Twisting God’s Arm

Numbers 11:4 - The rabble with them began to crave other food, and again the Israelites started wailing and said, "If only we had meat to eat!"

Numbers 32:5 - "If we have found favor in your eyes," they said, "let this land be given to your servants as our possession. Do not make us cross the Jordan."

1 Samuel 8:5 - They said to Samuel, "You are old, and your sons do not walk in your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have."

2 Kings 20:1-3 - In those days Hezekiah became ill and was at the point of death. The prophet Isaiah son of Amoz went to him and said, "This is what the Lord says: Put your house in order, because you are going to die; you will not recover." Hezekiah turned his face to the wall and prayed to the Lord, "Remember, O Lord, how I have walked before you faithfully and with wholehearted devotion and have done what is good in your eyes." And Hezekiah wept bitterly.

To twist someone's arm means to force them to do something which they are not inclined to do. This idiom is generally used when a favor is "manipulated" from the person whose arm is twisted. Although we don't like to admit it, we twist arms all the time. We all have our ways of sweet-talking family and friends, employers and employees, close colleagues and casual contacts. We use varying degrees of "arm twisting"--from delicate handling to near arm-breaking. Occasionally we may twist a person's arm "unintentionally," but usually it's easy to detect a selfish motive on our part--especially when we do a little honest soul-searching.

Is it possible to twist God's arm? Yes! In what way? Certainly we can't twist the Lord's arm in the sense of infringing on the sovereign will of God which has been decreed from all eternity. However, it is possible to selfishly force God's hand into allowing us to do or have what He knows is not the best for us. Christians have been known to whine and pout and even beg the Lord like spoiled children for experiences and other things which He doesn't desire to give them.

Amazingly, God sometimes grants us our wish! This does not mean, however, that God is pleased with these kinds of transactions. He knows that these requests are not in our best interests and He also knows the undesirable consequences that will follow. But God allows His arm to be twisted when we insist that "not Thy will, but mine be done." Many Christians have learned the hard way what the unthankful people of Israel learned so long ago: "He gave them their request but sent leanness into their soul" (Psalm 106:15).

A number of biblical examples of twisting God's arm are included in the Old Testament history of Israel. Since all of these cases were "written for our learning" (Romans 15:4 and 1 Corinthians 10:11), it is a good idea for us to examine them and learn the lessons before we make the same mistakes. Preventive maintenance is always better than "picking up the pieces!" Let us briefly consider a few of these Old Testament examples of twisting God's arm.

In Numbers 11 we have the account of the children of Israel complaining about the manna. They were not content with the staple food that God had miraculously provided for them. They wanted "meat to eat" (11:4). Their dissatisfaction was further evidence that they had rejected the Lord (11:20), and although He was displeased with their complaint, He told them that He would grant them their desire. In fact, He said that He would give them so much meat to eat that it would "come out of their nostrils" until they would be sick of it (11:20)! Sure enough, God provided the people with all the meat they wanted, and true to their selfish spirit, they greedily gorged themselves (11:32). Thus along with the overwhelming supply of meat, the hand of God's judgment came upon them (11:33-34). Their ingratitude and selfish indulgence was evidence of the discontent which had caused them to twist God's arm. Arm-twisting always stems from a self-centered motive.

In Numbers 32 we read that two and one half tribes of Israel did not want to go into the land of promise that God had provided for His people. Reuben, Gad and half of the tribe of Manasseh decided that the land on the east side of the Jordan River was more to their liking and entreated Moses, "Do not make us cross the Jordan" (32:5). Moses explained to them that this selfish request was not only discouraging to the other tribes (32:7), but also added fuel to the burning anger of the Lord (32:14). At this point the 2 1/2 tribes bargained with Moses and promised that in return for their petition they would fight alongside the other tribes until the land of Canaan was conquered, and then return to live on the "wrong side" of the Jordan (32:16-19).

