The whole of the Bible is one grand storyline. Often, however, we find ourselves separating the Old from the New Testament, as if they were two entirely different stories. The separating of the two has subsequently caused two views of God to arise in our minds: “the God of judgment” (Old Testament) and “the God of love” (New Testament).
The Bible is indeed a unified grand story and, therefore, it knows no divisions. Alec Motyer explains this well in his book The Christian’s Pocket Guide to Loving the Old Testament: Prophecies made in the Old Testament books point to prophecies fulfilled in the New Testament books; references to the Trinity in the Old are explained in the New; and certain biblical terms used before Christ were fulfilled in their meaning when the Son of God walked the earth.
Similarly, the character and person of God as revealed in the Old Testament cannot be separated from the God of the New. This means that his judgment towards the nations in the Old Testament has something significant to say to us about the grand storyline of the Bible, meaning that it cannot be divorced from the rest of the Word of God.
So what do we make of God’s judgment in the Old Testament?
God’s judgment can be difficult for us to understand, and that is okay.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:9)
The first important thing to note is that God’s own understanding is higher than ours, as are his ways and works. So, while we can study the Bible and search its depths in an effort to know its grand storyline, we will not always be privy to the minute details of God’s actions, nor his reasons behind those actions.
Despite our limited understanding, however, we can make some general observations about the judgment of God as seen in many Old Testament books:
God’s judgment is always inseparable from his love, mercy, and grace.
And I will bring to an end in Moab, declares the Lord, him who offers sacrifice in the high place and makes offerings to his god. Therefore my heart moans for Moab like a flute, and my heart moans like a flute for the men of Kir-hareseth. Therefore the riches they gained have perished. (Jeremiah 48:35-36)
God’s love and judgment go together. In other words, our God is not either full of wrath or full of love, but he is both simultaneously. We struggle to grasp this because of the limits of our human understanding, but that does not mean that he is not so. As D.A. Carson writes:
There is nothing intrinsically impossible about the wrath and love being directed towards the same people at the same time. God in his perfections must be wrathful against his rebel image-bearers, for they have offended him; God in his perfections must be loving toward his rebel image-bearers, for he is that kind of God. (The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God, 69)
We see God’s love and judgment wrapped up together perfectly at the cross. Jesus Christ, the beloved Son of God, absorbs the just wrath of God. The cross is proof that what seems like dead-end judgment actually is the loving purpose of God being magnified forever. Similarly, in the Old Testament, God’s judgment on the nations points to the eventual salvation of his chosen people, the climax of which is Jesus Christ.
God’s judgment instructs us about God’s character and person.
For on the third day the LORD will come down on Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people. And you shall set limits for the people all around, saying, “Take care not to go up into the mountain or touch the edge of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall be put to death.” (Exodus 19:11-12)
This passage from Isaiah reveals that God is holy. It is not the mountain that will put the people to death but the sight of God’s holiness. God’s judgment teaches us about his perfection; he is so holy that no sinner can stand in his presence. It also teaches us about his generosity and mercy. For only a merciful God would provide a way to forgive in order to redeem his chosen people.
God’s judgment instructs us about our own character and person.
You felt secure in your wickedness, you said, “No one sees me”; your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.” But evil shall come upon you, which you will not know how to charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, for which you will not be able to atone; and ruin shall come upon you suddenly, of which you know nothing. (Isaiah 47:10-11)
God is speaking to his enemies, the Babylonians, in the above passage. God is holy, wise, and perfect, but his enemies are wicked, rebellious, and proud. All of us were at one point enemies of God, and some reading this might still be (Romans 5:10). We said earlier that no sinner can stand before a holy God because his righteousness and perfection reveals our own iniquities and evil. So God’s judgment informs us about our own sinful nature apart from Christ.
God’s judgment illuminates our need for a Great High Priest.
Then bring near to you Aaron your brother, and his sons with him, from among the people of Israel, to serve me as priests…So Aaron shall bear the names of the sons of Israel in the breastpiece of judgment on his heart, when he goes into the Holy Place, to bring them to regular remembrance before the Lord…Thus Aaron shall bear the judgment of the people of Israel on his heart before the Lord regularly. (Exodus 28:1,29-30)
Before Christ, priests in the tabernacle would bear the judgment of God’s people. But in Christ, by faith, a once-rebellious sinner is covered by the Lamb’s shed blood and robed in his righteousness. Christ is our Great High Priest (Hebrews 4:14). The Old Testament stories of judgment point to our desperate need for God to provide a substitute for sinners, someone to bear their judgment and atone for their sins, which he graciously did in the person and work of his very own Son, Jesus.
God’s judgment foreshadows that which will come on the Last Day.
In just a little while, the wicked will be no more; though you look carefully at his place, he will not be there. But the meek shall inherit the land and delight themselves in abundant peace. The wicked plots against the righteous and gnashes his teeth at him, but the Lord laughs at the wicked, for he sees that his day is coming. (Psalm 37:10-13)
Many Old Testament accounts of God’s judgment involve historical events: the Babylonian exile, for instance. But they also point to a greater, future reality when God will judge every person through the Lion of Judah, Jesus Christ. Matthew 24:30 says:
Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.
Jesus will come again to judge mankind, when every knee will bow and tongue confess that he, indeed, is Lord. So Scripture instructs us to be ready for that day (1 Peter 4:7), sober-minded, and watchful, placing our faith and hope in Jesus Christ, who took on God’s judgment so we would never have to.