In his book on the psalms, C.S. Lewis commented on the difference between the Jewish view of judgment and the Christian view. The Christian, he said, thinks of judgment as a criminal trial with himself in the dock. The Jewish mentality thought of it as a civil proceeding, with himself as the plaintiff. This explains why the Christian instinct is to avert judgment, to seek a solution for it, which of course is ultimately found in the cross. The Jewish instinct is to pray for judgment to come, for God to intervene, and the sooner the better.
Because we are not Marcionite, we don’t have to choose between these — they are both in the Bible, and they are both in the Bible for us to emulate, each in their place. It is all there for a reason. Because Christians, for the last century or two, have greatly neglected the singing of the psalms, the “Christian” perspective has gotten dangerously out of whack, and we need to learn how to pray for God’s judgment to come and vindicate us.
I have commented before that we must not let mercy work slide into justice work, because sinners demanding justice is always a dangerous and dicey business. But this observation is made by a Christian for Christians. There is an important sense in which judgment (justice) and mercy are all the same work, and to call for mercy is to call for judgment. There will be more on this when we consider the pitfalls of pseudo-mercy. But for now, God does hear the cry of the plaintiff, and He does intervene with judgment on the oppressor that amounts to mercy for the oppressed. This is a corollary to the point made earlier about God as the divine warrior. Warfare at its best is a court case that really gets down to business.
Sometimes these things are best said by a string of verses.
“I will sing of mercy and judgment: unto thee, O LORD, will I sing” (Ps. 101:1).
“Great are thy tender mercies, O LORD: quicken me according to thy judgments” (Ps. 119:156).
“And in mercy shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hasting righteousness” (Is. 16:5).
“And therefore will the LORD wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him” (Is. 30:18).
“And I will betroth thee unto me for ever; yea, I will betroth thee unto me in righteousness, and in judgment, and in lovingkindness, and in mercies” (Hos. 2:19).
“Therefore turn thou to thy God: keep mercy and judgment, and wait on thy God continually” (Hos. 12:6).
“Thus speaketh the LORD of hosts, saying, Execute true judgment, and shew mercy and compassions every man to his brother” (Zech. 7:9).
“Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith: these ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone” (Matt. 23:23).
Clearly, in God’s lexicon, these words go well together. But when the sinfulness of man disconnects mercy and judgment, God prefers mercy, as we have already noted (James 2:13). Usually when the two are detached it is because somebody zealous for something or other has come to believe that God prefers judgment to mercy. But actually God wants the throne established on the foundation of mercy, so that the judgments from that throne will be according to His goodness and kindness both. It is not possible to seek right judgment unless the throne is built on mercy (Is. 16:5).
One of the most prominent features of God’s judgments, as Scripture describes them, when they are finally manifested, is their topsy-turvy nature. We all thought we knew what was going on, but it turns out we didn’t. When the Lord steps in to render judgment, to settle all our arguments, and to straighten out every crooked thing, the key responses will be first, surprise, and secondly, grateful acknowledgement that the Lord has rendered true justice. “Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth: With righteousness shall he judge the world, And the people with equity“(Ps 98:9). The judge of the whole earth will in fact do right. But when He does, there will be surprises.
The guy zealous for the concerns of the poor (Jn. 12:5) turns out to have had his hands in the money bag (Jn. 12:6). The great martyr after whom we named our mercy ministry turns out to have been nothing but a spiritual blowhard (1 Cor. 13:3). One of the kingdom’s great philanthropists will turn out to have been a Marine Corps captain in Iraq (Luke 7:5). Those astonished at a negative judgment against them don’t understand it (Matt. 25:41-46). But those who receive a favorable judgment are just as astonished (Matt. 25:34-40). Yabbut, they say.
So when God renders His judgments, we will be astonished. But we will also see and confess the purity and rightness of those judgments. For those who love the Lord in truth, our astonishment will not be an astonishment of despair.
God’s thoughts are not like ours (Is. 55:8). The things we tend to praise, and extol, and highlight in our newsletters are things that God finds destable (Luke 16:15). And the things we believed to be insignificant and trivial will be seen to have had great worth in God’s sight. We gave that cup of cold water in Christ’s name, and had completely forgotten about it. But then it comes up at the judgment (Mark 9:41). The patient Christian woman married to an insufferable man turns out to have been adorned with jewels that only God could see, and which He valued highly (1 Pet. 3:4), and He will be sure to tell us all about it. I am reminded of that great passage in The Great Divorce when the narrator sees a woman in glory so magnificent that he thinks she must be the Lord’s mother, or someone very important indeed. It turns out to have been a woman married to an impossible man who fed stray cats out her back door.