A History of God’s Actions (or, Watching God at Work)
In this series so far we have noted that there is a particular way of interacting with the world that is typical of God. We refer to it as “apocalyptic,” but the Bible simply presents it as God’s normal and consistent way of acting. Among the characteristics of an apocalyptic event is the fact is that it is a relatively sudden, drastic, and catastrophic action on God’s part where he does away with lawlessness and death, and establishes goodness and order and life. The creation was such an event (Gen 1), as was the flood (Gen 6-9).
What are some other examples of apocalyptic events in the Bible? Well, there are many of them. Consider the following partial list:
- The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This one should be obvious.
- The birth of Isaac. Abram was 75 years old when God first informed him that he would be the father of a great nation. At the time, however, Abram and Sarah were childless, and they remained that way for the next 25 years. Suddenly, in Genesis 18, a messenger appeared and informed the aged couple that the wait was over, that Sarah and Abram would have a child by the same time the next year. Just as in the story of the creation, God was taking a situation of death (see Rom 4.19) and turning it into one of life, quickly and drastically.
- The Passover / exodus. Israel was in bondage in Egypt for about 400 years, but God had long before promised to bring them out (Gen 15.13). Then God spoke to Moses at the burning bush, and within a short time (perhaps within a period of two years), Israel was freed from Egypt. Even more, the actual exodus itself happened quite suddenly: the Egyptians sent the Israelites out the same night as the last plague (see Exod 12.33, 51). Also, as in the creation God destroyed hostile forces (namely, the Egyptian army, drowned in the Red Sea), and delivered from death (the death of the firstborn in Egypt). It is noteworthy that language modelled on the creation account appears in the account of the exodus as well – especially God making the sea obey him, pushing it aside (see Exod 15.8).
- The conquest of Canaan. Wickedness had been increasing in Canaan since the time of Abraham (Gen 15.16), but in a period of only seven years the Canaanites would find themselves largely displaced by the Israelites, who had God fighting on their side. The “flushing” of the Canaanites out of the land was punishment for their wickedness (Deut 9.4).
- The contest on Mt. Carmel. Israel had been suffering under the reign of Ahab and Jezebel, who had persecuted the prophets of God and who tried to eradicate the worship of God from Israel. Even before then, Israel had been in a steady spiritual decline because of the sin of Jeroboam I. Then on one afternoon, God drastically showed his power over the evil people who had taken their stand against him and against his prophets, and after that great display of God’s vindicating power Elijah led the people to kill 450 prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18.40). Sudden, catastrophic.
- The “purge of Jehu.” In one day Jehu killed the king of Israel (Joram, one of Ahab’s sons), Jezebel, and put the king of Judah to flight to his eventual death as well. The day of reckoning had come, and through Jehu God cleaned the wickedness out of Israel. Soon after the death of the king, Jehu also killed off any surviving relatives of the royal family, as well as all the worshippers of Baal.
- The Assyrian destruction of Samaria. Just as Noah had preached warnings before the flood, so God’s prophets pleaded with Israel to turn from her wickedness to avoid a coming judgment. But Israel would not listen. Finally, in 722 BC, the day came. Assyria, like a rod in the hand of God, came to the capital city, laid siege to it, destroyed it, and took the wicked kingdom of Israel out of God’s land. As is typical of an apocalyptic event, the judgment was swift and ruinous.
- The death of the Assyrians in 701 BC. The Assyrian army was moving like an unstoppable force through Palestine. They had taken Damascus in 732 BC, and Samaria in 722 BC. Now they were pushing south toward Egypt, and Judah was in her sights. Hezekiah was trapped “like a bird in cage,” and he had done all he could to protect Jerusalem, but in the end it was not going to be enough. Then God intervened and killed 185,000 of them before they could attack the city. Again, God used his power to destroy a life-threatening, evil force in a drastic, sudden, and devastating display.
- The Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem (586 BC). Unfortunately, Judah had learned the ways of her wicked sister Israel (Jer 3.8), and met with the same fate. God, through prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah, had long been warning Israel that the day of catastrophic judgment would come, and there would be no escaping it for the wicked. They called for repentance, but again hardly anyone was listening. Finally the time came. “Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel, ‘Since you have rejected this word and have put your trust in oppression and guile, and have relied on them, therefore this iniquity will be to you like a breach about to fall, … whose collapse comes suddenly in an instant’” (Isa 30.12-13). The Babylonian army approached the city in January of 588 BC, and by August 586 it was all over. “O daughter of my people, put on sackcloth and roll in ashes; mourn as for an only son, a lamentation most bitter. For suddenly the destroyer will come” (Jer 6:26). The city wall was breeched, the temple was burned, and God’s people who had turned against him paid the price with either their lives or with deportation to Babylon.
- The return from captivity (and the fall of Babylonian empire). The great neo-Babylonian empire dazzled the world. It was at its height under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar, but within less than 25 years of his death (less than one generation!) it was gone. As in the flood, God had formerly decreed that he would act one day against this wicked people. “I declared the former things long ago and they went forth from My mouth, and I proclaimed them. Suddenly I acted, and they came to pass” (Isa 48:3). Cyrus liberated Babylon in 539 BC and all of a sudden, the Jews were free to return home. It is not surprising that Isaiah described this event using the language of another apocalyptic event: the exodus (see Isa 40.3-5, 31; 43.2; 44.27).
- Jesus’ miracles. Every one of Jesus’ miracles was a miniature apocalyptic event. Sick people, blind people, lame people, deaf people, lepers – each was healed suddenly. The power of God reversed their life-threatening and life-diminishing circumstances and changed them into health and life. In his miracles Jesus was demonstrating and illustrating, on a physical level, what he had come to do spiritually, and how he could do it.
- Jesus’ cleansing of the temple. Although it did not result in the destruction of any people, Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was certainly a symbolic apocalyptic event. God had foretold that “the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple” (Mal 3:1). He did, and in a display worthy of God Himself Jesus “cleaned house,” driving out the people who had perverted the temple’s function into a place for plotting evil (see Matt 21.13), and restored the temple to its rightful purpose (if only for a “moment”). Of course, his cleansing of the temple was a warning and an illustration of a much more drastic “cleansing” that was to come in 70 AD. We might also include the withering of the fig tree as another symbolic apocalyptic action (Matt 21.19f).
- The Roman destruction of Jerusalem (70 AD). Perhaps the most well-known apocalyptic event to the students of the NT is the catastrophic destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the Romans in 70 AD. Jesus had warned the people of Jerusalem that this great retribution was coming for its rejection of God’s own Son, but like their ancient counterparts several times before, basically no one was listening. Like the Babylonian destruction of the city over 600 years earlier, the whole process happened relatively quickly (compared to how much time was routinely taken in laying siege to a city).
More could be said about each of the above Biblical stories, but hopefully you can see the similarities they share and what gives each of them an apocalyptic character.
Can you think of some other Biblical examples?
Here is the web site for the congregation where I regularly preach: www.palmettochurchofchrist.com.