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When we speak about the justice of God, we have in mind the idea that God always acts in perfect conformity and harmony with his own character. Some suggest that justice is thus a synonym for righteousness. Whatever God is, says, or does, by virtue of the fact that it is God, makes it righteous. Right and wrong are simply, and respectively, what God either commands or forbids. In other words, God doesn't do or command something because it is right. It is right because it is done or commanded by God. Righteousness or rectitude or good do not exist independently of God as a law or rule or standard to which God adheres or conforms. Rather, righteousness or rectitude or good are simply God acting and speaking.

Justice, therefore, is God acting and speaking in conformity with who he is. To say that God is just is to say that he acts and speaks consistently with whatever his righteous nature requires. To be unjust is to act and speak inconsistently with whatever his righteous nature requires. That, of course, is a contradiction. That would be to assert that the righteous God acts unrighteously. By definition, that is impossible.

Our primary concern here is with what has been called the retributive justice of God, or that which God's nature requires him to require of his creatures. Retributive justice is that in virtue of which God gives to each of us that which is our due. It is that in virtue of which God treats us according to our deserts. Retributive justice is thus somewhat synonymous with punishment. This is a necessary expression of God's reaction to sin and evil. Retributive justice is not something which God may or may not exercise, as is the case with mercy, love, and grace. Retributive justice, i.e., punishment for sin, is a matter of debt. It is something from which God cannot refrain doing lest he violate the rectitude and righteousness of his nature and will. Sin must be punished. It is a serious misunderstanding of Christianity and the nature of forgiveness to say that believers are those whose guilt is rescinded and whose sins are not punished. Our guilt and sin were fully imputed to our substitute, Jesus, who suffered the retributive justice in our stead.

An excellent illustration of this principle is found in Psalm 103:10. I have defined retributive justice as that in God's nature which requires him to deal with us according to our sins and reward us according to our iniquities. But in Ps. 103:10 we are told that God "has NOT dealt with us according to our sins, NOR rewarded us according to our iniquities!" Indeed, according to v. 12, we are told that "as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us." Does this mean, then, that God has simply ignored the righteous requirements of his nature, that he has dismissed or set aside the dictates of divine justice? Certainly not. See Romans 3:21-26. All sin is punished, either in the person of the sinner or in the person of his/her substitute. God's retributive justice was satisfied for us in the person of Christ, who endured the full measure of punishment which the justice and righteousness of God required.

That attribute in God's character that expresses itself in retributive justice is also called wrath.


A.        The reality of wrath (Nahum 1:2-3a,6-8)


The doctrine or concept of wrath is thought by many to be beneath God. C. H. Dodd, for example, speaks for many when he says that the notion of divine wrath is archaic and that the biblical terminology refers to no more than "an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe." In other words, for such as Dodd, divine wrath is an impersonal force operative in a moral universe, not a personal attribute or disposition in the character of God. Wrath may well be ordained and controlled by God, but is clearly no part of him, as are love, mercy, kindness, etc.

Clearly, Dodd and others misunderstand divine wrath. It is not the loss of self-control or the irrational and capricious outburst of anger. But divine wrath is not to be thought of as a celestial bad temper or God lashing out at those who "rub Him the wrong way." Divine wrath is righteous antagonism toward all that is unholy. It is the revulsion of God's character to that which is a violation of God's will. Indeed, one may speak of divine wrath as a function of divine love! For God's wrath is His love for holiness and truth and justice. It is because God passionately loves purity and peace and perfection that He reacts angrily toward anything and anyone who defiles them. Packer explains:

"Would a God who took as much pleasure in evil as He did in good be a good God? Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in His world be morally perfect? Surely not. But it is precisely this adverse reaction to evil, which is a necessary part of moral perfection, that the Bible has in view when it speaks of God's wrath" (Knowing God, 136-37).

Leon Morris agrees:

"Then, too, unless we give a real content to the wrath of God, unless we hold that men really deserve to have God visit upon them the painful consequences of their wrongdoing, we empty God's forgiveness of its meaning. For if there is no ill desert, God ought to overlook sin. We can think of forgiveness as something real only when we hold that sin has betrayed us into a situation where we deserve to have God inflict upon us the most serious consequences, and that is upon such a situtation that God's grace supervenes. When the logic of the situation demands that He should take action against the sinner, and He yet takes action for him, then and then alone can we speak of grace. But there is no room for grace if there is no suggestion of dire consequences merited by sin" (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 185).

