Paul says if we have hope only in this life, we (the followers of Christ) should be pitied above all people (1 Corinthians 15:19). On the other hand, if we have no hope for life beyond, our lives are in vain from the start. We are no better off than beasts. We might as well not even be born, says the writer of Ecclesiastes. (Ecclesiastes 4:3)
If you think about it, what is the span of a person’s life compared to time? It is even less compared to eternity. Our lives are like a vapor that appears, and then is gone. (James 4:14) The word picture is what you see when you breath hard into the bitter cold air. The breath appears and disappears as fast as it appears.
I have been reading through the Old Testament, and I am in Jeremiah now. In chapter 23, Jeremiah talks about God being angry with prophets who give people false hope, who tell people who have stubbornly gone their own ways that “all will be well” with them.
Throughout Jeremiah, Isaiah and the other prophet writings, God’s anger also is expressed against Israel and Judah who are the people to whom God revealed himself. Though God revealed Himself to these people and showed them signs and wonders (like the parting of the Red Sea and manna in the wilderness) they still continually rejected God for idols made of their own hands and went their own way.
In Chapter 22, we find God saying through Jeremiah, that to do justice and righteousness (to plead the cause of the afflicted and needy for instance) is to know Him (God). (vv. 15-16) This is God’s character and what He desires in us (as compared to seeking personal gain). (v. 17) This is the kind of God He is.
Reading through the prophets is like reading the diary of a parent whose children are rebellious and hellbent on chasing after things (like drugs, alcohol, money, fame, fortune, even comfort in this life) that will lead to their destruction. But, with God the parent, the discipline comes in the form of reaping what is sown and receiving God’s wrath in the form of catastrophes that will befall them, perhaps even at God’s own “hand”. This is what we see in the Old Testament.
Though we may be tempted to find fault with such a God, who are we to judge? But let’s pay attention here.
These people were burning their own children as sacrifices to the man-made gods they worshiped rather than worshiping the God who made them! (Jer. 7:31; 32:35)
But this is not the problem; burning their children in religious rituals (like the original inhabitants of the land) was not the trigger that provoked God’s wrath; it was the symptom. The fundamental problem was that they had rejected God to worship idols and stubbornly go their own way.
We often misunderstand the Old Testament and the Law. Although God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses and commissioned Moses to create the Law, God never wanted the dutiful sacrifices of these people; He wanted their hearts. God is not so much concerned about the do’s and the don’ts of religious ritual as He wants the eagerly obedient hearts of children who love Him and trust Him.
The Old Testament is the story of people God called to be His own who, in spite of God’s special revelation to them continually went their own way. They paid lip service to the Law and rituals that Moses gave them to do while worshiping man-made idols, oppressing others and stubbornly doing their own thing at the same time.
Lest we get smug, we should recognize they were a lot like us. While they might have said and done the right things at times, their hearts were far from God.
These people did not understand who God is. They did not understand His character, that he is interested in justice, righteousness and helping the needy and the afflicted. Knowing God means prioritizing the wellness of other people and one’s relationship with God above all other things in the material world. The religious ritual and sacrifice is nothing without a correct understanding of God and his character.
My own children have undoubtedly misunderstood me at times. When they were young and wandered out into the street without looking, their mother of I would yell at them with anger and alarm for their disobedience, especially if they repeatedly did what we told them not to do. We were angry because they did not listen, but more than that: we knew, without discipline, without intervention from us, they would one day be hit by a car. God is like the parent who is angry at a child for rebellion and disobedience because of the potential harm that goes with it.
There is one very important difference, however; God is not so much concerned about the consequences we suffer in this life. God is concerned about the eternal consequences we may suffer from stubbornly going our own way and refusing to listen to Him, refusing to know Him and refusing to trust Him.
Remember the vapor? That is our lives in the context of eternity.
Although much of the world seems to think that Christianity is a system of rules and regulations, and even some Christians seem to believe that way and live that way, that is not at all the case. Real Christianity is having relationship with the God who made us and recognizing that there are more important things in this life, and the life beyond, than the things that we can accumulate for ourselves, the experiences that we can enjoy by ourselves and the pleasures that week can experience for ourselves.
Knowing God is not a system of do’s and don’ts. In fact, God gave us the law to show us precisely that we cannot measure up. Knowledge of God is obtained through doing justice and righteousness, pleading the cause of the afflicted and helping the widow, the orphan and the strangers who are afflicted in our midst – considering others more important than ourselves and valuing God above all things..
In Jeremiah 23, in the middle of a chapter in which God’s Wrath is being expressed for the stubbornness of Israel and Judah, the Prophet Jeremiah introduces the idea that God himself will raise up a “righteous Branch” who will reign as a wise king, execute justice and righteousness and save the inhabitants.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”
The Lord is our righteousness! AlI the rules and regulations and rituals are not the point. God planned all along to give us “righteousness”! I like to call righteousness “rightness with God” – being in right relation to our Creator.
God desired from the beginning to give us what He demanded of us. What He desired of us was the willingness, the desire to receive what He intended to give us. The lives in which we have the opportunity to seek God, to turn our hearts toward Him, are like vapors.
Though God’s anger and wrath has burned at times, God’s view is eternity, while we have trouble seeing through the vapor. We tend to go astray, and God sees the potential consequences of going our own way. The stakes are bigger than this life. God has extended to us all that we need to set our feet into eternity, and we are apt to miss without God’s intervention.