The Principles (and Applications) of God’s Judgement in the OT

So often in the discussion and formulation of the teaching concerning the Final Punishment, the OT is either entirely thrown out the window or left to accumulate dust alongside other “irrelevant” works. This approach is, even if flawed, understandable. Who needs the Prophets, the Psalms, or the Pentateuch when opening one’s Bible to the Gospel of Matthew and reading the numerous verses describing eternal fire, undying worms, and weeping is far easier and simpler? This is not a bad thing in and of itself. In fact, we should read the Bible in light of the world-altering death and resurrection of Jesus, and even Christocentrically at times. However, a hermeneutical (the methodology and principles of text interpretation) flaw enters the picture when we ignore the insights that a broad sweep of authors bring to the table. Contrary to initial impressions, the OT has a lot to say about judgement, and what it says is important. The figurative language employed in the OT is expanded and echoed by future writers (by talking about hell, we are talking about the future, which is often described by vivid symbolism and imagery in the Bible), the principles of divine judgement communicated by the Psalms and Prophets remain true, and the examples of these principles being carried out in worldly scenarios serve as types for the Judgement to come. (It may appear that I am over-reaching in my last two propositions here. I hope to show, as I continue to blog about the topic of Hell, that the entire witness of Scripture supports these statements. For now, I ask you read this with an open mind…and perhaps a little skepticism.) With all that being said, let us examine this significant, and might I say…uncomfortable, topic.

If you desire a much quicker reading experience, you can skip the block-quoted Scripture and read my restatement of the relevant info following each quote. All I can say is that doing so would be comparable to eating cheese pizza. It may not have any delicious and flavor-enhancing toppings, but it is still pizza.

The Principles of Judgement in the Psalms

Psalm 1:4-6
“The wicked are not so,
    but are like chaff that the wind drives away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
    nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous;
for the Lord knows the way of the righteous,
    but the way of the wicked will perish.”

In Psalm 1 (author), the wicked are like chaff (the worthless husks of grains and grasses separated from the seed in threshing) driven away by the wind. These wicked individuals who do not delight in the law of God will be blown away and ultimately perish.

Psalm 2:10-11

“Now therefore, O kings, be wise;

    be warned, O rulers of the earth.
11 Serve the Lord with fear,
    with trembling 12 kiss his feet,[a]
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
    for his wrath is quickly kindled.”

Psalm 2 warns the kings and rulers to serve Yahweh or perish. Nothing less, nothing more.

Psalm 34:15-16, 21
“The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,
    and his ears are open to their cry.
16 The face of the Lord is against evildoers,
    to cut off the remembrance of them from the earth.
Evil brings death to the wicked,
    and those who hate the righteous will be condemned.”

According to David, evildoers will be cut off from the earth. They will suffer the condemnation of death.

Psalm 37
Do not fret because of the wicked;
    do not be envious of wrongdoers,
for they will soon fade like the grass,
    and wither like the green herb.
Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath.
Do not fret—it leads only to evil.
For the wicked shall be cut off,
    but those who wait for the Lord shall inherit the land.
10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more;
    though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.
11 But the meek shall inherit the land,
and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.
12 The wicked plot against the righteous,
    and gnash their teeth at them;
13 but the Lord laughs at the wicked,
    for he sees that their day is coming.
14 The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows
    to bring down the poor and needy,
to kill those who walk uprightly;
15 their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.
16 Better is a little that the righteous person has
    than the abundance of many wicked.
17 For the arms of the wicked shall be broken,
    but the Lord upholds the righteous.
20 But the wicked perish,
and the enemies of the Lord are like the glory of the pastures;
    they vanish—like smoke they vanish away.
21 The wicked borrow, and do not pay back,
    but the righteous are generous and keep giving;
22 for those blessed by the Lord shall inherit the land,
    but those cursed by him shall be cut off.
27 Depart from evil, and do good;
so you shall abide forever.
28 For the Lord loves justice;
    he will not forsake his faithful ones.
    The righteous shall be kept safe forever,
    but the children of the wicked shall be cut off.
29 The righteous shall inherit the land,
    and live in it forever.
34 Wait for the Lord, and keep to his way,
and he will exalt you to inherit the land;
    you will look on the destruction of the wicked.
35 I have seen the wicked oppressing,
    and towering like a cedar of Lebanon.[f]
36 Again I[g] passed by, and they were no more;
though I sought them, they could not be found.
37 Mark the blameless, and behold the upright,
    for there is posterity for the peaceable.
38 But transgressors shall be altogether destroyed;
    the posterity of the wicked shall be cut off.

