What the Bible says about
Balancing God's Goodness and Severity
(From Forerunner Commentary)
Deuteronomy 30 contains the premier discussion of the restoration of Israel in the Scriptures. While there may be passing intimations of Israel's restoration earlier, it is in this passage that God first introduces most of the significant themes that accompany later treatments of that restoration. The historical setting is Moab, probably about sixty days before the children of Israel crossed the Jordan River, entering the Land of Promise after almost four decades of wandering. Moses died shortly after he delivered this message from God, and after thirty days of mourning, the people obeyed Joshua's command “to go in to possess the land which the LORD your God is giving you to possess.” See Deuteronomy 34 and Joshua 1.
It is vital to remember, however, that Moses' message is not merely historical but prophetic; the great leader here introduces the concept of a future restoration of Israel. Note well: He clarifies that his audience is “you and your children.” He understands that he is addressing not only those standing before Him that day on the east side of the Jordan River, but all the descendants of the children of Israel as well. This prophecy pertains to today's descendants of Israel.
In verse 1, Moses establishes the timeframe of the prophecy: When Israelites come to consider the things that have happened to them, “the blessing and the curse which I have set before you.” In the time of Jacob's Trouble (Jeremiah 30:5-7), the folk of Israel will reflect, he says, upon both—that is, both the blessings and the curses. Importantly, it will not be just the agony involved in the afflictions that Israelites will consider in their distress during the Tribulation, but they will contemplate the blessings as well. Israelites will reflect upon the blessings of liberty, prosperity, and peace they enjoyed for decades in the lands of their exile (Northern Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand, etc.), generation after generation, comparing those blessings against the curses of disease, deprivation, slavery, death, and scattering they are experiencing wholesale in the land of their enemies, where they are held captive.
This prophecy explains why God has determined to prosper Israel in this time of her seemingly boundless decadence, blessing her today despite her high indebtedness, her deindustrialization, and the unprecedented prevalence of her peoples' failing health. It appears to us an unseasonal prosperity, irreconcilable with the depth of America's current depravity.
Does God reward sin? Why is Israel experiencing this prosperity now? One reason is undoubtedly that, during the Tribulation, God wants to ensure that the blessings enjoyed by this last generation of Israelites stand out in their minds from the curses they experience in the Tribulation—and stand out in all the starker relief, as day differs from night, light from dark. This is an application of what psychologists call “Treatment Learning.”
God will use both—blessings and curses—to send Israelites a powerful message. At the end of Isaiah 10:22, God makes an essential point in this regard: “The destruction decreed shall overflow with righteousness.” The destruction God has proclaimed for Israel will be like an overwhelming flood, uniquely vast and deep. Overpowering. Unescapable. Unstoppable.
But for all that, it will be in righteousness. It will be just. Isaiah means that God will fulfill all righteousness, the blessings and the curses of Deuteronomy 28. In fact, this is another way of saying He is faithful to the terms of the covenant—all aspects of the covenant, positive and negative. In Jeremiah 16:18 (New English Translation), God says He will punish Israel “in full” for her sins. But afterward, the blessings He will offer repentant Israel will be beyond belief.
In Matthew 3:15, Jesus tells John the Baptist that it is proper for him, John, to baptize Him in order to “fulfill all righteousness.” At least in part, this phrase means that Christ does not take half measures, but fully loves and obeys God. He takes action to meet God's standards of justice while, at the same time, acting in mercy. He does everything right, punishing in justice, healing in mercy. In the context of His end-time dealings with Israel, God makes this principle explicit in Jeremiah 31:10: “He who scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him as a shepherd does his flock.”
God's scattering and then His gathering of Israel is yet another application of, respectively, His severity and His goodness. Interestingly, Paul enunciates the concept of God's goodness and severity in the same passage where he writes of God's restoring Israel, Romans 11:19-27.
Israel's Restoration and the Zeitgeist of Zeal
Isaiah 30:25-26 calls our attention to an important principle, a tenet that doubtlessly springs from the merism that lies at the core of God's very nature. As if to emphasize the value of the message, God repeats the principle, using different images, in these successive verses.
That principle is just this: On the heels of destruction will come the forces of restoration. Notice carefully the word when, and the term, in the day, both repeated in these verses. We are left with the real sense that the forces of destruction and construction will appear virtually simultaneously. Maybe not fully concomitant but surely close. The two verses merit closer consideration.
In verse 25, God sends running water on the very day when He brings to nothing the high towers. We learn about these two highly dissimilar incidents—the fall of the towers and the coming of the water—in virtually the same breath. This gives us the impression that God will mercifully begin the healing process soon after the destruction, almost concurrent with it.
