The Downgrade Gen 19:30-38


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Genesis 19:30-38

While you are turning to Genesis 19:30 I want to tell you that we are going to continue our series of sermons in Genesis through the material concerning Abraham, himself. Then we will stop and go to the Book of Acts. Then, Lord willing, we will get back to Genesis at some later date. We will have made our way most of half way through the first book of the Bible before we take a pause.

Sodom and the other cities of the plain have been destroyed, only Lot and his two daughters having survived the ferocious divine judgment of those wicked communities. Now follows what may, at first glance, seem an odd epilogue to that dramatic narrative, a brief but sordid tale of deceit, of incest, and of what nowadays I suppose would be referred to as the skeletons in a family’s closet.

Text Comment

v.30     In a move typical of biblical narrative, the writer does not tell us why Lot was afraid to live in Zoar. This is called “blanking.” The narrative critics or interpreters, the students of the biblical text who over the past generation have done so much to demonstrate the sophistication and artistry of the Bible’s historical narratives, how much theology and how much ethics are taught in those theological narratives, pay attention to what is not said as much as they do to what is said. Part of the purpose in leaving things out, of course, is to keep the focus on the main point; but part of it is to engage the reader and to make him or her think about what he or she is reading, make them wonder just why it was that Lot left Zoar. Was he now afraid of the effects of a lifestyle similar to what he had known in Sodom? [Waltke, 279] Or were tremors and aftershocks still being felt there? [Sarna, 139]

v.31     The fact that neither of the daughters of Lot is named, even though each is a progenitor of a people, a nation, is an act of censure on the narrator’s part. These women were blanked, they did not deserve to have their names remembered. [Waltke, 279]

What the women recognize is that their chance for marriage and children has gone up in the smoke that is rising from what were once the cities of the plain. Their family line was about to be extinguished, a greater catastrophe in that time than in ours.

v.33     There is in the larger narrative a dramatic contrast between Abraham and Lot as fathers. Abraham will teach his children to follow the Lord and to do righteousness. Lot had allowed his daughters to absorb the ethics of Sodom. It is at least to Lot’s credit that his daughters knew that he would never consent to do what they proposed unless he was not in his right mind. It is to his discredit that he allowed himself to become drunk. He is totally passive in this affair. He who had offered his daughters to a gang of rapists now, unbeknownst to him, impregnates them himself. [Sarna, 140]

v.38     The Moabites and the Ammonites, as we will learn later in the book of Numbers, became the implacable enemies of Israel. And so, to no one’s regret, a curtain descends upon the life history of Lot.

One of the most remarkable ministries in the history of the Christian church was that of the Victorian Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon. A natural genius without any formal higher education, Spurgeon, at age 17, became the pastor of a handful of believers in Cambridgeshire. Within a few years he was the best known preacher in London and then in all of Great Britain. Eventually and for many years he preached morning and evening to a regular congregation of some 6,000 souls at the Metropolitan Tabernacle in the heart of London. In a day before modern sound systems could amplify the human voice Spurgeon enthralled immense gatherings wherever he went, sometimes preaching to as many as twenty-five thousand people. His sermons, delivered from a few notes, were transcribed and sent around the world. Perhaps a million people a week were reading Spurgeon’s latest sermon in a pamphlet form. Until Billy Graham, there had been no English-speaking preacher who exercised as popular a ministry. But unlike Graham, Spurgeon was a pastor, not an itinerant evangelist. Still, huge numbers of people came to Christ under his preaching.

What is more interesting still, Spurgeon, unlike a Billy Graham or any number of other later evangelists and preachers, was a man of learned and decided theological conviction. He was an unabashed Calvinist in a day when Calvinism was in steep decline in English Christianity. He loved and read widely among the Puritans at a time the Puritans were held in general disdain in their own land. He was a voracious reader and had a phenomenal memory. So his sermons were the furthest thing from fluff. They were a combination of beautiful and powerful English prose and deep and careful thought in the service of an unashamedly biblical and Christ-centered message. It is remarkable how well they read even today, a century and a half after they were first preached and published.

Spurgeon was, of course, a lightning rod for criticism, upholder of historic Christianity as he was and as successful at it as he was. But among the believing population of Great Britain, which was then an immense portion of the total population, he was, in most quarters a hero. He was revered by Scottish Presbyterians and English Anglicans, as well as by British Baptists.

