The Joy of His Justice
The God of the Bible is a God of judgment. Throughout the Bible, and particularly in this section of Isaiah. The judgment of God is a prominent t theme. But the judgment of God is a disquieting idea in the modern world. Some Christians cringe at the idea of judgment as they contemplate their own sin. Others want a loving God in whom judgment is absent. For some non-Christians, the idea of judgment simply seems antique and at odds with the tolerant modern world.
Judgment, we must remember is intimately associated with justice. Where there is no judgment or punishment for the wicked there is no justice and no righteous governor. As Lord Peter Wimsey said, “Justice is terrible, but injustice is worse" (Dorothy Sayers and Jill Paton Walsh, Thrones, Dominations, New York [St. Martin’s Press], 1998, p. 131). Christians who believe in a God who is the righteous governor of the universe must also believe that God will uphold justice through judgment. To lose a just and judging God is to lose the God of the Bible.
One of the ways the Bible speaks of God as judge is as a "consuming" or "devouring” fire. That expression for God originated in Israel's experience at the foot of Mount Sinai: "The sight of the glory or the LORD was like a consuming fire on the top of the mountain in the eyes of the children of' Israel “(Ex. 24:17). This vision of God becomes a characteristic way of speaking of God. Deuteronomy 4:24, for example, concludes a call to obedience and a warning against idolatry with the words, “For the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God." And those words are quoted in Hebrews 12:29, showing that the character and revelation of God as judge have not changed from the Old Testament to the New.
The same words are echoed by Isaiah. When the prophet speaks of the judgment of God, he uses the image of lire: "Behold, the name of the LORD comes from afar, burning with His anger, and His burden is heavy; His lips are full of indignation, and His tongue like a devouring fire" ( Isa 30:27). Fire becomes a characteristic way of' thinking of judgment, as we see in Peter's second letter: "But the heaven s and the earth… are reserved for fire until the day of judgment…The elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up" (2 Peter 3:7-10). God our consuming fire will come in judgment that will be cornplete and calamitous for the wicked.
Scripture teaches the certainty of that judgment at the end of the world. Isaiah points to the final judgment: "For the indignation of the Lord is against all nations.... All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, and the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll" (Isa. 34:2- 4a). But in this section of his prophecy Isaiah s tresses the certainty of judgment that is already at work in human history. Isaiah declares the judgment of God on Assyria (30:31), on Egypt (31:3), on Edom (34:5), and on his own people (39:6-7). God acts justly not only at the end of time, but also in the course of human events. His judgments are not always plain and His timing can be mysterious, but Isaiah reminds LIS that judgment does take place in history and that the enemies of God's people also are restrained and punished in history. The mystery of God's timing in history can leave His people frustrated and wondering. Why does God permit the suffering of His own? Why does God delay? God's people have struggled to maintain their faith in the face of such delay. Remember the impassioned cry of Psalm 44:23-24: "Awake! Why do You sleep, 0 Lord? Arise! Do not cast us off forever. Why do you hide Your face, and forget our affliction and our oppression?" Even the martyrs in heaven question: '''How long,0 Lord, holy and true, until You judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?'" (Rev.6:10b) God's Word comforts us with the assurance that judgment does come. God is the just ruler of this world and He will bring judgment on the wicked and vindication for the righteous, both in the course of history and at its end. Perhaps we are uneasy about the idea that the promise of judgment should be a comfort to us. Are we lacking in love, sympathy, and evangelistic concern if we are comforted by thoughts of the coming judgment? Was it wrong for Israel to rejoice when Pharaoh's army drowned in the Red Sea? Was it wrong for David to rejoice in the death of Goliath? Isaiah assures us that such joy and comfort is appropriate. "Say to those who are fearful-hearted, 'Be strong, do not tear! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God; He will come and save you'" (35:4). As essential element in the idea of salvation is rescue from danger. The history of God's people shows the threat posed to our very existence by enemies: sin, Satan, and his servants. The destruction of evil is the work of Jesus, who bore our sin in His own body on the cross and crushed Satan and his works. The hope for us is a new heaven and a new earth in which righteousness will dwell and in which we can have peace:"The work of righteousness will be peace, and the effect of righteousness, quietness and assurance forever. My people will dwell in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places" (Isa, 32:1 Our God is a consuming fire, so judgment is certain and comforting, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus."
First published in Tabletalk, May 1999.
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