On Cherem and Justice II

If you’re talking about a restoration of God’s Law — as opposed to the Law grounded in the will of (certain) Men — then you will need to address the Cherem principle, one day or another.

I will be making two huge excerpts:

Note that — unlike the first post — I am breaking up my quote of McDurmon’s article into several parts, to insert my own commentary.

—-<Quote Begin>—

When did cherem jurisdiction change?

To begin his critical questions, Selbrede says, “We must ask, When, precisely, did cherem jurisdiction change? Christ’s conception? Death? Ascension? When Christ executed His priestly office for us? What precisely happened between that point and 70 A.D.? Was cherem unenforceable in Canaan when God’s Spirit departed the temple twice?”[3]  He goes on to pose the real heart of his challenge on this point: Zechariah 14:11 says cherem will have a terminus. When this verse is fulfilled, therefore, means a lot.

To begin with, the language of Selbrede’s question could be tightened up. He says this verse speaks of a “termination of cherem enforcement.” The verse goes beyond speaking of mere “enforcement,” however. It speaks of no more existence of cherem, at least within a particular setting. The Hebrew here is not an exact one-to-one science, but it is clear enough that it says something to the effect of, “cherem will not occur again,” etc. The emphasis here is on a final end: “no more,” “never again,” “not ever.” These two concepts of the end of enforcement and the end of existence could possibly mean the same thing, depending on what we mean by enforcement. If by “enforcement” we mean the existence of a jurisdiction altogether, then the terms are virtually synonymous, and Selbrede and I would be on the same page here. The term enforcement, however, can also refer to the practicality of enforcing, a practical need to enforce, or the willingness to enforce, and these are all entirely different matters not necessarily intended by this text. Yet this latter view seems to be the direction Selbrede leans.

Selbrede suggests that seeing a first-century fulfillment of this passage causes all kinds of exegetical nightmares (though to be fair he sees it causes problems for all eschatological positions), and warns that we do not want to be caught letting the tail wag the dog here. For his part, he suggests taking Old Princeton theologian B. B. Warfield’s distinct view of the millennium and eschatology so that it “dovetails nicely.” In my view, however, neither of these suggestions have as much solidity as he may like. As far as Warfield dovetailing, this requires that we look near the end of his view of the millennium, when the world is practically Christianized and there is no future threat of a rebellion or apostasy, etc., and everything will be smooth sailing until Christ returns. In this golden setting, there will be no need for cherem enforcement, practically speaking, even while the law remained on the books. Thus, the view relies on a practical or pragmatic interpretation of the terminus of cherem enforcement. I do not think this view squares with what the text says. I do not think it is talking about the practical need for cherem; I think it is speaking of the judicial end of cherem.

The “practical end” view would mean that judicially cherem still applied. This would mean that in a Warfield’s future world of billions of Christians, even if a single one still apostatized, blasphemed, falsely prophesied, etc., that person would still be liable for the cherem death penalty. So this view only works in a world in which it is absolutely certain there will never be another single cherem crime, and this would certainly take a fresh revelation from God. Judicially, otherwise, the law must remain on the books until Christ returns (in their view).

Further, we also all know that in that view, there is still a heavenly cherem that remains. In my view also, the heavenly judgment remains, for the heavenly throne room of God remains eternally, and every man must give an account at this final judgment. The final judgment, however you view it, is a cherem/anathema judgment. It is the time when even those who have spent their entire lives outside of the covenant of grace are now brought across the threshold of God’s most holy place and must at that point be judged in his presence. Thus, the text is not speaking of an absolute abolition of cherem altogether.

Cherem only applies within the boundaries of God’s covenants. All men are in covenant with Adam. Only believers are in the New Covenant with Christ. Only these survive the final cherem judgment with their most holy faith. The cherem spoken of in Zechariah was the shadow of this heavenly cherem, and was given during the Old Covenant. The end of cherem in Zechariah is the end of the earthly cherem, the shadow. Anyone within that Old Covenant who transgressed a relevant law could be liable to the earthly cherem institution. The Jerusalem spoken of in Zechariah, in which God is Lord over all, is the New Covenant, which includes only believers. By definition, therefore, there is no more cherem in it. This is what we see in Revelation 21–22 also, including 22:3 where, incidentally, we see Zechariah 14:11 quoted. But this same picture of the church still includes a world in which there are dogs, liars, and infidels outside the gates. This is clearly a picture of the New Covenant era. Inside the church, there is no curse, and outside the bounds of God’s covenant, there never was an earthly cherem law to begin with (else, we would see a biblical mandate to combine evangelism and cherem, which would be no different in practice than Islamic jihad, killing those who refuse to convert). Instead, God has created a New Jerusalem in this world in which there is no more cherem, and what cherem remains will be the final judgment for every man.