But near the end of his life Spurgeon found himself in a controversy that separated him from a number of those who long had considered him a friend, a colleague, if not a father figure and mentor. It was the final third of the 19th century and, as those of you who know your modern history will recognize, that was the time when Darwinism and German higher criticism were undermining the Christian Church’s loyalty to and confidence in the Bible as the Word of God. The once mighty Free Church of Scotland, just a generation after its founding, was beginning to totter. There was a bitter struggle in that church but the men loyal to the Bible lost and the church went on its way toward the future unsure of what it actually believed. The Anglican Church, never as tough-minded as the Presbyterians, meekly surrendered to the new skepticism about the Bible, only a few individuals putting up any resistance, the Bishop of Liverpool, J.C. Ryle chief among them.

But the same thing was happening among the Baptists in England. Spurgeon and his Metropolitan Tabernacle belonged to the Baptist Union, a loose affiliation of churches that originally had been universally committed to the historic Christian faith. But through the years of his ministry Spurgeon had detected the same inroads of skepticism that were then found in the other great denominations of the land. Spurgeon was, without question, the de facto leader of the Baptist Union. Many of its ministers were graduates of his Pastors’ College; most of them were his great admirers.

But when Spurgeon began publishing his concerns about doctrinal drift in the Baptist Union in his monthly magazine, The Sword and the Trowel, a controversy erupted. It was not difficult to demonstrate that more and more ministers were no longer willing to defend the inspiration, authority, and historical trustworthiness of the Bible, no longer willing to defend the cross of Christ as essential to the satisfaction of God’s justice and so to the salvation of sinners, and that any number of other doctrines (the deity of Jesus Christ, the personality of the Holy Spirit, the reality of eternal punishment, and so on) were being treated more and more commonly as unnecessary to the Christian faith, if not positive impediments to the Christian faith. In Spurgeon’s view, it was time for real Christians to stand up and be counted for the Lord or it would be soon too late to do anything about the Baptist Union. He wrote:

“A chasm is opening between the men who believe their Bibles and the men who are prepared for an advance [beyond the] Scripture. The house is being robbed, its very walls are being digged down, but the good people who are in bed are too fond of the warmth, and too much afraid of getting broken heads, to go downstairs and meet the burglars….” [Cited in I. Murray, The Forgotten Spurgeon, 143]

 

“Believers in Christ’s atonement are now in declared union with those who make light of it; believers in Holy Scripture are in confederacy with those who deny [its] inspiration; those who hold evangelical doctrine are in open alliance with those who call the fall a fable, who deny the personality of the Holy Ghost, who call justification by faith immoral, and hold that there is another probation after death…. Yes, we have before us the wretched spectacle of professedly orthodox Christians publicly avowing their union with those who deny the faith, and scarcely concealing their contempt for those who [find themselves unable to] be guilty of such gross disloyalty to Christ.” [144]

As Spurgeon tartly put it, and he had a knack for putting things tartly, the new thought being paraded in the Union as a more modern and more acceptable form of doctrine was “no more Christianity than chalk is cheese.” [Cited in T. Nettles, Living by Revealed Truth, 545]

As happens so often when Christians begin arguing with one another, all manner of unfortunate things were said and done. But the upshot was that finally, despairing of any honest acknowledgement that the Christian faith was in danger of disappearing in the Baptist Union, Spurgeon resigned his membership. It was national news: the most famous and influential Baptist of them all was repudiating his own denomination. Virtually no one followed him out of the Union, even his brother remained! Their argument was two-fold: 1) that these new ideas did not threaten the old-faith, but were just another more modern form of it, different ways of expressing it; and 2) it was essential to preserve the church’s unity in the face of the growing power of secularism in the country. Those were the arguments that were everywhere then used to justify a more “broad-minded” approach to the faith. As a result, Spurgeon found himself no longer the hero but the villain among his own former colleagues. He died a few years later, many felt in part because of the strain of this last battle.

