Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Is God Worthy of Trust: Internal Consistency

It is one of the more famous accounts from the gospels. The Jewish religious leaders come and accuse Jesus of being Satan, and they do so on the grounds that He has power to cast out demons. Jesus’ response points out the illogic of their comment:

Mark 3:23-26 And he called them to him and said to them in parables, "How can Satan cast out Satan? 24 If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. 25 And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand. 26 And if Satan has risen up against himself and is divided, he cannot stand, but is coming to an end.

It is from this passage, of course, that we get the common expression, “A house divided cannot stand.” Jesus point is that it would have been internally inconsistent for Satan to cast out his own demons. Internal consistency is an important attribute of anyone. A man who says one thing and does the exact opposite is the definition of hypocrisy. The officer of a battalion of Germans during the Turkish War told his men to fight bravely, for if they died in battle they would awake and feast with the Lord. When the battle got too hot for this officer he fled form the scene and hid. Upon finding him some of his men asked him, “why do you not wish to eat with the Lord today?” The response of the man was, “I am fasting.” This sort of internal inconsistency is quiet common among men, but do we find any evidence of it in God? This is an important question, for if God turns out to be a hypocrite then our assurance in Him is groundless.

A key passage for this discussion is found in Numbers 23. Here we find an interesting dynamic. A evil king calls on an evil prophet to help him destroy the nation of Israel which is invading the land. So the context is set up in this way:

Numbers 22:1-6 Then the people of Israel set out and camped in the plains of Moab beyond the Jordan at Jericho. 2 And Balak the son of Zippor saw all that Israel had done to the Amorites. 3 And Moab was in great dread of the people, because they were many. Moab was overcome with fear of the people of Israel. 4 And Moab said to the elders of Midian, "This horde will now lick up all that is around us, as the ox licks up the grass of the field." So Balak the son of Zippor, who was king of Moab at that time, 5 sent messengers to Balaam the son of Beor at Pethor, which is near the River in the land of the people of Amaw, to call him, saying, "Behold, a people has come out of Egypt. They cover the face of the earth, and they are dwelling opposite me. 6 Come now, curse this people for me, since they are too mighty for me. Perhaps I shall be able to defeat them and drive them from the land, for I know that he whom you bless is blessed, and he whom you curse is cursed."

The apostle Peter tells us that Balaam “loved gain from wrongdoing” (2 Peter 2:15), and so we know that this was not a good man who surely would have spoke against Israel and cursed them for a decent price. But God intervenes and commands Balaam not to speak anything other than what God tells him, and this He does in a magnificent way.

Numbers 22:21-35 So Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. 22 But God's anger was kindled because he went, and the angel of the LORD took his stand in the way as his adversary. Now he was riding on the donkey, and his two servants were with him. 23 And the donkey saw the angel of the LORD standing in the road, with a drawn sword in his hand. And the donkey turned aside out of the road and went into the field. And Balaam struck the donkey, to turn her into the road. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a narrow path between the vineyards, with a wall on either side. 25 And when the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she pushed against the wall and pressed Balaam's foot against the wall. So he struck her again. 26 Then the angel of the LORD went ahead and stood in a narrow place, where there was no way to turn either to the right or to the left. 27 When the donkey saw the angel of the LORD, she lay down under Balaam. And Balaam's anger was kindled, and he struck the donkey with his staff. 28 Then the LORD opened the mouth of the donkey, and she said to Balaam, "What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?" 29 And Balaam said to the donkey, "Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you." 30 And the donkey said to Balaam, "Am I not your donkey, on which you have ridden all your life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?" And he said, "No." 31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his drawn sword in his hand. And he bowed down and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the LORD said to him, "Why have you struck your donkey these three times? Behold, I have come out to oppose you because your way is perverse before me. 33 The donkey saw me and turned aside before me these three times. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live." 34 Then Balaam said to the angel of the LORD, "I have sinned, for I did not know that you stood in the road against me. Now therefore, if it is evil in your sight, I will turn back." 35 And the angel of the LORD said to Balaam, "Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you." So Balaam went on with the princes of Balak.

