Because of favorable tail winds, the recent Sydney to Hobart yacht race was won in record time. The most disastrous race was in 1998, when a severe storm developed near Eden, with the loss of six lives and five yachts and 55 other sailors had to be airlifted from their yachts by rescue helicopter. Only 38% of the yachts finished the race in 1998. Meteorological observations showed that mean wind speeds reached 55 knots (100 km/hr; 63 mph), with frequent gusts to 75 knots (140 km/hr; 86 mph). And wave heights were 5-8 meters (16-26 ft), with individual waves up to 15 meters (49 ft). So the weather is a major factor influencing the progress of the fleet. Sometimes it helps and other times it hinders.
Our journey of life is like this yacht race – it’s made up of good times and difficult times. It’s always changing. And sometimes things can be out of our control. But it’s good to know that according to the Bible, whatever happens, God is always in control.
The year 2017 begins today. What will this year bring in your journey of life? Like the life of Abraham in the Bible, there will be ups and downs. Good times and difficult times. But whatever happens is no surprise to God, because He has promised:
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28NIV).
The context of this verse is “our present suffering” (Rom. 8:18). Because hope sustains believers when they suffer (v. 22-25), they can wait patiently for their ultimate redemption (v.25). Two reasons are given for waiting patiently. First, the Holy Spirit helps them when they pray (v.26-27). And, second they can be confident that God works in all the circumstances of their lives to accomplish His good purpose for them (v.28). Whatever God allows to come into our lives is designed to assist our growth into the image of Christ (v.29) and bring us to final glory (v.30). This means that in a coming day we will be free from sin and will have glorified bodies like Christ’s. So, our daily lives aren’t controlled by impersonal forces such as chance, luck or fate, but by our loving God. Instead, we know that God manages the circumstances and events of our lives toward a proper end. The “things” that happen to us might not be good in themselves, but God uses every event for our ultimate good. All hardships, misfortunes, suffering and setbacks contribute to the good. He brings good out of “all things”. So, God is at work on our behalf (v.28-30). He is sovereign over all the affairs of life.
This doesn’t mean that everything will turn out OK in our lives. The reason for this is that the object of this promise is God’s eternal purpose, not just our temporal affairs. For example, Joseph went through lots of suffering, but acknowledged that God allowed it (Gen. 45:5-8), and God used it for good within his lifetime (Gen. 50:19-20).
As well as bringing ultimate good out of every event in our lives, God controls the timing of our lives.
The Bible says that Jesus was born at a time that was set by God:
“But when the set time had fully come, God sent His Son (Jesus), born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship” (Gal. 4:4-5).
A father in the Roman Empire marked a specific time when his child became an adult. Likewise, God the Father marked a time when He sent His Son into the world. God had a precise time for Christ to be born (Daniel 9:24-27). He came precisely at the moment God designed from eternity. This is the time when God began to put to an end to the dispensation of the law by sending His Son to fulfill all the demands of the law.
Likewise, for us. We were born at a time set by God. David wrote: “all the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be” (Ps. 139:16). David’s span of life and its events were sovereignly determined. Our span of life and its events are also sovereignly determined. This gives meaning to our life. Because we are living when God planned for us to live, it’s the right time for us.
But, as well as bringing ultimate good out of every event in our lives, and controlling the timing of our lives, God meets all our needs.
Because David was aware of God’s promises, timing and provision, he wrote Psalm 23 (NLT).
1 The Lord (God) is my shepherd;
I have all that I need.
2 He lets me rest in green meadows;
he leads me beside peaceful streams.
3 He renews my strength.
He guides me along right paths,
bringing honor to his name.
4 Even when I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will not be afraid,
for you are close beside me.
Your rod and your staff
protect and comfort me.
5 You prepare a feast for me
in the presence of my enemies.
You honor me by anointing my head with oil.
My cup overflows with blessings.
6 Surely your goodness and unfailing love will pursue me
all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord
With the assurance of God’s provision (v.1), rest (v.2), strength (v.3), guidance (v.3), protection (v.4), comfort (v.4), honor (v.5), goodness (v.6 and love (v.6), what more could David want? If we trust in God through Christ, like David we can experience God’s shepherd care. After all, Jesus said He was “the good shepherd” (Jn. 10:11, 14-15). He is “good” because He died in order to save His sheep (followers). In this way, God met the needs of true Christians.
We have seen that God uses every event in our lives for our ultimate good, controls the timing of our lives, and meets all our needs. So whatever happens in 2017, let’s remember that God is always in control. And He cares for us.
Written, January 2017
Geographic names in New Zealand often reflect its native people and European settlement. Some place names were given by Māoris, explorers, surveyors and administrators. Others are named after British places and battles, historical events, immigrant ships, and important people (explorers, cultural heroes, political heroes, government officials, pioneers, and royalty). Each geographic name has a story associated with it. So, where is Zion and what’s its story?
“Zion” is a word that’s associated with God’s people in both the Old and New Testaments of the Bible. The Hebrew word translated “Zion” Tsiyyon (Strongs #6726) occurs 152 times in the Old Testament (mainly in the Psalms and prophets).
Hill of Ophel
In about 1,000 BC, king David captured the fortress of Zion from the Jebusites (2 Sam. 5:6-10; 1 Chron. 11:4-9). The Jebusites were Canaanites (Gen. 10:15-16; Jud. 19:10) and their city Jebus (Jerusalem) was a natural fortress because it was on a ridge that was surrounded on three sides by steep valleys (Kidron, Hinnom, and Tyropoeon). This site was also called the “hill of Ophel”, which was in Jerusalem near the Water Gate and Gihon Spring (2 Chron. 27:3; 33:14; Neh. 3:26NIV). The spring was an essential water supply for the fortress. About 250-300 years after David’s victory, Kings Jotham and Manasseh strengthened the fortifications at Ophel.
When David took up residence at Ophel he “called it the City of David” (2 Chron. 32:30; 33:14). It was his royal city, where he built his palace and ruled over Israel. After David brought the ark to Ophel (Zion), it also became a sacred place where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God (2 Sam. 6:10-19; 1 Chron. 16:1-38). David called it God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 3:4; 15:1ESV). So Ophel (Zion) was the key place in Israel for government and worship during the reign of King David. And it was still called Zion when king Solomon dedicated the temple in 966 BC (1 Ki. 8:1; 2 Chron. 5:2).
So in the first instance, Zion referred to the hill of Ophel which was the site of a Jebusite fortress and the City of David.