—-<Quote Ends>—

We are not Muslims.

It is important to understand why we are not Muslims.

Note that the Muslims do have a legal code, Sharia, and that legal code is going to be around long after today’s entirely arbitrary secularist legal code are rendered into complete meaninglessness, boiled down to just some version of:

“Powerful men telling the commoner trash what they may or may not do, regardless of what Our Betters may or may not have said earlier, and regardless of whether our commands have any connection with reality: genetic, economic, or physical.”

“We make reality with our words.”

No, men – even politically connected, very wealthy, and highly intelligent men – are not God.


Powerful Men don’t shape reality with their mere words, even if the lawyers and the judges and the media and the politicians and the soldiers and the police all agree that they do.

The fact that secular law is unpredictable and arbitrary makes their law worthless: Islamic law, however oppressive and tyrannical, is quite predictable and has a far stronger connection to reality than the secularist do!

(And centuries of development too: a long history of judicial application and experience matters!)

If we are not all going to be run by some version of Sharia or the arbitrary word of some Party-backed secularist strongman, we will need to master the Law of Moses, as modified by Jesus Christ.

This will take work. And it will take (immediately) personal, familial, church, and (in time) neighbourhood, regional, and national respect for and obedience to God.

Redemption, compassion, prosperity, liberty does not start at the throne of some mighty man: it starts at the throne of God, set in our hearts.

And it expands by our words and our examples and our actions. When we think we are being watched, and when we think no one is watching.

(For there are always at least one pair of eyes,
watching all that we do.)

—-<Quote Begin>—

I do agree with Martin that there are exegetical stresses when it comes to interpreting Zechariah 12–14. We have already covered  some  of  these  in  our  previous  chapter  on  prophecy  and eschatology. Warfield’s attempt does not solve the problem in my opinion. A preterist view does. The final earthly cherem, under the Mosaic Covenant, came with the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The kingdom was taken from them and given to a spiritual Jerusalem, bearing the fruit of God’s kingdom (Matt. 21:43). In this New Jerusalem, there is no more cherem. With the change in the nature of the temple, land, priesthood, etc., as we have said, there also is no more earthly cherem jurisdiction. These things are all perfectly consistent, and depend upon a definitive, judicial view of the terminus of cherem, not a pragmatic view that is not even suggested in the text to begin with.

When the change of jurisdiction took place “precisely” is of less concern than one may think. We have seen Gary North argue earlier that, “This resurrection of saints [Matt. 27:50–53] revealed a definitive break with the Old Covenant’s legal order, including its sanctions.” There is certainly something to this point as a definitive announcement. But New Testament definitive announcements can be difficult to render into definitive historical realities. When Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30), what exactly was finished? Whatever it was, it was finished on the cross, but before his actual death, and certainly before his resurrection, ascension, AD 70, and more. But it was “finished.” Yet we also read in Hebrew 8:13 that the Old Covenant was ready to pass away—meaning, for all of its tottering, fleeting “last days,” it had not quite passed away yet at that time. I join the preterist interpreters as seeing this as being completed in AD 70, which was the final end to the Old Covenant. Yet, John 19:30 tells us that at least part of the Old Covenant had already ended on the cross when Christ said it did.

I do not intend to hash out when precisely amidst all of this cherem jurisdiction ended, if it did end with some particular detail before AD 70. I stand certain, though, that by AD 70, it certainly ended, for that is the final stop for all the Old Covenant distinctives, and the Mosaic cherem law was definitely an Old Covenant distinctive.

—<Quote Ends>—

We will have to eventually work out when the cherem jurisdiction ended.

We do know that the Old Covenant cherem principle, tied to seed and land, was concluded with the destruction of the Second Temple in AD 70.

