Dividing Israel from Israel in the Wilderness & in the Land

Doctrine and Division, II.1.2

Moses was a prophet, but he was a type of the Prophet to come. So it says, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your brothers—it is to him you shall listen” [Deut. 18:15], and Peter remarked to the heads of physical Israel of this, that “it shall be that every soul who does not listen to that prophet shall be destroyed from the people” [Acts 3:23]. God calls and raises the prophet upward, the prophet then speaks God’s words to the one visible people group, and the Word divides between some to hear and live, and others to be cut off and fall away to destruction.

In Exodus we will begin to see that the God who hardens the pagan that makes no profession of faith is the same God who hardens the mere professor. He begins with the pagan at the heights of secular power. The word Exodus means “God’s way out,” as the word is a construct of the Greek words for “out of” (ek) and “road” (hodus).

Joseph had brought the chosen family to Egypt and they were to be a blessing. How then could they come to the place of division from this reunification of mankind? The Scriptures tells us that after Joseph’s time, “there arose a new king over Egypt, who did not know Joseph” [1:9]. This was no simple misunderstanding. In nationalistic paranoia the government conspired to put God’s people to work, to subdue them culturally, to make them forget who they were. It is the jealous aggression of God’s enemies that is made the material cause of the divisions that God decrees. We have downplayed this biblical distinctive, probably in large part because fundamentalists inflated it, or at any rate, congratulated themselves for it. But this is a cultural blind spot of ours nonetheless, and it is evidence that contemporary Evangelicalism is more universalistic than we may be able to see at the moment.

Now as to Moses the man, he was moved to divide from “the fleeting pleasures” and “treasures of Egypt” [Heb. 11:25, 26], thereby siding with “the reproach of Christ” (v. 26). Moses did not make up the reproach, and therefore there were sides drawn in those ancient sands by God Himself. He drew the line for Moses: on one side was the comfortable momentary life of the Egyptian court and on the other was the momentary mistreatment he would share with his people in exchange for the inheritance. The division was a byproduct. And what about Israel as a whole? It says that they “groaned because of their slavery and cried out for help” [2:23]. This groaning is not to be confused with their future grumbling. For wanting to leave—that is, to be divided from their chains and earthly masters—they were commended and their “cry for rescue from slavery came up to God” [2:23]. It was precisely for wanting to return—to make peace with that demon-haunted land—that they were condemned.

Yet Moses himself could have sides with the world elsewhere. In fact he tried. God separated his man for years of tending the literal flock in the wilderness, only to divide the man, by His word, from even these comforts. God identifies Himself as God over all—“I AM WHO I AM” [3:14]—but also as “the God of your fathers” [3:15], so that in distinguishing Himself, He means to distinguish His people from other people as well. Moreover He says, “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” [3:15]. You see that God does not simply want us to think of “things” in this particularistic way; He wants us to think of Him in this way. Consequently, a universalistic view of history and culture is nothing less than a universalistic doctrine of God, which very shortly descends to something like Pantheism. God is particular, and all of His works are particular and particularizing in their flow from Creator to creation.

When Moses and Aaron went before Pharaoh it was God’s staff of judgment which took on the form of the curse to swallow up all of their accursed magic. Moses glorified God in his speech, representing the Word of the Great King, before which the earthly imposter was passive by comparison. And “Thus says the LORD” [cf. 7:17, ] was the constant refrain of the prophet, as God spoke each plague to further display His glory to His people, and in so doing, further harden Pharaoh’s heart. The same word blessed and cursed; the same doctrine of Moses created a people and maddened another.