In his magazine Spurgeon gave a name to the controversy that it has worn ever since: “The Down-Grade.” What he meant was not only that the modern ideas being preached by British Baptist preachers represented a decline in loyalty to the Bible and historic Christianity. He meant that the embrace of such ideas would inevitably and eventually sink the church. We today speak of the “slippery slope,” and mean by the phrase that steps taken, which may seem to many relatively minor, harmless and uncontroversial at the time, will lead to consequences that those who favored taking those first steps did not anticipate. The slippery-slope argument can and often is used unwisely. It is not at all certain that some steps will lead to disaster over time. But it is easy enough to see in many cases that the acceptance of one change or two or three led inexorably to results that advocates of the changes neither anticipated nor would have approved. And, of course, that proved to be the case here. In the later years of the 19th century British non-conformity, the Baptists included, along with the Scottish Presbyterians and English Anglicans injected into their bodies a poison of unbelief that over the next several generations killed them. The British Christian church is scarcely breathing today, the once mighty Baptists themselves a tiny remnant invisible in their own land. This was a result never anticipated by those who so severely censured Charles Spurgeon for warning that compromise with unbelief in the church spelled doom for the Christian faith in Great Britain. They never thought that lesser confidence in the Bible must mean eventually the abandoning of the Christian faith altogether. Whether Spurgeon was sounding the alarm or was simply an alarmist, as many accused him of being, events would finally determine and from the vantage point of modern Britain it is clear that in the 1880s Charles Spurgeon saw the truth that most everyone else was unwilling to see. The down-grade had begun and events were to prove that once begun it was impossible to reverse.

Now we have been saying all along through these sermons on the early chapters of the Bible that the historical narratives of Genesis are written not only to supply us with the facts of history, but to reveal by that historical narrative the fundamental principles of human life and of God’s dealings with human beings. This is history to be sure – an account of what actually happened – but it is as well meta-history, events that reveal the nature and tendencies of human life in this fallen world, whether believing life or unbelieving life.

For example, we pointed out earlier, in our examination of Genesis chapter 4, that in the life history and genealogy of Cain we find what we will find repeatedly in biblical history and then in human history, viz. the proliferation, the aggravation, the multiplication, and the deepening of evil through the generations. Cain’s hostility toward his brother became, in time, Lamech’s vicious and venomous malice toward mankind in general. It was, in other words, a “down-grade.”  Sin is restless, ever reaching for more, never satisfied with mere damage to a life. It must ruin it, defame it, and then use it to ruin other lives as well.

Well, it is something similar – another downgrade – that we find in the personal history of Lot and his family, only this time we begin with a believing man, a pious man, a man the Apostle Peter will describe as a righteous man. Here is at least one reason why Holy Scripture records this brief and sordid aftermath to the account of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. We learn from it that decisions taken long before can result in moral mayhem that no one anticipated at first; that no one would have imagined when those decisions were first made. Had anyone suggested to Lot when decided to leave the hill country of Canaan and settle in the fertile plain that he would end his life a widower, having watched his wife die a victim of divine judgement, that he would find himself penniless, and that he would have two sons whom he had sired by his own daughters, Lot would have laughed in that person’s face. He was not that kind of man. And, in some respects, he really wasn’t.

But some decisions, some choices are more consequential than others and Lot’s longing for the wealth and comfort of the life he could have if only he lived in Sodom injected into his life a poison that, while it would not absolutely destroy him, would so weaken him that he became unable to prevent the destruction of his family and the loss of everything he had. No one can read this history and imagine that Lot and his family life would have ended in anything like this way if only he had remained with his uncle Abraham. But Lot, happy and prosperous man that he was, chose to go down into the valley, and, probably imperceptibly to him, kept going down, down, down, until we find him at last with his two pregnant daughters living in a cave. If only when he still had his wits about him he had considered the spiritual danger, the risk to his soul and the souls of his loved ones he was courting when he chose to live in Sodom. If only…

The purpose of this narrative is not merely to identify the origins of the Moabites and Ammonites. As we have learned more and more over the past generation of Genesis scholarship, this history is also theology, it is ethics; it is also instruction in the life of faith. Everything included in this narrative is included for reasons having to do with what you and I are to believe and how you and I are to live.

