The prophets of old spoke of such themes as judgment, the wrath of God, and despair, all resulting from the departure of God's elect people of that time from His ways. On the surface we may find it difficult to accept this concept of a God of love. Does God hurl His thunderbolts of wrath upon His children because of their failures to realize the ideal? Or, is there perhaps a deeper way that we could look at these Old Testament prophetic portrayals that would bring new joy and hope to us? I believe there most certainly is.
I would like to suggest two possibilities. First of all, in ancient Near East religious thought it was often stated that God "caused" or "did something" when the real situation was God "allowing nature to take its course" in response to either following or violating His laws (See Deuteronomy 28). A good example of this is found in the statements in Exodus that God "hardened" Pharoah's heart so that he would refuse to release the Israelites from captivity in Egypt (see Exodus 4:21; 7:3, 13, 14; 9:12). A careful reading of the entire narrative in Exodus 7-12 indicates that Pharoah really "hardened" his own heart through his persistent refusal to accept the messages that came to him from God through the prophet Moses. But in Hebrew and ancient Near East religious thought in general it was expressed sometimes as God (or some other "god") doing something that was only occurring because of the universal law of "cause and effect".
In the same manner the Israelites reaped the results of captivity and despair throughout their history because they persistently disregarded the messages of the prophets to repent, turn from their wicked ways, and live in harmony with the will of God. So the "judgments of God" that fell were the natural consequences of their own wrong choices (See 2 Chronicles 36:15-23).
The second aspect of the "judgments of God" upon the Israelites is that of the corrective and redemptive nature of the law of sowing and reaping. Sometimes by our own choice we sow wrong thoughts and cultivate bad habits and thus reap a lot of "hell" in our lives (Galatians 6:7-10). We may suffer physically, spiritually, and mentally from the wrong thinking that produces unwise choices. But this suffering may be very redemptive in our lives if we are willing to look for the good and listen to the prophet within who is ever pointing us to a better way. "Judgments" that we bring upon ourselves can be a vital part of the process of purification in our lives that the image of God within might be more clearly manifested and thus God will be glorified and we be directed to the higher good that is always God's will for all of us. I believe that God's disciplinary process is not some arbitrary way that He punishes us but rather His love and grace which is always at hand that helps us to learn that following His way and His will is always the best (See Hebrews 12:4-13). We are all feeble and lame in our current state of human existence. We all make mistakes whether willfully or ignorantly. However, God "disciplines" us by allowing us to reap the results of our mistakes and always pouring out His grace upon us, pointing us to a better way (See Psalm 118:5-8; Hebrews 13:5, 6). God's discipline in our lives is always a work of grace and healing, not of punishment. Any punishment is when we suffer as a result of wrong thinking which leads to unloving and destructive behavior which usually affects many others besides ourselves.
All of us have "the prophet within" which is that point in our heart of hearts where we make contact with God, where we hear that "still, small voice". We best hear that voice of God in times of silent waiting upon God. The prophet within guides us on to higher ground in our spiritual growth." When things are getting tough we may hear that "still, small voice" within that says something like this:
Perhaps my suffering may be resulting from my misguided choices. Is God really laying a trip on me or am I making decisions which will bring inevitable pain and suffering to myself and others? I need to examine myself, look at my motives, learn, and cease from suffering. God is not punishing me or venting His wrath upon me but He is allowing me to go through a purification process that I may be cleansed of the dross of self-centeredness and live for His glory and the service of my fellowmen.
As we read the Old Testament prophets we find that in the midst of judgments and wrath there is a great emphasis upon the grace of God to heal and to restore. "Captivity and restoration" is indeed the golden thread that runs through all the writings of the Old Testament and is culminated in the New Testament in the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Once this is seen these precious writings come alive with new meaning! These prophetic messages may appear to be "doom and gloom" if they are fragmented and looked at in a shallow manner. But a thoughtful and prayerful reading warms one's heart with God's magnanimous grace, forgiveness, and enabling power. The prophet within helps us to understand the deep spiritual interpretation of scripture and not get hung up on the letter (See Romans 15:4; 2 Corinthians 3:6).
Our prophet within speaks to us messages of repentance (turning to God and away from self-centered thinking and acting), grace, love, and resurrection to new life and freedom from the bondages of this present evil world (See Galatians 1:3-5). Yes, sometimes we need to be rebuked by that prophet within us just as the prophets of old rebuked the people for their transgressions against God. The voice of conscience tells us many times that our path at the time may be one of destruction (hellfire and brimstone). If we don't turn from our evil ways we will self-destruct. But, at the very same time, that wonderful prophetic voice within tells us of the marvelous grace and strength of God which is ever with us to accept us and empower us to live in a God centered way instead of an ego based one. How glorious is the encouragement that comes to us as we enter the "secret place of the Most High" (Psalm 91:1) and come to the realization that we only want God's power of love and good to rule our lives. Paul speaks of this experience in Galatians 2:20, one of my favorite verses in the entire Bible:
20I have been crucified with Christ [in Him I have shared His crucifixion]; it is no longer I who live, but Christ (the Messiah) lives in me; and the life I now live in the body I live by faith in (by adherence to and reliance on and complete trust in) the Son of God, Who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
live by faith in Christ and move away from the self-centered life we experience
a joy that nothing that this world has to offer will ever equal (See 1 Peter
1:8, 9; 2 Peter 1:3, 4).
[This article was written on September 1, 2005 and is part of an ongoing series. I welcome responses from readers. Let me know if you want to be on my email list.