Part 1: Theological Foundations
Having outlined that the righteousness and love of God form the theological foundation for God’s punishment of the reprobate and chastisement of the elect, I will now proceed to analyze relevant narratives and prescriptions from the redemptive history of the Old and New Testaments of Scripture, helping the reader better understand the nature of pre-parousial divine retribution. In analyzing the witness of Scripture, I will methodologically proceed according to the redemptive-historical outline of the biblical canon.
From various passages in God’s Law-Word, it is evident that one fundamental aspect of the Law’s power is its accompaniment of obedience with blessings and disobedience with curses. Even before the giving of the Mosaic Law, Cain was cursed for the sin of murder (Gen. 4:10-12), and Ham’s posterity was cursed due to his ungodliness (Gen. 9:20-27). On the contrary, Abraham was blessed (Gen. 12:2-3) because of his faithfulness to God’s call (Hebr. 11:8). That the blessings bestowed upon the patriarchs should be viewed as Kingdom prosperity and not carnal prosperity, however, is evident from their lives. God promised Abraham and his descendants prosperity (Gen. 12:2-3) – the kind that could not possibly have solely a fulfillment in the afterlife. Yet if the patriarchs had hoped in God for the type of prosperity carnal men desire, they would have been gravely disappointed. The patriarch who endured possibly the most suffering in fulfilling his role in God’s kingdom is Jacob. Calvin describes his miserable life strikingly:
Jacob, again, is nothing but a striking example of the greatest wretchedness. His boyhood is passed most uncomfortably at home amidst the threats and alarms of his elder brother, and to these he is at length forced to give way, (Gen 27: 28): A fugitive from his parents and his native soil, in addition to the hardships of exile, the treatment he receives from his uncle Laban is in no respect milder and more humane, (Gen. 29). As if it had been little to spend seven years of hard and rigorous servitude, he is cheated in the matter of a wife. For the sake of another wife, he must undergo a new servitude, during which, as he himself complains, the heat of the sun scorches him by day, while in frost and cold he spends the sleepless night, (Gen 31: 40, 41). For twenty years he spends this bitter life, and daily suffers new injuries from his father-in-law. Nor is he quiet at home, which he sees disturbed and almost broken up by the hatreds, quarrels, and jealousies of his wives. When he is ordered to return to his native land, he is obliged to take his departure in a manner resembling an ignominious flight. Even then he is unable to escape the injustice of his father-in-law, but in the midst of his journey is assailed by him with contumely and reproach, (Gen 31: 20). By and bye a much greater difficulty befalls him, (Gen 32, 33). For as he approaches his brother, he has as many forms of death in prospect as a cruel foe could invent. Hence, while waiting for his arrival, he is distracted and excruciated by direful terrors; and when he comes into his sight, he falls at his feet like one half dead, until he perceives him to be more placable than he had ventured to hope. Moreover, when he first enters the land, he is bereaved of Rachel his only beloved wife. Afterwards he hears that the son whom she had borne him, and whom he loved more than all his other children, is devoured by a wild beast, (Gen 37: 33). How deep the sorrow caused by his death he himself evinces, when, after long tears, he obstinately refuses to be comforted, declaring that he will go down to the grave to his son mourning. In the meantime, what vexation, anxiety, and grief, must he have received from the carrying off and dishonour of his daughter, and the cruel revenge of his sons, which not only brought him into bad odour with all the inhabitants of the country, but exposed him to the greatest danger of extermination? (Gen. 34) Then follows the horrid wickedness of Reuben his first-born, wickedness than which none could be committed more grievous, (Gen 36: 22). The dishonour of a wife being one of the greatest of calamities, what must be said when the atrocity is perpetrated by a son? Some time after, the family is again polluted with incest, (Gen 38: 18). All these disgraces might have crushed a mind otherwise the most firm and unbroken by misfortune. Towards the end of his life, when he seeks relief for himself and his family from famine, he is struck by the announcement of a new misfortune, that one of his sons is detained in prison, and that to recover him he must entrust to others his dearly beloved Benjamin, (Gen 42, 43). Who can think that in such a series of misfortunes, one moment was given him in which he could breathe secure? Accordingly, his own best witness, he declares to Pharaoh, “Few and evil have the days of the years of my life been,” (Gen 47: 9).1
Calvin’s aim with this summary of the patriarch’s miseries is to indicate that even he had the hope of eternal life in Christ, and that in light of Jacob’s miseries, his hope could not have been on earthly objects, but purely on eternal blessings in the afterlife. Although this is true, it is not all that can be said about Jacob’s life. He most surely would have had to cherish the hope of eternal life in order to make sense of his own earthly miseries, but Jacob could also bear witness that in the end, his life did serve a great purpose in God’s Kingdom. All the misery he had experienced in his lifetime, culminating in separation from his son, served a good divine purpose in advancing Christ’s Kingdom, as Gen. 50:20 makes clear. The final chapter of the book of Genesis forms the conclusion of all the narratives of the lives of the patriarchs. Joseph is reunited with his father, and the entire chapter conveys the message that Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers – the entire covenant people – have come to the realization that all their suffering served a divine purpose. In the context of God’s Kingdom, they obtained blessings – yet it did not occur without chastisement.
