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Anyone seeking to understand miracles must keep in mind the painful struggle in which the human race is involved against nature. In this struggle, the human race is at a disadvantage. While humanity is seriously weakened by the curse of sin, that same curse has increased the power of nature. Nature appears to be more powerful than the spiritual.
This situation led long ago to the deification or idolizing of nature that became the object of worship. The human race, stricken with fear, gradually transferred the adoration that is reserved for the living God to nature. These fears did not arise when nature was in restful repose, but only when it was in a state of turbulence and agitation. It does not really make any difference whether, as in some cases, this fear was the result of what people suffered directly at the hands of nature itself or whether, as in some other cases, it arose because people thought to detect the work of evil spirits behind nature’s violence. In either case the dominant concern constantly was how to escape from the threatening power of nature when it is agitated.
Take the sea, for example. When the sea is quiet, it is most enjoyable and restful to walk along the beach or to take to the water in a rowboat or sailboat. But once a storm begins to break loose, waves as high as mountains can in no time flat demolish the boat and render the beach into a place of death and destruction. There is no way people can control the threatening waves when this happens. They are totally helpless over against them. Nature, when it is quiet, can quicken one’s spirit and soothe one’s heart, but when it becomes violent, it arouses fear and horror. Over against such fearful terrors people feel helpless not only in themselves, but it also seems as if God Himself is overwhelmed by it all and quite powerless.
The above scenario has led to the transfer of adoration from God to nature with all of its turbulence and violence. In other cases, it has led to an animistic fear of the spirits that supposedly used the forces of nature for their own evil purposes. Under these conditions, it was only when God displayed His superior power over nature and over these spirits by means of miracles that the fear of God could remain a reality in the hearts of men at all.
Only in this context do both the necessity as well as the great significance of miracles become clear to us. It is impossible to understand miracles without considering sin, the curse and their effect on creation. It is safe to say that rejection of the reality of miracles is caused by the failure to recognize the significance and reality of these factors.
Over against the powers of nature, fallen mankind was at a disadvantage. It was weak in both body and spirit. The powers given mankind at creation slowly but surely waned after the fall. Take the human life span, for example. At first, we read of our ancestors living nearly 1,000 years but this is slowly reduced so that later we are promised an average of three score years and ten (70 years). Diseases of all kinds reared their heads. As the generations went by, these diseases and other negative forces undermined human resistance.
It is for this reason that many cultures have stories of ancient ancestors that were very powerful and strong, stories of Nimrods and giants, of descendants of Anak to whom the Israelites seemed like mere grasshoppers (Numb. 13:33). Alas, subsequent generations, even those of OT Israel, continuously deteriorated and weakened.
The deterioration of spirit was even worse than that of the body. Instead of attacking nature together, people began to attack each other. Cain murdered Abel. Murder and hatred became common among people. Human conscience was defiled, which, in turn killed morale and courage. Mankind lost its awareness of its position of superiority over against nature. Fear replaced courage and reduced the inner resilience of the human soul. A soul tormented by fear cannot but lose its resilience. And thus it was that mankind experienced increasing weakness and helplessness over against a nature that appeared to rule and threaten all of life.
The human race, severely weakened by sin, was in confrontation with a nature with a greatly increased power. It is extremely difficult for us today to form an adequate picture of the curse that came over nature.55This statement may be true for Kuyper’s contemporary fellow Westerners, but in Africa we tend to be much more aware of the power of the curse. Perhaps it is best to think of nature as having gone berserk, because of the weight of the curse under which it had to labour. We all know how a berserk person can sometimes be very strong. Three or more people may be needed to overcome such a person. The same is sometimes true for a drunk person. It often takes special effort to overcome a drunken madman. It is not unheard of for a people, before they start a war, to prepare themselves by heavy drinking. Intoxicants tend to increase one’s courage and strength and make one reckless.
Such increase in strength characterizes berserk persons even more than drunk people. The anger that comes with being berserk can heighten the victim’s physical power beyond that of an ordinary person. Being berserk causes a radical transformation in the nature or personality of its victim. He stands before you totally venomous and obnoxious, apparently without any redeeming features. A person, whom you normally know as calm and collected, suddenly attacks his wife, his children or even his parents. He may try to torment and kill them. His emotions, his expressions, in short, his entire personality has been transformed into a totally different being. He attacks his environment with destructive powers. Anyone who tries to tame or restrain him will experience the full force of an anger aggravated by this strangely heightened strength.
The above image is an example of nature after it was distorted by the curse of sin. Just like a berserk person, nature has its moments of calm and quiet, but this is often interrupted by periods of violence and anger that stir up all of creation and threaten destruction everywhere. The earth quakes; cyclones pick up homes and hurl them down to the ground; tempestuous gales anger the ocean waves; rivers burst beyond their banks. At such times, it may seem as if all nature is hell-bent on destruction. The curse has totally transformed nature into an ominous threat. What used to be peaceful has become violent. Plants sprout thorns and thistles. Animals have become wild and roam about devouring their fellows. Sickness and pestilence abound everywhere.
