Last week we saw the demand God makes of all mankind: perfect righteousness, perfect obedience to His holy law. This demand is hardly surprising, since a perfectly holy God could not be expected to tolerate imperfection in His creatures, much less the high treason that takes place when any human being decides that he knows better than God and chooses to go his own way. The question then follows: does mankind fulfill this demand? Or does he daily, even hourly, break the law of God and act as a law unto himself?
From the very inception of human history, man failed to obey God. Adam ate the forbidden fruit, and since then all mankind has been born sinful. Wickedness became so great that God sent a flood that wiped out all but eight humans, yet almost immediately afterwards the sinful, corrupt heart of man once again displays itself (Payne 208). God then made a covenant with Abraham, yet we still see sin in Abraham’s life and in the lives of his descendants. With the institution of the Mosaic covenant, God continued to deal with Abraham’s children, despite their failures. However, in the sacrificial system we clearly see that there was a barrier between God and his people. They had to acknowledge their sin and guilt. Throughout the history of Israel, sin is visible even in the lives of those who were God’s own children. David, although a man after God’s heart, yet committed terrible sin (I Samuel 13:14, II Samuel 11). Hezekiah, one of the godliest of the kings of Judah, lifted up his heart against God (II Chronicles 32:25, 31). If this was the case with those who knew God, how much worse were matters with the multitude that had forsaken him? Their sins would find them out, as Moses had predicted (Numbers 32:23). The wrath of God was turned against his people and they were carried into captivity (II Chronicles 36:16-17). Even after their return, the need for reformation and closer adherence to God’s law constantly presented itself (Ezra 9, Nehemiah 13). God’s covenant people, who had received his holy law and promised to keep it, failed time and time again. All throughout the history of Israel, we see mankind’s dilemma illustrated in a powerful way – sinful men cannot satisfy the justice of a holy God!
In the poetic literature, the fact that all men have sinned is repeated many times. “Who can say, I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?” (Proverbs 20:9). No one is free from original sin. This problem is not confined to a few individuals who have been raised in difficult circumstances! David acknowledges his sin, adding, “that thou mightest be justified when thou speakest, and be clear when thou judgest” (Psalm 51:4). God’s condemnation is just, for all men have sinned. None seek after him (14:2). “There is none that doeth good, no, not one” (53:3). How could this sin be dealt with? What was necessary before man could turn again and commune with God?
In the book of Jeremiah, we see the failure of an outward, external reform to solve man’s problem. Under the reign of the godly King Josiah, the people had apparently begun to seek God again. However, the Lord tells Jeremiah that Judah “hath not turned unto me with her whole heart, but feignedly” (3:10). This did not fool God! He demanded righteousness in the hearts of his people, not a mere outward reform. However, as we have noticed, mankind was incapable of providing this kind of righteousness for himself! “Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots? then may ye also do good, that are accustomed to do evil” (13:23). Man could not deceive God with a counterfeit righteousness! God knew their hearts. To Ezekiel he warned, “Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face” (14:3). The sin of the people was a very real fact, a problem that was inescapably present in the heart of man.
What was it that was so terrible about Israel’s wickedness? Why was it that the prophets bewailed it so frequently? It was because their sins separated them from God (Isaiah 59:2). As Isaiah so often emphasized, all their suffering and misery was a result of their sin (MacRae 34). In fact, Ezekiel says that even the heathen would know that the Israelites had gone into captivity because of their sin (39:23). It was sin that separated the people from God, and this separation brought on all their difficulties. “Who gave Jacob for a spoil, and Israel to the robbers? did not the Lord, he against whom we have sinned? For they would not walk in his ways, neither were they obedient unto his law” (Isaiah 43:24, emphasis mine). In Lamentations, Jeremiah deplores the miserable condition Judah was brought to, but even more than that, he bewails the sin that brought them to such a pass (Hendriksen 300). Throughout the prophets, the sinful heart of the people is constantly condemned.
Sin separates man from God and brings upon him misery and punishment. Man can never bridge the gap and turn to God on his own. All men are under this blight. This is not something surface deep, but is part of the depraved nature of fallen men. God is holy and just! He cannot tolerate this iniquity, for to do so would “offer violence to all the attributes of God” (Alleine 60)! Yet he had promised to redeem a people for himself, to “cleanse their blood that I have not cleansed” (Joel 3:21). He had promised that, “Thy people also shall be all righteous” (Isaiah 59:21). How would he bring these promises about? What would cover over the awful sinfulness of man? Who could stand in the gap between God and man, giving God’s people a new heart that would turn from wickedness, seek God, and do righteousness as God has always commanded?
How was the dilemma to be resolved?
You can read Righteousness Part One: God’s Demand here.
Alleine, Joseph. An Alarm to the Unconverted. Grand Rapids, MI: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc., n. d.
Hendriksen, William. Survey of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, reprinted 2001.
Holy Bible. King James Version. Cambridge, Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, n. d.
MacRae, Allan A. The Gospel of Isaiah. Second Printing. Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1977.
Payne, J. Barton. The Theology of the Older Testament. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1962.