While this arrangement was not God's original intention for the 2 1/2 tribes, He told them that they could do what they wanted (32:31). However, bad fallout was sure to follow this arm-twisting--it occurred almost immediately, as well as years later. In Joshua 22, soon after the land was conquered, a misunderstanding between the 2 1/2 tribes and the rest of Israel almost resulted in civil war. The misunderstanding was directly related to the fact that the 2 1/2 tribes had been unwilling to settle in the promised land as God had originally intended. Many generations later, when the Assyrian Empire attacked the nation of Israel, it was the 2 1/2 "trans-Jordan" tribes which were the first to be defeated and taken away into exile. (See 1 Chronicles 5:26.) Somewhere along the line, bad fallout will always follow the twisting of God's arm.

In 1 Samuel 8 we learn that Israel wanted to be like the surrounding nations--they wanted to have a king (8:5). The prophet Samuel was displeased with this request because he knew that this was not God's will for Israel (8:6). God intended Israel to be a theocracy and as such He would directly rule His people. But the people pressed for a king and the Lord told Samuel to "listen to the voice of the people." (8:7). God allowed His arm to be twisted and let Israel have their desired king. The Lord's comment to Samuel was that the people "have not rejected you, but they have rejected Me from being king over them" (8:7). Many chapters of Holy Scripture record the sad repercussions of Israel's covetous request for a king so that they could be like other nations. From heavy taxation to evil leadership, Israel "reaped what they had sown" (Galatians 6:7). Although we sometimes get our own way, twisting God's arm never results in the full blessing of God.

The petition of King Hezekiah in 2 Kings 20 is another classic case of twisting God's arm. Because it comes so "close to home" for most of us, it's well worth a few paragraphs of discussion and application. Hezekiah was one of the good kings of Judah. He banned the idolatry that had crept into the nation and he brought about many reforms in the land. (Read 2 Kings 18:1-7.) He exhibited great trust in the Lord in the face of overwhelming odds when Jerusalem was threatened by the invading Assyrians. As a result, he witnessed one of the great miracles of the Old Testament. In one night 185,000 Assyrian troops were struck down by the Angel of the Lord as God honored the trust of Hezekiah and delivered Jerusalem. (Read 2 Kings 18:8-19:37.) The city of Jerusalem never was taken over by the Assyrian empire and a primary reason was the great faith of good King Hezekiah. Thus it is with some disappointment that we come to the events in 2 Kings 20.

About the time of Jerusalem's miraculous deliverance, Hezekiah became mortally ill. The prophet Isaiah came to Hezekiah with a message from the Lord: "Set your house in order, for you shall die and not live" (20:1). But Hezekiah was unwilling to accept God's timing and begged God for a longer life. The Scripture says that he was bitter. (See 2 Kings 20:3 as well as Isaiah 38:15,17.) Bitterness is always an indication that our attitude towards God is not the greatest. King Hezekiah began to bargain with God on the basis of his life of faith and good behavior. "I have walked before Thee in truth and with a whole heart, and have done what is good in Thy sight." (20:3). Once again we see that God allowed His arm to be twisted. The Lord promised to heal Hezekiah and add 15 more years to his life. Hezekiah was even able to "force" God to give him a miraculous sign. Exactly how God caused the reading of the "sundial" to reverse itself we don't know, but we do know that such a request was not a sign of a strong faith on the part of Hezekiah. God had stated categorically that He would both heal Hezekiah and lengthen his life, yet Hezekiah still demanded a sign. It reminds us of the weak faith of Gideon who, years before, had "put out the fleece." Weak faith and arm-twisting generally go hand in hand.

When we look at the writing of King Hezekiah recorded in Isaiah 38:9-22, we are at first impressed with the sincerity and logic of his request for restoration to life and health. Hezekiah was certainly not "breaking God's arm" with a materialistic or worldly demand. According to his prayer he only wanted to live longer in order to serve the Lord. And yet the emphasis of his prayer on his own desire for longer life and earthly welfare, apart from an acknowledgment of "if God wills," might be an indication of his reluctance to submit to the perfect will of God.

