A man’s word or vows mattered a great deal; they actually had power. Subconsciously we know there is power in words when we curse our enemies and bless our friends. When Saul declares a vow in 1 Samuel 14, he is bound to fulfill it without compromise, even if it meant the death of his first born son, Jonathan.
24 And the men of Israel had been hard pressed that day, so Saul had laid an oath on the people, saying, “Cursed be the man who eats food until it is evening and I am avenged on my enemies.” So none of the people had tasted food…27 But Jonathan had not heard his father charge the people with the oath, so he put out the tip of the staff that was in his hand and dipped it in the honeycomb and put his hand to his mouth, and his eyes became bright. (1 Samuel 14:24, 27)
Though the narrative frames Saul’s vow as rash and foolish, and even though Jonathan was not aware of Saul’s vow, he is nevertheless marked as a transgressor so that God does not answer when Saul inquires if he should plunder the Philistines. God is not honoring Saul, the individual, apart from his role as King of Israel. As King of Israel, Saul is privileged with honor and authority that reaches to the heavens. Saul as King issues an edict; Jonathan violates the edict (albeit unintentionally) which brings a consequence – the curse; the sin must be dealt with before God, therefore He does not respond to Saul’s inquiry.
44 And Saul said, “God do so to me and more also; you shall surely die, Jonathan.” (1 Samuel 14:44)
But the people ransom Jonathan so that he does not die. This would mean that the people have accepted the curse on behalf of Jonathan. We do not know what form the curse takes among the people but we do know that Saul stops pursuing his enemy, the Philistines, who live to plunder, enslave, and kill the Israelites in future days.
In the book of Esther, we see how the King’s commands are absolute and has God-like authority. King Ahasuerus is persuaded by Haman, probably the highest official in the land, to destroy the Jews, unaware that the reason is out of personal wrath against Mordecai, a Jew, who refused to show reverence to Haman. When a King, the supreme and irreproachable power in the land, issues an edict, it’s unfathomable that it can ever be reversed. To do away with the edict is to admit that his authority and wisdom can be questioned; and his glory would be diminished. The King’s commands are like that of God speaking and bringing things into existence as when he said “Let there be light: and there was light (Genesis 1:3).”
To save the Jews from slaughter, King Ahasuerus grants Mordecai unrestrained privilege to issue another edict that allows the Jews to protect themselves even by destroying their enemies. What seemed at odds with each other are now both fulfilled – the King’s original command to destroy the Jews and yet the salvation of the Jews.
8 But you may write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.” (Esther 8:8)
Transgression has severe and exacting consequences… and we see this in God’s stunning command to destroy the Amalekites…
1 Samuel 15
3 Now go and strike Amalek and devote to destruction all that they have. Do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, child and infant, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.
God gives two specific reasons for this judgment: when the Israelites came out of Egypt on their way to Canaan, the Amalekites attacked although unprovoked and God makes clear that the Amalekites committed atrocities . To us 21st Century folks, the command to “kill both man and woman, child and infant” is horrifying, generally speaking and especially for those in the West. But in those days, the Israelites would not have blinked an eye. It’s hard for us to imagine but the ancients really did live in a world that is upside down to the one that we live in. The critical distinction between their world and ours as it relates to the 1 Samuel 15 account, is that the ancients lived under the heavy hand of the law with no escape from judgment upon transgression. We too of course are subject to laws and judgment but there are three ways we confront it. For those who no longer believe in a holy God, values are relative, boundaries are relaxed and markers have been moved. The law does not have the weight of majesty and glory that was imposed upon the ancients; back then, slaves and kings lived epic lives in so far as they accepted the severe consequences of their actions. So a self-interested killer today may be described as having a personality pathology. But the more common theme of our lives is hypocrisy and broken promises where our deeds do not match our words because what is being upheld by our words is rootless. We live casual lives, our words have no power or authority, our speech is unmeasured and careless and our judgments inconsistent. We live atomized lives and are left to our own devices – there is no king, no God, nothing transcendent.
Then there are those who esteem the law and principles as universal and fixed across all peoples and from the beginning of ages but they are also divorced from an experience with the divine that produces trembling and leads to an understanding that a highly exalted law issuing from a sovereign God exposes us and makes us undone. Consequently, we are able to console ourselves that we are good people and that we can march upward with a vision of justice and flourishing – if we just try hard enough.
