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July 21, 2013

Horn of Africa Famine

They have spoken falsely of the LORD and have said, “He will do nothing; no disaster will come upon us, nor shall we see sword or famine.”

– Jeremiah 5:12 (ESV)

Here’s the situation. Prophets of our time are warning us the future brings disaster. However, the future is the future, meaning we can’t be certain of it. Things could work out either way: the prophets could turn out to be false, or they could turn out to be underestimating how serious the disasters will be. We don’t know.

There’s another problem: what the prophets are saying seems to be in direct opposition to what we understand about this created world. To act on what the prophets are saying, we would have to make a fundamental change in our understanding. We would have to give up some of our cherished beliefs that have held us so well so far.

Is there any hope for us? Will we all be carried off into slavery in a foreign land?

Wait a moment! Is the disaster Climate Change or the Babylonians of Fifth Century BC? Are we citizens of Josiah’s Jerusalem or of the modern world?

I would like to make the difficult and rather terrifying argument that the two situations are the same.

Concerning climate change, I have to side with the prophets. True, the future rarely turns out the way we predict, but the signs are certainly pointing to it not being pleasant. Should we escape global warming by some miracle of grace, our children will still have to battle pollution and resource shortage and all the other effects of our profligacy.

But our understanding of God’s love and of his promises to us doesn’t allow for that. We have done everything that his Word tells us to do, and what ever we haven’t done, the Blood of Jesus has covered, so we don’t have to worry, right?

To show our current understanding is not much different than that of our counterparts in the fifth century BC, let us look at a quote from the Translator’s Prefix to John Calvin’s Commentaries on the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah and the Lamentations by John Owen, written in 1850:

The Jews harbored the conviction that their ruin, as denounced by Jeremiah, was impossible. While practically denying God, they yet rested their confidence on his promises respecting the perpetuity of David’s kingdom, and on their outward privileges; taking as unconditional what was conditional, and regarding the mere possession of divine institutions as a sufficient security.

The difficult and terrifying part of my argument is arguing that we, too, have been resting our confidences on a false understanding of perpetuity, on our outward privileges, and on taking something as unconditional that turns out to be conditional.

In a nutshell, the conviction we harbour goes like this: God made a covenant with the Israelites, which we call the “Old Testament”. This original covenant had requirements for action and worship, basically, you do your part to maintain all the commandments, and God will do His part to prosper and to protect you. That covenant was not enforceable (against God) because there was no way we could maintain all the commandments. In fact, the purpose of the covenant was to teach us that. Once we understood (i.e. in the fullness of time), God created a new covenant through the person of Jesus Christ. In this new covenant, Jesus himself would maintain all the commandments on our behalf, and we only need to believe in and to trust in Jesus to gain the benefits of the covenant.

The two key issues of the new covenant from our point of view is that it appears to be unconditional, other than the belief in Jesus, and in perpetuity, until Jesus returns.

As Calvin’s translator pointed out, the extant covenant in Jeremiah’s time (at least in the Jews’ opinion) was also unconditional and in perpetuity, based on God’s promises concerning the House of David. Jeremiah was the first prophet to take direct aim at the limits of those promises. One of his prime (and most terrifying) arguments was that, in the face of serious transgression, God would be willing to tear up an existing covenant and replace it with something more in tune with the spirit of the original.

Jeremiah 22:3 says: “For thus says the LORD concerning the house of the king of Judah:

“‘You are like Gilead to me,

like the summit of Lebanon,

yet surely I will make you a desert,

an uninhabited city.”

In Jeremiah 7:4, the prophet utters these famous admonition: “Do not trust in these deceptive words: ‘The temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD, the temple of the LORD.'” In that passage he is railing against those who put their trust in what they believe over what they do. The temple of the LORD was destroyed, and those who trusted in God’s providence over what he wanted them to do were destroyed along with it.

In this new covenant under which we now have access to the throne of grace, can we also fail by putting our trust in what we believe over what we do? I would like to argue that, in spite of what Martin Luther has proposed (namely that all we need is faith), we can drift so far from the spirit of God’s covenant that even by saying “the Son of the LORD, the Son of the LORD” we can’t escape the results of our transgressions.

In what way have we drifted? you ask. God answers: “I brought you into a plentiful land to enjoy its fruits and its good things. But when you came in, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination.” (Jeremiah 2:7) Like the Jews of Jeremiah’s time, we have failed to serve and to honour the sanctity of God’s firmament.

This requirement has been on us right from our beginnings in the Garden of Eden. God put on us in the Garden (and, in Genesis 3:23, the world) to “serve” his creation. The Hebrew word translated variously as “work”, “cultivate” or “till” in Genesis 2:15 is also translated as “serve”. For example, in Jeremiah 27:12,

“But any nation that will bring its neck under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him, I will leave on its own land, to work it and dwell there, declares the LORD.”

In the Masoretic Text, words I highlighted are both the same Hebrew word עבד .

For those who still hold that the old covenant has been fulfilled and there is no mention of “serving” the land in the New Covenant, remember that there was also no admonition against iniquity in the Davidic Covenant, either. But the lack of mention was not as important to the leaders as the unconditionality – to put it in other words, God’s love for David would force him to forgive his heirs their sins. In our situation, where we also depend on God’s unconditional forgiveness, and in the face of impending doom, should we be as unconcerned?

Besides, to put it bluntly, there is no “old” and “new” covenant. There has been and will ever be only one covenant between God and Man, which covenant was present from the beginning. The different codifications of that covenant are only revisions for the sake of clarity and urgency. When Jesus said, “For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18), he didn’t mean: “Contract to be fully enforced until next year Passover, after which time it will become null and void and you can do what you want.” What he meant (as far as I can tell) was “Keep to the codex you understand; after I get home, I’ll send our family lawyer and he’ll lead you into all understanding of the terms and conditions. But the Law itself will never pass away.”

In this post, I’ve summarized my arguments as best I can, but to really prove (one way or another) what is a controversial conclusion and to point a way forward, I would need a lot more space and a thorough reading of Jeremiah’s prophesies, in as close to their original language as we can get. Personally, I would love to do that, having had a glimpse already of the beauty of his Hebrew poetry. But such things take time and money (hint, hint). No matter what, we’d better do it soon: the Babylonians are already on the march.


July 2013

Creative Commons License
Copyright 2013 DT Richards. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. The picture of famine in Africa is Copyright D.Pearce, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license . The original can be obtained here. Bible quotes are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. The commentary by John Calvin is in the public domain and can be found here.

From → Non-Fiction

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