In a transatlantic airliner, as the navigator plots the plane’s projected course, at a certain point he will make a neat dot and draw a tiny circle around it, labeling it PNR.
—Marshall & Manuel, The Light and the Glory (1980)
History, indeed, is not just mechanical. In Jeremiah’s day God worked into history upon the basis of His character, and He continues to do so today.
—Francis Schaeffer, Death in the City (1969)
Is God Gracious?
Richard Dawkins finds the God of the Old Testament abhorrent. In The God Delusion (2006), he piles adjective upon adjective—unjust, unforgiving, vindictive, malevolent—to adorn nouns like control-freak and bully. For Dawkins, the Old Testament God is a poor ethical role model and a worse Christian. He lacks grace and mercy.
There is nothing new here. For centuries the enemies of the faith have expressed indignation against the God of the Old Testament. They have questioned His mercy. They have been incensed at His judgments. They have railed against His wrath.
Christian apologists in turn have answered these charges. They have shown that such accusations don’t take seriously God’s claim to be the sole Creator and absolute Owner and Disposer of the universe. They have argued, presuppositionally, that there can, in the nature of things, be no high ground from which such a God could be criticized, if He does exist, and no moral ground at all if He doesn’t: no God, no moral absolutes. They have pointed to God’s self-sacrificial love in Jesus Christ, to Jesus’ own sufferings and death in the place of guilty sinners, to demonstrate the amazing grace and mercy of God.
Our point at present is more modest. We will consider the grace of God in the history of Israel and see why Paul can write that the goodness and forbearance of God ought to lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
A Brief History of Unfaithfulness
Israel’s sins began with the Exodus: God’s people doubted His power, rebelled against His spokesman, and bowed down to a golden calf. When they came to Canaan, they refused to trust God and fight for the Promised Land. For forty years they murmured and rebelled. God sent miraculous judgments, but He spared the nation.
Finally, a new and faithful generation took possession of Canaan. But the succeeding generations repeatedly went a whoring after demons. But each time they repented, God raised up a judge to deliver them. Finally, they demanded a king to take God’s place. God gave them Saul. Saul apostatized. God in grace gave them David.
David’s son Solomon built the Temple, and God came to dwell among His people. But Solomon chased after pagan princesses and pagan idols. In judgment God divided the kingdom, but He didn’t destroy it.
The northern kingdom, Israel, had one wicked king after another. None served God. They all promoted calf worship. The worst, Ahab, introduced Baal worship as well. God raised up Syria and Assyria as scourges to chasten His people. They didn’t repent. Yet God in grace let the kingdom endure, decade after decade. In fact, God stayed His judgment for some 260 years. Finally, God called for Israel’s destruction, and the Assyrian empire obliged.
The southern kingdom, Judah, endured for another 125 years beyond that. Judah had a few godly kings. But most of its kings went after idols sooner or later. God’s chastisement began in earnest in the days of Hezekiah, when the armies of Assyria swarmed across Palestine and shut up the king “like a bird in a cage.” But Hezekiah besought God, and He graciously rescued Jerusalem through a miraculous slaughter. The Assyrian armies withdrew. But when Hezekiah died, he left the throne to his son Manasseh.
The Great Apostate
Manasseh was the worst king Judah ever had. He rebuilt the pagan altars his father had destroyed. He reintroduced Baal worship. He practiced ritual magic and witchcraft. He consulted with a demon. He baptized his son in the fires of Tophet. He set up an Asherah-idol in the Temple before the face of God. Beyond all this, he “shed innocent blood very much, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another,” blood that God would not pardon (2 Kings 21:16; 24:4). Scripture says that he did wickedly “above all that the Amorites did” (v. 21): in other words, he excelled the original inhabitants of the land in idolatry and wickedness.
For this God promised to bring judgment upon Judah and Jerusalem—to wipe Jerusalem as a man wipes a dish clean (v. 13). “I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance,” He said, “and deliver them into the hand of their enemies; and they shall become a prey and a spoil to all their enemies” (v. 14). And yet God stayed His hand awhile longer.