Let us look into the imagery a bit. The running water could refer to the Holy Spirit or to information, specifically, the knowledge of God that will eventually cover the earth, as Isaiah declares in Isaiah 11:9: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.”
Isaiah 41:17-18, 20 echo this thought. In verse 18, God promises He will bring water to barren hills while, in verse 20, He links that water, at least generally, to knowledge about Him.
Returning to Isaiah 30:25, we understand that the high towers could refer to military fortifications. In our context today, they could just as suitably denote institutions such as the IMF, World Bank, or even the United Nations—anything which people rely on as a bastion of strength and a source of protection. As so often is the case, the prophet Isaiah supplies his own commentary. In Isaiah 2:12, 15-17, he defines the tower as anything that represents the pride of mankind. Verse 12 establishes the context as the Day of the Lord, the same timeframe referenced in Isaiah 30 with the time, “in the day.”
Returning to Isaiah 30:25 once more, we understand that the mountains could refer to governments, as in Daniel 2, and “every high hill” could refer to false religious practices, as in I Kings 14:22-24.
In fact, the term “every high hill” appears six other times in the Old Testament, each time referring to the practice of false religion. A similar term, with about the same meaning, “high places” appears no less than ninety times in the Old Testament.
The bottom line regarding Isaiah 30:25 is this: God brings flowing water on barren hilltops at about the same time that He brings to naught mankind's oppressive governments (mountains) and his false religions (high hills).
Turning our attention to Isaiah 30:26, we see much the same thought, dressed in entirely different imagery. In this verse, God says the sun's light, and presumably its heat, will be seven times greater than normal and that the moon will shine as brightly as the sun normally does. That would be quite destructive.
Notice, though, all that takes place when He “binds up the brokenness of His people, and heals the wounds inflicted by His blow.” So again, the act of restoration, stated here with the terms “binds up” and “heals,” is closely linked with the act of destruction. The two acts may not occur fully simultaneously, but they appear to be extremely closely connected in time.
The Goodness and Severity of God (Part One)
Isaiah 30 contains dichotomies that bear investigation. One is the dichotomy of destruction and restoration alluded to in verses 25-26. It is echoed by the contrast, or distinction, between destruction and rejoicing in verse 32. These two dichotomies, destruction-restoration and destruction-rejoicing, appear to be historically and conceptually coupled. Notice Isaiah 30:32 in the Lexham English Bible: “And every stroke of the staff of foundation that Yahweh lays will be on it [in context, on Assyria, . . . ] with timbrels and lyres, and He will fight against it with battles of brandishing.”
Somebody will be making music in the midst of this destructive warfare!
The Lexham translation is one of the few that handles this passage adequately. The Hebrew word for the noun “foundation” is a hapax legomenon—it appears nowhere else in the Old Testament. However, it is related to another word also translated “foundation” in reference to Solomon's Temple in IIChronicles 8:16, and to yet a third word translated “foundation” in reference to the Millennial Temple in Ezekiel 41:8. The root also appears in Isaiah 28:16: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation.”
So, an accurate paraphrase of Isaiah 30:32 might read: “And every stroke of His foundational rod that the LORD brings down. . . .” Ironically, the rod of correction is foundational. This is something every good parent understands. The parent's ultimate objective in using corrective punishment is in fact not to hurt but to build—build character. In Hebrews 12:10 (ESV), Paul informs us that the punishments God sends are “for our good, that we may share His holiness.”
In this vein, the blows He ultimately delivers to the Babylonish system on the Day of the Lord will lay the groundwork for a better civilization; His destruction of the environment and of the infrastructure, of mankind's governments and his perverse religious systems, will permit the creation of far superior counterparts—and that in short order. The old has to go before the new can come. In this sense, these blows are an affirmation of God's commitment to building a new structure. We can be encouraged that His every blow is aimed at producing, ultimately, a new and better world.
While it does not strictly cause restoration, God's “staff of foundation” or His “staff of discipline,” as some translations render it, is curative, even creative. Just as a paddle may not actually cause or create good character in a child, properly used, it can certainly become an agent in character development. Likewise, God's sagaciously administered discipline in His Day will facilitate restoration. This is why destruction is so closely associated with restoration; this is why the correction of the Day of the Lord is attended with rejoicing. Better things are coming soon.
The Goodness and Severity of God (Part One)
The prophet is explicit: The Day of the Lord is totally dark. There is nothing at all light about it!
