Thoughts on how to respond to great evil and great carnage:
I take it that the four items listed in my title would have resulted in many millions of books that have sought to discuss and assess these massive topics. So just what am I going to do here in one short article? Well, I can offer a few thoughts at least, and add this piece to the others I have already penned on these matters.
Two particular themes I will run with – themes that are also the stuff of entire libraries, and themes that I have also written on often before. The first has to do with how the biblical Christian thinks about the various evils we find happening in the world, including wars and the like.
Why is all this happening? Of interest, this very question, or versions quite similar to it, are found throughout Scripture. I have been collecting these in my personal concordance over the years. I have over a dozen major passages on this so far: two from Deuteronomy, three from Kings and Chronicles, and eight from Jeremiah. Since I am just now again reading through Deuteronomy let me feature those two texts, as well as just one from the prophet:
Deuteronomy 29:22-28 And the next generation, your children who rise up after you, and the foreigner who comes from a far land, will say, when they see the afflictions of that land and the sicknesses with which the Lord has made it sick—the whole land burned out with brimstone and salt, nothing sown and nothing growing, where no plant can sprout, an overthrow like that of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah, and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in his anger and wrath—all the nations will say, ‘Why has the Lord done thus to this land? What caused the heat of this great anger?’ Then people will say, ‘It is because they abandoned the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which he made with them when he brought them out of the land of Egypt, and went and served other gods and worshiped them, gods whom they had not known and whom he had not allotted to them. Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against this land, bringing upon it all the curses written in this book, and the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath, and cast them into another land, as they are this day.’
Deuteronomy 31:16-18 And the Lord said to Moses, “Behold, you are about to lie down with your fathers. Then this people will rise and whore after the foreign gods among them in the land that they are entering, and they will forsake me and break my covenant that I have made with them. Then my anger will be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them and hide my face from them, and they will be devoured. And many evils and troubles will come upon them, so that they will say in that day, ‘Have not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us?’ And I will surely hide my face in that day because of all the evil that they have done, because they have turned to other gods.
Jeremiah 13:22 And if you say in your heart,
‘Why have these things come upon me?’
it is for the greatness of your iniquity.
You get the point. Sometimes great calamity falls upon a people or a nation because of all the great evil they are involved in. God does not let sin go unpunished forever. That was certainly the case with ancient Israel. God would judge Israel, and then he would turn around and judge the nations he had used to judge Israel (eg., Babylon and Assyria).
So we can today extrapolate this to our own situation – although only in a much more general sense. That is, we can say that maybe war is happening, maybe disease is spreading, maybe earthquakes are occurring, because of God’s chastening and judging hand. But unlike in Old Testament times, we do not have inspired and inerrant prophets telling us exactly what is happening. So we cannot have the same certainty as to just what is going on and why.
How do we understand something like the invasion of Ukraine by Putin? We do not have the same prophetic word telling us all the ins and outs, and all the whys and wherefores. So we must be much more cautious here. But the general principles of Scripture can be drawn upon in this area and elsewhere.
Some of those basic principles are these: God is concerned about the nations. God can very well use various means (war, drought, famine, plague, tornadoes, etc.) for various purposes, be they for judgment or whatever. And God’s people always should be in a place of repentance and contrition, acknowledging our sins, and confessing how we so often do turn our backs on God. But we also rejoice that God has provided a Saviour, Jesus Christ, so that final, lasting judgment can be avoided.
The second theme I want to run with is that of the imprecatory psalms. These are psalms where God’s people call upon God to deal with their enemies – who quite often happen to be God’s enemies as well. They ask God to bring justice and vindication, and to judge and repay those who do evil. Here are just two portions of these psalms:
Psalm 40:14-15 Let those be put to shame and disappointed altogether
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonor
who delight in my hurt!
Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
Psalm 143:11-12 For your name’s sake, O Lord, preserve my life!
In your righteousness bring my soul out of trouble!
And in your steadfast love you will cut off my enemies,
and you will destroy all the adversaries of my soul,
for I am your servant.
See more on these psalms here: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2012/02/02/the-imprecatory-psalms-part-one/
In the light of all the horrors going on in Ukraine right now, one new article looks at these psalms as a way of praying about this situation. It is titled “Go Ahead. Pray for Putin’s Demise.” Here are some quotes from it:
The violence in Ukraine makes me, like many of us, feel powerless. I watch helplessly as tanks roll into cities, as civilian targets are shelled, as the lives of whole families are viciously snuffed out. What do I do with this anger and heartbreak?…
An imprecation is a curse. The imprecatory psalms are those that call down destruction, calamity, and God’s judgment on enemies. Honestly, I don’t usually know what to do with them. I pray them simply as a rote practice. But I gravitate toward more even-keeled promises of God’s presence and mercy. I am often uncomfortable with the violence and self-assured righteousness found in these kinds of psalms. But they were made for moments like these.
The author continues:
The imprecatory psalms name evil. They remind us that those who have great power are able to destroy the lives of the weak with seeming impunity. This is the world we live in. We cannot simply hold hands, sing “Kumbaya,” and hope for the best. Our hearts call out for judgment against the wickedness that leaves fathers weeping alone over their silent sons. We need words to express our indignation at this evil.
Those of us who long for lasting peace cannot base that hope on an idea that people are inherently good and therefore unworthy of true judgment. Instead, we find our hope in the belief that God is at work in the world, and he is as real—more real—than evil.
We hope that God will enact true and ultimate judgment. We look to him who knows every Ukrainian and Russian by name, who loves them more than I can understand, and who will avenge wrong and make things right.
We don’t forgo vengeance because we think that human evil is not worthy of vengeance but because we believe God is the avenger. We do not hope for peace because we are not indignant over unjust violence but because we believe God is indignant and his judgment (not ours) can be trusted.
And she summarises things this way:
Very often in the imprecatory psalms, we are asking that people’s evil actions would ricochet back on themselves. We are not praying that violence begets more violence or that evil starts a cycle of vengeance or retaliation. But we are praying that people would be destroyed by their own schemes and, as my professor prayed, that bombs would explode in bombers’ faces.
If you’re like me and you gravitate to the seemingly more compassionate, less violent parts of Scripture, these kinds of prayers can be jarring. But we who are privileged, who live far from war and violence, risk failing to take evil and brutality seriously enough.
I still pray, daily and earnestly, for Putin’s repentance. I pray that Russian soldiers would lay down their arms and defy their leaders. But this is the moment to take up imprecatory prayers as well. This is a moment when I’m trusting in God’s mercy but also in his righteous, loving, and protective rage. https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2022/march-web-only/prayer-ukraine-russia-putin-imprecatory-psalms.html
Yes, I have often prayed such prayers myself – and for more than one wicked ruler.