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Are so-called “plain statements” as plain as we think they are?

Posted Aug 27, 2021 by Danutasn Brown in Character of God
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The main attack people have against considering a deeper study of how God works is that we are destroying the “plainness” and “literalness” of scripture.. To them, a verse like “I will destroy man whom I have created…” (Genesis 6:7) clearly means that God supernaturally and directly flooded the world. This is also true with “the LORD rained upon Sodom…brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven.”

But there are similar “plain statements” of God doing an action that the Bible itself reinterprets. For example:

The Lord said to Moses, “Choose one of the leaders from each of the twelve tribes and send them as spies to explore the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelites.” (Numbers 13:1)

There seems no other way to interpret this, according to Bible students who use the principle of a literal reading of plain statements, than to say that it was God’s idea to send spies. But Moses gives a radical reinterpretation of the events in Deuteronomy:

I said to you, ‘You have now reached the hill country of the Amorites that the LORD our God is giving us. Look! He has placed the land in front of you. Go and occupy it as the LORD, the God of your ancestors, has promised you. Don’t be afraid! Don’t be discouraged!’

 “But you all came to me and said, ‘First, let’s send out scouts to explore the land for us. They will advise us on the best route to take and which towns we should enter.’

 “This seemed like a good idea to me, so I chose twelve scouts, one from each of your tribes.” (Deuteronomy 1:20-23)

Here it seems like it was their idea, not God’s idea! But you would never get that sense from the original command of God, where it seems to very clearly and plainly state that it was God’s idea.

Now the reader may wonder, how is it that we answer this contradiction? That is precisely the purpose of all the material we have written on the character of God! We have been trying to explain it…

 But the purpose of this article is not to explain, but merely to show that what seems literal and plain on the surface may not be. God wants us to dig more – especially when the direct statement may seem at odds with the revelation of God given to humans in the person of His Son Jesus Christ.

Here is another example:

And again the anger of the LORD was kindled against Israel, and he moved David against them to say, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah.’ (2 Samuel 24:1)

It is clear enough, isn’t it? Plain as day! God was angry, so he tells David to number Israel. When David does it, God sent a pestilence to punish his pride in doing so. 70,000 die. It is a strange story, but for those born in the tradition that God kills directly, no need to question it – God can do what He wants.

The problem comes when non-Christians read it. It was God’s idea, so why did He punish David for it? Do they not have a good point? Especially in light of such a verse like this:

“Let no man say when he is tempted, I am tempted of God: for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth he any man:” (James 1:13)

It seems very much that God tempted David. So what to do? Just live with the cognitive dissonance? Accept that some things are a mystery?

But the Bible does not allow you to do that. 1 Chronicles 21:1-3 tells the story differently:

Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the troops, “Go and count the Israelites from Beersheba to Dan. Then report back to me so that I may know how many there are.” (1 Chronicles 21:1-3)

Now it says SATAN incited David to do the census, rather than God! What do we make of this? 1 Chronicles was written by Ezra, who lived long after Samuel. Would we accuse Ezra of “spiritualizing” Samuel’s plain “thus saith the Lord” statement? Not only spiritualized it…Ezra flipped it on its head!

Another famous example is the multiple times God “sends” evil spirits to trouble humans.

But the Spirit of the Lord departed from Saul, and an evil spirit from the Lord troubled him.” (1 Samuel 16:14)

Does God communicate with demons and work together with them to torment humans? God sending evil spirits on Saul and inciting David to take a census of Israel (“number Israel”), the SDA Bible commentary says this:

“The Scriptures sometimes represent God as doing that which He does not specifically prevent.” (SDA BC vol. 2, p531; on 1 Sam 16:14)

“In the verse under consideration we have another instance in which God is said to do that which He does not prevent.” (SDA BC vol. 2, p710; on 2 Sam 24:1)

To see more from SDA Bible Commentary on the "permissive idiom":

Now this is a very different principle to the plain literal reading of God’s actions that many use. In the Hebrew mind, God can be said to do something that he didn’t prevent. So in the case of the numbering of Israel, Satan incited David, and because God didn’t stop it, the Bible says that God incited David. This raises the question…when can we know when God directly acts, and when He permits?

Notice another verse. Shemei, the son of Saul, is cursing and taunting David for losing the kingdom to Absalom. David’s soldier wants to go kill him for doing so. David says this:

“And the king [David] said…let him curse, because the LORD hath said unto him, ‘Curse David.’ Who shall then say, ‘Wherefore hast thou done so?’ (2 Samuel 16:10)

The LORD had told Shimei to curse David? Really? When people in our world curse, is it because God told them to? What does David mean? Here is how famous commentator Adam Clarke explains it:

“No man can suppose that ever God bade one man to curse another, much less that he commanded such a wretch as Shimei to curse such a man as David; but this is a peculiarity of the Hebrew language, which does not always distinguish between permission and commandment. Often the Scripture attributes to God what He only permits to be done; or what in the course of His providence He does not hinder. David, however, considers all this as being permitted of God for his chastisement and humiliation” (Adam Clarke Commentary on 2 Samuel 16:10-11)

As we can see, there is often more detail needed to really get an understanding of what is happening in the story. In both of the above examples, if we were just to take a plain literal reading of God doing it, we would get the wrong impression.