Although Job was not a patriarch of Israel, his case bore many similarities to the life of the patriarch Jacob, and its historical setting was around the same time. The summary that Calvin gives of Jacob’s life would remind any student of Scripture immediately of Job. Job’s famous narrative and the history of Jacob’s life are two of the greatest examples of men who endured suffering all their lives purely for the sake of God’s Kingdom and glory, and not because of unrepentant hearts. Job was, before (1:8), during (1:22), and after his suffering (42:6), always a God-fearing man. He, along with Jacob, is a primary example in the Old Testament of suffering endured by a child of God for the sake of glorifying God alone. This suffering can therefore not be seen as a punishing chastisement, but merely as the Potter shaping the clay according to His purpose (Is. 64:8; Rom. 9:21). However, it is also clear that Job rightly understood it in light of his own depravity (Job 42:1-6), as all sufferers should. And besides Job, other great examples of suffering and rejection include the various prophets throughout their ministries – think of Elijah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel, among others.
Both sides of divine retribution, vengeance and chastisement, are prominent in the Exodus narrative. Vengeance is manifested in God’s dealings with Pharaoh and the Egyptians, whereby He punishes them not only with the ten plagues (Ex. 7-12), but also in His destruction of the Egyptian army (Ex. 14:28), all because of their disobedience to God (Ex. 7:4). The Egyptians were reprobates, but even elect Israel, because of their unbelief, was disobedient more often than not. This led God to chastise them, sentencing them to forty years in the wilderness and not allowing an entire generation, save Caleb and Joshua, to enter the promised land (Num 14:21-38). The verse preceding God’s verdict is very significant for understanding the nature of this chastisement. God announces in v. 20 that He has forgiven Israel. However, since without the shedding of Christ’s blood there is no true remission of sins (Hebr. 9:22), it is evident that this forgiveness could only be done through the retroactive effect of Christ’s sacrifice (Matt. 27:52); therefore, what followed could not be considered “the curse of the law” (Gal. 3:13), but merely loving, fatherly chastisement. This eventually worked together for their good, as is evident from their successful conquering of Canaan, which would have never been accomplished without faith (Hebr. 11:30).
The Witness of the Prophets
The earthly prosperity of obedient and righteous Christian individuals and nations is in line with God’s will (II Chron. 7:14; Ps. 35:27; 37:3-11; Is. 1:19; Jer. 29:11-13), as they are part of God’s Kingdom which always necessarily prospers (Psalm 10:5). However, contrary to the carnalization of the health, wealth, and prosperity gospel, this prosperity is inseparable from God’s ultimate purpose with His creation, namely the glorification of Himself (Rom. 9:15-24) – the ultimate source of true joy for His children (Phil. 4:4). However, God often raises up reprobate individuals, families, and nations for some divine purpose, often even to chastise His covenant people. This seeming prosperity of the wicked is only that, since even if they live comfortably on earth, God oversees no sin (Ex. 20:7), and they will surely pay for their abominations; if not in this life, they will endure an even greater punishment in eternal hell (Ps. 73:12-20). Both the psalmist and the apostle point to the sufficiency of God’s grace for the prosperity of the righteous (Ps. 73:23-28; II Cor. 12:9).
