Throughout the Bible, there are many references to the judgement of God, and examples of His judgement. This paper considers the effect of the visibility of judgement. Examples are shown in the Bible of where judgement was immediate, and of where it was delayed. It is seen that the wrath of God is a valuable tool as a warning, but one that we should rightly be afraid of. In its absence, we can rejoice in the mercy of God, but need to be cautious at the lesser appearance of discipline.
2. The Reign of Ahaziah
The second book of Kings opens just after the death of Ahab at about 850BC. Ahab had been king over Israel for about twenty years, and like the other kings of the divided Israel, was wicked in the sight of God. Ahab perhaps stands out as one of the kings who were most prominent in their disregard for God. It was he and his wife Jezebel that received much of the attention of Elijah (1 Kings 17) in his attempts of reform. The confrontation on Mount Carmal is perhaps the most graphic example of this. The book of Kings introduces Ahab as the most evil ruler to date,
1 Kings 16:30.: Now Ahab the son of Omri did evil in the sight of the LORD, more than all who were before him. 31. And it came to pass, as though it had been a trivial thing for him to walk in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, that he took as wife Jezebel the daughter of Ethbaal, king of the Sidonians; and he went and served Baal and worshiped him. NKJV
After Ahab died, his son Ahaziah reigned over Israel. Ahaziah reigned for only two years (1 Kings 22:51). There is not a lot said about this Ahaziah, but the Kings record reveals some detail of his death. The parallel record, 2 Chronicles 20:35, only mentions him in passing, claiming that he “acted very wickedly.” Like his father Ahab, Ahaziah was a worshipper of the god Baal. In the book of Kings, he is described as being as evil as his father,
1 Kings 22:52.: He (Ahaziah) did evil in the sight of the LORD, and walked in the way of his father and in the way of his mother and in the way of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin; 53. for he served Baal and worshiped him, and provoked the LORD God of Israel to anger, according to all that his father had done. NKJV
This passage makes a number of claims about the evil of the kings of Israel. Firstly, Ahaziah is accused of doing evil in the way of both of his parents, Ahab and Jezebel. Given that these have already been described as the most wicked that Israel had seen to date, this is strong statement. He also took after Jeroboam who is said here to have caused Israel to have sinned. It is significant that here we see a leader being accused of making the country sin. It could be claimed that all people are responsible for their own actions (Jas 1:14), but here we see that in addition the leaders also held a responsibility to their followers. The condemnation of Jeroboam is not only that he sinned himself, but that he caused the nation to sin.
Verse 53 is structured to present the reason why Ahaziah is accused of being evil. It says that he “did evil ... for he served Baal and worshiped him...” This infers that the biggest single reason for God's dissatisfaction in Ahaziah was that he served and worshipped Baal.
Baal is a Canaanite word which simply means “lord” or “master”. It also referred to a god of the Canaanites which was allegedly the son of Dagon, a god of agriculture. Baal, too, was an agriculture god, supposedly responsible for farms and crops. People worshipped these gods for a number of reasons, but there were two principle motivations; Firstly there was the regard for the god itself, where they would serve it so that they would get good crops. There were different gods for different parts of their lives, and they would serve them in an effort to ensure success. The second motivation was that the worship itself was made attractive in its own right. Baal worship tended to be a pleasurable experience with extensive feasting, dancing and prostitution.
Due to its attractive nature, not only the Canaanites, but also the Israelites were attracted to Baal worship. Ahab, and his wife Jezebel, had introduced it into mainstream culture in Israel, and in response had received anger from God. Ahaziah too, was classed as evil in the sight of God for his Baal worship.
