By Stephen Green. (First published in Christian Voice: October 2005)
Jer. 18:7 At what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to pluck up, and to pull down, and to destroy it;
8 If that nation, against whom I have pronounced, turn from their evil, I will repent of the evil that I thought to do unto them.
9 And at what instant I shall speak concerning a nation, and concerning a kingdom, to build and to plant it;
10 If it do evil in my sight, that it obey not my voice, then I will repent of the good, wherewith I said I would benefit them.
11 Now therefore go to, speak to the men of Judah, and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, saying, Thus saith the LORD; Behold, I frame evil against you, and devise a device against you: return ye now every one from his evil way, and make your ways and your doings good.
It is instructive to look at the whole subject of judgment on nations and cities in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans. There are several questions raised by a passage like the one from Jeremiah quoted above. Does God bring judgment on cities and nations? Is it only Israel or Judah who can expect God's judgment? Does God do things differently now from how he used to in the past? What are the characteristics of the 'good' and 'evil' which God says He would do? Is a calamity always the work of God, and can we make any distinction between natural disasters (normally called, after all, Acts of God), man-made destruction from carelessness (a train crash such as Hatfield), and deliberate acts of Terrorism (9/11, Bali, Madrid, 7th July, bombings in Iraq)?
NATIONS ARE REWARDED AND PUNISHED George Mason, the American Founding Father and opponent of slavery, said this at the Constitutional Congress 1787: "As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects Providence punishes national sins by national calamities." Mason was perceptive. Hebrews says: "it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment" (Heb 9:27). Nations have no eternal spirit and no heavenly body to be raised for judgment. Any nation is the sum or product of those living within it at any one time. Mason contends that God judges men collectively in their nations, but in a different way from how He deals with them individually. He visits the blessing or the curse upon the whole nation in the here and now for their righteousness or their sin.
In the second sentence, Mason appears to be saying that once a course of action is put in train, the effects, although inevitable, are only controlled by God at a distance. To observe that allowing the sin of no-fault divorce will only lead to the national calamity of social alienation and crime, or that to legalise abortion will bring in its wake more widespread violence and cheapen life in general, or even that if railway engineers become careless, then the calamity of a train crash will follow inevitably, would be following Mason's slightly 'deist' line of thought, not necessarily attributing the results to God directly. It is still a more spiritual position than one which pushes God out of the picture completely, as some do.
Leaving the atheist view alone, and going back to Mason, can it be said that God takes a more direct approach and that He is personally responsible for a disaster which befalls a nation or city? We might go a bit 'deist' over the link between no-fault divorce and crime, but can we ever deny God the ability to allow or to prevent a terrorist attack, or initiate a natural disaster? Our whole nation prayed to God repeatedly during the Second World War and miracles, not all involving the weather, followed. Many people filling out insurance forms in the wake of Hurricane Katrina will have put that phrase mentioned above, 'Act of God,' in the 'insured peril' box. At some earlier stage, someone must have meant that literally. Do we still? The prophet Amos had no doubt at all. The Holy Spirit inspired him to make clear that whatever disaster befell a city, God was behind it. In his famous series of rhetorical questions, he asked this:
Shall a trumpet be blown in the city, and the people not be afraid? shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it? (Amos 3:6)
The word translated 'evil' in Amos and Jeremiah means anything bad, a calamity, for example, rather than a moral evil, in the context. Amos says that if disaster comes upon a city, it is from the Lord. For many of us, brought up in the secular-humanist twentieth century western world, that verse is a real challenge to our liberal prejudices and our rationalist preconceptions.
THE NATURE OF JUDGMENT Elsewhere in Jeremiah, God clearly says that He will bring judgment on Judah personally:
Thus saith the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel; Behold, I will bring upon this city and upon all her towns all the evil that I have pronounced against it, because they have hardened their necks, that they might not hear my words. (Jer. 19:15; see also Jer 21:10 and 25:29)
The judgment or 'evil' which was to fall on Judah and Jerusalem was that of invasion from Babylon and the subsequent deportation. It came about because Judah rejected worship of God and set up pagan idolatry in its place. Because of that, injustice was being done, adultery was taken for granted, the temple had become a byword for sexual immorality including institutionalised prostitution and homosexuality, and to cap it all, the people, led by some of their kings, were killing their own children, sacrificing them by fire to the pagan deities (Jer 7:31, 32:35).
