The Chief End of Man (13)
Thoughts on the Wrath of God
We have just come face-to-face with human depravity and God’s wrath in a truly overpowering story. What we have just experienced – the attempted mass gang rape of innocent passers through, the devastating betrayal by a father of his daughters, a single backward glance turning a woman into a pillar of salt, the destruction of entire cities including men, women and children and wanton incest – is almost too much tragedy and terror to bear in one story. Yet bear it we must, and more, engage deeply with it, for God is here too seeking to communicate with us.
We have dealt with the human dimension within the commentary. What’s left hanging is God’s wrath. For in the end Sodom and Gomorrah are utterly destroyed, including all the living within their walls. We spoke in the abstract of God’s cursing. But to see it played out in concrete acts is something else altogether.
Some pretend that this issue is lost in the irrelevant verses about an overturned God of the Old Testament, for Jesus Christ has come, full of peace and love. Yet, didn’t we hear this same Jesus say just a little bit back:
“And you, Caper’na-um, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” (Matthew 11:23)
“I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on that day for Sodom than for that town. ” (Luke 10:12).
If this doesn’t convince, try Matthew 23:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you traverse sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves. ” (Matthew 23:15)
“You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell?
Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will scourge in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, that upon you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of innocent Abel to the blood of Zechari’ah the son of Barachi’ah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. Truly, I say to you, all this will come upon this generation. ” (Matthew 23:33-36).
No, gentle Jesus meek and mild is also the God Almighty of Wrath and Judgment.
So then, if we can’t escape facing the wrath of God what shall we do? First, we must accept that the infinite, perfect, holy God whom we worship does express Himself in wrath. It is not for us to judge Him or His mighty acts.
But, secondly, we must come to rightly understand that these are His judgments, His acts; not ours. That is, we must never fall under the false idea that because we have communion with this God we therefore are fit to judge and act in His place. Rather, seeing how terrible it is to offend our Lord God, how searching and sure are His decrees, we should live all the more humbly, all the more forgivingly in our own judgments and acts.
Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Hebrews 12:14)
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire. (Hebrews 12:28,29)
And yet, we cannot conclude here. For although we must never act as if in God’s place, the bare fact remains that God expects us to decide and act in this fallen world. He expected it of Abraham, Sarah, Moses, David; Peter, Mary, John and Paul. He also expects it of us.
Thus we are placed in ambiguous, confusing situations in which God’s demand for love and justice must be put into practice by our decisions and consequent actions. A particularly clear example from Scripture can be found in 2 Samuel where King David is fleeing Jerusalem after Absalom’s revolt.
Then the king said to Zadok, “Carry the ark of God back into the city. If I find favor in the eyes of the LORD, he will bring me back and let me see both it and his habitation; but if he says, ‘I have no pleasure in you,’ behold, here I am, let him do to me what seems good to him.” (2 Samuel 15:25,26)
David has been forced by events to make decisions of massive import within the context of uncertainty as to what the Lord is doing, and thus, requires of him.
We also are forced into similar situations where goods collide and God’s will is simply not visible. We can attempt to avoid such decisions by crawling under the blanket of simplistic, convenient moral postures. Or, we can face up to the uncertainty and decide. These decisions have consequences that are unforeseen and that continue to reverberate across the generations.
One man to which this fate fell was Abraham Lincoln; now one of the most revered of our Presidents; in his life mocked and hated from all sides. Upon him fell the ghastly decision to hold our Union together by the force of arms, and, to lead as Commander in Chief throughout the bloodiest war our nation has ever fought.
When Lincoln made this fateful decision he had no way of knowing that by its end over 600,000 would die by battle wounds or disease. But, at the war’s end:
- Our nation had been prevented from breaking into two powerful and likely regularly warring nations
- The vile institution of slavery had finally been broken in a nation that declared “All men are created equal” in its Declaration of Independence
The peace, freedom and prosperity that we so often take for granted as citizens of the United States could have been something that never happened; with all of the downstream consequences for the world.
So, as we struggle with the awful issues of war and peace, safety and human rights, faithfulness and folly; perhaps it would be of value to reread Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. For there the tension of living and acting is considered within the context of God’s Providence by a man who suffered under the lash of the most dreadful consequences.
At this second appearing to take the oath of the Presidential office there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement somewhat in detail of a course to be pursued seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself, and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured.
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, all sought to avert it. While the inaugural address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, urgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war—seeking to dissolve the Union and divide effects by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.
One-eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the causeof the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
The country only awoke to Lincoln’s greatness after he had been assassinated. He remains a figure that “belongs to the ages” because he chose and persevered under the most awful of circumstances. His experience can’t remove our current uncertainties. But, perhaps, they can give perspective to the debate and humility to our own torn souls.
 Deut. 4:24