The Lesson of History


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Isaiah 42:1-4

Three Lord’s Days ago I began this short series on divine judgment. I introduced the series by explaining why I thought it was important for us to study. Our culture is exercising a growing influence on the Christian pulpit, subtle but powerful, and one result of that influence is a disinclination on the part of ministers to preach the judgments of the Lord with the frequency and the emphasis with which they are taught in the Bible. But more than that, the reality of judgment and the Last Judgment are the presupposition of virtually every other part of the Bible’s message. If we are to feel the force of that truth, even the happiest and most glorious parts of biblical truth, a conviction of the certainty and the seriousness of God’s judgment is essential. How wonderful can salvation be, after all, if you have only a vague idea in the back of your mind as to what it was you were saved from?

The text I have read is typical of a great many texts found in the prophets. In it the career of the Messiah is sketched as a whole, without regard to the passage of time that we now know will separate his first coming from his second.  We have the announcement of the coming of the Servant of the Lord.  This is the first of the so-called “Servant Songs” in Isaiah, the most famous of which, of course, is the fourth and last (52:13-53:12), the famous Isaiah 53. So far as I can tell, no one reading the prophesies of the Messiah’s coming, that litter the preaching of the prophets, could have predicted that the Messiah would come the first time to make atonement for sin and that he would then leave the world to come a second time, thousands of years later, to complete the work of salvation and judgment that he had begun. It is clear enough in the Gospels that the Lord’s disciples were expecting nothing of the kind. And, frankly, why would they? What you have in so many of these texts describing the work of the Messiah is what has come to be called prophetic foreshortening or telescoping. This is so common in the prophets’ writing about the future that it is also called the prophetic perspective. What is meant by those terms is this: the prophets see the future as a single, integrated whole. They see the future as a unity. They do not give us a chronology – first this will happen, then that, and only later will this occur – but instead tell us what the future will bring, now how the future will unfold. This is what so confused the Lord’s disciples and, frankly, has confused Christians reading the Bible ever since.

The prophecies of the Messiah include his suffering and death for sin, such as we have in Isaiah 53, but cheek to jowl with his suffering is his triumph, his leading his people in triumph, his destruction of his and their enemies and the establishing of justice on the earth. In prophecy after prophecy, the Messiah is to come and when he comes he will establish his rule and in him and by his presence peace and justice will reign on the earth. It is not made clear anywhere in the Old Testament that thousands of years would pass between his atoning death and the triumph of his kingdom in the world. Indeed, there is precious little to suggest even the chronology of death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost that would conclude the Lord’s first coming. The prophecies see the future of the kingdom of God as a single unity, because, indeed, in the deepest sense, it is. It is all one certain outcome. But its historical development will prove much more complicated and the prophets don’t say much about that.

In that respect these four verses from Isaiah 42 are very typical. We read that the Servant of the Lord, the Lord’s chosen one, will have the Spirit upon him and in that way he will be empowered “to bring forth justice to the nations.” There are indications in vv. 3-4 that this will take some time. “He will not falter or be discouraged” at least suggests that bringing justice to the earth will not happen instantaneously. But three times in these few verses we read of the Servant bringing justice to the earth.

Later in the chapter we read that the Servant’s work of bringing justice will also require him to open the eyes of the blind and to free those who are captives. How those two dimensions of the Servant’s work interact with one another is not explained, but we know from the Gospels that it was precisely this work of opening blind eyes and releasing those who were captives that Jesus announced to be his calling as his public ministry began.

But establishing justice on the earth? He was executed in a supreme act of injustice. His crucifixion was a miscarriage of justice on the grandest scale. The Lord went to heaven with many wrongs un-righted! His murderers, or most of them, probably died in their beds. Certainly none was arrested, tried, and punished for his role in the Lord’s judicial murder or the subsequent cover-up. The Lord’s followers would be persecuted often cruelly; many of them executed for their loyalty to him. Where is the justice in that? And, of course, up to the present day this world has continued to be a deeply unjust place. The wicked prosper and the righteous suffer; criminals escape punishment and the innocent go to prison or worse; multitudes suffer every day at the hands of others. There isn’t an institution in the world – including, alas, the Christian church – that doesn’t smell of corruption.

