The Deformation of the Old Covenant Community was Doctrinal

Doctrine and Division, II.2.1

When David need to be cut down to size it was a prophet who stood over the king. Nathan called him on the sins of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of her husband, Uriah. No mere mortal was beyond the sword of the Spirit and Nathan played the man here [cf. 12:1-15]. Our day has completely lost this doctrine. We have settled into two unbiblical choices: either we usurp the authority of the state or we hand it our blank check. This is of course a Pietistic distortion of passages like Romans 13, a subject which we shall return to. But there is a long line of faithful prophets who can trace their example back to this man Nathan, who neither struck with the king’s sword nor bowed before it. His words were short and sweet: “You are the man!” [12:7]. The earthly magistrate is called to account to God by a prophet, which word places all men under the law. David was a shadow after all, and the same kingdom that was promised to him forever, was nevertheless to be torn from him temporally.

The First Book of the Kings says that “Solomon loved the LORD, walking in the statutes of David his father, only he sacrificed and made offerings at the high places” [3:3]. This one verse captures the kind of complexity which our thesis clarifies. On the one hand, the king was truly devoted to God, yet on the other he went, in his mind, in a direction that bore terrible consequences. The notion that these both cannot be true at the same time requires a mind-boggling lack of imagination and logic. Nevertheless the Scriptures say both of Solomon. Nor was one simply speaking of the early Solomon and the other part of the sentence the later Solomon, though the early part of 1 Kings certain does lay things out like that. The simple fact of the matter is that at some point Solomon was both loved by God and permitted by God to chase aberrant visions with dire consequences. “It pleased the Lord that Solomon had asked” [3:10] for wisdom to rule the people well, and for this, He says, “I will lengthen your days” [3:14]. And yet later it says,

when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the LORD his God…And the LORD was angry with Solomon…Therefore the LORD said to Solomon, ‘Since this has been your practice and you have not kept my covenant and my statutes that I have commanded you, I will surely tear the kingdom from you and will give it to your servant…However, I will not tear away all the kingdom, but I will give one tribe to your son” [11:4, 9, 11, 13].

Solomon’s wisdom displayed most famously how division clears things up very nicely in such a way as to promote love. When the two prostitutes came to him, disputing over the identity of the baby who survived, and the king said, “Bring me a sword” [3:24]. He knew that entertaining ambiguity does nothing but enable demons, and so too would the women discover this. But even the greatest saints can be swept up in a current of the spirit of the age.

Solomon was on the right side of eternity and, at first, the right side of history, and then, at last, on the wrong side of history. Division in God’s house was the inevitable consequence. David followed Moses in being on the right side of God’s ultimate story and yet prevented from full victories in this lifetime because of sin. Just as Moses was prohibited from entering the Promise Land, so David was told that he would not be permitted to build the temple: “You shall not build a house to my name, because you have shed so much blood before me on the earth” [1 Chr. 22:8]. Ideas have consequences, just as actions have consequences. In fact, the more we think about it, the reason that actions have consequences is because the ideas that set them in motion have consequences.
The revelation about the covenant at the dedication of the temple—recorded in 1 Kings 8 and 2 Chronicles 7—gives us profound insight into how one may be on the right side of eternity, but the wrong side of history, and how doctrine and division are the form of this distinction. The covenant that God made with the house of David is fixed, and yet the extent of its fruition in David’s time or for the enjoyment of David’s house was restricted because of sin, and this sin was because of disbelief. Thus the pattern is no different. With the house of David we have a perfectly natural apostasy over which God’s mercy protected things from going far enough to ruin the souls of His children. But clearly divine mercy did not go as far as to prevent Assyria and Babylon from exacting God’s retribution on the physical houses of Israel.

Therefore David made it clear in his farewell address that this was a law concerning Solomon, “I will establish his kingdom forever if he continues strong in keeping my commandments and my rules, as he is today” [1 Chr. 28:7]. The succession of the temporal throne was conditional, but then he turns to the people and says essentially the same:

Now therefore in the sight of all Israel, the assembly of the LORD, and in the hearing of our God, observe and seek out all the commandments of the LORD your God, that you may possess this good land and leave it for an inheritance to your children after you forever [1 Chr. 28:8].

