God Goes the Second Mile
We are still seeking Bible evidence to throw sufficient light on the incident at the golden calf to enable us to see clearly that God did not violate one principle of His character there. When the light of the Word of God shines with force and clarity on the situation, it will be seen that not only was God still acting as Savior at the golden calf slaughter but that He has also been seriously misunderstood in that role.
The truth being developed here is that Israel elected to reject God’s way when they took up the sword. Not only had the Lord not give this weapon to them, but He had done all in His power short of direct compulsion to prevent them from taking it. But once they made that choice, they instituted their way in place of God’s way.
It is impossible for both the way of God and of human beings to operate within a society at the same time. It can be only one or the other, never both. So, when they elected to institute their way in place of God’s, then God’s methods could not be used in dealing with the rebellion at Sinai. Therefore, what happened at Mount Sinai was not after the order of God. It was the application of the procedures that Israel had instituted by adding the sword to their way of life. The only part God filled was to apply some restraint and guidance to their use of it to minimize its evil effects.
What complicates the problem, making it difficult for many to understand. God’s behavior, is that Israel was still reckoned to be His people. Therefore, it is reasoned, if God was still their leader and, from that position, instructed them to execute the rebellious, then He was responsible for the slaughter. If this is correct reasoning, then it can only be concluded that this was the divinely instituted solution to the problem. Rebellion, therefore, was to be overcome by force.
The superficial thinker is satisfied with the serious, clashing contradictions in the Bible that result from such conclusions. The careful student cannot accept this. He or she will search with faith-filled, intensive dedication until the problem is resolved according to Bible principles.
The fact that the Israelites were God’s people only to whatever extend they permitted Him to be their Sovereign is overlooked. This is the sad tragedy of their history. While in large areas they retained God as their leader, followed His ways, and served Him fully, there were others where they took His work to themselves. For instance, they still followed the pillar of cloud by day and fire by night, faithfully respected the sabbath, were custodians of His law, and continued the services of the sanctuary according to the divine blueprint.
But, by taking up the sword, they deprived the Lord of His position as their Defender and Protector from enemies within and without. While it is true that they expected God to assist them in this work, it does not alter the fact that they were doing it in His stead and according to their own human principles. Therefore, their actions, as such, were not the revelation of God’s character but their own. It was the manifestation of the outworking of such wicked unbelief that led them to have more confidence in their own power to protect themselves than in God’s.
Yet, God did something in this domain where they had taken the work to themselves. Inasmuch as His every act is a revelation of His character, God revealed Himself by what He did in directing the Levites to cut down the rebels. Unfortunately, the majority have seen this Actions in a very different light from the reality and consequently have retained an erroneous concept of His character.
It must be recognized that God is a Savior, He worked intensely to save them from taking the sword in the first place, but when they despitefully did so, then the best He could do was to give counsel designed to save them from the worst consequences of their choice. They were not compelled to obey His counsel, but they were well advised to do so if they wished to save themselves from terrible evils. It is interesting to note that perversity of humanity that will refuse to obey God in somethings and yet implicitly follow His guidance in others. Thus while Israel did not have the faith to leave their protection to God, they were prepared to follow the letter His direction sin dealing with crime in the camp.
It is doubtful if a better illustration of this exists than can be found in the relationship of God to the Israelites when they went into captivity. The evidence presented in the previous post shows that right up until Israel was carried into Babylon the Lord did His best to save them from it. He sent messages of warning and entreaty. He assured them if they would only repent, then, even at the last moment, they would be delivered as if they had never sinned and would be kept safely and prosperously in their own land. He did not show the least trace of vindictiveness or desire to retaliate. He did not demand that they serve out a sentence of punishment for their evil deeds.
But they would neither heed or repent. Because they would not, the Lord could not save them from captivity. So they became captives. Their going into captivity effectively terminated God’s efforts to save them from it. but this did not mean that the Lord ceased to act as a Saviour to them. Certainly, He could no longer act the role of a Saviour to save them from going into captivity, for that possibility was past. They were now captives. But he could save them from the worst effects of that which they had chosen, and this is what he did.
The record of God’s doing this is beautifully recorded in the Scriptures. Not only is He revealed there as an unchanging and every-loving Saviour, but, by contrast, the devil is shown in his work of destroying. The evil one had worked incessantly to deliver Israel into captivity and had succeeded. Then, when he got them there, he worked with equal frenzy to make that captivity as destructive to their physical and spiritual comfort and welfare as possible.