The world’s game, as you know, is soccer and a few weeks ago senior officials of the governing body of the sport, FIFA, were arrested on charges of systemic corruption: bribery, racketeering, and money laundering. Governments all over the world are riddled with scandal on an almost daily basis. In our own country, the number of elected officials, national, state, and local, who are indicted for this or that and who subsequently are convicted or who must resign in disgrace is far larger than anyone cares to admit. And the church, alas, is not immune to injustice. The Vatican Bank is, as it has long been, embroiled in charges of corruption. Two years ago several senior officials of the bank were arrested and charged with financial crimes. The investigation and legal proceedings are ongoing. And it would be too depressing for us to enumerate the number of ministries in the American evangelical world that have in one way or another been caught misusing funds, intimidating employees, feathering the nests of senior leadership, or covering-up sexual misconduct. It wasn’t to prove to the world our honesty that the ECFA, the Evangelical Council for Fiscal Accountability was formed. It was a response to all the scandals that had besmirched the reputation of the evangelical world in this country! The sexual abuse of children is an unspeakable crime with punishing consequences that last lifetimes and beyond, and for years now the whole country has had its nose held in the seemingly unending cesspool of sexual abuse and its cover-up by the priests of the Roman Catholic Church. But it isn’t only the Catholics. A number of evangelical mission boards in recent years have found themselves having to deal with revelations of systemic sexual abuse in their mission schools, abuse that sometimes went on for years on end.

But these are just a few examples. Injustice is literally everywhere and it is found in every conceivable form. I recently finished a fascinating book about the rescue of more than 500 downed allied airmen, mostly Americans, who had parachuted from their stricken bombers or crashed landed in Yugoslavia during the Second World War. The rescue required all manner of daring-do by a number of intelligence officers, by pilots landing and taking off on an altogether too short and rough runway, by the downed airmen themselves who had to carve the landing ground out of a mountain forest, and, especially, by the local people who sheltered the allied airmen at great danger to themselves and fed them for months and sometimes years on end when they hadn’t enough food to feed their own families. The story of this rescue is one of the great untold stories of the War. Do you know why you never heard of it until now? Because there was a massive cover-up designed to keep the American public from knowing what ghastly mistakes the government and the army had made in that theater of the war. I hate it, don’t you, when we find out that the truth was perverted to cover people’s backsides, all the more when their misjudgments and indifference and personal cowardice ruined the reputation and cost the lives of innocent people, as happened in this case.

To make a long story short, the allies decided in the middle of the war that the communists under Tito were a more reliable ally than the royalist forces led by General Mihailovich. They had previously supported both parts of the Yugoslav resistance, but there came a point at which they turned their backs on Mihailovich and his Chetniks. They accused him of conspiring with the Germans. Thereafter they refused to provide him arms or other supplies and firmly resisted and threatened with punishment anyone who protested that Mihailovich was, in fact, more loyal to the allies than Tito and that a grave injustice had been committed against a good man. At the behest of the military authorities Mihailovich was publicly reviled in the American press as a collaborator rather than a true Yugoslav patriot.

So after these many missions in which hundreds of allied fliers were flown out of Yugoslavia there was no report about what had happened, no headlines trumpeting the phenomenal rescue as we might have expected. Why? Because no one in authority wanted Mihailovich and his Chetniks to get credit for what they had done. He had protected these men, he had fed them, and his men had been instrumental in making the rescue mission possible. The airmen themselves to a man thought of Mihailovich as a hero, admired him not only for his bravery but for his humanity and his humility. Some of the rescued airmen returned to flight duty and heard, to their angry astonishment, in briefings before missions, that if they had to bail out over Yugoslavia they should seek out Tito’s partisans because the Chetniks would cut off their ears and sell them to the Germans! This of people who had been instrumental in saving the lives of hundreds of American fliers at great risk and cost to themselves. No amount of protests from the rescued fliers would change anyone’s mind in the British and American commands.