The third way is to realize that the ancients were living in a truer world, one in which the existence of the supernatural was a given. We believe that we are on a trajectory of progress and achievement and perhaps we are in terms of technology, but we are also very much earthbound and enslaved to what gratifies the five senses. There is no ready satisfaction for the soul that longs for an encounter with something that is greater and higher so that, in being overwhelmed, we finally bend our knees and revel in our smallness. Yet worship makes us sane, brings healing and puts us in our right minds. To identify with the ancient world is to believe that there is a living God and that there are many gods. And to believe that there is, in particular, a God of the Israelites who carried a people from out of bondage and, as their warrior King, defeated many peoples in order to settle them into their own land. It’s to believe that God walks among us and that myths and legends are artifacts of an ancient order; that there is a Son of God who incarnated as a man just two thousand years ago in order to fulfill a prophecy about the only man who truly worships and obeys God, and in that sanctified state offers himself up as a blood sacrifice, the only ransom that is sufficient to set us free from the judgment of death and condemnation as transgressors of the Law. To contemporary ears, the story is preposterous which goes to show how wide the gap is between then and now. But Jesus does say “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).
In the 1 Samuel 15 passage, there is seemingly no way out for the Amalekites, no savior, no mercy, unlike the favor shown to the Jews of Esther’s time. The judgment was meant to be carried out in an exacting manner. And this is the lesser glory as described in 2 Corinthians 3: the law bringing condemnation and death is a ministry of glory. The glory is in the severity of the consequence and the uncompromising fulfillment of that consequence as a result of wickedness as judged by the law.
If a woman’s beloved child was murdered, the only just and satisfying compensation is for the murderer’s child to be killed. Either that or bring the child back to life. Let’s say that instead of a measure for measure judgment, the murderer’s arm is cut off but her own beloved child is spared. The consequence though still severe reflects some degree of leniency and mercy; that is if the murderer loved her child more than the soundness of her body. In that leniency, the force of the law, the absolute value that gives meaning to a set of laws, would then be diminished and trampled upon. While a measure for measure judgment may be considered severe and horrifying (especially for the transgressor), the law is exalted as sacred, inviolable and enduring forever. It’s as if the world would come apart at the seams if not for the Law that holds creation together.
Along with the proposition that the King’s command (whatever it may be) is to be obeyed with reverence (Jesus shared that his food was to do the will of God – John 4:34), there is the corollary proposition that God is just. Jeremiah 9:24 affirms that God “exercises loving-kindness, righteousness and justice.” What is the root purpose of the law? The law serves to protect the weak, to ensure that the strong do not eat the weak; therefore the refrain in the Old Testament that God upholds the cause of the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner. If not for this innate human problem of exerting force upon and manipulating one another to satisfy our cravings, the law is unnecessary.
Nothing good can happen in life apart from the restraining influence of laws of conduct. Law on the grand scale allows for an abundant life – a life of flourishing, beauty, nobleness, glory… and a vision of nobleness, beauty and glory will move men to extremes…
The law as given to Moses is the operationalized derivative of the Law that the Psalmist is able to behold and meditate upon as beautiful and glorious as in Psalm 19:
7 The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
8 the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
9 the fear of the Lord is clean,
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
10 More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
The Apostle James discusses the law of liberty (James 2:12) which if we contrast it to the law of Moses, the law of liberty is super-positive, without the boundaries and drawn lines that we typically associate with laws. By describing it as super-positive, I mean that the law of liberty is not really a “law” but a heart’s desire – see Psalm 19.
The essence of the law of liberty is love so that out of a heart overflowing with love, we obey God not out of fear or duty or obligation or guilt or calculated self-interest, but because we love and worship God and know Him to be our life and breath. This assertion is actually quite distressing because we cannot remake our hearts; we cannot will to love God. The default mode of the human heart is to be hostile toward God.
But even in our fall from glory we catch glimpses of faithfulness, honor and courage where men and women commit to great self-sacrifice and even death to serve and love others. The everyday sacrifice is seen in a parent’s unfailing love for a child. We know stories of soldiers so committed to his unit that he dies to save his brothers in arms. There is a kind of self-interest in these acts of great self-sacrifice, the secret being that in living out a life of godly and divine love, we are finally alive and living (seeing a joy that is set before us); we gain an abundant and rich life – but one that we willingly lay down for the one we love.
To love God in this same way is to know and receive Jesus just as one might relate to a faithful and loving husband, wife, father, mother, brother, sister. To know the personal and intimate love of God, one that is like fire and passionate and jealous for our love, is through the doorway of the Son of God who became the Son of Man who entered our world in a mission to save and redeem his beloved bride. That God loves us like a husband/lover is undisputed and declared throughout scripture. If only we can take it into our hearts, we would become alive in an instant. One would have to write a novel at the very least to explore the depths of God’s love for us.
To wrap up in one sentence: The law is an expression of God’s love for all that he has made.