The Acts of God
by Francis Foulkes ©

I.  The Repetition of The Acts of God

One of the deepest convictions that the prophets and historians of Israel had about the God in whom they trusted, and whose word they believed they were inspired to utter, was that He was not like the gods of other nations, whose actions were totally unpredictable, who had to be appeased by sacrifice when things went wrong, and under whose rule the people could never know what would happen next. They believed that He had not left them in ignorance of His nature and purpose. Rather He had revealed Himself to them, and had shown Himself to be a God who acted according to principles, principles that would not change as long as the sun and moon endured. They could assume, therefore, that as He had acted in the past, He could and would act in the future. By such an assumption the whole of the Old Testament is bound together and given unity. Men may be fickle and unfaithful, but He does not change.3 He dwells in the midst of His people and always cares for them.4 Each succeeding generation could know that He would be with them as He had been with their fathers.5 He keeps His word and His promise to a thousand generations.6 For to Him the passing of time is not as it is to men.7 It produces no change in Him; He was at the beginning and He will be at the end, and He is in the whole course of history in between.8

It is true of course that this understanding of Yahweh as the God of history stands out more clearly from some parts of the Old Testament than from others; for as He revealed Himself in the history of Israel, a growing apprehension of Him as the Lord of history becomes apparent. Yet there is evidence that in very early stages of the national life of Israel there was a looking back to what God had done for them in making them a nation and to the way in which He had covenanted with them that He would be their God and they would be His people. They came to look back in particular to three great moments in their history, the call of Abraham, the Exodus, and the reign of David.

Their God was the God of Abraham,9 or the God of Abraham, and of Isaac and of Jacob,10 because of what He had done for the patriarchs,11 and in particular because He had entered into covenant with them.12 They saw that their existence as a people depended on the promises given to Abraham. I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and be thou a blessing; and I will bless them that bless thee, and him that curseth thee will I curse.13 Unto thy seed will I give this land.14 In blessing I will bless thee, and in multiplying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore; and thy seed shall possess the gate of his enemies; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.15

So also they spoke of their God as the God who brought them up out of the land of Egypt,16 and again and again they referred back to the Exodus. That was the great act of Yahweh that made of them a free nation. It was with them as a nation that He had entered into covenant. We will return to this later, but again it is the recalling of the mighty act of God in past days and of the covenant made that is significant.

Then thirdly, they looked back on the way that God had set up David on his throne, given him victories by which the monarchy was established,17 and promised that He would be with his seed after him on the throne.18

Such was the importance to Israel of their past history, the history of Gods dealings with them, at these most fundamental points, and also at many others. Prophets and historians, sages and psalmists, looked in many different ways to what God had done in the past, and insisted that the past could be and was repeated.

(a) The repetition of the acts of divine grace

The greatest act of Gods grace and power to which Israel looked back was the Exodus. Because of its special significance, and the way in which Israel experienced a release from bondage which they thought of as a repetition of the Exodus, we must return later to deal with it separately. Independent of this particular significance of the actual Exodus, Gods victory given to them over Pharaoh was taken as an assurance that He would lead them to triumph over all their enemies.19 Then, after the Exodus, there was the provision for Israel during the time spent in the wilderness, where Yahweh supplied all His peoples needs and led them in the way that they should go.20 This could be recalled by prophet and psalmist to strengthen the conviction that, as He had provided when there was obviously no other means of help, so they could trust Him to do again in every time of their need.21 The conquest of Canaan was a repetition of the way that God gave victory over Sihon and Og,22 and all these victories gave the assurance that He could always lead His people to triumph over their enemies. Like the victories over Midian, and over Jabin and Sisera, or over Oreb and Zeeb,23 so could be the future victories of the people over their enemies. The Psalms repeatedly use what God has done in history in giving deliverance and victory to His people, as reasons for the praise of His mercy and might, but also as a basis of faith in His power to deliver from present enemies, and to continue to guard and to guide whatever the problems and difficulties of the future might be.24 A man, of faith might always say that, as God has delivered in the past, so He will for the future.25