—<Quote Begins>—

Cherem and the Land

Selbrede asks of the relationship between the Old Covenant cherem doctrine and the Holy Land. This is also related to a point I made in The Bounds of Love regarding the land vomiting out defiled inhabitants; in the New Testament, Jesus himself is the one said to do the vomiting, not the Land. It seems somewhat suspect, Martin suggests, first, because if cherem only applied in the Land, then anyone guilty of a cherem crime could evade punishment by simply stepping one foot outside of the boundary. I do not see the force in this criticism at all, for this applies to all earthly jurisdiction and enforcement of all criminal law in all of history. Anyone indicted for a crime can, if they think they can get away with it, run, and many do. Depending on what jurisdictions and what crimes we are talking about, fleeing may be very effective. In the older days of the United States, for example, it was often the case that a criminal wanted in one state could simply hit the road and live in another. That is more difficult today with the vast centralization and information sharing of law enforcement agencies, but even now people live with outstanding warrants all the time. Of course, you can step up jurisdiction to the international scale as well. How many classic songs or movies feature people fleeing to Mexico to evade American police, or vice versa to escape the Federales? Certainly there is an element of God’s providence in all of this as well. For example, God specially decreed the cherem of the Amalekites (1 Sam. 15), and Saul is said to have carried it out to the last person except for the King (which Samuel killed). Yet we later find out there are stray Amalekites who obviously escaped. Haman is one, as we saw above. Likewise, the young man who falsely took credit for Saul’s death was an Amalekite. David killed him in 2 Samuel 1. Both of these Amalekites were cherem, yet both escaped the fate of the cherem war. Neither, however, escaped their fate in God’s providence.

The flaw of this criticism should have grown even more apparent when he expanded it to the law for apostate cities. “If you know your city is being indicted for the offense of Deut. 13:12–16, it makes sense to get out of dodge,” he says.[4] The defeater for that challenge is here: this is exactly what Jesus told his disciples to do! We would all agree that the judgment upon Jerusalem in AD 70 was in fact a cherem judgment, and there is probably very little debate that it was an instance of Deuteronomy 13:12–16 imposed by God himself. Here is Jesus’ advice for his followers when that judgment came:

But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written (Luke 21:20–22).

Did this invalidate the cherem law? Not at all. Jesus was affirming that judgment could be escaped by physical removal.

Selbrede adds another point suggesting that the New Testament does not end earthly cherem jurisdiction, but rather expands it to the whole world (for example, citing Romans 4:13 and Psalm 87). The New Jerusalem, however, is not global in the sense that the whole world is now the Holy Land. Holiness of the actual land or ground in Scripture is always typological or temporary, pointing to fulfillment in the church.

Take a couple of analogous examples often neglected. When Moses encounters the burning bush, he is told to take off his shoes because he is on holy ground (Ex. 3:5). He was in Horeb, near Sinai, at the time. This was not part of the Holy Land. Yet the land at that moment was holy because God’s temporary presence was there. I am going to go out on a limb here and say that when God left, Moses put his shoes back on. A similar episode occurs in, or at least right by, the Promised Land, yet still demands a temporary change. When Joshua encounters the “Captain of the Host of the Lord,” generally regarded as a theophany, if not Christ himself, he is instructed to take off his shoes because he was on holy ground (Josh. 5:13–15). Why was this the case? Was it the nature of the Holy Land itself? Did the Israelites never wear shoes then? Of course not. This was special, because God had manifested himself in that place.

So, we can see there is something clearly special about the presence of God in the land. The special holiness of the land was due to the fact that God’s presence was there. Granted, there were degrees of this holiness expressed and different physical and moral boundaries related to them, but the presence is the key. Likewise, we saw earlier that the Israelites after captivity understood this themselves. They decline to enforce certain cherem death penalties during the second temple era, when the presence of God was not in the temple.

Yet Selbrede is right that the future Zion will be transnational. Indeed! The church is the fulfillment of this. The church is now the temple and the dwelling place of God. There is no way to deduce a geographical applicability argument for cherem death penalties from this idea. The church is not a place, but a people. Anathema laws apply universally in the church: there can be excommunications. To apply physical cherem death penalties universally would be to call to implement executions of all false worship throughout the world. As we discussed with Deuteronomy 13 and 17 earlier, there is no escape from this conclusion. Of course, the premise is wrong to begin with. We are not called to kill infidels, apostates, blasphemers, and sabbath breakers, certainly not universally, as a mission, and as a foreign policy.

