So far in this series, I've sought to establish the place of the Law in the lives of the Old Testament believers, through looking at what is said about the Law in the Law itself. Now we look at Israel's failure to keep the Law.
Near to the end of his renewal of the covenant with the people in Deuteronomy, Moses pleads with the people of Israel to keep their side of the covenant with God, yet prophetically also seems to recognise their future failure. And so, in addressing the people of Israel, he says in Deuteronomy 29:18-28 (see also 31:16-22 and also Joshua 24:19-20):
18 Make sure there is no man or woman, clan or tribe among you today whose heart turns away from the LORD our God to go and worship the gods of those nations; make sure there is no root among you that produces such bitter poison.
19When such a person hears the words of this oath, he invokes a blessing on himself and therefore thinks, "I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way." This will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry. 20The LORD will never be willing to forgive him; his wrath and zeal will burn against that man. All the curses written in this book will fall upon him, and the LORD will blot out his name from under heaven. 21The LORD will single him out from all the tribes of Israel for disaster, according to all the curses of the covenant written in this Book of the Law.
22Your children who follow you in later generations and foreigners who come from distant lands will see the calamities that have fallen on the land and the diseases with which the LORD has afflicted it. 23The whole land will be a burning waste of salt and sulphur—nothing planted, nothing sprouting, no vegetation growing on it. It will be like the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the LORD overthrew in fierce anger. 24All the nations will ask: "Why has the LORD done this to this land? Why this fierce, burning anger?" 25And the answer will be: "It is because this people abandoned the covenant of the LORD, the God of their fathers, the covenant he made with them when he brought them out of Egypt. 26They went off and worshiped other gods and bowed down to them, gods they did not know, gods he had not given them. 27Therefore the LORD's anger burned against this land, so that he brought on it all the curses written in this book. 28In furious anger and in great wrath the LORD uprooted them from their land and thrust them into another land, as it is now."
Note the emphasis on ‘persistence’ in verse 19: the ungodly man says, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way.’ The sad story of the Old Testament is that corporate Israel persistently and unrepentantly rejected the covenant that God had made with them. It’s not that Israel failed to meet God’s standards – which, of course, they did – but additionally that they refused and abandoned any idea of living by these standards at all. Particularly, as the sweep of Israel’s history goes on, we see an increasingly complacent community: a nation who thought they were immune from judgement because they were God’s covenant people. They had forgotten that the blessings of the covenant were conditional on their own commitment to obedience.
And so, for instance, we read in Psalm 78:9-10:
9 The men of Ephraim, though armed with bows, turned back on the day of battle;
10 they did not keep God's covenant and refused to live by his law.
Israel also becomes an increasingly self-righteous group of people, even after the division of the nation, who legalistically sacrifice but have no intention of obeying the rest of the Law. Isaiah 1:11-17 uses strong language – God says he ‘hates’ the sacrifices brought to him (they have become ‘meaningless’) even though he instituted the sacrificial system, because they are not accompanied by obedience (see verses 16-17):
11 "The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me?" says the LORD.
"I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.
12 When you come to appear before me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? 13 Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations — I cannot bear your evil assemblies.
14 Your New Moon festivals and your appointed feasts my soul hates. They have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them.
15 When you spread out your hands in prayer, I will hide my eyes from you; even
if you offer many prayers, I will not listen. Your hands are full of blood; 16 wash and make yourselves clean.
Take your evil deeds out of my sight!
Stop doing wrong, 17 learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.
Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.
Idolatry is also a regular feature of the life of the nation; for example, Jeremiah 2 has devastating words illustrating both the level of unfaithfulness to the LORD and a foolish complacency with it:
4 Hear the word of the LORD, O house of Jacob, all you clans of the house of Israel.
5 This is what the LORD says: "What fault did your fathers find in me, that they strayed so far from me? They followed worthless idols and became worthless themselves.
6 They did not ask, 'Where is the LORD, who brought us up out of Egypt and led us through the barren wilderness, through a land of deserts and rifts, a land of drought and darkness, a land where no one travels and no one lives?'
7 I brought you into a fertile land to eat its fruit and rich produce. But you came and defiled my land and made my inheritance detestable.
8 The priests did not ask, 'Where is the LORD?' Those who deal with the law did not know me; the leaders rebelled against me. The prophets prophesied by Baal, following worthless idols.
9 "Therefore I bring charges against you again," declares the LORD. "And I will bring charges against your children's children.
10 Cross over to the coasts of Kittim and look, send to Kedar and observe closely; see if there has ever been anything like this:
11 Has a nation ever changed its gods? (Yet they are not gods at all.) But my people have exchanged their Glory for worthless idols.
12 Be appalled at this, O heavens, and shudder with great horror," declares the LORD.
13 "My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.
34 On your clothes men find the lifeblood of the innocent poor, though you did not catch them breaking in. Yet in spite of all this 35you say, 'I am innocent; he is not angry with me.' But I will pass judgment on you because you say, 'I have not sinned.'
36 Why do you go about so much, changing your ways? You will be disappointed by Egypt as you were by Assyria. 37 You will also leave that place with your hands on your head, for the LORD has rejected those you trust; you will not be helped by them.
Again, I'd want to emphasise that it was not that Israel failed to measure up to God’s standard in a legalistic sense (which, of course, they did not); rather, we see the nation completely forgetting the grace they had been shown in their redemption, and snubbing the God that had shown them such grace. This ultimately led to the exile, just as Moses had warned it would in Deuteronomy 29. There are high points in Israel’s history – such as the ‘rediscovery’ of the Law by Ezra and the exiles in Nehemiah 8 – but the over-riding sad story of the Old Testament is the rejection of the covenant by God’s people.