(b) The repetition of the acts of divine judgment

Yet not only could the deliverances of God be repeated; His judgments might also be repeated. The great judgments that stood at the beginning of biblical history were reminders of the righteousness of God, and warnings that He will judge those who utterly reject His ways. When, because Israel is under judgment, her enemies are said

to come in like a flood, there is sometimes a reference to the Deluge.26 In the apocalyptic language of Is. xxiv the Deluge clearly is taken as the type of judgment. Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty and maketh it waste... (Verse 1). Verse 18 uses the language of Gn. vii. 11 when it says that the windows on high are opened. Then the following verse speaks of the consequences, which are those of a flood: The earth is utterly broken, the earth is clean dissolved. Future judgment will be on the pattern of the past. There is also the warning that, as God judged Sodom and Gomorrah, so He would judge His own people if they were persistently unfaithful.27 Similarly this act of judgment is put forward as an example of the way in which He would judge the nations.28 When men are spoken of as like Sodom and Gomorrah, it is implied that they deserve such judgment as befell those cities.29 So also it is said that the judgment of God would be as the plagues of Egypt.30 Or it is said that, as He judged the nations that were in Canaan before Israel because of their gross immorality, so He would judge again; He would even judge His own people as He judged them,31 if they persisted in making themselves like the heathen instead of living up to their calling as the elect people of God. Like the judgment at Baal-peor,32 like the destruction of Shiloh,33 like the judgment of the house of Ahab,34 so would future judgments be. His past judgments were recalled to show that He is unchangingly a God of righteousness, and men must know that He will yet do as He has done in the past.35

Gods chastening of His own people has a repetitive nature about it because the faithlessness and rebellion of His people are so tragically recurrent. Israel again and again vainly relied on other nations instead of on the Lord. Repeatedly, therefore, they had to learn the consequences of their infatuation.36 Repeatedly they turned to serve other gods instead of the One who had so often saved them in their national history: and repeatedly they had to learn the futility of such actions.37 Time and again in their history it had been shown that unfaithfulness and rejection of Yahweh led to failure and judgment;38 for Yahweh is unchangingly a holy God who rules Israel and all the nations in righteousness.

Nevertheless the very fact that God judges His people again and again indicates that He is not only a God of judgment but of infinite mercy. The gifts and the calling of God are without repentance.39 He seeks constantly to bring His people back to Himself, and to forgive them. It is this interplay of mercy and judgment that shows most clearly the repetitive nature of Israels history, or rather of the acts of God on their behalf.

This is nowhere in the Old Testament made more clear than in the book of Judges. Here there is a pattern running through the book that is shaped by this understanding of history. Unfaithfulness leads to failure and defeat; repentance leads to renewed victory and in this way history repeats itself: So there is the reiteration of this sequence: rebellion, judgment, repentance, and then victory. through the God-given saviour.40 The standard by which Israel was always measured, was the covenant; and to the significance of this for the Old Testament understanding of history we must now turn.

(c) The significance of the covenant

All of Israels relationships with the God whom they worshipped were determined by the covenant that they had with Him. This was in essence the Abrahamic covenant, but no doubt they looked above all

to the covenant that was made with the nation at the Exodus. There the Lord had promised to Israel that He would be their God and they would be His people. On their side they had promised to obey Him, and remain true to Him.

The promises of God in the Old Testament are taken back to Abraham (and to Isaac and Jacob, after him), to Moses at the time of the Exodus, and then, in the days when the kingdom was established, to David. Later generations depended on the word of Gods promise given especially at those times. And His word was pledged that He would never fail on His side of the covenant.41 He would never fail to be Israels God, and to protect and deliver and bless them as His people, so long as they on their side were faithful. The blessings promised if the covenant is fulfilled are manifold.42 Moreover, it is said that, if they have been unfaithful and return in true repentance,43 they will always find His mercy. Israel might always appeal to the covenant, and to the grace of God pledged in it.

On the other hand, if the covenant were not kept, and the people refused to acknowledge and repent of their unfaithfulness, then they had no claim on the grace and the blessing of God.44 The covenant judged them and found them wanting.45 The Old Testament history of Israel is in fact one long story of the nations unfaithfulness to the covenant; and at intervals along that history God sent His prophets, rising up early and sending them.46 There were judgments, repeated judgments; and the prophets sought to show the people that their failures and defeats and distresses did not happen by chance. If they looked back into their history, they would see the same thing repeatedly happening.

