Why Did God Command Killing in the Old Testament?

dan delzell opinion page

"Jesus was so peaceful throughout His earthly ministry. He didn't go around killing those who opposed Him. He even told His disciples, 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.' (Matthew 5:44) But as I read the Old Testament, God commanded the killing of entire nations. Those two approaches seem like polar opposites. Did God change and become more loving and tolerant?"

Good question.

On one hand, the Lord commanded the Israelites: "You shall not murder." (Exodus 20:13) This command forbade any unlawful killing.

On the other hand, God commanded His people: "In the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them - the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites — as the Lord your God has commanded you. Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God." (Deuteronomy 20:16-18)

This was an example of lawful killing as an act of God's divine judgment against sin.

There is no question that the Lord unleashed His wrath against the sins of the Canaanites. When you engage in practices like incest, adultery, homosexuality, and bestiality, it is going to provoke your Creator.

Here are two things we must remember about God. The wrath of God is far greater than man's wrath toward sin, and the love of God is far greater than man's love for others.

If you read the Bible through the lens, "God should do things the way I expect Him to do things," then you will likely come away confused and disappointed. On the other hand, if you read the Bible through the lens, "God's ways are higher than man's ways," you may end up appreciating God even though you don't fully understand His ways.

For example, think about those criminals who kidnap, torture, and kill innocent people. Now picture 10 of these men being captured, convicted, and sentenced to death. Imagine the judge deciding that those men will go free if you or I allow one of our children to suffer death on a cross for their crimes.

Would you have enough love for those criminals to send your child to suffer and die for their release? Honestly, I know I don't. I couldn't do it, and I wouldn't do it. But that's me, and that's due in part to the limits of man's love for others.

We are sickened whenever criminals prey on innocent people, and yet the Bible makes it clear that your sins and my sins are even more repulsive to God. Until you embrace that fact, you will never understand just how much God loves you.

How did God respond to our wickedness? Thankfully, He sent His only Son to take our place on the cross. Jesus suffered the pain and punishment you and I deserve to pay.

You may say, "I don't feel like I deserve to pay for my sins."

That's an honest feeling, but I am talking about how God addresses our sin rather than how we tend to view it from our perspective.

God's love is a million times greater than man's love. Earthly parents would not send their only child to die in order to save 10 criminals. It simply wouldn't happen.

So then why did God send His only Son to the cross? Because it was the only way that God's love for us as well as His judgment against sin could both be satisfied. God's justice demands that lawbreakers be punished, and the Father arranged to have the perfect sacrifice of His Son atone for our sins. Apart from Christ's death on the cross, we had absolutely no way to be forgiven. Jesus bore the punishment for our sins "once and for all." (Romans 6:10; 1 Peter 3:18)

"The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him." (Isaiah 53:5)

This prophesy from Isaiah was given 700 years before Christ was born in Bethlehem. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament is the same God.

God doesn't change.

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." (Hebrews 13:8)

In addition to God's love being so much deeper than our love, God's wrath against sin is also much stronger. In the Old Testament, the wrath of God was often unleashed against sin. When reading the New Testament, people wonder why God's wrath against sin seemed to come to a stop.

The cross reveals the shift in God's approach under the new covenant. The wrath of God against sin and the love of God for man came together at the cross. And for those who reject Christ and seem to be skating through life with no consequences, we discover in Scripture that unbelievers are "storing up wrath for the day of God's wrath" as a result of "your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart." (Romans 2:5)

At the same time, "God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him." (John 3:17)

Man's ultimate condemnation is reserved until Judgment Day. Man only has until the end of his life on earth to come out from under God's wrath by repenting of his sin and trusting Jesus to forgive him.

"Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him." (John 3:36)

If you think the wrath of God in the Old Testament is hard to swallow, try coming to terms with what Jesus taught regarding eternal punishment in hell. Just as the love of God is a million times greater than man's love, so also the wrath of God is a million times greater than the sentences earthly judges hand out to criminals.

For example, if the Lord said to me, "Dan ... I want you to decide the punishment for every criminal," I would not sentence most criminals to eternal suffering. I could see myself handing down that sentence to a beast like Hitler and other monsters, but I cannot envision myself handing down the sentence of eternal punishment to the vast majority of unbelievers. I would hand out a much lighter sentence. But that's me.

God never said that He would mimic man's approach to love, grace, wrath, and punishment. Instead, God handles every case according to His perfect justice and His amazing grace.

Mortal man hands out temporal blessings and temporal punishment in prison. God who is eternal hands out eternal life in paradise and eternal punishment in hell.

The killing in the Old Testament was often a demonstration of God's wrath against sin.

You may say, "But some of those divine acts of judgment took the lives of infants."

Personally, I believe the babies who died in those situations went to heaven.

You see, God never does anything that is not perfectly just. You don't have to worry about everyone getting their "fair shake" when all is said and done.

"The Lord is righteous in all His ways and loving toward all He has made. The Lord is near to all who call on Him, to all who call on Him in truth." (Psalm 145:17,18)

So the next time you find yourself struggling to understand why there was so much killing in the Old Testament, just remember that God's love and God's wrath are far greater than man's love and man's wrath. You can either bask in God's love by trusting Christ as your Savior and following Him as your Lord, or you can go through life blaming God for things you don't fully understand or appreciate.

The choice is yours. God already made His choice for a world of sinners who violated His perfect commands. God's sacrificial love is a done deal.

"God demonstrates His own love for us in this: While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:8)

The prophet Jeremiah wrote, "The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: 'I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving kindness.'" (Jeremiah 31:3)

If you refuse God's gracious pardon through faith in Jesus, you will have no one to blame on Judgment Day but yourself. And you will miss out on Christ's free gift of eternal life in heaven.

Consider Noah and his family who were saved aboard the ark while everyone else was wiped off the earth. The flood of God's wrath on Judgment Day will be far worse. Scripture makes that fact abundantly clear.

You are in one of two boats at this very moment. You are either "storing up wrath" for yourself, or you are resting in the mercy, grace, and love of Jesus Christ by trusting Him as your Savior.

So which boat are you in today? Which boat would you like to be in?

There is one way to escape God's wrath against your sin, and to come under His grace and eternal protection. "Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved." (Acts 16:31)

Dan Delzell is the pastor of Wellspring Church in Papillion, Neb. He is a regular contributor to The Christian Post.

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