Kindness and Severity
“Behold then the kindness and severity of God…”
Every artwork that I embark on teaches me something new about the God and His ways. This happens as I dive into God’s Word. Reading the Scriptures is a primary necessity to compose an accurate, insightful painting. I mine the Bible for gems related to the subject matter at hand. And some of those treasures I find stick with me.
Forever imprinted upon my mind is the way Mary is always found at the Lord’s feet in each of the three times she is mentioned in the gospels. Likewise, Martha is always a woman of action. I will always remember how I read of the lamb caught by its horns in the thicket and how the Holy Spirit illumined my eyes to see Christ, crowned with His own thorns, in the narrative of Abraham and Isaac. A holy wonder will always be present when I consider the Road to Emmaus narrative: what specific passages did Jesus tell the men about as they walked along the road together?
And as I painted “The Exodus,” yet another truth leapt off the pages of the Scriptures into my heart. That truth: God’s kindness and His severity.
Two Traits in Balance
As time marched forward from the Exodus, and the Jews’ history became one of high points and low valleys. They were given new leaders and their Promised Land. Periods of obedience were intermingled with (and often overshadowed by) periods of disobedience. When key leaders spoke and prayed at seminal times of national history, the most prominent features in their exhortations and prayers were God’s kindness and severity.
Moses, for example, proclaimed both the gentle care and fierce judgment of God when he was passing the torch of leadership onto the next generation. He wrote a song and declared these two themes within it in Deuteronomy 32. His sung oratory sounds like an emotive sonata from Beethoven, full of joys and sorrows, full of tension and release. One moment, the kindness of God rises to the fore, the next moment, severity takes its place. The two continue, as if dancing together in rhythm, throughout the entire song of Moses.
This theme rises again in Psalm 136, a beautiful call-and-response song of proclamation. What is being proclaimed? The kindness and severity of God. As the leader rehearses the wondrous deeds and even fearsome judgments of God, the people respond by saying, “His love endures forever.” The Hebrew word translated “love” in these lines is chesed. Translators believe it contains all the ideas of love, lovingkindness, and mercy.
When the ark was brought into the newly built temple, Solomon’s beautiful prayer in 1 Kings 8 repeats the common refrain of kindness and severity. Nehemiah continued with the two-toned anthem as he led the returned exiles in a time of repentance (Nehemiah 9).
God’s kindness, compassion, and mercy are balanced beautifully with his wrath, judgment, and severity. They are spoken of in the same breath and considered of equal importance.
Yesterday, Today, Forever
Modern observers in the West are seeing these twin truths eroding before their very eyes. Some consider the severity of God no longer applicable in an age of grace. Many voices are attempting to drown out the Biblical witness to severity with their own proclamations of God’s monolithic meekness and gentleness.
However, Jesus Himself did not shy away from the language of severity and judgment. In fact, there is no Biblical witness that spoke more of the severity of God in judgment than the Son of God! He declared these two aspects of God’s character more often than anybody else. And we are told that Jesus, whose willing submission even to death on a cross exemplified His life 2,000 years ago, will come back one day and “tread the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God” (Revelation 19:15).
The Scriptures, therefore, testify to these polar truths from beginning to end. God was full of just wrath in the Old Testament, prior to Christ, and the same God exists now. He will be the same God for all of the church age. Until all of His enemies are under His feet, He will act severely in the pursuit of justice and righteousness. The God who compassionately heard His people’s cries and meted out judgment on their oppressors is the same God who still hears His people’s cries and will one day have a robe filled the blood of His enemies. Plagues of judgment gave birth to the nation of Israel. Plagues of judgment in the book of Revelation will bring forth the coming of the Kingdom of God. Our God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and we would do well not to forget it.
No Detriment to Deity
Is severity and judgment a black mark on the character of God? One doesn’t get that perspective from reading the wrath narratives of Scripture. Rather, when we are tempted to think that God is unjust, the source of that inclination is only ourselves. We, who are in rebellion to God. We, who think ourselves the center of the universe. The final arbiters of righteousness. We erroneously think we are seated on the judgment throne.
In truth, not one of those statements accurately represents humanity, the world, or the character of God. He alone sits in a position of moral purity upon His throne of justice. God is the only one who can always tell the difference between right and wrong. He is the only one who has never committed a sin, and therefore can judge the world with perfect justice.
Therefore, we glory not only in God’s kindness, but in His perfect justice. In times of wrath displayed, we bow our heads and agree with Moses that God “is the Rock; His works are perfect and all His ways are just” (Deuteronomy 32:4). In His wrath, as in His kindness, He is worthy of praise. His wrath is no detriment to His character; rather, it is a fearsome, wonderful facet of his character.
And we know that the God who compassionately heard His people’s cries and meted out judgment on their oppressors is the same God who still hears His people’s cries and will one day have a robe filled with the blood of His enemies. Plagues of judgment gave birth to the nation of Israel. In a day yet to come, plagues of judgment will bring forth the coming of the Kingdom of God.
Our God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and we would do well not to forget it. No apologies, only holy fear and grateful praise.