—<Quote Ends>—

“We are not Muslims.”

“Why not?”

“Because the Law was a ministry of death: Christ came to begin a ministry of life and repentance and forgiveness and restoration.”

“So the Law  has been repealed!”

“No. The first table of the Law – against blasphemy, rebellious children, etc – is in force, but is not to be enforced by the sword: excommunication and shunning is sufficient. The second table of the Law – against murder, theft, etc – is still to be enforced by the sword if need be.”

“So, no pious tyranny.”

“Secularist tyrannies are murderous, delusional and demonic enough: no need for Christians to oppress the masses as well. But remember, the first table of the law has not been annulled, but – like the second table – will be enforced by God Himself at the Last Judgement.”

That’s why we are not Muslims?”

“Muslims are here to enforce their definition of the Law, with swords and submission and subjugation of the kafer filth under the heel of the righteous. Christians are here to heal the world, to lead it to repentance, blessings, life, prosperity, liberty, peace.”

—<Quote Begins>—

The purpose of temporal judgment

These next two points from Selbrede are heard frequently coming from critics within the circles that take seriously the application of God’s law to the civil realm. They are summarized some- thing like this: “McDurmon’s theory takes away the real force of civil government!” The idea is that by removing several of the civil government punishments for religious crimes, these proponents imagine it then impossible to have a Christian nation or a godly nation. Such a nation, in their view, must absolutely be able to remove rivals by executing blasphemers, adulterers, etc. I certainly do not want to put these words in Selbrede’s mouth, but since the general thrust of these two points of his is very close to that of the people also promoting these views, I find it convenient to address them both together.

Selbrede argues from Isaiah 26:9–10 that the purpose of temporal judgment is in part to instruct the world in righteousness. If we do not impose these judgments, we are warned, the wicked will not change their ways. Selbrede formulates his argument: “Those who defend the view that God relocated jurisdiction from ‘ judgments in the earth’ to ‘ judgments in heaven’ must explain how it is that Isa. 26:9–10 is now obsolete.”

Surely, this is not very thoroughly thought out. If we are to say that my view of the change in cherem jurisdiction renders Isaiah 26:9–10 obsolete, then any change in any law or judgment any- where would fall under the same charge. This occurs on multiple levels. For example, we all agree than the ceremonial law is now rendered obsolete. Yet there were death penalties associated with certain boundaries of the sacrificial, priestly, and temple system that even Bahnsen, as we have seen, considered abrogated. How do these abrogations not fall under Selbrede’s censure also? R. J. Rushdoony, for example, believed the death penalty for sabbath breaking is abrogated in the New Testament era. Selbrede agrees on this law. Why, then, does this change in temporal judgments not also render Isaiah 26:9–10 “obsolete”?

We can go yet one more step and remember there was a time when God had not yet given any laws for civil punishments. It is generally understood and agreed upon that civil government punishments entered with Noah and the death penalty for murder (Gen. 9:5–6). Before this time, God allowed a system so radical that there was not even a jurisdiction to punish a murderer. In fact, when the murderer, Cain, feared revenge from other men, God placed a mark upon him to prevent temporal punishment from coming upon him. This act had its own didactic effects: Cain’s grandson Lamech decided he could commit even more evil and get away with it even more (Gen. 4:13–15; 23–24)! These negative didactic results, however, do not in themselves prove that God cannot reveal changes in temporal punishments, or that the purpose of them is substantially altered in general.

In any of these cases, while details can change, and applications can change, and even jurisdictions can change, the main purposes of civil punishment remain the same: to remove evil, to instruct in and promote good behavior, etc.

God is sovereign over how and when he reveals temporal, civil punishments. He can add, and he can take away. If anything, the removal of cherem jurisdiction in the New Testament makes more sense than many of these others. As we have explained, it is the Holy Spirit’s job to capture, train, and retain the hearts of God’s people. That is the very core of the New Covenant. The more this succeeds in human history, the more spiritual insight inspires world thought and government, the less civil punishment we will need.

