Someone once asked me: “What did George Bernard Shaw actually mean when he said ‘We learn from history that we learn nothing from history’?” I found an article that says:
George Bernard Shaw did not say this, he was merely quoting the German philosopher Hegel. The exact text from the play “Heartbreak House’ by Shaw is this- ‘Alas Hegel was right when he said that we learn from history that men never learn anything from history’. This play was written after the First World War and the Irish-Brit Shaw dramatizes his generation’s heartbreak and the general despair among the educated classes of Europe over what was termed as ‘The Great War’- World War I. Now, the meaning of this should be fairly self-evident. It indicates the folly of men largely (and women) to learn from the past over the familiar traps and pitfalls people get into again and again. As Stanley said to Ollie, ‘another nice mess you’ve got me into’. If you are of a leftist persuasion, big reams of material have been written, infinite tweets sent and mega bucks from books made on the ‘fascist’ challenge and the rise of ‘nationalism’ from the world. In the right-wing perspective, genocides have been conveniently overlooked and appeasement done repeatedly. So, the fact is that despite intellectual analysis or lack of it, we fall into the same pothole again and again. If you are in the God camp, another hypothesis, we are flawed humans and our souls are not connected to the divine in this depraved age. So, the original context in which Hegel said this was Lectures on the Philosophy of History (1832) where he expressed this cynical view that nations and governments never learn anything from history. Alas, 200 years on, the case remains quite similar.
I end the quote there. Whether we say, as Hegel wrote, “we learn from history that men never learn anything from history”, or as words were put into Shaw’s mouth, “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”, it means the same thing. Have you ever brought this into the church … asking, do we learn from church history that we learn nothing from church history? Or do we actually learn something from church history that prevents us from repeating the errors or sins of the past? I want to suggest that mostly we tend to walk with our blinkers on. By this, I mean that too often we are not interested in the past (church history or Biblical history) because we don’t want to be accused of repeating the mistakes of the past!
The same is true when it comes to sin. Take an obvious issue … when I taught at a high school in the late 90’s, one of my subjects was “Guidance”. This included how to prepare for exams, subject choice, career choice, course selection for varsity, morals and ethics, hygiene and general health, relationships, dating, substance abuse, etc. I found a brilliant article put out by a pharmacy group on the damage smoking tobacco does. It even showed the condition of a smoker’s lungs many years before emphysema sets in. Smoking kills! I took every leaner in the school through a discussion group, handing out these pamphlets to them. Almost every last one agreed that smoking is dangerous and hazardous to their health … yet many continued to smoke. “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”. The same can be repeated concerning alcohol, drugs, sex before marriage, etc. “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”. If you read through Nehemiah 13, you will find “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history” to be true in the church and with individual spirituality … or the lack thereof! Remember, the exile was largely due to the fact that the People of God rejected God’s Law, broke the Sabbath, married pagan women and followed their gods. Even though God warned them so often through the prophets, rebellion was the order of their day. Look at a few things in this chapter.
- According to his promise to the king Artaxerxes, Nehemiah returned to Persia reporting on the progress in Jerusalem (v6).
- Before he left, there was a return to the Law in excluding all Ammonites and Moabites from assembling with the people of God in worship. Verses 1-2 show they were excluded.
- In Nehemiah’s absence, one of the priests, Eliashib, who was in charge of the stores, proved his disobedience to God by giving Nehemiah’s enemy (Tobiah) a room and provisions (v6) that ought to have gone to the Levites, musicians and gatekeepers (v6). When Nehemiah returned, he found out about Eliashib and Tobiah and immediately rectified the matter most dramatically (v7-9). He restored provisions to the Levites. Because of a lack of provisions required by the Law, the Levites went to work field to survive … which was against the Law.
- Then, we find the people desecrating the Sabbath Day (v15-27). Trading on the Sabbath Day was prohibited because it was a day of rest from work and a day to focus on God in worship. Because of wrath being stirred up against them, Nehemiah put a stop to the misuse of the Holy Day.
- Lastly, many men had intermarried with women from Ashdod, Ammon and Moab. The offspring could not speak the language of Judah and spoke pagan languages. The culture of the people of God was lost, which included obedience to the Law. Nehemiah had to instruct that these children and all children were not to marry outside of the faith. Note v1-11 concerning the alliance of clergy with enemy; note v18a about how the ancestors desecrated the Sabbath Day; and note v26-27, Solomon’s example of pagan marriages and its effects. “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”.
Israel’s problem was backsliding even after spiritual revival. “We learn from history that we learn nothing from history”. Will we learn from Biblical history and prevent our backsliding or will we learn nothing? Where’s our passion … in self-gratification or in worship and obedience to God?
Dear God, keep us focused on eternity so that we don’t lose our direction and go astray. For Jesus’ sake, Amen.