“THEN A NEW KING, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt” (Ex. 1:8). Those who learn nothing from history are destined to repeat all its mistakes, we are told; or, alternatively, the only thing that history teaches is that nothing is learned from history. Whimsical aphorisms aside, one cannot long read Scripture without pondering the sad role played by forgetting.
Examples abound. One might have expected, after the Flood, that so sweeping a judgment would frighten postdiluvian human beings into avoiding the wrath of God, but that is not what happens. God leads Israel out of bondage, deploying spectacular plagues and the crossing of the Red Sea, but mere weeks elapse before the Israelites are prepared to ascribe their rescue to a god represented by a golden calf. The book of Judges describes the wretched pattern of sin, judgment, rescue, righteousness, followed by sin, judgment, rescue, righteousness – the wearisome cycle spiraling downward. One might have thought that under the Davidic dynasty, kings in the royal line would remember the lessons their fathers learned, and be careful to seek the blessing of God by faithful obedience; but that is scarcely what occurred. After the catastrophic destruction of the northern kingdom and the removal of its leaders and artisans to exile under the Assyrians, why did not the southern kingdom take note and preserve covenantal fidelity? In fact, a bare century-and-a-half later the Babylonians subject them to a similar fate. Appalling forgetfulness is not hard to find in some of the New Testament churches as well.
So the forgetfulness of Egypt’s rulers, aided by a change of dynasty, is scarcely surprising. A few hundred years is a long time. How many Christians in the West have really absorbed the lessons of the evangelical awakening, let alone of the magisterial Reformation?
Not far from where I am writing these lines is a church that draws five or six thousand on a Sunday morning. Its leaders have forgotten that it began as a church plant a mere two decades ago. They now want to withdraw from the denomination that founded them, not because they disagree theologically with that denomination, not because of some moral flaw in it, but simply because they are so impressed by their own bigness and importance that they are too arrogant to be grateful. One thinks of seminaries that have abandoned their doctrinal roots within one generation, of individuals, not the least scholars, who are so impressed by novelty that clever originality ranks more highly with them than godly fidelity. Nations, churches, and individuals change, at each step thinking themselves more “advanced” than all who went before.
To our shame, we forget all the things we should remember.