The narrative of Lot’s life did not end with his escape from Sodom. Had that been the end we might well have gathered the wrong lesson, we might have come to a false conclusion. We might suppose that Lot taught us that the Lord would rescue his children even when they made galactically bad choices. No, to understand the lesson of Lot’s life, we had to know how his life ended; what happened after the destruction of Sodom. Lot hadn’t got to the bottom when the Lord rained destruction down on the cities of the plain! This man, alas, would go down still further.

When Lot returned to Canaan with his Uncle after the sojourn in Egypt, he was a wealthy man with large herds and a sizeable household, including a large number of retainers, men who watched his flocks and herds and protected his family. It was precisely his wealth, the size of his herds and the number of his servants that made it impossible for Lot and Abraham to occupy the same real estate. But wealthy as Lot already was and continued to be, we find him at the last living in a cave; his household, his flocks, his homes, his money gone. He was the Lord of a hole in the rock and a dirt floor where he lived with his two daughters, miserable young women whose lives had likewise been blasted.

We have depicted here in living color, so that we will not forget the lesson or fail to see it, a fundamental principle of human life in sin. It is this: sin is to be feared primarily for its long term effects, effects that were never calculated, never imagined, and yet, once certain choices had been made, could scarcely be avoided. Sin is a poison, but it’s sweet-tasting and, at least very often a slow-acting poison. One drinks with pleasure only to discover when it is too late that he has killed himself.

Lot chose to live in the plain because of the wealth and prosperity of the place. He ended destitute, a pathetic figure upon whom his own daughters now preyed. Might some good still come of all of this? Not much, as it happened. From Abraham who walked with God in obedience, would come most of what is lastingly good and lovely in this world. From Lot would come two pagan and depraved nations who would appear and then a few centuries later would disappear. Some of the wives that led Solomon astray were Ammonite women, and, no wonder. Their religion was so debauched that in Deuteronomy 23:3 we read the Lord saying in his law that he wanted Israel to have so little to do with the Moabites and the Ammonites that no one from either nation could enter the assembly of the Lord down to the tenth generation. Only one Moabite woman, Ruth, would gain a place in the story of the world’s salvation, she as an ancestress of Jesus Christ – the more remarkable a demonstration of God’s grace precisely because of her lineage – among the many thousands of her countrymen who would live and die apart from God. That was the lasting consequence of Lot’s decision to settle in Sodom, to ignore its moral depravity so that he might pursue and enjoy its wealth and comfort. He would never had imagined it at the time he separated from Abraham; he would have hotly denied that he was risking everything truly important and everything sacred to become richer than he already was. But facts are facts and eventually everyone can see what it was he actually did. That first step down from the hill country toward the plain was the beginning of the down-grade.

Now this is a principle any thoughtful observer of life can see being worked out every day, everywhere one looks. No one plans on ruining his life and the life of others when he takes that first pull on a marijuana joint, that first snort of cocaine, or that first shot of heroin; the first time he pulls the handle of a slot machine. And no one in America imagined that when we began relaxing our sexual standards, when we began to acquiesce to the separation of sex from marriage that it would not be very many years before an American couple, in the land of the free, would fall afoul of the law and be punished severely for refusing to arrange flowers for or bake a cake for the wedding of two homosexuals! More than twenty years ago, George Will, the syndicated columnist, commenting on the vicious, misogynistic lyrics of some rap music, wrote this:

“America’s slide into the sewer is greased by praise.” Execrable ‘lyrics’ by rap groups — lyrics that exult in hurting and humiliating women — get defended by the nation’s most prestigious newspaper editors. Do rap groups celebrate busting and sucking and puking? Do they package the celebration and sell it to teens? ‘Not to worry,’ yawn the New York Times editorialists. ‘The history of music is the story of innovative, even outrageous styles that interacted, adapted, and became mainstream.’ When busting…women becomes ‘mainstream’ entertainment, this will be an interesting country.”

Well, we’ve arrived, haven’t we? No one did and no one would have predicted the results that followed: millions upon millions of abortions searing the American conscience until it is now virtually inert; more people infected with sexually transmitted diseases than any modern western nation would have thought possible in the age of antibiotics; and now homosexual marriage. It is sin’s down-grade. It has happened everywhere and always before, it’s happening today and will happen to the end of history.

