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Good and Evil (2)

W Ferguson, Antrim

2 Samuel 14.17

David’s son Absalom was in exile for the "honour killing" of his half-brother. In seeking recall from exile he has called on the help of his cousin, the warrior Joab, depending on his negotiating skill. Joab in turn has recruited a wise woman from Tekoa to present the case for recall to King David. She comes to David, posing as a widow, dependent on her son, who has killed his brother in a quarrel. She says people are pressing for his execution, but since she relies on him for her survival she pleads with David to show mercy to him. David promises to protect her son.

Then she confesses that she is really pleading for mercy for Absalom. She begs that he be recalled from exile. Her approach is flattering: "As the angel of God, so is my lord the king to discern good and bad" (RV margin). In response to a question from David she confesses that she has been sent on this errand by Joab. Then she adds, "My lord is wise, according to the wisdom of the angel of God, to know all things that are in the earth" (v.20, RV margin). It may be that in this context we should see her two statements as virtually identical; "good and bad" being a synonym for "all things". However, the context is the exercise of David’s authority as king, and the attribution of omniscience to him may be an instance of the kind of flattery commonly used at this time to kings. "Discern" is akin to "know". The king did need wisdom to "know", but he also needed royal authority to take judicial decisions.

Israel was a theocracy, the king ruling for God. The authority of the king to exercise judgment in matters of life and death was based on his acting for God. Ultimately only God has the power of life and death. In "knowing good and evil" the king was taking judicial decisions as God’s representative. What he permitted he declared "good", and what he forbade he declared "evil".

Genesis 2.17

God placed Adam and Eve in a paradise with a rich variety of experiences readily within their reach, and a rich store of food ideally suited to their health and pleasure. Only one thing was forbidden; the fruit of one tree. It was forbidden on pain of death. It can hardly have been called "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" in the sense that eating its fruit would give them knowledge of everything. They did eat, and they did not know everything. Indeed, they ate and they knew "that they were naked"! A far cry from universal knowledge.

It can hardly mean that they had no competence, before they ate, to distinguish good from evil in the sense of not being able to be instructed in moral values. Such an interpretation would raise questions about their guilt in eating the forbidden fruit. They would not have been able to know what they were doing.

The interpretation which best suits the situation seems to lie in such passages as those previously examined in these articles. God made man with a capacity to make moral decisions based on the concepts of good and evil. But it is God who decides how the decisions should be judged. He makes the rules, and man can understand them, for he was made "in the image and after the likeness of God". But it is God, who made man like this, who will finally pass judgment on human behaviour, for he is Judge of all men as certainly as He is our Maker. Ultimately God knows "good and evil" in the sense that He is the judge of all that involves morality.

Job could not understand what the meaning was of his many serious sufferings, but he had utter integrity in his insistence that the meaning must lie in what God’s actions were designed to achieve — if only he could fathom what God intended. In the end he was vindicated, but he was also educated as to the comprehensiveness of God’s majesty and power and wisdom and utter righteousness. Job’s three friends had a logical sort of understanding of right and wrong, but it fell woefully short of explaining the inscrutable and infinite greatness of God. Their God was too small. In effect their judgment of Job was based on a concept of a god who fitted into their own image of deity. They could never rise to the great declaration: "Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him" (Job 13.15).

2 Corinthians 5.10

In this great epistle Paul has to explain what motivates him in the service of God. He gives a range of titles to his God, based on the range of activities and circumstances in which he has proved God. In chapter 4 he has written about "earthen vessels" in which God has placed the treasure of the message we preach. He has written about "our mortal flesh", death at work in us while we still live. He admits that "our outward man" is perishing, but our attention is on an "eternal weight of glory".

His confidence is based on his vision of the future. We already have "the earnest of the Spirit", and we look forward to an eternal house not made with hands. This enables God’s servants to work for Him and leave the final assessment to Him. It is not for us to make final assessments of our own service or that of our brethren. What we can do is seek to please Him whom we serve. We shall have our service assessed at the judgment seat. Rewards which we receive will be correctly assessed according to what has been done "in the body".

We can rest easy about our salvation, based on what the Lord accomplished on the cross. The judgment which divine holiness and righteousness took into account at Calvary was absolutely according to God’s rejection of sin. Soberly we seek to understand Paul’s expression: "He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all" (Rom 8.32). The penalty has been fully paid.

We must be equally solemn when we consider how we have lived since we began to serve Him. He will deal with the "good and bad" service we have rendered. So we shall receive "the things done in (the) body", and the assessment will properly reflect the value of the service, whether "good or bad". As we have seen in the passages reviewed above, God is the ultimate judge of all that is good or not.

The word for "bad" in v.10 means "worthless". We may think back to 1 Corinthians 3, where we are seen as builders (vv.9-15). Some building is defective because of poor materials, some good because the materials are solid and appropriate. The big question is, "What will the Lord think of what I have been for Him during my years of service in the body?". We remember that He is the one who "knows good and evil"; He makes the rules and He assesses all service.



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