This was half a millennium after they had come into the land, and here they were being commanded to observe the commandments so as to possess the land and to preserve it. It would seem something of an ongoing law, not only of one ancient people, but a law of the universe. Believe God and therefore obey His commandments and therefore survive in His world, or else, change the subject, disbelieve, disobey and watch your line, your people group, die off. The Spirit-breathed literature of David and Solomon tell us their mind and therefore the mind that kept the kingdom united.

The Psalmist did not see God as neutral, nor even himself. It is true that the Psalms depict the goodness of God over all that He has made, but it is also true that the Psalms bring the sword of division between “the way of the righteous” and “the way of the wicked” [1:6]. This way is utterly rational in the sense that both the righteous and wicked are driven toward the world that they see as true. And it is with His spoken “decree” [2:7] that God defeats the kings of the earth by installing His heavenly King. Luther called the Psalms a “little Bible,” as they contained, in poetry, all that the whole Word contains. Now if that is true then we ought to see this tension between the two kingdoms, and we also ought to see God calling the people of his kingdom to see it, namely making an appeal to the redeemed mind through a theological song. In fact this is exactly what we find.

In David’s mind there was a place for calling down of thunder upon the enemy in what are called the Imprecatory Psalms [cf. 5, 6, 11, 12, 35, 37, 40, 52, 54, 56, 58, 69, 79, 83, 109, 137, 139, and 143]. To imprecate is to request a curse or judgment upon someone, which desired wrath includes making sure they are childless and that the children they already have get wiped out. As a warrior-king, David even desires his own form of vengeance, and requests that God grant it to him [cf. 41:10]. It is the sort of thing that we would look at today and call repugnant. However, as the physical, ethnic people of God, the nation of Israel was the main instrument of God’s justice meted out in the civil sphere; but it may be equally remembered that so too were the enemies of Israel eventually referred to as instruments in the hands of an angry covenant Lord [cf. 66:12]. As an interpretive principle, we must read this with an eye toward letting God be God—praying for the salvation of all those He has chosen and the utter desolation of all those whom He has not. Why would we call David a man after God’s own heart if we suspect he is not always praying like it! “Contend, O Lord, with those who contend with me; fight against those who fight against me!” [35:1, cf. 43:1, 59:8]

And in the end, Solomon seemed to dedicate his writings to his son, in the tragic knowledge that he would not abide by them for the course of history, yet in the hope that he would learn the lesson for his soul in the end. The reader of the Proverbs, by God’s grace, may hear what wisdom says of the use of our minds, our words, and then the actions which flow from them. And that may be the first lesson, that the civilization of the West (for all of its flaws) at least followed the Proverbs in this, that “to understand words of insight” [1:2] is not Gnostic, but biblical. In fact it is “fools [who] despise wisdom and instruction” [1:7]. However much our generation of church leadership may reduce such verses to pithy sayings, the reality is that “they hated knowledge” [1:29]. The Proverbs are clear that knowledge is good and forced simplicity is bad: “For the simple are killed by their turning away” [1:32]. In the wisdom literature, the intellectual nature of God and intellectual activity of God are what make everything what they are: “The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke open” [3:19-20]. If eternal information gives everything solid its form, then what should happen if one falls from this doctrine? “My son, do not lose sight of these…Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble” [3:21, 23].

Wisdom and Folly are both personified as a pair of women. The one is the beauty of the mind and leads one into all blessing, while the other is the bane of this world and leads on into the grave. The two women teach many specific practical things, but all in all, they become a metaphor for the clear choice between truth and falsehood. Everything else in the Proverbs simply unpacks this division so that to chart it out and follow God’s path, against one’s own destruction, is the summary of wisdom. This is so clear, and would have been so obvious to virtually all Christians of the past, that one feels silly defending it today. But such is our condition of folly.

The formation of the Old Covenant was by the word of God, so that apostasy from it was doctrinal. To fall away from God’s covenant community was to fall away, at the DNA level, from His doctrine, His way, His commandments.

Apostasy Was Doctrinal in the Deformation of the Old Covenant

Let us begin with the surface level of historical motion, in the chronicles of the nation and the record of the kings. It is easiest to see on the aerial view of Israel’s history. Then we will adjust the lens to magnify the activity of the sacred office in Israel, that man so often compared to a shepherd.

