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The Day God Gave Up

Sermon passage: (Judges 10:6-16) Spoken on: May 4, 2009
More sermons from this speaker 更多该讲员的讲道: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee
For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Judges

Tags: Judges

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About Rev. Wong Siow Hwee: Rev. Wong is currently serving as a pastor in the children and young family ministries, as well as the LED and worship ministries.

Sermon on Judges 10:6-16

I have broken up the story on the next judge into smaller parts over the next few weeks because there are many unique issues to deal with. And true enough, this short passage is proving to be one of the hardest sermons I have to preach. The key lies in the final verse which NIV translates as “he could bear Israel’s misery no longer”. In this first translation, despite the unfaithfulness of the Israelites, God still saved them because he cannot bear to see them suffer. The tricky part is that this verse can also be translated as “he is totally frustrated with the efforts of Israel”. In the second translation, God has had enough of all their back and forth insincere pleas and gave up on them. In the original language, both are valid translations of the Hebrew text, so it is up to the context to decide what the intended meaning is. What is especially difficult in this situation is that this is a very crucial verse because it is a conclusion. Yet the translations we must choose between give two exactly opposite meanings. If I take the first meaning, I will be preaching about the ultimate grace of God. I will emphasize that no matter how bad humanity is, God still helps us out of our troubles. So I can deliver a sugar-coated feel-good love-is-all-around sermon. On the other hand, in the second meaning, I will present a hopeless situation. We have arrived at the straw that broke the camel’s back. God has finally reached his limit and he will no longer bear these insufferable Israelites. And instead of a heart-warming happily-ever-after sermon, I give a sermon of warning that will chill you to your very bones. This is one linguistically ambiguous verse that will result in two sermons of totally opposite natures. Which is the correct one to deliver?

Frankly, the temptation of the pastor is to choose the first interpretation. The idea that God no-matter-what still saves the Israelites fits into the usual clichés about God. God is good all the time. All the time, God is good. See? People like to hear about the eternal grace of God. We rest in the hope that from the depths of hell, God will still rescue you to the safety of heaven. In preaching such a sermon, I am staying within mainstream theology, and everybody goes home feeling a little better. I will confess that this was my original intention. Sadly, I have promised honesty at the start of this series on Judges, and my true feelings about this matter is that the second interpretation makes more sense given the context. This is also precisely why the second interpretation is getting more popular recently with the biblical scholars. Allow me to explain the reasons why the first interpretation of the verse doesn’t work.

Firstly, if we analyze what follows on afterwards, we will observe that God did not really save the Israelites. The next judge was not raised up by God, nor did he bring peace during his short reign as a judge. He reigned for only 6 years, just slightly longer than the evil Abimelech. This point will be discussed in greater detail in the following weeks, but for now, I am leaning towards the understanding that what follows on in the story is purely a human effort from the Israelites to save themselves which leads to further disastrous results. So it does not make sense to say that God could bear Israel’s misery no longer and yet immediately does nothing about it, and did not directly provide a deliverer for them.

Secondly, if we analyze what has happened before, what we are seeing is that with each subsequent Judge cycle God gets increasingly angrier with the repeated unfaithfulness of the Israelites. In the earlier story with Gideon, God was already very upset to the point of sending a prophet to scold the Israelites. This time, God is scolding them personally. The writer is trying to convey a picture of a deteriorating relationship. God’s patience is wearing thin. Therefore, a sudden change of heart in the end here to forgive them will be bucking the trend and hence narrative-wise inconsistent. It also defeats the purpose of demonstrating a downward spiral of the relationship between God and the Israelites. Also, if God is the one that has caused the suffering, how can he bear their suffering no longer? This is like saying that God is creating a stone so big that he himself cannot lift it. It is logically inconsistent. So if we look at what happened after this passage and what happened before, the second interpretation makes more sense.

Lastly, we look at today’s passage itself. It is important for us to know what is going on here. It can be summed up in one word: Manipulation. Why are the Israelites crying to God for help? It is only because they could no longer stand the oppression from their enemies. And in their desperation they once again turn to this God who always rescues them from oppression. You see, they are now turning back to God because that is what they perceive this God is for. This is the God of rescue. He is the divine “911”. In their minds, it is not about their relationship with God, instead it is how they can get this God to do what they want. In the good times, they quickly turn to the foreign gods because those are the fertility gods. They serve those gods for good harvests, for more wives and children and whatever other goodies those gods promise. In describing how they served 7 other types of foreign gods, the writer of Judges is trying to say how foreign gods have permeated into every aspect of their lives. 7 is the number for completeness. Yet, when in bad times, when they are punished for their unfaithfulness to Yahweh, which they knowingly commit, they will just “repent their sins” and ask him to send them a deliverer. Therefore, this time, God’s answer to them is very telling of his view of their form of theology. God in listing down the 7 enemies God had rescued them from, is arguing that he had already fully demonstrated his mercy on them whenever they cried for help. But they have not taken these to heart and have abused his grace by forsaking him once again. So God pronounced “I will no longer save you.” God even exposed their ploy and insincerity by copying the Israelite’s plea with sarcasm. “Go and ‘cry out’ to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble.” Simply put God is saying, “You think I am a god to be manipulated at your beck and call just like the rest? Then let them be your god of deliverance.” They then go through their usual routine of forsaking the foreign gods to serve Yahweh again. God is not fooled by this physical action of piety. He has seen this same trick many times. They have exposed their true motives by demanding God to “please rescue us now”. “Their hearts are not really devoted to God except for convenience.”[1]