Zedekiah at the beginning of his reign was trusted fully by the king of Babylon and had as a tried counselor the prophet Jeremiah. By pursuing an honorable course toward the Babylonians and by paying heed to the messages form the Lord through Jeremiah, he could have kept the respect of many in high authority and have had opportunity to communicate to them a knowledge of the true God. Thus the captive exiles already in Babylon would have been placed on vantage ground and granted many liberties; the name of God would have been honored far and wide; and those that remained in the land of Judah would have been spared the terrible calamities that finally came upon them.
Through Jeremiah, Zedekiah and all Judah, including those taken to Babylon, were counseled to submit quietly to the temporary rule of their conquerors. It was especially important that those in captivity should seek the peace of the land into which they had been carried. This however, was contrary to the inclination of the human heart; and Satan, taking advantage of the circumstances caused false prophets to arise among the people, both in Jerusalem and in Babylon, who declared that the yoke of bondage would soon be broken, and former prestige of the nation restored.
The heeding of such flattering prophecies would have led to fatal moves on the part of the king and the exiles and would have frustrated the merciful designs of God in their behalf. Lest an insurrection be incited, and great suffering ensure, the Lord commanded Jeremiah to meet the crisis without delay, by warning the King of Judah of the sure consequence of rebellion. The captives also were admonished, by written communications, not to be deluded into believing their deliverance near. “Let not your prophets and your diviners, that be in the midst of you, deceive you,” he urged. Jeremiah 29:8. In this connection mention was made of the Lord’s purpose to restore Israel at the close of the seventy years of captivity foretold by His messengers.
With that tender compassion did God inform His captive people of His plan for Israel! He knew that should they be persuaded by false prophets to look for a speedy deliverance, their position in Babylon would be made very difficult. Any demonstration or insurrection on their part would awaken the vigilance and severity of the Chaldean authorities and would lead to a further restriction of their liberties. Suffering and disaster would result. He desired them to submit quietly to their fate and make their servitude as pleasant as possible; and His counsel to them was: “Built ye houses, and dwell in them; and plant gardens, and eat the fruit of them; . . . and seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captives, and pray unto the Lord for it: for in peace thereof shall you have peace.” Verses 5-7 (Prophets and Kings, pp. 440-442).
How clearly and wonderfully God’s behavior is revealed in this story, in contrast to Satan’s. While Satan was working to make their captivity as unpleasant and terrible as possible, the Lord sent Jeremiah with messages to the people that, if heeded, could have made their enforced stay in the foreign land “as pleasant as possible.” He also specifically warned them against heeding the message from the professed prophets of the Lord. Thus while Satan was working to effect the destruction of the deserving, the Lord was striving to deliver them.
Once this view of God is grasped and understood, then the key has been obtained that will perfectly explain the true nature of the command to the Levites to go and destroy all those who worshipped at the golden calf.
However, before the application is fully made to that situation, let this story be developed a little further. Even though the Lord’s behavior toward apostate Israel is sufficient evidence to make the point that God acts out only the role of a Saviour, yet more evidence is provided. This time, though in the same story, it concerns other people outside the family of Israel. They were the people of Edom, Moab, Tyre, and other nations.
Of all the people in the ancient world, none had been more committed to an aggressive and hostile war against God and His cause than these people. The Edomite were descendants of Esau and the Moabites of Lot, but leading encyclopedias such as The Britannica are unable to give any origin to the people of Tyre. However, in Ezekiel 28 the wickedness of the King of Tyre was so great that he was spoken of as being the personification of the direct instrument of the devil, so much so that no distinction is made between them.
While we may be able to accept the idea that God would retain some favor toward the Jews, we cannot think of any such thing being still available for the Moabites, Edomites, and the people of Tyre. We would not expect that God would act toward them as a Saviour too. Yet the Lord made no distinction between them and the Israelites. When they too were in great danger because of their willingness to listen to the voice of Satan and their own wretched human desires, God sent them the same message He had given to His own people. Through Jeremiah, He warned them not to resist the king of Babylon, for their cause was hopeless, but to be discreet and cooperative so that they might be saved undue suffering and further loss.
God did not go so far as to send Jeremiah to those nations, for they had long since made it clear that neither God nor His servants were welcome among them. But when ambassadors from the lands visited the king of Judah to discuss the possibility of combined revolt against Nebuchadnezzar, they then placed themselves where the Lord could give them a message. God made use of the opportunity to stretch out a hand to save them.
From the first, Jeremiah had followed a consistent course in counseling submission to the Babylonians. This counsel was given not only to Judah, but to many of the surrounding nations. In the earlier portion of Zedekiah’s reign, ambassadors from the rulers of Edom, Moab, Tyre, and other nations visited the king of Judah to learn whether in his judgment the time was opportune for a united revolt and whether he would join them in battling against the king of Babylon. While these ambassadors were awaiting a response, the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah, saying, “Make thee bonds and yokes, and put them upon they neck, and sent them to the king of Edom, and the king of Moab, and of the king of the Ammonites, and the king of Tyrus and to the king of Zidon, by the hand of the messengers which come to Jerusalem unto Zedekiah king of Judah.” Jeremiah 27:2, 3.