But, what we must not forget is that Lot was a believing man. Like many of those who laughed off Spurgeon’s warnings about unbelief in the camp, Lot could not be made to see the danger to himself and others in the choice that he made to join himself to the community of Sodom. He should have, but he never saw it coming. He would have been horrified to see what was to come if only he could have seen it before he left the hill country. He would have solved his problem with Abraham’s herdsmen, no matter what the solution may have cost him. But once the decision was made, even Lot’s troubled conscience wasn’t enough to make him realize what he had done and what he was risking. It was no part of his plan, when he chose to live in the valley among wicked men, to end up destitute and disgraced; a pathetic shadow of the man he had once been. But, looking back on that history, it is obvious that his first decision had led inexorably to that result and could have led to no other.

How many times will this lesson be taught us in the Word of God! Think of Israel in Solomon’s day, when they hardly bothered to weigh and count the silver in the imperial treasury because there was so much gold and then think of that same kingdom reduced to the smoking ruins of Jerusalem, her people who had survived the carnage shuffling off to exile in Babylon. What explains the fall, the complete ruin, of Solomon’s great kingdom – at one time the greatest empire in the world, the wealthiest, the envy of all kingdoms – what can explain that except that sins committed already then, sins injected into the well-head of the national life already in Solomon’s day, poisoned the whole broad stream of Israel’s history from that point. What does the Bible say? “God will not be mocked. Whatever a man sows that shall he also reap.”

Of course it doesn’t happen all at once. The Devil is too clever to allow that to happen, to have sinful choices discredited when they might still be reversed. It takes some time for the first hit to become full blown addiction, the first drink to become alcoholism, the first entertainment of one’s own superiority to become bigotry and hatred. And so it was with Lot. First he sowed a thought and then he reaped a deed; then he sowed some further deeds and reaped a habit; then he sowed some habits and reaped a character, taking Lot deeper and deeper into the patterns, the attitudes, the responses and the consequences of sin, a life that, alas, his wife and his daughters were going to observe every day. As Augustine perceptively summarized this reality: “Sin becomes the punishment of sin.” Lot was a poor nephew; he became a worse husband and a still worse father.

Why does God visit sin as punishment for sin? Because it is the most fitting and the truest punishment, it best fits the crime. It is what the sinner has asked for! Sin holds within itself every conceivable evil development and will produce them all if only allowed to do its work. Or, as Daniel Rowland, the great preacher of Wales during the Great Awakening, once put it:

“Where there is one true grace, there is every true grace; by allowing one sin we receive thousands of sins, they are like beggars, once you receive one you must receive many, the second more persistent than the first, so that there is no way to get rid of them but to close the door against them. A thousand sins lie in the womb of one sin, and they are like bees, one lot swarming from another.” [Evans, p. 361]

That is, in fact, what hell is: the full development, the ripe fruit of the sins that the unsaved have chosen to commit and by which to live. It is the place where simple unkindness has finally developed into full-blown malice and murderous hatred – always wishing to kill, never being able to destroy. It is the place where selfishness becomes the full-blown adoration of oneself that excludes from view all other human beings, and turns them into nothing more than the servants of one’s self-love.

Young people especially, listen to me; but this is a lesson for us all. The warning of this text is that you should be afraid of sin. As John Bunyan wrote: “Be afraid of sins: they are like bloodhounds at the heels.” And the lesson is this: the greatest thing to fear in sinning against God is not what may come immediately from that sin – bad as that may be. The greatest thing to fear by far is that by choosing to let that sin into your life, making choices on its behalf, you have chosen a course that may, in time, carry you far from God and from righteousness, so far that you won’t even be able to recognize yourself. You will be like the men of Sodom, offended that someone would condemn you for wanting to rape his guests. “Who are Christian people condemn me? Who are they to judge me, those hypocrites?” you will say it in that high tone of moral outrage. I have seen this too often, and it is a terrible thing to see – young men and women whose first sins led to others, to habits of life that have completely blinded them to their later sins which are greater and more ugly and more dangerous than they could have believed possible when they took that first step toward Sodom.

We are commanded in the Word of God to “consider our ways,” just what Lot did not do. See him there in his cave, casting angry glances at his daughters, looking with shame at his two infant sons, and consider what might be the end of your life were you to do today what Lot did long ago.