During David’s reign the city of Jerusalem expanded towards the north. And after king Solomon built the Israelite temple on the threshing floor of Araunah the Jebusite (2 Chron. 3:1), it became known as Mount Zion. This hill had been called Mount Moriah in Abraham’s time about 880 years earlier.
When the temple was dedicated, it was filled with a cloud which represented God’s presence (1 Ki. 8:10-12; 2 Chron. 5:13-14; 7:1-3). In this aspect it was similar to the tabernacle (Ex. 40:34-38). The temple was God’s dwelling place (Isa. 8:18; Ps. 132:7, 13). That’s where the Israelites went to meet God (Jer. 31:6). And that’s why Mount Zion was called, “the place of the Name of the Lord Almighty” (Isa. 18:7). This cloud occupied the temple for about 375 years until it departed in the days of Ezekiel (Ezek. 10).
Because the temple was the centre of Israelite praise and worship, God calls Mount Zion “my holy hill” (Ps. 2:6ESV). The temple gave it holiness. That’s where the priests and Levites regularly offered praise and worship to God. That’s where Jewish men travelled to three times a year for major religious festivals (Ex. 23:14-17; 34:18-23; Dt. 16:16). So the temple was the center of their spiritual life. It was the center of Jewish religion.
So in the second instance, Zion referred to the temple mount which was north of the hill of Ophel.
The word “Zion” can also refer to Jerusalem – it’s often used as a synonym for Jerusalem (2 Ki. 19:21; Ps. 69:35; Isa. 1:8; 40:9). This is clearest in poetic passages where “Zion” is the parallel term to “Jerusalem” (Ps. 51:18; 76:2; 102:21; 135:21; 147:12; Isa. 2:3; 33:20; 37:32; 40:9; 41:27; 62:1; Jer. 26:18; 51:35; Amos 1:2; Zeph. 3:14). In these instances, “Zion” and “Jerusalem” can also be figures of speech for the inhabitants of Jerusalem or for the land of Judah or Israel or for the Jewish people as a whole.
Jerusalem is also called God’s “holy hill” (Ps. 48:1NET)(Jer. 31:23; Dan. 9:6; 20ESV). The city is said to be holy because it includes the temple. Joel gives a warning in Zion, God’s holy hill and promises future peace (Joel 2:1; 3:17). Likewise, God promises to return to Zion, the holy hill, and bring back the Jews to restore Jerusalem after their Babylonian captivity (Zech. 8:3).
In Psalm 48, Jerusalem is called “Zion”, “Mount Zion”, “the city of the Lord Almighty” and “the city of our God”. In Psalm 87, Jerusalem is called “Zion” and “city of God”. In captivity, the Jews said “By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion” (Ps. 137:1-5). The Babylonians had asked them, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”, but they couldn’t do this because they were committed to not forget Jerusalem.
So in the third instance, Zion referred to the city of Jerusalem or its inhabitants or the kingdom associated with Jerusalem.
Following the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, the name Zion was assigned to its present location across the Tyropoeon Valley (see Josephus). Apparently the upper room where Jesus celebrated the Passover (Mk. 14:15; Lk. 22:12) and the room where the disciples gathered after Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:13) were in this area. So, today the more dominant western hill is called “Mount Zion”.
So in the fourth instance, Zion refers to the hill west of the Tyropoeon Valley. This means that “Zion” has been used to describe three hills in Jerusalem: the hill of Opel, the temple mount, and the western hill.
In the coming millennial kingdom “the Lord Almighty will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem” (Isa. 24:23). In that day Jerusalem will be the religious and political capital of the world (Isa. 2:2-4; 25:6-8; Mic. 4:1-3, 7). Once again, God calls Zion “my holy hill” (Joel 3:17). That’s where Christ reigns and where people worship Him (Ps. 99:2,9). As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the world from Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the fifth instance, Zion refers to the city of Jerusalem. This is similar to the third instance only Christ will be personally present, and not just represented by a cloud.
The Greek word translated “Zion” (Sion, Strongs #4622), occurs seven times in the New Testament. Five of these are synonyms of Jerusalem from the Old Testament prophets (Mt. 21:5; Jn. 12:15; Rom. 9:33; 11:26; 1 Pt. 2:6). Another seems to refer to the second coming, which results in Christ’s Millennial reign in Jerusalem (Rev. 14:1). We will now look at the other instance of “Zion” in the New Testament.
In the New Testament “Mount Zion” refers metaphorically to the heavenly Jerusalem, God’s holy, eternal city. Hebrews says, “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22). This is the eternal dwelling place of God and His people (Rev. 21:2 – 22:5).
Just as there is an earthly Mount Zion in Jerusalem, so there will be a heavenly Mount Zion and new Jerusalem (Gal. 4:25-26). As the Bible progresses, the word Zion expands in scope and takes on an additional, spiritual meaning. As king David ruled Israel from Jerusalem (Zion), so in future Jesus will rule the universe from the new heavenly Jerusalem (Zion).
So in the sixth instance, Zion refers to the new heavenly Jerusalem inhabited eternally by God and His people.
Lessons for us
So the story behind Zion stretches from about 3,000 years ago into the eternal future. Zion was a holy place for the Jews because that was where God dwelt. This was true for the hill of Ophel, the Temple Mount and for the city of Jerusalem. But according to the Bible, God the Holy Spirit now lives in Christians. They are said to be temples of the Holy Spirit. This means that instead of holy places, we now have holy people. Does our practice match our position? Do we respect each other as being holy?
In the coming stages of God’s plan of salvation, Zion is associated with both Christ’s earthly reign from Jerusalem and with God’s eternal reign from the new heavenly Jerusalem. Are we looking forward to this time? Does it encourage us in our Christian lives?
Written, August 2016
What do you associate with each place: Gettysburg, New York, Las Vegas, Hiroshima, Hollywood, London, Salt Lake City, Paris, Yosemite, and Bethlehem? For most of us each place name arouses particular connotations, connections and feelings.
You may say that Bethlehem was the birth place of Jesus Christ. But what did the word “Bethlehem” mean to those who lived before Christ was born?
Let’s look at what the Old Testament says about Bethlehem, a town which is about 10 km south of Jerusalem. Both of these towns are on a north-south range of hard limestone hills rising midway between the Mediterranean coast and the Jordan rift valley. Bethlehem is 775 metres above sea level, 30 metres higher than Jerusalem. It was previously known as Ephrath(ah), a name that refers to that area of Judea (Gen. 35:19; 48:7, Ruth 1:2; 4:11; Mic. 5:2).
