Is God a Tyrant?

We live at a time when radical terrorist plots and acts, horrible acts of racial cleansing, and brutal murders are on the news most every night.  We deplore the acts of Muslim extremists who strike out at innocent victims.  We pray for God to stop such murderous and hate-filled acts.

Consequently we experience great discomfort when we read the Old Testament accounts like the destruction of Jericho.  The “conquest” accounts in Joshua sound too much like the Muslim idea of a Holy Jihad. We can almost hear the Israelites saying, “Death to the infidel!”

Over the course of the history of the Christian faith, there have certainly been times when Christians have acted in ways that weren’t much different from the terrorists: there were the Crusades between the Christians and Muslims, the Inquisition, and the Salem witch trials. These things stand in judgment against the Church of Jesus Christ

To make things more difficult, when we read the words of Jesus and the counsel of the Apostles, it is clear that Jesus taught us to “turn the other cheek” and to “walk the extra mile”, (Matthew 5:38-42) Jesus said we should “do good to those who hate us.”(Luke 6:27)  Paul told us that we should “overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21)

This is why we have trouble with some of what is written in the Old Testament. It doesn’t seem to fit.  I have shared with many of you the story of the old Scottish lady who was in our church when I was growing up.  She complained that she could not understand what she was reading when she was reading the Old Testament.  My parents purchased a Living Bible for her.  Within weeks she came back and with a red face said, “I am going back to my King James Bible.  I liked it better when I didn’t understand what was going on!”

As we read through the accounts in the book of Joshua we are stunned by the violence of the children of Israel.  We are more troubled by the fact that they were doing these things in obedience to God’s instructions.  In Deuteronomy 7:1-4 the people are told,

When the Lord your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— 2 and when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. 3 Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, 4 for they will turn your sons away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you.

In Deuteronomy 20:16-18 we read similar words,

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you.

These passages from Deuteronomy were spoken by Moses to the Children of Israel just weeks before they entered the Promised Land.  When they conquered Jericho we read,

20 When the trumpets sounded, the people shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the people gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so every man charged straight in, and they took the city. 21 They devoted the city to the Lord and destroyed with the sword every living thing in it—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.  (Joshua 6:20-21)

This is a difficult issue, especially in our time.  This morning we want to understand these issues.

WHAT THE BIBLE REALLY TEACHES

I believe the greatest damage done by Christians over the years is when the Bible is misquoted and used inappropriately.  So let’s try to get the full and accurate picture.

God told Israel to destroy the people living in the land of Canaan because of their sin. Back in Genesis 15 God made a promise to Abraham that he would give him the land we now know as Israel.  He told Abraham,

15 You, however, will go to your fathers in peace and be buried at a good old age. 16 In the fourth generation your descendants will come back here, for the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.”

God said he would give his descendents the land but not until the sin of the Amorites had reached its full measure!  God knew that the people of the land were corrupt, but He would continue to be merciful to those people until they had reached a point of rebellion that apparently crossed a predetermined line.

In Deuteronomy 9 God spoke through Moses to the children of Israel,

It is not because of your righteousness or your integrity that you are going in to take possession of their land; but on account of the wickedness of these nations, the Lord your God will drive them out before you, to accomplish what he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Israel was getting the land not because they were good but because the Canaanites were so corrupt.  God commanded the destruction of these communities not because he wanted them to destroy everyone who was not like them (like some terrorists today). He destroyed these people as a just judgment for their sin.  ONLY God can make such a decision.

Let’s try to understand.  Do you think the allied forces were justified in bombing Germany and Japan during World War II?  Certainly the bombing of homes and communities was tragic.  Undoubtedly some decent people were killed in collateral damage.  However, we would say that what was done was necessary to stop the genocide and other barbaric and inhuman acts that were taking place.  The only way to keep an enemy from continuing to cause trouble is to destroy them completely.

If you home was infested with termites I suspect your goal would be simple: get rid of ALL the termites!  You would not be satisfied with an exterminator who said, “I think we got most of them!”  Why would you be distressed?  Because you’d know that it was only a matter of time before the remnant began creating big problems again.