From a Dividing Covenant to Divided Kingdom to Captivity

It says that “the LORD raised up an adversary against Solomon” [11:14], this time not to test, but to execute the promised judgment. Jeroboam also, whom God raised up against Solomon, had his own “reason” [11:27], informed by a prophetic message which revealed God’s overarching reasons—“because they have forsaken me” [11:33]. Now God sets down for Jeroboam’s new line the same conditional mandate:

And if you will listen to all that I command you, and will walk in my ways, and do what is right in my eyes by keeping my statutes and my commandments, as David my servant did, I will be with you and will build you a sure house, as I built for David, and I will give Israel to you [11:38].

For the part of Solomon’s son, Reheboam, in the south, the northern tribes were lost precisely because the wrong “doctrines of men” were preferred to the true doctrine of God. In both cases the counsel he received was from mere men. It would not settle the matter to cite that fact, for the older men were nearer to the heart of God than the young men whose folly prevailed. But there again—doctrine and division. Bloodshed would have immediately followed, as Judah prepared to subdue the northern tribes, but God gave a word through a man—a doctrine—that “this thing is from me.’ So they listened to the word of the LORD and went home again, according to the word of the LORD” [12:24].

Now the secular origin of the grossest false worship in Israel was this: that Jeroboam reasoned that where the men of a nation worship is where the political influence would descend. That was a reasonable thought as far as it goes. Yet, to save his own skin, the northern king set up “two calves of gold” [12:28]. One was placed at Bethel, which likely greased the wheels of its theological justification, and the other at Dan. But the key is this: “Jeroboam said in his heart, ‘Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David’” [12:26]. The deceptive doctrine, held in the life of the mind, of the leader of God’s people set them of a trajectory to be trampled into dust by Assyrian aspirations.

As for the people raised up by the very word of God, because “this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam [God resolved to] cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth” [13:34]. God creates a people group by His word. That word saves some who are in the house for all eternity. Yet as the word is despised by the physical heads of that house, God cuts off the dead skin and moves His life elsewhere as a testimony against them.

Now Judah may seem to conflict with our thesis yet again, just as the contrasts between Moses and Nadab and Abihu, Samuel and Eli, and David and Saul, seemed to do. But at the end of the day, the same complexity will be shown, where God’s sovereignty establishes human responsibility. It does not violate it or make it unintelligible. So, “Judah did what was evil in the sight of the LORD, and they provoked him to jealousy with their sins that they committed, more than all their fathers had done. For they also built for themselves high places and pillars and Asherim on every high hill and under every green tree, and there were also male cult prostitutes in the land” [14:22-24]. Judah was just as bad, and the case could be made that they were worse. If they were made the remnant by God then it is God’s sovereign choice against any amount of human effort and excellence. Indeed it was sovereignty against the human element at that point. That is, divine sovereignty was the efficient cause of Judah’s special privilege and the glory of God was this election’s only end cause. However, one can smell a red herring wrapped up in a strawman at this point. Our question is not over ultimate or end cause in the divisions between Israel and Judah, but between matter and form.

Three kings of the south will be sufficient to clarify the point. Not all the kings were all bad.
One was Jehoshaphat in that, although he was a good king [cf. 2 Chron. 17:3], he made choices that had devastating effects on the trajectory of his family and Israel. He reigned from 871 to 849 B.C and the principle blunder for his line was that he married his son off to Ahab’s daughter [cf. 2 Chron. 18]. This was forbidden because Israel was not walking with the Lord. Later his son killed all of his brothers when he took the throne [cf. 2 Chron. 21]. Just as there are biblical examples of being on the wrong side of history even while being on the right side of eternity, so there are examples of being on the right side of history in secular matters, yet being on the wrong side in sacred matters. The point is that apostasy can work in any number of directions. Jehoshaphat was a good king, but made bad choices that had long lasting effects.

Now let us look at Hezekiah, who was a mixed bag of godliness and pride, reigning from 725 to 686 B.C. This brings us to the Second Book of the Kings. At first, “he did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, according to all that David his father had done” [18:3]; “so that there was none like him among all the kings of Judah after him, nor among those who were before him” [18:5]. He smashed idols and defied Assyria as they overthrew Ephraim and eyed the southern territory next. And yet, in between his godly start and his glorious last stand, in which God turned back the armies of Sennacherib, his pride uncovered the treasures of Jerusalem to the envoys of Babylon, and upon Isaiah’s prophetic response that these were not friends at all, but were preparing for the say “when all that is in your house” including “your own sons, who shall be born to you, shall be taken away,” the king is incredibly unmoved. He responded, “The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good.’ For he thought, ‘Why not, if there will be peace and security in my days’” [20:17, 18, 19]. This is generational selfishness rivaled only by the past few generations of elderly in America who have jealously guarded the greatest peace and prosperity ever experienced only for the purpose of consuming it at the price of their grandchildren’s serfdom.