A family crisis
In about 1300 BC, Elimelek and his wife Naomi lived in Bethlehem (Ruth 1:1). Because of a famine in Israel, Elimelek’s family migrated to Moab, which was south-east of the Dead Sea. In Moab, Naomi’s husband and two sons died. She was left alone and destitute. It was a family crisis. It looked like the end of the family line. So she decided to return to Bethlehem, her husband’s home town. Her daughter-in-law Ruth, went with her. Now we have two destitute women, one of them a foreigner.
God provided a solution to this crisis when Boaz let Ruth glean in the barley fields, by gathering stalks of grain left behind by the harvesters. So they had food to eat. But they were helped even more when Boaz married Ruth. This preserved the family name and the family property through Boaz, the kinsman-redeemer. Also, both women were sustained in the long term. Naomi was cared for in her old age and she had a grandson called Obed whose grandson was David.
So at Bethlehem God provided a solution to a family crisis.
A national crisis
This family lived in Bethlehem for the next few hundred years. Because the Israelites hadn’t driven out all the inhabitants of Canaan, they faced constant opposition from the Philistines who lived on the coastal plain. During the reign of the first king, Saul, a national crisis arose. The Philistine army penetrated into Israelite territory and was gathered in the valley of Elah. And they had a giant called Goliath who terrorised the Israelites. Because the valley of Elah extends from the coastal plain eastwards towards Bethlehem, this threatened Bethlehem and after that Jerusalem (1 Sam. 17).
God provided a solution when David killed Goliath with a stone. David lived in Bethlehem where he was a shepherd. He was sent to the valley of Elah by his father to take provisions for his brothers in the Israelite army. When their hero was killed, the Philistines turned and ran back to Gath. David saved his nation from the enemy and became a national hero. So from Bethlehem, God provided a solution to a national crisis.
Another national crisis arose soon afterwards when Saul changed from being a godly king to an evil tyrant. God provided another solution when he sent Samuel to Bethlehem to anoint David privately to be the next king (1 Sam. 16:1-13). So at Bethlehem, God once again provided a solution to a national crisis. Later David was publicly anointed as king of the tribe of Judah and king of the whole nation (2 Sam. 2:1-4; 5:1-5). David established the kingdom of Israel. So he was the most famous person to live in Bethlehem.
Next in the 7th century BC, Micah predicted that the Jewish Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). This was known by the Jewish religious leaders after the birth of Christ, because it was in their Scriptures (Mt. 2:4-6). Also some of the Jews thought that the Messiah would be a descendant of David (2 Sam. 7:16; Ps. 89:3-4; Isa. 9:7) born at Bethlehem (Jn. 7:42). So it’s not surprising that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which was called the “town of David” (Lk. 2:4, 11NIV) because David lived here before he became the king. Jesus was also a descendant of David (Lk. 4:23, 31; Rom. 1:3).
But although Jesus was the long-awaited Jewish Messiah, His mission was to the whole world.
A global crisis
In 2015 terrorist incidents occurred in Cameroon, Philippines, Tunisia, Nigeria, Mali, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey, France, Lebanon, China, Ukraine, Israel, Libya, Niger, Denmark, Japan, South Korea, Tunisia, India, Somalia, Kenya, Thailand, Macedonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, United States, Chad, Syria, Kuwait, Bahrain, Bangladesh, Germany, Australia, and United Kingdom. Today terrorism is an international crisis that threatens peace across the world. Countries and airlines now have anti-terrorism measures. Terrorism is an extreme symptom of humanity’s rebellion against God (also called “sin”) and failure to respect one another.
God provided a solution when Jesus was born in Bethlehem and He later died in Jerusalem for the sin of mankind and then rose again to give new life to all who put their faith and trust in Him. Jesus is the source of peace with God (Lk. 2:14). When Jesus was born at Bethlehem, it was the beginning of His mission on earth to demonstrate God’s love and give up His life to free us from the penalty and power of sin. He came for everyone. His coming was welcomed by lowly shepherds and the wealthy Magi. The shepherds were Jews and the Magi were Gentiles.
So from Bethlehem, God provided a solution to a global crisis.
What about us? You may think, I’m not destitute like Naomi and Ruth, or threatened like the nation of Israel. I’m not a terrorist! But what about ignoring the God who created our universe to whom we owe so much ?
This Christmas, let’s recognize our personal crisis and accept God’s solution that was revealed at Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. Let’s celebrate by praising Him like the shepherds (Lk. 2:20), and worshiping Jesus like the Magi (Mt. 2:11).
Written, December 2015
I have received the following comment about a post on polygamy.
Sorry, but what I come to notice is that some people are using the New Testament to then try to interpret the Old Testament. Just like the author of this post is doing. By using Jesus and Paul interpretation of the Old Testament (Gen. 2:24-25) to say this means marriage is only between one men and one woman. If you see, in the Old Testament GOD never condemned polygamy for his people. It will be really hard for me to believe that GOD has clearly spoken and given rules about certain things like owning a Hebrew Slave, yet when it comes to polygamy he decides is best to put it a non-clear way.
1-“The first mention of polygamy in the Bible involves Lamech who claimed to avenge himself eleven times more often than Cain (Gen. 4:19, 24)”. -this point is moot, the text has to do with the killing, the fact that he had two wife makes no sense. If you find a person in the bible that was evil but only had one wife you will not say monogamy is bad.
2- “In fact, God had commanded that the king “must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray” (Dt. 17:17)” – I love this because if you actually read the TEXT in CONTENT, well actually just read starting from verse 14, see that GOD is talking about the rules that the KING OF ISRAEL has to follow. He never ever say, everyone or my people. He is specially talking about the KING OF ISRAEL.
3- “The most extreme example of polygamy in the Bible is king Solomon who “had seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines, and his wives led him astray” (1 Ki. 11:3). His wives turned him to idolatry.” – Again here, the passage clearly never say don’t have many wife’s because I say it should be only one men and one woman. It clearly teaches the wrong thing here is that the wife’s made him believe in ANOTHER GOD.
This post is based on a survey of the instances of polygamy in the Old Testament (OT). I have been careful to identify instances of a man having more than one wife (or concubines) at the same time (concurrently). In those days woman sometimes died as a result of childbirth or for other reasons. In such cases the man usually remarried and could be said to have had children with two wives. Such serial marriages are not polygamy.