Some years after the war the communist spy ring associated with Cambridge University, the so-called Cambridge Five, was discovered and with it came the discovery that British intelligence, especially in the southern Mediterranean region, had been riddled with communist agents whose influence was the primary reason that the allies were convinced to favor Tito and to demonize Mihailovich. A steady stream of misinformation had turned the heads of British and American commanders. But even before the discovery of that treachery committed by members of British intelligence, as Tito handed Yugoslavia over to Stalin after the war and Mihailovich was executed by Tito after a typical communist show trial, Churchill realized that a great mistake had been made; indeed, he said it was one of his principal regrets about his management of the War. But the U.S. State Department was less willing publically to admit the error, even when pressed to do so by the rescued servicemen who went public with their stories of being fed, hidden, and loved by Mihailovich and his Chetniks who repeatedly risked their own lives for the sake of the downed airmen.

General Eisenhower, realizing that a great injustice had been done to a good man who had been a loyal friend of America and an important wartime ally, convinced President Truman to recognize Mikhailovich with the Legion of Merit, the only American decoration that can be given both to civilians and to members of the military, a decoration that would honor him for his wartime service on America’s behalf. The accompanying citation virtually admitted that Mihailovich had, in fact, done nothing that the allies had accused him of doing and had done everything they had denied he had done. Mihailovich was already dead so the award was posthumous. But it gets worse. The State Department didn’t want to offend the Tito regime, so it convinced the President not to announce the award. It remained a secret for years. No one, not the members of Mihailovich’s family, not his loyal supporters in Yugoslavia suffering under Tito’s boot, not even the rescued airmen who had clamored for justice to be done on behalf of the man they admired, learned that the United States had made this grand gesture of thanks and appreciation. What, pray tell, is the point of thanking a man and acknowledging his worth if the man is dead and you then refuse to tell anyone what you have done? It was not until years later, after most people had long forgotten Mihailovich, that a U.S. congressman from Illinois, pressed by some of the rescued airmen, forced the publication of the award. Some sixty years after their rescue and almost as many years since the awarding of the Legion of Merit to Gen. Mihailovich, some of the men involved in the rescue were able to be present when the medal was finally awarded to Gordana Mihailovich, the General’s daughter, herself then 78 years of age.

You and I read stories like that and feel a mixture of shame, anger, and disgust. The lies, self-interest, cowardice, cruelty, stupidity, and venality of little men who perpetrated a terrible injustice against a great and good man a man who went to his death thinking our country and its citizens for which he had made such great sacrifice despised him. We may be grateful that an aged daughter finally learned that our country had admitted the gruesome lies it had told about her father as a matter of state policy, but that hardly assuages our sense that nothing would have or could have made up for what we did except a public, worldwide announcement of our error, of our apology for the error, and of our support of the General while he was being tried and before he was executed. But that was the very thing our government refused to do!

It would be one thing if such things happened only in war, or only rarely, but you know and I know that such things are happening every day all over the world. Where is the justice the Servant of the Lord was to establish on the earth? Where is the justice he was to bring forth to the nations? The Bible itself describes the injustice that is rampant in this world, even now after the Servant of the Lord made his appearance in the world. So what gives? Well, the Bible’s answer to that question is two-fold. First the King of Kings has already begun to impose his justice and judgment on this sinful world. Second, true and final justice, perfect justice, a complete balancing of the scales, the punishment of wrong and the vindication of right will not be found in this world until the end when the King comes in his glory; only then will his reign of justice be consummated in history.

In the Bible God is bringing forth justice – punishing the wicked and rewarding the righteous – all the time. But these judgments, these punishments and rewards, are only the birth pangs of that total and perfect justice that he will one day impose on mankind. Just as salvation is both a present reality and a future prospect, both now and not yet, so justice is both now and not yet, a  present though highly imperfect reality, and the future prospect of a perfect balancing of the scales. The Bible, as you know, is full of the judgments of the Lord, of God’s justice being carried out.

