Christians often call God’s word “living and active.” This is in reference to Hebrews 4:12 which says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
What does this mean? How is the word of God “living”? I suggest one example. We find some really challenging things in the text below, and in answering these challanges, we are challenged.
2 Samuel 24 presents multiple difficulties in understanding the text. First, David is incited to sin by God, “Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, ‘Go, number Israel and Judah’” (2 Samuel 24:1). Taking the census, we are told, was a sinful action. But, God also commands census taking in other places and it is presented as something good (Exod. 30:11–12; Num. 1:1–2). So, God seems to be commanding something bad, and we don’t know why it’s bad. Then, we see that 1 Chronicles 21 says that it is Satan, not God, who incited David to commit this sin: “Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel” (1 Chronicles 21:1).
So, we have three difficulties in this text that can be posed as questions. 1) How is it OK for God to incite sin? 2) Does Satan incite the sin or God? 3) Why is census-taking a sin?
In answering these questions, I think we see how the word is living.
1) God incites sin in a very different way than Satan does. God is in control of every atom in the universe and every action that takes place. The sins that occur in the world are, in that way, part of His plan. Now, it is very important to remember that God does not cause sin to take place. We know this because God is infinitely perfect and holy to the extent that He cannot sin (Dt. 32:4; Ecc. 3:14; Mt. 5:48; Ro. 11:33-36). But, when sin does take place, God is in control of it (Neh. 9:6; Ps. 102:25; Ac. 17:24; Heb. 11:3).
2) Therefore, 1 Chron. 21 explains to us how it is OK for God to incite sin. He uses Satan. Not in the sense that Satan is a puppet controlled by God’s strings. Satan is a free agent making his own choices, but God is in control of them. So, when Satan does something bad, like inciting David to sin, God is in control of that decision. In that way, it’s like God does it. But, remember that God is perfectly holy. So, when God allows Satan to incite David, and thereby is ultimately in control of the sin, God controls the situation without incurring guilt to Himself, because He’s perfect. God uses Satan and sin as tools to create goodness. Like He created everything from nothing, He creates good from evil. He takes things and makes their opposite (nothing > things; bad > good). This is a deep and difficult truth and a couple sentences could never do it justice, but the point remains. Such is the awesome perfection of our God.
3) The census taking was sinful because it was done in order to bolster military strength. The text implies that David wanted to amass an army in order to pridefully destroy other people and take their goods for his own. He seems to have let his success get to his head and begun to desire more and more. This is indicated by Joab’s quick response in questioning David’s motives (probably sensing David’s sinful incentive) and the word used for “numbering” which is applied to military enrollment (2 Sam. 24:1-3). John D. Rockefeller (one of the richest people who ever lived) responded to the question “How much money is enough?” by saying, “One more dollar.” David began to feel the desire for more that always outgrows its goal.
The other side of pride is always a lack of trust in God. This is the second way David is sinning. He is not trusting in God, but in men. This is a constant theme in the Old Testament – trust not in chariots or horses, but in the mighty arm of the Lord (Ex. 14:31; 2 Sa. 22:1-3; Ps. 18:2-3; 9:9-10; 115:9-11; 144:1-2).
How does this display the activity of the Bible?
We see in this passage that David is not trusting in the Lord. In the very same passage, we are confronted with three difficulties in the text. The very same text that displays a lack of trust in God, invites us to trust God. As we see David failing, God is offering us the opportunity to succeed where David did not. Will we trust that the difficulties in this passage are not an indication that God didn’t write them? Will we reject the temptation to think that God must not be in control because He allowed errors into His word? Will we ignore the siren call of academics who tell us that this is obviously a human book with human problems? The very same text that displays sin invites us to not sin. As we read this word in the presence of God, we are spoken to by His Spirit, asking us these questions. He is standing over our shoulder while we read, like a father teaching his son, saying to us, “You see what happened there, son? Now, you try to avoid that right now. Let’s see if you can do it.”
God put this book together so that it would convict, challenge, encourage and change us like this. But, it’s not only the way the book is organized, but the Holy Spirit who uses that organization to change us. When we encounter this perfect book, the perfect God who wrote it speaks to us. He designed it in such a way that, if we are willing, it will pierce our hearts and call us to repentance. When we repent, His living word leads us to forgiveness and joy. He designed it perfectly. This is just one small example of the innumerable ways God uses His word to change us. Let us be encouraged to excitement in reading His word. Let us expect to meet God and to be changed by Him. Let us see His word as a mountain that must be scaled in faith – a challenge. We need to read it on our knees and trust Him. The enemy not only wants us to mistrust God’s word, he also wants us to become bored with it. It’s been said that “only boring people get bored.” Well, only boring Christians get bored with the Bible. I get bored with it all the time. That doesn’t say anything about the Bible. It says something about me.
John Webster, in his book Holy Scripture, illustrates the need to approach the Bible as a living thing, and not as scientific data, “The active reading scripture as an instance of the fundamental pattern of all Christian existence, which is dying and rising with Jesus Christ through the purging and quickening power of the Holy Spirit. Reading scripture is best understood as an aspect of mortification and verification: to read scripture is to be slain and made alive … reading can only occur as a kind of brokenness, a relinquishment of willed mastery of the text” (87-88).
In a secular book called How to Read a Book, the “living” nature of written material is demonstrated by its ability to continually instruct the reader who never fully learns everything written (assuming the book is a really good one), “How can a book grow as you grow? It is impossible, of course; a book, once it is written and published, does not change. But what you only now begin to realize is that the book was so far above you to begin with that it has remained above you, and probably always will remain so. Since it is a really good book – a great book, as we might say – it is accessible at different levels. Your impression of increased understanding on your previous reading was not false. The book truly lifted you then. But now, even though you have become wiser and more knowledgeable, it can lift you again. It will go on doing this until you die.”
The infinitely knowledgeable and eternal God of all creation wrote the Bible. Therefore, even on a secular account, the Bible will be infinitely “growing” because we can never master it. But, the Bible isn’t just a book written by God and forgotten; it is attended to by God Himself as He guides us through its pages. In this way, His word is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword.