Ancient Israel Backslides
1 Corinthians chapter 10:11, NW. “Now these things went on befalling them as examples and they were written for a warning to us upon whom the accomplished ends of the systems of things have arrived.”
1. Why is it worthwhile to examine Israel’s religious history?
A LOOK at dead history can point the way to a live future. This is true if the history looked at is the prophetic history of the ancient nation of Israel. Men say hindsight is better than foresight. But in this case hindsight becomes foresight if we see it as a mirror reflecting future events. From the religious past of ancient Israel we can learn something of the religious future of modern Christendom. The Bible is a book that specializes in recording those parts of religious history that are typical or prophetic, that mirror the religious future of our present generation. For us in these last days the religious history of the Israelites was recorded: “Now these things went on befalling them as examples and they were written for a warning to us upon whom the accomplished ends of the systems of things have arrived.” Also, “all the things that were written aforetime were written for our instruction, that through our endurance and through the comfort from the Scriptures we might have hope.” Within these limits we can learn what will happen from what has happened. Examine this inspired prophetic history to see what happened to whom and why, so that you can be guided in determining by the course you choose what will happen to you.—1 Cor. 10:11; Rom. 15:4, NW.
2, 3. What events occurred during the rule of Israel by judges?
2 Israel’s religious history during the period when judges ruled is summarized thus: “They abandoned Jehovah the God of their fathers who had brought them out of the land of Egypt and went following other gods from among the gods of the peoples who were all around them and they began bowing down to them, so that they offended Jehovah. At this Jehovah’s anger blazed against Israel and he gave them into the hands of the pillagers and they began to pillage them, and he proceeded to sell them into the hand of their enemies round about and they were no longer able to stand before their enemies. So Jehovah would raise up judges and they would save them out of the hand of their pillagers. And even to their judges they did not listen, but they had unfaithful intercourse with other gods and went bowing down to them. . . . And when Jehovah did raise up judges for them, Jehovah proved to be with the judge and he saved them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge, for Jehovah would feel sorry for their groaning because of their oppressors and those who were shoving them around. And it occurred that when the judge died they would turn around and act more ruinously than their fathers by walking after other gods to serve them and bow down to them.”—Judg. 2:12, 14, 16-19, NW.
3 This period of the judges spanned some three hundred and fifty years, and during this time ancient Israel backslid again and again. When Israel was faithful Jehovah protected the nation, but gradually pagan worship would make inroads, the people would abandon nourishing spiritual food to partake of demonistic doctrines, and in their spiritually weakened state they would backslide completely into false heathen worship. Since they no longer truly represented him Jehovah removed his protection from them and they came under the yoke of pagan peoples. In time the pillaged and oppressed Israelites would cry to Jehovah, he would raise up a judge from the midst of a faithful remnant to deliver them, and they would throw out the false spiritual food and be delivered from their enemies and be restored to Jehovah’s true worship and favor. Then they would later return to the unclean spiritual food they had thrown out, and they would slide back into false worship once more.
4. Did the situation change during the rule by kings?
4 The change from rule by judges to reign by kings brought no permanent halt to ancient Israel’s backsliding. When a good king ruled and the nation served Jehovah divine blessing and protection followed, but when a wicked king ascended the throne of Jehovah he turned the nation aside to demonistic doctrines and idolatries. Though still claiming to be Jehovah’s people and his worshipers, they fed on spiritual filth and weakened and backslid. Then there piled in upon them internal troubles or external oppressions from foreign nations, and no deliverance came until there was a revival of true worship and a return to Jehovah, usually touched off by the replacement of an evil king with a good one.
THE CAUSE OF BACKSLIDING
5, 6. What caused the backsliding, and how was the practice illustrated?
