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“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times"
© Jo Panuwat D/stock.adobe.com

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way.

Charles Dickens began his 1859 historical novel, A Tale of Two Cities, with these familiar words. They came to mind as I was writing today’s Daily Article, for reasons that will soon become apparent.

“The best of times”

Former New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof recently reported some remarkable good news: “Historically, almost half of humans died in childhood; now only 4 percent do. Every day in recent years, until the COVID-19 pandemic, another 170,000 people worldwide emerged from extreme poverty. Another 325,000 obtained electricity each day. Some 200,000 gained access to clean drinking water.”

In Factfulness, Hans Rosling cites more good news:

  • In the last twenty years, the proportion of the world population living in extreme poverty has fallen by almost half.
  • The number of deaths from natural disasters is 25 percent of what it was a hundred years ago.
  • Flying has gotten 2,100 times safer than when commercial aviation began.
  • Deaths in battle per one million people have fallen from 2,103 in 1942 to twelve in 2016.
  • Eighty percent of the world’s population has some access to electricity.

Clearly, the scientific and technological progress of the last century have changed our daily lives for enormous good. In many ways, these are the “best of times.”

“The worst of times”

I am reading through the book of Hosea in my personal Bible study and have been struck by its parallels to our day.

The book opens around the year 740 BC, a period that could be described as the “best of times” for the kingdom of Israel. The English Standard Version Study Bible calls it “a golden age in the northern kingdom, with a peace and prosperity not seen since Solomon.” Under the reign of Jeroboam II, Israel captured much of Syria and seemed to ensure for itself a future of ascendancy and flourishing.

However, God knew better.

In Chapter 4, he issues a “word of the Lᴏʀᴅ” to the nation through his prophet (v. 1a). See if these conditions seem familiar:

  • “There is no faithfulness or steadfast love, and no knowledge of God in the land” (v. 1b).
  • “There is swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed” (v. 2).
  • “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” (v. 6).
  • “Your daughters play the whore, and your brides commit adultery. . . . The men themselves go aside with prostitutes and sacrifice with cult prostitutes” (vv. 13–14).

The people of the southern kingdom of Judah are warned not to follow Israel’s example: “Though you play the whore, O Israel, let not Judah become guilty. Enter not into Gilgal, nor go up to Beth-aven, and swear not, ‘As the Lᴏʀᴅ lives'” (v. 15). Gilgal was a shrine near Jericho; Beth-aven means “house of evil” and was a pejorative name for Bethel, which means “house of God.” The people of Judah were forbidden to go to these religious sites to swear “as the Lᴏʀᴅ lives,” an act of veneration and worship.

Would God issue the same indictments and warnings to America and America’s Christians today?

Is there “no knowledge of God in the land”? Amid an unprecedented rise in prosperity, the share of Americans who do not associate with any established religion has tripled in size. Earlier this year, US church membership fell below 50 percent for the first time in American history.

What about “swearing, lying, murder, stealing, and committing adultery”? I could fill the rest of this article with examples. Is there a “lack of knowledge” of God even among his people (v. 6)? According to the Cultural Research Center, only 9 percent of self-identified Christians have a biblical worldview. Two-thirds say all religious faiths are of equal value; the majority believe there are no moral absolutes that apply to everyone all the time.

Is adultery and prostitution becoming even more normalized today? Tragically, yes. Is compromising with “Israel” a perennial temptation for “Judah” today?

Those who “are certain to miss the future”

God deals with us as gently as he can or as harshly as he must.

Israel refused to repent of the sins for which God held them accountable through his prophet. As a result, Hosea became known as the “death-bed prophet of Israel,” the last of the biblical prophets to prophesy before the northern kingdom fell to Assyria in 722 BC. Their ten tribes became the “lost tribes of Israel” as they were assimilated into the Assyrian Empire and vanished into history.

Few who heard Hosea’s message, surrounded by the prosperity of their day, could imagine such a judgment on their nation. But, as President Kennedy warned, “Those who look only to the past or the present are certain to miss the future.”

A holy God cannot tolerate, much less endorse, that which is unholy. Nor can a loving father condone that which harms his children. Our Lord’s nature does not change (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8). Therefore, judgment he has brought against any nation in the past is judgment he can bring against any nation in the present.

Our nation included.

Burning our cottage one day at a time

The great preacher and scholar Fred Craddock told of a man who moved into a cottage equipped with a stove and simple furnishings. As the sharp edge of winter cut across the landscape, the cottage grew cold and so did its occupant.

So he went out back and pulled a few boards off the house to kindle the fire. The fire was warm, but the house seemed as cold as before. More boards came off the house for a larger fire to warm the now even colder house, which in turn required an even larger fire, demanding more boards. In a few days the man cursed the weather, cursed the house, cursed the stove, and moved away.

Is America pulling the spiritual “boards” that built our nation off our cultural walls to feed the growing fires of secularism and immorality? How must such a story inevitably end?

Said differently, you and I can live in “Israel” or in “Judah,” but we cannot do both.

Which choice would God say you made yesterday?

Which choice will you make today?

NOTE: The gift of God’s Son is one of such unmerited grace it’s hard to comprehend. And all we can do to honor the birth of the One who died for us is to thank him for his grace. That’s why I want to send you the book of Advent devotions by my wife Janet called He Came to Change the World. It will give you many reasons to celebrate God’s goodness and grace, so please request your copy today