Past, Present and Future
We all have a past, the present, and a future. Is your future a good one?
Let us look at the past. We often think that is was better, and there are certain aspects that may have been better. But what does the Bible say about making comparisons with the past? In Ecclesiastes 7:10, Solomon says, “Say not, How is it that the former days were better than these? For you do not enquire wisely concerning this.”
This does not mean that the former days were not good, but that it is not for us to draw comparisons that make the past better than the present.
Why should we not compare in this way? I have given it some thought and can show four reasons. You may have others.
1. We have selective memories. We remember what we wish to remember, and tend to forget that which is unpleasant. After Israel spent some time in the desert, they remembered the tasty food, but forgot the hard labour and oppression. We may long for the past days of steam locomotives on rail travel, but tend to forget the coal particles getting into our eyes and the smoke penetrating the carriage when passing through a tunnel.
2. Who can accurately compare the past and the present? The past may have been more agreeable humanly, but it may not have been morally better, or more satisfactory in God’s sight. We have to leave those assessments to God.
Consider the dedication of Solomon’s temple in 2 Chron. 7:1-10 and the dedication of the rebuilt temple in Ezra 6:16-22.
In the former, the temple was completed according to the pattern given to King David. The whole twelve tribes of Israel were there - it represented the glory days of the nation.
In 2 Chron. 7:1-3, we are told that “fire came down from the heavens and consumed the burnt-offering and the sacrifices; and the glory of Jehovah filled the house”. These were outward signs of God’s acceptance of the offerings and of His presence respectively. There was a sacrifice of 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep! The grandeur of the whole thing is hard to imagine.
After Solomon’s death, the kingdom was divided; two tribes - Judah and Benjamin (referred to as ‘Judah’) - went with Rehoboam, and the other ten tribes (generally referred to as ‘Israel’) kept with Jeroboam.
Due to their idolatry and departure from God, Israel (ten tribes) was carried away captive by the Assyrians in 721 B.C. Similarly, in 606 B.C. Judah was invaded, and so began the 70 years of the Babylonian captivity. In 586 B.C. Solomon’s temple was destroyed by them. In 536 B.C. the command was given to rebuild it, 490 years after the first was completed.
The Book of Ezra describes the return of a remnant from Babylon and the re-building of the temple. In Ezra 6:15, the house was finished and in verse 16 we get the dedication. The sacrifices consisted of 100 bullocks, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and a sin-offering of 12 he-goats for the tribes of Israel. How different from the glory days of Solomon. There was no cloud filling the temple – also known as the house of God – and no fire consuming the sacrifice. God’s public “presence” and approval were not visible.
[As an aside – it was due to the division among the tribes and great public departure from His word that God did not publicly show His support for the people. A similar situation exists in Christendom now, but some Christians look for great outward signs such as were given in the apostle’ time – signs that confirmed the word as being from God.]
A human comparison between the two services would say that the former dedication was better. But was that so in God’s sight?
Take account of the 12 he-goats for a sin offering, one for each of the twelve tribes. How precious to God was that recognition of their failure! Further – although the returned captives consisted primarily of persons from Judah and Benjamin - they kept the whole twelve tribes in their thoughts. Grand. The whole thing was small and weak outwardly by comparison with Solomon’s time, but morally beautiful. It says in Ezra 6:22 that “Jehovah had made them joyful”. This was not said at the magnificent dedication of the first one.
While the 12 tribes were together outwardly in Solomon’s reign, there seems to have been an under-current that went back to the Saul-David era, when the ten tribes of Israel were with Saul, while Judah and Benjamin supported David. After Solomon’s death, this division was exposed.
Why do I mention this? It shows that public grandeur and magnificence may cloak an inward condition that is less than good. There seems to have been a better moral state in the returned captives than that of Solomon’s time. So it is not wise to say that the former times (Solomon’s) were necessarily better than those of the returned captives in Ezra’s time.
That assessment is best left to God. Solomon told us in Eccl. 7:10 that we are not wise in suggesting that the former times were better than these.
3. A third reason for not saying that the past was better - God may have something different to work out in his people now as compared with former times. He is teaching us other lessons. This renders our methods of comparison invalid.
4. And fourthly, such reasoning may cause us to be unduly occupied with the past, to the detriment of the present. The present is all that have control of. It is now that we should make the most of our opportunities. This leads us to that subject.
