My friend asked if he could meet with me to do a Bible study. He had been a leader in our church community for several years. I wanted to honor him even though I struggled with the way he was living his life at that moment. He had become violent with his wife and had gone back to some old ways; drinking and smoking pot among them.
That day, he wanted to study Psalm 73 together with me. At the time, I had only a passing acquaintance with that particular psalm, so I quickly read it through before he came to see me. The first verses started out well and were very encouraging:
But then the meditations of the psalmist get worse from there. In verses 2-12 the psalm takes a dark turn.
12 This is what the wicked are like—
always free of care, they go on amassing wealth.
My friend pointed out verse 11 to me. “God doesn’t punish sin apparently. I know some pretty raunchy people who are never judged, who never have to face the consequences of what they’ve done. I spent years trying to live right and my life has gone down the toilet over and over again. I finally decided to change my tune.” I looked at him curiously. His facial expression told me he really meant these words.
Together, we read verses 13 and 14.
Surely in vain I have kept my heart pure
and have washed my hands in innocence.
14 All day long I have been afflicted,
and every morning brings new punishments.
He continued to tell me that this is the reality of those who serve God. If God isn’t going to judge sins immediately, then there is no point being righteous. He then spent several minutes explaining how he would do things if he was God. He likened it to his own children. “The longer I wait to discipline my children when they make a mistake, the less effective my punishment is” he claimed. At this point in our bible study, he informed me he was planning on living any way he wanted to and asked me not to be concerned for him. He no longer believed in God’s judgment for sin. He believed that God was the equivalent of a tottering old man who can’t accomplish anything of purpose in life.
I didn’t talk to my friend for 8 years. The next time I spoke to him, he had a totally different interpretation of Psalm 73. But we’ll get to that at the end of the article.
The writer of Psalm 73 is certainly correct. It does seem that God is slow in enacting judgment. This has been the experience of so many people, starting with Adam and Eve and continuing to the present day. Not only that, but the Bible tells us in many places that God is deliberate in sparing humans from immediate judgment for transgressions.
In hundreds of places in the Bible, we see a variation on this theme. In the Old Testament especially, we are told that God is “gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in loving kindness”. The words “loving kindness” can also be translated “mercy” or “covenant love”. They are the translation of the Hebrew word “chesed” which speaks of the obligation someone has when they enter into a covenant with another person.
Chesed is the love that a father has for a child, a wife has for a husband, Christ has for his church, and the Creator has for His creation. It is not based primarily on reactionary emotion. Chesed is a decision to do the gracious and compassionate thing for the object of our chesed.
God’s nature is a compassionate nature. God is not eager to judge and punish. We are told that Jesus is the fullness of God in bodily form. When Jesus says “Father, forgive them” this was the heart of the Father as well. But why is this the case? Since God is a righteous judge, why does he wait so long to punish and bring judgment?
I think the Bible provides us with three clear answers for why God delays judgment, sometimes for generations.
1. God Desires Full Repentance: In 2 Peter 3:9 we read
“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”
This was what my friend struggled with. He couldn’t see how a God of justice would wait to reward or punish based on a person’s actions. Why wait? That just confuses the issue.
But Peter tells us that God is not really slow at all. God always has the long view of everything. God is like a good coach of a sporting team. Even if things are not going well at the beginning, He does not panic and go outside of his plan. This is often why we see disasters, wars, famine, earthquakes and we see God allowing them. All of these things can happen and yet have nothing to do with judgment.
God’s purpose in delaying is that it gives people a chance to change their minds. The word “repentance” is the Greek word “metanoia” which means to change one’s mind. Human beings need time to change the mind. We are stubborn, pig-headed and opinionated. We do what we want, when we want. And God allows this. If God were to bring immediate judgment for sin, there would be no repentance. All we would know is the fear of judgment. We would never change our minds. Rather, we would be looking over our shoulder for God in the same manner as we look for police officers on the freeway when we want to speed.
I remember the story of the little girl in the classroom. She had the wiggles and didn’t want to sit down. The teacher got more and more upset that she wouldn’t take her seat. Finally, she threatened her with a detention if she didn’t take her seat. So the girl sat down. 30 seconds later she raised her hand. The teacher gave her permission to speak. “Teacher, I may be sitting down on the outside, but inside me I’m standing straight up.”
God could exert his power and force us to do what is right. But our hearts would not be changed. And God values the change of heart before he values the change in behavior. We need to change our minds in order for the fullness of repentance to take place. This means God has to hold back his full judgment so we can see how foolish our actions are. God still allows consequences of our actions, but he delays his punishment.
2. God’s Character Demands Patience in Judgment: The elements of God’s character do not change. He is the same yesterday, today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). As God reveals aspects of his character, it is not possible for God to lay them aside. They must be integrated with every other aspect of his character.
In Joel 2:13, we read:
Rend your heart
and not your garments.
