The Poetry of Judgment

Man’s Haste and the Paradoxical Artistry of God

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I’m a busy person. And while of course I like to think I recognize the importance of being nourished by God’s word, my busy schedule tempts me to feel I should make even my quiet times “efficient” (read: not very quiet in spirit).

I was recently going through the book of Jeremiah, and toward the end of the book there is a series of poetic pronouncements of judgment against the nations. The language is beautiful, but the practical theological points seem rather few and far between, scattered amidst poetry whose artistry I can afford to enjoy in that ever-hoped-for “later, when I have more time on my hands.” For example, take this passage from chapter 48, verses 40-43:

For thus says the LORD: “Behold one shall fly swiftly like an eagle and spread his wings against Moab; the cities shall be taken and the strongholds seized. The heart of the warriors of Moab shall be in that day like the heart of a woman in her birth pains; Moab shall be destroyed and be no longer a people, because he magnified himself against the LORD. Terror, pit, and snare are before you, O inhabitant of Moab! declares the LORD.  He who flees from the terror shall fall into the pit, and he who climbs out of the pit shall be caught in the snare.  For I will bring these things upon Moab, the year of their punishment, declares the LORD…

While I appreciate artistry as much as the next person, in my hasty period of devotions before a busy day, what I’m unconsciously after most is the teaching and the application: just tell me what I need to bear in mind so I can be a good servant today. And there really aren’t too many take-away points in the passage above: God is so great that even warriors’ hearts grow faint when He shows Himself (check); magnifying yourself against the LORD will get you into trouble (check); when God decrees something, it happens (check).

But maybe God wants something more than to give us marching orders. Maybe he wants a relationship with us: a relationship that, like any meaningful human relationship, entails the leisurely enjoyment of the poetry of beauty.  Perhaps when God speaks, he intends to reveal to us something wonderful about Himself, not just to give us our marching orders.  Perhaps when we read Scripture only for its immediate instruction or application, when we gloss over poetic imagery because we assume that God is merely wasting words, perhaps what we are actually missing are life-giving revelations of God Himself. “For man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3).

But when approach passages like the poetic pronouncements of judgment at the end of Jeremiah from the perspective of looking only for immediate marching orders, overlooking anything but what could be construed as instruction, we miss the text’s “bigger picture” entirely and fail even to recognize any of its deeper meanings (from which, yes, we can glean instruction). For example, it was an embarrassingly long time before I was suddenly struck by what in hindsight seems like the most obvious curiosity: that these passages of judgment (like so many others in the Bible) should be conveyed through poetry that is in fact very concerned with artistic imagery rather than merely delivering “just the facts.” And when we slow down enough to observe this and ask ourselves the most natural question of why this should be, suddenly an understanding of God and his ways emerges that speaks deeply into our culture’s conceptions and misconceptions of God.

After all, why should these judgments be consistently expressed in such rich poetry? Could there be something about the judgment of God that is uniquely represented by the majesty, artistry and creativity of poetry?  What is the literary medium itself trying to tell us? Perhaps what we are meant to see is that God’s judgment is in fact a setting-right, and as such is an expression of a righteousness so beautiful and majestic that it can be expressed only through artistry. Perhaps the necessarily creative aspect of the poetic expression is a reminder that God is creative in His righteousness: that righteousness is not something independent of God, against which God must “measure up;” rather, righteousness is something that flows from and is created by His very being. And that is why He alone is—inherently—the Judge of all the earth: because He is the definition of what is good and, by contrast, what is evil. In light of who He is, good is good and evil is evil.

Our culture’s assumptions tempt us to assume or at least fear that God’s judgments might be an ugly or even evil thing. But the poetry of Jeremiah reminds us that the righteousness by which God sets right the brokenness and evil of the world is in fact beautiful and even artistic in its majesty, fearful though it is.

Now, to be sure, there is such a thing as ugly and evil judgment, with which most of us are probably all too familiar. When one who is not the true Judge (that is, one to whom righteousness is extrinsic) presumes to usurp the Judge’s mantle without being either authorized or competent to judge, ugliness and evil are sure to ensue. But if the true Judge is the Judge precisely because He is righteousness, what an assurance that ultimately all is indeed well.

But not only is the Judge righteous, He is also loving and merciful. In a sublime paradox, permeating Jeremiah’s pronouncements of righteous judgment against the nations who have committed crimes against God and man are lamentations from the heart of God Himself. “I know [Moab’s] insolence, declares the LORD; his boasts are false, his deeds are false. Therefore [!] I wail for Moab; I cry out for all Moab; for the men of Kir-hareseth I mourn. More than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah!” (Jeremiah 48:30-32). So much does God wail for the lostness of sinful man that, in the fullness of time, He would wail while impaled on a cross, as the crucified Son of God absorbed the righteous judgment of God in our stead, so nothing in all creation could pluck us from the Good Shepherd’s hand or separate us from the love of God in Christ.

And that is something worth slowing down enough to revel in…