5 Throughout the centuries when first judges and later kings ruled, the tasting of pagan spiritual food was the beginning of backsliding and the spewing out of it was the start of recovery. On the table of Jehovah nourishing spiritual food was to be spread by Israel’s religious leaders, but this was not always done. At times they would set out for the people the doctrines of pagan nations and when these idolatries were taken into the mind and worshipfully practiced they snared the Israelites into manifold tribulations, as forewarned: “You must not serve their gods, because that will be a snare to you.” But they fed their minds on these unclean teachings, were made weak and sick and nauseous by them, and only recovered spiritual health after ejecting these falsehoods from their minds.—Deut. 7:16, NW.
6 Nevertheless, ancient Israel did not learn the lesson of these hard experiences and would later return to these same practices, would embrace them again, would be sickened by them again, and again have to expel them vigorously from mind before recovery was possible. What they had used as spiritual food before they used again, and just as it had sickened them before it sickened them again. It was a repetition of folly that reminds us of Proverbs 26:11 (RS): “Like a dog that returns to his vomit is a fool that repeats his folly.” The apostle Peter used this proverb to illustrate the course of Christian backsliders: “The dog has turned back to its own vomit.” And because Israel overindulged itself in worldly materialism under the influence of pagan religions, Jehovah caused his prophet to say: “All tables are full of vomit, no place is without filthiness.”—2 Pet. 2:22, NW; Isa. 28:8, RS.
7. Where did spiritual famine exist, and where not?
7 No place was without filthiness; that is, within the organized religious system that had backslid, that had become apostate. But not every individual in Israel or Judah slid back with this religious majority. As in the days of the judges, a remnant remained faithful and stuck to their clean spiritual diet, and the contrast is shown by Jehovah’s words to the faithless ones: “Behold, my servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; behold, my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; behold, my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame; behold, my servants shall sing for gladness of heart, but you shall cry out for pain of heart, and shall wail for anguish of spirit.” Jehovah was not selfish or partial with the clean spiritual food, but sent it to the nation, made it available to them, by repeatedly sending his prophets to them: “I have persistently sent all my servants the prophets to them, day after day; yet they did not listen to me, or incline their ear, but stiffened their neck. They did worse than their fathers.” Hence it was not among the faithful remnant of true worshipers but only within the nationally approved, orthodox religious system that had backslid that the spiritual famine ruled: “Behold, the days come, saith the Lord Jehovah, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of Jehovah.” To escape the famine individuals must abandon the ranks of the backsliding majority and associate with the faithful remnant.—Isa. 65:13, 14; Jer. 7:25, 26, RS; Amos 8:11, AS.
8. How did the backsliders ‘bite the hand trying to feed them’?
8 The religious leaders of the apostate nation not only refused to heed the prophets themselves, they tried to prevent others from heeding the warnings. Like the dog that bites the hand trying to feed it, these religionists persecuted Jehovah’s servants, even killing many of them. The ill-treatment of the prophets by the backsliding religious leaders and the blind masses following them is summarized at Hebrews 11:36-38 (NW): “Yes, others received their trial by mockings and scourgings, indeed, more than that, by bonds and prisons. They were stoned, they were tried, they were sawn asunder, they died by slaughter with the sword, they went about in sheep skins, in goat skins, while they were in want, in tribulation, under ill-treatment; and the world was not worthy of them. They wandered about in deserts and mountains and dens and caves of the earth.”
BACKSLIDING IN JESUS’ DAY
9. Why did Jehovah finally abandon Judah, and what was the condition of the people spiritually when Jesus came?
9 Finally Judah sank so low that Jehovah abandoned it to the Babylonians, even using them to execute his judgments against the apostates. But even at this time there was a faithful remnant taken into captivity along with the backsliders, and in Jehovah’s stated time they were returned to Judah to re-establish true worship in Jerusalem, rebuilding the temple and resuming the offering of sacrifices there. It did not last. Wrong spiritual food in the form of oral tradition crowded in and the good spiritual food of Jehovah’s unadulterated Word was crowded out, until by the time Jesus came the Israelites had made void God’s Word by their tradition. As a result the people were spiritually sick and lame and blind—so sick they could not digest strong spiritual food, so lame they could not walk uprightly in the way of Jehovah, so blind they could not see Jesus as the promised Messiah and instead of accepting him they allowed their religious leaders to stampede them into demanding his death on the torture stake.