The same sins are present in the western nations, and as always, they are worst in the towns and cities. New Orleans, for example, had half of Louisiana's dozen abortion clinics and its crime rates, drugs culture and sexual immorality were infamous. In his 1934 book, Sex and Culture, British anthropologist J. D. Unwin chronicled the historical decline of 86 different cultures. His exhaustive survey revealed that 'strict marital monogamy' was central to social energy and growth. Indeed, no society flourished for more than three generations without it. When that happened, the society was usually taken over by a stronger monogamous civilisation. Unwin wrote: "In human records there is no instance of a society retaining its energy after a complete new generation has inherited a tradition which does not insist on prenuptial and postnuptial continence."
Unwin saw it as inevitable, but Jeremiah and the other prophets speak of the judgment of God Himself. It is undeniable that if Judah had heeded Jeremiah's call for national repentance, God would have diverted or beaten back the Babylonians. He had worked similar miracles before (2Chr 20, for example). Jeremiah was hated for what he said; all the other prophets were speaking about peace and security and went down a lot better with the people. However, it was Jeremiah who was right. The Babylonians came, overthrew Jerusalem, and took the people captive.
GOD JUDGES GENTILE NATIONS TOO Nor is judgment brought only against Israel and Judah. God demands obedience from all nations, and judges all nations by His eternal standards of righteousness. There are numerous judgments against Gentile nations, not the least of those being against the seven nations of Canaan, thrown out of their land not because Israel was good, but because they were bad (Deut 9:4). Typical of judgments against gentile nations is this word from Zephaniah:
Woe unto the inhabitants of the sea coast, the nation of the Cherethites! the word of the LORD is against you; O Canaan, the land of the Philistines, I will even destroy thee, that there shall be no inhabitant. (Zeph. 2:5)
The prophet Jonah was even sent to Nineveh, to take a word of judgment from God. Unlike the Canaanites and the people of Judah, Nineveh repented:
And God saw their works, that they turned from their evil way; and God repented of the evil, that he had said that he would do unto them; and he did it not. (Jonah 3:10)
Sadly, Nineveh's repentance lasted for only three or four generations. After a while, the people forgot the blessing of the Almighty (cf Judg 2:10), did evil, and one hundred and fifty years after Jonah's successful mission, Nineveh was destroyed in around 612 BC. The prophet Nahum is clear that the judgment came upon it from God for its injustice, violence, adultery and paganism (Nahum 3:1-7).
SODOM'S PUNISHMENT WAS 'FROM THE LORD' One argument can be that God does not actively bring the disaster Himself, but steps aside, removing His hand of protection, and allows Satan to bring the evil, but only within certain parameters. This would be apparently consistent with the book of Job (Job 1:10-12, 2:6) but it must occur to us both that God was still in control of events in Job, and that Job was tested personally and for a purpose, for his ultimate good. It was also for our good and for our encouragement, as we read this earliest-recorded book of the Bible and try to understand God's ways and learn how to put God first in our own lives.
