The Problem with Wrapping Up
As any writer will tell you, it’s hard to bring a good story to an end. No proof of this should be necessary; TV has enough examples. Look what happened to Lost, Haven, or White Collar. A good ending usually has to conclude great conflicts, deal out deserved fates, drive home important motifs and themes, and connect itself deeply with the preceding story. This is no easy feat. So it’s no wonder so many fail.
Now, when it comes to the Bible, we’re dealing with the story of the world. We have the creation of heaven and earth all the way to their final transfiguration. Much of the New Testament is about how this story ends. The Bible tells a great tale about God, Israel, the Gentiles, the Church, and the world. And even though this is the story of real life, the Bible discusses how it will turn out. We have spoilers. Revelation, among many other texts, foretells the final scenes.
But, unlike with many other books, the ending to the Bible is highly complex and controversial. There are different schools and interpretations, some radically opposite to others. So we have an infallible description of how the story ends, but we debate what the ending really is and means. My intent in this post is thus simple. I’ll give what I believe is the best biblical answer to the great question: How does the story end? And in order to do that, I’ll have to talk about just what the whole story actually is.
The Big Picture
Prologue: Creation and Mutiny
In the beginning, God made everything. He made man in His image to be His priests, prophets, and kings in the world He had made. They would serve in the visible realm as His angelic council served in the invisible. Since the angelic council was mature from the start, they would take care of and lead mankind forward. But, sadly, this immediately went awry. Angels rebelled. Man rebelled. And so the world was thrown into chaos and violence.
This got bad enough that the world had to be remade through a flood that wiped out the old. A more righteous world starting with a second and better Adam began. But once again the world fell apart into sin. The rebellious angelic council members took this as their chance. They encouraged mankind, now so distant from God, to worship them as gods instead. “Pray to us for rain, crops, fertility, since God has kicked you out of His presence.” Eventually, God scattered and disinherited all the nations for this treachery.
But God was not done with the world. He called Abram, and made him from him a new humanity. This people would be devoted to true worship and live by His name. He made a covenant with them and swore to bring to pass the blessings He intended for humanity to them and, through them, to the world as a whole. On their part, they would restore His honor among the nations as His priests, prophets, and kings. He would be their God, and they would glorify Him as the one true God against all the idols. They would be His people, and He would vindicate them as His true people against all rebels. And so came to be God’s people Israel.
People, Place, and Promise
In order to carve out a space for Israel and God’s purposes for her, she needed a distinct identity. God gave this primarily by Land and Law. By rituals and ceremonies with a unique symbolic flavor, by wise and just laws, and by a central location in the ancient world, God made Israel a beacon. But this came by sharp conflict. She had to face off against powerful pagan nations and, more importantly, their gods.
So right from the start of Israel’s existence, she was under assault. The rival gods knew it was a threat for God to have His own people publicly manifesting His goodness, truth, and beauty. They inspired the kings and people who served them to conspire against God and His people. This was a mistake. God was truly on the offensive. He used these battles to establish His kingdom among pagan rivals and glorify His power and mercy through His people. The number one example, and the most important to Israel’s early history, was the Exodus. Yahweh asserted His power over all Egyptian gods. He rescued His people from a mighty pagan nation, publicly vindicating them for their trust in Him.
This happened over and over as God moved Israel into the promised land. God beat down the rebel gods by demolishing their hero offspring, the Anakim and Nephilim. He tore down proud, inhumane tribes devoted to these wicked beings and set His own people in their place. The crossroads of the world became the site of the true God’s glory. God’s kingdom was coming. Israel would be a city on a hill. Her faithfulness and justice would shine before men. The nations would see her good works and glorify the true God. All idols would be exposed, and God would reign over all.
Alas, Israel did not live up to her calling. Though God had made an everlasting covenant with Abraham, Israel broke her terms. It started with seemingly minor ingratitude. She complained that God was not treating her well enough. But this discontent only grew. Before long, ingratitude turned to rank distruth and unbelief. God could not meet Israel’s needs, she imagined. And what of the prosperous pagan nations? They seemed well off.
So this turned to worst offense: Israel joined cause with the rebellious gods. Rather than becoming a beacon of Yahweh’s light to the nations, she embraced the idols of the nations. This undercut any point to her existence. Why should the true God have a people for His name if they will only shame Him by joining the coup against Him? They deserved to be destroyed.
But God made a covenant, and He was intent on reclaiming the world. So rather than simply end Israel, He gave her leaders and mediators. They helped lead Israel into faithfulness, and even in her unfaithfulness, they helped avert God’s wrath. Even when God’s wrath broke out, they helped Israel find forgiveness and new life. So Israel’s history became a series of deaths and resurrections. Gradually, God worked to purify His people. He sent Moses, then Joshua, then the judges, and then Samuel. With the death of each of these, however, Israel would return to her old ways. Was there no way for Israel to get and stay on track? Would God’s name be forever dishonored as all the nations—even His own—gave themselves entirely over to idolatry?
[The story will continue in a second part, because this will get pretty long otherwise.]