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WAS THE GOD OF THE OLD TESTAMENT HARSH?
by Philip Owen

It is sometimes observed that the God of the Old Testament law was stark, unforgiving, and even harsh. That view misses entirely the fact that the very giving of the Law as a communication from God is a manifest token of His love for the people He chose to be His.   Though the demands of the Law might have been rigid, the ultimate purpose of the Law was to reveal to those people the way to fellowship with Him, ultimately in the Person of His Son. To any who might think that the character of God has changed, I would submit two illustrations.

             The opening chapters of the Book of Numbers give a prosaic recitation of the ordering of the host. Arriving at chapter seven, which is the longest chapter in Numbers, we read a catalogue of the gifts of the princes. These gifts were given voluntarily by the leaders of each of the twelve tribes. What is remarkable about this chapter is that the leaders all gave identical gifts. Therefore, one recording of the gifts with the mention of the heads of each tribe would have been sufficient. Instead, each prince is identified individually and his gift recorded separately. Read with me: “his offering was one silver charger, the weight thereof was an hundred and thirty shekels, one silver bowl of seventy shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary; both of them were full of fine flour mingled with oil for a meat-offering: One spoon of ten shekels of gold, full of incense: One young bullock, one ram, one lamb of the first year, for a burnt-offering: One kid of the goats for a sin-offering: And for a sacrifice of peace-offerings, two oxen, five rams, five he goats, five lambs of the first year” (7:13-17).

            If we were honest, we would probably admit that even one recitation of these offerings makes for dry reading. And yet this identical offering is repeated twelve times for each of the twelve princes. Dr. Scofield’s simple comment on this fact is that “It is beautiful to observe that, though the offerings of the princes were identical, each is separately recorded by the pen of inspiration.”    Can we not observe behind this repetitive record the great love of the Lord for His people? What to us might be tedious and something to be quickly passed over commands His careful, loving attention. Let’s get on to something more substantial, interesting, and relevant, we might say. But the Spirit of God pauses over these freewill offerings and lovingly credits each individual gift and each individual person. Can a God who gives such devoted attention to these minute and repetitive details be viewed in any way as cold or harsh?

             We are reminded of the “hard” God who, in judging His sinful people, allowed them to be overrun by Babylon and carried away into captivity. In His message through Jeremiah, God lays no responsibility on the cruel Babylonians for the harm they caused (that is dealt with elsewhere), taking full credit for their plight Himself: “Thus saith the Lord of hosts [including the Babylonian armies], the God of Israel, unto all that are carried away captives, whom I have caused to be carried away from Jerusalem unto Babylon . . .” (Jer. 29:4); and then He proceeds to give them instructions about living under captivity. But then He assures them that the captivity will last for a specified seventy years after which He will restore them to their land. “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (v. 11). What kind of harsh God would allow His people to be killed or captured and carried off to a heathen land? Not a harsh God, but a holy, righteous One, who loves His people enough to do whatever is necessary to bring them to the place where they may enjoy the glory of His Presence and the blessings of His goodness. God is ever the same, chastening sin that He might bless the repentant. The obedient heart understands that truth.

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