Instead of merely saying the wicked will suffer the penalty of death, David uses images that do not leave one guessing as to what he actually means. They will fade like grass and wither like an herb (v2), they will be cut off (v9,22,28,38), they will be “no more” and will not be found (v10,36), they will be killed by their own swords (v15), they will perish and vanish away like smoke (v20), and they will be destroyed (v34,38).

Psalm 58:10-11
10 The righteous will rejoice when they see vengeance done;
    they will bathe their feet in the blood of the wicked.
11 People will say, “Surely there is a reward for the righteous;
    surely there is a God who judges on earth.”

Though I would argue the act of bathing one’s feet in others’ blood is not entirely consistent with a Christian ethic (sorry David), we do learn here that God’s judgement looks a lot like death.

To summarize, the Psalms anticipate a world where the righteous inherit the earth and the wicked are nowhere to be found. The poetic hope expressed is one where evil and those who practice it have ceased to be. Nowhere do we witness the psalmists anticipate the torment of the wicked after death, nor do we see any hint or language concerning anything more than death. The visions of the Psalms have their limitations however. One will not find a clear expression of the resurrection either, and that is an important concept regarding the end of days. At best, we can allow these principles to have their own voice and observe 1) how they play out in the real world and 2) whether Jesus, Paul, etc. agree with these principles.

The Principles of Judgement in the Prophets
Isaiah 1:27-28
27 Zion shall be redeemed by justice,
    and those in her who repent, by righteousness.
28 But rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together,
    and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed.

Destruction is the fate that awaits those who do not repent.

Isaiah 5:24-25
24 Therefore, as the tongue of fire devours the stubble,
    and as dry grass sinks down in the flame,
so their root will become rotten,
and their blossom go up like dust;
for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts,
and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.
25 Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people,
    and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them;
the mountains quaked,
and their corpses were like refuse
in the streets.
For all this his anger has not turned away,
    and his hand is stretched out still.

The judgement language used by Isaiah in these two verses threaten death through both the imagery of corpses (v25) and the imagery of devouring fire and rotten roots (v24).

Isaiah 11:4
A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse,
    and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
    or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist,
and faithfulness the belt around his loins.
The wolf shall live with the lamb,
    the leopard shall lie down with the kid,
the calf and the lion and the fatling together,
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze,
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp,
and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.
They will not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain;
for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
    as the waters cover the sea.

If I created a list, Isaiah 11 would be included in my list of favorite passages of Scripture. It communicates in wonderful imagery what a world redeemed by God will look like, and various parts of Isaiah 11 are echoed or alluded to by the NT writers applying these same words to Jesus. The important thing to notice in this section is verse 4 which describes what awaits the wicked in this picture of a new earth. Jesus “shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Not much eternal tormenting happening here.

Isaiah 33:10-14
10 “Now I will arise,” says the Lord,
    “now I will lift myself up;
now I will be exalted.
11 You conceive chaff, you bring forth stubble;
your breath is a fire that will consume you.
12 And the peoples will be as if burned to lime,
like thorns cut down, that are burned in the fire.”
13 Hear, you who are far away, what I have done;
    and you who are near, acknowledge my might.
14 The sinners in Zion are afraid;
trembling has seized the godless:
“Who among us can live with the devouring fire?
    Who among us can live with everlasting flames?”