  1. We see individuals being punished for sins and crimes from the beginning of the Bible to the end. Think of Cain, of Nebuchadnezzar, and of Herod in Acts 12, the crimes of each man found out by the Lord and punished by him. But as well think of Moses, Eli, and David, good men, men of faith, godly men, who nevertheless paid the penalty for their specific moral failures. The Bible is nothing if it is not a record of God’s justice being imposed upon human beings.
  2. But we see the same thing happening on a larger scale, again throughout the Bible. The entire world was judged, condemned, and destroyed at the time of the flood. Sodom and the other cities of the plain were judged and punished for their wickedness. Egypt was punished severely for her sins against Israel. All of those judgments were visited upon sinful human beings by the Lord directly. In other cases, the Lord used his people or other peoples as instruments of his punishment. Sihon king of Heshbon and Og king of Bashan were both executed, their armies defeated, and their people subjugated by Israel’s army as judgment for their refusal to allow passage to Israel en route to the Promised Land.

And, of course, we are well aware of how many various oracles of judgment we encounter in the prophets: prophesies of divine punishment to be visited upon Egypt, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, Assyria, Babylon, Persia and on and on. The judgment of the nations is such a relentless theme in the prophets that we sometimes get bogged down having to read these oracles, one after another.

But it is hardly only the pagan nations. Israel was judged in the wilderness and the generation of the exodus was forbidden to enter the Promised Land because of her failure of faith and her rebellion at Kadesh Barnea. Then again and again we read of Israel’s punishment during the period of the judges, always the divine response to her faithlessness and disobedience. Then Saul was condemned and the kingdom taken from him as punishment for his moral failure, the kingdom of Israel was torn in two because of the sins of Solomon, the northern kingdom destroyed in 721 B.C. by the Assyrians who are said by the prophets to be an instrument of judgment in the Lord’s hand, as was Babylon when she destroyed Judah and Jerusalem in 586 B.C. And, of course, the destruction of Jerusalem and the end of Israel as a nation in A.D. 70 was likewise explicitly said to be judgment upon the people for their rejection of the Messiah when he came among them.

And the Lord promises the same judgment, the same execution of justice, for his Christian people if and when they sin against him against him, such a promise as we read in Rev. 3 in the Lord’s address to the church in Laodicea.

  1. And, still more, the judgment and justice executed by the state is in both the OT and the NT said to be the justice of the Lord himself. The Law of Moses provided for the punishment of crimes against God and man in Israel and in the new epoch a point is made by both Peter and Paul of saying that in imposing justice the government was doing the work of God, that God himself had established human government to exercise his judgment in the world. So Paul writes in Romans 13:

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed and those who resist will incur judgment.”

“[The authority] is a servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoers.”

So, imperfect as justice is in our world, we are actually observing God judging the sins of man all the time, either directly or in the judicial actions of the state. Now what is particularly important about all of this is that according to the Bible this judgment in the present is preparation for, anticipation of, and the opening act of the final drama of God’s judgment on the Last Day. The imperfect judgment that occurs in this world, its imperfect justice nonetheless presages the perfect and final judgment that the Lord will execute at the end of history.

The prophets make this point in interesting ways. Again and again in their prophecies of judgment they move seamlessly from the near horizon to the distant. Again we encounter the prophetic perspective or foreshortening. Take, for example, Isaiah’s prophecy of judgment against Babylon in Isaiah 13. It begins, “An oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw…” And it continues with a description of the Lord himself mustering an army to defeat the vaunted Babylonians:

“Wail, for the day of the Lord is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.”

But suddenly, in verse 13, it isn’t any longer only Babylon in the sights of the Judge of all the earth.

“I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity…”

It is as if the prophet saw the punishment of Babylon as simply the beginning of the punishment of the entire world for its sins. In a way we have that same perspective in Isaiah 42:3-4, where we read that the Servant of the Lord will not grow faint or be discouraged until he has established justice in the earth. In other words, it will take time. “Even omnipotence works gradually.”

Another way the prophets draw this connection between judgments the Lord imposes on peoples and nations in this world and the Last Judgment is their use of the phrase Day of the Lord for both the judgments, the near and the distant. You find this in Isaiah 13, already mentioned. “Day of the Lord” is used both for the destruction of Babylon by the Medes – “I am stirring up the Medes against them” (v. 17) – and for the worldwide catastrophe. But you find the same phenomenon frequently elsewhere.

