In today’s society, our aversion to any kind of judgment tends to affect our view of God. Many people prefer to view God as a benevolent Santa Claus who smiles down on us. That view clashes heavily with the God we encounter in the Bible. When these people read the Bible, especially the Old Testament, they seem to find an angry, capriciously-judgmental God they want nothing to do with. Richard Dawkins, a famous atheist and critic of religion, said,
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; … capriciously malevolent bully.
Even those who claim to be religious have similar concerns. One Roman Catholic recently wrote on a forum;
How does one reconcile the seemingly violent and angry God of the Old Testament with the merciful and loving God of the New Testament?My goal is not to reconcile God’s works in the Old Testament with the New. I want to address one question: Is the God of the Old Testament unjust and unloving?
Since January I’ve been reading through the Bible and recently I finished Isaiah. Like many Old Testament prophetic books, God pronounces judgment throughout. Most of the punishment falls on Israel, but he also talks about coming doom for Egypt, Cush (Ethiopia), Babylon, other nations—even the whole earth. But why?
The purpose of judgment
(1) God’s holiness. We know that God is holy, that He cannot leave sin unpunished. Yet so often we fail to see the magnitude of our sin. Isaiah points out that our righteous deeds are “filthy rags”. Although we can excuse our sin, God would be neither just nor truly loving to do so. Sin creates a separation between us and God that cannot be overlooked. Isaiah affirms that God’s judgment against Israel is righteous;
Though your people be like the sand by the sea, Israel, only a remnant will return. Destruction has been decreed, overwhelming and righteous. (Is. 10:22, emphasis mine)(2) God’s glory. God’s overwhelming passion is for His own glory. At its basic root, sin is an affront to God’s glory, a rebellion as we try to take the glory for ourselves. As God declares judgment on Tyre, He offers an explanation;
The Lord of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth. (Is. 23:9)In another passage, God explains His intolerance towards idolatry;
I am the LORD; that is my name! I will not yield my glory to another or my praise to idols. (Is. 42:8)The promise in the midst of judgment
God is just in His judgment, but what struck me most after reading Isaiah was the inconceivable depth of God’s mercy;
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly; your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them. (Is. 1:13-14)God elaborates on their wickedness even more, but then He pleads with them to return to Him;
Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean. … Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. (Is. 1:16,18)He offers hope in the midst of judgment, salvation in the face of sin. This hope is not only for Israel. Even in this Old Testament book we see God’s desire and purpose to draw all nations to Himself. It’s true that God pronounces punishment on Egypt, but He also promises to make himself known;
So the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and in that day they will acknowledge the LORD. They will worship with sacrifices and grain offerings; they will make vows to the LORD and keep them. (Is. 19:21)One of the judgments against Israel was that foreigners would inhabit their land. In turn, God would judge the foreigners for taking His chosen people’s land. But He offers a promise even to those outside of Israel;
Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people. …[T]hese I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer … for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations. (Is. 56:6-7)
In the last days the mountain of the LORD’s temple will be established as the highest of the mountains; it will be exalted above the hills, and all nations will stream to it. (Is. 2:2, emphasis mine)
And I, because of what they have planned and done, am about to come and gather the people of all nations and languages, and they will come and see my glory. (Is. 66:18, emphasis mine)The promise of JesusIsaiah contains prophecies about the end of time, and many of them have a vision for the nations. In fact, the book of Isaiah starts and ends with such a promise;
Of course the biggest hope God extends is the promise of His Son coming centuries after Isaiah was written. Besides the famous Isaiah 53 chapter, there are more references to Jesus, in total over 100;
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (Is. 7:14)What more could we ask for? God promised His greatest gift while proclaiming some of His greatest judgments. If that message is not the same proclamation of hope and forgiveness for all mankind found in the New Testament, I don’t know what is.
If we think God is mean or unfair in the Old Testament, we have not realized the gravity of our sins or we have completely missed God’s mercy. From one book alone, we can see evidence of God’s incredible love. Although I only examined Isaiah, I know the rest of the Old Testament contains similar themes of redemption.
I can read the Old Testament knowing without a doubt that the same God who judges the nations for their sins loves me immensely. He is rightly jealous for his glory, but inexplicably loving towards his people. He is justly angry at sin and idolatry, but mysteriously forgiving towards those who ask forgiveness. Instead of accusing God of unpredictable anger, we can thank Him for His righteous judgments and undeserved mercy.