The Dangers of Forgetting History
Introduction: History as Prologue
The Auschwitz Concentration Camp was a complex of over 40 concentration and extermination camps operated by Nazi Germany in occupied Poland during World War II and the Holocaust. These camps became a major site of Germany's 'Final Solution' to the Jewish question. The Nazis hated the Jews and sought to exterminate them.
This camp quickly developed a reputation for sadism, beatings, torture and executions of prisoners for the most trivial of reasons. The first murder by lethal gas of Soviet and Polish prisoners took place in the gas chambers of the main camp, Auschwitz I around August 1941. Construction of Auschwitz II began the following month. And from 1942 through 1944 freight trains delivered Jews from all over German-occupied Europe.
Of the 1.3 million delivered to Auschwitz, 1.1 million died. . The death toll includes 960,000 Jews (865,000 of whom were gassed on arrival), 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 15,000 other Europeans. Those not gassed died of starvation, exhaustion, disease, individual executions, or beatings. Others were killed during medical experiments.
The Concentration Camp was liberated on January 27th 1945. And despite the horrors and sufferings of this place, so many years ago, you can still visit Auschwitz today. It is a monument and museum that has been seen by millions. In 2019 alone a record 2.3 million visitors toured the former death camps.
This place stands as a memorial of the many who died there, as well as the heroes who liberated the camps. Plus it remains as a stark reminder that mankind is capable of great cruelty as well as great feats of heroism on the opposing side. And it shows the ultimate horrors of racism and a failure to see all men and women as valuable in God's site.
We can look back on this moment in history and learn the lessons of how so many could have looked the other way as one group took over power and began a reign of terror that took a World War to eliminate. We can look at it and say: "Never again will we let this happen!"
In this day and age where history is seen to be unimportant to many; where statues of people are being desecrated and toppled because the people whom they represent weren't perfect and had ideas that are unpopular today, Auschwitz stands as a reminder that the past is important and that history is valuable. Good history inspires us. Bad history warns and gives us knowledge from the mistakes of our ancestors.
For good or for ill, we are what we are because of our past. It has shaped us as individuals and as a people and has lead us to whatever good that we enjoy today and will hopefully will benefit from in the future.
In the U.S., we are united by the common ideas of freedom and the concept that all men are created equal. These thoughts didn't come out of thin air. They are the result of centuries of thinking, based upon the Judeo-Christian belief that all humans are created in the image of God. This lead to action, resulting in the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War that freed the slaves.
Of course, it has also lead to many other movements, including giving African Americans the right to vote by the 15th Amendment of 1869 as well as the women's suffrage movement leading to the 19th amendment, giving them the right to vote. It brought about the Civil rights movements that took place largely in the 1960's. Finally, the Equal Rights Amendment that was signed on March 22, 1972 providing for the legal equality of the sexes and prohibited the discrimination of people based upon sex.
All of these and more are a result of remembering our past and building upon it. History has been the prologue to the present and the future. We took the vision of our ancestors and have made the United States of America into one of the most free nations in the history of mankind.
As long as we remember what happened to make us what we are, and those who lived and died for what we take for granted today, we will continue to be united. But when we neglect our history, we come apart at the seams and see only our differences, forgetting that we are more alike than dissimilar.
The Bible has a lot to say about history. God created it and is working to cause the ages to come to a conclusion that will bring glory to Himself and bring about the good of those who belong to Him (Romans 8:28,29). And anytime that the Lord's people have forgotten this it has always been a disaster.
Nowhere is that seen more clearly than in God's relationship with His people Israel.
I. God Fulfills Promises in History
From the time that Abraham came out of Ur of the Chaldees, God had been working with his descendants and fulfilling promises made to this great patriarch of their people. God promised Abraham that He'd bless those who bless him and curse those who curse him. Abraham's descendants would be as the sands of the seashore and the stars of the heavens in number. And all nations would be blessed through him.
It would all occur in time. He just had to wait and be patient for the working of the Lord. And the Jews were to obey Him while they waited. Over and over through the historical record, the people would fail and suffer the consequences of forgetting the Lord and His promises to them. Yet over and over God would be faithful to His word to them. When the Lord appeared to his servants such as Moses in the book of Exodus. Often He reminded them that He was the God of their fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He reminded them of their history and of His faithfulness to their ancestors. Moses was reminded before he was commissioned to lead the People of Israel out of Egypt and toward the promised land (Exodus 3:15).
After 9 plagues that were placed upon the Egyptian nation, the night that they were to leave Egypt, God instituted the Passover celebration as a memorial of the time that He forced the Pharaoh to let His people go by one last plague. The destroying angel, sent by the Lord would go to every household in Egypt and kill every firstborn male of every household. But the people of Israel were to slaughter the Passover lamb and put its blood on the top and sides of the door. So, when God saw the blood, He would pass over them and not destroy their firstborn.
