Thursday, July 21, 2011

Exile: Punishment Or Restoration

I've been having a lot of conversations with people lately revolving around the question of whether God in the Old Testament is a god of wrath, judgment, and punishment.  This is contrast to how people see God in the New Testament, which is a God of love, mercy, and forgiveness.  The question is, once we get to the New Testament, is God in fact new.  I've written about this before, so you can pretty much guess what I'm about to say, but I'm going to repeat myself anyway.

The book of Isaiah opens with five chapters of judgment oracles.  The nation of Judah will be punished for their transgressions.  I don't see how you could argue otherwise.  However, the question is why.  Why is God going to send a foreign nation to defeat Judah?  Why is God bringing punishment?  Is God just an angry God who has had enough?  Is he a God guided by wrath?  Is vengeance the best personification of justice?

God speaks to this through Isaiah in the very first chapter (verses 24-26):

"Therefore says the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel: Ah, I will pour out my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes!  I will turn my hand against you; I will smelt away your dross as with lye and remove all your alloy.  And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning.  Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city."

"See," someone might say, "how can you not see God as wrathful when he himself says he's pouring out his wrath?"  Let's not get ahead of ourselves here.  What is the purpose of that?  The purpose is to refine precious metal.  The purpose is to remove the dross.  "I will restore...," says the LORD, not destroy.

To play a bit of a semantic game, in my experience it seems that when people discuss God in the Old Testament they talk about God as a god of destruction.  In the Old Testament people die in some rather horrific ways.  They're swallowed alive by the ground.  Fire bursts out and roasts them.  God tells his people to eradicate the native Canaanites.  What do you do with that (and honestly, I don't have easy answers for most of those questions)?  God works in many ways with many different people in the Old Testament, Jews and non-Jews alike, but what people remember are his acts of destruction.  This seems to be in stark contrast to what God does in Jesus, which is to create and rescue.

But then there are verses like the one above from Isaiah, verses that acknowledge that judgment is coming, but frame that judgment in a very different way than most people see it.  God's judgment is restorative judgment.  When God judges, it is no less the loving God of creation acting out that judgment than when he created all things to begin with.  In this context, judgment gets defined in much bigger terms than getting ones comeuppance.  God's justice and judgment is setting things back to right.  And yes, that may mean that something needs to be taken out of the equation, destroyed if you will, such as evil, corruption, abuse, or arrogance.  Is that really such a bad thing?  Do we want God to allow corruption forever so we can think of him as nice?  Of course not, so judgment can be restorative.  It can be loving.  It can be kind.

And one other thing about this judgment oracle from Isaiah, notice that part of God's judgment is withholding punishment.  If God is going to restore judges and counselors, that means he's showing mercy to some.  A god of wrath hurls lightning bolts willy-nilly.  God in the Old Testament is rather selective.  His "wrath" is creative and restorative.  In this passage, his wrath resurrects what was meant to be: a city of or righteousness and faithfulness.

So, I'll get off my soap box and sum this up.  Yes, God's wrath exists in the Old Testament, but it is for restoration, not pointless punishment.  Is food for thought, read Matthew chapter twenty-three and tell me there isn't a "God of wrath" in the New Testament.  God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  We're the ones who get confused.

Stopping point: Isaiah 8

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