Sunday, February 27, 2011

An Alternate Ending--Why Choose Death?

I grew up in in a time when "Choose Your Own Adventure" books were all the rage. These classic books allowed the reader to make key decisions at various points throughout the plot, all of which ultimately determined the outcome of the book.

Enter the submarine? Turn to page 21. Go back to the train station? Turn to page 40.

What kept children interested were the dozens of destinies that lay within one book's pages. The reader never knew when a seemingly "good" decision would lead to the story quickly ending in death and destruction only a few pages later.

As one who hates a miserable ending, I wasn't really a fan of the books. Instead, I was the one who would flip and skim until I found the last page of the happy, successful version of the story before backtracking through the choices to see what would lead me to that end.

Alternate endings may sound like the substance of fiction, but they're not really. One's choices do determine the end of the story. Granted, sometimes, it may seem like we're shooting in the dark at a target a mile away, but other times, God clearly reveals what choices will lead to a bad ending.

Those are the times we whisper in sadness, "It didn't have to be this way."

I'm still stuck in the last days of Israel, as Jerusalem lays under siege from Babylon and Judah's last King Zedekiah refuses to make one simple decision that could have saved not only the physical nation, itself, but also the lives of his people, his wives, his children.

Jerusalem was going to fall. God's holy people were headed for captivity in Babylon--that much of the story was certain. God's prophets has foretold as much. The "what" was definite. It was just the "when" and the "how" that were up for grabs.

The "when" was postponed more than once when a king submitted himself to God. For Zedekiah, the most recent example he should have remembered (from a little over a decade before) was King Josiah who had cleaned house in Israel, choosing to submit to God and follow His Word rather than submit to an immediate destiny of captivity.

It didn't have to end in captivity for Zedekiah, either. After King Nebuchadnezzar took Jerusalem, he set up Zedekiah as king. But, Zedekiah chose evil over holiness. The chronicler sums up his life in a few swift sentences, none more telling than this one: "But he stiffened his neck and hardened his heart against turning to the LORD God of Israel" (2 Chron. 36:13).

With the "when" of total annihilation drawing nearer because of Zedekiah's and the remaining people's refusal to turn back to God, Jeremiah warned Zedekiah: "Bring your necks under the yoke of the king of Babylon and serve him and his people, and live! Why will you die, you and your people, by the sword, famine and pestilence, as the LORD has spoken to that nation which will not serve the king of Babylon?" (Jer. 27:12-13).

Here, Jeremiah pleaded with him to submit to the "what" and "when," to serve their captors. Zedekiah did neither, choosing instead to rebel against the yoke of Babylon, and in doing so, he altered the "how" Jerusalem would fall.

Zedekiah knew it was coming, and at the very end when he demanded an audience with the prophet Jeremiah, he asked for an honest blow-by-blow of what awaited, the "how" of Jerusalem's destruction.

Jeremiah didn't mince words: "Thus says the LORD God of hosts, the God of Israel, 'If you will indeed go out to the officers of the king of Babylon, then you will live, this city will not be burned with fire, and you and your household will survive. But if you will not...then this city will be given over to the hand of the Chaldeans; and they will burn it with fire, and you yourself will not escape from their hand...They will also bring out all your wives and your sons to the Chaldeans" (Jer. 38:17-18,23).

Zedekiah listened, but then said "I dread the Jews who have gone over to the Chaldeans" (Jer. 38:19). Pleading, Jeremiah reassured him, "They will not give you over. Please obey the LORD in what I am saying to you, that it may go well with you and you may live" (Jer. 38:20).

Consider the different "how" ending God was mercifully offering through the words "that you may live." As He would offer many years later through His son on the cross, here first, He offered Life instead of Death.

In the end, though, Zedekiah doesn't choose this alternate ending because of one thing--he feared man more than he feared God.

He chose to die when he could have chosen to live. And as a result, the Babylonians "slew their young men with the sword...and had no compassion on young man or virgin, old man or infirm" (2 Chron. 36:17). They "burned the house of God and broke down the wall of Jerusalem, and burned all its fortified buildings with fire" (2 Chron. 36:19). And finally, "They slaughtered the sons of Zedekiah before his eyes, then put out the eyes of Zedekiah and bound him with bronze fetters and brought him to Babylon" (2 Kin. 25:7).

Death. Destruction. Emotional and physical pain.

It didn't have to end this way. There really was an alternative Zedekiah could have chosen, one that was spelled out for him in black and white more than once...but one he refused to believe because his trust was not in God.

We are all like Zedekiah more than we may think. Although our single soul's decision to place our faith in God alone won't alter the course of a nation's total destruction, in a way, it will...because one + one + one can change individual lives, can change the world for good or for evil.

And just like Zedekiah, for every man or woman in this world who confesses Jesus as Lord and devotes his life in submission to his heavenly King, there is an alternate ending available from the eternal destruction that has already been written in the heavenly history books.

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