In the year 586 B.C., the armies of Nebuchadnezzar, then Emperor of Babylon, breached the city walls of Jerusalem after a lengthy siege; they razed the city along with its magnificent 400 year old temple to the LORD God, the Creator of heaven and earth. Nebachadnezzar then deported most of Jerusalem’s residents to Babylon, where they lived in exile for more than a generation. During the course of that city’s long siege, this prophetic warning, which God had given through the prophet Moses 900 years earlier, was fulfilled quite literally:
A nation of fierce countenance who will have no respect for the old, nor show favor to the young. … shall besiege you in all your towns until your high and fortified walls in which you trusted come down throughout your land, and it shall besiege you in all your towns throughout your land which the LORD your God has given you. Then you shall eat the offspring of your own body, the flesh of your sons and of your daughters whom the LORD your God has given you, during the siege and the distress by which your enemy will oppress you. (Deuteronomy 28:50, 52-55)
Soon after this gruesome prophecy was fulfilled in the 6th century B.C., Jeremiah, a contemporary prophet, lamented what he himself had witnessed during the siege of Jerusalem and in its aftermath:
The hands of compassionate women boiled their own children; they became food for them because of the destruction of the daughter of my people. The LORD has accomplished His wrath, He has poured out His fierce anger; and He has kindled a fire in Zion [= Jerusalem] which has consumed its foundations. (Lamentations 4:9-11)
Why Such a Disaster?
Why would God do such a thing to the ‘daughter of his people’ Israel, that is, to Jerusalem? In the midst of their intense suffering, the men of that generation, too wondered why, and they cried ‘foul’. They consoled themselves with a proverb, one that accused God of punishing them for the sins of others – for their forefathers’ sins. Similar to Jeremiah (31:29-30), another sixth century B.C. prophet reproved their use of that saying, when he asked the Israelites, “What mean ye, that ye use this proverb …, saying, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?” (Ezekiel 18:2). Like many today in the aftermath of the great Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, those then suffering complained of divine injustice: “Surely we ourselves did nothing to deserve this terrible suffering!”
The Creator of mankind, the God of the Bible, is adamant about his justice in such matters: “The person who sins will die. The son will not bear the punishment for the father’s iniquity, nor will the father bear the punishment for the son’s iniquity; the righteousness of the righteous will be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked will be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20). Unlike human courts, God never punishes one man for the sin of another. Let us look more closely at God’s answer to those who doubt his fairness and goodness in the wake of a great calamity.
God’s First Reply – God’s Works are Just
In the midst of his tearful lamentation over Jerusalem, the Lord God gave Jeremiah a clear, two-part answer to the complaint of the men of his day:
For the Lord will not reject forever,
For if He causes grief, Then He will have compassion According to His abundant
lovingkindness. . . .
Who is there who speaks and it comes to pass, Unless the Lord has commanded it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High That both good and ill go forth?
Why should any living mortal, or any man, Offer complaint in view of his sins?
Let us examine and probe our ways, And let us return to the LORD.
(Lamentations 3:30-40 )
First of all, writes Jeremiah, relief will surely come, “the Lord will not reject forever,” because after “He causes grief, then He will have compassion according to His abundant lovingkindness.” That promise, too, God fulfilled, when, about a generation later, many Jews returned from captivity to rebuild Jerusalem.
Secondly, however, the Lord’s answer to their proverb about the sour grapes was not his promise to them of restoration in the future. God addressed their plaint directly, in order to vindicate his own justice. Through Jeremiah, God asks rhetorically, “Why should any living mortal, or any man, offer complaint in view of his sins?” (verse 39). This, the heart of God’s reply to those complaining that the devastation of Jerusalem was unfair, presupposes the presence of sin in every man: “Why should … any man offer complaint in view of his sins?”
All are Guilty Before the True God
Everyone in Jerusalem that day it fell was in fact guilty of sin, i.e., of violations of the law of God. That law, which had come nearly 1000 years earlier through Moses, included a code of conduct and standards of right and wrong. According to God, each and everyone in Tohoku, indeed in all of Japan on March 11, too, was guilty of violations of the law of God. For in the Bible we read, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). In his law, the Lord condemns not only outward violations, such as murder and adultery, but thoughts and words, too. For example, Jesus warns: “I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28); and, “whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell.” (Matthew 5:22).
