God Blessed America: Rev. Lincoln’s Bible Texts
“Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord” (Psalm 33:12a).
Prepared by Dr. John E. Marshall
President Lincoln’s second inaugural, America’s most famous sermon, applied four Bible verses to the USA situation as the Civil War was ending. We will look at the four texts and seek to follow Lincoln’s Bible exposition.
Genesis 3:19a (KJV) In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, . . .
Before Adam and Eve sinned, work had been given to them as a blessing. After they sinned, they were driven from the Garden of Eden. Work henceforth became burdensome. Survival became a chore.
Lincoln altered the wording of Genesis 3:19 to pinpoint an obvious flaw in slavery. “It may seem strange that any man should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; . . .”
Lincoln felt God had made things hard enough for people by telling us we had to eat by the sweat of our own brows. It wasn’t right for humans to make it worse, to eat by forcing sweat on other people’s brows. Slavery did this.
Lincoln did not want to tongue-lash the South. After the President’s tough words against slavery, he moved to a second Bible text to soften the blow.
Matthew 7:1 “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
Lincoln paraphrased it, “Let us judge not, that we be not judged.” He knew he had won the war. Now he tried to win the peace. If reconciliation did not result from this war, its promise of union would have been a sham.
Rather than ask his supporters to pray for God to help the North win the war, Lincoln asked them to imitate God. “Let us judge not,” he said. Lincoln scholar C.A. Tripp said Christian gentleness stayed with Lincoln to the end.
“Judge not” may be, in the secular world, the Bible’s most used and abused phrase. People quote Jesus carelessly, taking His words out of their setting, forgetting a text out of context is a pretext. We understand Jesus aright only if we place the phrase in its context. Lincoln is to be commended for using it correctly.
In this same chapter, Matthew 7, Jesus clearly stated we have to judge people’s words and actions. He said in verse15a, “Beware of false prophets,” and in 16a, “Ye shall know them by their fruits.” We have a duty to test speech, to evaluate and make judgments on whether a person’s words are true or false. We are also expected to determine whether people’s deeds are right or wrong.
Christians have an objective standard, the Bible, and are permitted, yea required, to use it to assess people’s speech and behavior. The command to “Judge not” is abused when used as grounds for tolerating sinful words and deeds.
Be careful. Believers do have to make verbal and ethical evaluations, but must remember to temper judgment with mercy. Our role is to evaluate words and deeds without being harsh. Be careful how we judge. It boomerangs.
We can set the mood for our own judgment. The more rigidly we judge others, the more rigidly God will judge us. We do not need to increase God’s judgment against us. To know He ever watches and hears us is sobering enough.
We can kindly judge words and deeds, but have no right to judge what we cannot hear or see. We cross the line if we go beyond speech and behavior, and start trying to judge inner motives. No person has jurisdiction over another’s heart.
We cannot determine a person’s inner state before God. “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart” (1 S 16:7). Only Jesus can try hearts. Don’t usurp His authority. This is the point Lincoln emphasized.
A good example of God’s rightful judgment is found in Jesus’ response to those responsible for His death. Jesus said of the soldiers, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34); to Pilate, “He that delivered me unto thee hath the greater sin” (John 19:11); to the religious leaders, “Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven” (Matt. 12:32); of Judas Iscariot, “It had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt. 26:24). All four of these were, on the surface, equally responsible for the death of Jesus, but our Lord, who sees the heart, detected vast differences in their level of guilt.
God sees, hears, and knows much we cannot see, hear, and know. Thus, stay out of other people’s hearts. Do not go there. Otherwise, we violate God.
Matthew 18:7 “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!”
This third text was by far the verse Lincoln most expounded on. “The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses! For it must needs be that offenses come; but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh!” If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword . . .”
Before the War, Lincoln believed in the inevitable progress of civilization toward the better. Science, literature, art, and culture were inevitably improving. This being the case, since slavery was obviously wrong, the War would quickly become another step forward in human progress, and vindicate freedom.
When “inevitable progress” did not happen, Lincoln had to conclude blind cause and effect were not working on their own. Some mysterious, unpredictable force was working on the equation from outside it. To explain this type of interruption, Lincoln’s only logical explanation was, an Intelligent Will had to be intervening (AG. 327), “God wills this contest, and wills it shall not end yet.”
“Lincoln had come by the circle of a lifetime, and the disasters of the War, to confront once again the Calvinist God who could not be captured or domesticated, . . . who possessed a conscious will to intervene, challenge, and re-shape human destinies without regard for historical process” (AG. 327).
Psalm 19:9b The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
“ . . . as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.” This was Lincoln’s fourth and final text. God’s judgments are, first, true. If God’s Word says one
thing, and everybody says another, count God true, and all others false. It is better to doubt everyone in the world than to doubt His honesty.
The reputation of people can fend for itself. Human attempts at honesty have a blemished history. The Psalmist rightly said, “All men are liars” (116:11).
People in every era try to discredit God’s Word. Sages feel smarter than the Book of Ages. Human arguments have never contradicted God’s voice, but people still try to. People often side with skeptics, but unbelievers, not the Book, err.
God’s judgments, in addition to being always true, are also always righteous. God always does right. He is never unfair. God has never done anything unjust.
When life deals a cruel blow, almost shaking faith into atheism, meet it with firm belief. Acknowledge God’s rectitude in all circumstances. Let faith in His righteousness remain undaunted. Never doubt His fairness. Avoid the attitude of a lady who lost her family in a tragedy, “I believe in God but cannot forgive Him.”
Christ-followers often have to believe more than we understand. It is presumptuous, with our small fraction of a brain, to think we can figure out all of God’s doings. Our role is to respond to His ways with devout acquiescence.
It is not enough for believers to submit to necessity. Necessity makes everyone submit. Believers must go one step farther and confess the circumstances ordered by necessity were the wisest, best events that could have happened.
This confession is hard to make. Lincoln struggled with it during the Civil War. We all occasionally wonder about the ways of God. It is often difficult to obviously see His hand in some occurrences. It is okay to ponder God’s methods, but never put His justice on trial. Work from the premise, God is fair.
Lincoln saw in the War a result no one could have imagined four years earlier. Why should North and South both be punished severely? Lincoln could conceive only one answer: God’s inscrutable ways, which cannot be changed, and must be yielded to. “The Almighty has His own purposes” (AG. 418). Lincoln had told the Quaker Eliza P. Gurney, “He who made the world still governs it.”
Lincoln was right. Don’t quarrel with God’s judgments. God is, in all His decisions, worthy of unquestioning praise. Jesus did this. In Gethsemane’s agony and on Calvary’s cross, He did not charge the Father with unfairness. If tempted to judge God, squelch it quickly. It is an enormous evil to try to be the god of God.