Thursday, January 5, 2017

Teaching History and Learning from the Past

Give ear, O my people, to my teaching; incline your ears to the words of my mouth!
I will open my mouth in a parable; I will utter dark sayings from of old,
things that we have heard and known, that our fathers have told us.
We will not hide them from their children, but tell to the coming generation the glorious deeds of the Lord, and his might, and the wonders that he has done.
He established a testimony in Jacob and appointed a law in Israel, which he commanded our fathers to teach to their children,
that the next generation might know them, the children yet unborn, and arise and tell them to their children,
so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments;
and that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.
Psalm 78:1-8

The Scripture is loaded with history.  A lot of things to learn for the next generation from the past.  Things not to be repeated.  Things neglected that must not be neglected anymore.  Critical things that need to be reflected deeply in order to determine one’s identity.  Important things that inform of their standing before the God of heaven and earth, what they should do and what not.  And Psalm 78:1-8 is intentional in teaching the next generation things of the past.  The purpose of this intentional teaching is very clear: “so that they should set their hope in God and not forget the works of God, but keep his commandments” and “that they should not be like their fathers, a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.”  In the same manner Paul also speaks in 1 Corinthians 10:6-11:

Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, 10 nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. 11 Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.

The warning is not something to be ignored.  One of the characteristics of wisdom is not to repeat past mistakes.  Proverbs 26:11 speaks vividly: “As a dog returns to its vomit is a fool who repeats his folly.”  Learning from past mistakes is an essential ingredient of wisdom.  The main lesson from history is not to repeat past mistakes.  But often people do not learn from history and continue to repeat obvious past mistakes over and over again.  Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel once said: “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.”  It is massively stunning to know that we have the book of history so wide open before us yet we often ignore the learning readily available for us and force our stubbornness in with the hope that our pride will conquer our ignorance.

         The stubbornness of Israel in the wilderness has been showcased many times over in the Scripture for the readers to learn from it by not repeating their rebellion.  Yet Israel never learned from history.  They kept repeating their rebellion over and over again.  They ignored their God.  They broke faith with Him and went to fake gods and bowed down to them.  From the time of the judges even until the time of the kings.  They never learned.  So God had enough of them that He sent them into exile.  The Promised Land was left desolate.  The great walls were left to ruin.  Even the magnificent temple of God was destroyed.  Lesson learned?  Even if the answer is yes, it is very sad to know that the lesson was learned only after a great punishment was performed to Israel.  That’s a testament of the history that is never learned.

         The study of history proves to be significant for the development of wisdom.  Decisions should not be made in a rush.  With all the consequences and side effects, every decision must be made wisely.  In order to decide wisely, one needs to have all the necessary information, knowledge, and truths.  Lacking information might lead to unnecessary difficulties.  Lacking knowledge might lead to trouble.  Lacking truth might spell disaster.  In order to understand truth within history we need to understand the context, meaning, and interconnection between stories and perspectives.  Consequently, history is not just about dates and names.  History includes stories, beliefs, perspectives, and all cultural meaning hidden within the history itself.  The stories of Israel’s rebellion in the wilderness is filled with deep meanings that cannot be understood apart from the culture and context of the day.  Digging into the meaning of the rebellion one cannot miss the loaded historical precedence of Creation and the Fall.  The unfolding meaning must be discovered through dwelling deeply into the comprehensive history as told from the perspective of the God of the world.  The intention of the author cannot be dismissed.  The reader must not infuse his own take of the history in disregard of the author’s original meaning.  And this is what makes the study of history very interesting.

