What The Heathen Understood About Divinity
In Jeremiah 10:2 God warned His people with regard to the heathen. God’s covenant people were not to allow themselves to be corrupted by outsiders who either did not recognize the One true God or who lived as though they did not. And the history of Israel in Old Testament times reveals how the thinking of the heathen at times indeed did corrupt the thinking and practice of the Jews.
But have you ever given thought to the fact that in spite of the ignorance of and the distortion of and the misapplication of ideas exhibited by the heathen, that they did at times reveal “some” correct understanding, which understanding is significant?
Let us list a few of these points. The heathen realized that Divinity--
I. Can do as Divinity pleases (Jonah 1:14). This is a point worth noticing because it relates the fact that men realized that previous existence and higher power can be displayed at the will of the One (or ones) exhibiting that existence and displaying that power. The mariners whose lives were jeopardized by the presence of the run away Jonah, said to the Lord, “. . . for thou, O Lord, hast done as it pleased thee.” Whether God or gods, the heathen knew that He or they were above men and as such men were at the disposal of Divinity. Their concepts were not always clear and the application of a correct concept was not always, then, correct, but the idea that God can do what he wants to do is surely a point that is correct and worth remembering. In a day when many feel compelled to question the authority of God and the right of God to do thus and so, it behooves us all to remember that the heathen when contemplating the nature of that which is before and beyond man realized that God answers to no one. Both the Old and New Testaments affirm this truth (cf. Isaiah 43:8, 10, 13; 44:8; 45:5-7; Jeremiah 18:1-10; Ezekiel 14:9; 1 Kings 22:22; the book of Job).
II. Can exist without being recognized (Acts 17:23). In New Testament days, the apostle Paul found a certain altar in Athens with the inscription “To An Unknown God.” The Athenians themselves had erected that altar. They realized that some “god” could be out there whose existence and name or description had as yet escaped them. Paul said on that occasion that he wanted to talk to them about the very God that they did not yet know. He was still unknown to them though he was the only God there is, the maker of man and of the world in which man lives. Paul had come to Athens in behalf of that God and he declared to the Athenians that that God was their Maker and that they as the Made were so constructed as to “feel after” (grope after) God in order to find him. The only true and living God was intellectually discoverable and, in fact, was not far from any man in terms of location and locate-ability. In Old Testament days, many people forsook the view of “one God,” and asserted the existence of several gods. And many people became idolaters choosing to view their gods as represented in things that are made either by God or by man (Romans 1:22, 23; Acts 19:24).
III. Requires extreme sacrifice and worship (Jeremiah 19:5; Judges 11). At times the heathen caused their children to “pass through the fire.” In complete and disgusting and brutal error, they sacrificed their children to their god. The concept of extreme sacrifice and worship was correct, but the concept was wrongly described and wrongly applied. God declared that such a thing as human sacrifice never entered his mind (Jeremiah 19:5). Such was repulsive to the very nature of God. At times people have been confused over the “rash vow” of Jephthah in Judges 11. Without recounting the whole story, what finally happened needs to be understood in the light of the fact that Jephthah’s daughter bewailed her “virginity” (vs. 37-40) and not her humanity or her life! Jephthah kept his vow by resigning his daughter to celibacy which she evidently gladly accepted since God had granted her father victory over the Ammonites (v. 36). God did not require and would have been repulsed by a human sacrifice! Of course, this refers to the taking of another person’s life. We are all called upon to offer our lives today in complete service to our God (Romans 12:1, 2).
But what about Genesis 22 where God required Abraham to offer Isaac? Is not this a case of God’s requiring human sacrifice?
I sometimes in earlier years asked preacher students, “How did Abraham know that God was giving him this order rather than the devil?” It is a good question. (It is the kind of question that Robert Ingersoll would have loved). If God has always been a proponent of love and that parents have always been responsible to love and care for their children, then how does this assignment make moral sense? The following facts are involved in understanding this complex and unique situation. (1) Abraham had already been told that the son to be sacrificed was the very son through whom the world would be blessed (Genesis 17:19, 21). Abraham knew that Isaac would live long enough to have “seed” after him! (2) As the creator of human life, God has a right to authorize death when and how he chooses (cf. Job 1:21). Murder is unauthorized killing. If God requires killing, it is authorized. Isaac’s death at the hands of his father would not be murder, though it would be an unprecedented sacrifice. No one had ever been called upon to do such a thing to a child. (3) Abraham’s faith and obedience were being tested to the extreme degree which test he passed (Genesis 22:15-18). (4) Abraham knew that after he killed Isaac, God would raise him from the dead! (Hebrews 11:17-19). This he confidently believed! He had it figured out! And since he raised his hand to kill his son (having resigned himself to the fatal deed), the angel or messenger upon seeing this obedience expressed said that such was enough, “and the scripture was fulfilled which saith, And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness; and he was called the friend of God” (James 2:23).