And after that night, the Passover celebration would become a memorial to the greatest salvation event in the Old Testament. Here is what God told Moses:
“Obey these instructions as a lasting ordinance for you and your descendants. When you enter the land that the Lord will give you as he promised, observe this ceremony. And when your children ask you, ‘What does this ceremony mean to you?’ then tell them, ‘It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes when he struck down the Egyptians.’” Then the people bowed down and worshiped. The Israelites did just what the Lord commanded Moses and Aaron" (Exodus 12:24-28).
Also, throughout Israel's journey, the people would build memorials in the form of stones of remembrance. They'd pile up stones in order to have a visible symbol of what God had done for them in history.
An example of that is when the children of Israel entered the promised land under Joshua. The 12 stone memorial piled high on the west bank of the River Jordan at Gilgal was to serve as a sign and a call to remembrance for all generations for the people of Israel. When looked upon this memorial would cause the people to remember the Lord’s goodness, when He led them into the Promised Land.
Joshua 4:6-7 tells us it was so:
“that this may be a sign among you when your children ask in time to come, saying, ‘What do these stones mean to you?’ Then you shall answer them that the waters of the Jordan were cut off before the ark of the covenant of the LORD; when it crossed over the Jordan, the waters of the Jordan were cut off. And these stones shall be for a memorial to the children of Israel forever.”
The Lord and Joshua knew the dangers of forgetting history and how God acted on behalf of HIs people.
II. God's Warning Not to Forget
The Lord even warned the people that they might forget and think that by their own hand they had become successful. He tells them in Deuteronomy 8:11-17 to:
“Take care lest you forget the Lord your God by not keeping his commandments and his rules and his statutes, which I command you today, lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them, and when your herds and flocks multiply and your silver and gold is multiplied and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, who led you through the great and terrifying wilderness, with its fiery serpents and scorpions and thirsty ground where there was no water, who brought you water out of the flinty rock, who fed you in the wilderness with manna that your fathers did not know, that he might humble you and test you, to do you good in the end. Beware lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth."
The truth is, as he goes on to say, it is God Himself that gives wealth. The Lord further tells them that when they forgot, they would start to worship other gods as well and bow down to them like the other nations. Then God lets them know that they would be destroyed because of this (8:18-20).
And that is the danger for the people of God in all generations. We may not bow down to gods of metal, wood and stone. But we have our own gods today that we may be in danger of putting before the Lord- gods of sex, possessions, power, wealth or fame.
And it can happen so easily. Many times it takes place when one generation goes off the scene and another replaces them. Such was the case for Israel in the book of Judges.
III. An Example of Forgetting
By the book of Judges, not only had Moses died but his successor Joshua had also passed away, leaving Israel with no real centralized leadership. These are the words from Judges 2:10-13 regarding this:
"After that whole generation had been gathered to their ancestors, another generation grew up who knew neither the Lord nor what he had done for Israel. Then the Israelites did evil in the eyes of the Lord and served the Baals. They forsook the Lord, the God of their ancestors, who had brought them out of Egypt. They followed and worshiped various gods of the peoples around them. They aroused the Lord’s anger because they forsook him and served Baal and the Ashtoreths."
This was only the beginning of a cycle throughout this book where the people would forget the Lord, and enemies would arise who took them over, leading the people to cry out for help. Then the Lord would send a judge as a deliverer to get God's people out of the trouble they were in.
Unfortunately the failure to remember God and his salvation history continued even when they went into the era of the kings. They ended up breaking into two nations, both of which went into captivity because of their various sins and the worship of many gods instead of the one true God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
And if it weren't for the fact that God continues to keep His promises to the patriarch's today, Israel would be like so many other nations in the past. They'd be a forgotten footnote and we wouldn't still be talking about them in the 21st century. But we serve an awesome God, who will keep His word no matter what may happen.
The bottom line is that history is important. History is His-Story. It is the tale of God's work in the universe and the world. The past reminds us of His trustworthiness to His people and promises throughout time. And we do well to remember all of these things. Someone has said that:
"When we face difficulties, we sometimes forget God's past faithfulness. We see only the detours and the dangerous path. But look back and you will also see the joy of victory, the challenge of the climb, and the presence of your traveling Companion who has promised never to leave you nor forsake you."
To forget the past is to forget its lessons and it is to forget that God has given us, in history, the greatest salvation event that humanity has ever known, the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.
And just like Israel of old was to observe the Passover, the Christian is entrusted with a ceremony for remembering this greatest of events as well by participating in the Lord's Supper. We are asked as we eat the bread and drink the cup, to remember the Lord's death until He come (I Corinthians 11:26).
May we remember this event and the myriad of other events of history, not forgetting God's faithfulness through them all. And let us protect the memory of the past and preserve it for the future generations that will need the lessons it teaches. So that one day our children, yet unborn, will be able to look back and say: "Thank God that He has brought us, by His grace, to this day in time. What a mighty God we serve!!
© 2020 Jeff Shirley