         I remember the time when I had history back in elementary to high school.  History lesson was not interesting at the time.  Very boring in fact, due to its focus on names and dates.  So all we did was rote memorization of the names and dates our teacher thought to be important.  Because that was how we got tested.  We did not even talk about the lesson we learn from history.  When we discuss events we did not focus on the stories, we merely paid attention to the dates.  We were busy writing down or marking which parts our teacher said would be in the exam.  And so, as expected, we sighed a huge relief when the history class was over, every time.  I could stand difficult.  But uninteresting and boring class, it’s a kryptonite.  When the interest sinks low, the motivation follows suit, and all the energy, focus, and attention are unnaturally forced.  And such arrangement is tiring.  And more than tiring, the unnatural forcing of energy, focus, and attention kill the spirit of learning.  When the spirit of learning is gone, no important lessons can be learned.  History class becomes a burden.  Consequently, the path to study history becomes a dim prospect for students.  Imagining the gruesome memorization effort and the grim reality of staring into books for hours just to force the brain to remember all those meaningless dates and names is a sure thing to shut down our learning desire.

         History lesson became alive to me when I took an advanced study of history in the seminary.  The names and the dates became meaningful for the first time.  I remember when I read Kenneth Scott Latourette’s book “A History of Christianity” the events and the stories became meaningful and history just made sense.  When I read Will Durant’s “The Story of Civilization” my appetite for history grew larger.  My professors brought us into the story of the past and we felt as if we were there with those names within those events in those significant dates.  Those stories suddenly made connection to my life.  The world just became much more interesting for my taste.  My journey with history took me from the dull state of flavorless history that was caused by my twelve years of primary and secondary dull history classes, to the colorful flavor of world history in my tertiary education.  What a leap?!  So a question popped in my mind: “Isn’t this what history class is supposed to be?  Interesting and loaded with meaning?  How in the world my history class experience in the past was so dull and boring?”  History taught me to be wise.  History taught me to be a better person.  History taught me how to learn from mistakes, how to recover from the fall, how to never give up, how to look into the future with hope, and so on.  History infused me with confidence of the meaning of life in this world.  History is filled with chains of events that lead to the current state of history.  Every action is met with a reaction.  Every event is connected and affects other events in a way that I never knew existed before.  I have heard of John Sung before.  But I never knew that he went to the US for his post-secondary education and got his PhD in Chemistry before he accepted God’s call to become His evangelist.  His life was full of struggles and interesting encounters.  I was surprised to learn that he was detained in a mental asylum for three months in New York, which became his theological boot camp as he read the Bible forty times from cover to cover in that short period of time.  His three months of mental asylum detention was John Sung’s seminary training.  To me John Sung has become much more than just a name of an Asian evangelist in the past.

         The Scripture works in a much more wonderful way as the story of the past from God’s perspective that is intertwined with the perspective of the human writers unfolds meaning in its deepest sense.  The real encounter between humans and the true God who created the entire universe is recorded vividly in the drama of the Biblical narratives.  The great deeds of God in the midst of feeble humans disclose the majesty, grace, and mercy of God.  And at the same time the Biblical narratives also disclose the sinfulness of humans and their ugliness as they experienced the pressure of life.  The grip of sin is very strong that many generations have ignored the wisdom of the past simply to indulge the sinful cravings of the flesh.  This we must learn from.  Psalm 78 reminds the readers to take heed of what happened in the past and learn to refuse to become like their ancestors who rebelled against the Lord many times over.  This history is not just some history of an ancient civilization that has nothing to do with our existence.  On the contrary, their history is tied with ours in a way that is beyond our severely limited scientific proofing and verification.  Our connection to the first humans, Adam and Eve, is the first great connection of our life to the Biblical narratives.  And the second connection, the greatest one of all, is Jesus Christ Himself, in whom God’s grace of salvation is opened to all people regardless of race, gender, and status.  Jesus is the second Adam, according to Paul, who is perfect in every way, and in whom we owe our being.  John reveals the mystery of Jesus as the eternal Logos who is the Creator of all.  Our so called imago dei finds its original pattern in Jesus Christ.  Jesus is the original imago dei, and we all are created in Jesus.  This connection is massive.  And so our life carries the meaningful connection with the existence of Jesus the Nazarene who walked the earth 2000 years ago.  All Scripture points to Jesus Christ as the ultimate Logos, and so every single word and meaning in the Scripture overwhelmingly relates to our existence as humans.  Our humanness can only be understood fully as we understand the revelation that God has given in the Holy Scripture.  Life is empty without the knowledge of where we come from and what we are supposed to do in this world.  God supplies that knowledge in the Scripture.