It is important that we recognize the context of this passage. In verse 1, Amos terms his words “a funeral song—that I am lifting up against you, house of Israel” (Common English Bible). The Modern English Version and The Voice actually refer to it as a “dirge.” The King James Version uses the noun “lamentation.” With that definition in mind, notice the verb tenses in verse 2: “She has fallen; virgin Israel will never rise again. She lies abandoned on her land, with no one to raise her up” (Holman Christian Standard Bible).
Amos' vision is so clear that he is actually treating his subject, the nation of Israel, as though she were already dead—gone. Yet, he wrote these words some forty years before ten-tribed Israel (that is, the Northern Kingdom) had actually fallen to the Assyrian Empire. Furthermore, we know that Israel will rise again, when God restores her, joining her again with Judah (Ezekiel 37:15-28). Indeed, Amos himself speaks of this restoration in Amos 9:11-15. Notice just verses 14-15:
“I will restore the fortunes of my people Israel, and they shall rebuild the ruined cities and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and drink their wine, and they shall make gardens and eat their fruit. I will plant them on their land, and they shall never again be uprooted out of the land that I have given them,” says the LORD your God. (English Standard Version)
Both Old and New Testaments speak of this restoration. Clearly, the language of Amos 5:2 is hyperbolic (that is, overstatement), highly apropos rhetoric for a dirge, the rhetoric of which is about as dark as it can be. With that context in mind, Amos' meaning in verses 18-20 becomes clearer. The prophet is in fact saying that the people of Israel thought the Day of the Lord was one of total light. They misunderstood.
If we were to transport a representative cross-section of Amos' audience to the twenty-first-century America, we might, after interviewing them, discover a lot of common ground between these self-righteous and hypocritical Israelites and the post-Millennialist members of today's liberal churches. Post-Millennialists believe that “things” are improving all the time, the result of the effective work of the church. They believe that, eventually, things will be so good that Christ will return. It is almost as though these people listen to different newscasts than the ones to which we listen!
So, too, the Israelites of Amos' day, focusing myopically on their current wealth and false sense of wellbeing, perceived nothing but “good times rolling.” Times were great, getting greater, with no end to prosperity in sight. They imagined themselves to be at the gate of Paradise, what they thought the Day of the Lord would be.
Amos corrects that errant perception. The time is coming, he avers in Amos 5:16, “In all the squares there shall be wailing, and in all the streets they shall say, 'Alas! Alas!'” This is a far cry from “good times”! From their distress, he says in verse 19, they will find no viable path of escape—running from a lion, they meet a bear! Their doom is sealed.
In reality, for those doomed, the Day of the Lord will have no good in it at all. It will be totally dark, exactly the opposite of what Amos' audience dimwittedly envisioned. We know, however, that those not doomed during the Lord's Day will see God promptly take restorative action, extending “great compassion” to them.
The Goodness and Severity of God (Part Two)
These verses bear a definite affinity with Jeremiah 7, where the prophet warns his audience against giving heed to “deceptive words” (verse 4) and behind them, of course, fallacious doctrines. These people “entered these gates [of the Temple] to worship the LORD” (verse 2). Yet, much like those to whom Amos spoke earlier, they were guilty of perpetrating vast social injustices, justifying themselves all the while in the name of religion. Jeremiah asks, rhetorically:
Will you steal, murder, commit adultery, swear falsely, make offerings to Baal, and go after other gods that you have not known, and then come and stand before Me in this house, which is called by My name, and say, “We are delivered!“—only to go on doing all these abominations? (verse 9)
He has already pointed out the moral depravity, however:
For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever. (verses 5-7)
These people considered themselves safe because of their religious heritage, typified most saliently in Solomon's Temple (verse 4). They thought, “God would never destroy that!” God instructs the people otherwise, asking them in verse 12 to go “now to My place that was in Shiloh, where I made My name dwell at first, and see what I did to it because of the evil of My people Israel.” History has shown that the threats of the “severe” God are not idle:
Therefore I will do to the house that is called by My name, and in which you trust, and to the place that I gave to you and to your fathers, as I did to Shiloh. And I will cast you out of My sight, as I cast out all your kinsmen, all the offspring of Ephraim. (verses 14-15)
The Goodness and Severity of God (Part Two)
Paul directs this passage toward Gentiles as part of an admonition he wanted them to consider regarding their calling into the church. We, too, must seriously consider God's goodness and severity. God is not only what we commonly think of as love. His character is perfectly balanced by a sense of justice for all concerned and for His purpose too. To be just is to be fair, evenhanded, and impartial. God will always be fair because even His justice is executed in love and is an act of love.