This aspect of the Old Testament understanding of history is shown especially in the records of the monarchy. The reigns of the whole succession of kings of Israel and Judah are described simply on this basis of faithfulness or unfaithfulness to Yahweh. There are several standards of comparison; there is the rule of David,47 who kept faith with his God, and there is the standard of Jeroboam or Ahab.48 who

rejected the Lord and despised the covenant. And the issues of the various reigns are shown to be in accord with this faithfulness or unfaithfulness. There is mercy and deliverance and victory and peace; or there is judgment with consequent failure, disorder and defeat. The covenant determined the history repetition of the acts of divine judgment or deliverance came naturally because Yahweh was an unchanging God.

(d) The possibility of prediction

It follows from this that predictions of Israels prophets were not just mysterious or ambiguous utterances as those of the Delphic or other ancient oracles. The prophets saw clearly that history never followed a merely fortuitous course. When they warned of Gods impending judgments, they were not beating the air; their words contained inspired predictions of future events. The prophet was not always given to see the time in which, in the purpose of God, the inevitable judgment or deliverance would come. Prophet and psalmist alike, as they shared the same understanding of history, were baffled by continuing successes of wicked men and nations.49 But basically they understood the factors that determined the history of their own and other nations. They understood the principles of divine action that already had been revealed in history, and which would work themselves out in the future as they had done in the past.50 A prophet might sometimes speak in ecstasy, and his own powers of thought and understanding, at least in part, be transcended, in order that he might be an instrument of divine revelation, but far more often prophetic inspiration consisted essentially in Gods giving His servants clear understanding of the way in which He had acted in the past in accordance with His own nature and His covenant and therefore of the way in which He would act in the future. None of the great prophets of the Old Testament was simply a medium or an ecstatic. If the prophets saw men stubbornly rebelling against Him, and utterly refusing to repent and turn back to Him, then they knew that judgment must come. If they saw a people willing to return in repentance to obey Him, they could assure them that God would give them victory and prosperity, and encourage them with the promise of the good things that He has prepared for them that love Him. The possibility of such prediction thus depended largely on the warnings

the promises of the covenant, and on the fact that prophets were convinced that, as God had done in the past, so He would do in the future. And repeatedly the prophetic word was vindicated.

Often, however, the prophets prediction was not absolute. The judgment he announced was conditional. He still preached and implored and pleaded that men might return to God and so avert the judgment.51 Only when the prophet was given to see repentance as no longer possible unless Gods chastening came, did he preach the inevitability of judgment. It was on the nations attitude to the covenant that the prophets predictions were based.

(e) The basis of prayer

The covenant was also the basis for prayer. Prayer in the Old Testament derives its meaning from the conviction that Yahwehs covenant with His people will not fail; He has pledged His word and He is an unchanging God. Prayer is not an attempt to persuade or propitiate an unwilling God, a God who is to be prevailed upon by the intensity of mans prayers, or simply by the requisite offerings. Prayer is a turning to God in the confidence that those who come in repentance and faith, will receive the things that they ask. There is confidence because God has given His word, and because of what He has done in fulfilment of His word in the past.

One could pray: Remember Abraham, Isaac and Israel, thy servants to whom thou swarest by thine own self, and saidst unto them, I will multiply your seed as the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have spoken of will I give unto your seed, and they shall inherit it for ever.52 Or similarly: Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old, which thou hast redeemed to be the tribe of thine inheritance.53 We see repeatedly in the Psalms that the acts of God in the past are the grounds of faith for present and future deliverances.54 It is realized, too, that, as in the past, so in the present, an individual or the nation, having sinned against the Lord, can seek His favour only by the way of repentance.55

(f) Law and history

It is significant also that for Israel the Law is not just a statement of abstract principles, a carefully worked out code of behaviour formulated as such. The Law is the expression of the righteousness and mercy of God. It is the statement of the principles of the covenant. The Old Testament setting of the Law is the giving of the covenant at the Exodus.56 The Decalogue begins, I am the Lord thy God, which brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.57 Many of the individual laws have also direct reference to the Exodus. In some cases they referred back to the experiences of Israel in bondage. For example, there was an obligation to care for the stranger and the poor and the widow because in Egypt they themselves knew what it was to be in adversity, and God in His mercy set them free.58 Or the laws might imply simply the obligation of obedience because of what Yahweh had done, and because of the covenant at the Exodus. For example, with the laws that commanded the details of the way offerings were to be made went the words: Ye shall not profane my holy name; but I will be hallowed among the children of Israel; I am the Lord which hallow you, that brought you out of the land of Egypt to be your God; I am the Lord.59