We will see that because polygamy wasn’t God’s idea, it wasn’t the original form of marriage, and it wasn’t the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it wasn’t the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
In this post we look at whether the instances of polygamy (including bigamy) in the OT are a command, a model to follow or merely a report of events. Monogamy will be considered in the same way so the two can be compared.
Is polygamy a command, a model or a report?
Some think that Exodus 21: 7-11 regulates polygamy involving a female Hebrew slave. However the translation of “ownah” (Strong’s 5772, feminine noun) as “marital rights” in verse 10 is uncertain as this is its only occurrence in Scripture (NET Bible). Also, it has been suggested that it could mean accommodation or ointments. The main point is that the displaced woman was to be cared for and not disadvantaged. Therefore, this verse doesn’t definitely relate to polygamy.
Hebrew law maintained the rights of the firstborn in a polygamous marriage (Dt. 21:15-17). Does this mean that God approved polygamy? Not necessarily, but He recognized that it did occur as this passage begins “If a man has two wives …”. It seems that God allowed polygamy because otherwise a man who had multiple wives would need to divorce all except one and those who were divorced would be destitute because they would be unable to remarry.
Under Hebrew law, levirate marriage obligated a man whose brother has died and left a widow without heir to marry her (Dt. 25:5-10). The son of this union “shall carry on the name of the dead brother”. This special case preserved the family name and protected the family property and the widow’s welfare in societies where women can’t own property and there is no social welfare. If the man was already married, this would mean that he had two wives. This seems to be the only OT command that is potentially related to polygamy. The best Scriptural examples of levirate marriage are Tamar (Gen. 38:1-30) and Ruth (Ruth 3:1 – 4:17), but they don’t involve polygamy.
Nathan the prophet said that God gave David Saul’s wives (2 Sam. 12:8). Does this mean that God commanded David to be polygamous? When we look at the context of this verse, it is part of the interpretation of the parable in v.1-4. The main message is that God has placed David as king of Israel in place of Saul. David has replaced Saul. So God had given David, as king of Israel, everything that was Saul’s. This included wealth and power and caring for Saul’s wives. If God had given him all this, how despicable of David to take another man’s wife. The Hebrew word translated “into your arms” (Strongs #2436) in v.8 is used in v.3 to describe how a poor man cared for a lamb like it was his daughter. Saul’s wives were given to David to care for like “all Israel and Judah” were given to him. But how could Saul’s wives trust him after how he had treated Uriah and Bathsheba? By the way, there is no conclusive evidence that he married any of them. So, this verse isn’t related to polygamy.
It is interesting to note that Jehoiada (a good High Priest) chose two wives for King Joash (2 Chron. 24:3). Joash was a godly king until the death of Joash, but he didn’t finish well. Was this a model of bigamy to follow for the kings of Judah?
Besides this, I am not aware of any example of polygamy in the OT that has God’s approval.
In the following cases polygamy is reported as a historical event without being endorsed or criticised: Lamech (Gen. 4:19, 23), Nahor (Gen. 22:20-24), Abraham (Gen. 25:6; 1 Chron. 1:32), Esau (Gen. 26:34; 28:6-9), Jacob (Gen. 29:16-30), Eliphaz (Gen. 36:12, Caleb (1 Chron. 2:18-19, 46, 48 ), Manasseh (1 Chron. 7:14), Gideon (Jud. 8:30-31), and Elkanah (1 Sam. 1:1-2). Also, some other men who are said to have large numbers of children may have had more than one wife at once. But there are no reported incidences of polygamy among the Jews after the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC.
Polygamy is also reported amongst the following kings of Israel without being endorsed or criticised: Saul (2 Sam. 3:7), David (2 Sam. 5:13), Solomon (1 Ki. 11:1-8), Rehoboam (2 Chron. 11:18-21), Ahab (1 Ki. 20:3), Jehoiachin (2 Ki. 24:15), Jehoram (2 Chron. 21:14, 17), Abijah (2 Chron. 13:21), and Joash (2 Chron. 24:3). These kings disobeyed the command not to have many wives (Dt. 17:17). Solomon was the worst offender with 700 wives and 300 concubines!
At that time kings used marriages to establish political alliances with other nations. For example, King Belshazzar (of Babylonia) had many wives and concubines and king Xerxes of Persia had a harem (Dan. 5:2; Est. 1:9; 2:14).
The Bible says that polygamy led to troubles in the family. There was friction, jealousy and rivalry between the wives (Gen. 30:1; 1 Ki. 11:3-4). And Solomon’s wives “led him astray” and “turned his heart after other gods” (1 Ki. 11:3-4).
So polygamy occurred in Old Testament times and it is reported amongst God’s people the Israelites, but it wasn’t approved or commanded by God. The only instance that could be a model for the kings of Judah to follow is the bigamy of king Joash.
How does this compare with what the Old Testament says about monogamy?
Is monogamy a command, a model or a report?
The 10th commandment given to the Israelites includes, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” (Ex. 20:17; Dt. 5:21NIV). The singular word “wife” assumes the ideal that each husband has only one wife.
Similarly God’s commands given to the Jews about 1,000 years later include,
“…the LORD is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife (singular) of your marriage covenant.” (Mal. 2:14)
“… do not be unfaithful to the wife (singular) of your youth” (Mal. 2:15b).
The singular word “wife” assumes the ideal that each husband has only one wife.
Hebrew law always assumes the ideal where a husband had one wife and not more than one. For example:
“Do not have sexual relations with your father’s wife” (Lev. 18:8; 20:11; Dt. 22:30; 27:20).
“Do not dishonor your father’s brother by approaching his wife to have sexual relations” Lev. 18:14; 20:20)
“Do not have sexual relations with your daughter-in-law. She is your son’s wife” (Lev. 18:15).
“Do not have sexual relations with your brother’s wife” (Lev. 18:16; 20:21).
“Do not take your wife’s sister as a rival wife and have sexual relations with her while your wife is living” (Lev.18:18).
“Do not have sexual relations with your neighbor’s wife” (Lev. 18:20; 20:10).
“These are the regulations the Lord gave Moses concerning relationships between a man and his wife” (Num. 30:16).
“If a man is found sleeping with another man’s wife” (Dt. 22:22).
“If two men are fighting and the wife of one of them comes to rescue her husband from his assailant” (Dt. 25:11).
