“Assyria will fall by a sword that is not of mine; a sword, not of mortals, will devour them. They will flee before the sword and their young men will be put to forced labor. Their stronghold will fall because of terror; at sight of the battle standard their commanders will panic, declares the LORD, whose fire is in Zion, whose furnace is in Jerusalem.” (Isa 31:8-9)
How can a good and loving God inflict harsh punishment on people? This is one of the hardest questions for New Testament Christians. In the Old Testament, fire has been a tool of judgment on people. The Scripture text above shows that while God cannot tolerate his people going into idolatry, he despises those who harm his people with deception and cruelty. At that time, the superpowers of the world are Egypt, Assyria and later Persia. (As a quick comparison, in our modern world, the three major military powers are the US, Russia and China.) Now, what did Assyria do that makes God so angry? Basically, they became arrogant and proud, having ‘willful pride’ and ‘haughty’ eyes (Isa 10:12). Instead of acknowledging God, they chose to take for granted their power and prosperity. Worse, they abuse their authority through merciless killings and free ravages of the land of Israel, treating powerless Israel like a whore to be shoved around and stepped upon. Whatever God gave Assyria, Assyria boasts not in God but its riches and power. Whatever God gives Israel, Israel took for granted. Before we go on, let me say a few things about reading the Old Testament.
Reading the Old Testament
When we read the Old Testament, it is easy to point a finger at God and accuse him of sadist behaviors. It is a common struggle for many believers that it is much more difficult to read the Old Testament than the New Testament. After-all, the New Testament Jesus is more palatable to our understanding of a Good and Loving God, compared to the Old-Testament view of God as a cruel and punishing Creator. For those of us who think this way, we may have conveniently forgotten that the Old Testament is the ‘Bible’ that Jesus used. At that time, there were no Pauline or Peterine epistles that Jesus can quote from. He had no gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke or John to refer to. He came to fulfill what was written in the Old Testament (Matt 5:17). In his book, “The Bible Jesus read,” Philip Yancey summarizes the Christian predicament in two simple points:
- The OT does not always make sense;
- It offends our modern ears.
Some Christians feel that the solution is to become a ‘Jesus freak.’ They prefer the New Testament to the Old. They prioritize Jesus’s words over anything else mentioned in the Bible. They divide the Bible according to what their own minds understand, instead of what God meant for them to receive in faith. Perhaps this is a problem that besets those of us living in comfortable modern worlds of air-conditioners, rich foods, well-paying jobs, high-tech transport and comfortable houses. Yancey observes that many people living in simple environments in Africa and Afghanistan identifies themselves very closely with the Old Testament picture of land, justice, water rights, tribal matters etc. In contrast to our modern minds of questioning and scholars challenging the authenticity of the Old Testament, the people living in rural lands like Africa finds it a no-brainer to accept the Old Testament, the way that what Jesus accepted: By faith. According to Yancey, the more he reads the Old Testament, the greater his realization that it can be more ‘personal and passionate’ (Yancey, The Bible Jesus Read, 22).
We need to make sure that we learn to read the complete Bible, rather than choice texts. If we read only ‘choice texts’ of the Bible, where is our need for wonder and ponder? When we no longer have any appetite, what good is a rich seafood buffet spread before us? Reading ‘choice texts’ put us in control. Reading the Bible for what it is puts God in control. Before we contest anything, we need to know the content and to understand the context. There is also something else unique and special about the Old Testament. God presents not only both sides of the coin, He gives us truth as it is, uncensored, unadulterated and uncompromising. Let me suggest that we read the Old Testament not only of celestial punishment, but also as a form of divine redemption.
Of Punishment and Divine Redemption
Isa 31 is a classic display of God’s love for his people. It shows how Jerusalem is being prepared for deliverance from their cruel slavery under the hands of the Assyrians. It seems that the Israelites have no inkling of what their God can do. They have forgotten how their forefathers, have been delivered from the land of Egypt via the Great Exodus. They have short memories over how God blessed them previously, when they were the most feared military force under King David. Just as the Israelites were able to witness God’s acts against Pharaoh, they were able to see the haughty Assyrians being punished before their very eyes. The very God who punishes their enemies will be the Same God who will deliver them. The way the prophet describes the punishment is worth noticing. The fire and the furnace of punishment is described as being ‘in Zion’ and ‘in Jerusalem’ respectively. There is a strong connotation of those who harm God’s precious people; they themselves will suffer a heavy retribution. The very victims they abuse have become their traps and pitfalls. With one masterful stroke of God, the innocent sheep-den has become the downfall of mighty Assyria. God accomplishes both celestial punishment of the Assyrians, and the divine redemption of Jerusalem not separately but together.
My friends. It is hard to read the Old Testament with New Testament eyes. It is harder still to accept the ways God chooses to punish the wicked. Let me suggest that it is most difficult to accept God can love ugly and idolatrous people. That is pure grace, very similar to Jesus’s death on the Cross for undeserved persons like you and I. The fire can punish and destroy. It too can save and purify. Respect both. Thus, whenever we ask about God's punishing ways, let us also ask about God's redemptive ways. Ponder over them. Wonder at them and let God reveal his truths to us. Until we learn to see all God's work as one giant display of grace.
One such grace is this: Let our hearts be a furnace that burns away sin, and to keep our flame of love for God and neighbor alive and well.
"We are on safe ground when we encourage any Christian to read and study the great saints and lovers of the Lord, be they Protestant or Roman Catholic, mystic or theologian. If they wrote out of a burning heart of love to Christ, we shall catch fire from the same holy flame." (Hannah Hurnard, Winged Life)
“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” (G. K. Chesterton)