Things may look down for Israel now, says Isaiah, but one day in the near future, God will arise. Then, Israel’s future will change, because the wicked will be judged. This judgement is described in terms of chaff turned to stubble, a consuming fire, and thorns burned in a fire. Who will survive the everlasting flames? Not the wicked, but “Those who walk righteously and speak uprightly” (v15).

Isaiah 51:6, 8
Lift up your eyes to the heavens,
    and look at the earth beneath;
for the heavens vanish like smoke,
    the earth will wear out like a garment,
    and they who dwell in it will die in like manner
For the moth will eat them up like a garment,
    and the worm will eat them like wool;

Isaiah 51 is a chapter full of hope for Israel. One day, God will return to Israel and set things right. One day, Israel will be restored from exile and made like Eden. In the midst of this picture are glimpses of what awaits Israel’s oppressors. Just as the earth and heavens will “vanish like smoke”, those “who dwell in the earth will die in like manner” (v6). They will be eaten up like a moth eating a garment and like a worm eating a wool (v8). Though the language is figurative, the message communicated is clear. There will be nothing left of the wicked to observe.

Isaiah 66:24
22 “For as the new heavens and the new earth
    that I make
shall remain before me, says the Lord,
so shall your offspring and your name remain.
23 From new moon to new moon,
and from Sabbath to Sabbath,
all flesh shall come to worship before me,
declares the Lord.
24 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

If that last line sounds familiar, then you might have read those very words quoted by Jesus in Mark 9:48. In addition to Mark 9:43, Jesus speaks of an “unquenchable fire” in Matt 3:12 and Luke 3:17, and he also alludes to being thrown into the fire on numerous occasions. I will not go into too much detail here, as I plan to devote an entire blog post alone to Isaiah 66:4 and Jesus’s use of it. The important thing to note is that the original context denotes a scene where a an oppressive army has been defeated, and the number of bodies that lie on the battlefield is so great that the fire and maggots never run out of sustenance. The image is one of disgust, shame, and total destruction.

Daniel 12:2
And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

This is the clearest reference to a resurrection available in the OT. We see here a contrasting fate for those who rise from their “sleep in the dust of the earth”. Everlasting life and everlasting contempt are the two results. Notice the sentiment felt by the survivors of this punishment is one of contempt. The word translated as contempt is the same word translated in Isaiah 66:24 as abhorrence. The image conveyed by “everlasting contempt” is one of disgust, as would be fitting if corpses were involved. One would have to read a significant amount of unsaid material into the phrase to come away with some sort of eternal punishment.

Zephaniah 1:14-18
14 The great day of the Lord is near,
    near and hastening fast;
the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter;
the mighty man cries aloud there.
15 A day of wrath is that day,
a day of distress and anguish,
a day of ruin and devastation,
a day of darkness and gloom,
a day of clouds and thick darkness,
16     a day of trumpet blast and battle cry
against the fortified cities
    and against the lofty battlements.
17 I will bring distress on mankind,
    so that they shall walk like the blind,
because they have sinned against the Lord;
their blood shall be poured out like dust,
and their flesh like dung.
18 Neither their silver nor their gold
shall be able to deliver them
on the day of the wrath of the Lord.
In the fire of his jealousy,
all the earth shall be consumed;
for a full and sudden end
    he will make of all the inhabitants of the earth.

The day that God will visit His wrath on Judah will be a day of distress and anguish, ruin and destruction, darkness and gloom, and clouds and thick darkness (v15). All the earth will be consumed in fire, and a sudden end will meet “all the inhabitants of the earth” (v18).

Nahum 1:6-8
Who can stand before his indignation?
    Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and the rocks are broken into pieces by him.
The Lord is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
he knows those who take refuge in him.
    But with an overflowing flood
he will make a complete end of the adversaries,[a]
    and will pursue his enemies into darkness.