Also, the test for an unfaithful wife assumes the ideal of monogamy (Num. 5:11-31).
In all these instances it is assumed that a husband had one wife at any given time and not more than one.
The commands for the kings of Israel included not having many wives:
“The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself … He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold” (Dt. 17:16-7).
Horses were used in warfare and royal wives were taken to form alliances with other nations. God wanted the kings of Israel to trust in Him and not in armaments or political alliances. The accumulation of wealth may be due to the oppression of the people. So God places limits on the armaments, alliances and wealth of these future kings. The kings “must not take many wives” (v.17). The Hebrew verb translated “many” (Strongs #7235) means multiply. This doesn’t seem to be a command for monogamy because in the previous verse the same word is applied to horses, which were used in warfare. As they wouldn’t be restricted to one horse, then they weren’t necessarily restricted to one wife. So this passage can’t be used to support monogamy for these kings.
After God created Adam He said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him” (Gen. 2:18). Note that the helper, which became Adam’s wife is singular, not plural.
After God created Eve (the first woman) from Adam’s rib, the Bible says “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). Because it says “that is why”, Adam and Eve are a model of marriage for humanity (when husband and wife leave their parents and live together). Because it says “his wife” and not “his wives”, this marriage is monogamous, with one man married to one woman and not many women. It is interesting to note that the second “start” to the human population (after the Genesis flood) began with four monogamous couples (Noah and his wife, Shem and his wife, Ham and his wife, Japheth and his wife). Also, Isaac, Joseph and Moses were monogamous.
One of the blessings of a godly man is “Your wife (singular) will be like a fruitful vine within your house” (Ps. 128:3). King Solomon advised “Enjoy life with your wife (singular)” (Eccl. 9:9). Also, a godly man “does not defile his neighbor’s wife (singular)” (Ezek. 18:6, 15).
Others who had one wife were Cain, Lot, servants (Ex. 21:3-5), Amram ( Num. 36:59), Lappidoth (Jud. 4:4), Heber (Jud. 4:17), Gilead (Jud. 11:2), Samson, Elimelek (Ruth 1:2), Phinehas (1 Sam. 4:19), Nabal (1 Sam. 25:3), David’s 600 men (1 Sam. 30:22), Uriah (2 Sam. 11:3), Bahurim (2 Sam. 17:18-19), a prophet (2 Ki. 4:1), Naaman (2 Ki. 5:2), Shallum (2 Ki. 22:14), Hezron (1 Chron. 2:24), Abishur ( 1 Chron. 2:29), Ephraim (1 Chron. 7:23), Jeiel (1 Chron. 8:29), Jehoiada (2 Chron. 22:11), Haman (Est. 5:10), Job (Job 2:9), Ezekiel (Ezek. 24:18). Kings have been omitted from this list because of the greater likelihood of them having more than one wife and of having concubines. For example, although Jezebel is said to be the wife of king Ahab, he also had other wives (1 Ki. 20:3; 21:5-7).
When the men of Benjamin who survived war with the rest of Israel were provided with wives, it was one wife for each man (Jud. 21:20-23).
So monogamy was the original form of human marriage (it was God’s idea) and it is assumed to be the ideal marriage in the commands of the Old Testament. Clearly monogamy was approved by God and was more prevalent in OT times than polygamy.
Marriage as a symbol
It is interesting to note that the OT prophets often illustrated God as the husband of Israel (Is. 54:5-8; 62:5 Jer. 2:2; 3:14; Ezek. 16:32; Hos. 2:16, 19-20; 3:1). In this figure of speech, the nation of Israel is God’s wife. It only makes sense with monogamy and not with polygamy – God only had one bride and wife in the OT and that was the nation of Israel. God didn’t have multiple brides and wives in the OT.
Because of her idolatry (following other God’s), Israel is accused of spiritual adultery (Jer. 3:1, 20; 13:27; Ezek. 23:37; Hos. 1:2; 4:13-14; 5:4; 9:1). Israel had broken the covenant between them (it was like a marriage covenant). This is illustrated by Hosea who married Gomer in a monogamous relationship (Hosea only had one wife). But Gomer was unfaithful in committing adultery – “like an adulterous wife this land (the northern kingdom of Israel) is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord” (Hos. 1:2). Afterwards Hosea took her back. He was to “love her as the Lord loves the Israelites” (Hos. 3:1). Then he told her “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any (other) man, and I will behave the same way toward you” (Hos. 3:3). This is a monogamous marriage, not a polygamous one.
So the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel was a monogamous marriage and not a polygamous one.
Polygamy and monogamy compared
We have seen that monogamy was approved and commanded by God, but polygamy wasn’t. Monogamy was God’s idea. But God protected the rights of children in a polygamous marriage and protected women without an heir. Also the commands given in the OT assume monogamous marriages, and not polygamous ones.
The first marriage was between Adam and Eve, so it was monogamous. Also the marriages of those saved in the Genesis flood to repopulate the earth were monogamous. So marriage was monogamous at the beginning of time and not polygamous. The godly example and model for marriage in the OT was monogamy. Although some godly men were polygamous, they aren’t commended for their polygamy. Instead the Bible records the troubles that this caused (see the lives of David’s and Solomon’s children). The only model to follow that advocates polygamy, may be that the bigamy of king Josiah was a model for the kings of Judah.
Both monogamy and polygamy are reported in the OT without being endorsed or criticised. These are historical reports of events that don’t indicate God’s viewpoint on the subject of marriage.
Because monogamy was God’s idea, it was the original form of marriage, and it was the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it was the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
Because polygamy wasn’t God’s idea, it wasn’t the original form of marriage, and it wasn’t the ideal marriage assumed by the OT commands and it wasn’t the model for God’s relationship with the nation of Israel.
Written, August 2015
“Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Ps. 51:5NIV).
This verse is part of David’s prayer of confession for his sins (adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah). The prayer demonstrates the parallelism and figurative language of Hebrew poetry. Some of the figures of speech are related to how he wanted his sin to be removed: “blot out”, “wash away” and “cleanse” (v. 1-2); “wash” with hyssop so he is “whiter than snow” (v.7); “hear joy and gladness” (the effect is substituted for the cause), and “let the bones (body) you have crushed rejoice” (v. 8).
In verse 5 he makes the parallel statements, “Surely I was sinful at birth” and “sinful from the time my mother conceived me”. This is an example of hyperbole, where the writer exaggerates to make a point. Hyperbole is used commonly in the Bible to grab our attention and cause us to stop and think about what is being said. In this case it’s a colorful way of saying, “I’ve been sinful all my life” or “I’ve always been a sinner”. As such it is figurative and not literal.