And in that last plague, when the angel of death visited the first born of Egypt, yet passed over those hidden within the blood-bought house, it was so “that you may know that the LORD makes a distinction between Egypt and Israel” [11:7]. The people of God were to take notice of this distinction, but it was the LORD who made this distinction. We make this divisive distinction epistemologically; God makes this divisive distinction metaphysically. He forms it and it informs us. Notice further that there are two extreme mistakes we can make at this point of doctrine and division. One is to think that we make the distinction in that primary sense: that God has required us to make, in the sense of effecting, the divisions. He has certainly not. God makes that distinction, at the cost of the Lamb’s blood, the sacrifice of His Son. This former error of metaphysical division is the error of the ancient Donatists, the medieval Inquisitors, the Hyper-Calvinists, and too many of the Fundamentalists. But there is an opposite error, and that is to conclude that there is no such distinction, or that, if there is, it is none of our business. Its “ins and outs” are not to be discerned in this lifetime. This is the error of the Universalists, the Latitudianarians, the Emergents, and sadly too many professing Evangelicals in between. Yet the Lord strikes the first born and commands Israel to note the dividing posts “that you may know” of this divine action. Up from these enslaving errors we are called to rise!

When Pharaoh pursued them to the Red Sea the pagan violence was answered with an infinite violence. God’s people sought neither. No division was before their eyes. It was unthinkable, yet God spoke a division between waters and waters, and the assembly passed through, pressing ahead to the right side of the division, listening to the voice of God through Moses. It would not be the last time the Lord drew a line between obedience and apostasy. At the foot of Mount Sinai when the people had instantly rebelled, Moses, with great zeal and armed with the very “writing of God, engraved on tablets” [32:16], demanded, “Who is on the LORD’s side? Come to me” [32:26]. The Levites then killed three thousand rebels which was treated as lawful.

In the wilderness the people themselves would fall away, showing that they were of the same apostate stock of humanity as the pagans around them. No sooner had the Ten Commandments been etched in stone on the mountain than the people had “turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them” [32:8]. Their apostasy was away from a Word.

More divisions were imperative from the pagan world once they inhabited the land.
First, God sends out His word to create a space in the land. As the Creator first separated light from darkness, gave form to the world, so that the stage of a magnificent garden was prepared for a man and woman to glorify Him, so He would do in His new garden for His new image-people. Thus He promises them, “Behold, I will drive out before you the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites” [34:11].

Second, flowing forth from God’s decree to divide is the particular work of these peculiar people: “Take care, lest you make a covenant with the inhabitants of the land.” Rather, “You shall tear down their altars and break their pillars and cut down their Asherim” [34:12, 13].

It will no doubt be objected that Old Testament Israel was unique in two respects: first, their separateness was uniquely typological, and secondly, the physical violence with which their nation executed that separation from other nations served a unique purpose which was either fulfilled or eradicated by the coming of Christ. The idea of “physical” things then subtly comes to encompass all “objective” things. We would reply that although both this separateness, between Jew and Gentile, and this objectivity of its enforcement in the Old Covenant were unique, the accomplishment of Christ was to transcend these and not to make everything about separateness and objectivity somehow irrelevant.

In the first place, since it was always the work of Christ that divided, or separated, Egypt from Israel, Israel from Israel, Jew from Gentile, and now Christian from pagan, the difference that Christ’s historical cross made to division was not to put an end to division, but to remove the ethnic veil and rituals behind which God had slain the Lamb and purchased a particular people from before the foundation of the world. Division as such was not put away by the cross; all idolatrous divisions were conquered by the cross, which Christ could not accomplish unless His cross performed the real and ultimate and final division.

In the second place, that the objectivity of the covenant was transcended by Christ’s work is false. Rather the ethnicity and locality belonging to the Old Covenant receded into the backdrop of redemptive history. The Jewishness of membership and the limitations of the land were shown to be a shadow of the inheritance. But to suggest that in Christ’s translation of the Temple to the soul of the Spirit-filled believer He did away with objectively right ways to conceive of God and conduct our lives before Him is a pseudo-spiritualism unworthy of the name “Christian.”

On these two biblical theological points, therefore, we conclude that doctrine and division has not faded away, but intensified in the New Covenant era. Consequently to read the shadows of doctrine and division in the Pentateuch is no argument against the body whose shadow it is, nor the light which illuminates the substance.

