Homer Hoeksema was professor of Dogmatics and Old Testament in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

God’s Judgment with Regard to His Dealings with Man

A second, closely connected, statement of Genesis 6 is the one in verse 3, concerning the Lord’s dealings with man in the prediluvian period.

What is the meaning of this striving of God’s Spirit with man?

There is an interpretation of this expression which holds that there is a nonsaving and nonregenerating operation of the Holy Spirit whereby sin is graciously restrained in man, so that he is not as depraved as he might possibly be and so that he is even capable of doing good. According to this view, the striving of the Spirit signifies a general working of the Spirit, restraining man’s wickedness and restraining the development of sin. This operation of the Spirit, then, continued throughout the period from the Fall to the Flood; and the verse under consideration declares that God will cease this restraining operation and abandon man to his own counsels and wickedness, with the result that after 120 years man’s days shall be ended.

Exegetically, however, this view is impossible. In the first place, we point out that striving is not the same as restraining. The expression means, rather, a judging, an opposing by speech. In the second place, the simple fact is that sin was not restrained during this period, but had, on the contrary, become great. In the third place, the meaning of verse 3 is not that the Lord now, that is, at a point 120 years before the Flood, abandoned man and ceased to strive with him, but rather that this striving would end after another 120 years, that is, in the final judgment on the human race in the Flood.

In the light of the above reasons, this idea of a restraint of sin certainly falls away. But let us take a moment to consider this entire matter. For this is important with respect to our understanding of history—not only the history of this particular period, but all of history. Is this history, and all history, to be construed in terms of such a dualistic conception, according to which sin is some kind of power apart from God, but a power which He restrains? Or is it rather true that the Lord our God follows a straight course in the realization of His counsel concerning all things, along the lines of sin and grace, so that always—also with respect to sin—it remains true that His counsel shall stand, and He performs all His good pleasure; so that all things are realized as fast as they possibly can be with a view to God’s purpose, and so that the final purpose of God is achieved as soon as possible, and that, too, along the lines of sin and grace; and so that always the motif of God’s work is expressed in the words, “Behold, I come quickly”? The latter, not the former, represents the correct understanding of history.

The Scriptures are very clear on this point.

Consider, in the first place, the simple fact of Bible history that in the space of sixteen and a half centuries the first world became ripe for judgment, final judgment for that age. Put that in terms of the new dispensation. This would mean that the world would have been destroyed already three centuries ago! Comparatively, the pronouncement of verse 3 would have been made about the time of the Reformation! If it is true of our New Testament era that the Lord comes quickly, then how true it was of that first era of world history that there was no restraint whatsoever, but a rapid and ever-accelerating degeneration.

Consider, in the second place, the fact that repeatedly and in various ways the Scriptures hold up the world before the Flood as a prime example, not of a world which produced much good and in which the power and operation of sin were checked by the Spirit of God, but of a world at its very worst. There never was a period in all of history in which sin revealed itself so terribly and in so short a time and in which the world became ripe for judgment and destruction so quickly as that period before the Flood. This is plain from the context in Genesis 6, a context which speaks of amalgamation of the church and the world, which speaks of the fact that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, which speaks of the fact that the earth was filled with violence by wicked men. There is not a hint of a sin-restraining process in this entire history; all one can read of is ever-increasing wickedness. Besides, this testimony is repeatedly corroborated in the New Testament. This is the testimony of the Epistle of Jude. It is the testimony of Peter. It is the testimony of the Lord Jesus Himself. The men of this period were completely characterized by fleshly lusts and by striving after the things of this world and of the flesh. God was not in all their thoughts.

Thus it was that in that short span of time wickedness had so developed and progressed that the Scriptures use the strong expression that the Lord was grieved at His heart and it repented Him that He had made man on the earth, and that He was resolved to destroy the whole world. No, far from any kind of checking of the development of sin, the entire record of the Scriptures bespeak a swift and ever-accelerating development of sin by which the entire world hastened to destruction.

This striving of the Spirit was something which is in a way the very opposite of restraint. It constitutes an important element in the explanation of the fast development of the race in wickedness.

