Last week, I finally finished reading through the Old Testament. I’ve been at it for a few years, which probably says something about my diligence. It was not easy, especially the last few books, which can get repetitive. God is very angry and will punish His people for their sins.
And yet the Old Testament ends on such a hopeful note:
“Remember the Law of Moses, My servant, Which I commanded him in Horeb for all Israel, With the statutes and judgments. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet Before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord. And he will turn The hearts of the fathers to the children, And the hearts of the children to their fathers, Lest I come and strike the earth with a curse.”
Malachi 4:4-6 (NKJV)
Reading the Old Testament might be likened to viewing God through a kaleidoscope. We see lots of bits and pieces, and as we turn it this way and that, it changes. The one thing we can never see is the whole. It can create significant dissonance, trying to reconcile the bits and pieces. Much like God.
The God revealed in the Old Testament is frequently one many people wish to avoid. He is petulant, angry, direct, vengeful, and terribly forbidding. Many people are put off by Him. His judgmental behavior and apparent willingness to sanction the deaths of millions of people is a primary objection to belief in and acceptance of Him.
The contrast with the New Testament is stark. Jesus reveals a far friendlier face of the Almighty. As is often presented, Jesus is all about love, as opposed to the judgmental God of the Old Testament. We are living in the time of grace. We look down on those who cling to enforcing the old rules as hypocritical Pharisees, and who can find fault with that?
Yet it is our very gleefulness in rebuking others for judgmentalism that gives the lie that there are two different Gods, and that we can choose which one to believe. For in casting our stones, we too, are judging, often with a passion matching an Old Testament prophet. If we look deeper into both Testaments, we can see that this apparent dichotomy permeates the whole of Scripture.
If Jesus is the face of God’s love and acceptance, let’s start with an obvious exception, Jesus’ running exchanges with the Pharisees. He judges, and is harsh in His rebukes. He will later turn the moneychangers and sacrifice salesmen out of the Temple with a whip. Repeatedly, He urges faithfulness, accompanied with the warning that judgment is coming, a time when men shall be divided as a shepherd sorts a mixed flock. For those not destined for the Kingdom, there will be “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Jesus has come, He tells us, for Judgment.
Turning to the broader New Testament, Ananias and Sapphira die suddenly and dramatically for lying about giving the whole of the proceeds from a sale of land. (Acts) Peter tells both of them that they have sinned against God, whereupon they die. Peter later calls out Simon the Sorcerer for attempting to buy the power of God. Simon responds in terror. (Acts 8:9-24). A few chapters later, Herod, having put James to death and Peter in prison, receives the adulation of the crowds in Tyre and Sidon, who proclaim him a god. He is suddenly consumed by worms, in a manner worthy of an Indiana Jones film, because he does not dispute this claim to divinity. (Acts 12:19b-24) Still later, Paul’s shipwreck holds echoes of Jonah’s encounter with the great fish.
So what of the Old Testament? Does God show a loving face? There are many passages in the Psalms that speak of God’s love and tenderness. In the prophets, His anger with Israel speaks more of the anger of a spurned lover. He relents of demonstrating His anger at the Israelites’ idolatry in erecting the Golden Calf at the pleading of Moses. (Exodus 32:7-14) He tells the exiles, who have just heard the Law for the first time, that they should not weep, but eat and drink and to take joy in the Lord their God. (Nehemiah 8) And what of His concern for even the cattle of Nineveh? (Jonah 4:11)
So God is both loving and judging. They seem to be an inescapable essence of His Character. I’m not sure if they can be readily reconciled. The stock answer would be to say that they are reconciled in Christ, but He, too, exhibits the same character. I have no answers myself. I only know that God shows both.
Thinking a bit more about it, this kaleidoscopic impression of God actually makes some sense. There are parts of me that are warm and loving (sometimes, at least), and others that can be very judgmental. There is no one consistent thread running through them, except that they are all me. If one wants to look at titles, I am Son, Husband, Brother, Nephew, Cousin, Neighbor, Co-Worker, Employee, etc. Sometimes I am several of these things at once. Is God not the same, though we separate out the personas of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost? We are made in His image.
Re-reading these passages, what I see is a God who is very much alive. He loves with passion. He expects much, but He also gives much. He refuses ready categorization, and is full of surprises. One of the curiously common phrases in the Bible is that God is slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Ex. 34:6, Num. 14:18m Ps. 86:5, 15, Ps. 103:8, Ps. 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2) I think God realizes that we can easily forget His grace in the face of His wrath.
So, does God wear two faces, Janus-like in His dealings with men? It can seem that way. Justice and Mercy are held in tension, and must remain that way, until all things pass away and we shall know perfectly. For now, we rest in faith upon his goodness, remembering He with whom we contend.