Like the Zeph. example above, God’s judgement is described in terms of a consuming fire and darkness leading to a complete end to the ungodly. Jude later uses both of these elements and applies them to the final judgement.

Malachi 4:1-6
“For behold, the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and all evildoers will be stubble. The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch. But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall. And you shall tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet, on the day when I act, says the Lord of hosts.
“Remember the law of my servant Moses, the statutes and rules[b] that I commanded him at Horeb for all Israel.
“Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”[c]

The oracle of Malachi largely serves to warn the post-exilic Jews to not forsake the covenant of God, for God will return to Israel to judge (3:1-5). (The words of Malachi find fulfillment with the actions of John the Baptist and Jesus some 400 years later.) Once again, we can derive by principal what God’s judgement looks like. Since all the arrogant and the evildoers will be set ablaze, the result is one where they will be stubble, left with “neither root nor branch” (v1). On the day of the Lord, the wicked will be reduced to ashes (v3). In other words, the fire consumes completely. In addition, verses 5-6 point to a real world application of these principles. The Elijah mentioned in verses 5-6 is John the Baptist, God returning to Israel and to His temple to judge is Jesus, and the “decree of utter destruction” most likely refers to the possible destruction of the Temple. As history tells us, the Temple was devoted to destruction at the hands of Rome nearly 40 years after the lives of both men. The result was hundreds of thousands of deaths and the destruction of the Temple/Jerusalem. If this makes you uncomfortable, it should. The imagery employed by Malachi is designed to evoke these feelings. God really hates evil, and one day he will eradicate it completely.

Moving through the Prophets, we have found that the principles associated with the judgement of God are the same as through expressed by the Psalms. Time and time again, God’s wrath is pictured in the form of a consuming fire, of death, and of total destruction. In the following section, I will look at the specific applications of these principles to real world events in the OT.

Acts of Judgement

Genesis 6-9 The Great Flood
The Flood does not leave us guessing as to what the words death, perish, and destruction mean. Everything dies. Literally (Gen 7:21-23). In a sense, God brings closure to the less-than-perfect creation narrative and creates a new world. (Sound familiar?!)
“So important is this story to the rest of the Bible that it becomes a standard model for later crises and judgements. Later writers point to its unexpectedness (Matt. 24:38, 39; Luke 17:26, 27), its victims (2 Pet. 2:5, 9), those it saved from the world’s wickedness (1 Pet. 3:20-22; 2 Pet. 2:5, 9), Noah’s faith (Ezek. 14:14, 20; Heb. 11:7), as well as God’s patience preceding the judgement (1 Pet. 3:20; 2 Pet. 3:4-6) and the certainty of His covenant which followed it (Isa. 54:9).”[1]
Genesis 18-19 Sodom and Gomorrah
The annihilation of Sodom and Gomorrah is another important event to those who would later speak about judgement. This is the origin of fire and brimstone(sulfur) as a symbol for divine judgement (19:24), and later descriptions of God’s wrath/judgement in fiery language point back to this moment. The result was a land completely destroyed and laid barren, though the punishment, as someone later described it, was quick (Lam. 4:6). This event shows up again in Jude 7 as an example of undergoing the punishment of eternal fire and in 2 Pet 2:6 as an example of what will happen to the ungodly.

The entire witness of the OT leaves us with a picture of God and what His judgement looks like. It is described in terms of an unquenchable fire (Jer. 17:27) that will not go out until it devours and consumes completely and totally. The result is death. There is not one mention of a punishment after death or a future reckoning where the wicked will endure endless torture. What we observe in the OT is not the final word however (Jesus is!), just a piece of the larger picture of how to approach this issue. These principles are an element of the backdrop by which we understand the claims of the NT authors.

[1] Edward William Fudge, The Fire That Consumes, 2nd edition, pg. 97

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