The Israelites did not themselves choose to be God’s people, nor did they choose the place which was the centre of their religious life and worship. Neither did they choose the tribe of Levi to be a priestly caste, nor the king who was to reign over them. All these were God’s choices. But the people were not relieved of the necessity to choose, in matters which were within their competence. They were not mere automata, manipulated by forces and agents outside themselves, so as not to be held by God to be fully responsible for their choices and actions. Such a concept is “determinism”, the doctrine that “what must be will be”, that man is predestined to be what he is, and to do what he does, and is therefore not responsible.
It should be unnecessary to say that this is not what the Bible teaches. It teaches and infers in many ways that man has a will of his own, that he can decide and make choices, and that he cannot evade responsibility for his choices and actions. In creating man, God did not make him a robot, but as a creature in His own “image” and “likeness”; He gave him the ability to choose rationally, in the light of all the circumstances. Unfortunately, Adam and Eve used this ability in a wrong way, contrary to their own good and to the hurt of unborn generations. Eve chose to believe the serpent’s lie rather than the truth of God; “being deceived (she) was in the transgression”, 1 Tim. 2. 14. Adam “was not deceived” but, confronted with the dilemma of remaining faithful to God or associating himself with Eve in her wrong choice, chose the latter. Both made fatal choices.
Israel’s status as God’s “peculiar treasure” was conditional upon their obedience to His commands, Exod. 19. 5. God had a right to expect this, but would not force them to render it. They were not without responsibility in the matter. Disobedience would make the covenant inoperative; obedience would secure to them its benefits. God set the issues very clearly before them. Their obedience would be attended by “blessings” in every sphere of their lives. Conversely, disobedience would bring all manner of “curses” upon them. The “blessings” and the “curses” are described in detail in Deuteronomy 28: “all these blessings shall come on thee, and overtake thee, if thou shalt hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God”, v. 2; “but… if thou wilt not hearken unto the voice of the Lord thy God … all these curses shall come upon thee, and overtake thee”, v. 15. No sphere of their lives would be immune from the consequences of their choice, for good or evil, for “blessing” or “cursing”. Subject to their obedience, they would be blessed “in the city, and … in the field”, in their coming in and in their going out, given success in battle against their foes, seen by others to be “called by the name of the Lord”, made financially viable so as to “lend unto many nations, and … not borrow”, made “the head, and not the tail … above only, and …not… beneath”, vv. 3-13. Disobedience would result in the opposite of these things. They would be cursed in the city, and in the field, in their coming in and their going out, stricken with illnesses and with the sword and drought, smitten before their enemies, deported by them and much more. The curses would be more numerous than the blessings.
Thus God set the issues clearly before the Israelites. It would be for them to decide which course they would take. The commandment was not hidden from them, neither was it far off, not in heaven, neither beyond the sea, but “very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it”, 30. 11-14. God summed up the matter in the words, “See, I have set before thee this day life and good, and death and evil … I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing”, vv. 15, 19. The choice would be theirs, but God was not disinterested in it, for He urged “therefore choose life, that both thou and thy seed may live; that thou mayest love the Lord thy God, and that thou mayest obey his voice… that thou mayest dwell in the land”, v. 20. Had they not been free agents, responsible for their choices and actions, God’s words would have been a mockery.
The Israelites chose to have a king, like the surrounding nations; they need not have done so, and would have fared much better had they not chosen one. Having made the choice, they were obliged to accept all its evil consequences, of which they had been forewarned by God. Not ail choices, however, are wrongly made. Moses made a right decision in “choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season”, Heb. 11. 25. It involved him in refusing “to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter”, v. 24, and forsaking Egypt, with all its worldly advantages. Doubtless the Egyptians thought his choice irrational, but in it Moses showed rare perspicuity. He saw that the right lay with the burdened Israelites, that God was on their side, and would vindicate that right. His choice gave him an honoured niche in history. Ruth the Moabitess made a right choice and Orpah her sister-in-law a wrong choice in their relation to Naomi and her announced intention to return to Judah. They both were daughters-in-law to Naomi, and all three had been widowed in Moab. In the event Ruth, protesting her undying love for Naomi, clave unto her” and went back with her to Judah. It was a “leap in the dark” for her, and meant going into a strange land, and identifying herself with the fortunes of a people that she could only judge by her knowledge of Naomi and her late husband. It was an historic choice, for it put her, although she could not have known it, into the genealogy of Christ, by her marriage to Boaz, Matt. 1. 5. Orpah, with tearful farewells, parted company with Naomi, and went back to her kith and kin. For her, it was a fateful choice, for it cut her off from blessing.
Joshua, the son of Nun, also made a right choice. Toward the end of his long life, he challenged the people to “put away the gods which your fathers served on the other side of the flood, and in Egypt; and serve ye the Lord”, Josh. 24. 14.
We cannot contract out of responsibility for our choices and actions, God made us free agents and, when presented with a choice between right and wrong, He expects us to choose the right.
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