David begins to use hyperbole in this prayer when he says, “my sin is always before me” (v.3). Was it on his mind 24 hours a day? No it wasn’t, but it filled his mind. He continues to use hyperbole in the next verse, “against you (God), you only, have I sinned” (v.4). What about his sin against Bathsheba and Uriah? He leaves them out because these sins were less important that his sin against God. The pattern of hyperbole continues in the next verse, “Surely I was sinful at birth” and “sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (v.5). Had David sinned from the time of his conception? No he hadn’t, but he feels so guilty it’s as if he’s been sinning all his life.
David also has similar thoughts in Psalm 58 where he asked God to punish unjust rulers. He uses hyperbole to describe them:
“Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies” (Ps. 58:3).
This a clearly figurative language because babies don’t spread lies from birth (they can’t communicate using words). In this case it’s a colorful way of saying, “they’ve been sinful all their lives”. Had they gone astray from birth? Of course not. Had they spread lies from birth? Of course not. As such it is figurative and not literal.
There are other figures of speech in the next verse where the unjust leader’s speech is described as “venom”, which is probably a metaphor for slander (v.4). This metaphor is extended to them being like a deaf snake, which implies they are deaf to the voice of God.
It would be wrong to use this Hebrew poetry in Psalms 51 and 58 to develop a theology of when sin starts in a child’s life. That topic isn’t being addressed in these verses.
Does this mean that babies are innocent? No and yes! On one hand they already have a sinful nature which is a characteristic of humanity (Rom. 3:10, 23; Eph. 2:1-3), but on the other hand, they are not yet accountable for their sin (Dt, 1:39; Is. 7:14-14; Jon. 4:11). Sinful behavior comes naturally. No one has to teach a child to lie or be selfish. No one is sinless (1 Jn. 1:7).
So when interpreting a passage in the Bible, we need to be careful to note its genre (is it prose or poetry?) and the occurrence of figures of speech.
Written, February 2015
Also see: If an infant dies, do they go to heaven?
We live in a world of contracts. They regulate our lives and financial transactions. There are employment contracts and marriage contracts. Contracts for the supply of telephone and internet services. Contracts when you buy a car or a property or build a house. Anti-bullying contracts at schools.
This article looks at some of God’s contracts in the Bible. We will see that because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Adam and Eve lived in utopia. But after they disobeyed God, they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Sinful behaviour increased until it had to be punished when God destroyed the world in a global flood and started again with Noah’s family. Noah lived about 2,500 years BC. We see two aspects of God’s character in His response to humanity’s sin. First there is judgement and punishment. Second there is grace and mercy. God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises.
The first five books of the Bible were written by Moses at about 1,500 years BC. The most important types of contracts, agreements and treaties at this time involved kings. There were two types:
- Royal land grants – A king’s free gift of land or some other benefit to a loyal servant. The grant was normally perpetual and unconditional, but the servant’s descendants benefited from it only if they continued to be loyal.
- Suzerain–vassal treaties – A treaty between a great king and the lesser kings that he ruled. Here the one with the political control is called the suzerain (a French word) and the other is called the vassal (a Latin word). The suzerain protected the vassal as long as the vassal was loyal to him. It was a conditional treaty.
We will now look at a series of covenants/contracts that God made with humanity. A contract is a legally binding agreement between two parties.
After the flood, God told Noah’s family, “Never again will all life be destroyed by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11NIV). He called it “a covenant for all generations to come” and an “everlasting covenant” (Gen. 9:12, 16). It was between God and every living creature on earth and was symbolised by the rainbow. It was unconditional, like a royal land grant.
When in Babylon, Ezekiel had the vision of God’s glory, and the radiance was like a rainbow (Ezek. 1:28). When on Patmos, John had the vision of the throne in heaven, which was encircled by a green rainbow (Rev. 4:3). The rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
How did people respond to God’s promise never to destroy the world again with a global flood? At this time they were also told to “fill the earth” (Gen. 9:1, 7). But they were disobedient and built the city of Babel instead and resisted being scattered across the earth (Gen. 11:1-4). That’s behaving like a teenager who is given everything by their parents, but rebels and goes their own way.
What about us? The Bible says that Jesus is “sustaining all things by His powerful word” and “in Him all things hold together” (Col. 1:17; Heb. 1:11). Do we live as though God sustains the universe, or do we ignore Him and go our own way?
So the first covenant/contract was a promise of God’s protection and now we will move to the second.
Promised nation and land
When the people proudly built a tower as a monument to celebrate their achievements, God judged their sin by causing the people to start using different languages (Gen. 11:7-9). Because they couldn’t understand each other, they scattered across the earth into different nations that spoke different languages.
Then God responded with grace and mercy and promised to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan from the Wadi of Egypt to the Euphrates River (Gen. 15:18-21). This was unconditional like a royal land grant. By the way, this promise has not yet been fulfilled. Although Solomon ruled over it as over vassal states, his people didn’t occupy all of it themselves (1 Ki. 4:21, 24).
How did they respond? Sarah, unable to have any children, persuaded Abraham to father a child by her servant, Hagar (Gen. 16:2). The child was Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabic people. Sarah and Abraham lacked faith and took matters into their own hands.
So God repeated the promise to give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan and promised to be their God (Gen. 17:1-22). He promised a son who was to be named Isaac who would have many descendants and Ishmael would also have many descendants. It was an everlasting covenant/contract (Gen. 17:7-8). They were to undergo male circumcision because it was the sign of this covenant/contract (Gen. 17:11).
How did they respond? Abraham promptly circumcised the males in his household. When they were told that Sarah would have a son, Abraham worshiped and laughed in amazement, while Sarah laughed in disbelief as she was past the childbearing age (Gen. 17:17-18; 18:9-15). In this case Sarah doubted God’s promise and needed to hear, “Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen. 18:14).
Politicians make promises before elections. But people often doubt them because afterwards they can get downgraded into core and non-core promises or scrapped because it is alleged that the circumstances have changed.
What about us? In the New Testament, God promises eternal life, the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s second coming. Do we treat God like we treat politicians? Do we live as though these are doubtful non-core promises? Are we like Abraham who trusted God or like Sarah who didn’t?
So the second covenant/contract was a promise of a nation and land and now we will move to the third.
