Judgment and Deliverance – the lesson of Pesach

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“Seek the LORD, all you meek of the earth, who have wrought his judgment; seek righteousness, seek meekness: perhaps you shall be hid in the day of the LORD’s anger” (Zephaniah 2:3)

The consistent purpose of every true prophet was:

  • to warn that judgment is inevitable
  • to call sinners to repentance
  • to offer salvation to those who would respond; and
  • to reaffirm God’s plan to restore the faithful.

The prophetic message is then borne out in God dealings with man. From Noah’s flood to Jonah’s mission in Nineveh, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian exile: all confirm that God’s judgment is inevitable, but also that He saves those who put their trust in Him.

The Pesach story is another lesson in judgment and deliverance. Yet, it is the deliverance element that is dutifully celebrated in the annual Seder. Rarely is the Passover remembered from the perspective of God’s impending judgment. In the same way, many prophecies throughout the Bible promising the restoration of Israel have been divorced from the context of God’s wrath.

It is natural that those who consider themselves righteous or favoured in God’s eyes do not read scripture with an expectation of imminent condemnation, but rather with their eye on the promises of reward, honour and vindication. Prophetic warnings of judgment are thus taken as an exaggeration, an empty threat or even as being intended for someone else.

Yet, it took the expectation of judgment for the Israelites to comply with the Passover instructions. After the outpouring of the first nine plagues they must have been fully persuaded that the death of the firstborn was no empty threat.

“I will pass through the land of Egypt this night, and will smite all the firstborn” (Exodus 12:12) was thus the foregone conclusion which made it necessary to “take of the blood and strike on the side posts and upon the upper door post … and the blood shall be as a sign to you upon the houses where you are … And when I see the blood, I will pass over you” (Exodus 12:7 and 13).

The significance of the paschal lamb is that the Israelite families were not any less deserving of death (for the consequence of sin is death, and all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory). Were it not for God’s mercy, Moses would himself have lost his firstborn son. “The LORD met him and sought to kill him” (Exodus 4:24), refers to God’s indignation over Moses’ failure to observe the circumcision. The Bible thus demonstrates God’s uncompromising justice, from which no-one is exempt.

The slaughtering of the lamb showed quite graphically that the Israelite families would not escape the judgment of death, but that – in their case – the death would be requited through a substitute.

The Passover lamb served as a ransom for the firstborn of Israel, the price by which the nation was redeemed. In this way God purchased Israel for Himself. Consequently, the firstborn to every Israelite – both his firstborn son and the firstlings of his livestock – belonged to the LORD, and had to be redeemed or killed (Exodus 13:2,13). This was to be a continuing ordinance in Israel – a reminder to every generation that it was indebted to God for its posterity. “You are not your own: you were bought at a price” (1 Corinthians 6:19).

The miracle of the Passover was thus experienced by a people who understood that deliverance presupposes judgment.The Israelites who later relied for deliverance on the criterion of their ethnic identity as descendants of Abraham were caught off guard when God’s judgment came upon their own people.

There are many Scriptures that support the idea that an ethnically defined Israel that will eventually enjoy God’s favour and be vindicated by the destruction of the nations. But these very promises – taken in isolation and turned into absolutes for their ostensible beneficiaries – give false confidence to those who are destined for destruction.

The Word of God as contained in the prophetic writings is not intended to give the clearest and most unambiguous indication of future events, but is intended at once for the salvation to those who accept God’s righteous judgment and a trap and snare unto damnation for those who don’t.

“Sanctify the LORD of Hosts Himself, and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your dread. And He shall be a sanctuary for you, but for a stone of stumbling, and for a rock of falling to both the houses of Israel, for a trap and for a snare to the people of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 8:13-14).

Those who rely upon “thus saith the LORD, Israel is my son, even my firstborn” (Exodus 4:22), must not forget those “whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands …” (Isaiah 19:25).

Those who rejoice “because He loved your fathers, therefore He chose their seed after them, and brought you out in His sight with His mighty power out of Egypt, in order to drive out from before you nations greater and mightier than you, to bring you in, to give you their land for an inheritance, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 4:37-38), should remember that He also said: “Behold, I will make you a terror to yourself and to all your friends. And they shall fall by the sword of their enemies, and your eyes shall behold it. And I will give all Judah into the king of Babylon’s hand, and he will exile them into Babylon, and kill them with the sword” (Jeremiah 20:4).

Even those who know that “it is by grace we have been saved” (Ephesians 2:8), must remember that “many will say to me in that day, Lord! Lord! … And then I will say to them I never knew you!” (Matthew 7:22-23).

Ezekiel deliberately uses the Passover idiom to prophesy God’s judgment over Jerusalem:
“And God called to the man clothed in linen, with the writer’s inkhorn by his side. And the LORD said to him, Pass through the midst of the city, through the midst of Jerusalem, and set a mark on the foreheads of the men who are groaning and are mourning because of all the abominations that are done in her midst. And He said to those in my hearing, Cross over the city after him, and strike. Let not your eye spare, nor have pity. Fully destroy old men, young men and virgins, and little children and women. But do not come near any man on whom is the mark. And begin at My sanctuary” (Ezekiel 9:3-6).