All of nature constitutes one organic unity. The curse has entered the very core of that organic whole and all of its spheres and aspects. Destruction has wormed its way into the very marrow of the system and from there its effect radiates throughout all of its parts. Indeed, it confronts the human race like one gone berserk.
In the Garden of Eden nature embraced our race with a disarming love and protected it, but now, driven by the curse, it appears as if this same nature directs its anger especially to the object of its former special love and leaps upon the human race to torment it, to squelch it, to vent every possible violence upon it until it is totally annihilated. The power of this cursed nature has become so much greater in comparison to the weakened human race. She attacks humanity in the world of plants with poison and thorn, in the animal kingdom with claw and fang, in the skies with lightning and gale, in the depths with fiery volcano and quake. She sets herself up as a possessed and angry colossus that leaps upon the human community with unrivaled destructive power. In this state of anger, her strength has been multiplied tenfold. She roars and snarls to terrify the people. Subdued by this violent anger, a terrorized race withdraws into itself as a snail hides in its shell and sneaks away, trembling with fear. 66All words or sentences written in capital letters in the text serve as editorial devices to draw attention. They are not so emphasized in the original.
Fear has become the essence of religion. Actually, the term fear gets in our way when we want to express our tender and inner feeling of love for our God. The Christian religion fills us with a Spirit that creates within us an emotion leading us to whisper in holy adoration, “Abba, Father!” (Mark 14:36; Rom. 8:15; Gal. 4:6). But if you turn to the Old Testament, whether you read the stories of Moses or about the Patriarchs, the Psalms or the prophets, it is always the fear of God that comes to the foreground. This fear is and will remain the dominant form in which godliness expresses itself. Even in the last book of the prophets, Malachi, the Lord asks, “And if I am a master, where is my fear?” (Mal. 1:6).77In the New International version (NIV), this phrase “my fear” reads “respect due to me.”
It could not be otherwise. It is difficult for us, living as we do in a modern world, to imagine concretely the fear and despair which our ancestors experienced because of the curse that brutalized nature after the fall.88The comment in Note 5 applies here as well. Their relationship to nature went far beyond mere dependence. That word is much too weak to convey the fear and terror with which that generation regarded nature with its unlimited powers that would brook no restraints and of which they became helpless prey. The human spirit was beset by apprehension, by anxiety and by terror unto death—by fear in the fullest sense of the word. Anyone so beset by terror and carnality and who had ceased worshipping God could hardly avoid regarding this all-powerful force of nature as the ultimate or highest power.
Nature worship and its close relative, subjection to evil spirits which were thought to be the basic cause behind the terrorism nature represented, arose out of this fear. Those who continued to believe that God retains power over nature and that the latter is His servant came to regard God with a similar kind of fear, so that fear of God became a central focus of their religion.
It is in this context that the need for miracles arose. The need arose because of the contrast between a weakened human race and a brutalized nature that had acquired such great and destructive powers. Humanity had become so impressed with and fearful of nature, that God was obscured and no longer noticed. He was invisible, while nature with its terrorizing powers was around them at all times and had to be taken into account constantly. The impression nature made upon the human race was so overwhelming that it destroyed human courage. Who could withstand nature? Who could oppose her? Who could overcome and subdue her?
Well, yet, it is true: faith in God had not disappeared altogether. It was dimly realized that the Creator of heaven and earth had to be more powerful. Sometimes His help was recognized, coming as it usually did via ordinary means. But the question could not be suppressed: is God, our God, really stronger than nature? Is He really its Lord and master? People would plead and pray, torture themselves and make offerings to God, but after all that, nature would gain the victory. Such situations further depressed faith in God. The final conclusion for most was that nature was the all-powerful one, not God. Fear for nature with its accompanying doubt as to God’s power had eventually to lead to the question whether God even exists. It was in order to take the wind out of the fearful faith-undermining experience that miracles became necessary. Whenever God would show His signs and miracles that so brilliantly displayed His power over nature, then fear for nature would go on the retreat and God becomes once again a refuge and rock for His children.
Revelation also became necessary in this context. In addition to God’s apparent powerlessness, He was invisible. Where was He? How could He be discovered? That is where revelation came in, already beginning in the Garden of Eden. He made promises and these were fulfilled. He announced judgement in the great flood and it came. He related to the Patriarchs as a man to his friend. Hence, in the community where this revelation was given, faith in God’s existence was either retained or revived. But this was a small community. Those who were blessed with this revelation were very few.
Among the other nations, faith in God faded away. Almost all of them succumbed either to nature worship or they subjected themselves to evil spirits. The time arrived when a new people had to be called and formed, a people among whom faith in God formed the foundation of their nation. To this end, the descendants of the Patriarchs had to go through the melting pot of Egypt. From there they emerged as one nation, called to leave Egypt and to take possession of Canaan and so to become the people of the Lord. It was at this point that God worked a miracle so grandiose and so overwhelming that it became for Israel the miracle that would remain for them the foundation of faith and hope throughout the ages.