So, while God is not pleased with “human sacrifice” as a part of a human’s worship, he does require human sacrifice in the form of complete love and obedience to his commands (Matthew 22:37-40; 1 John 5:3). That is extreme!
IV. Should be appealed to in time of desperation (Jonah 1:5, 6). We learn several things about the heathen viewpoint in the book of Jonah, a book that describes Jonah’s reluctance to go to Nineveh and preach to heathen people. Jonah was afraid that if he preached, the Ninevites would repent, and he did not want them to repent. His was a sorry attitude toward lost people, and he thought evidently that he could get out of the assignment by running away. At sea in a boat, he goes to sleep. But the sailors on board become very concerned as they are becoming overwhelmed by a storm that God caused. Each one begins to call upon his god (Jonah 1:5). Like the Lord years later (Mark 4:38), Jonah is sleeping through the storm. The mariners are afraid and begin to throw things overboard in order to lighten the vessel. The situation seems desperate, and the shipmaster comes to Jonah, wakes him up, and rebukes him for sleeping, and orders him to get up and call upon his God so that they might not perish (Jonah 1:6). Indeed, in times of extreme desperation, most men come to the realization that their only hope of relief and/or survival comes from above!
V. Can punish people in His response to wrongful human action (Jonah 1:4). “But the Lord sent out a great wind into the sea, and there was a mighty tempest in the sea, so that the ship was like to be broken.” And the mariners drew the conclusion, after casting lots, that Jonah was the reason why they were now in the crisis that engulfed them. “Tell us, we pray thee, for whose cause this evil is upon us . . .” (1:8). And after Jonah explains the situation, and they understand it, they were “exceedingly afraid (1:10), and they then asked Jonah what was the solution to their problem, and Jonah told them to throw him into the sea because he knew that it was because of him that they all were having this difficulty (1:11, 12). But the men tried to resolve the problem without throwing Jonah overboard (1:13). Finally, they cried unto the Lord that they not perish for Jonah’s life (1:14), and they cast him overboard. And “the sea ceased from raging” (1:15).
Another Old Testament case that shows that the heathen realized that disregard for “gods” was a right reason for punishment. Upon learning that Gideon was responsible for throwing down the altar of Baal and for the cutting down of the grove close to it, some Midianites called for his death (Judges 6:28-30).
From the biblical text, it is clear that God can, because of wrongful human action, punish people in this life, and God can correct people in this life as well (cf. Acts 5:1-11; Hebrews 12:3-13).
VI. Evokes in the delivered people fear, sacrifice, and vows (Jonah 1:16). When calm was restored, the mariners who threw Jonah out of the vessel “. . . feared the Lord exceedingly, and offered a sacrifice unto the Lord, and made vows.” Isn’t that some reaction to perceived divine deliverance? Jonah had earlier told the mariners that he was “an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land” (Jonah 1:9). That information caused the men to be “exceedingly afraid” (Jonah 1:10). Now, after deliverance by God is wrought, they again “feared the Lord exceedingly.” When they recognized the cause they feared, and when they recognized the delivered effect, they feared! And they thought that their deliverance from the sea was a good reason for sacrificing to the God of heaven that made the sea as well as the dry land. We are not told the nature of their vows, but we might assume that, given the nature of their deliverance from what appeared to be almost sure death, their vows likely entailed the resolve to serve that God hereafter (cf. Daniel 3:29; 6:24-28).
VII. Controls natural law (Jonah 1:6). The shipmaster in whose vessel Jonah was riding called upon Jonah to appeal to his God that perhaps deliverance from death would be granted. Divine power was recognized as in control of this world. Perhaps the mariners’ gods or Jonah’s God could do something to prevent this fast approaching destruction. Paul would hundreds of years later affirm in Lystra and in Athens that God made heaven, earth, and sea and is the cause of rain and fruitful seasons (Acts 14:15-17; 17:24). Also, in speaking of Christ to the brethren at Colossae Paul said, “for in him were all things created, in the heavens and upon the earth, things visible and things invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers; all things have been created through him, and unto him; and he is before all things and in him all things consist.” Natural law is still subject to the divine will today. It is still proper, in spite of the false teaching of some brethren, to pray for rain (James 5:16, 17). God can answer without a miracle; some today say that he doesn’t answer that prayer at all. How foolish! Too, the Lord has told us that we must pray for food (Matthew 6:11). To construct a theological situation in which God cannot affect natural law and utilize natural law in response to prayer is to adopt a false notion of God’s relationship to his world and to his children.