“For the time has come for judgment to begin with the house of God. And if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who refuse to obey the gospel of God? And if it is hard for the righteous person to be saved, what will happen to the ungodly and the sinner?” (1 Peter 4:17-18)

Again, pride would render many people blind to Ezekiel’s warning, so that the proverbs may prove true: “Pride goes before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall” and, “A man’s pride shall bring him low: but honour shall uphold the humble in spirit.” (Proverbs 16:18 & 29:23)

In the days before the Babylonian captivity, the humble in spirit would have distanced themselves from King Zedekiah, the false prophets and the corrupt priesthood, and escaped the destruction.
For, “if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment” (1 Corinthians 11:31), and, “the LORD is good to those whose hope is in him, to the one who seeks him. It is good to wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD” (Lamentations 3:25).

But those who thought that judgment was an empty threat, and relied on being God’s chosen people for guaranteed deliverance, and those who were righteous by their own estimation – these all fell into a trap and a snare and met with famine, disease and the sword of Babylon. To these unfortunate souls applies the lament: “… He [the Lord] has spread a net for my feet” (Lamentations 1:13).

The Messiah should similarly be understood as the one who saves from God’s judgment.
Again the prophets warned:
“Woe unto you that desire the day of the LORD! To what end is it for you? The day of the LORD is darkness, and not light” (Amos 5:18).
“Who may abide the day of his coming? Who shall stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like a launderer’s soap” (Malachi 3:2).
“Blow a ram’s horn in Zion, and sound an alarm in My holy mountain; let all the inhabitants of the land tremble. For the day of the LORD comes, for it is near at hand; a day of darkness and of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread on the mountains … They shall rush on the city; they shall run on the wall; they shall climb up on the houses; they shall enter in at the windows like a thief. The earth shall tremble before them; the heavens shall shake. The sun and the moon shall grow dark, and the stars shall gather in their light. And the LORD shall utter His voice before His army; for His camp is very great; for strong is He who does His Word. For the day of the LORD is great and very terrible; and who can stand it?” (Joel 2:1-11).

There were two distinct expectations prevailing amongst the Jews when John the Baptist began to proclaim: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

There were those who shared the sentiments of the prophet Daniel:
“We have sinned, and have committed iniquity, and have done wickedly, and have rebelled, even by departing from thy precepts and from thy judgments: Neither have we hearkened unto thy servants the prophets, which spake in thy name to our kings, our princes, and our fathers, and to all the people of the land” (Daniel 9:5-6).

To those who could see the same pattern of religious hypocrisy, compromise and corruption that prevailed before the destruction of the first temple, the Day of the LORD was looming – a “day of darkness, not light” in which God would “lay the land desolate and destroy the sinner out of it.” Whatever the messianic expectation of these people might have been, it would have been couched in the fear of judgment.

To such as these came glad tidings of great joy, that there was born to them in David’s city, and from David’s line, One who would be the Saviour and Redeemer of his people.
“And she shall bring forth a son, and you must call his name Yeshua (Jesus): for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

John the Baptist met Jesus with these words: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). For he would become the Passover sacrifice by whose blood the faithful remnant would escape the judgment which was about to befall the nation of Israel.

Thus, “In that day shall the branch of the LORD be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the earth shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel” (Isaiah 4:2).
“The Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob who repent of their sins, declares the LORD” (Isaiah 59:20).

John baptised across the Jordan River (John 10:40) – probably at the site where the Israelites crossed into the Land at the time of Joshua (Joshua 1:2).

In terms of the Law of Moses, the Land was promised as an inheritance, for as long as the Israelites would remain obedient to the covenant (Leviticus 20:22-24). By withdrawing across the Jordan, the penitent ones of Israel were acknowledging that they had forfeited their promised inheritance through disobedience, placing themselves at God’s mercy in anticipation of the coming Redeemer.

“All the people, even the tax collectors, when they heard Jesus’ words, acknowledged that God’s way was right, because they had been baptised by John. But the Pharisees and experts in the law rejected God’s purpose for themselves, because they had not been baptised by John” (Luke 7:29-30).

On the other hand, there was an expectation of a Messiah who would vindicate Israel before its enemies and elevate it to the foremost position amongst the nations of the world.

The Pharisees and others who shared this sentiment could not foresee that they themselves were co-equally under God’s wrath and judgment. Meticulous in their religious observances – and thoroughly convinced of their own righteousness – they were awaiting the just reward for their abstemious and disciplined life. Salvation from sin was not part of their messianic expectation.

The Pharisees would not recognise that they had made an idol out of the Torah and had adopted the pursuit of moral perfection in exchange for a relationship with the living God. Nor did they understand their need of an internal transformation – which observance to an external code could not achieve.

