Excerpt from a recent sermon on the 136th psalm:
To him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt
And brought Israel out from among them
With a strong hand and an outstretched arm
To him who divided the Red Sea in two
And made Israel pass through the midst of it
But shook off Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea
To him who led his people through the wilderness
For his steadfast love endures forever. (from Psalm 136)
What is ironic in these verses and the verses that follow is that the very instances that Israel would remember in order to bolster their faith, in order to spark their affection for God, these are the verses that our Western culture turns away from, apologizes for, or otherwise avoids.
The verses Israel would recall in order to rekindle their relationship are the ones many read today and say, “well I guess the honeymoon is over.”
To him who struck down the firstborn of Egypt. We don’t sing about this today.
This verse would bring to mind the plagues that served to lead Israel from bondage in Egypt. Skeptics love to toss the plagues at Christians as a means of discrediting the love of God, and yet here Israel sings them as a means of proclaiming his steadfast love!
There is a cultural bridge to cross here.
In Christ, this shadow of Israel’s deliverance from bondage comes to fulfillment. The promise of eternal deliverance has come. Abraham’s promised seed, carried for centuries through the people of Israel, has arrived in Christ Jesus as a blessing to all nations and people groups. In Christ, the unified people of God are now gentile and Jew, independent of physical identity, physical borders, civil & national practices. Instead, these shadows of the Old come to life in the new by the power of the Spirit.
God’s people in Christ are not limited by proximity. The presence of God is carried by his children to every corner of the earth as was his plan from the very beginning.
Just as God physically delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt, bringing plagues, slaying the firstborn, shaking of Pharaoh and his army in the Sea – just as God physically delivered Israel in every physical, visible, tangible way – he has now delivered us Spiritually in Christ. In Christ, God has sent his physical, visible, tangible Son along with his cross to slay the enemies of sin, death, and Satan to deliver us from bondage and lead us towards our promised home.
Not only has God delivered us in Christ, but he has done so through the same violent, offensive, vulgar means. Have you pondered the offense of the cross lately?
We view all of these events from this side of salvation. Of course, any who stand opposed to God and his salvation will view his actions as cruel. Only those who have been delivered by such sacrificial love will kneel humbly before the true offense of it all. How wonderful to be in the loving hands of God who fights so fully on behalf of his children.
It is all too easy to get stuck in passages like these by failing to look at both sides of salvation. In other words, there is the side of salvation which we enjoy – the side where people get saved. This is the love and mercy of God that we want to see, and rightly so, for we want our own experience with the Lord, and the experience of others, to be one of joy and peace.
But there is another side to the full picture of salvation, and that is the side upon which people receive the due penalty for their sin. This is the justice of God which requires that all who sin against him, who live in continual rejection of him must one day face him in his righteousness. This is the reality that those who come to the Lord APART from Christ, APART from the cross, APART from the gift of salvation in his body broken and his blood poured, APART from the hopeful expectation of the resurrection, this is the heart breaking truth that those who do not know Jesus will find no comfort in the presence of the Lord at judgment. We do not want to see this, in our own lives or in the lives of others.
We know both sides of this situation to be true – they must be true. And because both sides are true, we should not shy away from them, either in the OT or in the New. Passages of judgment do not discredit our God – they vindicate him as both a God of love and a God of justice. They vindicate God as being exactly who he revealed himself to be when he spoke to Moses, the LORD the LORD, merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in chesed and faithfulness, keeping chesed for thousands. Forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, BUT who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children to the third and fourth generation. Some ask how both can be true… it is more proper to ask how we can trust a god for whom both is not true?
Yet our hearts pause in the discussion of these passages. Whether it is a desire on our part to see God’s mercy, or a failure on our part to grasp the depth of sin, our hearts pause when we hear of righteous judgment.
Perhaps I’m a little odd. Perhaps I am odd, but I am encouraged by our heart’s pause at hearing of the judgment of the OT. The cross of Christ enables us to look upon even our enemies with compassion, our hearts breaking along with the Lord, as we desire not that any would perish but that all would turn to God in repentance. Christ went to the cross for his enemies that they may experience life and life abundant. It is the fruit of the Holy Spirit in us, the very life of Christ shining through us, that we too should embrace such love for our enemies. It is in this sense that our heart’s pause can be a good thing.
But our heart’s pause must then also meet with God’s and our own desire for the fullness of justice. As children of God, we cannot shy away from God’s judgment as though it were not just, for it is but another aspect of the perfection of God that he should be holy and just.
I believe the passages of the OT that deal explicitly with judgment can elicit within us a tension that is healthy. A tension that wants God to be glorified through his true justice while at the same time feels empathy and pain at the eternal state of those who stand opposed to the saving power of God. Without this tension, we would either delight in the death of the wicked, or we would turn our backs on God’s righteous judgment. To engage in the tension is evidence that the mind and the heart of God are at work in us his children.
I believe we can join Israel in rejoicing, not only at the salvation at Calvary, but in every act of salvation that he has enjoined on behalf of sinners throughout history. God’s salvation is his glory on display, and we should rejoice, we should worship, embracing the tension and trusting the Lord in his goodness.