Seize the moment and its opportunities. You only have this hour. Life is short - like a vapour. Even if we live 100 years, that is only a blip when looked at in relation to eternity. The past cannot be changed – although our view of it can be changed. Now is the time that we can change. Now is the moment for “repentance towards God and faith towards our Lord Jesus Christ”. Now is the time for adjusting relationships with God and with people.
In 2 Corinthians 6:2b, Paul quoting from Isaiah tells us, “behold, now is the well accepted time; behold, now the day of salvation”. The word ‘day’ can mean a period of time rather than 24 hours. This time is indeed one of great favour. It is called “the day of grace”. God is not immediately judging evil actions. Persons may do shocking things, and God waits patiently for them to repent. A time will come when He will judge the world and each individual will be held accountable for their deeds.
The facts of the Christian good news are very simple; so why do people delay to act - delay to embrace Christ as saviour? I believe it is because people want to hold on to something that they know is inconsistent with the glory of God. But the joy of salvation is far greater than any worldly pleasure. Moses gave up the court of Pharaoh – “choosing rather to suffer affliction along with the people of God than to have the temporary pleasure of sin; esteeming the reproach of the Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt”. See Hebrews 11:24-28.
Hebrews 3:7-16, “Today if you will hear his voice, harden not your hearts…” Sin hardens, cauterizes the conscience. As we get older we cling to our own opinions; we think we know. Children are eager learners. For this reason Christ took up a little child as a role model for adults who desired His kingdom.
The Hebrew Christians were in effect saying that the former times were better. The writer of the Epistle has to remind them repeatedly that this period, that of grace rather than that of law, was better. The word ‘better’ is used 13 times in Hebrews. We have a “great salvation”; the law was but a shadow of the coming good things, “a tutor [or schoolmaster] up to Christ”.
The Future. The other thing to note in the present: warnings are given about the future. God is faithful - He has always provides warnings. The prophets of old warned the wicked of the consequences of their actions, warned of impending judgment, and gave encouragement to the faithful.
Even in material affairs, warning is there for those who will listen.
In the Enron debacle in the USA, a man warned the SEC (Securities Exchange Commission) for years. Another person, Bernard Madoff, now serving a 150 year jail sentence, carried off a scheme that robbed investors of billions of dollars. Again, a man had been warning the SEC for some years, but his warnings were ignored also.
Some people in the USA are preparing for disasters, both natural and man-made. These folk are called ‘preppers’. If people prepare for their physical well-being now, how much more important is it to prepare for our spiritual and eternal destiny? Reader, if you have not already trusted Christ for salvation, do not delay. Life is like a vapour; see James 4:14, “what is your life? … a vapour, appearing for a little while, and then disappearing”..
It is an immense favour that the Bible tells us about the future – about this period, about the coming judgment of the world, about the millennial reign of Christ, and about the final judgment of the wicked and then eternity. An insight into God’s ways from Eden to eternity is provided for those who care to look at it.
For the believer in Christ, we look forward to being with Him. Paul describes it as being “very much better” [than living here]. After our resurrection, we will reign with Christ there, as we have suffered with Him here. Not much at all is said about the eternity of blessing with him. We know it will be bliss.
But a good deal is spoken by the Lord himself about hell. In some instances He describes it as “the outer darkness”. This involves isolation and absence from the presence of God and absence of his support. Now he supports both just and unjust with rain, and the sun shines on the evil and the good alike.
People jokingly say that they will have plenty of friends in hell. There will be no fellowship there. The Lord describes it also as a place of “weeping and gnashing of teeth”. The former involves tears of remorse but no repentance; the latter is represents hatred against God.
Even in the world there is a saying: “Laugh and the world laughs with you; cry and you cry alone”.
Again, it is described by the Lord as a place “where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched”, as He quotes the last verse from Isaiah. This involves the worm of conscience gnawing at the individual for ever. In that sense people are making their own hell now. The missed opportunities, the sins, the indifference, the opposition to the truth, the persecution and despising of godly persons – it will play on the mind, over and over, without the benefit of forgetfulness, for eternity. And the “fire is not quenched” would seem to be God’s side of the punishment.
Learn from the past and enjoy happy memories, but do not to assume that it was better than the present. Make the most of the present. Lay hold of the salvation which is in Christ Jesus. Lay hold of eternal life. This is the great preparation for a superb future. And know that:
“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and today and to the ages to come”, Heb. 13:8.
M.M. June 2012