Sin Reckoned as a Debt
In Exodus 22:1-4 God gives us a key provision of divine justice and mercy. It says that if a man is guilty of theft, he is NOT to be executed, but is required to work in order to pay back his victim at least double. This law teaches the thief to take responsibility for his actions as well as to make the connection between labor and property (or money). Exodus 22:3 and 4 says,
3 … He shall surely make restitution; if he owns nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft. 4 If what he stole is actually found alive in his possession, whether an ox or a donkey or a sheep, he shall pay double.
In other words, if a man steals a sheep, he would owe TWO sheep to his victim, unless the thief sold it to someone else or killed it--in which case verse 1 says that he would owe his victim FOUR sheep. If he stole a million dollars, he would owe his victim TWO million dollars.
Biblical law is based upon the principle that sin is reckoned as a debt. That is why Jesus' parables about debtors always referred to sinners, such as in Matt. 18:23-35. Likewise, in the Lord's Prayer, Matt. 6:12 says,
12 And forgive us our DEBTS, as we also have forgiven our DEBTORS."
In Luke 11:4, the same prayer is recorded in a little different way:
4 And forgive us our SINS; for we ourselves also forgive everyone who is INDEBTED to us…
One of the great keys to understanding Scripture is to know that sin is reckoned as a debt. This is because in biblical law, a sinner owes a debt to his victim that is directly proportional to the amount of the theft or the destroyed property.
In the case of Jesus' parable in Matt. 21, the vine-growers stole the fruits of the vineyard. When we compare this with Isaiah 5, it becomes apparent that God planted a vineyard (the Kingdom) in the land of Canaan during the days of Joshua. At some point, God expected to receive the fruit of His labor, but the people refused to render the fruits to Him. In other words, they "stole the fruit" and assumed control over the vineyard in rebellion against its true Owner.
The book of Judges tells us how God handled this theft. Judges 3:8 says that God "SOLD THEM into the hands of Chushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia" for eight years. In other words, they were SOLD FOR THEIR THEFT according to the law in Exodus 22:3.
When the people repented, God delivered them through Israel's first judge, Othniel. But after a time, they again refused to render Him the fruits of the Kingdom, so Judges 4:2 says, "The Lord SOLD THEM" to Jabin, king of Canaan.” (See also Judges 10:7 for another example of this.)
What is the purpose of selling Israel? It is a legal auction, as it were. Picture Israel as a thief being taken to the Divine Court, where God is the Judge. Israel has been caught "red-handed," and is convicted of sin. But since Israel does not have the resources to pay God the fruits of the kingdom--and certainly cannot pay double--Israel was "sold" to another nation.
This meant that Israel was to become the servant to that other nation for a specified amount of time. It also meant, however, that this other nation was made responsible to pay the debt that Israel owed. This other nation had, in essence, REDEEMED Israel's debt note.
The mercy factor in this example of divine justice is seen in the fact that during Israel's time of servitude, they were not held legally responsible for the debt note for their sin. One cannot bring forth the fruits of the Kingdom as long as one is "under the law," that is, under the sentence of the law. Being "under the law" is a time of learning--with the law as one's "schoolmaster" or "tutor," as Paul puts it in Gal. 3:24.
During this time of judgment, the law did not require them (in a legal sense) to render to God the fruits of the Kingdom. The law DID REQUIRE THE OTHER NATION TO PRODUCE THOSE FRUITS. And when they did not do so, then God held them responsible and brought judgment upon that other nation.
The book of Judges is the history of the Debt Note. Whoever held this Debt Note was legally required--"CHOSEN"--to bring forth the fruits of the Kingdom. The requirement was there, even though it was a foregone conclusion that those other nations would fail as much as Israel had failed.
This law, however, provided mercy for Israel, because it gave them a time to regroup, repent, and learn the ways of God without the burden of the Debt Note resting upon their shoulders. In this way, God shifted the responsibility to the other "redeemer" nation for a time.
The wisdom of God is remarkable. And yet it appears that Israel never really understood that their captivities in the book of Judges were evidence of God's mercy and love. This is because they did not understand the law that had been given to them on Mount Horeb (i.e., Jabal al-lawz in Saudi Arabia, where Paul locates it in Gal. 4:25).
In Chapter Four I will show how this principle of captivity has manifested in history to the present time.