Saturday, November 8, 2014

Samuel and Isaac the Syrian on YHWH's quick forgiveness

Continuing on the theme of YHWH v. Jesus, I was particularly impressed by a passage from Samuel's farewell speech in 1 Sam 12. At this point in the history, the people of Israel has asked for a king just as the other nations around them have, which effectively is a rejection of the reign of YHWH over them. This is a grave sin because it demonstrates a lack of trust in the leadership of their God; instead of God and the prophet, they want a king and all the pomp and circumstance that come along with him. Samuel says: ... you said to me, 'No, but a king shall reign over us,' though the LORD your God was your king (1 Sam 12.12).

God is willing to give them a king, namely Saul, but Samuel wishes to make it clear that they have done something gravely wrong in asking for him. Therefore he asks the LORD to make it rain and thunder during the wheat harvest, and it happens as he asked (12.18). When the people greatly feared the LORD and Samuel (v. 18), they ask Samuel that he pray to the LORD for them, so that they may not die (v. 19). What is Samuel's response? He says:

Do not be afraid; you have done all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the LORD, but serve the LORD with all your heart; and do not turn aside after useless things that cannot profit or save, for they are useless (vv. 20-1).

What is impressive to me here, as in many other places in the Old Testament, is how quick and ready God is to forgive the people for their sins. All that it takes is a recognition of wrongdoing, a confession of sin, and God gladly gives a person a second (or third, or fourth) chance. He tells them: don't be afraid, and don't think any longer about your grave sin; just go forth and serve the LORD from this moment, and don't give any more time or attention to useless things.

It's that easy! Admit you've done wrong and don't do it any longer; turn your life around, whatever and however grave your evil may be. YHWH is quick to forgive; it was not ex nihilo that the ancient Israelites thought to describe YHWH as a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod 34.6-7).

I am reminded in all of this what Isaac the Syrian says in Ascetical Homilies III/6. He says that [God] loves humanity, and does not love justice apart from mercy (32), and that This, therefore, is His will: to forgive any person for any occasion of sin (33). Speaking of how God justifies us by faith and not by works, he says: In any case, though He gives power to the will so that it may not give in to sin, and though He is the fount of all goodness, it pleases Him to call us righteous. As I was saying, He willed this [viz., that we be justified through faith and not by works] so that, making use of every possible strategy, He may enjoy everyone as righteous and that He might be able to embrace every man in the number of the righteous (36).

In all these ways, Isaac stresses that God's concern is to save all, and is ready to forgive anyone and everyone of their sins for even the slightest pretext. Likewise Samuel consoles the worried people simply to go forward in serving the LORD, and not to turn again to the useless things of their past. YHWH, as much as Jesus, is quick to forgive!