The Vice of Forgetfulness

As with virtue, remembering takes effort; as with vice, forgetting comes readily. And of all the things that mankind so readily forgets, he forgets nothing so readily as the things of God.


7 And the sons of Israel did what was evil in the eyes of Yahweh, and they forgot Yahweh their God, and they served the Baals and the Asheroth.

Thus begins the first cycle of the book of Judges (for an overview of the cycle of the book of Judges, see this post). This verse is step one of the cycle in which the sons of Israel do what is evil in the eyes of the Lord, namely, they forsake him and serve other gods.

However, instead of the usual verb “forsook,” this first cycle uses the verb “forgot.” This is the only instance of the verb “forget” in the book of Judges, and yet it is one of its main themes: the sons of Israel forget their God.

How did they forget the one who brought them out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slaves? How did they forget him who plagued their enemies and parted the sea and made the waters of the Jordan pile up in a heap? How did they forget the Lord who caused water to come from the rock, and manna to fall from the heavens, and a thousand of their enemies to flee before a single man?

Moses knew why, and he didn’t even live to see it happen. He had warned Israel:

Take heed to yourselves, lest you forget Yahweh your God by not guarding his commandments and his judgments and his statutes, which I am commanding you today; lest, when you have eaten and are satisfied, and have built good houses and dwell in them, and your cattle and your flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold has multiplied, and all that belongs to you has multiplied, your heart become haughty and you forget Yahweh your God, who brought you out from the land of Egypt, from the house of slaves; who led you in the great and frightening wilderness, with fiery serpent and scorpion and thirsty ground without water; who brought forth water for you from a rock of flint; who fed you manna in the wilderness which your fathers had not known, in order that he might humble you, and in order that he might test you, to do you good in your end; lest you say in your heart, ‘My power and the strength of my hand has accomplished for me this prosperity.’ But you shall remember Yahweh your God, for he is the one who gives you power to accomplish prosperity, that he might confirm his covenant that he swore to your fathers, as it is this day. And it shall happen, if indeed you forget Yahweh your God, and go after other gods, and serve them and bow down to them, I testify against you today that you shall surely perish. Like the nations whom Yahweh is destroying before you, thus you shall perish, because you would not listen to the voice of Yahweh your God. (Dt. 8:11-20)

Moses knew that if the sons of Israel became wrapped up in earthly wealth and prosperity, they would forget the Lord their God, they would attribute the works of God to themselves, they would grow slack in listening to the Word of the Lord. And this final point is the worst of it: they would forget because they would cease to listen.

This is exactly what happened with the sons of Israel. And why did they cease to listen to the Word of the Lord? Perhaps it seemed to have no bearing on their current situation; perhaps it seemed to be nothing more than an old record of days gone by; perhaps they felt they had heard it so many times before that they need not hear it again. Perhaps they were bored of it, weary of it, and supposed they had better things to do. Whatever the case, guarding commandments and judgments and statutes takes work. Remembering the Lord our God takes work, even if the work is as easy as taking some time to listen to his Word. And it was work that the sons of Israel were not willing to do.

8 And the anger of Yahweh was kindled against Israel, and he sold them into the hand of Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia. And the sons of Israel served Cushan-rishathaim for eight years.

This is the second stage of the cycle. First the sons of Israel had “served the Baals and the Asheroth.” Now it’s as if the Lord has said, “You want to serve someone other than me? Here, you can see what that’s like.” And he gave them to serve an oppressive king.

It’s no coincidence that the same verb is used for serving the Baals and for serving Cushan-rishathaim. Service to the pagan king is meant to teach Israel what life is like serving Other gods. And the living analogy has its intended result: the sons of Israel are miserable under Cushan-rishathaim and despair of the Baals and the Asheroth.

9 And the sons of Israel cried out to Yahweh…

This is the third stage of the cycle in which Israel prays for deliverance. As Christians this reminds us of our former misery under the devil’s reign. The “O Antiphons” come to mind as our prayers, for example, “O Emmanuel, our king and our Lord, the anointed for the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God” (LSB 357).

and Yahweh raised up a savior for the sons of Israel, and he saved them: Othniel son of Kenaz, the younger brother of Caleb. 10 And the Spirit of Yahweh was upon him, and he judged Israel and went out to war. And Yahweh gave into his hand Cushan-rishathaim, king of Mesopotamia, and his hand prevailed over Cushan-rishathaim.