B.        The vocabulary of wrath

a.         thumos - is a word derived from thuo which originally meant "a violent movement of air, water, the ground, animals, or men" (TDNT, III:167). It came to signify the panting rage which wells up in a man's body and spirit. Thus thumos came to mean passionate anger, arising and subsiding quickly. It occurs twice in Luke, five times in Paul, once in Hebrews, and ten times in Revelation. Outside of Revelation it is used for God's wrath only once (Rom. 2:8). In Revelation it refers to God's wrath seven times, six of which have the qualifying phrase "of God" (14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1; 19:15).

b.         orge - is a word much more suited to a description of God's wrath in the NT. It is derived from orgao, which speaks of "growing ripe" for something or "getting ready to bear". It thus gave orge the meaning of a settled disposition or emotion arising out of God's nature. It is specifically said to be "of God" in John 3:36 (on the lips of Jesus); Rom. 1:18; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; Rev. 19:15. We read of the "wrath of the Lamb" in Rev. 6:16. See also Rev. 6:17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19.

See esp. Rev. 19:15 where John speaks of "the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty," where "fierce" is a translation of thumos and "wrath" is a translation of orge.

C.        The present revelation of wrath

We read in Romans 1:18 that God's wrath is being revealed (present tense). Where or how? Options: 1) a futuristic present, hence referring to the final judgment; 2) the disease and disasters of earthly life; 3) given the parallel with v. 17 some have argued that just as the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel so too is the wrath of God (i.e., the gospel is the proclamation of both grace and judgment, mercy and wrath); or more probably 4) God's wrath is revealed in the content of vv. 24-32. I.e., "the wrath of God is now visible in His abandonment of humanity to its chosen way of sin and all its consequences" (Moo, 96).

"The wrath which is being revealed," writes Cranfield, "is no nightmare of an indiscriminate, uncontrolled, irrational fury, but the wrath of the holy and merciful God called forth by, and directed against" men's ungodliness (sin is an attack on God's majesty) and unrighteousness (sin is a violation of God's will) (111).

D.        The future revelation of wrath

See Romans 5:9; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 2 Thess. 1:10; Rev. 14:9-12.

C.        An Example of Divine Justice and Wrath

See Deut. 7:1-11; 20:16-18; Joshua 6:21; 8:24-29; 11:10-15 (also Ex. 23:31-32; 34:12-16).

How do we explain the fact that God evidently commanded Israel to exterminate the entire population of Jericho: men, women, and children? Numerous attempts have been made to deal with this. For example:

(1) Some argue that the decision was Joshua's, which indicates that Israel was simply at a very primitive stage of development. The OT itself is thus a record of a crude, warlike tribe of Hebrews who were simply fighting for survival. But: read Deut. 7:1-2 and Joshua 10:40.

(2) Others insist that the God of the OT is not the God and Father of Jesus in the NT. The OT God is wrathful, vengeful, evil, and the NT God is loving and compassionate. But: Jesus himself identified the Father as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," not to mention the countless references in the NT to the wrath and righteous judgment of God.

(3) Some simply can't entertain the thought of God ordering such slaughter, so they deny that the OT is the inspired word of God. It is a merely human record of events in which a barbaric people tried to justify ruthless policies by appealing to divine sanction. But: Jesus' attitude to the OT must be noted (see Mt. 5; John 10; also 2 Tim. 3:16-17).

There is no escaping the fact that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ ordered and sanctioned the extermination of the Canaanite people. Why? Can such a God be worshiped and adored?

We read about the "ban", i.e., the herem, a word that literally means "to separate". This was the practice in which people hostile to God were designated as "off-limits" to Israel and were to be separated or devoted to judgment and destruction. See Josh. 6:17,18,21.

How do we explain this? If such were to occur today, Israel would be called before the World Court or the United Nations and charged with barbaric cruelty, unprovoked aggression, and would no doubt be condemned and isolated, perhaps even invaded by other nations. Our answer begins with seven observations.

First, Israel was not commanded to do this because of any moral superiority. See Deut. 9:5. Indeed, the same fate was threatened against Israel if she were to rebel (Deut. 8:19-20).

