Posts tagged punishment
In what is one of the most recurring themes of the Bible, today’s reading reminds us that sometimes you have to go through the valley to reach the mountaintop. You have to go through fire to be purified. For the people of Israel, they would have to experience God’s wrath and separation from him, from each other and from their homeland before ultimately being restored. But God reminds them just why he is doing this:
I will show the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, the name you have profaned among them. Then the nations will know that I am the Lord, declares the Sovereign Lord, when I am proved holy through you before their eyes.
I want you to know that I am not doing this for your sake, declares the Sovereign Lord. Be ashamed and disgraced for your conduct, people of Israel! (Ezekiel 36:23, 32)
Just like previous times, God is not doing what he is doing because the people of Israel are so great or even because they have turned back to him. Instead, he is going to restore them to their former glory for his own purposes. In fact, as we’ve read through the book of Ezekiel, this has been a theme throughout the book. God punishes nations who mocked Israel to prove that he is God and now he’s going to restore Israel to prove to the nations that he is God.
It occurs to me that Israel really ends up being a prop with which God reveals himself to the rest of the world. But what really jumps out is that it didn’t have to be this way. Israel chose, through their actions, to be a prop. God invited them to be his people and they rejected him. He invited them to play an active role in his plan for the world, but they refused. He even gave them a place of honor in his kingdom, but they chose to run off with whoever and whatever caught their eye.
And so, they end up becoming a prop – a pawn – instead of being acknowledged by the world as sons and daughters of the king. They could have had heaven, but they chose earth instead. They could have been royalty, but they chose filth.
Sadly, we often do the same thing. And, I suspect, we sometimes get the same treatment from God. I, for one, would rather be a prince than a prop.
More death, destruction and punishment today. I bet some days Ezekiel just wished God would give him an easy word. But, no such luck. At the end of chapter 33, God delivers a stinging rebuke of the people of Israel:
My people come to you, as they usually do, and sit before you to hear your words, but they do not put them into practice. Their mouths speak of love, but their hearts are greedy for unjust gain. Indeed, to them you are nothing more than one who sings love songs with a beautiful voice and plays an instrument well, for they hear your words but do not put them into practice. (Ezekiel 33:31-32)
Here and throughout the Bible, the connection is made between words and actions. It’s not enough to say the right things. We must do the right things. As a worship leader, I think about the songs that I lead. It’s easy to sing great words on Sunday, but it’s much harder to live out those words the rest of the week. Words like, “Jesus, you’re all I need” and “I give you my life” and “I trust in you” are all great words. They are true words…most of the time.
But the truth is, I forget that Jesus is all I need, I fail to give him my whole life and I falter in my trust – in my faith. I’m not always great at putting those words into practice. I guess I can take some solace in the fact that I know I fail in those areas and that I actively seek to improve. I guess I have that over what the people of Israel were offering. Oh sure, they knew they weren’t following God. They just didn’t care.
For me and you, God desires better. He desired better for the Israelites, too, but they refused to accept what he had to offer. May we not make the same mistake.
I get the feeling that Ezekiel is having a bit of a Jonah moment. If you remember the story of Jonah, he was given a word from God – a prophecy about the pending destruction of a place called Nineveh. Having been told to deliver this prophecy to the people of Nineveh, Jonah decided that he didn’t want to do that. He had a suspicion that if he spoke the prophecy to the Ninevites, they would turn from their wicked ways and follow God and that God, in his mercy, wouldn’t bring the destruction he had promised. This could be very harmful to a prophet’s reputation. After all, if you prophecy something and it doesn’t happen, people are going to think you aren’t much of a prophet.
In the book of Ezekiel, God actually lays out a pretty good argument for why a prophet like Jonah or Ezekiel might hesitate before delivering their messages of destruction. In chapter 20, God goes through a whole historical laundry list of the times he pronounced judgement on the people of Israel and then, for one reason or another (most often for the sake of making sure the surrounding nations understood who he was) he decided not to go through with his promised destruction.
You might say that the only promises God doesn’t always follow through on are the promises of punishment. To be sure, sometimes he does follow through on those, but history has proven that he really prefers not to. He would rather give us another chance than to destroy us. As he says in today’s reading, he doesn’t even like bringing destruction on wicked people.
For me, as I read those passages, I was reminded that even the most vile human beings are children of God. What parent wouldn’t prefer that their child “come around”. No matter how evil your child might be, you would rather him or her straighten up than to suffer.
And so, that’s what God does with us. He gives us chance after chance after chance to get our act together. He gives us stern warnings and even sometimes punishment. And then we join in a long line of humans who have either somehow missed the point or simply chosen to turn away from what we know to be true. You have to wonder when we’re going to stop getting more chances.
The author of Lamentations, like so many other Biblical authors, seems a little bipolar. One minute, he’s saying that he knows God’s love will not fail and the next he’s complaining that God has forgotten them. But in the middle of Lamentations 3, the truth is spoken loud and clear:
For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever. (Lamentations 3:31)
In the midst of all of the other clutter of life, those words are the truth. And that truth will never change. God’s punishment may sometimes seem severe to us, but since we all deserve death, anything short of that is mercy. And our hope lies in the fact that God will not pursue that justice against us and that no matter how sever the punishment, “no one is cast off by the Lord forever.”
I, for one, take great comfort in that fact – not only for myself, but for others – friends, relatives and others who live their lives in defiance of God’s plan and will. I know that God promises punishment for those who turn their back on him, but he also promises that we will not be punished forever. We will not be cast off forever.
In a world so full of sin, it’s an incredible thought that God has the kind of love that can absorb all of those blows – the punishment of death that we all deserve – and still have grace. He is not a pushover, but he is hopelessly in love. And that love, like a bright light or a rushing water, will seek out even the smallest crack. The tiniest space where love can come into the equation will serve to bust the whole thing wide open.
May God’s love find the cracks in us, our friends and our families and may it break the scales of sin off of this world. After all, that is what we long for. That is what God longs for in this world. Let it be so!
Lamentations is a really interesting book. The persona is actually the entire nations of Judah and Israel. This is the lament of a nation weeping for its losses and begging for release from this torture. But in today’s reading, I think the most telling aspect of this story is highlighted in just six words in chapter 1, verse 9:
…she did not consider her future. (Lamentations 1:9)
That’s really what it boils down to, isn’t it. These people who God had chosen and for whom he had planned a future beyond their wildest imagination, failed to truly consider their future before deciding to go against God’s will. They were living for today, or perhaps for a year or ten years from now. They were doing what they thought was best and what they thought could gain them the most here and now. Basically, they were acting just like we do today.
In my own life and in the lives of my friends and family, I see this play out every day. We make so many decisions without really considering our future. Sure, we might make an investment with a 20 or 30 year strategy behind it. But I think God sort of sits back and shakes his head when we present him with our 30 year plan.
First of all, 30 years is like the blink of an eye to him. Us planning for the next 30 years is like your kid saying they’re making a long term savings plan with their lemonade stand money – they’ve got something picked out that they want to buy tomorrow. “The future” is a different length of time for us than it is for God.
Secondly, even if 30 years were a real look into the future, we absolutely can’t plan that far in advance. We try, but our situations and circumstances change. What never changes, however, is our God. And so, if we are to truly consider our future, we have to tap into the plans that he has for us and abandon our own brilliant schemes.
The trouble is, his ways don’t always seem as enticing as our ways. Even though we know he loves us and wants what’s best, it doesn’t always seem that way…especially if we fail to consider the future (by God’s definition).