Therefore, based on the contents of the passage, I think the first translation of the final verse that God “could bear Israel’s misery no longer”; that God will choose to save them is highly unlikely. That would be rewarding their manipulation and mocking God’s own pronouncement not to save them anymore. That is not right. Instead, the more logical conclusion is the second translation that God could stand all their lame efforts of insincere reconciliation no more. God is totally exasperated by their fake repentance. They had their chances and they blew it. Game over. They are on their own now to face the consequences. This is why I have chosen the title for this sermon as “The day God gave up.” Some might find this interpretation hard to swallow. How can God reject a call for help, no matter how insincere it might be? Isn’t he the God of love? How can a loving God have a limit for his grace? Didn’t Paul say, “Love never fails”[2]?

“But there’s a danger in loving somebody too much. And it’s sad when you know it’s your heart you can’t trust. There’s a reason why people don’t stay where they are. Baby sometimes love just ain’t enough.” These are the lyrics to a Don Henley song that speaks about the complications of a relationship. I will affirm that God’s love is eternal. But that cannot be the only facet of a relationship especially when it turns manipulative. In such situations, like facing a gambler or drug addict, or a free-loader, we will do more harm than good when we continue to help and provide when the repentance is insincere. We are encouraging the wrong behavior by rewarding the misconception that forgiveness can be manipulated. The truth is that grace cannot be taken for granted. It cannot be earned or forced. God still loves the Israelites, but he must do the right thing, and cut them off when providing and rescuing serves the wrong purposes. When love leads to over-reliance and abuse, further help actually alienates the relationship because it is not a relationship of mutual trust and understanding; it becomes a game of who can win in getting what they want. When it comes to this point, it will be the day that God gives up. Take note that when I talk about giving up, it doesn’t mean that he stops loving. It simply means that he stops intervening to bail us out. He lets us receive our just desserts from worshipping false idols.

This is why I am inherently skeptical of an understanding of God that is purely conceptual and described in philosophical categories. “God always forgives” or “God is omnibenevolent”. Such a God’s decisions can be solved like a computational algorithm. As Christians, we often want a machine-like God that we can control, that will perform according to our desires as long as we perform the right rituals and play our part according to the script. He finishes his task on cue and we leave him alone when it comes to our own business. The passage today demonstrates that it doesn’t work this way. God is a being with feelings. He has chosen to reveal himself as a person we can relate to, but knows when he is being ignored or patronized. He is loving and gracious and fully willing to reconcile when we have gone astray. But can we expect the same performance again and again as long as we do enough to “prove” our repentance? Our understanding of God must include the reality that God alone decides when he is willing to bail us out. God cannot be manipulated into giving salvation especially when it is undeserved. He certainly does not want to be a spare wheel that we only think about in times of emergency.

What are the implications of such an understanding of God? If you are uncertain of who is God and what is he like, today’s message should be one of great comfort. God is not a fertility god to satisfy our human needs, nor one that only “works” when we fulfill certain religious procedural requirements. It’s not as if we do this and this, God will do that and that for us. We take heart in the reality that God is serious about a true relationship with us. He is not here to give and take. He is here just for our sake. God is saying “do this together with me, live this life as I’ve intended, and see how meaningful it can be.” This is a God who cares most about the core of our existence and not just our material needs. This implication is one of great comfort. We do not worship a wishing-well or a supernatural force. We worship a being that wants to be in our lives and sacrifices himself to do so.

On the other hand, if you have been playing a game of hide and seek with God, if you seek God when in trouble but hide from him when you have received your help, I want to send a warning to you to examine your relationship with God. Is it a true relationship of love and obedience, or is it a relationship of convenience? If you think God can be manipulated at your whims and fancy, you might be sorely disappointed one day. The day may come when God gives up. God will say, “Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. You have forsaken me and served the gods of wealth, fame, success, knowledge and self-satisfaction. Let them save you when you are in trouble.”

[1] K.L. Younger Jr, NIV Application Commentary, pg. 244

[2] 1st Corinthians 13:8