“You have heard that it was said to the ancients, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28).
“For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water” (Jeremiah 2:13).

This Pharisaic mindset is pervasive throughout the Talmud and other rabbinical writings. The Pesiqta Rabbati is quite typical of the messianic expectation of the rabbis: “And all will come and fall upon their faces before the Messiah and before Israel, and will say to him, ‘Let us be servants to you and to Israel,’ and each one of Israel will have 2 800 servants …” (pp. 162 a – b).

Variations of this endure in the messianic hopes of Jews today. And just as building an ark would be of little interest to those not expecting a flood – the gospel of Jesus our Messiah finds no rapport amongst those awaiting their glorious restoration.

“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.” (John 8:31-34)

For those who share the sentiment of the Pharisees, religious and ethnic pride continues even today to be the trap and snare spoken of by Isaiah. These are those to whom the LORD Almighty said,
“This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear. But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken” (Isaiah 28:12-13).
The LORD has pronounced His verdict over those that say, “Stand by thyself, come not near to me; for I am holier than thou.” For “these are a smoke in my nose, a fire that burns all the day,” says the LORD (Isaiah 65:5).

Much of the New Testament and the prophetic outworking of Jesus’ teaching will be completely misunderstood unless we see that those who took hold of the promise of salvation were expecting imminent destruction. John the Baptist’s call to repentance was made with the conviction that judgment would soon follow. Thus his rebuke to the Pharisees coming for baptism: “You brood of vipers: who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?” (Matthew 3:7).

Not only did Jesus fail to live up to the expectation of the Pharisees, namely that they were to be showcased before all mankind as the paragon of religious virtue, but he also failed (at the outset) to come in judgment in accordance with the prophetic warnings. Thus the question of John the Baptist sent to Jesus from King Herod’s prison, “Are you the One who was to come, or should we wait for someone else?” (Luke 7:19).

But it was in accordance with God’s great mercy that the gospel of salvation would first reach its entire populace, before Israel would be condemned. For, as the rabbis like to teach: God always sends the cure before the disease.

When Jesus prophesied that “men will faint with fear and apprehension because of the things that are to come … they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud … [and] this generation will not pass away until it is all fulfilled” (Luke 21:26-32), he was not referring to his so-called second coming at the end of the age. He was reassuring those who held to the correct messianic expectation by confirming that He would soon come in judgment against Israel and Jerusalem, in accordance with all that the prophets had spoken.

Again, when Jesus prophesied: “So when they persecute you in one town, flee to the next. For truly I tell you, you certainly will not have gone through the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matthew 10:23), he was confirming God’s imminent judgment on all who would reject the gospel of salvation. Within 40 years (one generation) of Jesus’ death, this judgment did indeed come, with unprecedented devastation, misery and death. And we must say of Jesus as the prophets of old said about the fulfilment of their prophesies: “For then you will know that the LORD has sent me.”

What happened in Israel in 70 AD is but a microcosm of the judgment that awaits the whole world. For, as Paul warns the Gentiles, “in the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent” (Acts 17:30).

Judgment came first to the Jew of the Old Covenant for, “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). But now the knowledge of God has filled the whole earth, and once again God’s righteous judgment is ready to be revealed.

Once again, those caught up in unfaithfulness and temporal pursuits are saying: “tell us pleasant things, prophesy illusions” (Isaiah 30:10). Yet, to the very ones saying peace, peace – upon them destruction will come suddenly, and they shall not escape (1 Thessalonians 5:3).

Once again, those who warn of imminent judgment are scorned and rejected.

Once again the proud and carnal minded are being deceived by false expectations of restoration (be it a victorious, world ruling, world dominating church of the end time, or the restoration of an “Israel after the flesh” in the Land of the Patriarchs).

Again there is the trap and the snare, for to such people that day will come as a thief in the night and many will be overtaken by surprise and left in utter dismay.

Deliverance is once again predicated on judgment.

Once more the heavens and earth shall be shaken as prophesied in Joel 2. “The words ‘once more’ indicate the removing of what can be shaken – that is, created things – so that what cannot be shaken may remain” (Hebrews 12:27).

In Revelation 15:6 we see the reappearance of angels dressed in white linen – as appeared in the prophecy of Ezekiel 9. Again the angel of death is told to pass over those who bear God’s mark on their foreheads (Revelation 7:3).

“Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal …” (Ephesians 1:13).

“For God’s wrath is being revealed from heaven against all the ungodliness and wickedness of those who suppress the truth in their wickedness. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God himself has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes – his eternal power and divine nature – have been understood and observed by what he made, so that people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him. Instead, their thoughts turned to worthless things, and their ignorant hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:18-21).

The proud and the arrogant will always be blind to their impending doom. Only the fear of God can keep us from the snare, and the dread of His righteous judgment. And we have this as our assurance, that “mercy triumphs over judgment!” (James 2:13).