In Leviticus, we have the law for the priests, those who would go before the people, and its application to the New Covenant is simply that all believers are made “a royal priesthood” [1 Pet. 2:5], “priests unto his God” [Rev. 1:6]. The fundamental doctrine of this book may be summarized in chapter 11:

For I am the LORD your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy. You shall not defile yourselves with any swarming thing that crawls on the ground. For I am the LORD who brought you up out of the land of Egypt to be your God. You shall therefore be holy, for I am holy [11:44-45].

God is separate, therefore His people must be separate. Because of the doctrine of a wholly other God—an infinite division between God and all else—therefore His people must be divided: first the doctrine, then the division. These Scriptures are clearly not the scriptures of the Universalists, the antinomians, or the relativists.

This is the flow of Leviticus: offerings divided things consecrates from things common; ordination and cleansing divided a people within a people, in order to lead the people into the divine presence; laws divided one kind of animal from another, one being acceptable for food, the other being detestable; days and feasts and months and years divided the sacred time from the secular time.
Observe that there was nothing whatsoever in the inherent nature of any of these things which commended themselves to God as better than the other members of their class. It was the Word of God that divided each of them, giving definition and place to the holy and the profane.
When the sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, sought to approach the holy things as if God made no such distinctions: “And fire came out from before the LORD and consumed them and they died before the LORD” [10:2]. Why did it matter for those who would lead the people? They were told afterward: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean, and you are to teach the people of Israel all the statutes that the LORD has spoken to them by Moses” [10:10-11].

Now if we consult the Hebrew tradition the fourth book of the Pentateuch would be called bemidbar, which is their way of saying, “in the wilderness,” whereas the Western tradition took the word of the Greek translators of the Septuagint, namely, Arithmoi, or Numbers. But whether we focus on the narrative setting or the author’s legal-literary function, both will wind up suiting our purposes. Moses sought to reconstitute the people once the wicked generation of grumblers had fallen in the wilderness. The two thematic candidates are not two after all, but one.

Who were numbered? Those who were suitable for war. What separated those who were counted before the forty years at Kadesh and those who were counted after? The author of Hebrews answers with perfect clarity:

For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief [3:16-19].

So why were they overthrown? It was disbelief. In short, it was doctrine and division in God’s hand again, making the map of redemptive history.

During all these years their protests were raised to God, concerning their misfortunes, their longing for their old life, and their offense at the leadership distinction of Moses. In these cavils we can easily see ourselves, for we sinfully resent not only the lot we have been given, but that there are such unbridgeable chasms in the first place, that there is one supreme Author of this story and that we are not Him! We carp at dividing lines at the end of the day, not in principle, but because we would take the definitions to ourselves. And this is nothing other than the blasphemous suspicion that we are wiser than God. This is the secret presumption that lies behind ecumenicalism as a methodology and universalism as a philosophy, whether we like to admit it or not.

One lifetime had passed and another was to begin. The Joshua generation is not to be thought of as a “better stock” than the Moses generation: they were the exact same stock. Yet God sought to display His justice over His people just as surely as He sought to display His power over Pharaoh to the same people. Having brought one lump of clay out into the wilderness, special compared to Egypt though they may have been, yet the leaven of unbelief was ordained to spread, to harden, and then to fall as dead men. Consequently, when they were bitten by serpents after yet another rebellion against what they would have like to call “the doctrines of men,” it was the priest who took the symbol of atonement to the people—“And he stood between the dead and the living, and the plague was stopped” [16:48]. What will stop the plague of falling away due to unbelief and its rebellion? Only the very display of the gospel that is rebelled against!

Now it should not be forgotten that the ringleaders of this confrontational apostasy died at the hand of God, and to Moses it was warned, “Say to the congregation, Get away from the dwelling of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” [16:24]; and so he further warned, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked men, and touch nothing of theirs, lest you be swept away with all their sins” [16:26]. It was not at division per se that the prophet aimed, but the preservation of the people, which is endangered when one stands in the congregation of rebels.

