“Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel, ‘I am the Lord your God, who teaches you to profit, who leads you in the way you should go. If only you had paid attention to My commandments! Then your well-being would have been like a river, and your righteousness like the waves of the sea. Your descendants would have been like the sand, and your offspring like its grains; their name would never be cut off or destroyed from My presence.’” - Isaiah 48:17-19
Have you any regrets? Is it for something you should have done but didn’t do? Or is it for something you did do but shouldn’t have? Of course, those are simply two sides of the same coin. In either case, you are left with sadness for what might have been, and now cannot be or for what is, that might not have been. It is not a good feeling to have, either way. In the passage above, God is speaking through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel and He is lamenting for them… “If only you had paid attention to My commandments…” What did happen to them after centuries of disobedience to God’s wise and beneficent laws? They were invaded by a series of foreign nations and made to serve those nations. Eventually, they were exiled from their homeland. First, the northern tribes were removed to the lands of Assyria and Persia in 722 BC. Then the tribe of Judah and those remnants of the northern tribes that had found refuge in Judah were exiled to Babylonia in 587 BC.
Why did this happen? Why didn’t the Israelites listen to God and do what He told them to do? There are several excuses and they should sound vaguely familiar to us: 1) “All the other nations were worshiping idols and disobeying God’s commandments so why shouldn’t we?” 2) “God’s laws seemed difficult to fulfill and not much fun!” 3) “We thought we would lose out if we didn’t do as the other nations do.” 4) “The other nations were sinning and getting away with it.” 5) “God is all-powerful so why didn’t He just keep us from sinning?” 6) “What real proof was there that God exists or that the Scriptures were His words?” Such were some of the excuses the Israelites gave as they continued down the path of disbelief in God and disobedience to His commands. In the end, while sitting in exile, they finally began to come to their senses. But so much had been lost! It was so painful to think of what they might have been if they and their ancestors had listened to God instead of to their own flawed and finite “wisdom”.
Does all this sound familiar? As Paul said concerning the Biblical account of Israel’s history of disobedience to God, “Now these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” (1 Corinthians 10:11) The Israelites were not an especially wicked group of people – far from it! They were just like us. And we have even less excuse than they did because we have their example from which to profit. Moreover, we live after the coming of the Messiah and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. By “we”, I include all of us who live in a culture where the Bible and Christian teaching have long been freely and abundantly available. But by “we” I especially mean those of us who make a profession of Christian faith and are connected with a Christian church. Yes, most of us in this latter class can look back on instances, even as Christians, when we chose to do it our way instead of God’s. This was not always or even usually a conscious and deliberate choice. In fact, most of the time we just did “what comes naturally” without pausing to consider if it was God’s will we were following. Looking back, and now tasting some of the fruit of going our own way, we experience a sense of regret, and rightly so. But what should we do about this?
Let’s look again at God’s message to Israel. First, note that it is always God’s will that His creatures do right instead of wrong. While it is true that God permits whatever evil happens, it is not His preference. God can use His power to prevent sin from happening but God has made us in His image and this being so, we are free moral agents. God cannot, therefore, prevent our bad choices without removing His image from our souls. We would thereby be rendered no more free than a rock or a rabbit. While God allows us to make bad choices He never wants us to do so. God is infinitely good and never takes pleasure in evil. God approaches evil the way a judo master approaches an opponent. He would greatly have preferred not to have this adversary but since He does, God will use the force evil brings against Him to gain the victory over it. What was meant for evil by men and devils will, in the end be turned for good, but as the Bible says, “one sinner destroys much good” (Ecclesiastes 9:18) and that good can never be recovered.
Next, God is merciful and willing to forgive us. God speaks in this way to Israel not to vent His spleen and make them feel miserable. His intention is to provoke them to repent and to seek His pardon. The destruction of Jerusalem and exile in Babylon were not the worst things that they could have suffered on account of their sins. God also brings up the enormous loss of what they might have had if they had been obedient and that too is very sad for them to contemplate; but it could have been worse. God could have allowed them to be destroyed completely, wiped out as a nation. This had happened to other peoples and could have happened to them also. No, in exile, they were still “prisoners who have the hope” (Zechariah 9:12)
Finally, while their past represents an enormous loss of good and their present is a very painful evil to bear, God paints for them a possible future that is still bright with promise, if they will indeed learn to trust in Him and do His will. After telling them what might have been, God says to Israel, “Go forth from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans! Declare with the sound of joyful shouting, proclaim this, send it out to the end of the earth; say, ‘The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob.’” (Isaiah 48:20) When the time comes, it will be their duty and their joy to leave Babylon behind to rebuild their nation in the land God had given them. So likewise, when we have repented and received God’s forgiveness, God is ready to work with us to build His kingdom on earth and lay up treasures in heaven. It may not be as much good as we could have done had we always obeyed but it will be infinitely better than remaining in despair and refusing to repent. So indeed, “Go forth from Babylon!” Seize the good future God wills!