The way to peace
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Photos of wartime atrocities brought the Ukrainian war into sharp focus last month. The most shocking aspect of them may be that we are shocked. If there ever was a war conducted in a genteel manner, according to rules of engagement, I haven’t heard of it. War brings out, they say, the best and the worst in people—mostly the worst. The Red Army sweeping through Germany in the last days of World War II committed crimes so notorious Germans to this day shudder at the memory. The Russians considered it payback, only double.
“Whoever is found will be thrust through, and whoever is caught will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses will be plundered and their wives ravished.” That’s the Lord’s judgment on Assyria, predicted by Isaiah (13:15-16). Has anything changed? All God has to do is loosen restraint for human bloodlust to take over, and over and over. Violence is a recurring theme in the Old Testament, and the book of Isaiah is as representative as any. Judgment alternates with mercy throughout, sentences of doom with cries of anguish—because Isaiah reveals what we can honestly call God’s great dilemma.
He loves us, but He can’t tolerate us.
“Come, let us reason together.” He speaks to His own people who have known Him, or known of Him, for roughly 700 years. But reason won’t change them, or threats, or delivering on the threats, or delivery from the threats. While thinking of Yahweh, in Westminster Confession terms, of His self-sufficiency, wisdom, power, holiness, goodness, justice, and truth, we don’t feel His emotion.
But Isaiah and the other prophets reveal a heart laid bare. They tell Israel’s history from God’s perspective, in terms our limited minds can barely grasp. Like smoke and lightning on Mount Sinai, we see it in flashes of rage and anguish, love and pleading, as if the Lord was showing His human side before appearing as human. But God is one, without “sides” or moods. As humans are rational and emotional creatures, He is reason and emotion, perfectly integrated with holiness.
Thus, He loves us, but He can’t tolerate us.
The descriptions of judgment are lacerating and harsh; why do we need to read them? Possibly to remind us that where human nature is concerned, nothing has changed. War, wherever it breaks out, shows us to be the same savages who ripped up pregnant women in Assyria. Throughout the Old Testament record our righteous Judge swings between wrath and mercy, sometimes in the same passage. (“How can I give you up?” he cries out in Hosea 11.)
The cycle of wrath and restoration plays out again and again, from Exodus through Judges, from the checkered catalog of kings through the outcry of prophets, long after any of us would have written off the creation project for good. Humans just can’t seem to get it right. If not wrecking cities, we’re wrecking relationships and standards and calling evil good.
But, as hopeless as our self-destruction may seem, something has changed. Isaiah foresees the Lord planting another vineyard (27:2-6) in some unspecified time. Unlike the vineyard he ripped up in chapter 5, “I keep it night and day; I have no wrath.” He will protect it from invaders—or, if the invaders themselves experience a change of heart,
… let them lay hold of my protection;
let them make peace with me,
let them make peace with me.
What has changed is the way to peace, secured by the Prince of Peace. The arm of the Lord, previously stretched out in judgment over all the nations, is laid bare to receive their wounds, “and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God’’ (Isaiah 52:10). Abel’s blood still cries out, but if we listen closely, we hear a louder voice and a better word (Hebrews 12:24): the solution of an age-old dilemma.
He loves us, full stop.
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