The following is a post written by a guest author, the Rev. Josh Rieger of Riverside PCA in Beaumont, TX.
The Great Sequoias are one of the most majestic things on earth. The grow to enormous sizes. They live for millennia. But as amazing as they are, they require fire to reproduce. Apart from forest fires their cones won’t open and release the seedlings, the ground won’t be clear from underbrush and leaves for the seeds to germinate in the soil, and light and water will not be able to reach the forest floor to give them the proper conditions to grow.
This is remarkably similar to the way we see God’s judgment used in the Scriptures. In Hebrews God tells us that “for the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Heb. 12:11, ESV). But this is also what we see modeled throughout the Scriptures. When judgment is threatened or pronounced, apart from the final judgment, one of God’s key purposes is always to bring people to repentance. Think of Jonah who preached “Yet forty days, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” (Jonah 3:4, ESV), only for his pronouncement of judgment to be used of God to turn the Ninevites to repentance and life, delivering them from judgment. And Jonah knew this would happen. He tells God later, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (Jonah 4:2, ESV).
This came to mind recently when studying Luke 11-12. At the end of Luke 11 Jesus pronounces 6 woes, or curses, on the pharisees and lawyers for their hypocritical religious practices that are not only a demonstration of their own idolatry, but that are also leading the people to destruction. Reading these 6 woes ought to remind us of Isaiah, as it doubtless did the pharisees and lawyers who knew God’s Word so well.
In Isaiah 5 God also pronounces 6 woes on His people for their sin. He warns them of the coming judgement because they have turned from Him to idolatry of all sorts. But then, just verses later, the holy prophet of God, Isaiah, goes into the temple to worship the Lord. Surely Isaiah, God’s servant, in his holiness, is the counterpoint to Israel’s wickedness. But as he comes face to face with the holiness and majesty of God, we instead see Isaiah pronounce a 7th woe on himself for his own defilement. However, in response to Isaiah’s confession and repentance, what do we see happen? God brings the fire of the altar to Isaiah, but instead of the fire punishing him, it instead cleanses him from unrighteousness. It brings life, like the forest fires do to the Great Sequoias.
Later on, in Isaiah 28-33, God again pronounces a series of 6 woes against Israel (28:1; 29:1, 15; 30:1; 31:1; 33:1). For some reason the ESV translates 5 of these 6 woes as “ah” rather than woe. But they are woes nonetheless. After these 6 woes it is not the servant of God, Isaiah, that shows up, again needing to be cleansed of his own defilement. Instead, starting in Isaiah 40, it is the Suffering Servant, the Messiah that comes. And he doesn’t need cleansing, and yet he receives judgment. He receives the death that the children of Israel deserve, in their place, and He conquers death giving all those who repent and turn to Him life and hope in the wake of a pronouncement of judgment. They don’t face the threatened and pronounced judgment because He has taken it in their place.
This is a great hope when we are reading the 6 woes of Luke 11. We ought to read in the hypocrisy of the pharisees and lawyers something of ourselves. We are all hypocrites. Every one of us practices the hypocrisy that they are castigated for by Christ. In fact, Jesus goes to great lengths to warn the disciples about the same thing in the following verses (12:1-2). Every one of us ought to read the woes against the pharisees and tremble as we recognize that the judgment pronounced on them we also ought to face. But, unlike Isaiah in Isaiah 6, there is no 7th pronouncement of woe. Jesus is not a servant of God who needs to turn and confess His own sin. Instead, he is the Suffering Servant of God, the Messiah, who has no sin. And yet He was made to be sin for our sake, that we might be the righteousness of God in Him (2 Cor. 5:21).
We ought to keep this in mind every time we see warnings and pronouncements of judgment in God’s Word. Remember this when we see pronouncements of judgment for the sins we daily commit, for the sins of the people in the midst of whom we dwell. These are given to us as opportunities for confession and repentance that are life giving. Because God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He relents from judgment.