The promises given to Abraham were repeated to Isaac and Jacob; and Jacob’s family followed Joseph to Egypt. After being in Egypt for many years, Jacob’s family grew to a nation of 2 million people and Moses led them out in the exodus to Canaan. At Mt Sinai, God promised the Israelites they would be His special people – “my treasured possession” (Ex. 19:5) and He would drive out the Canaanites so they could occupy their land (Ex. 19 – 31). As it was conditional on obeying God’s laws, including the 10 commandments, social laws and religious laws, this covenant/contract was like a Suzerain-vassal agreement. There were blessings for obedience and punishment for disobedience (Lev. 26, Dt. 28-29). It was based on works; if people obeyed, God would do His part. The Sabbath day was given to Israel as a sign of this covenant/contract (Ex. 31:13, 17).
How did they respond? The 4th time that Moses went up Mt Sinai to met with God lasted 40 days (Ex. 24:18) and the people got impatient and made a golden idol shaped like a calf (Ex. 32:1-6). It was not a good start! Then after the spies explored Canaan, the people rebelled against God and wanted to go back to Egypt (Num. 14:1-4). Their punishment was to wander in the wilderness for 38 years, while those that rebelled died before they reached Canaan.
After the Israelites occupied Canaan, they were ruled by Judges for about 300 years. Then they became a monarchy. Saul was the first king and David the second. David lived about 1,000 years BC. Later in the monarchy they divided into the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. All of Israel’s kings were ungodly; they followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Assyrian conquest of 722BC. Many of the kings of Judah also followed idols instead of keeping the covenant/contract. They were punished in the Babylonian conquest of 586BC.
If a tenant fails to pay the rent on time or damages the property, they are warned of the danger of being evicted. If they continue failing to comply with the contract then the lease is terminated and they are evicted.
Fortunately, it wasn’t the end for the Jews as some returned to Judah after the exile in Babylon. But we will see later that this covenant/contract is now called the “old covenant”.
Likewise, sin shouldn’t be the end of our fellowship with the Lord. The Bible says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 Jn. 1:9). If we confess our sins, then we can experience God’s parental forgiveness.
So the third covenant was a promise of a special relationship with God and now we will move to the fourth.
When king David planned to build a temple for God, God promised him an everlasting dynasty, a great name, and peace for the nation of Israel (2 Sam. 7:5-16, 28; 1 Chron. 17:11-14; 2 Chron. 6:16; Ps. 89:3-4). His son Solomon would build the temple and experience God’s mercy. This covenant/contract was unconditional like a royal land grant. But it was conditional for Solomon’s descendants (Ps. 132:11-12). It was repeated by Jeremiah and Luke (Jer. 33:17-26; Lk. 1:32-33). The prophets also predicted a Messiah who would bring peace and prosperity.
A descendant of David ruled in Judah until the Babylonian conquest in 586BC when the descendants went into exile and there was no kingdom and no king for about 400 years. Then King Herod ruled but he wasn’t Jewish as he had Edomite (Idumean) ancestry. At this time Jesus was rejected as king, but since His ascension, He is on His throne in heaven. Peter and Paul said that Jesus Christ was the fulfilment of God’s promise to David (Acts 2:29-36; 13:20-24). Jesus is a descendant of David (Lk. 3). His kingdom is everlasting.
Unrest has stopped peace talks in the Ukraine and between Pakistan and the Taliban. There is little progress in Syrian and Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Peace is illusive in the world’s hot spots.
The Bible says that this world will not have peace until Jesus returns to set up His kingdom. Just as Solomon had a peaceful kingdom, Jesus will bring peace to the world. Do we believe this?
So the fourth covenant/contract was a promise of a dynasty and now we will move to the final one.
We’ve seen that the Israelites couldn’t keep the old covenant/contract. The prophet Jeremiah said that because they had broken the covenant by disobedience and idolatry, God would bring a disaster (Jer. 11). He predicts a Babylonian conquest and 70 year exile (Jer. 12-13; 25; 27). Then he predicts that Israel would be restored after the captivity (Jer. 30-31).
He also promises the Israelites a new covenant/contract, which becomes effective after the 2nd advent of Christ (Jer. 31:31-34). “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:33-34).
The nation is revived and indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Ezek. 36:25, 27); they willingly obey the Word of God; they have a unique relationship with God; everyone will know the Lord; their sins are forgiven and forgotten; and the nation continues forever (Jer. 31:35-37). In fact Paul says that Jews will begin to turn to God after the rapture (Rom. 11:25-26). This was a mystery to people in the first century and many are ignorant of it today.
This is called the “New covenant” (Heb. 8). It’s a promise for the Jews, involving Christ’s millennial reign on earth which will merge into the eternal kingdom. This covenant/contract was instituted at the first Lord’s Supper when Jesus said, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you” (Lk. 22:20). It began at His death when the curtain inside the temple was torn in two. His death makes the new covenant/contract possible. It’s the foundation.
Ancient covenants were validated by the sacrificial death of an animal (Gen. 15:9-21; Heb. 9:19). Christ had to die before the new covenant/contract commenced. He is the mediator of the new covenant/contract (Heb. 12:22).
The blessings of the new covenant/contract for the Jews are both physical and spiritual. Believers enter into it spiritually; they enjoy its spiritual blessings. Our sins are forgiven and we have peace with God if we accept the gospel by believing that Christ paid the penalty for our sin. Gentiles like us have been grafted into the tree of the faithful, but in future believing Jews will be grafted back into the tree (Rom.11:17, 23-24).
The new covenant/contract is different to the one given at Mt Sinai. It is unconditional like a royal land grant. It depends on God alone. The old covenant/contract of the Jewish law is now obsolete (Heb. 8:13). We shouldn’t live by those rules and practices. The old covenant/contract was a shadow of what was to come. Its purpose was to bring a knowledge and conviction of sin (Rom. 3:20; Gal. 3:10). It was temporary, until the time of Christ. God confirmed this by destroying the temple in AD 70 (1 Cor. 3:7, 11). The new covenant/contract is eternal (Heb. 13:20). Since Christ’s death, the Jewish law has been replaced with the Christian faith and the Jews have been replaced by the church as God’s people on earth (Gal. 3:23-25).
With the advent of computers, typewriters are now obsolete. Photocopiers have made carbon paper obsolete. Other things like floppy disks and video tapes are also obsolete. So let’s not be tempted to try to please God by following the Old Testament laws, because they are now obsolete.
