12At that time I will search Jerusalem with lamps,
and I will punish the people
who rest complacently on their dregs,
those who say in their hearts,
“The LORD will not do good,
nor will he do harm.”
When we hear the word ‘punish’, much that is wrong about the common perception of religion comes to mind. There are two familiar stereotypes of God: one that God is love, perfect love, embracing everyone with compassion regardless of our choices or actions. Everyone gets to travel the tunnel of light to a land of reunion and bliss.
The other stereotype is that God is the author and defender of “the rules”. The exact rules differ from place to place or people to people. For some, these are social rules and boundaries, often involving sex and property. God may be forgiving, but there are rules about that, too. There is a way in which forgiveness must be sought and given – either in a ritual or in a specific attitude of mind and heart: true repentance and amendment of life. And there is a price that must nevertheless be paid by someone – God cannot just forgive; Jesus must die.
There is power and wisdom and truth in the biblical words about the majesty of God’s love and the reality of sin, grace and redemption; it’s just not all one or the other. And the important thing is it’s not a ‘system’; it’s a relationship. It’s not a set of rules; it’s a God who engages the world in a dynamic give and take. God is not the watchmaker who creates the clockwork and sets the world running. God is the parent seeking reconciliation with rebellious children. It’s why the Old Testament has no problem suggesting that God changes his mind. It’s why God can promise David an endless line upon the throne of Jerusalem – yet bring Babylon to tear it down when that becomes necessary to save his people and his world. “The gifts and call of God are irrevocable,” yet God is free. I will always be my Father’s son, but that does not mean I will always get the keys to the car – or, for that matter, that I will always find an open door. God’s purpose is to save us not protect the rules. God’s purpose is to restore his creation not preserve the system.
So back to the word ‘punish’. God will ‘punish’, not because Judah broke the rules, but because Judah betrayed its relationship with God. This is about a people, not individuals. Lightning isn’t striking one person for his or her sin; the thunderstorm is advancing upon a nation that has betrayed its identity, its reason for being. This is about a people, and it is about a long pattern not a single transgression. It is the outcome of a path they have pursued for generations – a path that leads them ever further from God, a path that leads them to an inevitable cliff.
These are the children of the Exodus. These are the descendants of those who saw God give Pharaoh ten opportunities to repent, ten plagues, ten awe-filled manifestations of a world gone wrong, until those who tried to kill God’s first born (the people of Israel) lost their first born. These are the descendants of those who saw pharaoh’s army defeated by the returning waters of the Nile. These are the descendants of those who were fed manna from heaven and water from the rock, who heard God’s voice at Sinai and vowed to be ever faithful. These are the descendants of a people who were led through the wilderness and given a land, the dream of the homeless, the fulfilled promise to Abraham and Sarah. And now these children of God say: “The LORD will not do good, nor will he do harm.” They believe there is no reward in righteousness, no consequence for disobedience. They think God is powerless to affect our lives – or God simply doesn’t care. It is another way of saying “God is dead.”
There are consequences when you have reached the place where there is no right and wrong only power. Believing this, they will now see what power will do. Babylon is coming and they will “search Jerusalem with lamps”:they will capture every man in hiding; they will seize every woman; they will steal every horde hidden away; they will strip the temple of its gold and bronze; they will leave nothing but rubble. Such is the way of power.
This is not punishment for breaking rules; it is the consequence of the total rupture of their right relationship with God and one another. They have chosen a path with no happy ending.
The prophet’s words are powerful and chilling. And, of course, they are ignored – for this is a people who have come to believe there is no God, no reality, other than themselves. But, for God, this is a relationship. It means God suffers with and for this people. God suffers with and for this world. And after the prophet’s devastating words of judgment, exposing all this people’s betrayal, we hear in chapter 3 verse 8 this sweet, sweet word: “But wait for me.” God is not through with this people. God is not through with us. After this utter destruction, God will yet arise and this people shall be reborn – the world shall be reborn, born from above, born of God’s own Spirit. In chapter 3 verse 15 the prophet bids the broken people to rejoice for “The LORD has annulled the judgment against you.” After death comes resurrection.
God is not the taskmaster with a ruler waiting to smack our knuckles; God is the parent willing to lock the door and let the child go to prison if he will not enter rehab. A terribly painful choice. But a redeeming one. One that will, eventually, bring the child home.
“Wait for me,” says the LORD, “Wait for me.”