There is still a more gracious footnote to this story. In his later years, Manasseh offended his Assyrian overlords. The Assyrians took him among the thorns, bound him with fetters, and carried him to Babylon. In that dark corner of the world, Manasseh turned back to the God of his fathers. Manasseh repented. He sought mercy. God heard him and restored him to his throne. Immediately, Manasseh set about the work of reformation. He tried to undo all of his former wickedness. But time ran out, and he died.
Manasseh was succeeded, briefly, by his son Amon. Amon followed in the first ways of his father (v. 21). His servants assassinated him, and his son Josiah came to the throne.
The Great Reformer
Josiah was the greatest king Judah ever had (2 Kings 22). While he was still a young man, he began to seek the Lord. He broke down the idols and their altars. He desecrated the bones of their priests. He repaired the Temple and in the process recovered the Book of the Law. He wept and rent his clothes when he heard its requirements and sanctions. He then took it upon himself to read the Book aloud to all the people. He renewed Judah’s covenant with Yahweh and swore that he himself would walk before God with all his heart and soul.
Josiah intensified and extended his reforms. He cleansed the Temple, destroyed the abominations that remained within, and got rid of the sodomite prostitutes that served the Asherah pole. He defiled Tophet, the site of Molech worship in the valley of Hinnom (Gehenna), and turned it into a garbage dump. He destroyed the idolatrous shrines that still lingered on from the days of Solomon. And finally, after centuries, he destroyed the golden calf shrine at Bethel. Then he held the greatest Passover to the Lord that Judah had ever seen (ch. 23).
In the light of his vigorous and passionate reforms, the verdict of Scripture is frightening:
Notwithstanding the LORD turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal (v. 26).
Manasseh’s reign proved to be Judah’s “point of no return.” Neither Manasseh’s repentance nor all of Josiah’s energetic reforms could save Judah from the fierce wrath of God. Josiah’s reformation only bought Judah a little more time (22:20). Once he died on the battlefield of Megiddo, Judah’s downward spiral into destruction began in earnest (ch. 23—25). But it was still some 23 years before the armies of Babylon leveled the city and carried its people captive.
Point of No Return
Is God compassionate? Doesn’t He forgive? Why didn’t He relent and turn from His wrath when He saw Josiah’s reforms? The answer is simple. They were Josiah’s reforms. He pushed them through by faith, charisma, passion, and force of will. But, by and large, the hearts of the people remained untouched. Oh, they patted themselves on the back for their religious zeal and remembered Josiah fondly once he was gone, but their hearts were still far from God. And this is where the Book of Jeremiah picks up:
. . . Judah hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly, saith the LORD (3:10).
We lie down in our shame, and our confusion covereth us: for we have sinned against the LORD our God, we and our fathers, from our youth even unto this day, and have not obeyed the voice of the LORD our God (3:25).
Representative repentance and reform can be significant, but they can’t take the place of true revival, of nationwide repentance and heartfelt sorrow for sin. Where there is no such repentance, God’s forbearance will reach its end . . . eventually.
Josiah died at Megiddo—what the Book of Revelation calls Armageddon. Appropriately, his death proved the beginning of the end for the nation of Judah. It was Judah’s Waterloo. But it came after 900 years of grace.
Only God knows the “point of no return” for any particular people or nation. For decades now godly pastors and evangelists have been warning America of the wrath to come. Yet generation after generation, decade after decade, God has withheld that wrath; He has moderated His judgments. We chafe at our declining liberties, at economic decline and depression, at what seems to be an endless series of wars and police actions, but we don’t acknowledge any of this as the hand of God. America endures.
But God’s patience does have a breaking point. If we don’t repent as a people, we’ll find it. If we do repent, perhaps we will find His grace. Either way, when Christian scholars a thousand years from now write our history, they will certainly say in truth, “God was gracious to America.”
But only God knows what they will say after that.