The gospel is called the “new covenant” (2 Cor. 3:6). Because it depends on God and not humanity, it brings forgiveness of sins, something the old covenant/contract couldn’t do. It’s a “better covenant” with “better promises” (Heb. 7:22; 9:6) as explained in Hebrews chapters 8-10. The law promised blessing for obedience but threatened death for disobedience. It required righteousness but didn’t give the ability to produce it. The gospel imputes righteousness where there is none and empowers believers to live righteously. It’s better, because it relies on God alone. The Old Testament offerings were ceremonial and ritual, they didn’t deal with the guilt of sin (Heb. 9:9-10). Christ’s sacrifice was superior, it was once for all.
The Lord’s Supper is our symbol of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Do we celebrate it regularly and recall our spiritual blessings?
So the final covenant/contract was a promise of Jewish revival and spiritual blessings for believers.
Lessons for us
What can we learn from these five covenants/contracts that God made with humanity?
We have seen that God’s covenants in the Old Testament are contracts with great promises. They illustrate God’s grace and mercy.
The covenant/contract often had a sign or symbol to remind people of it:
- Rainbow – given to Noah to remind of God’s protection for all
- Male circumcision – given to Abraham to remind of Jewish nation and land
- Sabbath day – given to Moses to remind of the Jewish relationship with God (They were His special people)
The other two covenants didn’t include a sign, although the Lord’s supper reminds Christians of the spiritual blessings of the new covenant/contract (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25) and receiving the Holy Spirit could also be viewed as a sign (Eph. 1:13).
They show us that God keeps His covenants/contracts. He is faithful. In particular the rainbow symbolises that God keeps His covenants/contracts. Many of the promises he made in the Old Testament have already been fulfilled. But not all of them.
We have seen that people don’t always accept what God offers to them. Some trust in them like Abraham, while others rebel against them like the Israelites. Do we live as though God is our master, our Suzerain, and we are His servant, His vassal?
Some may say the revival in the new covenant/contract only applies to Christians and that God is finished with the Jews. They are extinct as a separate entity in God’s plans for the future. But when he wrote Romans in AD 57, Paul predicted a Jewish revival and it hasn’t happened yet (Romans 11). Also in AD 55 he divided people into three categories, “Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God” (1 Cor. 10:32). The Greeks are unconverted Gentiles and the church includes believing Jews and Gentiles. Also Jews appear in John’s visions of the future in the book of Revelation (Rev. 7:4-8; 11:1-2; 14:1-5; 15:5-8). It includes 144,000 Jewish believers who are sealed for their protection. Although this was written in AD95, 25 years after the temple was destroyed, it hasn’t happened yet. So according to the Bible, God isn’t finished with the Jews. If He was, why has the Jewish nation returned to Israel of recent times after a gap of about 1,900 years?
We have seen how God’s grace and mercy flows through the Old Testament covenants/contracts into the New Testament and to us another 2,000 years later. In a world that has no time for God, and in the struggles of life, it’s good to know that He controls the big picture.
So let’s be like Abraham trusting that God keeps His covenants/contracts.
Because God keeps His contracts, we can rely on them.
Written, February 2014
Infant death is agonizing and raises many questions. The Bible teaches that we are sinful from childhood: “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21), “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov. 22:15) and “from our youth till this day we have not obeyed the Lord our God” (Jer. 3:25). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death is a bigger issue than physical death. It leads to eternal separation from God, which is the opposite of eternal life (Jn. 3:16; Rom 6:23).
Three Bible verses teach that infants are not accountable for their sin. Firstly, when the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter Canaan, they were punished with all their army except Joshua and Caleb dying while they wandered 38 years in the desert. At this time God promised that their young children would enter Canaan, “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it” (Dt. 1:39, Num. 14:31). Because they did not yet know good from bad, they were not responsible or accountable for the Israelites’ disobedience.
Secondly, when the king of Judah was being attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, he was given a sign that his enemies would be defeated by Assyria. Isaiah was to have a son and before he “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” the land of the two kings will be laid waste (Isa. 7:14-16). Children who are not accountable do not know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.
Thirdly, when God rebuked Jonah, He similarly distinguished between young children and adults,“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11).
God judges people who haven’t heard the gospel message according to their response to the revelation of His eternal power and divine nature in the universe He created (Rom. 1:19-21). If they can discern what God has made, they have no excuse. However, if they are unable to discern what God has made (which is true for infants), then they have an excuse and will be saved instead of judged.
At what age can a child respond to God’s revelation in creation (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15-16)? It is the age at which they can understand the issue and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life (Jn. 16:8-9). It is when they can recognize His works of creation and choose to accept, honor and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Those who die at a younger age go to heaven rather than be condemned to spiritual death.
Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for … the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2). As a loving and merciful God, it is reasonable to assume that He accepts Christ’s payment for the sin of those who are unable to understand God’s revelation and their sinful state such as babies and young children. After all, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). But once children reach the age of God-consciousness, they are accountable for their sin.
We will now look at some other Scriptures that are sometimes used to answer this question.
Age of accountability
As all the Israelites over the age of 20 died in the desert before they reached Canaan, except for Joshua and Caleb, some think this is the age of accountability for one’s sins (Num. 14:29). However, this was the age above which men served in the army (Num. 1:3; 26:2; Josh. 5:4, 6). They were punished, not because 20 was the age of accountability, but because instead of serving the Lord by taking possession of Canaan, they grumbled against the Lord.
When Bathsheba’s baby died, David stopped fasting and said “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). Some believe that David believed that when he died he would go to heaven where his son would be. However, it is more likely that David was referring to death or the grave, not to heaven. There is little in the Old Testament about life after death. Job may have believed in a future resurrection (Job. 14:13-15) and the psalmists allude to an after-life (Ps. 16:10-11; 17:15; 49:14-15). The clearest passage is Daniel 12:2-3.
Some believe that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”, He was saying that the little children belong to the kingdom of heaven and so would go to heaven if they died (Mt. 19:14; Mk. 10:14; Lk. 18:16). However, the verse seems to be explained in the following verse as “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:17). In the case of Matthew this thought is given in Mt. 18:3. The emphasis is that child-like faith is required to enter the kingdom of God, not that young children belong to the kingdom of heaven.
So infants go to heaven when they die, but what about us? We can join them in future by realizing our sinfulness and believing that Jesus Christ has taken the penalty for our sin (Acts 16:31).
Written, November 2012