Various voices have been interpreted to say that the murders of Newtown are a result of God's judgment on America. Both Mike Huckabee and James Dobson have made remarks that some have taken in this manner. The response to these men has been, at times, vitriolic as they have been criticized for the very idea that God might bring temporal judgments in human history upon a culture.
I'm not interested in analyzing Huckabee's or Dobson's statements nor will I attempt to link Newtown to God's judgments. Rather, what I want to do here is to look at one aspect of the biblical material about God's judgments in history. Unless we first understand the biblical perspective we will not be able to properly apply God's word to our time. Of course, we always need to be on the watch because we might accurately understand the biblical message but then inappropriately apply it to contemporary issues. My concern in this post, though, is in reference to the first aspect--understanding what the Bible says about God's judgments.
A good entry point into this discussion comes from Francis Schaeffer. Over forty years ago Francis Schaeffer wrote these words:
The hand of God is down into our culture in judgment, and men are hungry. Unlike Zeus, whom men imagined hurling down great thunderbolts, God has turned away in judgment as our generation turned away from Him, and He is allowing cause and effect to take its course in history.
God can bring His judgment in one of two ways: either by direct intervention in history or by the turning of the wheels of history. Often it is the peripheral blessings flowing from the gospel which when freed from the Christian base then become the things of judgment in the next generation. Consider freedom, for example. It is the result of the Reformation in the northern European world which have given us a balance of form and freedom in the area of the state and society, freedom for women, freedom for children, freedom in the area of the state under law. And yet, when once we are away from the Christian base, it is this very freedom, now freedom without form, that brings a judgment upon us in the turning wheels of history. Death in the City in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer (vol. 4), p. 216.
God's judgment by direct intervention is paradigmatically seen in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. This kind of judgment is dramatic and event-oriented--the judgment is an event itself. The other kind of judgment that God brings is described by Schaeffer as "the turning of the wheels of history." This is a kind of judgment that takes place over time as a culture is judged. An example of this judgment is described in Isaiah chapter nineteen. Understanding this passage will allow us to see what are the dynamics of cultural judgment. In particular, the focus here will be on Isaiah 19.1-17.
1 The oracle concerning Egypt.
Behold, the Lord is riding on a swift cloud and is about to come to Egypt;
The idols of Egypt will tremble at His presence,
And the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.
2 “So I will incite Egyptians against Egyptians;
And they will each fight against his brother and each against his neighbor,
City against city and kingdom against kingdom.
3 “Then the spirit of the Egyptians will be demoralized within them;
And I will confound their strategy,
So that they will resort to idols and ghosts of the dead
And to mediums and spiritists.
4 “Moreover, I will deliver the Egyptians into the hand of a cruel master,
And a mighty king will rule over them,” declares the Lord God of hosts.
5 The waters from the sea will dry up,
And the river will be parched and dry.
6 The canals will emit a stench,
The streams of Egypt will thin out and dry up;
The reeds and rushes will rot away.
7 The bulrushes by the Nile, by the edge of the Nile
And all the sown fields by the Nile
Will become dry, be driven away, and be no more.
8 And the fishermen will lament,
And all those who cast a line into the Nile will mourn,
And those who spread nets on the waters will pine away.
9 Moreover, the manufacturers of linen made from combed flax
And the weavers of white cloth will be utterly dejected.
10 And the pillars of Egypt will be crushed;
All the hired laborers will be grieved in soul.
11 The princes of Zoan are mere fools;
The advice of Pharaoh’s wisest advisers has become stupid.
How can you men say to Pharaoh,
“I am a son of the wise, a son of ancient kings”?
12 Well then, where are your wise men?
Please let them tell you,
And let them understand what the Lord of hosts
Has purposed against Egypt.
13 The princes of Zoan have acted foolishly,
The princes of Memphis are deluded;
Those who are the cornerstone of her tribes
Have led Egypt astray.
14 The Lord has mixed within her a spirit of distortion;
They have led Egypt astray in all that it does,
As a drunken man staggers in his vomit.
15 There will be no work for Egypt
Which its head or tail, its palm branch or bulrush, may do.
16 In that day the Egyptians will become like women, and they will tremble and be in dread because of the waving of the hand of the Lord of hosts, which He is going to wave over them.
17 The land of Judah will become a terror to Egypt; everyone to whom it is mentioned will be in dread of it, because of the purpose of the Lord of hosts which He is purposing against them.
This appears in a section of Isaiah that is focused on God's judgments on nations around Israel of which Egypt is one. The significance of this is that this message of judgment is upon a non-covenanted nation unlike much of the judgments mentioned in scripture which focus on God's covenanted people Israel or Judah.
The first verse describes the coming of the Lord as riding a swift cloud which is a familiar way of describing a judgment motif. Both the Egyptians as a people and their gods are described as fearful. The next two verses (vv. 2-3) describe both external and internal cultural confusion. There is a lack of social unity and a profound religious confusion. E. J. Young comments:
True unity, we may learn from this passage, comes from the Lord; and when He sets a nation against itself, there can be no unity. Only when a nation repents and turns to Him can true unity be found. The Lord, therefore, is the source of unity.
The failure of the spirit of Egypt appears in that Egypt no longer has any counsel. The counsel which it would devise for its own deliverance is one which cannot stand. No strong voice of wisdom can be raised, for God Himself will bring to mishap any advice or counsel proposed. This is a vigorous way of stating that Egypt's counsel is to be completely destroyed. Whatever advice is proposed comes to distress by God and so exists no more; it is completely gone.