VIII. Listens to the pleas of worshipers (1 Kings 18:26-29). The contest was held on Mount Carmel. The courageous Elijah stood alone for God, and he faced four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal. The wicked queen Jezebel, in her true character, fed these false prophets (1 Kings 18:19). The contest was one regarding the true God versus Baal. The prophets of Baal would call upon him to answer by fire thus showing his acceptance of the offering made. The agreement was that whoever answered by fire was to be recognized as God (1 Kings 18:24). The prophets of Baal cried unto him for a long time with no fire sent. Elijah repaired the broken down altar of the Lord using twelve stones, one for each tribe in Israel. He dug a trench around the altar, and he put wood in order, cut a bull in pieces, and had four barrels of water poured on the wood and offering. This was done all in all three times. The water filled the trench. Elijah called upon the Lord God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel who answered in fire that consumed the sacrifice, the wood, the stones, the dust, and the water.
The heathen had the wrong god, for sure, and their pleas went unheeded because their god was not there, but they were correct in thinking that Divinity listens to the cries of his worshipers.
IX. Could present himself in human form (Acts 14:8-18). Paul and Barnabas on their first evangelistic trip arrive in the town of Lystra. A crippled-from-birth man was listening as Paul was preaching. The man came to have faith that Paul had access to power to heal him (Acts 14:9), and Paul did heal him. The overreaction and the wrong reaction of the heathen was somewhat to be expected. They were worshipers of Jupiter whose attendant was Mercury (Acts 14:12, 13). The crowd began to say, “The gods are come down to us in the likeness of men” (Acts 14:11). And the priest of Jupiter along with the multitudes were about to sacrifice to Barnabas and Paul, when Paul exerted himself greatly to prevent the well-intentioned but completely ignorant and misguided worship effort. But the fact remains that the heathen did understand that Divinity can manifest itself in the form of humanity!
X. Could even produce a son (Matthew 27:54). Indeed, there were several remarkable things that occurred surrounding the death of Christ. The darkness that moved in, the earthquake that occurred, the rocks that were rent, the graves that were opened, and the veil that was rent all testified to the accuracy of the claim to Divinity that the One on the cross had made (Matthew 27:45, 51, 52). “Now the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54). There is no definite article (“the”) in the text. Rather, the heathen are saying, “Truly this was a Son of God.” This could not be any mere man! Divinity had become humanity! There is no evidence in the account that previously, these people so describing Jesus had believed in him at all. But now they deduce that God had a Son, and he was on a cross! And they “feared exceedingly.” Isn’t that interesting? It reminds us of what the mariners experienced in their ordeal with Jonah. The mariners were “exceedingly afraid” (Jonah 1:10), and they “feared the Lord exceedingly” (Jonah 1:16). And the Divinity that had in the days of Jonah produced a storm and prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah from which Jonah would arise after three days and three nights (Jonah 1:17) was the same Divinity that now had a Son on a cross who would soon be in a prophesied grave from which on the third day he would arise as well (Isaiah 53:9; Matthew 12:40). Indeed, a greater than Jonah was here!
XI. Could be recognized without being glorified (Romans 1:21-23). Paul in referring to Gentiles in the past declared, “because that, knowing God, they glorified him not as God, neither gave thanks; but became vain in their reasonings, and their senseless heart was darkened. Professing themselves to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God for the likeness of an image of corruptible man, and of birds, and four-footed beasts, and creeping things.” According to Vine, the word for “knowing” (ginosko) in “knowing God” means that the Gentiles “could not avoid the perception” of God, whereas the word for “knowing” (epiginosko) in verse 32 means that with regard to the ordinance of God (“that they that practice such things are worthy of death), the Gentiles were “knowing full well” (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words under EPIGINOSKO, p. 299). Men can recognize that God exists without wanting it to be so. They can refuse to glorify him as God. And men can by nature understand that some human actions deserve death and yet continue in such activities and encourage others to do the same. How awful and sad!
Yes, the heathen have been mostly wrong with regard to religious matters, but on occasion in Scripture, we come across ideas that were in their minds about which to some degree they were correct. Of course, at times their concepts were wrong. At other times, they had correct concepts, but they wrongly applied them. This article has simply explored some the ideas that were in themselves correct. They did understand some things about Divinity. Modern skeptics perhaps, with greater attention, could learn a little from the ancient heathen.