Looking at the history of Israel, it is clear that, as a people, they were prosperous when they lived in obedience to God’s Law, while they suffered the greatest retributive chastisement following their disobedience. Anyone familiar with the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel will grasp this. During the time of David, a man after God’s own heart (I Sam. 13:14), the Kingdom of Israel was prosperous. However, there were times during this prosperous period for Israel as a kingdom that David suffered personal chastisement for his sins with Bathsheba (II Sam. 12:10-19). Later in life David, despite persevering in the faith, would suffer the consequences of his failures as a father through the prosperity of his rebellious and wicked son, Absalom, and his apostate following (II Sam. 15). Even David’s restoration on the throne, along with all its blessings, was never without pain and sorrow (II Sam. 18:19-33). God stays true to the covenantal nature of His Kingdom (Ex. 20:6) when He blesses Israel, even in the midst of the idolatry that marked Solomon’s reign (I Kings 11:1-12). However, when this apostasy continues through to the next generation, God breaks up this formerly mighty kingdom (I Kings 12).
As these two kingdoms continued in their sinful ways throughout generations (with a few exceptions in Judah, in particular the kings of the eighth century B.C.), God eventually exiled both the Northern Kingdom around 720 B.C. (II Kings 17:5-6) and the Southern Kingdom around 586 B.C. (Jer. 52:27-30). Virtually the entire corpus of Old Testament prophetic literature, both major and minor prophets, bears witness to this punishment bestowed upon God’s covenant people, some of whom accepted the chastisement and repented. This is the background for the restoration in which Ezra and Nehemiah were instrumental, although others did not heed and repent, consequently receiving condemnation.
God’s dealings with reprobate nations follow a similar paradigm, yet His glorification of Himself through them never has a salvific motive, but is always condemning. As I noted in the first part of the series, other than when He chastises His elect, God glorifies Himself through the condemnation of the reprobate (Ps. 5:5-10; Prov. 16:4; Rom. 9:22). The whole Old Testament, the prophets in particular, bears witness to the pagan nations which God destructs for His glory. Examples include God’s purposeful destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19:24-25), Amalek (Num. 24:20), the Canaanite city-states (Joshua 11:1-9), Babylon (Is. 13:19-20), Edom (Jer. 49:7-39), Egypt (Ez. 29:13-15), and Libya and Ethiopia (Dan. 11:41-43).
We’ve thoroughly treated God’s purpose with the destruction of the wicked, but His purposes for raising up wicked nations, and even blessing them, is nowhere better explained than in Isaiah 10 and 45. In chapter 10, God explains that He raised up the wicked Assyria to execute His punishment on Israel. He calls Assyria “the rod of My anger, and the staff in whose hand is My indignation” (v. 5). At the same time, however, He also says that He will punish Assyria for its arrogance, since it is not willingly serving God’s purposes, but has a malicious intent (vv. 7-11). God uses this malicious intent of a wicked nation, and gives it the strength to execute it, for His own glory. Similarly, in chapter 45, He reveals that He raised up Cyrus, an unbelieving king, whom He even calls “His anointed” (v. 1), for the sake of restoring Judah (v. 4). Cyrus, being a pagan, had not done this out of love for God and was therefore, in terms of his intent, wicked and opposed to God’s will. Yet at the same time, God raised up and used these wicked kings and nations for His own divine purposes. Yet, just as He had raised the wicked up, He will most surely destroy them; He remains free, however, in deciding to what degree He will pour out His vengeance in this life or reserve it for the afterlife. Contrary to popular theology, it is clear that He does not reserve all vengeance for the afterlife.
God, in the execution of His providence on earth, punishes both the elect and non-elect. The non-elect receive a foretaste of eternal hell as God avenges His glory by their destruction. However, He also blesses and raises up His enemies in order to execute His purposes and to build up His wrath towards them for eternal hell. All blessings the elect receive throughout their lifetime are because of God’s loving providence. God often chastises His elect for the sake of their sanctification, as with the death of David and Bathsheba’s son and the exile of Judah, but He also providentially allows His children to endure suffering for His name’s sake, as in the case of Jacob and Job. In the next part of this series, I will discuss how the unchanging God continues to deal with mankind in this way under the New Covenant.
Read Part 3: The New Covenant
- Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1559. 2.10.12 – Henry Beveridge translation ↩