The faith of Ahaziah was shown 2 Kings 1, after he fell out of a window,
2 Kings 1:2.: Now Ahaziah fell through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria, and was injured; so he sent messengers and said to them, "Go, inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, whether I shall recover from this injury." NKJV
For some reason, he had fallen out of the window and had sustained serious injuries. He was obviously concerned about his condition, and tried to get some reassurance from his gods. He send messengers to Ekron to enquire of Baal-Zebub, but the messengers were intercepted on the way by Elijah, who had been given a message from God for Ahaziah,
2 Kings 1:3.: But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, "Arise, go up to meet the messengers of the king of Samaria, and say to them, 'Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going to inquire of Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?' 4. "Now therefore, thus says the LORD: 'You shall not come down from the bed to which you have gone up, but you shall surely die.' " So Elijah departed. NKJV
In this passage, God spells out what Ahaziah had done. In choosing to send to Ekron, he had shown his allegiance. He had made a decision to trust in Baal-Zebub rather than the God of Israel. God highlights this, and then says that he will not recover, but instead would die from his injuries. The use of the word “therefore” in connecting the two ideas shows that the lack of recovery was due to Ahaziah's lack of trust in Yahweh, the God of Israel. Because he had put his trust and allegiance in Baal, he would have to rely on Baal to heal him.
The Companies of Fifty
After Ahaziah received the message through Elijah, he then called for Elijah to come to him. He obviously held a regard for Elijah, as he sent a company of 50 soldiers to meet him,
2 Kings 1:9.: Then the king sent to him a captain of fifty with his fifty men. So he went up to him; and there he was, sitting on the top of a hill. And he spoke to him: "Man of God, the king has said, 'Come down!' " 10. So Elijah answered and said to the captain of fifty, "If I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty men." And fire came down from heaven and consumed him and his fifty. NKJV
This was an amazing display from God. From the passage, the display of force appears unprovoked on the surface. It is evident, however, that the captain's use of the term “man of God” was not in true reverence. Instead Elijah chose to give a sign that he was really a man of God, and The sign was very severe. Not only did the fire consume the captain, but his fifty men as well. There doesn't appear to be any significant warning and opportunity for repentance, instead, the response was fast and decisive. This was a very powerful sign, to those who saw it, that the God of Israel was powerful, and that Elijah was his messenger.
This, however, did not deter the next captain of fifty that was sent from the king. If anything, this captain was more demanding than the first, commanding to Elijah, “come down quickly”. This captain and group then suffered the same fate. The king then sent a third delegation. This captain behaved somewhat differently,
2 Kings 1:13.: ... And the third captain of fifty went up, and came and fell on his knees before Elijah, and pleaded with him, and said to him: "Man of God, please let my life and the life of these fifty servants of yours be precious in your sight. NKJV
This time, God told Elijah that he could follow the messenger and see the king. Elijah then gave his previous message in person to the king, saying that he would surely die.
The Visibility of Punishment
One might ask what this episode actually achieved. The decisiveness of God would certainly be frowned on in today's climate. It was certainly very effective, however, as the third captain acted very differently to the first. There is nothing so effective as instant punishment to enforce discipline.
Consider the example of a line drawn on the ground. If there is a law to say that you are not permitted to walk over the line, some people might obey it and others may not. Imagine that that line and law had been in place for twenty years, and that the penalty for crossing the line would be death. To date, however, no-one had visibly died as a result of crossing it. Would people universally obey the law? It is unlikely. As an alternative, consider a line drawn on the ground along the edge of a tall cliff face. The law is now that you are not permitted to walk over the line, or else you suffer the punishment of death from falling off the cliff. In this case, people would, and do, almost universally obey the law.
The difference is that in the latter case, the punishment is very visible and fast. If the punishment is at all uncertain or some time in the future, people will not take it as seriously. This is readily observed in society. People will not tend to steal things while a security guard is watching. They will also avoid speeding when they see a speed camera. There are many examples of how laws are obeyed in the face of certain and visible punishment.
In the case of the third captain approaching Elijah, he knew of two other captains that had approached him, and out of that two, both had been killed together with their company. He could see the white line on the ground, and that it marked the edge of cliff face. He knew that he had to be careful, and that Elijah and his God were to be respected. This is why we see him pleading, “Man of God, please let my life and the life of these fifty servants of yours be precious in your sight.” The visible judgment had had an effect.