Using the mouth of a Donkey God warns Balaam to speak only God’s word. Upon meeting with Balak, the man gives him an oracle. We read:

Numbers 23:3-8 And Balaam said to Balak, "Stand beside your burnt offering, and I will go. Perhaps the LORD will come to meet me, and whatever he shows me I will tell you." And he went to a bare height, 4 and God met Balaam. And Balaam said to him, "I have arranged the seven altars and I have offered on each altar a bull and a ram." 5 And the LORD put a word in Balaam's mouth and said, "Return to Balak, and thus you shall speak." 6 And he returned to him, and behold, he and all the princes of Moab were standing beside his burnt offering. 7 And Balaam took up his discourse and said, "From Aram Balak has brought me, the king of Moab from the eastern mountains: 'Come, curse Jacob for me, and come, denounce Israel!' 8 How can I curse whom God has not cursed? How can I denounce whom the LORD has not denounced?

Balaam confesses what God has said, these are His people and they are doing all that He has foreordained and planned. No one may stop them unless God does it. In this passage we are reminded of God’s unchanging nature, His plan stands for Israel unmoved. Yet our focus here is God’s internal consistency, the homogeny of His actions with His character. This we find when Balak, himself, pleads with Balaam for a second oracle from God. Balaam acquiesces and we read the following:

Numbers 23:11-21 And Balak said to Balaam, "What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have done nothing but bless them." 12 And he answered and said, "Must I not take care to speak what the LORD puts in my mouth?" 13 And Balak said to him, "Please come with me to another place, from which you may see them. You shall see only a fraction of them and shall not see them all. Then curse them for me from there." 14 And he took him to the field of Zophim, to the top of Pisgah, and built seven altars and offered a bull and a ram on each altar. 15 Balaam said to Balak, "Stand here beside your burnt offering, while I meet the LORD over there." 16 And the LORD met Balaam and put a word in his mouth and said, "Return to Balak, and thus shall you speak." 17 And he came to him, and behold, he was standing beside his burnt offering, and the princes of Moab with him. And Balak said to him, "What has the LORD spoken?" 18 And Balaam took up his discourse and said, "Rise, Balak, and hear; give ear to me, O son of Zippor: 19 God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it? 20 Behold, I received a command to bless: he has blessed, and I cannot revoke it. 21 He has not beheld misfortune in Jacob, nor has he seen trouble in Israel. The LORD their God is with them, and the shout of a king is among them.

After a second attempt to curse the people of Israel Balak is confronted with the futility of his efforts, and Balaam’s response is simply that “what God said the first time is what He meant.” Balaam respond with a firm attestation to God’s internal consistency: God is not a man that He should lie.” It is not in God’s nature to lie. It is in man’s nature to deceive, and trick, and take back his word, to “change his mind,” but it is not God’s nature to do such things. The author of Hebrews says the same thing in perhaps clearer terms. In Hebrews chapter 6 the author wants to assure his audience of their salvation. God’s promise will not fail, he insists. And we know this, he writes, because God has sworn by Himself.

Hebrews 6:13-20 For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, 14 saying, "Surely I will bless you and multiply you." 15 And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise. 16 For people swear by something greater than themselves, and in all their disputes an oath is final for confirmation. 17 So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he guaranteed it with an oath, 18 so that by two unchangeable things, in which it is impossible for God to lie, we who have fled for refuge might have strong encouragement to hold fast to the hope set before us. 19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.

Both these passage, the one in Numbers and the one in Hebrews, affirm that it is not consistent with Himself for God to lie. We often make plans and break them. Young girls get stood up on the night of their proms, men and women left at the altar on their wedding days, and husbands abandon their families. We make promises we can’t keep, and we flat out lie to one another. This is consistent with our sinful natures, though certainly not justifiable. But this is not God. God is truth! He never lies! Many of us struggle with trusting others because we have been hurt. Our hearts still bear the emotional scars from that man, that woman, that comment, that deed. We shrink back from developing connections with people because of fear. We tend towards pessimism to avoid getting our hopes too high; “I won’t be hurt again,” we tell ourselves. But none of this is applicable when we come to God. God cannot lie, God cannot forget His promises, and plans; such is inconsistent with being God! “Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?” Balaam asks, and the answer is an obvious “no”. Psalm 115:3 affirms: Our God is in the heavens; he does all that he pleases.

Is God worthy of our trust? Absolutely, because not only does He not lie, but He cannot do so. What He says, and what He has promised, He will do! Trust in God!


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