When a person has cancer surgery is often required.  In surgery some good cells are often removed along with the cancerous cells.  In fact, that is the goal.  It is the only way to make sure all of the cancer is removed.  If the cancer is not completely destroyed, it is more likely to return.  The Canaanites (by God’s diagnosis) were a cancer to the world.  They were to be completely destroyed so that their godless ways would not compromise the people of God.

God did not command the Israelites to destroy ALL nations that didn’t share their beliefs.  As we read these passages we tend to remember that God did not tell Israel to wipe out everyone who disagreed with them. In the verses preceding the ones we read in Deuteronomy 20 we read,

10 When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. 11 If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. 12 If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. 13 When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.  (Deuteronomy 20:10-15)

God’s goal for Israel was not world conquest.  He wanted to establish them as a nation and equip them to survive the attacks of others.  There were some nations that were to be destroyed because of their sin; most were to be offered peace.

These people were given opportunity for repentance.  For 40 years Israel wandered in the wilderness.  During that time the people of Canaan had a chance to change.  When the spies went into Jericho, Rahab confessed,

“I know that the Lord has given this land to you and that a great fear of you has fallen on us, so that all who live in this country are melting in fear because of you. 10 We have heard how the Lord dried up the water of the Red Sea for you when you came out of Egypt, and what you did to Sihon and Og, the two kings of the Amorites east of the Jordan, whom you completely destroyed.11 When we heard of it, our hearts melted and everyone’s courage failed because of you, for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.  [Joshua 2:9-11]

The people of the land knew that the Lord was God but they did not choose to serve Him.  In Romans 1, Paul told us that the human heart can become so hardened that God “gives them up”. There comes a point (we can’t pinpoint it) when a person becomes so resistant to the truth of God that they cannot and will not turn.  The only recourse is judgment.

We know this from the experience of what are called “cold-blooded killers”.  These are people who seem to have no conscience.  They kill without any sense of remorse.  They seem unaffected by the lives they have destroyed.  These people must be removed from public life.  These are the kinds of people the Bible says should face capital punishment so that their poison will not continue to infect others (even in the prison system).

They could have averted Judgment by repentance.  When you read the book of Jonah, one thing becomes clear: a nation that repents of their sin will find God’s mercy rather than His wrath.   The people of Nineveh were notorious for their wickedness.  God sent Jonah to tell the inhabitants of the city that they were going to face God’s judgment.  The people repented of their sin and sought the Lord.  God withdrew his hand of judgment until the wickedness increased again 100 years later and the people refused to repent (Nahum).  God shows mercy to the repentant and wrath to the stubborn.

I believe we can argue that if the Canaanites had surrendered and repented of their wickedness; if they had bowed before the God of Israel, God would have continued to be true to His nature and would have extended mercy.  I don’t know how that would have changed history….but it is a moot point because they did not repent.

God held Israel to the same standard.  Israel was not exempt from Judgment.  When they drifted from the Lord, God gave them over to other nations.  They wandered in the wilderness due to their rebellion.  During the time of the Judges they went through cycles of judgment and deliverance. They were captured by the Assyrians.  They were exiled by the Babylonians.  They were destroyed by the Romans.  God is consistent.  Those who persist in sin will face judgment.

In all the acts of Judgment God sought a good end.  Judgment came on these nations to show them that the Lord is God.  God did what He did not because He was mean, but because He needed to show the world that He was the true King.  God wanted a relationship with those He had created. The only way people were going to understand was for something drastic to happen.

Do you understand that God cannot be loving and ignore the rebellion of mankind?  If God cares, and he does, then He must address the problem of sin.  If a Doctor knew that a patient had a terrible infection that was spreading through his body and said nothing, would you consider him to be a good Doctor?  No.  If something could be done about the infection and the Doctor simply ignored it, your family would be right to sue for malpractice.

Likewise, if the sin and rebellion of men continues to lead people away from the life that God alone can give, and God does nothing, would we consider Him loving?  No. a truly Holy God can never be indifferent to the sin of men.  He cannot simply ignore that which is wrong.  His judgment, though fierce, is actually an act of love.

