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The Just Wrath of a Holy God
August 14, 2012
Yesterday I began a short series on the holiness of God and the existence of hell. In a day when hell is under attack, I want to show that any question of the existence of hell is not at heart a discussion of whether or not a place exists, but a question of the character of God. Yesterday I said that there are two ways God may react to human sin: with just wrath or with patient mercy.
Today I want to show that when the holy God comes into contact with human sin, he may react with just wrath. I want to look at the story of Uzzah (2 Samuel 6:1-7) to help us understand God’s justice. Let me give a bit of context: Many years ago the ark of the covenant had been captured and taken away. God’s people had broken covenant with God and he had given them over to their enemies. When he did that, the Phillistines attacked them, pillaged them, and captured the ark. When they captured the ark it was not just that they were taking away a religious icon. Instead, they were taking away the presence of God from among the Israelites and the Israelites understood that this meant that God had abandoned them and was no longer there in the midst of his people. Their sin was so great, so offensive to God, that God had turned his back on them for a time.
But that time lasted just a few months. After just a few months the ark was returned to the nation of Israel, but not to the tabernacle. Instead it sat for many years in the house of a man named Abinadab. And now, finally, as we come to 2 Samuel, King David has determined that he needs to return the ark to its home in Jerusalem. This is more than moving a box from one place to another. This is returning God to his central place in the hearts and minds of the people. It is a meaningful act that demonstrates the hearts of the people returning to God.
And so they load the ark on a brand new cart and as it goes down the road, there is dancing and singing and rejoicing. The people are celebrating the Lord’s return. God will once again dwell in the midst of his people. This is a great day! And then, suddenly, right in in the middle of all of the celebrating, everything goes silent. A man has fallen down beside the cart. He falls to the ground and is pronounced dead.
What has happened? As the cart is trundling along, the oxen suddenly stumble and for just a moment it seems like the ark might tip over. A man named Uzzah sees this happening. He puts his hand out to steady the ark, to keep it from falling to the mud. And in the instant he touches that ark, God strikes him dead.
Many years before God had commanded that no one was to touch the ark, ever. He had given very clear rules about how the ark was to be transported and taken care of. There was a whole family in Israel, the sons of Kohath, who were dedicated to this one task of transporting the ark and the other holy objects. Uzzah was from this family and the very first thing he would have learned about his task was this: Do not touch. You aren’t ever to touch it and you aren’t to put it on a cart. Uzzah and Abinadab and David know this. They are without excuse.
The ark was a holy object. It was the place of his presence, an earthly representation of his holiness, that no one was ever to touch. By reaching out his hand and touching the ark, Uzzah was acting as if God was not holy at all, as if he and God were peers. He was treating God with contempt.
R.C. Sproul says this so well. Uzzah’s fatal mistake was thinking that his hands were less filthy than the mud on the ground. What is mud but dirt and water doing the will of God? Mud has never sinned; it has never disobeyed God or hated God or tried to raise itself up in the place of God. Mud has never committed adultery or hated anyone or taken God’s name in vain. But Uzzah was a sinner in rebellion against his Maker. His hands were filthy because his heart was filthy with sin. And when his sinful hands touched that holy ark, God responded with just wrath.
What we see in Uzzah is this: Sin demands justice, justice demands punishment, and punishment is made visible in wrath. A holy God is a just God, a God who judges right from wrong. When he judges something to be wrong he must punish it and the punishment is expressed in wrath.
Uzzah violated God’s holiness and God killed him on the spot. This can be shocking to us. We think, “All he did was put his hand on the ark! He was just trying to help! God is being unfair!” But we think this only because we make too little of God; we make too little of his holiness and too little of our sinfulness. We don’t acknowledge the vastness of our sin, the wilfulness of it, the horror of it. Isaiah, who caught that glimpse of God in his throne room, would never have said, “God reacted too strongly here.” It would never have entered his mind that God could act in a way that was unfair.
To be a human being who sins against God is not merely to make a mistake or to mess up. To sin against God is to willfully, knowingly declare independence from your Creator, to declare that you want God to be unthroned, to declare that you want to be god in his place, to commit treason against the King of the Universe, to declare war on God himself. To sin is to reject the goodness of God, to indict the character of God, to despise the holiness of God. To sin is to look God full in the face and to say, “I hate you.” It is to turn your back on all of God’s love and patience and kindness and mercy and grace. It is to defile with sin a being created in God’s image. It is to be deliberately unholy in the face of all God’s holiness.
