This past Sunday I preached a difficult message from Hosea 9 and 10 on God’s judgment. In context, to the audience of the people of Israel, God promises destruction. Israel will reap judgment because they have sown sin and wickedness. The description of this destruction is tough to read and brings present day realities to mind, even for disciples of Jesus on this side of the cross. The question that comes to mind is as follows: Through what sort of lens are we to view these acts of punishment? Specifically, the nature by which God promises infertility, miscarriage, and harm done to children to the nation of Israel. What did this mean then, what does it mean now? Is God punishing people today with miscarriage, infertility, or the death of young children? These are realities that we’ve walked with and loved people through at River City Church.
Kendra Dahl (our women’s discipleship director) and her husband Jordan (one of the most critical thinkers I know, who also happens to be a great writer) had a conversation Sunday afternoon. I’d like them to share the outflow of that conversation and what Jordan wrote in response. I believe this helps us as a church understand the covenantal system of the Old Testament, while pointing to our great hope that we have in the righteousness of Jesus.
– Pastor Brett
Hosea’s language about God’s judgment makes me cringe. As hard as it is to wrestle with the intersection of God’s holiness, wrath, judgment, and love, it becomes even more difficult when the form of punishment hits so close to home. Through my own miscarriages, as well as walking alongside friends suffering through infertility, loss of children, failed adoptions, lost foster children, and the like, it is hard to reconcile our present experiences with these chapters in Scripture. In my own story, I had to wrestle with this question: Is God punishing me?
This is where our theology matters. What we believe about God’s character and how we understand the biblical narrative are going to be the foundation we fall back to as we struggle through these questions. My husband was a significant source of support and truth in my struggle, so I asked him to write an explanation for others who may wrestle with these same questions. We might have the Christianese answer, “Of course God isn’t punishing me,” but can we confidently reconcile these passages with what we know to be true? I pray his words will help you as they’ve helped me, that we can be people who walk alongside each other through these deeply painful valleys while also clinging to the truth that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
We live in a fallen world. We are aware of this all too well, our experiences fraught with disappointment, sadness, sickness, pain, loss and death. The Biblical worldview gives an account for why this is right in the first few chapters of the Bible. Sin is the reason. Adam and Eve were given a command from God and they disobeyed. They sinned against God. Consequently we are told that God cursed them and their world, all their descendents included. So in one sense we can say that all the pain we experience is God’s punishment of sin.
Yet, as people saved in Jesus Christ, we know there is grace and forgiveness. Jesus endured the punishment that our sins deserve. So why is it that we continue to experience pain in this world? Is God really punishing us?
This question becomes even more pressing when we find ourselves in the midst of hardship, and then we read in Scripture a curse that sounds a lot like what we are experiencing. If we are going through infertility or the loss of a child, it is difficult and confusing to read words like this:
Hos 9:11-14 Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird— no birth, no pregnancy, no conception! (12) Even if they bring up children, I will bereave them till none is left. Woe to them when I depart from them! (13) Ephraim, as I have seen, was like a young palm planted in a meadow; but Ephraim must lead his children out to slaughter. (14) Give them, O LORD— what will you give? Give them a miscarrying womb and dry breasts.
When we hear that this punishment, this curse, is placed upon the nation of Israel because of their sin, we start to wonder if our circumstances are God’s punishment of our own sin. But what about Jesus? If Jesus took the punishment for my sin why am I still experiencing this?
To make sense of this we need to step back and learn some covenant theology.
The word “curse” is a covenantal word. A covenant defines a relationship. God, as our sovereign creator and redeemer, declares to us in Scripture the terms of our covenant relationship with him. The terms of any covenant include a condition we must meet, the promised blessing he will give should we meet the condition, and the threatened curse should we fail. Condition, blessing or curse.
When we read about Israel in the Old Testament, it is important to remember the covenantal context. The covenant God made with Israel through Moses (for that reason often called the Mosaic covenant) was essentially about temporary, earthly things. It promised economic prosperity, which included the necessary promised land and protection from enemies. That also includes children to contribute, inherit the wealth and expand the economic growth. While it’s true that eternally redemptive aspects were mingled in, the Mosaic covenant was substantially about blessings of a temporary physical nature, not eternal life.
The promised blessings of a covenant correspond to the threatened curses. If Israel would keep the condition of full obedience to God’s law they would experience earthly blessings. If they failed, they would experience earthly curses. So it should be no surprise to read in Hosea that when they broke commandments without repentance the land would no longer deliver wealth or sustenance (2:8-9, 4:2-3, 8:6-7). And as we know the rest of the story, Israel is eventually conquered and ejected from their land, echoing the expulsion of Adam from the garden. “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant” (Hos 6:7a).
It is in this context of covenant curses that we read difficult things about children. But it is also in this context that we read of Jesus:
Gal 3:13-14 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— (14) so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
When Christ upon the cross offered up himself as a sacrifice for sin the temple curtain miraculously torn in two. This signaled that the covenant terms of relationship with God had changed. It would no longer be through the Mosaic covenant but through the New Covenant. The blessings of this new covenant are spiritual and eternal blessings, and the condition is not obedience but simply faith. In fact, faith can’t really be called a condition since it has no virtue in itself. In other words, the new covenant established in Christ’s blood is unconditional. Whatever the Mosaic covenant promised or threatened, it no longer applies.
So while we can’t possibly be subject to the curses of the Mosaic covenant, all people are born under the curse of Adam’s sin. This has both temporary and eternal dimensions. We experience suffering and pain of all kinds in this life and are destined for eternal misery. But when God awakens us and applies to us Christ’s redemption we receive “every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3). We become destined for eternal joy in relationship with God and one another. Christ bore the curse we deserve and by his obedience merited for us every blessing imaginable.
Yet for now our bodies are still subject to death and decay. God has seen fit to put in place an “already but not yet” scenario, where some blessings are ours now but not others. This makes for an awkward situation where we are new creations yet continue to sin, and can say things like “Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day,” (2 Cor 4:16). The Christian life is one of following Christ’s footsteps, carrying a cross of suffering yet inwardly being preserved in hope and faith.
We do not fully reap the blessings of the new covenant until Christ returns and all his people receive perfected resurrection bodies along with perfected souls. Glorification is a promise we look forward to. We “groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies,” (Rom 8:23). The blessings we enjoy now, the indwelling Holy Spirit in particular, serve as a guarantee and down-payment of the blessings to come.
So what can we say about the hardships we experience? Is God punishing us? As those united to Christ, we shouldn’t think that any curse in Scripture is meant for us. Reading of curses should bring us to gratitude for Christ who suffered in our place. It could be we are experiencing our good, loving Father’s discipline, but it just isn’t helpful to speculate if that one sin from ten years ago is the specific reason for hardship now. Some things we suffer are natural consequences of foolish or sinful choices. Whatever the reason, we can be certain that God is for us and nothing can separate us from his love.
Rom 8:16-18 The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, (17) and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (18) For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us.
2Co 4:16-18 So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. (17) For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, (18) as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.