I think it can be very arrogant and ignorant to read about the failures of people in the Bible and to talk about those people as though they’re completely dense or slow or idiotic in light of the foolish things they did or the obvious responsibilities they neglected. Treating historical figures condescendingly is easy for any sinner to do because we’re generally self-righteous at heart, and it’s easy for any 21st-century American to do because life is easy and comfortable for us. But realistically, we do not often face trials like wandering for forty years in the wilderness (Israelites grumbling) or being hunted by a wicked and bloodthirsty government (Elijah fleeing) or being directly associated with Christ as He was being unjustly tried and sentenced to capital punishment (Peter denying). I’m not saying that the Bible minimizes these sins. In fact, it sheds a very negative and shameful light on those who chose to compromise. But listen to Paul’s humble and watchful perspective as he talks about the sins of those who have gone before us:
“Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did. Do not be idolaters as some of them were; as it is written, “The people sat down to eat and drink and rose up to play.” We must not indulge in sexual immorality as some of them did, and twenty-three thousand fell in a single day. We must not put Christ to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents, nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:6-12).
If you ever find yourself wondering how in the world the Israelites always turned away from God or why it took the disciples so long to figure out who Jesus really was or what the problem was with all the evil kings of Israel — if you ever find yourself unable to understand the sins or weaknesses of those who have gone before us — put your hand on your mouth and be concerned for your soul. You are in a very dangerous position. The sins of others are to sober us and make us vigilant, not lead us into light-heartedness and self-confidence and an “I-can’t-believe-they-did-that” mentality.
I do believe there’s a place for righteous incredulity. I don’t ever want to take sin lightly or fail to be devastated by its appearance. But there’s a difference between being humbly incredulous and being arrogantly self-confident. The former produces spiritual sober-mindedness. The latter leads to unguarded presumption.
All too often I refuse to see my own spiritual ugliness in the mirror of Scripture. I see David committing adultery with Bathsheba and murdering Uriah; I see Saul illegimately offering sacrifices and having the kingdom taken away; I see Simon trying to buy the ability to distribute the Holy Spirit and being rebuked by the apostles. But I don’t see my wickedness, my rebellion, my foolishness, my wandering heart. I don’t see the reflection of myself that God wants me to see.
Paul didn’t say that the rebellious Israelites were meant to be a laughingstock. He said that they were meant to be an example. “Let anyone who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall.”