Jeremiah was commanded to instruct the ambassadors to inform their rulers that God had given them all into the hands of Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, and that they were to “serve him and his son, and his son’s son, until the very time of his land come.” Verse 7
The ambassadors were further instructed to declare to their rulers that if they refused to serve the Babylonian king they should be punished “with the sword, and with the famine and with the pestilence” till they were consumed. Especially were they to turn from the teaching of false prophets who might counsel otherwise. “Hearken not you to your prophets,” the Lord declared, “nor to your diviners, nor to your dreamers, nor to your enchanters, nor to your sorcerers, which speak unto you, saying, You shall not serve the king of Babylon: for they prophesy a lie unto you, to remove you far from your land; and that I should drive you out, and you should perish. But the nations that bring their neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him. Those will I let remain still in their own land, saith the Lord; and they shall till it, and dwell therein.” Verses 8-11. The lightest punishment that a merciful God could inflict upon so rebellious a people was submission to the rule of Babylon, but if they warred against this decree of servitude they were to feel the full vigor of His chastisement.
The amazement of the assembled council of nations knew no bounds when Jeremiah, carrying the yoke of subjection about his neck, made known to them the will of God.
Against determined opposition Jeremiah stood firmly for the policy of submission (Ibid., pp. 442-444).
Here is the revelation of God the Saviour at work. This story shows with great clarity the contrast between Satan’s work as the destroyer and God’s work as the restorer. It is a thing of beauty and wonder that the Lord would do this for Israel, but it is an ever-greater wonder that He would do it for the people of Tyre, Edom and Moab.
Here it is shown that the behavior of God and Christ is indeed identical. Jesus both taught and lived the principle of loving your enemies, going the second mile, and doing good forever to those who have done evil to you. God had gone the first mile by doing His very best to save them from captivity. Then, when they were captured, in spite of His efforts for them he went to the second mile by giving them guidance on how they could make their captivity as pleasant and short as possible.
But their rebellious hearts were no more prepared to accept God’s saving efforts when He went the second mile with them than when He went the first. Thus they deprived God of any hope of saving them from their own foolish selves. The disasters that befell them were not from God, but from the natural reactions of those to whom they should have been subservient. They sowed the seed, and they reaped the harvest. All that happened to them was the inevitable outworking of their own course of action. They provided the cause, and the effect was determined.
The tragedy was that they did not understand God’s character. Instead of seeing in those loving efforts a strong work of salvation springing from a heart of infinite, unfathomable love, they saw God and Jeremiah as being in league with the Babylonian king, and they openly accused them of this.
This is just the problem with God in the Old Testament. Humanity has consistently misunderstood what He really did and seen Him as doing something entirely different. This is why He has come to be looked upon as a God of terrible destruction.
But He did not. In the Old Testament, He behaved toward His people and others always and only as Christ did in the New Testament. He loved His enemies, blessed those who curse and despitefully used Him, and went the second mile. He was ever and only the saviour to all. When destruction came upon them, it was only because they had rejected His efforts to save them, leaving no alternative. Thus, God never determined their punishment, nor did he personally exercise His power to administer it.
Now that these principles of God’s workings have been seen in the experience of Jeremiah with the last king of Judah and the ambassadors of the other nations, there should be no further problem in seeing what the Lord really did back in the days of the golden calf.
In that situation God went the second mile as surely as He did in Israel’s captivity to Babylon. But whereas the children of Israel and the surrounding nations would not accept God’s counsel during the second mile, the Israelites at Mount Sinai did. While neither heeded the efforts that God expended during the first mile, the Levites did obey the second mile counsel, while Zedekiah and his contemporaries would not.
In at least four ways, God’s efforts during the first mile back in Moses’ day were directed at saving them from taking the sword. By upholding the illustrious witness of Jacob’s double deliverance (his emancipation from the ill intent of his Uncle Laban and subsequent safe encounter with the hostility of his brother Esau), God’s rebuke to Moses when he set out to deliver the Israelites by the sword, the instruction of the Egyptians not to provide them with weapons, and then the marvelous deliverance at the Red Sea, the Lord told them as plainly as it could ever be told that they should not take the sword because they would never need it while they walked in His ways.
While he could teach the truth of His way both by declaration and demonstration, He would not make the choice for them, neither would He deprive them of the opportunity to make it. Thus it was that on the shore of the Red Sea, when they saw displayed the armor clad bodies of the Egyptians, they were forced to make a decision. School had ended for the moment, and the examination had begun. How would they choose? Would the Lord’s saving efforts indeed prove the effective means of keeping them from taking up the sword?
