The Rise and Fall of Nations: Idolatry (Nations #3)

The Rise and Fall of Nations: Idolatry (Nations #3)

In session two we introduced the idea of a covenant which we defined as a formal agreement between two parties which would involve agreed action on both sides. A marriage is a great example of a covenant between two people and with any marriage come expectations on both sides. All of us know only too well that relational breakdown is all to common because we do not find it easy keeping our side of things.

God’s people enter the Promised Land under Joshua’s leadership and they begin well with the task of driving out the land’s inhabitants and taking possession of what God was giving to them. God knew that these nations could become huge snares to His people and might draw them into their own idolatry. Sadly, Israel was unable to completely drive out the nations who lived in the Land, and it is not long before we find them in clear violation of the covenant that they had made with God. When we fail to keep our side of things there are always consequences!

1. Breaking the Covenant (Deut 28, Judges 2-3):

Towards the end of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses explained to the people of Israel how blessings would follow their obedience, while curses would follow their disobedience. These words come with some detail and are far from ambiguous. God’s expectations of the Covenant He had made with them were abundantly clear.

1 If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands that I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…

15 However, if you do not obey the Lord your God and do not carefully follow all his commands and decrees I am giving you today, all these curses will come on you and overtake you…

Deuteronomy 28:1-2 & 15

Moses says that if they obeyed then God would “set them high above all the nations of the earth” (v1) and they would “lend to many nations but borrow from none” (v12). However, if they disobeyed then their “sons and daughters will be given to another nation” (v32 & 36) and the Lord would bring against them a nation from far away (v49-50). God would scatter them among the nations (v64) and there they would find no resting place (v65).

Things went pretty well under Joshua’s leadership and Israel finally entered the land and began to drive out its inhabitants. There were many thrilling battles which God won for His people. Then towards the end of Joshua’s life he told the people:

19 “…You are not able to serve the Lord. He is a holy God; he is a jealous God. He will not forgive your rebellion and your sins. 20 If you forsake the Lord and serve foreign gods, he will turn and bring disaster on you and make an end of you, after he has been good to you.’

Joshua 24:19-10

The people however declared that they could and would sere the LORD. According to v31 during the time of Joshua (and the elders who had outlived him) Israel did serve the Lord, but after the time of Joshua things began to unravel. Judges 2:10-11 says “another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. 11 Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals.” They forsook their God and began to serve the idols of the nations around them. God raised up Judges at this time, He and saved them repeatedly from their enemies, but still Israel continued to return to their sinful ways. God was angry with Israel and said that He would no longer drive out the remaining nations but leave them as a test for Israel to see if they wold keep His commands (Judges 2:20-23). I wonder what areas of struggle God leaves in our lives to test us and see if we too will choose to obey Him.

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

2. A nation for the nations (1 Sam 8, 2 Sam 7, 1 Kings 8-11):

After the time of the Judges God raised up Samuel to lead Israel and the nation began to prosper under his leadership. However, when he grew old he appointed his sons as leaders of Israel but we are told that they did not follow in his ways. So the people asked Samuel to instead appoint them a King (like the other nations had) to lead them. Samuel was less than impressed but God encouraged him that it was not he that the people were rejecting but God Himself. God described for them the realities of what it would be like to have a King, but nevertheless they were determined and so God gave them what they had asked for. This was in fact no great surprise to God who had foreseen their request back in Deuteronomy 17:14-20:

14 When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, ‘Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,’ 15 be sure to appoint over you a king the Lord your God chooses …16 The king, moreover, must not acquire great numbers of horses for himself or make the people return to Egypt to get more of them, for the Lord has told you, ‘You are not to go back that way again.’ 17 He must not take many wives, or his heart will be led astray. He must not accumulate large amounts of silver and gold.

Deuteronomy 17:14-20

The King was to be God’s choice and God was very clear that no King should amass great numbers of horses, wives or wealth. Such things we are told would lead his heart astray. Israel’s first King is Saul, who God later rejects after he failed to follow his instructions. God regretted making Saul King because he had turned away from him (1 Samuel 15:10-11). Next in the line for the throne was David who God describes as a man after his own heart. He made plenty of mistakes but arguably the high point for the nation of Israel was during his reign. In response to David’s offer to build Him a temple, God promised David that He would build him a house and establish his throne forever (2 Samuel 7:11b-16). It was in fact David’s son Solomon who built the temple and under his reign Israel prospered greatly. Gone were the days of war and bloodshed (which had characterised David’s reign) and under Solomon there was a time of great peace. When he dedicated the temple Solomon praised God for His faithfulness and asked God to turn their hearts towards Him.

56 ‘Praise be to the Lord, who has given rest to his people Israel just as he promised. Not one word has failed of all the good promises he gave through his servant Moses. 57 May the Lord our God be with us as he was with our ancestors; may he never leave us nor forsake us. 58 May he turn our hearts to him, to walk in obedience to him and keep the commands, decrees and laws he gave our ancestors. 59 And may these words of mine, which I have prayed before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, that he may uphold the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel according to each day’s need, 60 so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God and that there is no other. 61 And may your hearts be fully committed to the Lord our God, to live by his decrees and obey his commands, as at this time.’