Amos saw beyond the immediately impending judgment of Israel, a Day of the Lord, a final Day of the Lord, a day of universal judgment and beyond that a day of salvation when the house of David would be restored and the earth and Israel again be made objects of God’s blessing.  Zephaniah described the Day of the Lord as a historical disaster at the hands of some unnamed foe, but he also described it in terms of a worldwide catastrophe in which all the enemies of God are swept off the face of the earth.  [Ladd, The Presence of the Future, 66-67]

In other words, the prophets saw the temporal days of the Lord, his days of judgment in their own lifetimes or shortly thereafter, as precursors of one, final Dies Irae, the day of the divine wrath. That makes perfect sense, of course, given what we have said about the idiom of biblical prophecy. The prophets believed that the Lord’s final uprising against his foes would take the same form as it had done in days of old. The former, more local and nation-specific days of the Lord – those that punished Egypt or Edom or Israel – established a pattern for the later, once for all, Day of the Lord. In the latter case, the Lord’s intervention will be greatly intensified.

That language of the Day of the Lord is then carried over into the New Testament and is used there exclusively of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. We find the term in a variety of forms:  the day of the Lord (1 Thess. 5:2), the Day of the Lord Jesus (2 Cor. 5:5), the day of the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:8); the Day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6); the day of Christ (Phil. 2:16), and that day (2 Thess. 1:10).  All these phrases in their contexts clearly refer to the same day and to the same event:  not a single calendar day, necessarily, but the time of Christ’s final and decisive visitation of this world in judgment and salvation. [G.E. Ladd, New Testament Theology, 554-555]

So, in the Bible belief in divine judgment at the end of history does not hang in mid-air; it is not a conviction based solely on the promise of God that he will bring all men into judgment at the end of time. It is the culmination of a process of judgment that began in this world and of which human beings have been witness throughout history. According to the Bible, God’s judgment is already with us, it is fact of history. Just as God has been a Savior of the world from the beginning, so he has been a judge of the earth from the beginning. The Bible is candid about the imperfection of justice in this world but it strenuously denies that there is no divine judgment in this world. There is judgment everywhere we look. But it is only partial; perfect justice awaits the end just as does perfect salvation.

Now there are very important implications to be drawn from this now but not yet presentation of divine judgment in the Bible.

  1. In the first place, we have here an important argument for the last judgment.

To those who deny that there is such a thing, we have a virtually unanswerable retort: why in the world would you deny the last judgment when there is judgment of the same kind everywhere around you all the time? All the more to those who believe in heaven but doubt the existence of hell, we are able to say, “You believe in heaven because this world is so full of intimations of it: love, peace, joy, fulfillment, true human goodness, and so on. You only know what heaven would be, you only know to long for it because of your experience of heavenly things in this world. How then can you deny judgment when this world is also and just as much if not more full of intimations of hell: human sin and evil, alienation, pointlessness, gnashing of teeth, and the tortured conscience, and the punishment of sin?”

In the teaching of the Bible the future is not simply an idea, it is the ripe fruit of human history and experience. And so we believe in heaven and in hell not simply because we have absolute confidence in the Word of God but because so obviously heaven and hell are both with us already! Those states of human existence are different only in that they bring finality and perfection to what everyone observes every day in this life, if only he will think about what he sees.

  1. Second, this biblical teaching about the connection between judgment in this world and the last and final judgment of human life humanizes our understanding of divine judgment.

It is very easy for human beings to think of the judgments of the Lord, especially the Last Judgment, as somehow phenomena alien to their own experience, something with which they have no connection and no experience. But the Bible reminds us that the Last Judgment is simply more of the same, more of what we have encountered, experienced, even longed for throughout our lives in this world. People have suffered judgment, all people have. As children we were punished for their disobedience. As adults we have done wrong and suffered the consequences and in many ways. What is more, like all human beings we crave justice. We are offended when injustice is not punished and when the innocent are victimized. No human being can complain about perfect and final justice who has so often complained against injustice or imperfect justice in this life!

We don’t want a world without judgment now; we accept not only the need for justice to be done, perfect justice, but we believe that such justice is right, a moral imperative. This is both an argument for the Last Judgment and a justification for it. Even if a skeptic doubts the existence of the Last Judgment, he ought at least to admit that he wishes there were one! Because, in effect, that is what he has been complaining about all his life: there is so little justice and even the justice we get is imperfect. True justice is a moral good that no one can deny.

