At the distance of two hundred years the specter of Napoleon Bonaparte is no longer frightening. Now he is nothing more than a historical figure often depicted as a comic caricature of the man who once ruled most of Europe. In his lifetime he inspired admiration to the point of worship not only for his genius at the art of war, but for his genius at bringing responsible government out of the chaotic revolution of France. Yet his ambition pushed him beyond the limits of himself and of France, and in time he lost everything.
We have a picture passed on through the years of a bitter Napoleon who blames everyone but himself for his setbacks. That is the picture C.S. Lewis invokes in his description of Napoleon in hell in his classic work, The Great Divorce. A similar picture appears in Waterloo, the 1970 movie about Napoleon’s final battle starring Rod Steiger as the Emperor. In the midst of the battle, illness overcomes Napoleon and compels him to leave the field briefly. During that time Marshal Michel Ney (played by Dan O’Herlihy), Napoleon’s trusted subordinate, orders the French cavalry to attack when he believes the enemy is retreating. What he does not realize is that the Duke of Wellington (played by Christopher Plummer) has ordered his infantry to shift their position to the other side of the hill they occupied. As the French cavalry charge, the British infantry form squares, a tactic designed for defense against cavalry. In charge after charge, the French horsemen expend their lives to little effect, eventually crippling that arm of Napoleon’s force and contributing significantly to his ultimate defeat. In the movie, Napoleon returns to the field just as Ney is leading the charge. In rage and dismay he says,
What’s he doing? What’s Ney doing? What’s happening? Can’t I leave the field for a minute? What’s he doing there? How can a man go forward with the cavalry without infantry support? What’s the matter with you?
To the military mind this outburst is perfectly understandable. Napoleon the general trained his men well and expected them to act not only with initiative, but also according to his commands and within the parameters of good order and discipline. It is no surprise that he became angry at learning that a trusted and experienced subordinate acted impetuously, violating a cardinal principle of war and endangering the entire army. It is the same reason our God becomes very angry when His people disregard the good order, discipline, and sound judgment He expects of them.
There is a reason YHVH is called “The Lord of Hosts”, or “God of Armies” (in Hebrew, Adonai Tzevaot, יְהֹוָה צְבָאוֹת). At some point, when Messiah is ruling from Jerusalem, we will no longer need to study war (Isaiah 2:1-4). Until then, we are warriors in His army currently living in enemy/occupied territory (II Timothy 2:1-4; II Corinthians 10:3-6). Good warriors, or soldiers, understand authority and move within it, both exercising authority as delivered to them and submitting to the authority of those over them. That is the reason for Yeshua’s surprisingly positive response to the words of Roman officer who had asked Him to heal his servant:
Now Jesus started on His way with them; and when He was not far from the house, the centurion sent friends, saying to Him, “Lord, do not trouble Yourself further, for I am not worthy for You to come under my roof; for this reason I did not even consider myself worthy to come to You, but just say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man placed under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to this one, ‘Go!’ and he goes, and to another, ‘Come!’ and he comes, and to my slave, ‘Do this!’ and he does it.” Now when Jesus heard this, He marveled at him, and turned and said to the crowd that was following Him, “I say to you, not even in Israel have I found such great faith.” (Luke 7:6-9 NASB, emphasis added; see also Matthew 8:5-13)
How instructive, and how sad. One would expect that the people of God, the very ones He had called out of the nations, would be the first to acknowledge His supreme authority and do as He commanded. Yet the testimony of Scripture says otherwise. We have multiple accounts of Yeshua’s controversy with His disciples and with the national and religious leadership of His day over this very issue of whose authority they follow – either God’s (Matthew 16:13-23; John 19:1-15), or their own (Matthew 23; Mark 7:1-23), or Satan’s (John 8:39-47). The tendency revealed in these accounts is that the nation of Israel preferred to follow any authority but God’s. Quite often, and probably most of the time, they thought they were following God, but pride and deception had crept in along the way to turn them aside from the narrow path of righteousness.