Return to the Lord your God,
for he is gracious and compassionate,
slow to anger and abounding in love,
and he relents from sending calamity.
Joel is a book all about God’s judgment through a natural disaster. Swarms of locusts have ravaged the land of Israel and left no crops and no food anywhere. Joel pictures the locusts as the army of God swooping down to devour and judge. That is why it is curious that we read verse 13. God is not sometimes gracious and compassionate. He always is. God never takes delight in punishing and bringing judgment. He never does. He will do so reluctantly, but he delays it as long as possible. This underscores the big difference between judgment and consequences. If a person gets drunk continually, they will have problems with their liver and may die because of it. Those are not actions of judgment. They are simply what we have coming to us for our actions. But God’s judgment is a punishment that goes beyond the consequences. As we saw in the last article, this is the drought brought about by Saul killing some Gibeonites. Judgment is the death of all the first-born in Egypt. Judgment is Jehioachin being taken into captivity by Babylon even though his father and grandfather were much more evil.
However, Joel shows us the true nature of God: “He relents from sending calamity”. Even while the judgment is happening, God’s heart is not in it. He would rather not bring punishment. The second a person repents, God will work on their behalf.
Later in chapter two of Joel, it states:
“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
the great locust and the young locust,
the other locusts and the locust swarm—
my great army that I sent among you.
26 You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
27 Then you will know that I am in Israel,
that I am the Lord your God,
and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.
There are many who assume that Judgment is the highest priority on God’s heart. But this is not the biblical record. God will judge because He cannot overlook anything. But he would rather forgive. It is his nature to do so.
3. God’s Judgment Requires Warnings: There is a third reason God delays his judgment. He wants to make room for his servants to announce that people need to change their ways. Sometimes, this takes a number of generations before this can take place. And it isn’t always prophets that do the preaching. The ending of slavery meant a brave president had to be used by God. In England, William Wilberforce was God’s mouthpiece. Mother Teresa got more changed in Mumbai than most preachers have ever accomplished.
Samuel Rutherford preached one time in Edinburgh and was escorted out of the city by the order of the Catholic Cardinal. As he was leaving, he warned them: “This action to remove me will only serve to bring disaster on this city. When this happens, invite me back to preach and all will be well.” When Rutherford left the city, the Bubonic Plague, which had not been seen for a hundred years in Scotland, struck the city. Within weeks, they invited Rutherford back to preach.
I think of the reluctant prophet Jonah. God wanted him to go and preach in the city of Nineveh, the home of one of history’s most notorious and evil armies. They did unspeakable things to their victims, including Jonah’s people. Jonah didn’t want to preach in Nineveh. Why?
Because he knew God was gracious and compassionate and would forgive the people of Nineveh if he preached. Which is exactly why Jonah was being sent. Which is why Jonah ran the other direction and had to be brought back by a fishy water taxi. When Jonah announced that God would judge the city of Nineveh in 40 days, all the people changed their minds and changed their ways. They even put sackcloth and ashes on the cattle.
And Jonah was angry about this. In Jonah 4, the prophet accuses God:
Isn’t this what I said, Lord, when I was still at home? That is what I tried to forestall by fleeing to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, Lord, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.”
Jonah wanted God to judge the people of Nineveh. He didn’t care if innocent children and the mentally handicapped faced the same retribution. He wanted them wiped off the face of the earth. And God didn’t do it immediately. He sent Jonah to preach so they could change their ways; and they did.
God left you and I on this earth to warn people about the coming judgment, not to tell them it is happening now. If we’re being sent to preach, it is likely that judgment hasn’t happened yet. At least not the kind of judgment that God is part of.
8 years later, my friend returned to me. He had just got out of jail and asked if he could meet with me. In the first half hour we met, he explained how his life had deteriorated. He explained why alcoholism and violence had brought about. It was a sad story and I wept in hearing it. He had been my friend. But at the end of his story of decay, he told me God had him read Psalm 73 again. He told me he wished he had read further in the text. Here’s what he pointed out:
When I tried to understand all this,
it troubled me deeply
17 till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny.
18 Surely you place them on slippery ground;
you cast them down to ruin.
19 How suddenly are they destroyed,
completely swept away by terrors!
20 They are like a dream when one awakes;
when you arise, Lord,
you will despise them as fantasies.
21 When my heart was grieved
and my spirit embittered,
22 I was senseless and ignorant;
I was a brute beast before you.
23 Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
24 You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
The psalmist realized the only way to understand the righteous and the wicked is to take the long view. God will never forget good works or bad works. And God is slow to anger because this is his purpose and his nature. The key is to do what is right and to come into relationship with God continually. That day, my friend came back to the Lord and left behind his sin. He has never been sorry he did.
So, when you consider that God doesn’t judge right away, thank Him that judgment is not his highest priority.
But sometimes, judgment is right around the corner; when we least expect it. The next article, I will lay out God’s plan for us when judgment does come down.