Obviously, for us to pray to the Lord for health and healing is not wrong as long as it is with the attitude of, "if it be Thy will." But there is a time to die. (See Ecclesiastes 3:2.) Suppose God's time to die has come--whether it be in old age, in the prime of life or earlier in life? As God reveals His will to us on this matter (generally by continued sickness with no healing or recovery), there comes a point when further prayer may constitute arm-twisting. Being angry or bitter with God may be an indication that we've passed that point. To continue to desperately request or demand that God preserve a life (our own or someone else's) that He intends to take, is a selfish request in the final analysis. Just because God may finally answer our demanding prayers and "do it our way" by preserving a life does not mean that this is His perfect will. In fact, we may be guilty of the sin of twisting God's arm. Twisting God's arm means that we are willing to settle for God's permissive will but we are unwilling to submit to God's perfect will.

King Hezekiah's time to die had come, but he was not willing to die. The sad consequences of Hezekiah's arm-twisting are seen in the Scriptures that follow the record of his recovery. His son, Manasseh, who was one of the most wicked of all the kings of Israel and Judah, may have been born during this time. (A straight-forward reading of 2 Kings 21:1 would indicate this, but because there were frequent overlappings of reigns in those days, Manasseh may have been born before Hezekiah's 15 year extension.) In any case, Hezekiah apparently reneged on his implied promise of Isaiah 38:19 to teach His son about God's faithfulness. 2 Chronicles 32:25 says that Hezekiah gave God "no return for the benefit he received because his heart was proud."

We can be thankful that Hezekiah later renounced his pride (2 Chronicles 32:26), but the lack of training in Manasseh's critical young years resulted in a king that "misled Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem to do more evil than all the nations whom the Lord destroyed before the sons of Israel" (2 Chronicles 33:9)! The fact that Manasseh humbled himself before God near the end of his reign (2 Chronicles 33:12-16), is a lesson in God's marvelous grace. However, the fact remains that one of the reasons for the years of evil that Judah experienced under Manasseh was the arm-twisting of Hezekiah.

Further bad fallout that followed Hezekiah's healing came as a result of his all too friendly reception of some envoys from Babylon. (Read 2 Kings 20:12-19.) In his pride Hezekiah showed these pagan emissaries all of the treasures of his kingdom (20:13). Undoubtedly he showed off all the Temple treasures as well. Perhaps he was trying to impress the Babylonians for the purpose of an alliance, but whatever the case, it was a foolish act and one that was sure to make Jerusalem a more inviting target for the rising Neo-Babylonian Empire.

2 Chronicles 32:31 says that the visit of the Babylonian messengers was a test from God. Unfortunately, Hezekiah did not pass the test. How much better it would have been had King Hezekiah let the Babylonians observe his worship at the Temple--the worship he had promised to God in Isaiah 38:20.

The prophet Isaiah had to inform Hezekiah that the Lord was displeased and that his kingdom would eventually fall to the Babylonians and his own descendants would be taken into captivity. Even at this point we can detect a selfish spirit in Hezekiah's response. He was relieved to know that the predicted captivity would not come in his lifetime but in the time of his descendants (20:19). If only Hezekiah had been willing to go along with the Lord's revealed will and not selfishly twist God's arm!

We've seen in our brief study that twisting God's arm can emerge from any area of discontent. In Numbers 11, it was a matter of bodily appetite and taste--the children of Israel wanted meat instead of manna. In Numbers 32, it was a matter of location and material possession--the two and a half tribes wanted land of their own choosing. In 1 Samuel 8, it was a matter of human leadership and "keeping up with the Joneses"--Israel wanted a king so that they would be like the other nations. In 2 Kings 20, it was a matter of physical life itself--Hezekiah was unwilling to accept God's "time to die."

It's easy to see ourselves involved in every one of these areas of discontent and arm-twisting. Whether or not we verbalize our discontent in direct prayer to God does not minimize the sins of complaining and arm-twisting. Let us diligently resist the natural tendency to push our requests to the stage of twisting God's arm. May we humbly follow the supreme model of our Lord Himself who said, "Not My will, but Thine be done."
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