1 Kings 8:59-61

What is most interesting about this prayer is the purpose statement at the end. Solomon wanted all the peoples of the earth to know that the Lord was God and there was no other. They were to be a nation for the nations and we see this very clearly when the Queen of Sheba visits Solomon and is overwhelmed by what she sees of his wealth and wisdom despite all that she had heard about him (1 Kings 10:1-9). Solomon was however doing exactly what God said that Kings shouldn’t do. He amassed massive wealth, a fleet of trading ships, 1,400 chariots, 1,200 horses, 700 wives and 300 concubines. We are told that his wives led him astray and turned his heart away from God (1 Kings 11:4-6). Because he engaged in idolatry, God told him that he would tear the Kingdom away from him. For David’s sake however, God said he would not do it in Solomon’s lifetime but in the reign of his son Rehoboam. Rather than being a nation for the nations it seems that other during than a few periods Israel was beginning to fail miserably.

Ruins of Whitby Abbey, Photo by David Hawkes on Unsplash

3. National Decline (1 Kings 12 – 2 Kings 25):

I wont say too much about this protracted period of Israel’s history but essentially Israel is in continual decline after Solomon’s death. The Kingdom is torn into two with the Southern Kingdom (Judah) remaining true to the house of David while the Northern Kingdom (Israel) separated under the leadership of Jeroboam. The plight of the Northern Kingdom is relatively rapid. They have few good Kings but essentially they do evil in the eyes of the Lord with increasing measure! Eventually they were exiled by the Assyrians not to return . The Southern Kingdom however fared somewhat better and actually had some pretty good Kings. However their general motion of travel was in the same direction and they too were eventually exiled by Babylon. Unlike the Northern Kingdom their time away from the Promised Land was limited and God was true to His word to the prophets and He brought them back under the leadership of Nehemiah and Ezra.

When I read the rich material that we have on this period in the life of the nation of Israel, I am always struck by how sad a story this is. Nothing that happened was a surprise. In fact it was all detailed in the covenant God had made with His people. Their side of the bargain was to obey Him and remain true to Him as their King. Yet there was this natural propensity to go their own way (which is of course true of us all). God made every effort to draw His people back sending Judges, prophets and Kings, but it soon became clear that God’s people were unable to walk in obedience to God and the covenant He had made with them. God is Sovereign and the rise and fall of nations sits firmly with him. The prophets were shocked that God would use wicked and idolatrous nations to judge His people but God was very clear that they too would see their moment of comeuppance!

In conclusion we look to the prophets for a ray of hope. Specifically, God tells Hosea (during the reigns of various Kings of Judah) to go and “marry a promiscuous woman and have children with her, for like an adulterous wife this land is guilty of unfaithfulness to the Lord” (Hosea 1:3). She conceived and bore him a son who God said to call Jezreel because he would punish them for the massacre at Jezreel. God told him to call his second child Lo-Ruhamah (meaning not loved) and his third child Lo-Ammi (meaning not my people). Yet at the same time God tells him that despite being called unloved God would show them love and save them and despite being called not His people they would again be like the sand on the seashore and called the children of the living God.

Gomer conceived again and gave birth to a daughter. Then the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Call her Lo-Ruhamah (which means “not loved”), for I will no longer show love to Israel, that I should at all forgive them. Yet I will show love to Judah; and I will save them – not by bow, sword or battle, or by horses and horsemen, but I, the Lord their God, will save them.’ After she had weaned Lo-Ruhamah, Gomer had another son. Then the Lord said, ‘Call him Lo-Ammi (which means “not my people”), for you are not my people, and I am not your God. 10 ‘Yet the Israelites will be like the sand on the seashore, which cannot be measured or counted. In the place where it was said to them, “You are not my people”, they will be called “children of the living God”. 

Hosea 1:7-10

We saw last time how these words were referenced to in 1 Peter 2, when Peter declares that God’s promises to Israel would now be applied to all believers. God’s promises would still be worked out through His chosen nation but this chosen nation would no longer be the physical nation of Israel but the spiritual nation of believers who would follow the one true King of God’s people and who would sit on the throne of David forever. The lessons learned (or not learned as the case may be) by the people of Israel are also very pertinent to us. Just as nations rose and fell because of their obedience to God’s first covenant, so we too rise and fall as we act in obedience to God’s new covenant. The incredible difference for us under the New Covenant is that we have the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our lives. With His help we too can turn from our idolatry and respond with obedience.

24 ‘“For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land. 25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

Ezekiel 36:24-28

See other posts in this series

  1. Blessing the Nations (Vision)
  2. A Chosen Nation (Love)
  3. The Rise and Fall of nations (Idolatry)
  4. Hope of the Nations (Messiah)
  5. Heart for the world (Disciples)
  6. All Nations (Eternity)

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