“When your judgments come upon the earth, the people of the world learn righteousness.
But when grace is shown to the wicked, they do not learn righteousness;
even in a land of uprightness they go on doing evil and do not regard the majesty of the Lord
Lord, your hand is lifted high, but they do not see it.
Let them see your zeal for your people and be put to shame;
let the fire reserved for your enemies consume them.”
This passage from Isa. 26 is a hard one to read. In a culture where we are not only used to hearing about God’s grace as the highest hope of the church but hear it as the only message there is, this call for judgement is uncomfortable. In fact, were it spoken in today’s church, it would be heard as heretical. Grace portrayed as a lazy response that won’t teach anyone anything important? How dare you! The thought that judgement and the implied punishment are the better way doesn’t preach in a culture of “sloppy agape” and free grace.
But this wasn’t written in our culture, nor to it. Sure, we think that the whole of scripture was written directly to us, never mind the last 2800 years. But Isa was written for an oppressed people, a people headed for exile, and a very angry people. And angry people want justice, judgement, and punishment for their oppressors. We all want God’s grace until someone wrongs us, or wrongs someone we love, or wrongs someone far less powerful than they are. Then we all agree with this sentiment and beg for God’s justice.
And in a practical sense, Isaiah’s cry is the more realistic. A sloppy grace, one that forgives and forgets without holding to account, can be abused. A righteous justice, one that holds to account, feels more… well… just. We must remember that scripture portrays God as both gracious and just, both merciful and willing to punish. We had better be willing to hold those views in tension as well.