Deuteronomy means “second” (deuteros) “law” (nomos): more specifically a second reading, or, an unpacking, of the law for the second generation. Consider the context is a divine strategy of divide and conquer. Unlike the fundamentalist it is not a defensive separatism, but a division on the offensive—“take possession of the land” [1:8]—and unlike the liberal it is not an accommodation or syncretism with the cultures about to be aggressively encountered.

The opening words remind us that this law was spoken “to all Israel beyond the Jordan in the wilderness” [1:1]. These objects set the stage for doctrine and division. There is a word, there is a singular house, there is a place to believe into, and there is a wilderness of disbelief behind them, with yet another river serving almost as an emblem of the great difference that these objects make. How the word is handled in the assembly in the invisible, individual souls of people will fall out in two different ways at this spiritual watershed.

The apostasy in the wilderness was a judgment and that generation was told, “But as for you, turn, and journey into the wilderness in the direction of the Red Sea” [1:40]. But to those who survived till the time of the promise, he said, “you who have held fast to the LORD your God are alive today” [4:4]. Of the inhabitants of the land, they are commanded to destroy them, to “not intermarry with them” [7:3], since they would be corrupted and thereby also be divided from God.

There is a loving logic to the commands from God the Father to Israel the son. If the “whole commandment” is adhered to, He said to them, “you may live and multiply, and go in and possess the land” [8:1]. It is a commandment to life and for life, and so the word was symbolized by manna feeding the physical bodies of the people. This eighth chapter of Deuteronomy is cited by Jesus on two occasions: in Matthew 4 as artillery against the devil, and in John 6 to unveil the mystery of bread to the misguided crowds.

If people who choose to eat and live look so much different, years later, than those who turn their backs on that bread from heaven, what should we make of the person who blames those who ate for the division by a word from the corpses! But shall we blame bread, or the hunger for it, or the directions to eat it? It is clear what we should make of such a person. They are confused. They are mad at all the wrong things. God is dividing a people first by a warning: “that you shall surely perish. Like the nations that the LORD makes to perish before you, so shall you perish because you would not obey the voice of the LORD your God” [8:19-20]. The Lord would make disobedience to the word the cause of the division unto death: the main division, that is, that He wants us to be thinking about.

As the physical sign of the covenant with Abraham was to cut or be cut off, so the people bought by blood and brought into greater depth were commanded, “Circumcise therefore the foreskin of your heart, and be no longer stubborn” [10:16]. Everything was reaffirmed in this second reading. First there is historical prologue, as there always is in covenant communication. The deliverance from Pharaoh and the dividing of the disobedient are retold—“what he did to the army of Egypt…and what he did to you in the wilderness” [11:4, 5]—and then the substance of the commands are linked to their rationale. The grown-up generation is given a command similar to the fifth commandment, given to children, to obey so that they may live and experience blessing: “that you may live long in the land” [11:9]. The whole of the heart is summoned for the whole of life, or else death can be expected—“to love the LORD your God, and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul” [11:13]. There is a neglected mission of God in the Bible in our day. We have neglected the quite obvious sense in which God is hammering home to His people that they are His people and that He is our God. This single-minded devotion to God simply cannot remain with a life crammed with a horizontal mission of catering to the world’s demands. We must be “missional” in the old evangelistic sense, but if this means neglecting the discipleship of our children, as it always seems to, once the wrapping paper is removed, then we can be sure that it is not biblical. Listen to the focus of Moses:

You shall therefore lay up these words of mine in your heart and in your soul, and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall teach them to your children, talking of them when you are sitting in your house, and when you are walking by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, that your days and the days of your children may be multiplied in the land that the LORD swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens are above the earth [11:18-21].

If such seems obsessive in our day and age then it is an obsession which God Himself commands. As for idols, “You shall surely destroy all…You shall tear down…You shall chop down” [12:2, 3], and as for the right worship of God, there is one: “You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way” [12:4], but, “you shall go to the place that the LORD will choose” [12:26]. Nor are true and false objects of worship passive objects, but between the two there are true and false tour guides, so that Moses must add, “take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, ‘How did these nations serve their gods?—that I also may do the same’” [12:30].