This is all the more true when it comes to religious belief: in the New Covenant, the Holy Spirit is unleashed and is sufficient. There is no need to kill infidels of any sort. This change makes more sense with progressive revelation than other changes we have seen. Further, we can add that even if we remove all civil judgment in the earth, that does not mean his judgments in general are removed. The church, the body of Christ, proclaims the truth of his word, and thus his judgments as well. This is the primary way the world will “learn righteousness.”

—<Quote Ends>—

The Power of the Word, not the Power of the Sword.

Mercy and truth from the heart, not a badge and a gun and pious (or scientific, or ideological, or nationalist/tribal) babble.

—<Quote Begins>—

A final note on this point: the ultimate thrust of the “sons of Belial” angle is that when a nation does not defend its religious foundations with death penalties, then it is doomed to some kind of cultural suicide. I find it hard to take seriously anyone who has read the law, and has read the history of Old Testament Israel, and yet thinks incorporating such laws today would save our civilizations. Israel had these laws on their books the whole time. Yes, there were times of Reformation, but anytime and every time the people’s hearts strayed, they lost it all again and the nation was overrun with every imaginable child of Belial. In every such case, the laws were no protection. The laws were only coincidental when the people’s hearts changed to begin with. Well, this is the whole difference between the Old and New Covenants. With the Holy Spirit unleashed, when the day comes that hearts and minds are changed enough that a majority may possibly assent to laws “protecting” Christian doctrines, etc., the truth is that we will not need them. If we cannot achieve such a supermajority, then the laws will help us no more than they helped in corrupt ancient Israel. If the idea is rather that an insistent minority of Christians can somehow achieve power and then lead a national reform with such death penalties, then we are in for a bloodletting. If they think they will only need political power and the overhanging threat of deadly punishment, what kind of future success do you see for such a national pressure-cooker?

It is interesting that this series of moral and intellectual pressures is reflected in observations made by R. J. Rushdoony, with whom I am nevertheless in disagreement on some of the death penalties, it would seem. Recognizing that the foundations of society may be subverted and at war with the views of a humanistic majority, he wrote,

What, then, must Christians do? Some ask, are we to work for the execution of all idolaters in our midst today? The question presupposes either stupidity, or malice, or both. It is our duty to evangelize, to work for the conversion of men and nations to Christ as Lord and Savior. At the same time, as part of our evangelism, we witness to the meaning of covenant law, and, in our own personal dealings, we live by it: we practice the tithe, restitution, debt-free living, and much, much more. Only as God’s law is made the practice of men can it become the practice of nations. Only those laws are enforceable which virtually all men are already enforcing in their own lives, so that the state’s law affects a minuscule minority.[7]

This is the practical reality: either we are stupid and/or malicious, or we do not really need those penalties. When the day comes that most are already enforcing them through self-government, only a tiny minority would be affected—in which case, I would argue, we still would not need them.

Finally, it is interesting also that Rushdoony’s comment suggest that the law would apply to “all idolators”—not just terrorists and vicious revolutionaries. I agree. I agree that we also do not practically need them. I just happen to believe also that God’s rev- elation for the New Covenant takes them away altogether.

—<Quote Ends>—

The point bears repeating, once more with feeling:

“…the ultimate thrust of the “sons of Belial” angle is that when a nation does not defend its religious foundations with death penalties, then it is doomed to some kind of cultural suicide. I find it hard to take seriously anyone who has read the law, and has read the history of Old Testament Israel, and yet thinks incorporating such laws today would save our civilizations.”

Old Testament Israel is an historical example of the inability of the Law to save a civilization.

The Law brings death: Grace from the Holy Spirit brings repentance, salvation, life.

This does not void the Law, or weaken it’s power or effect in the slightest.

  • Murder is still to be punished by the State… and, in time, before God’s throne. And of course, the unrepentant murderer is to be tossed out of the church, the Body of Christ.
  • Blasphemy is not to be punished by the State, but will be punished before God’s throne. And the blasphemer is to be tossed out of the Body of Christ as well, on this world.

We Christians simply realize that the Law does not save.

Faith in Jesus Christ saves.

Faith is manifested by His followers naturally obeying the Law, now inscribed in our hearts, without the need of State compulsion. The unrestrained power of the Holy Spirit in our heart and mind and soul is sufficient.

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