The Redemptive Purpose of Judgment in History (Part 1)
Throughout the Bible, it can be clearly seen that God’s judgments are purposeful and redemptive. Although for the sake of time we won’t cover every instance of God’s judgment in the Bible, the examples given are highly illustrative and representative of this concept.
The story of Noah’s ark is one of the earliest instances of judgment recorded in the Bible. In it, God floods the earth, for good reason:
Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t think the world would have been a great place to live if people only had evil on their minds all the time. Picture the most brutal, vile regime you can imagine in modern or ancient history. Wouldn’t God be right to judge and put an end to such a regime? Don’t we often wonder why He doesn’t stop the evil in the world?
Well, in Noah’s day, He did. And here’s the really remarkable part: even this judgment was redemptive as explained in the book of 1 Peter.
1 Peter 3:18-20 (ESV)
For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit, in which he went and proclaimed to the spirits in prison, because they formerly did not obey, when God's patience waited in the days of Noah…
What? Even those men who were so wicked that they only thought evil thoughts all the time were preached to by Jesus? Why? Was it just to mock them because they had no hope for escaping hell?
No! Instead we see Jesus purpose in preaching to these captives in Isaiah 61:1 and Luke 4:18. They say He was sent “to proclaim liberty to the captives.”
This is confirmed in 1 Peter 4:6 which states that “this is why the gospel was preached even to those who are dead, that though judged in the flesh the way people are, they might live in the spirit the way God does.”
So, in Noah’s day, God judged evil temporally in order to purify the world (benefiting mankind) and offers redemption in Christ even to the evil men that were judged post mortem!
This is incredible grace and mercy within His judgment! I think this is one reason why Paul exclaims “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! (Romans 11:33).
Sodom and Gomorrah
This is certainly one of the most famous examples of God’s judgment in the Bible, in which He “rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah” (Genesis 19:24). Some are critical of such judgments, saying that they show that God does not really care for people. I believe this conclusion is false. Rather, it is because of love for humanity that God judges evil. Otherwise, the world would be unbearably dark and terrible. And make no mistake, Sodom was evil.
Before they had gone to bed, all the men from every part of the city of Sodom—both young and old—surrounded the house. They called to Lot, “Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us so that we can have sex with them.
Lot went outside to meet them and shut the door behind him and said, “No, my friends. Don’t do this wicked thing. Look, I have two daughters who have never slept with a man. Let me bring them out to you, and you can do what you like with them. But don’t do anything to these men, for they have come under the protection of my roof.”
“Get out of our way,” they replied. “This fellow came here as a foreigner, and now he wants to play the judge! We’ll treat you worse than them.” They kept bringing pressure on Lot and moved forward to break down the door.
Now, I don’t know about you, but I hope I never end up in a city that is so wicked that every man is obsessively intent on gang rape. That is a scary place. Also, notice that the corruption was so pervasive in the city that even Abraham’s nephew Lot (the one considered righteous enough to not be destroyed), offered up his own daughters to be raped by these men rather than have them rape his guests. In case you aren’t sure, that is also very, very wrong (i.e. evil). So, even the most righteous man there wasn’t really a model citizen. Far from it.
So God destroyed Sodom and its wickedness. But again we see something remarkable. Something surprising. Something unbelievable.
God even redeems Sodom.
I [the LORD] will restore their fortunes, both the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters, and the fortunes of Samaria and her daughters, and I will restore your own fortunes in their midst.
How is this even possible? Wasn’t Sodom completely destroyed? According to the Biblical account, it was. Yet Ezekiel, writing many hundreds of years later, is speaking of Sodom’s restoration. This can only be referring to an ultimate restoration in the future. I believe it is referring to restoration after Sodom’s judgment by Christ.
Jesus also referenced Sodom, saying that it would fare better than the Jewish city of Capernaum on judgment day: “And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.” (Matthew 11:23-24).
Although this last passage does not explicitly show Sodom’s redemption, it does indicate that there are degrees of judgment, that the consequences for sin are not uniform eternal punishment as suggested by the doctrine of hell. Instead, the correction we experience will be determined according to our deeds as stated throughout the Bible, and will ultimately lead to restoration, even for a place like Sodom.
The Plagues of Egypt
In the plagues of Egypt, we see another explanation of the purpose of God’s judgment, that is reiterated many times in Scripture: His judgments cause us to come to know Him and proclaim Him.
Then the Lord said to Moses, “Get up early in the morning, confront Pharaoh and say to him, ‘This is what the Lord, the God of the Hebrews, says: Let my people go, so that they may worship me, or this time I will send the full force of my plagues against you and against your officials and your people, so you may know that there is no one like me in all the earth . For by now I could have stretched out my hand and struck you and your people with a plague that would have wiped you off the earth. But I have raised you up for this very purpose, that I might show you my power and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth . You still set yourself against my people and will not let them go.
Judgment is a way for God to get through to us. Some of us (perhaps all of us) are like Pharaoh: hard-hearted and thick-headed. We need to see His awesome power (in the form of judgment) before we are willing to humbly acknowledge who we are, in relation to who He is. And because He loves us and wants us all to repent, He does what needs to be done so that all will hear of his greatness and goodness, and eventually understand.