The impression this had on Ahaziah is not recorded, but shortly later he died according to the word of God. It is possible, however, that this incident had an impact on his successor. The next king of Israel, Jehoram (or Joram), was another son of Ahab. Although he was again considered evil, his rule is described slightly differently,
2 Kings 3:1.: Now Jehoram the son of Ahab became king over Israel at Samaria in the eighteenth year of Jehoshaphat king of Judah, and reigned twelve years. 2. And he did evil in the sight of the LORD, but not like his father and mother; for he put away the sacred pillar of Baal that his father had made. 3. Nevertheless he persisted in the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, who had made Israel sin; he did not depart from them. NKJV
The passage reads that his evil was not to the same depths of that of Ahab, and that the reason for that was that he had put away Baal. Just as Ahab had been described as the most evil to date for the sake of his Baal worship, Jehoram was described as being less evil for his lack of Baal worship. Perhaps he had learnt the lesson from the demise of his predecessor.
One of the early acts of King Joram was to ally with Judah and Edom to fight against the Moabites. After a week of traveling, there were in desperate need of water, and the kings became concerned. This was an ideal opportunity for Joram to follow the example of his predecessor and inquire of Baal for advice, but instead seems reluctant to do that. Instead the King of Judah takes the initiative and seeks for a prophet of Yahweh,
2 Kings 3:11.: But Jehoshaphat said, "Is there no prophet of the LORD here, that we may inquire of the LORD by him?" So one of the servants of the king of Israel answered and said, "Elisha the son of Shaphat is here, who poured water on the hands of Elijah." 12. And Jehoshaphat said, "The word of the LORD is with him." So the king of Israel and Jehoshaphat and the king of Edom went down to him. NKJV
While Joram was by no means righteous before God, the example of Ahaziah appears to have had at least a small impact. So in this case, it was only the visible judgment that had an impact.
3. The Wrath of God: Good or Bad?
To better apply the concepts of judgment, it is useful to consider a more recent example. While the incident over Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1) provides a New Testament example of visible judgment, it is perhaps more useful to consider an example where the judgment is deferred.
Eating and Drinking Judgment
Paul's record of the Last Supper in 1 Cor 11 is often quoted regarding the symbols of Jesus' body and blood, but it also contains words of judgment. While addressing the topic of the divisions among the Corinthians, Paul recounts the supper,
1 Cor 11:23.: For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus in the night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24. and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, This is My body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of Me. NASB
At this point, Jesus was directing his disciples to remember him through re-enacting this last meal before his death. The believers in Corinth were indeed following the example, but not all of them were doing it with the correct attitude. The passage goes on to reveal the seriousness of the act,
1 Cor 11:26.: For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord's death till He comes. 27. Therefore whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. NKJV
Paul introduced here the concept of eating and drinking in an “unworthy manner”. The result of doing this was to be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. The following verses clarify the warning,
1 Cor 11:28.: But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. 29. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks judgment to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. NKJV
We see that self-examination is necessary in order to avoid being in danger of judgment. It is interesting here to consider the form of judgment that is being spoken about. The following verse hints at some of the consequences,
1 Cor 11:30.: For this reason many are weak and sick among you, and many sleep. NKJV
The implication, however, is that the judgment was not directly visible and associated with the lack of self-examination. Compare this with the judgment on the captains of fifty who approached Elijah. In that case, they were consumed by fire from heaven. Consider the situation if there were a similar punishment for those who ate and drank in an unworthy way. Instead of being manifest in sickness and future judgment, a person would start to drink, and immediately a pillar of fire could descend and consume that person.
Would this alternate scenario change the tone of the gathering? Undoubtedly the remaining people would seriously take to heart the urge of Paul to examine themselves. This was precisely how the third captain of fifty learnt. Even if it were possible to shrug off the first incident, by the second or third the warning would be taken. The promise of future judgment simply does not carry the same emphasis as the immediate and visible.