Walter Kaiser has written

These nations were cut off to prevent the corruption of Israel and the rest of the world (Deut 20:16–18). When a nation starts burning children as a gift to the gods (Lev 18:21) and practices sodomy, bestiality and all sorts of loathsome vices (Lev 18:25, 27–30), the day of God’s grace and mercy has begun to run out.[1]

We have to understand the idea of God’s wrath if we hope to understand the cross.  Jesus became the one who endured God’s wrath on our behalf.  Jesus died so that those who were His followers might not have to face the wrath of God for their sin, but might know His mercy and grace instead.

WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO LEARN?

Sin Has Real Consequences.  Suppose you have a child that will not obey you.  You say “No”, and they say “Yes”.  Though you desire the best for them, they will not listen.  Will they get better by simply ignoring their rebellion? No! If you do nothing, the rebellion will become more bold and more blatant. Parents who continue to give in to tantrums and give no consequences for wrong behavior find themselves held hostage by their children.  People will always push the limits (just take speed limits as an example).  Parents think they show love to their children by refusing to discipline, but they are actually a party to their destruction.  If rebellion is not squashed, it will only get worse.

The Bible tells us, “he who spares the rod, hates his son” (or daughter). (Proverbs 13:24).  In other words, if a parent will not administer discipline (this is different from abuse), the parent is harming the child rather than helping the child. So at times, a good parent may spank a child, or take away privileges (such as a cell phone, video games, car keys, or other toys).  A good parent continues to take away privileges until the child learns to live within the limits set.  This is a necessary part of love.

God is a good parent.  Hebrews 12 tells us that those the Lord loves, He disciplines.  The writer to the Hebrews recognizes that such discipline is not pleasant, but it is necessary.  Look around at the things going on in our country. Take stock of the rampant immorality and the wanton disregard of the things of God.  Look at the ways even the church has sold out to the world.  We deserve God’s discipline and God’s judgment. Someone has said, “If God does not judge the United States, He will have to apologize to Sodom and Gomorrah”.  In light of such impending judgment it is imperative that we do three things:

  1. We must hold fast to the truth of God even though the opposition comes at us with the force of a tsunami.  I believe the only thing keeping massive judgment from the United States is the mercy of God and those in the church who refuse to compromise with evil.
  2. We must confess our own sinfulness and repent of our rebellion.
  3. We must fervently pray for God to heal our land.  In 2 Chronicles 7:14 we read these words, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

The best antidote to the rebellion of society is the demonstration of Grace. With the coming of Christ, God established the church.  In a sense God scattered “seed” throughout the whole world.  He has called us live in obedience and to PROCLAIM the truth of the gospel: that Christ died so that sinful people might be forgiven.  God has also called us to SHOW the world the transformation that comes into the life that receives His grace.  Jesus sent us to do good, to love, and to be willing to endure the abuse of the world.  Why? So the world could see that there is a better alternative to rebellion.  God wants the world to see that there is something different about His people. We must show the world that God is not some ogre trying to subject us; He is a loving King and Father and wants to bless us, love us, and guide us.

These passages in the Old Testament are difficult.  They are difficult because we have grown soft on sin.  We don’t like the idea of a God who is serious about the holiness of His people.  We want God to submit to us, and not the other way around.

These passages are difficult because people have used these words as an excuse for their own violent acts. God is no terrorist!  God is a caring Creator and parent; He is a Judge who brings about justice; He seeks not to destroy the world, but to save it.  Terrorists are out of control, they are trying to play God.  God is never out of control and He not pretending to be anything . . . He IS God and what He is does is right and just.

So here is the question: Are you following the Lord or are you resisting Him?  Are you diligently seeking to obey His commands or have you grown lazy in the things of God?  Are you living gratefully in His grace or are you presuming upon that grace?  Are you part of the solution or part of the problem?  Are you willfully standing against the Lord defiantly daring Him to stop you?  If so, you play the part of the fool.  If there is one thing you should learn from these Old Testament accounts it is the fact that God can and will extend discipline and judgment where necessary.  It is wise to learn the lesson now . . . before you have to learn it the hard way.

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