Nevertheless, in God's dealings with nations, the Bible is clear that God personally brings judgment on nations. Just like Amos and Jeremiah, the early Israelite leader Joshua warns the people that God will bring upon them the blessings for obedience and curses for disobedience they will have known from Deuteronomy 28:
Therefore it shall come to pass, that as all good things are come upon you, which the LORD your God promised you; so shall the LORD bring upon you all evil things, until he have destroyed you from off this good land which the LORD your God hath given you. (Josh. 23:15)
It was the Lord who sent the flood, the world's first natural disaster, to wash away the wickedness of the idolatrous and lawless ante-diluvial society, and it was the Lord who sent the first calamity against a rebellious city, or more properly a group of city-states. In a major challenge to Dispensationalists, who say that God deals with men differently in different ages, God was applying His precepts and His righteous standards centuries before Moses was even born. The fire and brimstone which fell upon Sodom and Gomorrah came from the hand of God - 'from the Lord':
Gen. 19:24 Then the LORD rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;
25 And he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
The prophet Micah says something very similar about the impending fate of Jerusalem:
For the inhabitant of Maroth waited carefully for good: but evil came down from the LORD unto the gate of Jerusalem. (Micah 1:12)
There have always been those who have no time for talk of the judgment of God, either in His blessing a faithful nation, or cursing a rebellious one. The Psalms speak of this error (Psalm 53:4, 59:7, 73:11-12, 94:7-9), Ezekiel complains of it (Ezek 8:12, 9:9), and even the Apostle Peter is concerned about some who contend that things just carry on as normal (2 Pet 3:4). the prophet Zepheniah pours the most scorn on such a view:
And it shall come to pass at that time, that I will search Jerusalem with candles, and punish the men that are settled on their lees: that say in their heart, The LORD will not do good, neither will he do evil. (Zeph. 1:12)
WHY DO THE INNOCENT PERISH? Many folks will object that innocent people die in every natural disaster. They will say that a just and merciful God would not sweep innocent victims away in the punishment of the sinful people around them. It is not a view with no Biblical support at all. Abraham reminded God that it would be wrong to destroy the righteous in Sodom along with the guilty (Gen 18:25). By 'righteous', Abraham did not mean totally without sin, of course, he just meant those who were not part of the sins of Sodom, and Abraham did not go beyond asking God if 10 people could be found. Ten, of course, is the Hebrew number of a congregation in the synagogue. It is a kind of quorum in Hebrew thought.
Who could deny that by Abraham's standard, innocents died in New Orleans, New York, Madrid, Bali and London, or in the Tsunami or the Pakistan earthquake? And yet, "God sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust," said the Lord Jesus (Matt 5:45). It was life-giving, not life-destroying rain He had in mind, from the common grace of God, but the principle must be the same. That would mean that when blessing comes to a good city or to a nation, it comes despite the few wicked in it. When judgment comes, equally it falls on the wicked and on the few good. It is all a matter of the principle of collective responsibility, by which we are all involved in the sins of our nation, neighbourhood, business or family. Proverbs 24:12 shows that we can never say, 'We did not know what was going on.' John Donne, the poet, argued that we are all involved with each other: "Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee."
IS GOD DIFFERENT NOW? Some postulate a "Dispensation of Grace", in which God is less inclined to punish nations or cities, or they say that He is waiting for the end of the tribulation and will do all His judging then. Such a view sees God as benevolent in our day to the point of indulgence. Although He used to be a terrible God of judgment, so the argument runs, He is now, after the work of the Lord Jesus, totally inclined to mercy.
Frankly, we don't do Dispensationalism in Christian Voice. God does not change (Mal 3:6). Jesus Christ has existed before the foundation of the earth and the heavens (John 1:1-3). He is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow (Heb 13:8). God's laws are a reflection of His divine character and they endure for ever (Psalm 19, 33:11, 93:5, 102:12, 117:2, 119:89). Equally, His mercy has been and will be for ever (Psalm 25:6). Try telling the mother of Jamie Bulger that this is a 'dispensation of grace'.
The truth is, the opposite of law is not grace, but lawlessness. God hated sodomy, injustice, child sacrifice and idolatry in Sodom, Canaan, Israel and Babylon, and we can be sure He hates those sins in Britain, the USA and every nation in which He sees them today. And as God is the same today as He has always been, we should be in fear of His judgment on our land, praying for God to give us time to repent and turn back to him.
JESUS CHRIST JUDGED CITIES The Lord Jesus makes it quite clear that men are judged collectively in cities:
Matt. 11:20 Then began he to upbraid the cities wherein most of his mighty works were done, because they repented not:
21 Woe unto thee, Chorazin! woe unto thee, Bethsaida! for if the mighty works, which were done in you, had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes.
