Monday, July 2, 2012

When God's Wrath Comes Down

2 Kings 1 and 2:23-25

Why would a prophet of God do these things?  Why would God allow them to use His power in such ways?  The first incident seems pointless; the second seems petty and vindictive.  What do these two stories tell us about our God?

In the first story, the king of Israel (whose job it was to lead the people to obey the Lord and to establish justice in land–if he did those things, God would bless him and fight his battles for him) was dying, and sent for help and guidance to a foreign god in a foreign land.  When Elijah rebuked him through his messengers, the king sent a ridiculously large force to arrest this prophet (after all, one does not need fifty men to round up one hairy man in a leather loincloth).  Obviously, he hoped that his show of force would compel Elijah to change his prognosis.  Ahaziah’s father Ahab had shown more reverence for God than this.  When Elijah told him at Naboth’s vineyard that his entire household would be wiped out, Ahab had repented before God.  The Lord had responded by putting off the destruction of Ahab’s house until after his death.  But Ahaziah, the son of Ahab, had not learned from this.  When he heard that Elijah said he would die, he responded pridefully instead of humbly.  As a result, one hundred and two men died, and so did Ahaziah.
In the second story, teenagers mock the prophet Elisha.  It wasn’t that Elisha was sensitive about his baldness; this story does not give us license to beat up anyone who insults us.  Instead, we are called to turn the other cheek.  The wrath of God came down because these young men weren’t just mocking a bald-headed man, they were mocking a prophet of God, and they knew it.  In the land of Israel, that meant they were disparaging God Himself.
These two stories belong with other stories where the wrath of God comes down in sudden and shocking fashion.  There’s the story of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, three men who tried to overthrow Moses in the desert.  The earth opened up beneath them and swallowed them up.  Then there’s Uzzah, a man in 2 Samuel who reached up casually and touched the ark of the covenant.  He was struck dead on the spot.  And then there are Ananias and Sapphira, a couple in Acts who sold a piece of land, kept part of the money for themselves, but told their church they were giving all of it.  When Peter confronted them separately with their lie, they each dropped dead.  When we study these stories, we see some common threads.  What do they tell us about God?

1. He is a God of absolute righteousness.  God’s wrath is a function of His righteousness.  In other words, God becomes angry when His righteousness is offended.  In short, God hates sin.  God’s wrath is not like human anger.  It is not self-centered, cruel or vindictive.  It is always righteous and just.  Our anger changes us; we make stupid decisions when we are mad.  God’s wrath does not change His character in the slightest.  God can be angry with us, and still love us just as much as He always does.  My own behavior as a parent illustrates the difference between God’s righteous wrath and my petty anger.  If I get angry with my daughter because she wants to watch a movie and I want to watch football, and in the course of my anger I throw her movie away, that is selfish, cruel and vindictive.  That does not make me a good father, and it doesn’t help her become a better child.  On the other hand, if I take away her movie because it has content that is immoral, or because that is the best punishment I can think of to stop her from doing some wrong thing, then that is wrath that is motivated by love and a concern for righteousness.  That is the wrath of God.  It is always concerned with righteousness.  It is always redemptive.  Even if someone dies as a result–as in the stories I have mentioned, we can be sure that their death was justified, and that God has chosen to bring about their death in a way that serves as an example to others.

2. His wrath comes when His people don’t take His righteousness seriously.  Notice that I said, “His people”.  All of the stories I referenced were about people who should have known better.  God has His own form of judgment for those who completely reject Him.  But when those who have actually tasted His grace and know His commands choose to willfully rebel, the consequences are harsh.  The Bible scholar and preacher D A Carson once befriended a man from French West Africa.  Carson grew up in Canada speaking French fluently, so they hit it off, and would often eat together.  Eventually, Carson found out that his friend often visited prostitutes.  Carson knew the man was married, and that his wife was studying at a medical school in London.  He asked, “How would you feel if you found out your wife was doing the same thing you’re doing?”  The man said, “I’d kill her.”  Carson said, “Don’t you think that’s a bit of a double standard?”  The man responded, “In my country, it’s expected that a husband will have many women, but wives are expected to be faithful.”  Carson said, “You were raised in a missionary school.  You know how God feels about adultery.  How can you do this?”  The man smiled and said, “Ah, God is good.  He is bound to forgive me.  That’s His job.”
Probably no one here would be so blithe about adultery, but what about the sins we struggle with?  Don’t we rationalize them, minimize them, and take for granted the mercy of God?  Isn’t all sin reprehensible in His sight?  I am not trying to be dramatic, and I certainly hope no one reads this and drops dead.  I just want us to be aware that God’s wrath is real and if we call ourselves God’s people while unrepentantly sinning, we could find out personally how real it is.  There will not be an advance warning, by the way. 

3. We are supposed to fear Him.  Now that term has always bothered me a little.  The Bible often says we should fear the Lord.  And that term means more than just respect, no matter what people tell you.  It bothers me because I was raised with the belief that God loved me with an everlasting love, that I was the apple of His eye, and that He longed to have a personal relationship with me just like a daddy with his child.  And all of that is absolutely true.  But think about that relationship I just mentioned.  A father and his child may love each other, but that love does not make them equals.  If the father is a good one, and the son is obedient, there will always be an element of fear.  The son will be afraid to cross certain boundaries.  Otherwise, the son is making himself equal to his dad, and that is not the way God created family relationships.  In the same way, we should love the Lord.  We should pray to Him personally.  We should consider Him our most intimate and warmest friend.  But we are not His equal.  We should continue to acknowledge that there is mystery and holiness about God that we cannot understand this side of heaven.  And we should tremble a little when we approach Him.  Otherwise, the relationship is not what it should be.

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