A contract across the generations

By Stephen Green

Joel 1:3 Tell ye your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children another generation.

The idea that there is a contract across the generations is a strong Biblical principle.  Our generation has a responsibility to those who have gone before us, and a responsibility to those who are to come.

In particular it is a responsibility to keep the ways of the Lord given to our ancestors and to hand down those ways to our children and their children.

A PLACE FOR THE ARK AND THE COVENANT

Solomon understood this.  Addressing the people at the completion of the temple in Jerusalem, the first detail he wanted to tell them about was that the Ark of the Covenant was there, and that it contained the covenant which God had made with their ancestors, some fifteen generations before:

1Kings 8:21 And I have set there a place for the ark, wherein is the covenant of the LORD, which he made with our fathers, when he brought them out of the land of Egypt.

The Ark of the Covenant and the covenant it contained were not mere historical artifacts for Solomon.  He saw it as his responsibility to lead the people in obeying the commandments which were at the heart of the covenant.  These had been given by God himself to their ancestors:

1Kings 8:57 The LORD our God be with us, as he was with our fathers: let him not leave us, nor forsake us: 58 That he may incline our hearts unto him, to walk in all his ways, and to keep his commandments, and his statutes, and his judgments, which he commanded our fathers.

Years and generations later, the prophet Malachi remonstrated with the people of his day for trampling on that same covenant:

Mal 2:10 Have we not all one father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?

TEACHING TO SAFEGUARD THEIR HERITAGE

If they were to have respect to the covenant made with their fathers, the people of Israel had to demonstrate that respect by passing on the covenant and the teachings of God, the Torah, to their children:

Deut 6:6 And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart: 7 And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

In that way they would safeguard their spiritual heritage.  The Passover meal had a specific place in keeping this heritage alive:

Exod 13:3 And Moses said unto the people, Remember this day, in which ye came out from Egypt, out of the house of bondage; for by strength of hand the LORD brought you out from this place: there shall no leavened bread be eaten.

Even gentiles understood the contract between the generations.  The Samaritans planted in the land of Israel established their own, rather strange, syncretistic tradition blending worship of the Lord with pagan practices.  But having established it, they kept to it:

2Kings 17:41 So these nations feared the LORD, and served their graven images, both their children, and their children’s children: as did their fathers, so do they unto this day.

OBEDIENCE TO THE TRADITION OF THEIR FATHERS

To make the point that the people of Judah were not following the commands of the Lord in the land ‘given to you and your fathers’, Jeremiah was instructed to see how well the Rechabites held to their covenant with their ancestor:

Jer 35:3 Then I took Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah, the son of Habaziniah, and his brethren, and all his sons, and the whole house of the Rechabites; … 5 And I set before the sons of the house of the Rechabites pots full of wine, and cups, and I said unto them, Drink ye wine. 6 But they said, We will drink no wine: for Jonadab the son of Rechab our father commanded us, saying, Ye shall drink no wine, neither ye, nor your sons for ever: 7 Neither shall ye build house, nor sow seed, nor plant vineyard, nor have any: but all your days ye shall dwell in tents; that ye may live many days in the land where ye be strangers. 8 Thus have we obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab our father in all that he hath charged us, to drink no wine all our days, we, our wives, our sons, nor our daughters; 9 Nor to build houses for us to dwell in: neither have we vineyard, nor field, nor seed: 10 But we have dwelt in tents, and have obeyed, and done according to all that Jonadab our father commanded us.

The Rechabites’ obedience to the tradition of their fathers was honoured by God for no other reason than that it demonstrated fidelity to a contract across the generations:

Jer 35:18 And Jeremiah said unto the house of the Rechabites, Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Because ye have obeyed the commandment of Jonadab your father, and kept all his precepts, and done according unto all that he hath commanded you: 19 Therefore thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Jonadab the son of Rechab shall not want a man to stand before me for ever.

A ‘SACRED PARTNERSHIP’

A few nights ago on BBC TV, Melvyn Bragg, a non-believer who is nevertheless an admirer of our Christian heritage, presented a strangely supportive programme on Thomas Paine, author of ‘Common Sense’ and ‘The Rights of Man’.

Bragg has scorned the human tendency to assume each generation has peaked in ability and knowledge, something atheists do all the time.

“The human condition, in this very short history of Homo sapiens, has scarcely changed a bit,” he said. “With all that, in every civilisation, there is this fantasy that we are somehow the apex of everything.

But that is pretty much what Thomas Paine thought.  An avid supporter of the French Revolution, at least until he nearly lost his head under it, Paine was opposed by the statesman Edmund Burke.

In his ‘Reflections on the Revolution in France’, Edmund Burke decried France’s departure from monarchy as much as he supported Britain’s adherence to it.  He described society as a sacred partnership:

“. . . a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born. Each contract of each particular state is but a clause in the great primeval contract of eternal society.”

Thomas Paine penned ‘Rights of Man’ as a response to Burke.  He had some easy targets in the feudal and ecclesiastical privileges claimed by certain classes.  But the baby went out with the bath-water.

