Final and full divine justice is on its way:
Retributive justice has to do with giving to each person his or her due. Our criminal justice system works on this key principle. Bad actions should be punished. If a rapist or murderer walks free from a court of law, even though clearly found to be guilty of the crime, we all sense that this is grossly unfair. We want justice to be served.
We rightly become angry when it seems an injustice has taken place. Thomas Aquinas put it this way: “He who is not angry when there is just cause for anger is immoral. Why? Because anger looks to the good of justice. And if you can live amid injustice without anger, you are immoral as well as unjust.”
In the West at least, when a person is wronged, instead of resorting to personal vengeance, he mainly looks to two sources of justice: the state, and God himself. Of course in this fallen world, the state often can get it wrong – there can be a miscarriage of justice. So the only perfect form of justice comes from God.
It may seem like he is not dispensing justice however. There is so much evil in the world, and it seems like so many folks are getting away with murder – often literally. But God is still there, working out his purposes. As one quite old saying expresses it, “The wheels of justice turn slowly, but grind exceedingly fine.”
The Bible also can speak of what seems like a long delay in justice. God will one day right all wrongs, but many wonder why it is taking him so long. As Peter put it in 2 Peter 3:3-4: “scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires. They will say, ‘Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation’.”
As an old legal maxim says: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” And that simply encourages evildoers all the more. Ecclesiastes 8:11 says this: “When the sentence for a crime is not quickly carried out, people’s hearts are filled with schemes to do wrong.” A just God has made us to yearn for justice. We all want justice, and we want it now.
I speak about all this because I am once again reading the biblical book that perhaps most speaks of the justice of God and his righteous judgment on those who deserve it. I refer of course to the book of Revelation. There we read all about divine payback. Some believers might find that to be a crude term or concept. But it in fact is quite biblical. Consider Rev. 18:4-8 where we find those words being used:
Then I heard another voice from heaven saying,
“Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.
Pay her back as she herself has paid back others,
and repay her double for her deeds;
mix a double portion for her in the cup she mixed.
As she glorified herself and lived in luxury,
so give her a like measure of torment and mourning,
since in her heart she says,
‘I sit as a queen,
I am no widow,
and mourning I shall never see.’
For this reason her plagues will come in a single day,
death and mourning and famine,
and she will be burned up with fire;
for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.”
Various other passages can be offered here, such as:
Rev. 6:9-11 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the full number of their fellow servants, their brothers and sisters, were killed just as they had been.
Rev. 11:17-18 “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty,
who is and who was,
for you have taken your great power
and begun to reign.
The nations raged,
but your wrath came,
and the time for the dead to be judged,
and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints,
and those who fear your name,
both small and great,
and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
Rev. 18:20 Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!
Rev. 19:1-3 19 After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
And again they shouted:
The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.”
There are other such texts that could be presented. They are all about payback, about divine retribution, about divine punishment. While all of us as sinful beings deserve the just punishment of God for our sins and rejection of God, those who come to God through Christ in faith and repentance not only have their sins forgiven, but the just penalty for the sins is erased as well. Christ bore the penalty for our sins.
Those who continue to reject God however – those who keep raising a clenched fist in defiance of the living God – will know all about God’s payback. Let me share a few comments on the Rev. 18:4-8 passage in closing. Dennis Johnson writes:
Babylon will be repaid in kind and quantity for her contempt for God, her seduction of the nations, and her violence against the church: “Pay her back even as she has paid. . . . To the degree that she glorified herself and lived sensuously, to the same degree give her torment and mourning” (18-6-7). This principle of strict lex talionis, eye for eye equity is reinforced in Revelation 18:6b, which should be translated, “Give back to her a duplicate of her deeds; in the cup which she has mixed, mix an equivalent for her to drink.” The Greek words usually translated “a double portion” or “twice as much” (NIV, NASB) do not mean that Babylon will receive twice the judgement that she deserves in the light of her deeds but that her judgement will be the duplicate that exactly corresponds to the severity of her offences.
Richard Phillips speaks of just how bad this world system is:
The living death depicted by Babylon is caused by the reign of moral depravity in rebellion to God. First, Babylon is condemned for exporting a culture of sexual indulgence and perversion throughout the world: “For all nations have drunk the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality” (Rev. 18:3). This statement suggests that those who lead masses of people into sin will be especially accountable to God’s wrath. Moreover, “the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her” (18:3). Tyrannical governments rely on the central inducements of immorality to gain allegiance and strengthen their power. Furthermore, “the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (18:3). The point is not to condemn honest gain from business, but to oppose merchants and corporate titans who so worship money that they traffic in the poison of sin. The angel’s condemnation of Babylon warns both citizens engaged in public service and those engaged in private enterprise that God is keeping tabs on their practice, and will hold them especially to account for their promotion of sexual immorality and other abuses of their fellow man.
For those of us who daily grieve over all this horrible evil, depravity and enmity against God, the good news is, as Joel Beeke reminds us, “the fall of Babylon is certain.” He goes on to comment:
Any society that forsakes God and roots itself in the here and now will end in collapse, ruin, and despair. That was true of Greece, Egypt, and Rome. We fear that it will happen to our decadent society, too, as we ignore God, moving him out of our schools, public places, and even churches as we continue to be intoxicated by the harlot Babylon. The inevitable consequences will be fall, ruin, and disaster if we continue to refuse to repent.
Civilization is fragile; it does not take very much for it to collapse, even today. We pride ourselves on being modern, sophisticated, civilized people, but the words of Revelation 18 are also written for us. Centuries ago, Samuel Rutherford advised Christians to “build your nest in no tree here; for ye see God hath sold the forest to death”. The days of this world are numbered. “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen.”
Yes, that is divine payback. And it is a good thing too.