As we said already, “to strive” does not denote some mystical and direct operation of the Spirit upon the ungodly. It means “to contend with, to testify against, and thus to judge and to condemn.” Thus the term is used more than once in the Scriptures as meaning “to contend with someone, to disagree, to contend in speech with an opponent, and thus to condemn his attitude and works.” This is what God did by His Spirit during that first period of history. God made Himself known. He witnessed of Himself. He did this through His Spirit. He did this in opposition to the wicked schemes and imaginations and works of man. Thus He judged and condemned and bound the responsibility of their wickedness upon men’s own hearts. Briefly, this testimony of God was that He is, that He is righteous, and that He must be served and glorified.Objectively, this testimony was conveyed not only in the things that are made (Rom. 1:18ff.), but by His word. This took place in more than one way. God spoke directly, as in the case of Cain. He spoke through the testimony in word and deed of the true sons of God at that time, who shone as lights in the midst of darkness and who by walking as children of the light condemned the unfruitful works of darkness. Thus, for example, there was the testimony of a righteous Abel over against his wicked brother, a testimony wrought by the Spirit of God. Moreover, God spoke through His prophets. Enoch was a prophet. The mere fact that all of his prophecy is not recorded in the Scriptures (Jude, 14, 15) makes no difference. Enoch prophesied. He not only condemned the world by his walking with God, but he was outspoken and sharp in his condemnation of the world and in his warning that the Lord was “coming with ten thousands of his saints to execute judgment upon all.” You may depend on it that just as the idea of the second coming of Christ is today known all over the world, though believed only by the children of God, so the coming of the Lord for judgment was by no means an idea foreign to that world. It was known everywhere, though only the people of God believed it. Noah also was a prophet: a preacher of righteousness, according to the Scriptures. He not only built the ark during the 120 years before the Flood. He preached! He warned of the coming judgment, though none heeded him. Mind you, for 120 years! It was the Spirit of God who spoke in these prophets. Thus God strove with and opposed wicked men at that time through His Spirit.

Subjectively also, however, the Spirit of God strives with man. He witnesses—in connection with that objective testimony—in the heart of every man. He convinces and convicts men that that objective testimony is true, that it is indeed the word of God. He convicts men that God is, and that He is good, and that transgression of His law is wicked and deserves condemnation.

Thus it can be understood also that this very strife of God with wicked men became a means whereby they hurtled all the more rapidly down the road of iniquity unto final destruction. For the result of this striving is not that man is left altogether unaffected. In the spiritual, ethical sense a man never stands still. He either repents and returns to God, or he advances on the road of iniquity. Moreover, this takes place exactly under the impetus of the word of God. Surely, wicked man is not changed spiritually by this striving of the Spirit. But this testimony of the Lord, when it is not mixed with grace, does not leave him unaffected. It hardens man’s heart.

When God speaks, wicked man, untouched by the grace of conversion, sets himself against that testimony. He resists it, opposes it, refuses to heed it, contradicts it. He cannot and will not and cannot will to do anything else. For the carnal mind is enmity against God. What happens then? The striving of the Spirit rouses the enmity of the natural heart into more furious and ever more determined opposition to God. When God says, “Yea,” wicked man with rebellious fist raised says, “Nay.” When God very emphatically and seriously warns him of wrath to come and of judgment and demands that he turn from his wicked way and repent, the wicked, untouched by the power of divine grace, responds with ever more determined refusal. As God’s strife becomes more forceful and emphatic, the natural heart hardens itself, becomes ever more insensible even from a natural point of view, and develops more determinedly in sin. Thus man becomes hardened and ripe for judgment, holding the truth under in unrighteousness.

Neither is such hardening of the heart to be viewed only from man’s point of view, independent of the operation of the Spirit of God. For the Scriptures plainly teach that God hardens the heart of the wicked, that He gives them a spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see and ears that they should not hear. He employs His own word to harden whom He will. God’s word is always living and powerful. Always it performs that to which He sends it. Always it either melts the heart into floods of repentance, or it hardens it unto stubborn rebellion. It quickens, or it kills. It is a savor of life unto life, but also a savor of death unto death. It brings men into the delightful experience of covenant communion with the living God in Christ, or it hastens them to everlasting destruction and ripens them for the day of judgment. It removes the burden of sin and death, but it also brings double stripes. It is a testimony which man hears and to which he reacts as a creature with mind and will, indeed, but it is also a word which God employs and by which He fulfills His own sovereign purpose. As God employs it, He is absolutely sovereign; because man employs that word and reacts to it, he remains morally responsible. But let it be clearly understood that the natural man is dead in sin and misery, and that he will not and cannot and cannot will to do anything but assume an attitude of rebellion over against the testimony of the word of God, except for the regenerating grace of a sovereign and sovereignly predestinating God.