God is not only supreme in power and authority, but He is also supreme in judgment. His mind pierces through all of the justifications we make to excuse our bad attitudes and conduct as measured against His righteous standard. So, if we desire to live by faith, we must seriously consider His sense of justice because what we may think is a small matter, an event of no great magnitude, may trigger God to react with terrible swiftness and severe consequences that leave us wondering why. Scripture records a number of these sudden, violent reactions.
We must begin by understanding that we do not see the entire picture as God does. The reality of God's justice helps us to perceive three important factors to living by faith: 1) The wages of sin is indeed death (Romans 6:23); 2) we are headed toward death and do not know its time; and 3) God means exactly what He says.
Jesus declares an important principle in Luke 12:48: "But he who did not know, yet committed things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few. For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required; and to whom much has been committed, of him they will ask the more." We need to think about the seriousness of our calling, knowing that human nature contains a strong strain of self-deception. This verse should remind us that because we have been given so much, our judgment will be sterner.
God states in Romans 1:18-20 that mankind is without excuse regarding His existence, but it is easily seen in the immoral conduct committed throughout the world that people are paying little or no attention to their responsibilities to God. As people go about their daily activities, they ignore Him; a relationship with Him is not perceived as a vital, everyday necessity to life.
Some may talk of Him on occasion and even pray, but they are not seriously committed to true devotion to Him. They are neither learning more of His truth nor further broadening and deepening obedience to Him. Besides those folks, some are openly and aggressively antagonistic toward Him and His laws.
However, in the face of these attitudes, we cannot allow ourselves to disregard the fact that God is very serious about His intentions to fulfill His purposes for His creation and most especially in the lives of His children. His purpose has been revealed to us, and we are more responsible than others.
Though by our reckoning of time God's justice often seems long delayed, the prophecies will be fulfilled and His Kingdom established under Jesus Christ. God commands that we must live by faith, so we cannot let down. We must push on in faith.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Living by Faith and God's Justice
In his letter to the Christians residing at Rome, the apostle Paul is characteristically astute in his statement of dichotomies. To him, God's penchant to follow destruction quickly with restoration is summed up in the merism, “the goodness and severity of God.” He sees these traits, in essence polar opposites, as definitive of God's character, the operational definition of His interface with mankind. Not that God is bipolar, exhibiting radical mood swings. Rather, God is love, intrinsically so, unchangeably so, but He responds rigorously to sin because He understands how hurtful it is.
Furthermore, implicit in the merism, to Paul's way of thinking, is a stern warning not to abuse God's mercy, lest we incur His severity. The context is the mercy that God has shown some Gentiles by calling them into His church, and at the same time, His rejection of His (physical) people Israel—at least for a while:
If God didn't think twice about taking pruning shears to the natural branches [that is, physical Israel of old], why would He hesitate over you? He wouldn't give it a second thought. Make sure you stay alert to these qualities of gentle kindness and ruthless severity that exist side by side in God—ruthless with the deadwood, gentle with the grafted shoot. But don't presume on this gentleness. (Romans 11:21-22, The Message)
Here is the same dichotomy—punishment and restoration, stated in a New Testament context. Two translations of this same passage, quoted below, make it clear that God's severity and His goodness combine to make up two sides of a single personality. J.B. Phillips' paraphrase puts it this way:
You must try to appreciate both the kindness and the strict justice of God. Those who fell experienced His justice, while you are experiencing His kindness, and will continue to do so as long as you do not abuse that kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. . . .
The Voice is quite clear. Notice the translator's turn, “simultaneous balance”:
Witness the simultaneous balance of the kindness and severity of our God. Severity is directed at the fallen branches withering without faith. Yet kindness is directed at you. So live in the kindness of God or else prepare to be cut off yourselves.
It is fair to say that this merism—the opposites expressed in God's goodness and His severity—articulate a central, informing theme of God's Word—from its beginning to its end. We see these opposites in narrative after narrative in the Old Testament. Here are just four examples:
1. The goodness of God toward Noah and his family, His protection of them through the cataclysm that destroyed the world that then was (compare Genesis 8:1 and II Peter 3:5-6).
2. The goodness of God as He delivered “righteous Lot” from the cities of the plain, which He promptly burned to ashes (see II Peter 2:6-7).
3. The severity He displayed to Job in order to teach him an important lesson, and the goodness He showed as He ultimately “blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning” (Job 42:12).
4. The severity He exhibited toward Joseph, a bit of a cocky 17-year-old lad, who basked in his father's favor. He found himself a slave in Egypt. Psalm 105:18 (Common English Bible) tells us that his “feet hurt in his shackles; his neck was in an iron collar. . . .” Relatively soon, however, Joseph became Pharaoh's vizier.
The Goodness and Severity of God (Part Two)
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