  1. Third, that leads us to another implication of this biblical connection between judgments in this life and the Last Judgment: it is a way of emphasizing the moral nature of the judgments of the Lord.

God does not punish willy-nilly. Like some self-interested potentate, he does not judge simply to reward his friends and punish his enemies. His judgments are not selfish or mean-spirited. The Bible even refers to the work of judgment as God’s strange and alien work (Isa. 28:21). He takes no pleasure in condemning the guilty. But he must do it because he is just!

God’s judgments are always based on the assessment of human life and behavior according to an absolute moral standard. Everyone is always to be judged by the same standard; everyone is to get nothing more and nothing less than he or she deserves. And the standard is known to us all. God has written it in his Word, but he has also written it on the human heart. And those who do not have the Word of God will not be judged as if they had.

When you read in the Bible what has prompted the Lord’s judgment of some unbelieving man or people, it is invariably some evil, some wrong, some sin that everyone knows ought to be condemned: the oppression of others, the cruelty of the strong toward the weak, the abuse of others sexually or financially or militarily, and overweening pride: all things we hate when we see them in our own experience. The judgments of the Lord are always moral, which is to say, always just in the same sense in which we think of justice today, believers and unbelievers alike.

  1. Fourth, and finally, this connection between divine judgment in history and the Last Judgment, seeing both as the exercise of the same divine justice and the same divine will, vindicates the moral order that all human beings, to one degree or another, hold sacred and dear.

It may be only honor among thieves, but all of us, no matter our religion, no matter our morality, believe in a moral order and uphold it in the judgments we are always making about the behavior of others and sometimes have the honesty to make concerning our own behavior. No one lives without a moral compass; no one is indifferent to injustice if he or she is the victim of it; and no one does not commend behavior he regards as good and honorable. The fact is, no society can survive that does not in some significant way uphold that concept of an inflexible and unchanging moral order. If, as our modern society has done, in the case of abortion or gay marriage, it legitimates behavior the Bible condemns, it does so and always does so on the strength of moral principles the Bible teaches more clearly than any other human source of moral instruction. We Americans kill babies in the womb for the sake of fairness, justice, liberty, human dignity, and deliverance from oppression. We celebrate gay marriage for the same reasons. We may wish to alter the moral standards, but by believing in such moral standards at all, we effectively concede that we didn’t invent them and that they are not ours to change!

Fact is, any society that denies such an intrinsic and inescapable moral order, such an order as, like it or not, makes judgment and justice not only an inescapable reality but a moral good, is a society that cannot sustain order and must soon collapse. We are on our way there, but haven’t quite arrived. We have more and more people publicly asserting that all moral judgments are simply personal opinions and matters of taste, but our public policy still largely operates on the assumption that right and wrong are real things and cannot be denied with impunity. And frankly, assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, human behavior proves, every day a thousand times over that no one wants to live in a world where right and wrong are not real things and where they can be denied or ignored at will.

Earlier this week we had dinner in a river front café in Prague with some shirttail relatives of mine. For many years Dr. Tom Johnson has taught philosophy, theology, and ethics in European universities and seminaries. We fell to talking about the universal human instinct for justice and for absolute standards of right and wrong; an argument he felt the church had failed to make as powerfully and persuasively in the public square as it needed to be made. He told us that years ago he had a student who wrote a paper advocating the now common viewpoint that moral convictions are actually only matters of taste, that they have no basis in reality. He wrote on the paper before returning it: “Excellent paper. F” She came to see him in high dudgeon. How could he give her an “F” for an excellent paper? “Well,” he said, “you persuaded me. Standards of behavior are mere opinions. I can do as I please.” She was furious and began to argue until it dawned on her that he was joking and that with his jest he had exposed her hypocrisy. She didn’t think justice was a mere opinion. She believed right was right, wrong was wrong and each should be treated accordingly.

Like it or not, the existence of judgment is essential to the vindication of everything we and every other human being hold dear! But take the point: the justice we crave and will someday experience is simply the final and perfect form of the justice we see temporarily and imperfectly carried out a thousand times a day.