The. Law, therefore, contains not just a code for Israel to keep, but the principles of Gods actions in the past, which remain the same for the present and the future. Such principles we have also in the Psalms and in the Wisdom literature. The significant fact is that they are never divorced from history to become mere abstraction. Yahweh is a living God, and the same yesterday, today and for ever. The Law as well as history and prophecy, furnishes examples of the way that history must repeat itself, or rather of the way in which Gods judgments and deliverances will be repeated. This is made most clear in the sections of the Holiness Code of Leviticus and in the parts of Deuteronomy where the blessing and the curse are given, the promises of the blessings of obedience, and the warnings of the tragic consequences of disobedience. These bear reference to past history, and show how that past history can be repeated.

(g) Memorials and feasts

The Law stood constantly before Israel, and the righteous man was to meditate in it day and night.60 But there were other reminders of what God had done. There were names such as Bethel, Gilgal, Achor, Ebenezer, Perez-uzzah and a host of others.61 The associations of these names for the ancient Israelites are not weakened by modern discussions of their etymologies. There were also visual aids to the memory of Israel of various acts of God described in their written traditions: the stones at the Jordan, the heaps of stones at Achans grave, and at the grave of the king of Ai, the stone where the ark rested when it was returned by the Philistines.62 The Old Testament is full of such examples each a visual reminder of the acts of God which were described in the written traditions of their history.63

Most important of all, there were the feasts. Once again, we are not concerned with their origins, nor with their agricultural aspect. For the Old Testament, what is important is that they had historical associations64, and, because of this, they renewed and kept alive constantly the faith of Israel in the God of history, the living and unchanging God.

Such was the Passover, and the feast of unleavened bread. Even if this feast began as an agricultural festival65 the festival that Moses asked Pharaoh for permission for the people to keep by going three days journey into the wilderness66 it came to be associated inseparably with the Exodus.67 Its significance came to be much more than agricultural; it was national and historical. We know little about the observance of the Passover in the days of the monarchy, and it does not seem always to have been given prominence. But the occasions on which its observance is particularly recorded were times of great national religious revival in the days of Hezekiah and Josiah.68 Through the traditions and records of the Exodus the

faithful Israelite kept the Passover in remembrance of what God had done then in redeeming His people from their bondage. As Pedersen says, The Passover meant a re-living of the old common history.69 It was a feast through which the people re-experienced the event on which their existence as an independent nation was based.70 They ate it in haste, with staff in hand, taking only unleavened bread, all in order to live over again the history of their deliverance. And, in so doing, the people fortified itself by commemorating its history.71 Faith was stimulated to believe that, as God had done at the Exodus, so He could continue to deliver His people from their enemies.

Similarly the feast of weeks called to mind the fact that Israel was in bondage in Egypt.72 The year of jubilee recalled that the Lord set free His people and did not intend them to be in bondage again.73 The offering of the firstfruits and the consecration of the firstborn74 recalled the Exodus and the possession of the land. The feast of tabernacles recalled the period that Israel spent in the wilderness, and Gods provision for them there.75 The much later feast of Purim is given its historical associations.76 Whatever their original significance, and however much or little of this was retained, it is true to say that the feasts of Israel as a whole were historically orientated; they were orientated to recall the acts of God in history. In each one there was a reliving of the old national history, and consequently the strengthening of faith in the living and unchanging God.

(h) The interpretation of history

For Israel, history was never simply the narration of past events. throughout the Old Testament history is written theologically; and behind the actual writing of this history lay the practice, its roots far back in the nations past, of the rehearsal of the former acts of God.77 The people were held responsible for making these acts known

to each succeeding generation.78 In particular they were not to fail to pass on the story of what God had done at the Exodus.79 They were to tell the meaning of the memorials that were set up to commemorate what God had done.80 The true Israelite should always have been able to say with the psalmist: We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, what work thou didst in their days, in the days of old.81 As we have noted, many of the psalmists rehearsed the national history82 to stimulate faith in and praise of the God who had acted in their nations past. The Old Testament historians do not simply record facts, nor do they simply relate what the great men of the past did. They are concerned to show what God did. Victory. is attributed to the deliverance of God: defeat is to be explained by the unfaithfulness of man and his failure to rely on the strength of his God.

