Punishment 101 — Just Give Them What They Want

“Son of man, these men have set up idols in their hearts and put wicked stumbling blocks before their faces. Should I let them inquire of me at all? Therefore speak to them and tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: When any of the Israelites set up idols in their hearts and put a wicked stumbling block before their faces and then go to a prophet, I the Lord will answer them myself in keeping with their great idolatry. I will do this to recapture the hearts of the people of Israel, who have all deserted me for their idols.’” (Ezekiel 14:3–5, NIV)

God punishes us by giving us what we want… which is pretty natural… because as free moral agents we choose our own paths. But the process is supernatural too. God knows our thoughts, yet he allows us to live our lives knowing that some of us will do evil; this is a great proof that we humans have free will. And what are the results of this arrangement? We reap what we sow! The natural consequences of our actions come to bear.

Now, this sounds very much like how the world would work without God. But let’s not count him out. To teach in the greater classroom, God sometimes shows his hand. For instance, God used a medium to call up Samuel's “ghost” (1 Sam. 28:3-24)… and I see that as risky. But since that’s what Saul wanted, God used that desire to confirm the end of his kingship. In another instance, to facilitate Ahab’s death, God gave a lying spirit sway over some prophets (1 Kings 22:23). Now, God could have destroyed Ahab with a mere thought, but he used the hallmarks of Ahab’s life to affect his death. Today's verse tells us that where people prefer their idols, God will answer them based on that desire.

And what do all these examples have in common? The punishment fits the crime… which is neat. But I must confess my discomfort with God’s methods. If God used a medium, why can’t I? If God used lying and deceit, why can’t I? If God suborns faith in idols, why can’t I? Because I’m not God — that’s why. He alone knows how people will respond to future contingencies. Therefore, he alone is qualified to use such radical tools.

When Israel marched into the Promised Land… but when they did not destroy the inhabitants as God had instructed… God did not take-over and say, "Here — let me. I'll destroy them." What he did instead was to count the cost of their disobedience. “They shall be a snare unto you.” And when we run the clock forward to today’s passage we see the natural punishment for that sin: Israel set themselves up for the seduction of idols — and the idols held sway over the people. Sadder still, the idols held sway where God did not.

Why didn’t God just wipe-out all the idols himself? Such behavior is rare with God; mostly, he allows sin to run its course — as in the cycle of ancient Israel: God did a great work; the people were energized; they became complacent; they turned their gaze toward the world — and then ran full-speed toward its offerings; their sin ran its natural course and they became a despondent people; they cried out to God, and God did a great work....

Our hearts define their own punishments. If we yearn for idols, we must follow their counsel… and God will allow that to play-out — because, as a wise parent, God knows that some lessons must be learned by scrapes and bruises. We earthly parents know this too — the folly of too much control and the wisdom in letting children make their own decisions. So we watch and pray.

As God's people, we have the potential outfalls of good and evil choices before us. Now, many of God's protections cannot be seen; God works wonders beyond our view. But out here where we live our lives he rarely suspends the laws of nature… or of human nature… as we make our daily choices. As such, we must guard our hearts; we must be careful of what we want

 

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