This tendency to wander is not a First Century Jewish phenomenon. It is common to all humanity in all places at all times. The great showdown in I Kings 18 between Elijah and the prophets of Baal and Asherah is one of the greatest examples. Our Ephraimite ancestors of Northern Israel had departed so far from the ways of YHVH that they allowed King Ahab to introduce the worship of the Canaanite/Phoenician fertility deities as a matter of national policy. Yet our fathers and mothers did not entirely reject YHVH, which is why He sent Elijah to them in the first place. Notice the prophet’s words:
Elijah came near to all the people and said, “How long will you hesitate between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow Him; but if Baal, follow him.” But the people did not answer him a word. (I Kings 18:21 NASB, emphasis added)
Apparently the people of Israel still have some allegiance to YHVH, but they need something to remind them of His power and authority. That is the purpose of Elijah’s great challenge to Baal’s clergy: they and he will prepare bulls for sacrifice, and then pray to see which deity will answer with fire to consume the offering. It is YHVH, of course, Who sends fire from heaven to burn up Elijah’s sacrifice, motivating the people of Israel to fall on their faces and cry out, “The Lord, He is God; the Lord, He is God.” (I Kings 18:39)
The revival of Elijah’s day lasted barely a generation, and was not complete even in that generation. The people continued to worship YHVH according to their standards, not according to what the Lord Himself had specified. We see this in the great throne room prophecy scene of I Kings 22, when Ahab of Israel and Jehoshaphat of Judah inquire of the Lord about the upcoming war for Ramoth-Gilead. The people prophesying before the two kings are not prophets of Baal; those were killed by Elijah at Mount Carmel. The prophets in Ahab’s court claim to be speaking in the Name of YHVH, but righteous King Jehoshaphat sees through the deception and asks if there is a genuine prophet of YHVH who may speak the truth to the kings. That is how we get introduced to Micaiah son of Imlah, who prophesies victory at Ramoth-Gilead, but at the cost of King Ahab’s life:
I saw all Israel scattered on the mountains, like sheep which have no shepherd. And the Lord said, “These have no master. Let each of them return to his house in peace.” (I Kings 22:17 NASB)
This prophecy about Ahab, the shepherd of Israel in his day, speaks to a prophecy by Zechariah about another Shepherd, the One Who will gather all Israel:
“Awake, O sword, against My Shepherd, and against the man, My Associate,” declares the Lord of hosts. “Strike the Shepherd that the sheep may be scattered; and I will turn My hand against the little ones.” (Zechariah 13:7 NASB; see also Isaiah 53.4-6, 10; Matthew 26:31: Mark 14:27)
Zechariah goes on to speak about great judgment on the people of Israel in the latter days. That judgment is the conclusion of great judgment that began on our people long ago, at Mount Sinai, when their rebellious hearts first took action against the God Who had redeemed them. Even as Moses was receiving specific instructions from the Lord about how to approach Him in holiness, our ancestors were devising ways to depart from the Lord and do what seemed right in their own eyes. That is the story of Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35). As the Scripture explains:
Now when the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people assembled about Aaron and said to him, “Come, make us a god who will go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up from the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” Aaron said to them, “Tear off the gold rings which are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” Then all the people tore off the gold rings which were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. He took this from their hand, and fashioned it with a graving tool and made it into a molten calf; and they said, “This is your god, O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.” Now when Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made a proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a feast to the Lord.” So the next day they rose early and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings; and the people sat down to eat and to drink, and rose up to play. (Exodus 32:1-6 NASB, emphasis added; see also I Corinthians 10:1-13)
The frightening part about this infamous Golden Calf incident is that our ancestors were not making an idol to worship a pagan god, but rather wanted an idol to represent YHVH Elohim. When they say, “Come, make us a god” (or “gods”), they use the term “Elohim” (אְֵלֹהִים), the same word used in Genesis 1:1 and elsewhere in reference to the Creator and God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. When Aaron builds the altar for this cow god and proclaims a feast day to the Lord, he uses the Tetragrammaton YHVH (יהוה), the Name of Almighty God. Thus the people know exactly who they are worshipping, or at least who they think they are worshipping. Their intentions may not have been entirely evil; some perhaps may have wanted to ensure that there was a continuity of leadership so that the nation could survive in the wilderness. However, they followed what was right in their own eyes, not what their God had commanded them, and that was their error.
