It was one of the darkest chapters in Jewish history. Zedekiah had chosen to rebel against his Babylonian overlords, and King Nebuchadnezzar’s retribution was swift and sure. He besieged Jerusalem and captured it. He burned the temple, he burned the king’s palace, he burned all the mighty houses. He broke down the walls and left the city bereft and defenseless. He didn’t stop there. He also drove off 10,000 of the city’s most prominent citizens, leaving behind only the lowest, the poorest. We can well imagine the pain and sorrow as these men, women, and children trudged from their native land, their Promised Land, to foreign captivity. The deepest pain of all must have been knowing this captivity was God’s judgment on them for their rebellion. No wonder they soon sang songs like this:
By the waters of Babylon,
there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” (Psalm 137)
This kind of lament is the proper response to just wrath. Do you know what would have been utterly absurd, utterly evil? It would have been the very height of evil and absurdity if those Jews had rejoiced instead. Imagine if with each step, each mile, they had been singing for joy. Imagine if they had turned that long march into a party. Such a response would be unthinkable—they would have been reveling in this terrifying expression of God’s righteous wrath. Their joy would have made a mockery of God’s judgment. Who rejoices in punishment?
Unbelievers do, that’s who. All around us we see unbelievers rejoicing while they march off to the Babylonian captivity of God’s judgment. We see this in Romans 1, where Paul describes how sin overtakes the mass of humanity. He describes a crescendo of sinful acts and attitudes, culminating in all kinds of depravity. Then this: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts…” (Romans 1:24). He gave them up. More terrifying words have never been written.
Here Paul teaches that it is God who actively restrains human evil. Nothing but his kind and gracious hand of restraint keeps humanity from falling deeper and deeper into the darkest depravity. Without God’s active restraint, humanity would accept, practice, and rejoice in every kind of evil. Yet there is a limit to God’s restraint. When human beings prove they are utterly hell-bent on sinning, when they fight tooth and nail against God’s restraining grace, he begins to release his hand. He begins to give them what they want even though what they want will destroy them. God releasing his hand of restraint is God extending his hand of judgment.
Many scholars employ here a metaphor of a boat near shore in a swiftly flowing river. God’s hand of restraint on humanity is like a hand holding the rope that keeps the boat from being swept downstream to destruction. But as humanity continues to rebel, God eventually gives them what they want. He gives them the freedom to sin in the ways they long to. Yet this freedom is actually their punishment. This freedom is an expression of his wrath because it only takes them farther from him and closer to destruction. He loosens his grip on the rope, he shoves it off from shore. Douglas Moo says, ”The meaning of ‘hand over’ demands that we give God [an] active role as the initiator of the process. God does not simply let the boat go—he gives it a push downstream. Like a judge who hands over a prisoner to the punishment his crime has earned, God hands over the sinner to the terrible cycle of ever-increasing sin.”
As we look at a society that is demanding the right to practice every evil deed, a society that is rejoicing in what the Bible describes as the darkest evil, we see evidence that God is loosening his grip, pushing the boat away from shore. Those rejoicing in this evil “cycle of ever-increasing sin” are reveling in wrath. They are singing and laughing and partying, not aware that their pleasure is their punishment. They are marching to Babylon, rejoicing with every step, as they go on their way to the darkest captivity.