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Insight #7 November 12, 2016
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FOURTH QUARTER 2016 ADULT SABBATH SCHOOL LESSONS
"RETRIBUTIVE PUNISHMENT"

NOVEMBER 12, 2016

Poor Job. His friends were not much of an encouragement to him. They thought that his suffering was a punishment from God for his sins. Perhaps their “counsel” to Job could be considered as not much more than a “kick in the guts when he was already down”. Job's three friends did not have a true comprehension of the charcter of God, as evidenced in what He said to them twice, as if to emphasize the point to us today, “Ye have not spoken of me the thing that is right” (Job 42:7-8).
 
“The same error for which God had reproved the friends of Job was repeated by the Jews... It was generally believed by the Jews that sin is punished in this life. Every affliction was regarded as the penalty of some wrongdoing, either of the sufferer himself or of his parents. It is true that all suffering results from the transgression of God’s law, but this truth had become perverted. Satan, the author of sin and all its results, had led men to look upon disease and death as proceeding from God,—as punishment arbitrarily inflicted on account of sin. Hence one upon whom some great affliction or calamity had fallen had the additional burden of being regarded as a great sinner... God had given a lesson designed to prevent this. The history of Job had shown that suffering is inflicted by Satan, and is overruled by God for purposes of mercy. But Israel did not understand the lesson” (The Desire of Ages, page 471).
 
And many people today have not understood the lesson either. When something bad happens to them, they think that God is punishing them for their disobedience. But God is not a harsh, vengeful judge, waiting to punish us for our sins. Our Father in heaven is “ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness” (Nehemiah 9:17). He says, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live: turn ye, turn ye from your evil ways; for why will ye die?” (Ezekiel 33:11). His thoughts toward us are “thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end” (Jeremiah 29:11).
 
This week's lesson deals specifically with the subject of “Divine Retribution”. Apart from seeking to understand the mystery of the cause of the sufferings we experience in general, this is the one subject that is probably considered the most confusing.
 
The judgments of God are rarely understood for what they really are. There is a Scripture that defines them for us: “The Lord is known by the judgment which He executeth: the wicked is snared in the work of his own hands” (Psalm 9:16). Paul declares: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). David says the wicked “made a pit, and digged it, and is fallen into the ditch which he made. His mischief shall return upon his own head, and his violent dealing shall come down upon his own pate” (Psalms 7:15-16). When God “executes judgment”, He simply steps back and permits the natural consequences of our actions to take their course.
 
Ellen White further clarifies this: “God does not stand toward the sinner as an executioner of the sentence against transgression; but He leaves the rejectors of His mercy to themselves, to reap that which they have sown. Every ray of light rejected, every warning despised or unheeded, every passion indulged, every transgression of the law of God, is a seed sown which yields its unfailing harvest. The Spirit of God, persistently resisted, is at last withdrawn from the sinner, and then there is left no power to control the evil passions of the soul, and no protection from the malice and enmity of Satan” (The Great Controversy, page 36).
 
It is true that the Scriptures speak of the “wrath of God”. But His wrath is not like ours. It is “grief”. For when Jesus would have healed the man with the shriveled hand on the Sabbath, He “looked round about Him with anger, being grieved for the hardness of their hearts” (Mark 3:5). When the vials of God's wrath are poured out, and the seven last plagues will afflict this world, the temple in heaven will be “filled with smoke from the glory of God, and from His power” and no man is able to enter it until the plagues have ceased (Revelation 15:8). This scene is reminiscent of the dedication of the temple of Solomon when “the priests could not stand to minister by reason of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord had filled the house of God” (2 Chronicles 5:14).
 
The “glory of the Lord” is described in Exodus chapter 34. It is His character. God proclaimed His name before Moses: “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin...” (Exodus 34:6-7). And God's character of mercy and graciousness and love is known by the manner in which He executes the judgment. In these judgments, the pain of God's heart is revealed, for “He doth not afflict willingly” (Lamentations 3:33), but He has to step back and let man reap the consequences of his own actions. This will be a time of intense heart anguish to Him. He will look upon this world and weep, just as Jesus wept as He looked upon Jersualem: “O Jersualem, Jerusalem, thou that killest the prophets, and stonest them which are sent unto thee, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathered her chickens under wings, and ye would not!”
 
But God can by “no means clear the guilty” and must visit “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:7). This is extremely painful to Him, for it is a life that has been purchased by the infinite sacrifice of His only begotten Son. He loves them with an “everlasting love” (Jeremiah 31:3). Therefore, the temple of God is filled with smoke that the terrible and intensely painful grief of our loving, heavenly Father may be hidden.
 