Consider the instructions the people had received before Moses went up on the mountain. Beginning in Exodus 19 and continuing through Exodus 23, we learn that the people had instructions from God through Moses to prepare themselves to receive the Ten Commandments, then they heard those Words directly from the Lord Himself, and then Moses received some instructions on how to implement those Words, which he passed on to the people (see Fox Byte 5775 #18: Mishpatim (Ordinances)). Those instructions included the all-important Sign of God’s covenant with our nation, the Sabbath, as well as the three National Feasts of Passover and Unleavened Bread, Shavuot (Pentecost), and Sukkot (Tabernacles). In other words, the people had received from their Commander-in-Chief specific orders for how to conduct themselves, as well as the basic principles to keep them within the Commander’s intent as they exercised initiative in their daily lives. What did our ancestors say about all those instructions? They agreed to them! Not only that, they accepted those terms as a sacred covenant sealed in blood:
Then Moses came and recounted to the people all the words of the Lord and all the ordinances; and all the people answered with one voice and said, “All the words which the Lord has spoken we will do!” Moses wrote down all the words of the Lord. Then he arose early in the morning, and built an altar at the foot of the mountain with twelve pillars for the twelve tribes of Israel. He sent young men of the sons of Israel, and they offered burnt offerings and sacrificed young bulls as peace offerings to the Lord. Moses took half of the blood and put it in basins, and the other half of the blood he sprinkled on the altar. Then he took the book of the covenant and read it in the hearing of the people; and they said, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do, and we will be obedient!” So Moses took the blood and sprinkled it on the people, and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant, which the Lord has made with you in accordance with all these words.” (Exodus 24:1-8 NASB, emphasis added)
It was after this solemn affirmation of allegiance to YHVH that Moses went up on the mountain with Joshua to receive specific instructions on construction of the Tabernacle and on the Priesthood. He left worthy men in charge, namely 70 elders of Israel who had seen the Glory of the Lord, as well Aaron and his sons, Nadab and Abihu, and Hur, chief of the tribe of Judah (Exodus 24:14). One might think the people would have had little trouble remaining faithful during the forty days Moses was communing directly with the Lord. Yet what happened then was exactly what is happening in our day. Disbelief set in; people could not see the way ahead for themselves and their families, so regardless what had happened before, from the plagues on Egypt to the miraculous provision of manna, they began to doubt God and wonder if maybe He had ceased dealing with them. They grew impatient and anxious waiting for God’s deliverer to return, and so they took matters into their own hands. The result was well-intentioned, but wicked, idolatry. Having cast off God’s specific instructions, the leaders of the people sought to change times and law. No wonder His retribution was swift and severe. Three thousand men died as Moses’ brethren of Levi rallied to his call to deal with the rebellion. Had it not been for Moses interceding for the people, God would have destroyed the entire nation.
In His mercy God forgave, but then He called Moses back up to the mountain to receive the same instructions once again. Here is instruction for us: the mediator between God and our ancestors succeeded in persuading Holy God to forgive their sin, but did not get Him to change the standards by which He expected them to conduct themselves. Why, then, should we suppose that the Mediator He sent to take away the sin of the world would change the standards by which God’s people are to live? It is the same Commander-in-Chief, and the same nation (Israel) into which He has called His people. Our fathers perished long ago because they did not remain true to God’s expectations of His people, doubting both His Word and the promise of His messenger that he would return. When the messenger returned suddenly, on a day they were not expecting, destruction came on them swiftly according to the very standard to which they had agreed. It is the same as in our day, just as the Apostle Peter explains:
Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers [scoffers] will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, “Where is the promise of His coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all continues just as it was from the beginning of creation” . . . The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing for any to perish but for all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief . . . You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, be on your guard so that you are not carried away by the error of unprincipled [wicked, lawless] men and fall from your own steadfastness, but grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To Him be the glory, both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (II Peter 3:3-4, 9-10, 17-18 NASB, emphasis added)
Our fathers and mothers in the desert did not remain steadfast to YHVH and His Word. Neither did our fathers and mothers in Samaria and Jerusalem remain steadfast, even though His instructions were before them in written form through the Torah and spoken form through the Prophets. What of us today, who have the entire Word of God and the testimony of His Messiah to instruct us? That remains to be seen. What we do know is what Messiah Yeshua expects of us:
I am coming quickly; hold fast what you have, so that no one will take your crown. (Revelation 3:11 NASB)