Second, the Canaanites were the most depraved, debauched, degenerate people of the ancient world. They regularly engaged in religious prostitution in which people fornicated with cult priests and priestesses, hoping thereby to encourage the gods to copulate and bring fruitfulness to the land. They practiced child sacrifice (infants and young children were sacrificed to the fire of the god Molech). They also gave themselves over to the sexual sins listed in Lev. 18. Thus, the Canaanites received everything they deserved. They received justice, Israel received mercy, but no one received injustice.

Third, the judgment came only after remarkable and gracious patience and opportunity for repentance. See Gen. 15:16. God had given the people in Canaan centuries to repent! But they presumed on God's patience and took it as indifference and indulged in even greater sin. See Joshua 2:10-14; 5:1; Jer. 18:7-10.

Fourth, the survival of both Israel and the world was at stake because of the pervasive and perverting influence of such sin. See Deut. 7:1-4. We know, in fact, that on those occasions when Israel did not obey God's order to exterminate the Canaanites, the latter polluted the former. The kings of Judah practiced child sacrifice (2 Kings 16:3; 21:6). Sexual perversion was rampant (2 Kings 23:7). Israel practiced magic and necromancy (2 Kings 21:6), and even murdered the prophets (Jer. 26:20-23). Other examples could be given. The point is this: God as the physician of mankind occasionally finds it necessary to amputate a leg that is gangrene in order to save the rest of the body.

Fifth, think of the flood of Noah! There we see the extermination of virtually the entire human race because of their sin, with the exception of eight souls.

Sixth, what God did in Canaan and Jericho is no different from he at other times does through providential disasters such as famine, floods, pestilence, tornados, earthquakes, etc.

Seventh, why do we object to God doing during history what we agree he will do at the end of history? If you think what God did at Jericho was unjust, what will you do with hell?

Many, though, are still uncomfortable with what they read in Deut. and Joshua. This is often because it assumed that all people have a fundamental right to life which even God himself must honor. Note well: we must distinguish between the "right to life" referred to in the pro-life movement and that which I describe here. No human has the right to take another human life unlawfully. The unborn child has a right, under law, to protection from murder. When a fetus dies from spontaneous miscarriage, we don't charge God with murder. Life belongs to God, not to man. When God gives life, we can't take it (except when Scripture says so: e.g., war, self-defense, capital punishment). But God can do with life whatever he pleases.

So we ask: "How could a just and loving God cause the extermination of innocent people in Jericho?" Answer: "He couldn't! He didn't!" The fact is, not one innocent person in Jericho died. See Gen. 18:23-25. Let me illustrate this point by directing your attention to the reality of OT death penalty.

In the Mosaic code, people could be executed for adultery, blasphemy, incorrigible juvenile delinquency, breaking the Sabbath, homosexuality, rape, just a few of the 15-20 crimes for which one would suffer loss of life. But contrary to widespread perception, the Mosaic Law actually represents a massive reduction in capital offenses from the original list. As R. C. Sproul puts it, "the OT code represents a bending over backwards of divine patience and forbearance. The OT law is one of astonishing grace" (The Holiness of God, p. 148).

The original law of the universe is that "the soul that sins, it shall die." Life is a divine gift, not a debt. Sin brings the loss of the gift of life. Once a person sins he forfeits any claim on God to human existence. The fact that we continue to exist after sinning is owing wholly to divine mercy and gracious longsuffering.

We recoil and are aghast at what we are convinced was undue cruelty and severity in the OT law. Why? Because we are twisted and confused in our thinking. We think we deserve to live and that God owes us life. The fact that God made only 15-20 sins capital offenses was a remarkable act of mercy, compassion and grace. Why? Because it would have been perfectly just and fair and righteous had he made every sin a capital offense. The Mosaic stipulations regarding the death penalty, therefore, were remarkably lenient and gracious.]

I would suggest, therefore, that the mystery in Jericho is not that God would exterminate them all, but that he didn't exterminate them all sooner than he did! We have arrogantly presumed on a mythical "right to life" and thus are shocked by death.

Read Luke 13:1-5. The cry is: "How could God let innocent bystanders die this way?" Jesus might have responded: "I'm so sorry. It was an accident. My Father was tired from a long night of running the world and he momentarily fell asleep. Or maybe he was counting hairs on heads or watching sparrows fall or busy on the other side of the globe." No. Rather, he says: "Unless you repent, you too will perish!" In other words, they asked the wrong question. They should have asked: "Why didn't that tower fall on me?"

The fact that we draw breath this moment is an act of mercy,not justice.