Israel’s persistent forgetting of God, which led it into idolatry, brought them eventually into judgment. The Israelites forgot God initially through carelessness. They were distracted by the needs of the times. They were focused so much on the issues of the present that they neglected the foundational truths of the past. They disobeyed the commandments intended for their health and protection, and they forgot God. Thus, when the idols of the peoples offered quick solutions to their needs, the Israelites, who had forgotten God carelessly, were only too ready to forget Him deliberately. They were willing to set aside the God who had saved them because the gods of the peoples seemed ready, willing, and able to help.
It is easy for us as modern Christians to point the finger at the Israelites and take them to task for the fact that they forgot God. The complaining we see in the wilderness, the cycle of apostasy, judgment, and restoration that we see in Judges, the good king/bad king alternations that we see in 1–2 Kings—these all emphasize the incessant inability of the Israelites to heed Moses’ admonition to “take care lest you forget the LORD, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Deut. 6:12). We get tired when we read through Jeremiah and chapter after chapter is devoted to enumerating the sins of Israel and telling of Israel’s coming judgment. We feel that we are superior to Israel, more spiritual, less likely to forget God.
But we, too, get distracted by the demands of our days, by the busyness of our times. We forget that as Moses warned that declining from the commandments of God displays a forgetting of God, the same applies to us. We tend to think that ignoring, or rather, not fully living up to one commandment of God is a small thing. But the result is not simply disobedience. It is the beginning of idolatry, of making a god in our own image, a god we can easily obey. But did Jesus not say, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15)? Yet, we find His commandments so easy to ignore. “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Eph. 4:32), Paul says, but we want to hold on to offenses and resentments. It feels good to bear a grudge. But that is not the way Christ teaches. To bear a grudge, to envy the gifts and graces of others, to covet the possessions of others—these are steps on the way to forgetting God.
We are not to neglect meeting together, “as is the habit of some,” but encourage one another (Heb. 10:25). But it is easier to neglect that meeting. Other things must be done; other things are more important. I remember a fellow student when I was in graduate school. He was a New Testament specialist. But he did not go to church on Sunday. I once asked him why. He said that he had better things to do on a Sunday morning. I knew other students, mostly undergraduates, who were mostly diligent about attending Sunday morning services but not Sunday evening worship. The explanation? They had to study for Monday’s classes.
These things are so easy to understand, so easy even to empathize with. Yet, it is the beginning of forgetting God. The demands of life pile up and it’s all too easy to skip church. We need to love our neighbors as ourselves, but it’s so inconvenient. It requires too much time, too much energy. So we don’t. We give them a pat on the back and wish them well, but we don’t provide what they need (see James 2:14–17). Such is the beginning of the careless forgetting of God. But it doesn’t stop there. It develops into an active resentment of those who would place demands on our time and commitments. And before we know it, we have forgotten God. Even worse, we have begun to follow other gods and have become committed to their ways.