Paine asserted, “I am contending for the rights of the living, and against their being willed away, and controuled and contracted for, by the manuscript assumed authority of the dead; and Mr. Burke is contending for the authority of the dead over the rights and freedom of the living.”

‘A RUIN INSTEAD OF A HABITATION’

Paine went on to say:

“Every age and generation must be as free to act for itself, in all cases, as the ages and generations which preceded it. The vanity and presumption of governing beyond the grave, is the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies. Man has no property in man; neither has any generation a property in the generations which are to follow. ”

Burke, on the other hand, was very mindful of the generations to follow.  Modern environmentalists and preservationists would be with us, and with him, as Burke warns against leaving ‘a ruin’:

“[O]ne of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and the laws are consecrated is [that] the temporary possessors and life‑renters in it [should be mindful] of what is due to their posterity . . . [and] should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail or commit waste on the inheritance by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of society, hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation . . ..”

Whilst we should agree that the environment and historic buildings should not be desecrated, our spiritual heritage is of as great, if not greater importance.  For example, those who are most opposed to pollution of the atmosphere are often carefree about pollution of our cultural environment.  Those who would preserve an ancient monument can be quite willing to overturn an ancient law.

A TEMPLE HE WOULD NEVER SEE

King David wanted to build the temple in Jerusalem, but God told him he was not to do so.  Nevertheless we read in 1Chronicles 28 that David was given the pattern for the temple to pass on to Solomon and that he brought a substantial amount of the materials together for a temple he would never see.

In 1Chronicles 29 we read of the metals which David and the elders of Israel set aside for the temple.  Again, some of the elders would never see it, but they gave all the same:

1Chron 29:6 Then the chief of the fathers and princes of the tribes of Israel, and the captains of thousands and of hundreds, with the rulers of the king’s work, offered willingly,

Verses 4 and 7 declare that David gave three thousand talents of gold and the elders five thousand talents.  Together that is eight thousand talents.  A talent is 75 pounds weight.  That means they gave a staggering two hundred and sixty eight tons of it.  At today’s prices they gave £6.5 billion in gold, aside from the silver, the bronze, and a mere £1.3m worth of iron which take the total to nudging seven billion.

They say one can gauge what a society holds sacred by their building projects.  the new Wembley Stadium cost just under £800 million.  The Temple in Jerusalem must, when completed, have cost well over ten times that.  The Government expects that High Speed 2 will cost £32bn over thirty years.

So well did David accumulate building materials and set out the plans for the Temple that it took Solomon only seven years to build it.

BUILDING ON THEIR FATHERS’ FOUNDATIONS

St Paul’s Cathedral in London reputedly cost the equivalent of over £150 million in today’s money to build.  It was started in 1675, services started in 1697 and the whole was completed in 1710.  So there were some who started work on it who never saw the finished work.

Both the Temple and Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s took no time at all to build in comparison to an earlier St Paul’s, the one in fact which was destroyed in the great fire of London in 1666.  The Cathedral founded in 604 by Bishop Mellitus was burnt down by the Vikings in 962.  Rebuilding began in 1087 and was completed two centuries later in 1310.  So there were men who dug the foundations who never saw the walls going up, let alone the roof going on.

But without that work to dig foundations, to lay stone upon stone, building all the structure over decades, the carpenters could not have placed the roof structure in place for the roofers to make it watertight.

Everything was literally built on what a previous generation had put in place.  It was no good complaining that the size of it was too big, or not big enough.  Each generation could only take what the one before had done as its starting point.

So our responsibility is two-fold.  On the one hand it is to develop a mind to honour the previous generations and seek their wisdom in what they have to say and in what they have bequeathed to us, spiritually, materially, ethically and in many other ways.

WHAT ARE WE LEAVING TO OUR CHILDREN?

On the other hand our responsibility is to question ourselves about what we are bequeathing to the generations to come.  What are we leaving to our children?  What are we building in our families and in our nation?

Woe betide us if our children speak of us in the words of Daniel:

Dan 9:5 We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: 6 Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land. 7 O Lord, righteousness belongeth unto thee, but unto us confusion of faces, as at this day; to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and unto all Israel, that are near, and that are far off, through all the countries whither thou hast driven them, because of their trespass that they have trespassed against thee. 8 O Lord, to us belongeth confusion of face, to our kings, to our princes, and to our fathers, because we have sinned against thee.

Those who built our nation on a Christian foundation were not old-fashioned, or stupid, or mean-spirited and out to stop us having ‘fun’.  They were men of honour, wisdom and humility who knew that man does not know best and that he lives, not just by bread, but by every word of God.

Yes, a previous generation of rulers and administrators in the corridors of power have changed the laws of God and a generation of the people of God failed to speak out with confidence.

A similar thing has happened in the church, where too many leaders have exalted their own preconceptions over the revealed word of God.

But by the grace of God we, the people of this generation, shall have faith in his word and his ways and be not ashamed of the Gospel of Christ.  In the power of the Holy Spirit we shall rebuild the foundations, recover all, contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints so that our children can build on a sure foundation once again.

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