This is the fourth stage of the cycle in which the Lord raises up a judge. Another title for a judge is “savior.” This title comes up again in Judg. 3:15. Caleb and Othniel have already received mention in the book of Judges (see this post).

The name Cushan-rishathaim means “Cushan of Twin Evils.” Cushan may have been his given name, and Rishathaim a nickname, although that is speculation. Whatever the case, we can see Cushan-rishathaim as the Evil One.

The Spirit of the Lord was upon Othinel: the same Spirit whose work it is to point mankind toward Jesus Christ. Whenever the Spirit comes upon someone in the book of Judges it’s a sign that we’re about to see a type of Christ.

So it is here. Cushan-rishathaim is the Evil One, and Othinel is the Savior who defeats the Evil One. In this we have a picture of Jesus defeating the devil and saving his people. This is the simple image that comes up every time one of the judges fights on behalf of the people. As the book of Judges progresses and the cycle repeats, further connections emerge between the judge and Jesus. However, the victory of Christ over the devil is the common theme.

11 And the land was quiet for forty years; then Othniel son of Kenaz died.

The result of the savior’s activity is peace, albeit earthly peace, which is still a great gift from God. So long as the judge lives, the people have this peace and remain faithful to God. But whenever the judge dies, the people again do what is evil in the sight of the Lord, which we’ll see as we continue.

If the death of the judge/savior leads to apostasy and a loss of peace, then the entire book of Judges leaves us looking forward to a Savior who will never die. The book of Judges is a book of types and shadows (as much as the events are true and historical). That means at the end of it we will have a clear picture of what the perfect Savior should be, but we must acknowledge that he is not one of the saviors in the book. In other words, the book of Judges makes us hunger and thirst for Christ, and this is a good thing, even for us who already know the true Savior.



There have been certain times in the course of history in which mankind has taken remembrance very seriously: documenting events, composing songs of famous victories, setting tales of men and their deeds to meter; and then reading histories, singing ancient songs, reciting epics. They wanted to remember their heritage. They wanted to remember the significant people and places and actions that had formed them. They wanted to remember who they were, and they knew how easily mankind forgets.

There have been other times in which mankind has treated remembering as if it came naturally, or has devoted effort to remembering things of no great significance. We live in such a time. How many people will tell you, “I’m not good with names,” as if it’s a disease or disorder? The simple fact is, they made no effort to remember. They assumed a name would stick, all by itself. And it didn’t.

On the other hand, how many people can remember the final score of a game their favorite team played six years ago? How many people can remember the lyrics to innumerable vapid songs, or list all the albums released by their favorite vocalizer (I hesitate to use the words “singer,” “musician,” or “artist” when speaking of modern “music”)? How many people can remember all the movies in which a certain Hollywood personality has starred? But this sort of remembering comes with ease, and happens almost naturally.

Yet people still know that they should remember things of significance. Who doesn’t feel like a cad when he forgets someone’s name, or a scheduled appointment, or his wife’s birthday? Many, indeed, are willing to acknowledge with the lips that remembering takes effort. But few are willing to exert the effort, and therein lies the problem.

Now I suppose that forgetfulness is not in itself a vice, as it is neither inherently sinful, nor opposed to the Law of God, nor absolutely contrary to nature. There can be a good sort of forgetfulness, as when a man forgets a bad dream, or forgets a sin committed against him. Even when a man forgets his wife’s birthday he has not done something that is categorically sinful, as there’s no divine commandment to celebrate birthdays, and certain people don’t care a whit about observing them (not that you should forget your wife’s birthday when it means something to her that you remember it). But when I call forgetfulness a “vice,” I specifically mean forgetfulness of what God has spoken and done as documented in the Scriptures.


There is an actual vice pertaining to this that the Church has long numbered among the great vices, namely acedia (ἀκηδία), often translated as “sloth.” But this vice is not mere laziness. It is a weariness, and even a sort of sorrow, over God’s Word and one’s station in life. Thomas Aquinas in his Summa Theologiae speaks of acedia in this way:

Sloth, according to Damascene (De Fide Orth. II, 14) [i.e. John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith] is an oppressive sorrow, which, to wit, so weighs upon man’s mind, that he wants to do nothing; thus acid things are also cold. Hence sloth implies a certain weariness of work, as appears from a gloss on Psalm 106:18, ‘Their soul abhorred all manner of meat,’ and from the definition of some who say that sloth is a ‘sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.’