Now Josiah was a righteous king that saw exactly what was at stake in the sacred things. He reigned from 640 to 609 B.C. 2 Kings 22-23 and 2 Chronicles 34-35 tell the account of his reforms. I will work out of the book of the Kings unless otherwise noted. Josiah “did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and walked in all the way of David his father, and he did not turn aside to the right or to the left” [22:2]. Josiah’s reforms begin in the rediscovery of the Book of the Law by the priest Hilkiah. Now this was only one generation after Hezekiah reigned so that one must imagine a very deliberate neglect of God’s word leading up to their day. Now when “the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes” [22:11]. What was the nature of this doctrine and division? Something of what Josiah heard was so disturbing that he did what an Israelite must do when the name of the LORD had been defamed. It was the tragedy of all tragedies. The simple measuring stick of the word being heard and understood would not mix together with the way the people currently were. God’s word and their lives were in an irreconcilable tension, so that what he saw tore his heart and stoked his righteous rage. But he also read of the consequences of not living up to the conditions of the covenant. So the first order of business was to inquire of the Lord whether or not there was the prospect of forgiveness. They were a dead, apostate limb, ready to fall off, but the final outworking of apostasy was to be resisted.

This brings us to the lesson of Josiah’s reforms for our thesis, namely, that apostasy is to be resisted by reformation of our doctrine and then our whole lives. We live in a day in which the only category people have for such reforming motions is a critical spirit. We will return to that. For now let us look at this godly king.

Now the first thing God said in response was this: “because your heart was penitent, and you humbled yourself before the LORD, when you heard how I spoke against this place and against its inhabitants, that they should become a desolation and a curse, and you have torn your clothes and wept before me, I also have heard you, declares the LORD” [22:19]. This is the first imperative and the very link between revival and reformation: that we first seek the Lord, to repent, and to entreat Him that He might show mercy and give strength for us to turn things around. In short, we turn our hearts to God in order to turn things around us. Converted people convert things over to the kingdom. If we pretend to repent—which is a total turn back to God—but plan not to turn things over to Him, then we contradict with our lives what we say with our lips. Josiah’s was no mealy-mouthed repentance. He proved repentance by reformation.

The second thing the king heard from God is that because all this was true, the judgment against Judah would still come, but “your eyes shall not see all the disaster that I will bring upon this place” [22:20]. So the second lesson is this: what we do in relation to doctrine and division, and thus our resistance against apostasy, matters. It bears real effects in this world and those effects matter to a God-glorifying degree.

Now after Josiah was refined in secret by God for his reformation, the public work began. He assembled all the elders and then the people, and he read to them in public what had so affected him in private. He committed himself to serve the Lord fully, somewhat as Joshua had done, and “all the people joined in the covenant” [23:3]. This is our third lesson: That nothing can be done together that is not first understood and embraced with the whole soul, and how will they do strongly believe if they do not hear! Therefore no reformation can begin by any other root than the word of God. Here is our mandate to preach, and at this root—which is not a phase in time but a fountain ever flowing—there can be no compromise and no apology.

Now what follows is as instructive as it may be shocking. What did Josiah do to the religious life that was already present in the land, the popular spirituality that had cast its shadow and spell over the people? It says that he would “bring out of the temple” the religious objects and “burned them” [23:4]. Then he “deposed” [23:5] its ringleaders and “broke down the houses” [23:7] of the same. But perhaps the most interesting phrase that is used twice is that he “defiled” [23:10, 13] these idols in their temples. Why should the Holy Spirit inspire the author of this book to record such a trampling as a defiling? Certainly it was not because God was offended at the overthrow of this false religion. Rather it was because the offense was very real. That is it was not done apart from offense but in spite of it and because of it. This makes up our fourth lesson: reformation is not well received for the simple reason that wherever light is most needed, darkness is established. There is a whole kingdom to overthrow and that kingdom is the norm. The treasured way of conceiving of God must be corrected down to the bones of our dead religion, and those who have misled the people need to be escorted from their positions, even if it is only in the esteem of the people.

