Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Thousand Generations

Today, during my daily Bible reading I read Deuteronomy 5. I went into the chapter thinking "It's a fairly simple text. It's just a restatement of the Ten Commandments. I can skim this quickly." One day, I'll learn my lesson about presuming that I know what the Bible says.

I stumbled across Deut. 5:9-10. Somehow I missed this in my daily Bible reading when I came across Ex. 20:5-6 (probably because I was thinking "I already know the 10 commandments"), but it is indeed in Exodus also. 
You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, 10 but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.
Two things stood out to me here. First is that I've misunderstood God's justice. Second is that I've misunderstood God's mercy and love.

Regarding justice, I've always believed that God punishes those who are guilty and rewards those who are righteous. This is what justice is, and God is just. My sins are just that, my own sins. Others' sins are just that, their own sins. I will give an account for myself and nobody else, and nobody else will be accountable for me. I won't be accountable for my dad and he won't be accountable for me, other than how he raised me. Likewise with my children, I won't be accountable for them other than how I've raised them. I've based that mostly on the 18th chapter of Ezekiel, especially Ezekiel 18:20. I don't have this all figured out, but it seems obvious to me that the Bible has more to say about this than just one chapter in Ezekiel.

I've heard it said, "God doesn't have any grandchildren," but I don't remember reading that in the Bible. I suppose that statement is made to encourage people to make their faith their own. I agree with that sentiment, to be sure. But I'm finding over and over in my study that God cares deeply about the families of those who love Him. Obedience to God does good for more than just the one who is obedient. Hatred for God does harm to more than just the one who hates God.

God's covenant with Noah included Noah's descendants (Gen. 9:9), and people today still benefit from that covenant. God's covenant with Abraham included Abraham's descendants (Gen. 17:7) and people today still benefit from that covenant. In Genesis 26:5, God specifically tells Isaac that He will bless him and his descendants because Abraham obeyed. When Moses pleads with God to spare the people, he refers back to Abraham (Ex. 32:13; Deut. 9:27). This concept appears over and over.

This is not strictly an Old Testament concept, either. We have many references to the covenant with Abraham in the New Testament. We have Acts 2:39 (a beautiful and often overlooked verse that immediately follows the favorite verse of my heritage) that tells us that God's promise is to "you and your children who are far off." And then we have this odd passage in 1 Corinthians that seems to indicate that God cares deeply for the families of those who love Him.
1 Cor. 7:14 For the unbelieving husband has been sanctified through his wife, and the unbelieving wife has been sanctified through her believing husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy.
I don't have all the answers here, but it appears that there is much more to God's justice than punishing the guilty and rewarding the righteous.

Now, regarding God's mercy in this passage (Deut. 5:9-10), I've had a skewed view of mercy. I've viewed God's mercy as being very limited. I had an idea that very, very, very few people had actually figured out the conditions for receiving God's mercy.

I've believed that God's punishment is more severe, or at least much farther reaching, than God's mercy and grace. When I've had to justify why there are so few who believe in the same plan of salvation I believed in or why so few have deciphered the same rules for worship that I have, I have used those "narrow is the gate and few find it" passages. The rest suffer consciously eternally with no hope of even a moment of relief. So, very, very few will receive God's mercy and those who do, it's because of a lot of intelligence, work, and luck on their part. And the punishment for missing it is unimaginable and the sheer number of people suffering that punishment is overwhelming.

This passage says something quite different. According to Deut. 5:9-10 (and Ex. 20:5-6 and Deut. 7:9 and and and), where God punishes iniquity, it is very limited in comparison to the steadfast love that He shows. It's like three or four compared to thousands. I implore you. Read Deut. 5:9-10 and ask yourself, "Which is greater, God's mercy or God's punishment?" I'm afraid I've gotten this exactly backwards. I've viewed God's mercy as limited and for a very few and nearly impossible to receive. I've viewed God's punishment as for nearly everyone. God delights in showing mercy. He does not want to punish.

Over and over the Bible says it. Mercy is better. God delights in mercy. We need to read the Bible through the lens of Jesus crucified. Otherwise, we'll get it terribly wrong, maybe even exactly backwards.

Mercy triumphs over judgment. The Bible says that several times in several ways (James 2:13 immediately comes to mind), and it is stated most emphatically in the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus was judged without mercy and put to death while He showed mercy to those who killed Him. And Jesus won. God's steadfast love, as revealed in Jesus, wins.

And may I learn to delight in showing mercy, more like Him.

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