The tragic result is that, inasmuch as there is no sound voice, the people engage in that most foolish of all follies, the turning to spiritualistic media. When man acts thus unwisely, surely true counsel has disappeared! The prophet lists the objects of the people's inquiry, and at the head of all stand the idols. A wise nation seeks the source of wisdom, namely God; a foolish people whom wisdom has forsaken looks for advice and help from those who have no counsel or wisdom. When God abandon us, we are left to search for wisdom where it cannot be found. The Book of Isaiah, vol. 2, pp. 15, 17-18.
This internal and external cultural confusion leads to political upheaval with the outcome of being placed under a "cruel taskmaster."
Economic distress is articulated in verses 5-10 under a number of historically situated metaphors and images. The Nile River is the center and source of the Egyptian economy. As goes the Nile so goes the economy.
The drought affects farmers, fishermen, and the secondary enterprises that depend upon them, in this case the textile workers. The speech is a remarkable description of economic distress that follows the failure of the annual Nile floods. The context draws upon the picture of Yahweh's reign over the weather and over nature (19:1) to account for the conditions. Egypt's troubles are cumulative and interrelated. The external political pressures (19:4) combine with internal ones (19:2-3) and natural economic disasters (19:5-10) to bring Egypt to its knees. John D. W. Watts Isaiah (WBC), p. 254.
In verses 11-15 a general foolishness in the intellectual arena is mentioned. Those who are supposed to have wisdom for the nation are seen to be without insight--"the advice of Pharaoh's wisest advisors has become stupid." The statesmen and established intellectuals fail to understand "what the Lord of hosts has purposed against Egypt." Verse 14 is very clear to show that it is the Lord himself who is behind this judgment. E. J. Young writes:
Isaiah now goes back to ultimate causes. He does not begin this sentence with a verb but with a noun, the Lord. The word is placed first for emphasis, and immediately brings us to the cause of all that has been described. It is the Lord and no other; He whom the wise of the world despise... The folly therefore which characterized Egypt did not come about in the "natural course of events," nor was it accidental, but resulted from a direct supernatural judicial action pronounced against the nation. As a result of this spirit Egypt will be led astray in all its work, namely, its economic procedure, daily business, and occupation. The Book of Isaiah, vol. 2, p. 30.
This picture in Isaiah 19 of judgment upon Egypt encompasses the entirety of culture: religious, political, economic, social, and intellectual. This is a judgment that is clearly predicated as coming from the Lord. He is active in bringing this state of affairs into being so that Egypt is judged.
Is there something from this description that is of relevance for contemporary application? Might it not be that this same kind of judgment happens today--that God judges non-covenanted nations in similar ways with similar results? Alec Moyter, in his commentary on Isaiah, helpfully comments:
The abiding message of a passage such as this lies not in its details, which are peculiar to its situation and date, but in its insistence that the problems of society, economics and politics, have a spiritual causation. They are the outworking of divine purposes and are directly traceable to the hand of God, not the outworking of sociological laws, market forces or political fortunes. And it is only by recourse to the Lord that they can be solved. The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, p. 164.
Rather than looking to specific events (e.g., Newtown murders, 9/11, etc.) as tokens of God's judgment perhaps Isaiah 19 might help us to analyze trends in a given culture that are indicative of God's judgment. In Isaiah 19 we are given a description of what historical judgments can look like and we can watch for these same types of indicators in our culture and society. There is always the danger of incorrect application or misdiagnosis. There are also other biblical truths that need to be factored into the discussion as well. A quick list of these other factors would include: God's common grace on cultures, God's inscrutable sovereignty in which sometimes the righteous suffer (Job), the fact that sometimes the righteous suffer but the wicked seem at ease (Psalm 73), God sometimes uses wicked nations to judge other wicked nations (Habakkuk), and the fact that sometimes judgment begins with the household of God (1 Peter 4.17).
Schaeffer spoke of God "allowing cause and effect to take its course in history." This is not to deny the active, provident hand of God behind history. Schaeffer was contrasting this to God's "direct intervention" like is seen in the judgment on Sodom. Schaeffer recognized that God's judgment on American culture was not to be seen in direct "fire from heaven" but, rather, in the cultural and societal moves away from God and the effects such an apostasy produced. The apostle Paul uses the phrase "God gave them over" in Romans chapter one and the passage from Isaiah gives us a glimpse of what such a "giving over" can look like in a culture.
Consider, in closing, these words from Francis Schaeffer which were written in his last book before his death in 1984:
Finally, we must not forget that the world is on fire. We are not only losing the church, but our entire culture as well. We live in the post-Christian world which is under the judgment of God. I believe today that we must speak as Jeremiah did. Some people think that just because the United States of America is the United States of America, because Britain is Britain, they will not come under the judgment of God. This is not so. I believe that we of Northern Europe since the Reformation have had such light as few other have ever possessed. We have stamped upon that light in our culture. Our cinemas, our novels, our art museums, our schools scream out as they stamp upon that light. And worst of all, modern theology screams out as it stamps upon that light. Do you think God will not judge our countries simply because they are our countries? Do you think that the holy God will not judge? The Great Evangelical Disaster in The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer (vol. 4), p. 363.