For the day of the LORD is near upon all the nations.
As you have done, it shall be done to you;
your deeds shall return on your own head.
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders calls it Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). You likely know of it under its previous description—multiple personality disorder. DID is defined as the presence in a single individual of two or more distinct identities, each with its own temperament, consciousness, and memory. In many cases one identity starkly contrasts with another, sometimes even denying knowledge of the existence of the other(s).
Nearly 2000 people per year are diagnosed with DID in America. But some observers of the biblical text down through the ages have ascribed the same kind of dissociative behavior to God. In fact one of the first doctrines considered heretical by the early church issued from a bishop named Marcion who considered the portrayal of God in the Old Testament to be incompatible with that found in the New. On what basis would Marcion and others consider the God of the Bible to represent two distinct “personalities”?
As we’ve noted recently, the Minor Prophets spare no passion in articulating God’s announcement of justice—either upon Israel herself or, as in the case of Obadiah, upon Israel’s enemies. Edom—the nation descended from Esau—stood in God’s crosshairs in Obadiah’s vision for both her cruelty and callousness toward Israel. The prophet describes in no uncertain terms the judgment to follow, as pastor Julian unpacked last week. But Psalm 137’s elaboration of that judgment upon Edom stretches the limits of our sense of propriety:
Remember, O LORD, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!
The call for retributive justice is unequivocal. But how does it square with what we see elsewhere in scripture about the treatment of enemies, particularly in the New Testament. “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus says (Mt 5:44). “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head,” the apostle Paul admonishes (Rom 12:20). Actually, Paul’s is a quote from Proverbs 25:21 which certainly challenges the simplistic notion that the Old Testament reveals a surly God. Yet none would deny the far more abundant examples of wrath fiercely expressed in the time before Christ came to earth.
So have we two different Gods here described in the two Testaments—one angry and the other loving? In terms more specific to His ethic of retribution, has God, so to speak, reinvented Himself in Jesus by discarding the preference for doing unto others as they had done (Obad 17) and instead choosing to forbear and forgive (Jn 3:16)?
The Old Testament theologian, Derek Kidner (HT: TK in Praying the Psalter), explains that the distinction between what we find in Obadiah and what we find in the New Testament is to be understood, not in terms of different personas for God, but in terms of different moments in God’s unfolding plan of redemption (Psalms, Tyndale Commentary on the Old Testament).
Without putting a spin on the severity of the OT language, Kidner coolly and carefully explains that at the core of such vehemence is a basic and legitimate call for justice. Legitimate because God is Himself perfectly just; an absence of an interest in justice would perhaps be more astonishing than violent demands for it.
Furthermore, though we may blanch at the graphic nature of texts like Obadiah and the Psalms, Kidner reminds us that, for one, any such language was in response to equally heinous brutality—this was no unprovoked animus; and secondly, in view of what had been done to Israel to elicit this strong language, who of us would not at least translate our outrage at unspeakable harm done to us into commensurately strident words?
Still, even if we can understand—perhaps even sympathize—with the retributive language of the Old Testament, how does it comport with the New Testament’s vision of justice and mercy?
First of all justice is perfectly at home in the vision of the New Testament’s interest in God’s coming kingdom. It anticipates a new heavens and new earth perfectly awash in justice. And that new reality will be inaugurated through an ultimate rendering of justice on the righteous and the wicked alike.
But to those of who see with New Testament eyes, the Old Testament language of retribution has the most to say in terms of how God has chosen to exercise judgment with respect to us. As Kidner writes:
This raw wound, thrust before us, forbids us to give smooth answers to the fact of cruelty. To cut this witness out of the Old Testament would be to impair its value as revelation, both of what is in man and of what the cross was required to achieve for our salvation. . . . [It] is an impassioned protest, beyond all ignoring or toning down, not only against a particular act of cruelty but against all comfortable views of human wickedness. . .not least in relation to the cost, to God and man, of laying its enmity and bitterness to rest. (emphasis mine)
The cathartic cries for justice in the Old Testament were true, if arguably unbridled. They anticipated an even fuller judgment to come. Their only limitation was in their sense of what it would cost God to render that fuller judgment and particularly for the very sake of those who would be His children.
They saw the need for judgment aright. What they still needed to see was all that was needed to be made right with God—namely at the expense of God’s only Son. Jews would need more than pedigree—Gentiles more than wisdom. They both would need Grace for the judgment upon them to be satisfied by Another’s work. The would need the Cross—as surely as we need the Cross.
And living on this side of the Cross, we recognize what it cost God to satisfy the judgment due us. Which explains the humble pivot toward loving our enemies, rather than only beseeching God for His retribution upon their wickedness. Justice must be done, but now it must be seen through the lens of how justice was rendered in our case.
So, the alleged incongruity between the portrayals of God’s personality across the Testaments is, to be sure, overdrawn. But how should the unity of God’s program for the world, progressively revealed and manifested, come to bear on our souls?
We should be as fierce in our denunciation of injustice and just as impassioned to overturn it. Jesus, far from merely toning down our passions, awakens us to the preciousness of justice and thereby galvanizes our interest in and for it.
But in the same moments we are outraged by injustice, we must give more than a passing thought to what it cost God to let the justice due us pass to His Son. Only then will we be properly positioned to call for justice.
The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Blessed be the just and merciful name of the Lord.