We could well wish that this had been so, but the sad record of history is that they took up the sword. There is no direct statement to say that they armed themselves on the shores of the Red Sea, but there are statements which prove that just before then they were still unarmed people, while shortly after that we find them locked in physical combat with the Amalekites, with sword clashing against sword, and spear against spear.
The exact point of time is not the most important item in this discussion. The vital factor is that after all God’s efforts to save them from taking the weapons of destruction they chose to take them. When they did that, they chose to institute their way in place of God’s. This fact is critical in understanding God’s character in this situation.
God did not institute an alternative to His first and best procedure. He does not operate after this fashion, for His way is so perfect that it requires no provisions for failure. In fact, to supply any secondary system would be to admit that the first was faulty and therefore, needing adjustment. Neither God nor his principles have ever failed or appeared in any way defective. The problem lies only in the refusal of some of His creatures to abide by them. Whenever this happens, they replace His perfect codes with their destructive ones. Therefore, on every occasion when the sword was used in Israel, it was humanity acting in humanity’s way, not the carrying out of an alternative that God was obliged to accept because His way of perfection had failed. Human beings were the destroyers. God had not compromised in the least. With undeviating consistency, He had continued His eternal role of being a Saviour.
But what makes God appear to have changed is the misunderstanding of His action in going the second mile, the further work of salvation. That which is actuality was God’s continued effort to save is viewed all too often as His turning into a destroyer. No greater misconstruction of God’s acts could be imagined.
When Israel took the sword, the Lord was left with four alternative courses of action. He could simply have said that He would walk with them no more, that they were now on their own and what happened to them was entirely their own fault. This was the same course open to Him in the Garden of Eden. There he could have argued that He had given them everything, including adequate warning of the cost of disobedience. Having shown their ingratitude, they were undeserving of any further help from Him, so He would have been entirely justified if He had left them to their fate. This is how He could have chosen to act.
If God had abandoned humanity, it would have passed speedily out of existence.
Likewise, if the Lord had turned away when Israel took the sword, the nation would have been quickly destroyed. First, they would have fought with their weapons among themselves. Second, they were no match for the highly trained and experienced Canaanites who, as Satan’s allies, longed for nothing more than to remove Israel from the face of the earth. For God to have walked out on the Israelites would have committed them to certain death.
If the Israelites had elected to completely go their own way, then God would have had no choice but to leave them to themselves with all the consequences. But in many things, they were still prepared to go God’s way. They accepted the Sabbath institution, and sanctuary service, the general leadership of God, the provision of their daily bread, and even His counsel on how to best use their swords.
Therefore, in the very nature of His character, God could not leave them because they had departed from His ways in one thing or even in a number of things. He would stay with them, as with any person, while there was still some place where He could bless and heal them. He will never leave us nor forsake us. It is the person who leaves and forsakes God. When God separates from humanity, it is only because humanity has gone away from Him, never He from them.
The second option was for God to use force or arbitrarily manipulate events so that they would not have any opportunity to acquire the sword nor the skill to use it, thus insisting upon delivering them by His own method. But this was not an option, for by His withholding the sword from them, He would have consigned them to a quick extinction. Additionally, to suggest that God could have insisted upon using His own method of deliverance breaks with logic, for God’s method is to never use force. Either way, Satan would have had grounds to claim a victory in his accusation.
The Third option was for God to simply ignore the people’s sin – to pretend that it had not happened. But He certainly could not do this. Sin demands attention. It imposes a situation that cannot be left unattended. The reality of sin is that to ignore it, for God, would be to let it do its work of separating the soul from God, which results in the cessation of that soul’s existence. In order to prevent this from happening, God would have to exercise mercy and interpose Himself between the consequence and the sinner. How He did this, while being true to justice and not interfering with the free choice of human beings, is the study of the gospel plan of salvation.
This leaves the fourth and only viable possibility. The others end in either a quick death or in God abandoning His principals and acting out of character, which is impossible. God would remain with His people to whatever extent they would have Him in their midst. He would lead, protect, forgive, bless, and teach them. In those areas where they chose their own way, He would offer them counsel that, if received and obeyed, would save them from the worst effects of what they had chosen. In the meantime, they would be led to see the error of choosing their own course of action and return entirely to the Lord’s way.
This is how God handle the situation in the incident of the golden calf and in all the conquests and their attendant slaughters in the land of Canaan. What they did in all this was their doing, not His. They had established their own codes, and God had no choice but to let them have it their way. But He could and did counsel them on how they could operate in their own way without it being the worst of that way. This was love. This was returning good for evil. This is going the second mile.
In our next post we will look at “The Consistency of God”