Do you see the horror of Uzzah’s sin and your sin? And yet so many people expect that God should be less than just toward those who have committed the crime of sinning against God. But where there is sin, there must be justice. Do you see this? God cannot just overlook sin, he can’t pretend that it didn’t happen, he can’t just let the sinner off the hook any more than our legal system can look to a serial murderer and say, “Don’t worry about it.” To do that would be unjust and to be unjust would be unholy. It would go against God’s holy nature to let sin pass. There is no provision in the character of God to overlook even a single sin.
When God saw Uzzah touch the ark, he passed immediate judgment, that Uzzah was guilty of a crime against God. And as we all know, crime necessitates punishment.
A couple of weeks ago James Holmes loaded himself up with guns, walked into a crowded movie theatre, and opened fire. By the time he was done, he had killed 12 people and wounded 58. In the near future he will go to court and stand before a judge. We hope that the judge will bring a sentence like this: “You are guilty. You will now serve 12 life sentences, or 70 consecutive life sentences, or you will be put to death,” or whatever the maximum sentence can be in Colorado. Justice brings a guilty verdict which brings a sentence. The judge has been just. For justice to be just, the guilty must be declared guilty and the punishment must fit the crime.
That judge could also be unjust. He could be unjust by finding the man guilty but not imposing a sentence. “There is no doubt that you killed all these people, but if you promise not to do it again, I’ll let you go.” That would be a gross violation of justice. The judge could also be unjust by imposing too low a sentence. “You are guilty of 12 murders and 58 attempted murders. I sentence you to pay a $200 fine and take anger management classes.” Again, we would be outraged. When there has been a crime, we demand justice, and where someone has been judged guilty, especially of a terrible offense, we demand punishment, because it is right to punish sin.
God must punish sin. He cannot judge that it is wrong and then do nothing about it. That would be unjust and unholy. So when Uzzah touched that ark, God judged him guilty and then had to punish him. That punishment was expressed in wrath.
A sinner stands in the courtroom of God and God says, “You have been found guilty. You have committed a crime against an infinitely holy God.” What is the appropriate punishment? The just punishment is to face God’s holy wrath.
What is wrath? Wrath is God’s intense hatred of sin. Charles Leiter says God’s wrath is his “holy, white-hot hatred of sin, the reaction and revulsion of His holy nature against all that is evil.” This is not just a feeling, as if sin just makes God feel angry, but it is full-out revulsion. God absolutely despises sin and responds to it in wrath.
There are some who claim that they simply cannot believe in a God of wrath. But they need to be careful what they wish for. Let’s think about this: How else could God react to sin if not in wrath? He might react to sin with joy. He might be a God who delights in sin, a God who laughs when we hurt one another, who rejoices when we steal, who loves us more when we rape and murder and destroy. Is that the God you want? He might also be a God who is ambivalent toward our sin, he just doesn’t really care. Is that a God you want to a worship—a God who sees someone murder a child and says, “What do you want me to do about it?” We don’t want that God. Why? Because sin is worth hating! Sin is worthy of just punishment. Our very nature cries out for justice.
If God did not respond to sin with wrath, he would be a God who is unworthy of our worship. He would be an unjust, unholy, unworthy God. He would not be God at all. So God did not react too strongly when he saw Uzzah’s sin; he was not the least bit unfair. He merely gave Uzzah the righteous sentence for his sin—the righteous sentence for any and every sin—immediate justice expressed in wrath. The only unusual thing about the punishment was the swiftness, the immediacy of it.
God’s wrath is a holy wrath that is expressed against sin, which is to say, against sinners. That white-hot hatred of sin will be expressed against those who have defied God. Because the sinner has sinned consciously, he must face this punishment consciously. What is the right length of punishment for a crime of this magnitude? A month of facing God’s wrath? A year? Twenty years? Because of the eternal distance between God and the human sinner, he has committed an infinite, eternal offense and must face this punishment eternally. For God to come up with a sentence less than eternal would be to say that he is less than eternal. The eternality of the punishment is simply a realistic assessment of the never-ending vastness of the difference between us and God.
Thus the just sentence for sinning against this holy, holy, holy God, is to be judged guilty and to eternally, consciously face the wrath of God against sin.
But when God’s holiness comes into contact with sin, he does not always bring immediate just wrath. Sometimes God chooses to extend patient mercy. I will look at that tomorrow.