The mindboggling images from the news media on Christmas Day, 2004, can never be forgotten. At 7:59 P.M., December 25, in Arkansas, as our family celebrated the birth of our Savior, a 9.1 magnitude earthquake struck the northern tip of Sumatra in Indonesia. This quake resulted in the deadliest tsunami in history. More than 230,000 people died as gigantic waves swept onto the coastlands of 14 countries around the Indian Ocean from Africa on the northwest, across India to the north, on to Thailand on the northeast.
Seismologists estimate the earthquake, that lasted 10 minutes, produced the energy of 23,000 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs. As a result of the quake, trillions of tons of rock moved, causing an upheaval on the ocean floor, displacing hundreds of miles of seawater. When the earthquake shifted the seabed vertically, the tsunami was formed, producing some waves over 90 feet high, which moved away from the quake epicenter at nearly 500 miles per hour.
In Indonesia, 168,000 people were killed when walls of water smashed inland on Sumatra and smaller islands in the Aceh province. It took two hours for the massive waves to reach Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. One would think that would be time enough to heed the warning, but 61,000 people were killed by the tsunami in those three countries. Though eight hours elapsed between the earthquake and the tsunami striking South Africa, two people were killed there.
Through all of this devastation, an amazing story of survival came to light a few months after the disaster. One small piece of inhabited land, 93 miles off the west coast of Sumatra, was hit by the tsunami within 30 minutes of the earthquake. However, Simeulue Island, inhabited by 75,000 people, only lost 6 residents. By the time the gigantic waves struck the island shoreline, nearly all the inhabitants had already fled to higher ground.
History revealed that thousands of Simeulue inhabitants had been killed there by a tsunami in 1907. For decades, the stories of that disaster had been passed from one generation to the next. The native people of Simeulue had heard stories by their grandparents, of giant waves that drowned thousands. So, on that day in 2004, when the ground shook and the sea retreated from the shore, the islanders remembered their grandparents’ warnings and sought safe places.
Warnings work only if heeded. On the highway, “Stop” and “Yield” signs may save your life. “When Flooded Turn Around Don’t Drown” is great advice. “Don’t Text and Drive” is a valid warning to our generation.
However, warnings do not work if ignored. If you snub the burn ban warnings, or the signs of a stroke, or the “Wrong Way” sign by the freeway onramp—you are headed for disaster.
The same is true with God’s warnings. Paul encouraged the Corinthians to heed cautions about evil behavior. Referring to some of the failures of their forefathers, he wrote: “Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we would not crave evil things as they also craved” (1 Corinthians 10:6).
We have warning signs about:
ONE—Idolatry. “Do not be idolaters, as some of them were” (verse 7). Israel fell into idolatry just a few days after agreeing with God—“You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath” (Exodus 20:3-4). Though we may not practice falling before a golden calf, we may idolize other things in the place of God.
TWO—Immorality. “Nor let us act immorally, as some of them did” (verse 8). Because of their sexual immorality, 3,000 were killed (Exodus 32:28), and 20,000 died in the plague (Exodus 32:35). Immoral lifestyles always lead to sadness, sorrow, and judgment.
THREE—Testing God. “Nor let us try the Lord, as some of them did” (verse 9). Many of the people of Israel were constantly questioning the goodness and plan of God, who led, provided and carried them through 40 years of wilderness wandering. Instead of simple obedience, they would put God to the test by demanding their own way.
FOUR—Grumbling. “Nor grumble, as some of them did” (verse 10). Many Israelites continually murmured and complained against God, never satisfied with what God provided, while always wanting things that were outside His will for them. They accused God of not caring for them, “The people spoke against God and Moses, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?’” (Numbers 21:5).
Paul wrote that “these things happened to them as an example, and they were written for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:11). We also need to heed the warnings of God against this type of behavior, for our good and His glory.
Though many in Israel followed self-indulgence and its results, Paul shared this great promise—“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it” (verse 13). God will help you overcome temptation if you ask Him.
The story of Israel’s failure has been preserved so we can avoid the same disaster of disobedience. We can heed God’s warnings—and avoid catastrophe—if we choose to obey and walk with Him.