10. With what words did Jesus denounce the hypocritical religious leaders of his day?
10 But before his death he exposed as hypocrites those who murdered him in Jehovah’s name. He showed them that they could not escape identity with the hypocrites before them who had killed the prophets, for they would repeat these wickednesses with even greater reprehensibility. To them Jesus said: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! because you build the graves of the prophets and decorate the memorial tombs of the righteous ones, and you say: ‘If we had been in the days of our forefathers, we would not have been sharers with them in the blood of the prophets.’ Therefore you are bearing witness against yourselves that you are sons of those who murdered the prophets. Well, then, fill up the measure of your forefathers. Serpents, offspring of vipers, how are you to flee from the judgment of Gehenna? For this reason, here I am sending forth to you prophets and wise men and public instructors. Some of them you will kill and impale, and some of them you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from city to city; that there may come upon you all the righteous blood spilled on earth from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly I say to you, All these things will come upon this generation.”—Matt. 23:29-36, NW.
11, 12. What did a faithful remnant do, and how were they ill-treated?
11 But not all the religious Jews were hypocrites. Jesus found a remnant of faithful ones who listened to him, accepted him as Messiah, and took up the preaching work with him. They pushed ahead with it after Jesus’ death, despite persecutions, arrests, imprisonments and death from mobs riled up by the religious leaders. On the day that a mob stoned faithful Stephen to death a great persecution flamed out against the Christians in Jerusalem; “all except the apostles were scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria.” (Acts 8:1, NW) But to scatter the Christians was to spread the message, for they never stopped talking the truth.
12 And the religious leaders never stopped persecuting, never stopped ‘filling up the measure of their forefathers,’ as evidenced by the apostle Paul’s suffering at their hands: “By Jews I five times received forty strokes less one, three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I experienced shipwreck, a night and a day I have spent in the deep; in travels often, in dangers from rivers, in dangers from highwaymen, in dangers from my own race, in dangers from the nations, in dangers in the city, in dangers in the wilderness, in dangers at sea, in dangers among false brothers, in labor and toil, in sleepless nights often, in hunger and thirst, in abstinence from food many times, in cold and nakedness.”—2 Cor. 11:24-27, NW.
13. So what course did Israel’s history take, yet through it all what did the backsliders claim?
13 Ancient Israel backslid when the judges ruled, when the kings reigned and when Jesus came to earth. The majority under the influence of the orthodox religious leaders turned to unclean spiritual food, weakened, sickened, backslid and suffered internal disturbances and external pressures. A remnant remained true to Jehovah, sounded his warning to aid the backsliders, but were persecuted instead of welcomed by them. Recovery came only when falsehoods were rejected and Jehovah’s Word was accepted and true worship was restored and respected. Yet through all of this backsliding the nation claimed to be faithfully serving Jehovah. In their idolatry the Jews pretended to be serving Jehovah; steeped in their Bible-voiding traditions they still said they were faithful to Jehovah, and even when persecuting and killing God’s true witnesses the Jews claimed it was done to safeguard Jehovah’s worship. As Jesus said concerning Jehovah’s faithful witnesses: “Everyone that kills you will imagine he has rendered a sacred service to God.”—John 16:2, NW.
14. What can we see happening today?
14 Can you imagine that people bowing down to idols would claim to be worshiping Jehovah? Can you imagine that those feeding their minds on pagan doctrines would claim to be taking in Jehovah’s truths? Can you imagine that they would think they were serving Jehovah by persecuting his witnesses? Can you imagine such religious inconsistency? Actually, you do not have to imagine these things. You can see them happening with your own eyes. These ancient happenings of Israel’s time were prophetic. They were typical of our day, foreshadowing events to come to pass in our day. The unfaithful religious leaders of ancient Israel were prophetic types of today’s religious leaders of backsliding Christendom. The majority of religious people today backslide with their clergymen, and together they persecute the faithful minority of Jehovah’s witnesses who hold fast to true worship, who offer clean spiritual food, who sound the divine warning.