Jonah and Nineveh
The story of Jonah is not really about a big fish. It’s about a prophet who did not understand God’s will to save all people, and how God showed His will to him. You see, Jonah did not want the people of Nineveh to be saved because they were wicked. In fact, he was angry that they were given the opportunity to repent, and even angrier that they took it! He was so angry that he had a temper tantrum about it. This is what is said of Jonah, immediately after Nineveh’s repentance and salvation from temporal judgment:
But it greatly displeased Jonah and he became angry. He prayed to the Lord and said, “Please Lord, was not this what I said while I was still in my own country? Therefore in order to forestall this I fled to Tarshish, for I knew that You are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for death is better to me than life.” The Lord said, “Do you have good reason to be angry?”
There are several really interesting things about this passage, the first being Jonah’s anger instead of rejoicing at repentance. I believe this shows how far his heart was from God’s in the matter. Jesus said, “I tell you … there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:7). Obviously this is very different from Jonah’s attitude.
Another interesting aspect of the passage is that Jonah explains his reasoning for fleeing to Tarshish rather than obeying God and preaching to Nineveh. He did not want the people of Nineveh to be saved and he knew that God would save them because he is “a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, and one who relents concerning calamity.” Again we see God’s character and desire to save. Jonah understood God’s character well, but he wanted vengeance, not mercy. This is a key difference between us and God and another reason why the doctrine of hell has the hallmarks of being man-made rather than God-inspired.
Now, even though Jonah is thinking wickedly and unmercifully, God shows him mercy by causing a plant to grow nearby to give him shade, and Jonah is overjoyed (it sounds really “over the top” in the passage) about the plant. But God isn’t content to just give Jonah some physical comfort. Instead, he uses the plant to expose both the pride and wickedness in Jonah’s heart, as well as the great love found in His own. He does this by causing the plant to die via a worm. When it dies, Jonah goes back to his ridiculously melodramatic pouting, begging “with all his soul to die” (Jonah 4:8).
Then God said to Jonah, “Do you have good reason to be angry about the plant?” And he said, “I have good reason to be angry, even to death.” Then the Lord said, “You had compassion on the plant for which you did not work and which you did not cause to grow, which came up overnight and perished overnight. Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals?”
What does this tell us about God? It tells us that He is compassionate, even to those that we consider unredeemable. He forgives those that we say are unforgivable. He loves those that we believe to be unlovable.
He wills to save and He will do it, in spite of the resistance of the proud, religious mindset.
The humbling of Nebuchadnezzar
Nebuchadnezzar was king of Babylon and he was not a nice guy. He threw men (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego) into a fiery furnace for not worshipping a statue he set up. He destroyed Jerusalem. He was arrogant, entitled, and brutal.
So God warned him in a dream of his impending judgment. Daniel interpreted the dream for the king and offered him some wise advice, which was not heeded. Let’s read the whole story now, beginning with Daniel’s sage counsel.
Therefore, O king, may my advice be pleasing to you: break away now from your sins by doing righteousness and from your iniquities by showing mercy to the poor, in case there may be a prolonging of your prosperity.’
“All this happened to Nebuchadnezzar the king. Twelve months later he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon. The king reflected and said, ‘Is this not Babylon the great, which I myself have built as a royal residence by the might of my power and for the glory of my majesty?’ While the word was in the king’s mouth, a voice came from heaven, saying, ‘King Nebuchadnezzar, to you it is declared: sovereignty has been removed from you, and you will be driven away from mankind, and your dwelling place will be with the beasts of the field. You will be given grass to eat like cattle, and seven periods of time will pass over you until you recognize that the Most High is ruler over the realm of mankind and bestows it on whomever He wishes.’ Immediately the word concerning Nebuchadnezzar was fulfilled; and he was driven away from mankind and began eating grass like cattle, and his body was drenched with the dew of heaven until his hair had grown like eagles’ feathers and his nails like birds’ claws.
“But at the end of that period, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven and my reason returned to me, and I blessed the Most High and praised and honored Him who lives forever;
For His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
And His kingdom endures from generation to generation.
“All the inhabitants of the earth are accounted as nothing,
But He does according to His will in the host of heaven
And among the inhabitants of earth;
And no one can ward off His hand
Or say to Him, ‘What have You done?’
At that time my reason returned to me. And my majesty and splendor were restored to me for the glory of my kingdom, and my counselors and my nobles began seeking me out; so I was reestablished in my sovereignty, and surpassing greatness was added to me. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.”
There are several things to notice about this passage. First, we see that Nebuchadnezzar is warned of his impending judgment but in his pride does not repent. Second, we see that he is judged severely (7 years of grass eating madness). Third, and most importantly, we see the result of the judgment: he was humbled and acknowledged God. He learned to “praise, exalt and honor the King of heaven, for all His works are true and His ways just, and He is able to humble those who walk in pride.”
Nebuchadnezzar learned, through judgment, to confess allegiance and bow his knee to the one true God, just as the Bible says that every person will do (Isaiah 45:23, Romans 14:11, Philippians 2:10). This is the purpose of God’s judgment. It humbles us so that we can be restored to Him, for “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6, 1 Peter 5:5). For many of us, this humbling happens during our lifetimes. But for others, we will be humbled at the last judgment. If you are objecting that this humbling through judgment cannot occur after death, I would challenge you to find a single Bible verse anywhere that says this to be true. I guarantee you won’t find one!
God’s purpose of restoration through judgment is consistent throughout the Bible. In the next chapter we will see this to be true in terms of His judgments of nations.
Previous Chapter Next Chapter