         With a loaded history of the divine encounter as our learning platform on how to behave as we are supposed to, we all have no excuse to shut our learning channel in response to the challenge the Scripture poses for us.  Solomon did not learn from David’s mistake.  David took many wives.  His act was an active rebellion against God’s law.  Deuteronomy 17:17 speaks about the law of God regarding the King of Israel:

17 And he shall not acquire many wives for himself, lest his heart turn away, nor shall he acquire for himself excessive silver and gold.

And his family broke apart.  Amnon raped Tamar.  Absalom killed Amnon and rebelled against David by launching the greatest coup d’état in David’s time.  Adonijah ignored his father and self-declared himself king.  Solomon was given wisdom, and he was supposed to know better.  Yet he tripled the number of David’s wives when he took 1000 wives for himself.  And in the end Solomon’s heart was turned away from God.  1 Kings 11:2-10 testifies:

He had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart. For when Solomon was old his wives turned away his heart after other gods, and his heart was not wholly true to the Lord his God, as was the heart of David his father. For Solomon went after Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and after Milcom the abomination of the Ammonites. So Solomon did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and did not wholly follow the Lord, as David his father had done. Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the abomination of Moab, and for Molech the abomination of the Ammonites, on the mountain east of Jerusalem. And so he did for all his foreign wives, who made offerings and sacrificed to their gods. And the Lord was angry with Solomon, because his heart had turned away from the Lord, the God of Israel, who had appeared to him twice 10 and had commanded him concerning this thing, that he should not go after other gods. But he did not keep what the Lord commanded.

In his old age, Solomon’s kingdom grew restless.  Resistances rose up throughout the country.  Because of Solomon’s unfaithfulness, the Lord tore his kingdom into two during Solomon’s son’s reign.  The law is clear.  But the law is not learned.  Consequently, all kinds of turmoil plague the house of David and Solomon.

         We now inherit this story of David and Solomon.  What are we going to do with it?  It is our story too.  We share with David and Solomon the common frailty of humanity.  We are prone to the temptations of the flesh just like David and Solomon.  The contrast of what David and Solomon did is God’s law in Deuteronomy 17:17.  Our learning is clear.  The instruction is clear.  The negative examples are also vivid.  Normally we wouldn’t repeat David and Solomon’s mistake.  Normally we would learn from history by obeying God’s law.  This scenario is what ought to be.  The reflection of history must go deep and deeper still.  And the practice of what we have learned from history must be implemented.  History lessons must fill our imagination as we encounter similar situations in our life.  History lessons cannot stay in the past.  They must overflow to the present and the future.  It is our advantage when we can look back into history and learn from it.  God has provided us with just the right lessons from history.  He designed the Scripture in such a way that it helps us in our growth as human beings.  Through our meditation and practice of the teaching of Scripture we may learn how to live according to God’s standard.  The history told in the Scripture is according to God’s perspective.  God’s perspective is the ultimate interpretation of the events in the past as God intimately had relationship with His chosen people.  God did not include all events.  He selected events that are excellent teaching materials.  His composition is true and full of eternal nutrients for our soul.

         Psalm 78:1-8 is right.  This kind of teaching should not be hidden from our children.  The next generation must know.  The embarrassment and humiliation of David and Solomon have become educational platforms for billions of God’s people throughout the ages.  The rebellion and punishment of God’s people in the wilderness have become extremely valuable lessons for every single believer.  The grace, mercy, and justice of God reflect God’s truest character are also in full display in the Scripture.  This also has become our priceless learning lesson in teaching us who God actually is.  The failings of the past must not be repeated.  The Law of the Lord must be obeyed.  The grace, mercy, and love of God must not be taken for granted.  The justice and righteousness of God must be upheld.  Then we may learn to live according to God’s desire.  This is the lesson from history for us to learn.  Amen!

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