan.  We do not have the power to overcome the enemy.  God alone can do that and has undertaken to do so.  Our task is to leave Him to do what He has promised. The victory is ours as a gift, which is demonstrated in wonderful experience of Jacob.

Through this experience, God provided the Israelites with a perpetual testimony of the security available to them if they trustingly committed the keeping of their lives to Him. As a preparation for the departure from Egypt, it was sufficient to assure them that they were to make no provision for acquiring and using swords. They were to entrust that task to God as fully as Jacob did, knowing they could expect the same results.

God, knowing that the success of the great venture depended on their strict adherence to these principles, reiterated the lesson repeatedly during the exodus and the period leading up to it.

Moses had been thoroughly trained in the art of war and had proved himself on the battlefield to be a brilliant tactician.

His ability as a military leader made him a favorite with the armies of Egypt, and he has generally regarded as a man of remarkable character (Patriarchs and Prophets p, 245).

Moses therefore, naturally expected that the Lord would deliver them by force of arms.  He saw in his Egyptian education a divinely provided training for such a campaign. Had God purposed to do things this way, no better man than Moses could have been found anywhere in history.  It is significant that God made no use of his ability in Moses at any time in his life, for not once did Moses lead the armies of Israel into Battle.

The elders of Israel were taught by angels that the time for their deliverance was near, and that Moses was the man whom God would employ to accomplish this work.  Angels instructed Moses also that Jehovah had chosen him to break the bondage of His people. He, supposing that they were to obtain their freedom by force of arms, expected to lead the Hebrew host against the armies of Egypt, and having this in view, he guarded his affections, lest in his attachment to his foster mother or to Pharaoh he would not be free to do the will of God (ibid).

Thus Moses was dedicated to the divine purpose for himself and Israel and longed for the fulfillment of the plan.  When he saw the Israelite being oppressed by the Egyptian, he slew the persecutor, supposing that thereby he had initiated the armed struggle which would liberate the slave nation.  But even though the Israelites were aware of God’s appointment of Moses, there was not a man inspired to rise with him.  Instead, he was forced into a precipitous flight to Midian.  This unexpected development caused Moses a great deal of deep heart-searching, providing God with the needed opportunity to teach him that it was not by warfare that Israel was to be delivered.

Forty years later he returned, clad, not in the shining armor of the military leader, but in the simple garb of an eastern shepherd with a staff in his hands.  Before all Israel, God was proclaiming the way by which they would be taken out of bondage and preserved forever from their enemies.  It was a reminder to them of the same truth as revealed in Gods dealing with Jacob.

In all of this we are to clearly see that God did not intend to free them by His providence only to change His method and have them fight their own way to the Promised Land under His guidance.  God started the exodus upon principles that were to be forever preserved and maintained.  At no time did he deviate from His established course of action. During the reign of sorrow, as plague followed plague, the Israelites had no part to play other than merely standing by and letting the Lord handle everything.

When, just before their final departure, God impressed the Egyptians to liberally provide the travelers with everything they would ever need on their journey, He did not put it in the hearts of their former masters to give them weapons of war.  It was a people for whom God had made every provision, who went out of Egypt, “unarmed and unaccustomed to war” (Ibid., p. 282).  If the Lord had intended a change from His fighting their battle to their doing this work for themselves, then He certainly would have made sure they were equipped for this role. The fact that He did not impress the Egyptians to arm them is clear proof that He never intended they should be.  As the exodus began, so it was to continue.

How much happier their subsequent history would have been had they learned from Jacob and their recent experiences of God’s deliverance.  There would have been no substitution of human faithless methods in place of the infallible, divine procedures.  God would never have commanded them to take their swords and slaughter men, women, and children.  In every situation He would have been the Defender and Deliverer.

When they came to the Red Sea, the Lord once more demonstrated the way in which the power of their enemies would be broken if they relied on God.  There it was shown in the most vivid way that the rejecters of God’s mercy was simply left to themselves to perish.

When Pharaoh led his army into the corridor between those standing walls of water, it was an act of terrible presumption on his part.  The only way in which the Israelites could pass safely over was by remaining within the circle of God’s protection.  But the Egyptians had deliberately and defiantly cast off that protection, and therefore, the Spirit of the Lord could not maintain the waters in their position.  As the army advanced, the spirit of God had no choice but to retire before it.  As that power was withdrawn, the waters simply rushed back to their original positions, overwhelming the enemies of God and delivering His people.

God’s commitment to offering His creatures freedom of choice would be no more than empty words if there was no opportunity to choose another course.  Accordingly, in order to give full support to His declared principles, the Lord is careful not to deprive the people of the means whereby they could go in another direction if they wished.

So while the Lord had made it absolutely clear that they were not to carry the sword in their journey from Egypt, they had the same freedom to obey or disobey as did their first parents in Eden.  The opportunity for them to take the sword was afforded when the armor-clad bodies of the Egyptians soldiers were washed up at their feet.

As morning broke it revealed to the multitudes of Israel all that remained of their mighty goes – the mail – clad bodies cast upon the shore (Ibid., pp. 287, 288).

