Day 61 – God’s Just Punishment

In Leviticus 26, God talks about all the nasty things He will do to Israel if they fail to obey his commands. As usual, I was taken aback by what appears at first blush to be extremely harsh. I mean, really harsh, like “You will eat the flesh of your sons and the flesh of your daughters. ” (vs. 29, NIV)

But then, I took a deep breath and thought. I thought about Jesus and the fact that God is a God of grace and long-suffering.

Then I recalled  the reason for God’s punishment if His people: “…if you reject my decrees and abhor my laws and fail to carry out all my commands and so violate my covenant, then I will do this to you… ” (vs. 15-16a, N IV)

So, what did Israel do to merit this punishment when it finally came? At least 10 things I can think of:

  1. They worshiped other gods (e.g., the golden calf, Chemosh and Baal),  instead of the LORD.
  2. They bowed down to man-made images of these gods.
  3. They used God’s name when not calling on Him (as in saying “Jesus” with no intent to pray or to worship Him – in a way that denigrates His name) and to swear oaths they did not intend to keep.
  4. They did not rest and worship on the Sabbath – and they failed to let the land rest every 7 years and on the Jubilee. God makes a point of mentioning this in vs. 34. If they did not celebrate the Jubilee, then they likely did not return the land to its original owners every 50 years – God’s method of income redistribution and compassion…
  5. They did not honor their parents. And probably a lot worse.
  6. They murdered each other. Think Jezebel.
  7. They committed adultery. If you think David’s hi-jinks were bad…
  8. They stole from one another.
  9. They lied. What’s truth, anyway?
  10. They weren’t satisfied with what the LORD gave them, but coveted what each other had and what their pagan neighbors had. So they dumped God for other gods to get what they thought they deserved – see items 1 and 2, above.

My guess was that by the time God punished Israel (and Judah), these sins were pretty rampant. It was an ugly scene.

Jesus points out in Mark that the disobedience continued with the apparently more religious leaders of Israel in His day:

…“You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother’ …  But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is … devoted to God — then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.” Mark 7: 9-13

So, Israel and Judah were in a pretty bad state by the time God punished them (as the history of the Kings will demonstrate). They had pretty much said, “Screw you” to God.

Despite their attitude, God’s punishment wasn’t retribution. It was discipline. He was trying to draw His people back to Himself, to their shepherd. Check out these verses:

  • If after all this you will not listen to me, I will punish you… (vs. 18)
  • If you remain hostile toward me and refuse to listen to me, I will multiply your afflictions… (vs. 21)
  • If in spite of these things you do not accept my correction but continue to be hostile toward me,  I … will afflict you (vs. 23-24)
  • If in spite of this you still do not listen to me but continue to be hostile toward me, then in my anger I will be hostile toward you (vs. 27-28)
  • But if they will confess their sins and the sins of their ancestors—…I will remember my covenant with Jacob and my covenant with Isaac and my covenant with Abraham. (vs. 40, 42)
  • … when they are in the land of their enemies, I will not reject them or abhor them so as to destroy them completely, breaking my covenant with them. I am the LORD their God. (vs. 44)

Here is a God who uses punishment to bring His people to repentance, to bring them back into relationship with Him. He gives them chance after chance.

Despite their continued disobedience, He will forgive them when they turn and He will NEVER completely destroy or break His side of the covenant (though they break theirs) – because, after all, He is their God and they are His sheep.

And one day, knowing that His people can NEVER stay faithful, God will keep His people’s side of the covenant, too, with the life and death of His one and only Son. The shepherd will lay his life down for the sheep.

Leviticus 26:1-27:34,  Psalm 29:1-9, Proverbs 10:22-25, Mark 7:1-23. See About for what I’m up to with these daily posts.

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6 thoughts on “Day 61 – God’s Just Punishment

  1. I understand that God speaks of correction and of the intent to call them back to himself and to repentance. And advocates of spanking and other punitive tools of discipline argue in the same way — that it’s intended not for harm but for good, and not to break relationship but to restore it. And yet, the gentle discipline crowd argues that studies of punitive measures show that it is unlikely to bring about true repentance or true reconciliation — and in the same way I find myself saying to those passages (“they didn’t turn back!?!”), “well, duh! Of course they didn’t turn back — why would they?”

    I almost wonder if the Bible isn’t making this very point — that in the end, it is not the punishments God sends that bring about real, soul-deep, true, lasting repentance, but God’s kindness, as shown in Christ. Perhaps the cycle in Israel’s history shows that, in part, punishment leads to more fear, to trying harder and giving up again, to a belief that the authority / parent / god cannot be pleased, and so on. And that only Christ’s work can break this cycle and reach hearts for real. I haven’t researched that idea or thought it through, yet, though.

    And I’m not arguing about the meaning of the word “punishment,” which as you say can be for retribution or also, according to some, for restoration / rehabilitation / reconciliation / repentance. I was arguing about the meaning of the word “discipline,” which is a broad word for training, guiding, discipling, teaching, etc — and does not necessarily imply that punitive measures need to be included.

  2. I agree with you mostly, except the context tells me that God is punishing as discipline here. Because he continues to deliberately inflict punishment with the phrase “but you did not turn back,” says to me that repentance, not retribution was his goal. I haven’t read every passage that uses the term punishment, but it makes sense theologically that the only retributive punishment was meted out on Jesus.

    What does punishment mean other than discipline or retribution? I know in my case there’s a third way, which is punishment as an inappropriate outlet for anger, but I don’t think that’s truly punishment, that’s being a jerk!

  3. Discipline is not the same as punishment. Discipline is discipling, training, guiding — for some folks, punishment is an acceptable tool for discipline, but the word is much broader than that. And discipline without punishment can still be painful — like when a kid wants candy for breakfast and the parent sticks to “no” but stays to warmly listen to the upset feelings.

    And the cycles in Judges remind me of nothing so much as parents who “spank lovingly,” and whose kids are anxious-resistant, not completely safely connected, acting partially from longing, partially from fear and uncertainty.

  4. Somehow there must be two different types of discipline via “punishment” at play here. What I mean is this. In Hebrews 12, God says that loving fathers discipline their sons. And God does the same. So there’s a discipline that is painful yet loving that DOES produce results. And as I’ve said before and we’ve all experienced: pain does produce gain. God uses tough circumstances to mature us.

    Which begs the question: Is there a parental discipline that is NOT loving? That comes from somewhere else and therefore does not yield the intended result? Or perhaps it’s misdirected or unwisely applied?

    There must be some discipline that does work or God would not say so in Hebrews. And it did seem to work temporarily to turn God’s people back to Him. Look at the cycles in Judges.

  5. I try to keep in mind what you said about God not just being a parent-image, and yet — punishment in parenting has a miserable track record for bringing about repentance and changed behavior and reconciled relationships. Not sure what God could or “should” have done instead of punishment… wondering if I could stomach it better if it was phrased not as punishment, not as something God purposely afflicted them with, but rather something God allowed to happen, as a natural consequence — and I know some Christians try to paint it that way and some of the prophets seem to as well, but it doesn’t jive with all of Scripture, which clearly does include statements that it IS punishment and it is something God does on purpose.

    Again, it does matter that God is not merely another player in the universe, a fellow creature, but the creator and sustainer of everything — so talking about his purposes and direct actions vs. his permissions or allowances is trickier than talking about the same things with people.

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