Ruin Vast as the Sea: God's Wrath

Lamentations 2

 

A few years back, the modern hymn "In Christ Alone" by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend stirred up no small controversy when it was rejected from inclusion in a new edition of Glory to God-the hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA)-after the songwriters declined to change a lyric. At issue, a line in the second verse: "Till on that cross as Jesus died/The wrath of God was satisfied." The denomination said that it did not want to celebrate the idea that God would justly punish sinners without the atoning blood of Christ.

If you're tempted to believe that such a doctrinal quibble could only come from a mainline, liberal denomination like the PCUSA (which has other issues with accepting and applying scriptural teaching), think again. The wrath of God is not a joyfully taught topic in many quarters. Even in otherwise conservative churches, it is something many would just rather not talk about.

The song's lyrics (and the theology behind them) stand up to the biblical test, though. Christ's sacrifice paid the penalty for our sins as God poured out His holy anger and justice on Him for our sakes (see Isa. 53:5-6, Rom. 3:21-26, 1 Thess 5:9-10, Heb 2:14-17, 1 John 4:9-10, and many other passages). Only in this way could God "be just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus." God's wrath is not an embarrassment or a "necessary evil" but a central part of His character-without wrath against sin, His holiness is compromised and His love cheapened. In the whole context of God's nature as revealed in His Word, His wrath is beautiful and worthy of praise.

In Christ we see the full picture of how wrath and love intertwine in His perfect grace, but even the Old Testament writers feared God's justice and praised Him for it. Even without a complete revelation of His eternal plan, they knew that God's wrath was not in conflict with God's goodness. In fact, His wrath showed His love when He protected His people by judging evildoers. This is how Asaph could write: "You, even You, are to be feared; and who may stand in Your presence when once You are angry? You caused judgment to be heard from heaven; the earth feared and was still when God arose to judgment, to save all the humble of the earth. Selah" (Ps. 76:7-9).

How can we praise God for His wrath, though, when it is poured out on us? As we have been looking at the book of Lamentations, this question arises time and again. In many ways, the book itself is an answer to that. God's wrath toward His own people is a chastisement for their sin designed to draw them back to repentance.

The biblical genre of lament (as seen in Psalm 38, Psalm 44, Psalm 51, and others) springs from a recognition of sin (whether personal or corporate) and God's righteous judgment on it. These psalms follow a pattern: the speaker describes a crisis or woe, cries out to the Lord for help, confesses his sins, praises God's justice, and calls down the same justice on God's enemies. Lamentations is an extended version of this form, written by the prophet Jeremiah at the great moment of crisis for the Jews-the destruction of Jerusalem and their exile to Babylon.

Chapter two puts us in the midst of the pain of that judgment with a withering description of God's wrath against Israel. The repentance, deliverance, and justice for enemies is not yet in view here: "How the Lord has covered the daughter of Zion with a cloud in His anger! He has cast from heaven to earth the glory of Israel, and has not remembered His footstool in the day of His anger. The Lord has swallowed up; He has not spared all the habitations of Jacob. In His wrath He has thrown down the strongholds of the daughter of Judah; He has brought them down to the ground; He has profaned the kingdom and its princes. In fierce anger He has cut off all the strength of Israel; He has drawn back His right hand from before the enemy. And He has burned in Jacob like a flaming fire consuming round about" (Lam. 2:1-3).

As we have already touched on, Israel had, in her continual violation of God's covenant, justly earned God's wrath. They refused to honor the Lord in their conduct and worship, and refused to put aside false gods. Instead of fulfilling God's design for them as His chosen people to be a light and a witness for the nations, they had followed after the wickedness of their neighbors and profaned His reputation before a watching world. As a result, His wrath against them was the righteous curse for their disobedience, and protected and exalted His holy name.

Even so, the Lord does not pour out His wrath lightly. The litany of sins, idolatries, and brutality perpetrated by Israel throughout the Old Testament dovetails with accounts of repentance and pursuit of righteousness. God's patience with His people was great-He could have acted to judge them many times over but relented until the time was right. Ultimately, there was a merciful, instructive purpose even in this judgment. Through the exilic prophets, He revealed His coming Messiah, and the people's loss of their land and kingdom made them long for a redeemer.

Because the people had forgotten God's plan, He used extraordinary measures to bring them back to it. The Lord, through Jeremiah, tenderly reminded His children that they had turned their ears away from Him and believed lies in regard to their future: "How shall I admonish you? To what shall I compare you, O daughter of Jerusalem? To what shall I liken you as I comfort you, O virgin daughter of Zion? For your ruin is as vast as the sea; who can heal you? Your prophets have seen for you false and foolish visions; and they have not exposed your iniquities so as to restore you from captivity, but they have seen for you false and misleading oracles" (2:13-14). The false prophets had promised prosperity without repentance, contradicting the Lord's decrees. Now, in the midst of "ruin as vast as the sea," He asks "who can heal you?" knowing the answer and intending to turn them back to Himself.

he extent of destruction brought on the people through God's judgment is described in brutal detail in this chapter. "See, O Lord, and look! With whom have You dealt thus? Should women eat their offspring, the little ones who were born healthy? Should priest and prophet be slain in the sanctuary of the Lord? On the ground in the streets lie young and old; my virgins and my young men have fallen by the sword" (2:20-21). The spiritual desolation also is described in all its darkness: "The law is no more. Also, her prophets find no vision from the Lord. The elders of the daughter of Zion sit on the ground, they are silent. They have thrown dust on their heads; they have girded themselves with sackcloth. The virgins of Jerusalem have bowed their heads to the ground" (2:9-10).

As in each of the chapters of Lamentations, the people recognize that even this is God's work in bringing them low so that they could see Him: "The Lord has done what He purposed; He has accomplished His word which He commanded from days of oldYou called as in the day of an appointed feast my terrors on every side; and there was no one who escaped or survived in the day of the Lord's anger" (2:17, 22). There are no words of comfort in this chapter, no prayer for justice on God's enemies, only despair seems to percolate through the people.

It is always darkest before dawn, though. God's wrath displayed prepares the people to see His great and abounding mercy. Next month, we will begin to look at chapter three, which contains some of the most glorious words of faith and trust in God anywhere in the Scriptures.

Justin Lonas is editor of Disciple Magazine for AMG International in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

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