The people are urged to know and to remember history,83 because history is instruction in the ways of God.84 The history books of the Old Testament are the former prophets. Whether we think of the writers of these books, or those whom we more naturally call prophets, we see that the task of the prophets was not only to denounce the sins of their own day, and to speak of what the future held in the judgment and the mercy of God, but also, and as a basis for what they said about the present and the future, to show Gods judgment and mercy in the past. They were interpreters of history, and they made the past speak to the contemporary situation.

God had judged unfaithfulness in the past, He had blessed His people when they turned to Him and relied on Him. The narration of history is prophetic: it is less an account than an address, not an it but a thou, not a once upon a time but a now.85 Judgment is pronounced on all the past, so that it may become instruction, a very word from God for the present. As God has acted, so He is acting in the contemporary situation in judgement or in mercy and so He will act in all His future dealings with His people.86

The importance of this as a background for typology is obvious. History is recorded because history may be repeated, not of course exactly in detail, but according to the principle of the past acts of God among men. There is one case, however, in which the Old Testament writers saw a very close repetition of the past, and because of the importance of this for the development of typology it needs to be considered more carefully. The bondage of the nation in Egypt, the deliverance of the Exodus, the period in the wilderness, and the re-occupation of the land, were repeated in the exile and the return.

(i) The second Exodus

When in the days of the monarchy the prophets saw the moral and spiritual decline of the nation, and with it the increasing threat of aggression from the great powers that surrounded them, they gave warning that the consequences of rebellion against God and failure to depend on His strength would be a new captivity. They shall not return to Egypt87 Hosea said, and he implied not simply a new bondage, but that the nation had to begin again to learn to know the Lord; it had to be dispossessed of its land, and go back to the simplicity of living in tents, and in another wilderness experience relearn the lessons of trust and obedience. Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably unto her. And I will give her her vineyards from thence, and the valley of Achor for a door of hope; and she shall make answer there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt.88 Jeremiah lived through the period when the capture of Jerusalem and Judah by Babylon was imminent, but he saw through from despair to faith and hope, and the hope was in the God of the Exodus. The days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, As the Lord liveth which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt, but, As the Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all the countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.89 In that second captivity, that second experience of Egypt, this hope began to burn in the hearts of the people. Dwelling among the nations, Israel came to know her God in a deeper sense than ever before as the God of all the nations of the

earth, the God who rules and overrules in history, and to whom the nations are as a drop of a bucket. What God has done in the past, He will not merely do again; He will do a new and greater thing. In the former days the Lord led Israel out of Egypt, and dried up the sea, the waters of the great deep, He made the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over. He would do this again, the prophet said, The ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come with singing into Zion.90 The power of Babylon would be overthrown, as the horses and chariots of Egypt.91 There would be a new Exodus,92 though with a difference, For ye shall not go out in haste, neither shall ye go by flight; for the Lord will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rearward.93 They would find in the wilderness the wonderful provision that God had made before, and more than that, the way would be prepared for the people there,94 and the glory of the Lord would be revealed, as He led His people by a way that they had not known, giving them springs of water in the desert.95 Waters would gush out from the rock again96 and He would protect them from hunger and thirst and from the heat of the sun.97

In Ezekiel the thought of the repetition of the experience in the wilderness recurs, but in a way more akin to Hoseas prophecies already quoted. The prophet in exile gave as the Lords word to His people, I will bring you out from the peoples... and I will bring you into the wilderness of the peoples, and there will I plead with you face to face. Like as I pleaded with your fathers in the wilderness of the land of Egypt, so will I plead with you, saith the Lord God. (Ezk. xx. 34-36.) Some of those wilderness experiences may be spiritualized as they are realized a second time, but as the dealings of God with His people they are repeated, in principle as they were before.

Thus the prophets spoke of the repetition of the captivity, release, and of the spiritual experiences of the wilderness. Here is that , repetition of history which is the basis of typology; and here too is an indication of that other fundamental of typology, the difference of degree between the former acts of God and the new.