Imagine the surprise that the manager of a Mercedes Benz factory in Buenos Aires, Argentina had when he was told that one of his workers had been kidnapped. Ricardo Klement was walking home from work on May 11, 1960 when he was approached by a man who uttered in Spanish “Un momentito, Señor.” When Mr. Klement stopped to find out what this man wanted, three other men wrestled him into a car and sped away. What the manager of the Mercedes Benz factory did not know and what most of those who knew Mr. Klement didn’t realize was that the kidnapped man was actually Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi Colonel and one of the major organisers of the Holocaust. He was subsequently tried and convicted of war crimes. In 1962, he was hanged. Adolf Eichmann had spent 10 peaceful years in Argentina until justice finally caught up with him, but not every criminal gets punished.
Sadly, we live in a world where horrific evil occurs and in some cases goes unpunished. What makes life bearable to live in a world where evil is not swiftly punished (or punished at all)? We are currently in a sermon series in Ecclesiastes and are at chapter 8, verses 10-17. In this section we will learn that justice is vanity when it is not carried out swiftly or correctly. As Christians, we want swift justice, but also do not lose heart when it is not carried out quickly because we know that God is the Divine Judge who will judge the world in righteousness and punish sinners perfectly.
God’s Divine Retribution
God’s divine retribution is His righteous punishment inflicted on sinners. The doctrine of Divine Retribution is not a pleasant topic, but a necessary one. Justice demands it. We can see this in Ecclesiastes 8:11 “Because the sentence against a criminal act is not carried out quickly, the heart of people is filled with the desire to commit crime.” There is a theory about crime called the “Broken Window Theory”. It proposes that a broken window left unfixed for a prolonged period of time will lead to more broken windows and increased crime in that area. This is because people will assume that no one cares and they are free to do whatever they want. When lawbreakers are not punished they become emboldened and law-keepers become disheartened. Solomon calls this vanity.
He also says it is vanity when “there are righteous people who get what the actions of the wicked deserve, and there are wicked people who get what the actions of the righteous deserve” (Ecc 8:14). Our justice system must work to punish criminals but we also lament that it is not carried out perfectly. We are thankful that the American justice system is designed around “Innocent until proven guilty” and that the Bill of Rights enshrines “due process” so that anyone charged must be tried according to the law. We lament when the guilty go free and when the innocent are punished. In accordance with the Scriptures, we desire a judicial system that is impartial, fair, and just.
How do we live in a world where justice isn’t carried out swiftly or at all? We remember that God is watching and will make sure that perfect justice is carried out at His appropriate time. The sentence of death is declared upon sinners. Paul wrote to the Romans that “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). He also told the Romans, “Because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Rom 2:5). Solomon wrote, “It will not go well with the wicked…for they are not reverent before God.”
God’s Divine Forbearance
God’s forbearance is His patient self-control and restraint in carrying out the immediate damnation of sinners. Sinners deserve to be punished so why are they permitted to live? It is because God shows forbearance in that He holds back the judgment the sinners deserves. (Rom 2:4). God does not have to restrain His anger. He can (and has) unleashed it upon sinners in this world. Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10), Uzzah (2 Sam 6), and Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5) serve as examples of God’s immediate judgment. It is common for people to ask why God struck down these people. The better question is not “Why them?” but “Why not us?” When we speak of God’s forbearance we need to keep the following in mind: 1) God’s forbearance is a sign of His mercy and grace and 2) God’s forbearance is not a sign of tolerance and/or acceptance. Forbearance is restraint. It is bearing patiently with someone in order to allow time for reconciliation.
Charles Spurgeon adds: “It is a great sign of love on God’s part that He condescends to reason with men. When they had offended against Him, He might have said to them, ‘I will punish you for your offenses,’ and He might have gone His way until the day for carrying out His threat arrived. But instead of doing so, He is unwilling that any should perish. According to His own declaration, He has no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but would rather that he should turn unto Him and live. And therefore He pauses.”
God’s Divine Redemption
God has the right to immediate retribution because of sin and has the right to exercise forbearance. God’s forbearance is not unjust because God is not overlooking sin but allowing the sin to be propitiated (wrath appeased) through Jesus Christ. God sent His one and only Son “who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). Propitiation is the removal of Divine wrath; Jesus’ death is the means that turns God’s wrath from the sinner. John Piper spoke of the reason for God’s forbearance: “How can God be righteous in upholding the beauty and worth of His own glory if He simply passes over sins which demean His glory? Paul’s answer is that God does not simply pass over sins. He puts Christ forward to die for them, and thus show that His glory is infinitely precious and His justification of sinners is just.”
A Helpful Parable
A proper understanding of God’s retribution, forbearance, and redemption is necessary for Christians to be able to live a godly life in an ungodly world. It is also helpful for us to remember that Jesus knows what He is doing. Jesus told a parable in Matthew 13 that we call the “Parable of the Wheat and the Weeds”. In this parable a man sowed wheat in a field but his enemy sowed weeds among them. Both the weeds and the wheat grew together. The servants of the landowner asked a very important question: “Do you want us to immediately remove all the weeds?” The landowner replied, “No…When you gather up the weeds, you might also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At harvest time I’ll tell the reapers: Gather the weeds first and tie them in bundles to burn them, but store the wheat in my barn.”God permits evil to exist alongside good. While God does not immediately remove all evil from this world, He has appointed a day in which it will be purged completely. The “sons of the kingdom” must be courageous and patient. We must take our stand against evil and shine as lights while waiting for the Day in which perfect justice will be carried out. Retribution is coming. Forbearance is for a season. Redemption is available now.