By Dr Peter Lim
Haggai, one of the three post-exilic minor prophets we are studying in our current pulpit series had a very short public ministry. He proclaimed a series of four messages over a period of three months in 520 BC during the reign of Darius. However, his very first message prompted an immediate response from the returnees – “Zerubbabel. . . Joshua . . . and the whole remnant of the people obeyed the voice of the Lord their God. . . And the people feared the Lord” (Haggai 1:12). Such a response was what Moses was trying to elicit from the Israelites following the giving of the Ten Commandments. “And now, O Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, to love Him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and to observe the Lord’s commands and decrees that I am giving you today for your own good?” (Deuteronomy 10;12,13). But it seems to have fallen on deaf ears most of the time as we will see.
For a start, the Israelites failed to comply with God’s command in the military campaign in Canaan. God’s instruction to Moses was unequivocal – “When you cross the Jordan into Canaan, drive out all the inhabitants of the land before you. Destroy all their carved images and their cast idols and demolish all their high places” (Numbers 33:51,52). Only during Joshua’s tenure was this command faithfully obeyed. Thus, Joshua was singularly successful in conquering a sizable part of Canaan. However, due to advancing years he was unable to complete the task of taking full possession of the land. (Joshua 13:1). This responsibility was now left to the individual tribes.
The military campaigns after Joshua’s death were lackadaisical and deviated from God’s command (Judges 1). The first sign of compromise was that they only “press the Canaanites into forced labour but never drove them out completely” (1:28). This was followed by allowing the Canaanites to live among them. (1:29). Next, they lived among the Canaanites. (1:32,33). Finally, the tribe of Dan was confined by the Amorites to the hill country and forbidden to dwell in the plain (1:34). From being conquerors during Joshua’s tenure of leadership, some of the Israelites were now barely surviving in the harsher environment of the hill country.
This is what happens when misguided leniency and compromise replace strict obedience to God’s commands. It would appear to be more humane to subjugate rather than annihilate the enemy from an ethical perspective. Such rationalisation results from a failure to understand how pervasive Canaanite idolatrous practices can be as demonstrated from future events. In his later years Solomon succumbed to the influence of the abominable and detestable religions of his numerous foreign wives. (1 Kings 11:4-6). Thus, as God Jehovah had spelt out Solomon’s kingdom would be split into two – the Northern Kingdom of ten tribes and the Southern Kingdom of one tribe, Judah. (1 Kings 11:29-39). The lineage of David would be carried through the tribe of Judah. All the kings of the Northern Kingdom or Israel did evil in the sight of God and Israel was finally conquered by Assyria. The monarchs of Judah fared slightly better with a few of them godly. But eventually the idolatrous practices of Judah resulted in the nation being captured by the Babylonians. The temple was looted and destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and the people of Judah were taken into captivity to Babylon.
Right from the very first couple Adam and Eve, humankind has been plagued by disobedience to God. Is it any wonder that the aged apostle John stipulates that – “This is love for God, to obey His commands.” (1 John 5:3) echoing the teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ (John 14:15). Likewise, Qohelet (the Preacher or Teacher), writer of the book of Ecclesiastes concluded his treatise about life “under the sun” thus – “Fear God and keep His commandments for this is the whole duty of man” (12:13). This is not a one-off action but it needs to be a life-long spiritual ethos.