The first miracles occurred in the presence of Pharaoh in his palace. Then came the miracles of judgement upon Pharaoh and his people. Finally, we witness the mighty miracle of Israel’s crossing of the Red Sea. The obvious intention here was a display of power in order to inculcate respect for God on the part of Egypt and its rulers. Other reasons for this display included the liberation of Israel and their establishment as a household of faith in the God of their fathers.
These miracles were preceded by revelation to Moses. God judged it necessary to make a deep and powerful impression on Moses of God’s holy existence. And then came the competition with the wise men of Egypt.
Take careful note of the following! How could these Egyptian wise men perform the miracles they did? The ancients had retained an instinctive knowledge or understanding of nature, handed over as tradition from generation to generation. This tradition included certain secrets that left the human race at the time with a remnant of control over nature. Superficial mockery may try to explain this all away as imagination and deceit, but it is not so treated in Scripture. We are told that the wise men of Egypt could indeed perform works that are beyond most of us today and that can be explained only in reference to a certain mysterious, instinctive knowledge of power over nature that has since then been lost.
Though we gladly acknowledge the existence of such knowledge at the time, it must simultaneously be conceded that it was mixed with a great deal of deceit and trickery. The source of the wise men’s magic was that traditional knowledge of nature. This secret knowledge had served for a long time to elevate the people of Egypt to a higher level of culture, but by this time it had deteriorated into deceitful magic. For this reason, Moses and Aaron stood up to them with a completely different power, the wonderful power of God. They did so in ways that are unfamiliar to the modern person, but that effectively demonstrated the emptiness of these Egyptian mysteries. The first cycle of miracles is thus aimed at counteracting the mysteries that still bloomed in Egypt.
Things became more serious upon completion of this cycle. Now came the miracles of judgement. These were mostly miracles for which the powers of nature were harnessed in order to fulfil the judgement of God on the pride of Pharaoh. The Egyptians were very proud of their river Nile and they worshipped it as an idol. And now God turned that same Nile, that idol, into His instrument for destroying Egypt’s pride.
Then came the miraculous plagues from the desert. These can only be explained in terms of an intensified working of nature, but so intensified that even the Egyptians had to acknowledge the working of a higher power, even though they continually retreated into their unbelief.
But then all the stops were pulled out. The first-born sons of Egypt died. Israel marched through the Red Sea. Now the people saw the full power of God and all His glory over nature at work. Miriam and all the women with her burst out into jubilation at such a display of wonderful power. And Moses shouted it out, “Who among the gods is like you, O Lord? Who is like you – majestic in holiness, awesome in glory, working wonders?” (Exodus 15:11).
The last miracle is the miracle at the beginning of Israel’s history that has forever been established as the witness to Jehovah’s unrivalled superiority over nature and its powers and thus has become the cornerstone of Israel’s religion. Israel will from here on time and again refer to this magnificent display of power. This event continued to provide them with a focus for all of their subsequent history and with a source of strength. “Jehovah, a God who works wonders,” is the call that accompanied them during their entry into Canaan. All the inhabitants of Canaan were terrified at the God of Israel. This reputation of a God more powerful than nature filled the nations with awesome fear and its experience filled the children of Israel with courage that enabled them to subdue Canaan.
In this way, faith in the living God was preserved for the benefit of the human race through the miraculous. The miraculous is not a mere appendage to the history of religion. It does not serve as mere decoration on a cake, something you could simply ignore. To the contrary, the miraculous had a most significant role to play. Out of it came revival and the reaffirmation of faith. Even the fact that we can believe in a living God today is, after so many centuries, still to be attributed to that miracle that took place at the beginning of Israel’s history.
The full significance of the miraculous cannot be appreciated, unless you go back to the ordinance of God that the human race is to subdue all of nature and all of the earth (Gen 1:26-28).99 This concerns the Cultural Mandate which is explained in the Introduction. Sin has robbed the human race of the crown of honour. After the fall, humanity was faced with unrestrained violence on the part of nature, helpless and impotent. Mankind was left with the question whether the God it adored was also impotent in the face of this turbulent creation. Or was this God in a position to lord it over nature and to protect its human victims from its violence?
The answer to this question could be given only by miracles. It had to become known that there is a power much greater than that of nature, one that can work or reveal itself in nature, control her and make her subservient to a higher goal. Spiritual or oral revelation would not be able to make the point sufficiently. There was need for a demonstration of power over the terrible terrors of nature to which an impotent race found itself subjected in fear. It is precisely this need that was supplied by the miracles at the birth of the people of Israel. That is the reason the Reformed churches, in distinction from some other traditions, did not ignore the Old Testament in order to bury themselves only in the New. The Reformed fathers constantly referred back to the beginning of Israel for the purpose of honouring the mighty revelation of the miraculous power of God in that birth. They understood that this miracle, for which there was no need in the Garden of Eden, had to come after the paradise tradition had worn off. A new faith had to be nurtured in Israel, so that eventually all nations of the earth would be blessed through that people.
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