Ezra and Nehemiah were considered a unity in the Jewish canon. When Cyrus the Great had consolidated the kingdom of Media in his conquest of Babylon, where the Jews were in captivity, one of the first results of his new Medo-Persian Empire was to release the Jews to return to their land in 538 B.C. which, in spite of the fact of fulfilling clear prophecy, was followed by immediate opposition among the locals. When Darius (r. 522 – 485) had released more of the people in 520 the building project commenced in earnest and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah were sent to reprove the lameness of the effort, and this contributed to its completion in 516. Now after the reign of Xerxes (r. 485 – 464) came Artexerxes (r. 464 – 423), who goes so far as to commission the priest Ezra to rebuild the religious life of Judah in 458 and then allows his own cupbearer, Nehemiah, to be governor in the city in 445, so as to rebuild the secular life of the city around the religious project.

We see in Ezra 4 that the enemies of Judah and Benjamin wanted to “help” build up the church. The leaders knew better and forbade them, and then their true colors came out.

Ezra reinstituted the “ekklesia in the wilderness” by what he saw in God’s word. It says that “Ezra has set his heart to study the Law of the LORD, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules in Israel” [7:10]. The first thing he encountered was the subject of intermarriage with the pagan. He did not need to “look it up” in the book because he already knew the law full well. So, “As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled” [9:3]. Is this an overreaction? Not at all. In his prayer of corporate repentance he alludes to the very warning in Deuteronomy concerning intermarrying with those who would be a snare and sap their strength.

Now Ezra prays for the remnant on the ground of God’s glory, yet at the same time it is clear that this sin is to be corrected though its exposure might be said to be “retroactive.” In short, it may be objected that the Jews committed this self-destructive crime prior to knowing the law about it. The response is, “to put away all these wives and their children” [10:3]. Now this is typological; but though we are not called to abandon those in a covenant of the old creation in this way, yet we are called to correct errors even though they originated in the past. Errors are self-destructive in proportion to the greatness of the truth. Likewise, in that same proportionality, errors increase guilt and therefore multiply the consequences, which then further exacerbates the sin. Apostasy, in other words, is exponential in character: “You have broken faith and married foreign women, and so increased the guilt of Israel” [10:10]. Guilt is an increasing thing because error is an increasing thing. And therefore what is it to the issue whether or not the sin is “in the past,” when the issue is cutting the head of the serpent that is still coiled around the body?

What moved this other man Nehemiah to trade in the hat of cupbearer to the most powerful man in the world to be governor of a fledgling little community? It was nothing other than the prospects of God’s presence reconstituting the kingdom back home. Now the catalyst for his calling was a report that came to him from Judah: “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” [1:3]. A true Christian leader is someone who sees the world as it is, not as they would wish. When a healthy man sees God’s house in disrepair he is greatly provoked. So, he says, “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven” [1:4]. Like the other saints before him, Nehemiah confessed on behalf of the sins of the whole people. Then he prayed for favor with the king, that he would permit this man of great talent to return and apply himself to reformation.

His message to the people was simple—“Let us rise up and build” [2:17]—and his message to his powerful detractors was equally frank—“The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will rise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem” [2:20]. The critics tried mockery, slander, rabble-rousing, and a conspiracy to make international traitors of them. When these ringleaders of the opposition sought a false meeting with Nehemiah, his replied, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” [6:3]. This refusal was not aimed at division, but at completion of the great work, and those who are occupied with nothingness cannot comprehend it as anything more than divisive self-congratulations. Even so, the wall was finished, so that this small people could grow. Now Ezra could teach the people God’s word unobstructed by Satan’s buzzards. In this way good fences are a means by which the positive work of ministry can flourish. But even then some creep in, as this one wolf, Tobiah, had weaseled his way into “the courts of the house of God” [13:8]. One of the more passive priests had let him in. Nehemiah simply took all of the man’s furniture and threw it out into the street. Another one of the sons of the enemy, through intermarriage, had also worked his way into the church: “And I confronted them and cursed them and beat some of them and pulled out their hair” [13:25]. Clearly this would be an ongoing work.

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