“When God is said to harden men’s hearts [Exodus 10:20],-to deliver them up to a reprobate mind [Romans 1:28],-to send them strong delusions, that they should believe that God is acting unrighteously [2 Thes 2:11] – meaning He is acting against His character a lie, and the like;- it is infinitely far from being meant of an efficacious impulse in God Almighty. That all those verbs,- to harden, to blind, to deliver up, to send delusions, to deceive, and the like,-are by an ordinary Hebraism only permissive in signification, though active in sound, is placed without all controversy.” (Thomas Pierce, I, p23-24 edition of 1658 as quoted in Jackson, The Providence of God, p401)

See more historical scholars explaining this:

But here is the heart of the issue. If the Bible is written with God doing acts using active verbs, yet it can signify permission, how can we know if God is doing something directly or through permission? How can we know when they are written the same way? There is only one way – if doing it directly were to go against His character.

It is not in God’s character, and in His system, to give orders to evil spirits to torment men. Thus, “God sent an evil spirit to torment Saul” must mean God permitted an evil spirit to torment Saul, because Saul pushed the spirit of God away and thus God wouldn’t protect Saul from evil spirits.

So to rightly understand the word of God requires knowing who God is. And knowing who God is requires knowing His Son, and through Christ’s teaching putting the puzzle together piece by piece. God’s character is, through our carnal enmity, always naturally misunderstood by us. We must be careful to think we understand how and why God acts. We should be patient, slowly putting the pieces together, like in the case of the story of the spies being sent to Canaan. All relevant data should be considered.

To understand massive events such as the Flood, shouldn’t we see if there are any other places in the Bible where the event is expanded upon? Here is one example:

“Hast thou marked the old way which wicked men have trodden? Which were cut down out of time, whose foundation was overflown with a flood: Which said unto God, Depart from us: and what can the Almighty do for them?” (Job 22:15-17).

This verse gives a different dimension to the event. It isn’t just that God is angry and strikes out. Now it is portrayed as God being pushed away and respecting the free will of man – a very different impression to what most would have gotten from just reading Genesis 6.

This is what the Character of God study is. It is not an attack on scripture. It is trying to understand and know God better, which is what Jesus says in John 17 is the key to eternal life. This is not an easy subject, because each story in the Bible has to be understood in the light of how God works, how the people think God works, their cultural worldview as it relates to justice and mercy, the environment they are in, how much light they have had, etc. So just saying God permits Satan to do something is not always the case.

We have laid out various principles in different books. Dominion of the Earth, God’s Strange Act, Natural Justice and Atonement, Smiting Angels, Reaching Samson, etc. etc. We suggest those for more detail.

I write this as an appeal to those who keep thinking we are attacking the veracity of Scripture. We are not! We are merely trying to take all the relevant verses on the subject to gain a full picture. The arguments of those who say we are attacking scripture is the same as those who defend an eternal realm of hell. When we try to show that "eternal fire" in Jude can mean something different to the common understanding, we are often attacked by those who want to hold on to their preconceptions. Could we also be guilty of doing this? Please, let us not use the excuse of "plain statements" to satisfy our assumptions, like those who say people will "burn forever and ever" do. Let us grow in our Bible study. I leave with this quote:

Those who are engaged in proclaiming the third angel's message are searching the Scriptures upon the same plan that Father Miller adopted. In the little book entitled "Views of the Prophecies and Prophetic Chronology," Father Miller gives the following simple but intelligent and important rules for Bible study and interpretation:"1. Every word must have its proper bearing on the subject presented in the Bible; 2. All Scripture is necessary, and may be understood by diligent application and study; 3. Nothing revealed in Scripture can or will be hid from those who ask in faith, not wavering; 4. To understand doctrine, bring all the scriptures together on the subject you wish to know, then let every word have its proper influence; and if you can form your theory without a contradiction, you cannot be in error; 5. Scripture must be its own expositor, since it is a rule of itself. If I depend on a teacher to expound to me, and he should guess at its meaning, or desire to have it so on account of his sectarian creed, or to be thought wise, then his guessing, desire, creed, or wisdom is my rule, and not the Bible." The above is a portion of these rules; and in our study of the Bible we shall all do well to heed the principles set forth. (RH November 25,  1884, par. 23 - RH November 25,  1884, par. 25)