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Occasional Letters: Because

D Newell, Glasgow

The centenary of the outbreak of the Great War in 1914 has led to a flood of war memorabilia in the form of reprinted books and reissued visual and audio recordings from the period. Most of the contemporary songs were patriotic, comic, or comradely, but many of those sung by the fighting troops were distinctly unsentimental. According to the 1930 Dictionary of Tommies' Songs and Slang, one very popular lyric, set to the tune of "Auld Lang Syne", went like this: "We're here because we're here because we're here because we're here…". And so on ad infinitum. At least there was no need for a song sheet. The Dictionary comments that it was "sung with great gusto because – ninety-nine times out of a hundred – the men who sang it had no idea why they were 'here', or where 'here' was, or how long they would continue at it". The irony is pointed. The word "because", which normally offers an explanation to the implied question "why?", in this case did nothing of the sort.

But the Bible often employs that illuminating connective ("because"), not to generate frustration, but to help us understand the reasons behind God's ways with His people. There are several instructive examples in Deuteronomy. Take the fundamental question, why did God elect Israel to be His special nation? As the old rhyme puts it, "How odd of God to choose the Jews". In an age of increasingly vitriolic anti-Semitism, emanating not simply, as one would expect, from the Islamic and Palestinian lobby, but also from modern Christendom, we need to be clear about the answer. Here it is, according to Moses: "The Lord thy God hath chosen thee to be a special people unto himself, above all people that are upon the face of the earth. The Lord did not set his love upon you, nor choose you, because ye were more in number than any people; for ye were the fewest of all people: But because the Lord loved you, and because he would keep the oath which he had sworn unto your fathers" (Deut 7.6-8).

It was not their superiority or size (or, we might add, their spirituality) that brought them into privilege, but purely God's sovereign love, a love grounded upon the covenant promises made to their ancestors. God loved them because He loved them. Sovereign love is unconditional, for its reasons rest in itself rather than in its object. But we mustn't stop reading there. Only a few verses further on we learn that God also had a conditional love for Israel: "if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them…the Lord thy God…will love thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee" (Deut 7.12-13). Do you see the difference? God's choice of Israel was based purely on His own good pleasure and had nothing whatever to do with human merit, actual or foreseen; but Israel's practical enjoyment of divine benefits was dependent upon their obedience to His word. To be the unworthy recipients of divine favour is to incur the solemn responsibility to live as befits those who have been so greatly blessed. The application to believers of the church era is obvious. Chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world, each child of God is the undeserving beneficiary of divine grace; but our practical day by day appreciation of God's love depends upon our spiritual walk. The Lord Jesus taught that "he that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him" (Jn 14.21). John Gill's comment on this verse is helpful: "Christ does not begin to love His people when they begin to love and obey Him; their love and obedience to Him spring from His love to them, which love of His towards them was from everlasting. But this phrase signals a clearer discovery of His love to them, which passeth knowledge, and some fresh mark and token of His affection for them". There is no other way to be "happy in Jesus" than to trust and obey.

Another "because" relates to the importance of eradicating false teaching from the nation. Israel's preservation from the crass idolatry of its neighbours required the prompt removal of wrong ideas and practices. Doctrinal error was no mere alternative worldview; it was a treacherous departure from the living God who had redeemed Jacob's descendants for Himself. Israel was not to be a playground for the vagaries of religious pluralism. If then a prophet arose among the people and sought to lead them astray, "that prophet, or that dreamer of dreams, shall be put to death; because he hath spoken to turn you away from the Lord your God…So shalt thou put the evil away from the midst of thee" (Deut 13.5). It mattered not whether the propagator of error was a local prophet, a close relative, or even an entire city; it could not be tolerated. Similarly, a local church must at all costs stand for and maintain the teaching of God's Word, because it is not an open forum for theological debate but is rather "the pillar and ground of the truth" (1 Tim 3.15). The New Testament assumes that every local assembly will have resident men capable of teaching and defending the doctrines of Scripture.

But sadly Israel failed. Their departure from the Lord resulted historically in the severe penalty of divine discipline, of which they were given advance warning in Deuteronomy. After listing a catalogue of calamities, chapter 28 explains why such disasters would befall the nation. It was because they were guilty of insubordination, ingratitude, and indifference. First is insubordination. "Moreover all these curses shall come upon thee, and shall pursue thee, and overtake thee, till thou be destroyed; because thou hearkenedst not unto the voice of the Lord thy God, to keep his commandments" (Deut 28.45). And such blatant disobedience betrayed a heart full of rank ingratitude, "because thou servedst not the Lord thy God with joyfulness, and with gladness of heart, for the abundance of all things" (Deut 28.47). That little phrase, "the abundance of all things", is shorthand for the many mercies showered upon them, mercies which Israel simply took for granted. Paul's great indictment of sinful men – "when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful" (Rom 1.21) – is tragically illustrated by the chosen people. But when we pause (always a valuable exercise) to tot up the many examples of God's goodness to our souls, how grateful are we? Israel's obstinate rebellion constituted wilful indifference to His repeated warnings: "ye shall be left few in number, whereas ye were as the stars of heaven for multitude; because thou wouldest not obey the voice of the Lord thy God" (Deut 28.62). And yet Deuteronomy does not end there but goes on in chapter 30 to predict the nation's restoration. Jeremiah records both God's call and Israel's future response: "Return, ye backsliding children, and I will heal your backslidings. Behold, we come unto thee; for thou art the Lord our God" (Jer 3.22). Similarly, though the believer's eternal salvation in Christ is secure and can never be rescinded, he may become the object of fatherly correction if he persists in sin, for "as a man chasteneth his son, so the Lord thy God chasteneth thee" (Deut 8.5). That is, He chastises with a view to recovery.

Unlike those front line soldiers of the Great War, we need be in no doubt as to why we're here and where we're going, since God has told us in His Word. Just to consider these few passages from Deuteronomy is encouraging. What do we learn? We're saved because of God's sovereign love; we must therefore resolutely shun error, because error is disloyalty to our God; and if we receive discipline, it is often because we refuse to obey. But – how good God is! – even in discipline we can trace His loving hand, for "whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth" (Heb 12.6). Nothing can quench His sovereign love for His own.

To be continued.


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