Here was the great test for the men of Israel.  They were tempted with a veritable arsenal of weapons – swords, spears, helmets, shields, and breastplates.  They could either rush down and take the spoils, thus equipping themselves to fight as other nations fought, or they could turn their back upon it and leave their protection in the Lord’s hands.

There are no direct records confirming that they rushed down and took the armor from the Egyptians, but all the evidence points strongly in that direction.  Here are the facts.  They approached, crossed, and emerged from the Red Sea without implements of war. Shortly after leaving the Red Sea, they engaged in warfare against the Amalekites in which they did not use sticks and stones. As there were no swordsmiths between the Red Sea and the location of their first battle, the only way they could have become equipped was by salvaging the weaponry washed ashore.

It was a critical point in their history, for the sad decision made there influenced the full span of their future. The real issue involved whether the people were going to trust God as their sole Protector or whether they were going to take His work into their own hands.  It was the question of implicit trust in God versus greater confidence in the power of their own fighting abilities.  They introduced a new order into the camp, replacing the divine arrangement. Thus they prevented the nation from giving a true representation of God’s character, and this eventually led to their final dismissal as the channel of God’s communication to the world.

What makes their decision so significant are the circumstances under which it was made.  God had just demonstrated to them the most thrilling and convincing display of His ability and willingness to deal with their enemies according to the principles of eternal righteousness. With God like that, what need did they have of weapons? In taking up the sword at that point, Israel failed tragically.

That it was not His intent for them to make war is proved by direct statements as well as by all the principles which undergird God’s character:  The Lord had never commanded them to “go up and fight.” It was not His purpose that they should gain the land by warfare, but by strict obedience to his commands (Ibid,. p. 392).

The use of force is exclusive to Satan’s kingdom.  It has no part in God’s order. They were to possess the Promised Land by strict obedience to His commands, one of which prohibits killing.

So while it is true that they gained the land by force, contrary to God’s way, let it not be forgotten that they also lost it in the same manner.  Their sad history confirms the truth of Christ’s words to the valiant and belligerent Peter: “Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52).

Jesus did not give these words a limited application in time.  He was not saying, “from this time forward, all who take the sword will thereby perish.” What He stated is an eternal truth.  It is a statement of the fact that the use of force engenders counterforce.

God, understanding perfectly that those who live by the sword will perish by it, knew that for Israel to use weaponry was to ensure their destruction.  God did not desire such an outcome. Therefore, from this motivation alone, it is certain that he never game them the sword.  More than this, if He had done so, then He would be responsible for their destruction, for he who gives to another that which will assuredly effect his death must carry the blame for that demise.

It follows then that it was never in God’s purpose that Israel or anyone else should ever carry the sword.  It has no place in His character and corresponding methods, and therefore, it is to find no acceptance in the character of behavior of His people.

The recognition of this truth is essential to understanding the directives form God which sent the Israelites forth with the sword to utterly destroy the people who opposed them.  The institution of this form of government was entirely the people’s work. The expression of their having more faith in themselves than in God.  It was the establishment of human principles and procedures in place of the divine.

Therefore, in every instances where the Israelites went to war or executed the wrongdoers among themselves, their actions were not a revelation of the character of God.  There has been a universal readiness to conclude that they were acting in complete righteousness by simply doing as the Lord told them.  If they had been truly obedient people, they would not have had the swords at all and, therefore, would never have gone forth to slay their enemies.

Yet God did give directions to them.  There is no denying this, nor is there any desire to do so, for the nature of those commands reveals a very wonderful and beautiful Father in heaven who is ever reaching out to save and never to destroy.  The tragic error is that He has been terribly misunderstood to the point where the actions designed to minimize the evil effects of the slaughtering to which they were committed have been judged in an altogether different and wrong light.

The purpose here is to establish that it was in spite of God’s best efforts to the contrary that the sword became an establishment in the encampment of Israel.  The recognition of this truth is essential to understanding the directives given to Israel, which have long been viewed as an indication that He was personally and directly involved and that He decided the particular sentence and then ordered its execution.

But God does not give orders contrary to the principles of righteousness.  Therefore, more study is required to remove the seeming inconsistencies. This may be done with the sweet consciousness that there are no contradictions in the Word of God and that God’s character is perfectly consistent in all its behavior.

Next in our series we will explore “The ever-loving, Saving Father.”

We will explore if you had a son or daughter of accountable age who made a choice in life contrary to principles of righteousness as taught in your home, would you have any other options than to: (1) abandon them to their choice; (2) employ force to correct them; or (3) love them to try to lessen or delay the pain of the consequences of their error?

What do the stories of the ministry of Jeremiah to God’s people, the prodigal son, and the rebellion of Lucifer all have in common?

What kind of war was waged in heaven, resulting in the “casting out” of Lucifer and his angels?

Does arbitrary (discretionary; externally decreed and enforced) punishment for breaking the law have any place in God’s government?

If you have not had the opportunity to read the other posts in this series on the Character of God, I invite you to click on the links below.

Published by The Bible In Your Hand

Hi, I am Pastor Lester Bentley, a devoted husband, father, and Pastor for the Northeastern Wyoming District of the Rocky Mountain Conference of Seventh-day Adventist. I am committed to the great gospel commission as stated in Matthew 28:19, 20.

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