Nor is the fact that someone is claiming to speak for God a sure sign: “If a prophet or a dreamer of dreams arises among you and gives you a sign or a wonder, and the sign or wonder that he tells you comes to pass, and if he says, ‘Let us go after other gods,’ which you have not known, ‘and let us serve them,’ you shall not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer of dreams. For the LORD your God is testing you, to know whether you love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul” [13:1-3]. Now this is a truly instructive verse! For one thing, this is a prophet, so called; and for another, the wondrous work comes to pass. Here is a man with potentially popular credentials. But God would not have us look at the popular demand but the objective truth as it is. Even more interesting, however, is that even this is the Lord’s doing. God is testing out the metal of His people through the fires of deception. This dreamer “shall be put to death,” it goes on to say, and so “you shall purge the evil from your midst” [13:5]. The people of God are to separate from false teachers, no matter what their earthly success. This is no different when it is someone from one’s own family. If one of these beloved “who is as your own soul entices you secretly, saying, ‘Let us go and serve other gods’…you shall not yield or listen to him, nor shall your eye pity him, nor shall you spare him, nor shall you conceal him. But you shall kill him” [13:6, 8-9]. Now the final end of this punishment has been translated in the New Covenant era, but the seriousness of the matter and the danger entailed has not changed a bit.

It is in this context—believe, obey, live / disbelieve, disobey, die—that the ethical and ceremonial laws are reiterated. This doctrinal vision is for their abundant life, and to the degree that it faded in their hearts and minds, so they would fade from the face of the earth. Property and reputation are treated as extensions of the image of God and proper divisions must be made. The recurring conclusion to the execution for all such social evils is always, “So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear” [21:21]. One of the principles here is that it is utterly selfish to live for oneself when God’s design is the only thing that keeps one alive. Proper divisions remind people to not ruin everything for everyone else because of one’s own insane notions.
The extended section on the blessing and the curse at the end of the book is instructive. Perhaps the most surprising point of interest to the modern reader is how much larger the curse section is than the blessing section.

Dividing Israel from Israel in the Land

It is important to note, when passing from Torah to histories per se, that we are still in the formation stage of the Old Covenant narrative. The people of God had been elected, enslaved, redeemed, divided in the wilderness, but their fullest temporal expression would not be manifest until their nation beheld the fulfillment of the land promises of the covenant. For this they must literally possess the land, and their political structures must execute it by law and by war. The first of these would be the initial invasion of the land under Joshua. And in the historical book that bears his name, we see a bridge between the generation that rebelled in the wilderness and the first generation to inhabit the land, a bridge between experiencing and forgetting.

The leader of God’s people is commissioned to his new life by the word: “Moses my servant is dead. Now therefore arise” [1:2], and, as if possessing the Midas touch, “Every place that the sole of your foot will tread upon I have given to you, just as I promised to Moses” [1:3]. The doctrine of the covenant—from God to Moses through Joshua—divided the new geography. But it would also divide a new psychology and ethic, as the doctrine was for you to “meditate on day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it” [1:8].

Spies were sent to scale the secular city [2:1], to divide it from the earth by what they saw as real. Rahab chose the lives of the spies over her own king because of what she saw as real—“I know that the LORD has given you the land” [2:9]—and then the scarlet cord [2:18], the color of blood, that the LORD had passed over before, and would pass over again, divided the objects of justice from a few objects of mercy in Jericho. And valuing her own life and the lives of her family, she could not play games about “the doctrines of men” but said with blood-earnest sobriety to these mere mortals, “According to your words, so be it” [2:21]. Neither could the host of Israel play non-doctrinal make believe on the eve of battle, but were told: “Consecrate yourselves, for tomorrow the LORD will do wonders among you” [3:5]. Separate yourselves—divide yourselves—from all that is common because of what is real.