22 But I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon at the day of judgment, than for you.
23 And thou, Capernaum, which art exalted unto heaven, shalt be brought down to hell: for if the mighty works, which have been done in thee, had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.
24 But I say unto you, That it shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment, than for thee.
The Lord maintained the same principle of corporate responsibility when sending out the Seventy:
Luke 10:10 But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say,
11 Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.
12 But I say unto you, that it shall be more tolerable in that day for Sodom, than for that city.
The Lord said that good people can perish when disaster comes, and that there is a warning to all of us in such situations:
Luke 13:1 There were present at that season some that told him of the Galilaeans, whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices.
2 And Jesus answering said unto them, Suppose ye that these Galilaeans were sinners above all the Galilaeans, because they suffered such things?
3 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
4 Or those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that they were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?
5 I tell you, Nay: but, except ye repent, ye shall all likewise perish.
RESPONSIBILITY OF THE CHURCH That brings a responsibility on Christian people to warn and to witness. The whole point of what Ezekiel was inspired to write in chapters 3 and 33 of his prophecy is that the people of God are obliged to preach righteousness and repentance. If we keep our heads down, and do not sound the alarm, then we shall be condemned along with those who knew no better. It is a sombre thought. Just five days before the bombs went off on 7th July 2005 in London, a small group of Christians were standing in witness trying to reach those marching in the London Gay Pride parade and to warn London of the wrath to come. Christians had been warning the city of New Orleans for years before Hurricane Katrina swept the filth of the city away in its tide.
It is of course not always easy to identify the sin which has led to the judgment. If the Asian Tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 was a judgment, what was it for? Was it against the Islamic and pagan nations of the region? There were many stories of Christians being saved, but some equally, must have died. It seems too determinist to see the hand of God in all the evil doings of men, in land-mines or faulty building, and it is tempting to fall back on George Mason's 'cause and effect'. I admit that I refuse to see a child having his leg blown off as the will of God. Even more so, in the case of something like 9/11, we would be more comfortable blaming terrorists than God. Yet Amos was quite clear: "shall there be evil in a city, and the LORD hath not done it?" Perhaps if we see God as able to bring about such an atrocity, and equally able to prevent it, we should be more ready to fall on our knees and seek the Lord, like the people of Nineveh did. In such a humble attitude of prayer and repentance, would God not bring deliverance? Is His arm shortened, that it cannot save? (Is 59:1) We mock the people of the 17th century for seeing the Plague and the Great Fire of London as God's judgment, and yet perhaps the people of that day were spiritually wiser than us and nearer to God in many ways than we are today. After all, did not King Charles II immediately call a day of prayer and humility to seek the Lord?
REPENT YE AND BELIEVE THE GOSPEL Sad to say, even when calamity comes today, those who will turn to God are increasingly fewer to be found. It is as if the days foretold in the Revelation to John are being fulfilled before our horrified eyes:
Rev. 9:20 And the rest of the men which were not killed by these plagues yet repented not of the works of their hands, that they should not worship devils, and idols of gold, and silver, and brass, and stone, and of wood: which neither can see, nor hear, nor walk:
21 Neither repented they of their murders, nor of their sorceries, nor of their fornication, nor of their thefts.
Rev. 16:7 And I heard another out of the altar say, Even so, Lord God Almighty, true and righteous are thy judgments.
8 And the fourth angel poured out his vial upon the sun; and power was given unto him to scorch men with fire.
9 And men were scorched with great heat, and blasphemed the name of God, which hath power over these plagues: and they repented not to give him glory. 10 And the fifth angel poured out his vial upon the seat of the beast; and his kingdom was full of darkness; and they gnawed their tongues for pain,
11 And blasphemed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, and repented not of their deeds.
The Evangelist John Mark records these as the first words of the public ministry of the Lord Jesus: "The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and believe the Gospel." That generation, like our own, was sinful and adulterous. Despite that, the fact that His message would not be well received did not stop the Lord Jesus from proclaiming it.
"Repent ye," said the Lord Jesus. He says the same today, and so must we.