We worship a God of fair justice, and true love, yet there is a mystery that many would wish to have solved. If God “does not stand towards the sinner as an executioner of the sentence against transgression” then why do we see the angel of God flying over Egypt, slaying all the firstborn? And why do we read that “the angel of the LORD went out, and killed in the camp of the Assyrians an hundred and eighty five thousand men? And many other examples? How do we understand or explain this?
 
First, we must acknowledge, that even to God Himself, it is a “strange” thing. “For the Lord shall rise up as in Mount Perazim, He shall be wroth as in the valley of Gibeon, that He may do his work, His strange work; and bring to pass His act, His strange act” (Isaiah 28:21).
 
“To our merciful God the act of punishment is a strange act… While He does not delight in vengeance, He will execute judgment upon the transgressors of His law. He is forced to do this to preserve the inhabitants of the earth from utter depravity and ruin. In order to save some, He must cut off those who have become hardened in sin.” (Patriarchs and Prophets, page 628.)
 
Note the word: “forced”. He is pushed into a corner to do something that He would very much rather not do. In order to “preserve the inhabitants of the earth” from total ruin, He has no choice but to intervene.
 
When writing about the punishment inflicted against the idolaters who danced around the golden calf at Sinai, Ellen White provides us with an insight into the “strange act” of divine retribution. She says, “Though God had granted the prayer of Moses in sparing Israel from destruction, their apostasy was to be signally punished. The lawlessness and insubordination into which Aaron had permitted them to fall, if not speedily crushed, would run riot in wickedness, and would involve the nation in irretrievable ruin” (Ibid, page 324). 
 
But not just the nation. She continues: “Only those were cut off who persisted in rebellion.... It was necessary that this sin should be punished, as a testimony to surrounding nations of God’s displeasure against idolatry... Unless punishment had been speedily visited upon transgression... the earth would have become as corrupt as in the days of Noah. Had these transgressors been spared, evils would have followed, greater than resulted from sparing the life of Cain. It was the mercy of God that thousands should suffer, to prevent the necessity of visiting judgments upon millions. In order to save the many, He must punish the few... And it was no less a mercy to the sinners themselves that they should be cut short in their evil course.” (Ibid, page 325.)
 
Here we see that God understands the power of example. “None of us liveth to himself” (Romans 14:7). “As in water face answereth to face, so the heart of man to man” (Proverbs 27:19). Not only justice demanded the destruction of the idolaters, but also love. Love for the rest of the nation. Love for those who were not yet hardened in sin and had not yet closed their hearts to the promptings of the Spirit of God. Love for the world, for had He not executed judgment then and there, through their example and influence “the earth would have become as corrupt as in the days of Noah.”
 
God is merciful and compassionate to those who are ignorant or weak in regard to sin. By executing judgment upon those who had already hardened their hearts, he was giving the rest of the nation an opportunity to see the wickedness of their actions, and that they might make an intelligent choice in their own lives and be more firmly resolved to overcome sin.
 
But more than just executing judgment as an example of the consequences of sin, where God sees it is necessary, He will intervene in judgment to prevent an individual stealing from another individual the opportunity to make an intelligent decision. This judgment will generally be executed by God permitting them to meet the consequences of their actions. Very rarely will He intervene and execute judgment by His own hand. And He will only do this if the sinner has become hardened and established in their rebellion, and grieved away His Spirit.
 
God has no pleasure in suffering and death. Because He loves us so much, and wants each one of us to have every advantage possible to choose Him and His ways, He will do something that He doesn’t want to do, and this is why it is called a “strange act” – because He considers it strange Himself. He will take a life, so that we might have a better opportunity for eternal life. But the life that He takes has already made its decision. He is simply taking back that which was His, and that had been rejected.
 
God is love, albeit we will never fully understand the ways of His love while we are on this earth, or even in all eternity. As Zophar correctly said to Job, “Canst thou by searching find out God? canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection? It is as high as heaven; what canst thou do? deeper than hell; what canst thou know? The measure thereof is longer than the earth, and broader than the sea (Job 11:7-9). When it comes to the particular subject of divine retribution, perhaps it would be best if we just trust that God knows what He is doing, and say with Job, “Who is he that hideth counsel without knowledge? therefore have I uttered that I understood not; things too wonderful for me, which I knew not” (Job 42:3).
 
 
~Camron and Heladia Schofield