What comes to mind when you think of God as the judge of all the earth? How does this judge go about his judging? What is his attitude toward those he judges? Perhaps you think of a bigger, holier, more fearsome version of The Simpsons’ Mr. Burns, gleefully rubbing his hands together and relishing the chance to cause some torment or calamity. This depiction of God the judge is a popular one, left over (I imagine) from Greek and Roman mythology. This god cannot wait to dole out judgment and fling his lightning bolts to and fro about creation.
But is that what God is really like? Is this picture of God accurate?
Our thoughts about God influence and affect everything we do. So if we hold an inaccurate or cartoonish view of God, we have an enormous problem. Not only does that notion affect both the way I approach God and my attitude toward non-Christians, but it colors the way I think about the central feature of Christianity: the cross. God meted out the largest single dose of judgment in history on Jesus at the cross.
Was God reluctant to hand out this judgment? Did he delight in the opportunity to pour out his wrath?
These are heady questions indeed. But let’s back up. What picture does the Bible paint about God when it speaks about him as judge? In other words, what does God say about himself when he speaks of his own judgment?
To get one handle on this question, we turn to Isaiah chapters 15 and 16. This is the oracle concerning Moab, a nation that bordered and bothered Israel/Judah for generations. In the beginning of chapter 15, we read of the mourning and wailing that will come from Moab as an unnamed nation attacks and decimates this country. Isaiah makes it clear earlier (and throughout) his book that while judgment is usually carried out by human nations, these armies are tools in the holy hands of God.
How does God feel when he brings devastation upon Moab? Is he giddy and gloating? Is he jubilant and joyful?
No, decidedly not!
We first glimpse this in Isaiah 15:5, where we read, “My heart cries out for Moab…” And lest we are tempted to think Isaiah is declaring his sympathy, this same speaker says later in verse 9, “For the waters of Dibon are full of blood; for I will bring upon Dibon even more, a lion for those of Moab who escape, for the remnant of the land.” This is obviously God speaking.
We see the sympathy and judgment of God more clearly juxtaposed in the following chapter.
Therefore I weep with the weeping of Jazer
for the vine of Sibmah;
I drench you with my tears,
O Heshbon and Elealeh;
for over your summer fruit and your harvest
the shout has ceased.
And joy and gladness are taken away from the fruitful field,
and in the vineyards no songs are sung,
no cheers are raised;
no treader treads out wine in the presses;
I have put an end to the shouting.
Therefore my inner parts moan like a lyre for Moab,
and my inmost self for Kir-hareseth. (Isaiah 16:9–11, ESV)
God weeps and drenches Moab with tears, his inner parts moan like a lyre for Moab even as he directly and purposefully brings the devastation upon Moab that takes away their joy, gladness, and shouting. What do we make of this?
Should we be surprised that God is complex? That there are many nuances to his actions? That more than one emotion can be folded into his decisions and decrees? Do I think that God is less complicated than I am, as I routinely feel conflicting emotions when disciplining my children?
We learn from these passages (and others in Isaiah and throughout the Bible) that God is the judge, bringing punishment and destruction upon those who sin against him. At the very same time, God made these Moabites in his image and they are his creation; he takes no joy in their just decimation.
What does this mean for us?
First, we should believe and affirm what God reveals about himself in the Bible. If you have been thinking or speaking wrongly of God as judge, you need to repent. After this study of Isaiah 15 and 16, I know that I needed to repent.
We must also believe and treasure the truth that God is deep and multi-faceted. He is complex and holy and wonderful. He cannot be painted broadly and simply with a few brief words and cultural pointers. God is infinite.
Don’t let that idea scare you or turn you away! Through the Bible, God invites us to begin to know him. And because of Jesus, we will be able to grow in our knowledge of him throughout eternity.