Now this sorrow is always evil, sometimes in itself, sometimes in its effect. For sorrow is evil in itself when it is about that which is apparently evil but good in reality, even as, on the other hand, pleasure is evil if it is about that which seems to be good but is, in truth, evil. Since, then, spiritual good is a good in very truth, sorrow about spiritual good is evil in itself. (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 35, Art. 1, co.)

But is acedia really a sin? Some would object:

It would seem that sloth is not a mortal sin. For every mortal sin is contrary to a precept of the Divine Law. But sloth seems contrary to no precept, as one may see by going through the precepts of the Decalogue. Therefore sloth is not a mortal sin. (ST II-II, Q. 35, Art. 3, arg. 1)

Yet Thomas replies:

Sloth is opposed to the precept about hallowing the Sabbath day. For this precept, in so far as it is a moral precept, implicitly commands the mind to rest in God: and sorrow of the mind about the Divine good is contrary thereto. (ST II-II, Q. 35, Art. 3, ad. 1)

Acedia is, at its worst, a weariness and sorrow over God’s Word, and therefore a sin against the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy.” Martin Luther notes this in the Large Catechism:

In the same way those conceited spirits should also be punished who, after they have heard a sermon or two, become sick and tired of it and feel that they know it all and need no more instructors. This is precisely the sin that used to be numbered among the mortal sins and was called acidia – that is, laziness or weariness – a malignant, pernicious plague with which the devil bewitches and deceives many hearts so that he may take us by surprise and stealthily take the Word away again.

Let me tell you this. Even though you know the Word perfectly and have already mastered everything, you are daily under the dominion of the devil, and he does not rest day or night in seeking to take you unawares and to kindle in your heart unbelief and wicked thoughts against these three and all the other commandments. Therefore you must constantly keep God’s Word in your heart, on your lips, and in your ears. For where the heart stands idle and the Word is not heard, the devil breaks in and does his damage before we realize it. (Luther, Large Catechism, I.99-100; Kolb-Wengert)


Because acedia is the work of the devil, and manifests itself as a propensity to forget and a weariness with God’s Word, therefore the Church must have things to help her remember.

The greatest of these “means of remembrance,” we might call them, have been given to the Church by God himself. For example, God has not entrusted his Word to oral tradition, which could be corrupted or lost in a single generation, but has caused his Word to be written as an everlasting testimony. We give thanks to him for this, that he hasn’t made the memory of his words and deeds rest on something in us – our remembrance or our minds – but has given us a memory outside of ourselves in the Scriptures. Consider how the Scriptures had been lost for a time during the reign of the kings, and how much the people had never heard before once the Scriptures were recovered (2 Kings 22).

Along with the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit himself causes remembrance, as Jesus says in John 14:26, “But the Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you.”

For instance, when Jesus cleared the temple, he said, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). The Jews note how long it had taken to build the temple and marvel in disbelief that Jesus thinks he could do it in three days. “But he was speaking about the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken” (Jn. 2:21-22). Again at Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem, “His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him” (Jn. 12:16).

Another great means of remembrance is the Sacrament of the Altar, in which Christ says, “This do in remembrance of me.” Paul explains this in 1 Cor. 11:26, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” While the Sacrament does not magically infuse a memory of what Jesus has done, the verba do bring to our remembrance what Jesus has done for us.

Song is another means of remembrance. The best of the Church’s songs are found in the Scriptures: the book of Psalms, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Nunc Dimittis, the Song of Moses and Israel, Hannah’s Song, Isaiah’s Song, Audite, coeli from Deuteronomy 32; and many others, to which the Church has added a vast and beautiful hymnody.

The Sign of the Cross helps us remember what God has done for us in Holy Baptism. The liturgy helps us remember the essence of the Christian faith, as do the Creeds, and the Catechism. Pastors help us remember the full counsel of God. Regular schedules of the Divine Service and of home devotion help us remember to take time for the Word. Crucifixes help us remember that Jesus gave himself for us.

The Church treasures all of these things, because she wants to remember. She wants to remember what her Lord has said and done. She wants to remember her Othniel, whose hand has prevailed over Chushan-rishathaim. She wants to remember Jesus.

Bless Yahweh, O my soul,
And all that is within me, bless his holy name!
Bless Yahweh, O my soul,
And do not forget all his benefits.

    Psalm 103:1-2

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