Perhaps immediate judgment would be good thing. Surely it would prevent the wicked people from exerting an influence. If the wicked people were consumed with fire, not only would there be much fewer of them, but they would have much less influence. It's hard to gain respect and followers when you are visibly disciplined by a higher power. King David spoke words to this effect while he was being pursued by Saul. Many of the Psalms deal with the prosperity of the wicked,
Psa 59:1.: Deliver me from my enemies, O my God; Defend me from those who rise up against me. 2. Deliver me from the workers of iniquity, And save me from bloodthirsty men. ... 13. Consume them in wrath, consume them, That they may not be; And let them know that God rules in Jacob To the ends of the earth. Selah NKJV
Here David was requesting that these persecutors should be consumed. It is a common sentiment among the righteous that the workers of iniquity be punished. It is perhaps curious then, that when David was given the opportunity to execute “justice” on Saul, he did not take it. There is obviously another factor involved that determines God's policy.
By continuing the Corinthians passage, another aspect is exposed. To this point, judgment has been considered purely as a punishment, but it does have additional purpose,
1 Cor 11:31.: But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. 32. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world. NASB
So in this case, judgment was applied for discipline, to prevent a final condemnation. This is consistent with the third captain of fifty. His respect had been learned through judgment. In a similar manner, the believers of Jesus are judged to be disciplined. This is reinforced in Hebrews,
Heb 12:6.: For those whom the Lord loves he disciplines, and he scourges every son whom he receives. NASB
This shows that the believers enjoy the love of God through his discipline. The very necessity for the discipline is brought out in Romans, where we see that everyone is a sinner,
Rom 3:10.: As it is written: "There is none righteous, no, not one; 11. There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God. 12. They have all turned aside; ... 23. for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, NKJV
This shows that if there were instant, visible judgment and if the wicked did not prosper, we would all be in a poor state. It is only through the mercy and longsuffering of God that we have the opportunity to come to repentance. We are lucky then, that we do not see the type of judgment displayed on Ahaziah's men.
The above passages raise a number of related but conflicting issues. Firstly, the decisive action against the companies of Ahaziah indicates that immediate, visible judgment is a great aid in discipline. Hebrews shows that God does indeed discipline those people that he loves. In the end, however, it is not even in the interests of the righteous that God sends fire down from heaven to destroy the wicked. This is because, as we see in Romans, that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
If the hand of God is not visible in direct punishment, a valuable source of warning is missing. So because of our own sinful state, we are blessed and cursed by God's withholding of judgment. The blessing is that we are given the chance of life. The curse is that we have to live among the wicked and be exposed to their example. There is, however, a consolation. Even when punishment for wickedness is not visible in the present, there are examples in history that we can look to. In Corinthians, Paul considers the fate of the ancient nation of Israel,
1 Cor 10:1.: Moreover, brethren, I do not want you to be unaware that all our fathers were under the cloud, ... 5. But with most of them God was not well pleased, for their bodies were scattered in the wilderness. 6. Now these things became our examples, to the intent that we should not lust after evil things as they also lusted. 7. And do not become idolaters as were some of them. As it is written, "The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play." NKJV
Of those Israelites that escaped from Egypt through the miracles of God, almost all died in the wilderness. The reason that they died was that they lusted and worshipped idols. The criticism had been that they “sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play”. This form of idolatry is just as evident today as it was then, so it is well spoken that we take this as an example.
The third captain of fifty had an example. The example he had was the death of the two previous captains of fifty. We too have examples. We have the Israelites, we have Ahaziah, we have Ananias and Sapphira, and many others in the scriptures. But then the first captain of fifty also had examples, but they were too remote for him to take notice of them. We can also let these examples be remote, but in doing so we risk judgment on ourselves. Ultimately, we will learn from judgment, but we have the choice, it can be the judgment that was directed on someone else, or it will be directed on us.
1 John 5:21.: Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen. NKJV