In this light this striving of the Spirit can be understood as part of the narrative of the conditions and circumstances and the judicial ground of the destruction of the first world by the Flood. In this light we can understand this striving of the Spirit as the means whereby the sovereign Lord was executing His own counsel even in and through the wickedness of wicked men, to the end that His own determinate purpose might be reached in the Flood.

God’s Judgment with Regard to the End

Genesis 6 teaches us plainly that God was terribly displeased with the wicked world—the very opposite of the idea of a common favor of God. It repented God that He had made man in the earth.

We must not lose the significance of this statement when we call it an anthropomorphism, a human way of speaking about the divine mind. Of course, we must remember that God is immutable: there is no variableness or shadow of turning in Him. He knows all things from eternity in His own determinate counsel. From this point of view, God’s repentance means that what is true with God eternally and unchangeably is revealed in history in a succession of moments. But the significance of God’s repenting does not lie here. The root idea of the term is that of sorrow, of pity. It conveys the idea of pitying oneself with regard to something, of grieving. And thus, it implies the desire to undo a thing—something which is impossible with man, but possible with God. Hence, the meaning is that God is so terribly displeased with man’s works in the earth (God’s earth), that God grieved over it, would tolerate it no longer, and thus desired to destroy man from the earth.

In the second place, we learn from verse 3 that the Lord determined upon a definite end. His Spirit strives with man, but shall not always strive with man. There will come an end to this continual striving and contending. The reason is that man is flesh: the more clearly the light of God’s testimony was made to shine upon the ungodliness of men, the more glaring and naked became their rebellion, and the more fully it became manifest that man, mere, natural, fallen man, was but flesh, utterly carnal and without God in the world. His very nature is corrupt. And therefore the contending of the Spirit does not continue forever. There comes an end. There is but one end possible, namely, that in righteous judgment and destruction God reveals that He is God and makes man feel and acknowledge that He is God.

At this point in history, the contending of the Spirit would continue for only one hundred twenty years. They are not years of grace for the wicked world, but years of the continued striving of the Spirit, and thus years of announcement of coming judgment, especially through Noah. This is the final striving of the Spirit. By it the sinfulness of the sin of that dispensation would be fully revealed and exposed. Thus the measure of iniquity would be filled, and God would be justified in His judgment. Then would come the revelation of the righteous judgment of God in the Flood.

Thus the purpose of the manifestation of God’s grace must be served. It must be plain that nothing will save the world except the forgiving and regenerating grace of God in Christ Jesus. Apart from that grace, certain destruction is inevitable.

Besides, in connection with the positive development of the history of this period, we must not forget that all of this stands in the service of the work of God’s grace in and in behalf of the seed of the woman, His people. Positively speaking, it was for their sake that the world and all created things existed. As long as they were in the earth, so long the world must stand and cannot be destroyed. But when there is none left except Noah and his seven, then it is time for the Lord to arise in His mighty vengeance, to deliver His own and to execute judgment upon the world. Thus, when the world developed and became stronger in power and in all kinds of accomplishments, and when the people of God were decimated both through the defection of those who amalgamated with the world and through persecution, the number of the people of God became steadily smaller until finally only Noah and his family were left. But remember, it was for the sake of the seed of the woman, for the sake of the church that the whole creation existed. If they were gone, then there would no longer be any reason for the world to exist. Remember too, however, that though as far as this prediluvian dispensation was concerned, its history was fast drawing to a close, yet it was not the final end. The Great Seed of the woman had not yet come. The final victory over the devil and his seed had not yet been won. Hence, the people of God might not be cut off. Noah and his seven, the church, must be preserved! But at this stage in history, if the world were allowed to continue, the seed of the woman would be completely destroyed. Things had reached a breaking point in history. The power of sin had so developed and become manifest that the earth was filled, universally filled, with violence. The measure of iniquity for that age was filled. It was time for God to work! Zion must be redeemed through judgment. The time for the judgment of the world, which is at the same time the salvation of the church, had in a relative and typical sense arrived. And so the end of all flesh was come before God, but in the service of the work of His grace and the maintenance and realization of His promise and His covenant.