Our son hates piano lessons, and I won’t let him quit. This is something God and I have in common. I’m taking the long view. My son wakes up singing, and can hum any tune he hears. He and I make up little songs and sing them to each other.
“No, I won’t brush my teeth every day,” he croons.
“That’s what camping’s for,” I reply sounding like a stale TV commercial.
So reading about God’s cleansing fire, the scorching winds of judgment, the choking smoke of his wrath, even the wine press of His final squeeze on mankind doesn’t completely freak me out. Here’s why. He’s taking the long view.
Humanity sometimes moves in step with her Heavenly Father, singing the same song he does. I’m listening to the music of the wind in the pine trees as I write these words; I gaze up as the swaying sentinels move. He breathes the wind, they dance in time.
“Love one another!” He sings.
“We welcome you, immigrant neighbor,” is our reply.
“Do justly!” His harmony drifts.
“We stand with the weak, oppressed by the powerful,”
“Love mercy!” the melody sounds and we forgive those who do us wrong.
But there are darker strains corrupting the symphony: violent, self-serving, evil. Should Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be forever silent to their discord, as some believe him to remain?
He could. He could just start fresh, as he intimated to Moses he would, and if Moses weren’t an advocate for Israel, he would have.
“What about the honor of your great Name among the peoples of the world?” Moses plead. Exodus 32:9-14
The Mighty One relented. Covenant keeper with human-kind, this is the identity he demonstrates over and over to us through the family of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. That’s the whole point of his Israel story, from beginning to end. So what’s a holy God to do?
If you want to develop a music-maker, you keep trying to find “the way to Carnegie Hall – practice.” If you want to develop a holy, pure-hearted community of people, you keep sifting through the broken pieces for some who long to be made whole. These you treasure, these shards willing to go through the fire of re-formation, a baptism of fire that brings re-birth, a people to hold in your hands, and who hold the Eternal in their hearts.
“The vineyard of the Lord Almighty
is the nation of Israel,
and the people of Judah
are the vines he delighted in.
And he looked for justice, but saw bloodshed;
for righteousness, but heard cries of distress.” Isaiah 5:7
What do you do with the rest, with those who choose violence, those who deal in destruction, those who spit in the eye of Love, who despise the Beautiful. What do you do with those who defile little children, breaking them body and soul for money? How do you deal with those who profit from wars that disfigure, maim, torment, and starve humanity? What do you do to separate the treasure from the trinkets, jewels from the junk?
There is a pattern in what we’ve been reading in the prophets’ writings lately. Father presses upon us a warning that starts with nature, with the land itself. In Isaiah 5:8-10 we read that He withdraws the fruitfulness of the fields.
“The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing:
Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.
A ten-acre vineyard will produce only a bath of wine;
a homer of seed will yield only an ephah of grain.”
Micah says this about where the judgments start:
“Therefore, I have begun to destroy you,
to ruin you because of your sins.
You will eat but not be satisfied;
your stomach will still be empty.
You will store up but save nothing,
because what you save I will give to the sword.
You will plant but not harvest;
you will press olives but not use the oil,
you will crush grapes but not drink the wine.” Micah 6:13-16
Why? It’s because of their sins; they willfully forget His promises. They choose other powers to trust, powers evil and manipulative, and so become like these their chosen gods. The land produces less and less for people who indulge themselves more and more until a powerful nation overruns them. Now the scarce food must be further divided among enemies who oppress.
“He lifts up a banner for the distant nations,
he whistles for those at the ends of the earth.
Here they come,
swiftly and speedily!” Isaiah 5:26
Why? So they will remember Love, Justice, and Mercy. He longs that they repent, turn back, and come home to the God who has carried them in His arms; the One who taught them to walk by walking alongside them.
Finally, seeing no softening, no turning however slight, from sin, he gives them this last judgment, one that is still in effect among many in Israel to this day. He hardens their hearts. This can happen to anyone who does what they did.
He said, “Go and tell this people:
“‘Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.’
Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”
Then I said, “For how long, Lord?”
And he answered:
“Until the cities lie ruined
and without inhabitant,
until the houses are left deserted
and the fields ruined and ravaged,
until the Lord has sent everyone far away
and the land is utterly forsaken.
And though a tenth remains in the land,
it will again be laid waste.
But as the terebinth and oak
leave stumps when they are cut down,
so the holy seed will be the stump in the land.” Isaiah 6:9-13
Of all the terrible calamities to befall a group of people, this one is the worst. I’m more afraid of this than of any other. A hard heart is deluded into a false sense of well-being. This is why so many of the prophets who warned of disaster met with mocking crowds who laughed them out of town, or worse, hated and beat them, brutalized, and murdered them for their message.
“The king of Israel [Ahab] answered Jehoshaphat, “There is still one prophet through whom we can inquire of the Lord, but I hate him because he never prophesies anything good about me, but always bad.”1 Kings 22:8
Ahab’s heart was hard. He had begun to fight against God. This is the height of foolishness and human pride. It is something we can see so clearly in others, and can so easily overlook in ourselves. It is the final way God deals with those who belittle him. He lets them have exactly what they want.
If this is how he sifts his treasured nation, what about our nation? Ruthless as he is in justly punishing them and every other nation, do we imagine we’ll somehow be exempt in our lust and greed? What about us as individuals? How do we know we’re not among the group of people partying their way to destruction, lurching toward the last days with glee, lost in our own willful sin? (Matthew 24) How will we keep a tender heart?
“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8
A longing for justice, a deep desire for righteousness is at the heart of who He is. This is why the prostitutes, traitors, and tax-collectors loved Jesus – the God Man. In their hearts they recognized and loved what is just. They knew they could never get there – to the place of justice and goodness they could see in Him – on their own merit. And He saw that love and longing, that faith in who He is, and called it good. That’s the deal. That’s the Gospel. Believe in, long for, love the truth, and you will find it in Him.
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” 2 Corinthians 5:21
To you who long for a just world, though all around you evil rules; to you who know you need mercy, who humble yourselves to believe however feebly in goodness incarnate, Jesus Christ, this life is practice. Tune your heart to the music of peace, to the self-sacrificing love of God. “Practice purposeful kindness, and willful acts of beauty” as Dallas Willard suggests in his book The Divine Conspiracy. Keep it up! The great symphony lies just around the bend.