Stones to commemorate a second miraculous passing through the water and circumcision of the second generation each marked the meaning that God have to His people; and under those conditions they began to eat of the produce of the land. The maxim that the Lord’s work must be done the Lord’s way was especially true of the overthrow of Jericho. This was obviously the case with the method of warfare, which must have made them look the fool, but it was also the case with the spoils. It is interesting that when one man, Achan, “took some of the devoted things,” that it is written that “the people of Israel broke faith” and “the anger of the LORD burned against the people of Israel” [7:1]. Sin was and still is a corporate affair. As God is holy in the whole communion of His Person, so Israel must be pure as one, otherwise sin is only lightly considered. Achan was to be stoned “because he has done an outrageous thing in Israel” [7:16]. Once the anger of the Lord was turned away, Ai was subdued.

The episode of the two deceptive travelers of the Gibeonites also illustrates that God placed His way for His people above some nebulous, indiscriminate mission to all people, when Joshua and the others “did not ask counsel from the LORD” [9:14]. When they learned of the treachery it was too late. The bonds of compromise were inviolable. Even so Joshua severed the heads of the five Amorite kings and went on to conquer the land of Canaan. As Joshua was advanced in years he was commanded to “divide this land for an inheritance” [13:7], and at each point the dividing activity followed the words, “And Moses gave an inheritance…to the tribe of the people of Reuben…of Gad…of Manasseh,” and so forth. God spoke through His man, and so it was divided.

For over three centuries, Israel was governed by judges and priests. At first glance it may look like the Judges may be compared to feudal lords, conquering for their people, and thereby defining all rights and privileges. Not so. The people already had everything they needed and the land was duly apportioned by the divine covenant. Rather it was the task of the judges to rescue the people from their own apostasy, or at least the fruits of their flight from God. At their best the judges became a picture of Christ the King in His rescuing function, whereby He protects the church from the worst consequences of the neglect of her role. There was nothing magical about Joshua that should have led to Israel’s demise when he departed. To the contrary: “After the death of Joshua, the people of Israel inquired of the LORD…and the LORD gave the Canaanites and the Perizzites into their hand” [Judg. 1:1, 4].

However the tribes Manasseh, Ephraim, Zebulun, Asher, Naphtali, and Dan, did not drive out the inhabitants of those lands that they were each allotted. At best they put these people to work as “forced labor” [1:28, 30, 33, 35], but adult help, hired or otherwise, is still dead weight on a peoples’ conscience, and such yeast was bound to bake a rotten loaf. There came a point when “the angel of the LORD” [2:1] informed the people that their disobedience had reached a point of critical mass, where God would no longer deliver them. And rather than having the effect of increasing their moral seriousness, it says that “there arose another generation after them who did not know the LORD or the work that he had done for Israel” [2:10]. Here was the order again: “They abandoned the LORD…and he gave them over to plunderers who plundered them” [2:13, 14]. Apostasy is judicial, it is true, but apostasy is also a giving over to one’s own inherent nature.

Now just as God had ordained false prophets to test His people’s love of truth, so He had now left a few of the neighboring people groups as a snare against truth: the Philistines, the Canaanites, the Sidonians, the Hivites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, and the Jebusites [cf. 3:3, 5]. It says that they “were for the testing of Israel” [3:4]. Now the constant refrain became this: “And the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” [3:7]. Each time God raised up an enemy to put them in their place and each time the Lord raised up “a deliverer.” Seven times the people forgot the Lord and fell into apostasy and then servitude, and seven times He delivered them.

All of this brings us to the time when Israel demanded to change their form of government in 1 Samuel. They had a material ground for their dissatisfaction. It says of the current priests that “the sons of Eli were worthless men. They did not know the LORD” [2:12]. Now Eli was not entirely a bad parent, since he reproved them, yet “they would not listen to the voice of their father, for it was the will of the LORD to put them to death” [1 Sam. 2:25]. Two things occurred as a result of the apostate priesthood of Eli’s house. The first is that divine revelation receded—“the word of the LORD was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision” [3:1]—and the second was that the lampstand of Christ would be transferred from one physical house to another—“And I will raise up for myself a faithful priest, who shall do according to what is in my heart and in my mind” [2:35]. The invisible seed of the people of God lives on, yet the temporal epicenter of this spiritual geography moves from those who saw the doctrine yesterday to those who see it today to those who will see it tomorrow. Thus the house of Samuel ministered to the house of David, both being an invisible seed of the word.

Now there is a further level of difficulty that may be tempting to set against our thesis. Eli and Samuel would wind up committing something of the same sin. Moreover it was the young boy Samuel who had revealed to him the exact nature of the sins of Eli’s house. He ought to have known. Although “the hand of the LORD was against the Philistines all the days of Samuel” [7:13], yet “his sons did not walk in his ways but turned aside after gain. They took bribes and perverted justice” [8:3]. It is added that, in spite of warning his sons, Eli “did not restrain them” [3:13]. Perhaps it is as simple as that, that herein lies the difference. It is more likely that there are two truths that the Scriptures design for us to keep alike. The first is that the Lord will show mercy to whomever He wills and harden whomever He wills. For the same sin, God will cut off the house of Eli and not the house of Samuel. But the second truth is that the worth of restraining one’s children is the glory of God and not the specific fallout in this lifetime. Might we be motivated to live according to the glory of God in ethics by knowing the sovereignty of God in theology? It seems more likely.
At any rate it was when Samuel’s line became so crooked that the people saw fit to change their government form. Something deeper was at work than simply the desire of the people to be just like other nations. “And the LORD said to Samuel, ‘Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” [8:7]. In the translation of civil government from the exegesis of the law to the administration of men, we have nothing less than the rule of men replacing the rule of law. And when this occurs the focal point of truth has shifted from God to man. Not only did Samuel expound to the people the practical fallout of the rule of man, but he goes right to the root, saying into their oblivious celebration, “today you have rejected your God” [10:19].

Three monarchs rule over a single nation, each for approximately forty years—first Saul, then David, then Solomon—and take us, on the timeline, from the second into the first millennium B.C. The one-hundred and twenty years of their reigns belong to this first chapter, that of the formation of the old covenant community, because the land promises are still being fulfilled. The lives of Saul and David seem also to contradict, or at least run against, our thesis in that both men are a mixed bag of positive spiritual aggression and gross sin. So just like with God’s sovereign dealing with the equality of sin in Eli and Samuel, so it is here. But this assumes again that the mystery of God’s sovereign choice really is in a logical tension with the critical place of doctrine and division to being with. This is no more of a difficulty than the more general problem of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In fact this is only a species of that larger discussion. If divine sovereignty does not do violence to either the reality of secondary causation or human responsibility, but rather establishes it, on the widest circle, then for that same reason it does no violence to the importance of rightly handing the word either. And besides this, it is not the case that David did not glorify God with his mind and his words. Have we not read the Psalms! How many of them are from Saul? Not one. Though they were cut from the same lump of clay where there is no boasting, yet the prophet decreed to the wicked king, “The LORD has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this day and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you” [1 Sam. 15:28]. By “better” it is meant that David would be made a more fitting vessel. Although both men were utter sinners, vertically, before God, yet of Saul the Lord said “he has turned back from following me and has not performed my commandments” [15:11]. The extent to which David would see God, love what he saw in God, and did according to the commandments, became a night and day difference.

How did David answer the call to be king? He would constantly refrain from usurping the throne, though it would have been easy enough to make the claim, being anointed by Samuel. In the caves of Engedi, when Saul was relieving himself, David had the perfect opportunity to kill him, but refused. Yet, just so that we do not fly to the other extreme and suppose that God’s people are a blank check to tyranny, this non-violent resistance made its resistance known: “May the LORD judge between me and you, may the LORD avenge me against you, but my hand shall not be against you” [24:12]. He would spare Saul again, the next time while he slept at camp with his army. David instructed Abishai not to strike him because of the guilt that would come with it, but “his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish” [26:10]. God would divide the kingdom from Saul and give it to David, and David would see it and declare it, but he would not usurp it. He would be a prophet first, a king second.

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 He 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.

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