Everyone guilty of having sinned, by violation of any law of God, is worthy of death, “For the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). In his justice, God is free justly to carry out that sentence whenever He sovereignly chooses to do so. Before the true and living God who created us, everyone alive on earth today is like a rightly-convicted murderer whose death sentence has been postponed. Every day we live it is by grace, God’s merciful unmerited favor. When death finally comes – even painful death, even death (or lesser loss) by tsunami – Jeremiah reminds us, “Why should any living mortal, or any man, Offer complaint in view of his sins?” God is just and fair to us, even when earthquakes and tsunamis kill thousands.
A Difference Between Ancient Jerusalem and Modern Japan
Pointing out that no “living mortal, or any man” has any legitimate right to complain against God when disaster strikes, does not mean that the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami were God punishing any particular individual or group for some particular sin, as had indeed been the case when Babylon sacked Jerusalem. Then God’s own prophet had warned that the destruction of “this place” was coming as punishment for Israel having violated his law, and thereby breaking his covenant with her:
9 Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Behold, I am going to eliminate from this place, before your eyes and in your time, the voice of rejoicing and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.
10 “Now when you tell this people all these words, they will say to you, ‘For what reason has the LORD declared all this great calamity against us? And what is our iniquity, or what is our sin which we have committed against the LORD our God?’
11 “Then you are to say to them, ‘It is because your forefathers have forsaken Me,’ declares the LORD, ‘and have followed other gods and served them and bowed down to them; but Me they have forsaken and have not kept My law.
12 ‘You too have done evil, even more than your forefathers; for behold, you are each one walking according to the stubbornness of his own evil heart, without listening to Me.
13 ‘So I will hurl you out of this land into the land which you have not known, neither you nor your fathers; and there you will serve other gods day and night, for I will grant you no favor.’
17 “For My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from My face, nor is their iniquity concealed from My eyes.
18 “I will first doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted My land; they have filled My inheritance with the carcasses of their detestable idols and with their abominations.”
19 O LORD, my strength and my stronghold, And my refuge in the day of distress, To You the nations will come From the ends of the earth and say, “Our fathers have inherited nothing but falsehood, Futility and things of no profit.”
20 Can man make gods for himself? Yet they are not gods!
21 “Therefore behold, I am going to make them know– This time I will make them know My power and My might; And they shall know that My name is the LORD.”
The violations Jeremiah specifically indicts are, forsaking the true and living God, to “follow other gods,” and filling “my inheritance” – the land of Israel – “with the carcasses of their detestable idols” (i.e., worship of other gods and idols). Such gods are “falsehood, futility and things of no profit,” explains Jeremiah. Worse yet, such religious practice provokes the true and living God (our Creator) to jealousy.
While the residents of ancient Jerusalem did indeed suffer as punishment for their violations of the First Commandment and the Second Commandment, and in his Lamentations Jeremiah could have answered by repeating his earlier indictments against them for those sins, Jeremiah instead gives us a more basic answer, one that applies more generally to great suffering in our day, too: “Why should … any man offer complaint in view of his sins?” In short, since we are all guilty of breaking God’s commandments, none of us has a right to complain when we suffer. God is just and fair in all his ways. But Jeremiah’s instruction to his own people did not stop with merely vindicating God’s justice – then and now. He goes on to encourage the Jews to godliness.
Finally in Lamentations 3:40, Jeremiah urges the Jews to learn a crucial lesson, one that all peoples everywhere desperately need to hear: “Let us examine and probe our ways, And let us return to the LORD.” “The LORD,” here, is the personal name of the God of the Bible, sometimes rendered, “Yahweh” or “Jehovah.” At one time, Israel had been quite faithful to Him. About 1400 years before Jeremiah’s Lamentations, the man Israel (AKA ‘Jacob’), accompanied by his 12 sons, the forefathers of all the Israelites, commanded, “to his household and to all who were with him, ‘Put away the foreign gods which are among you, and purify yourselves’” (Genesis 35:2).
Down through the generations between Israel (Jacob) and Jeremiah, Israel fell away from the living and true God and turned back foreign gods similar to those which Israel had purged from his family many centuries earlier. Accordingly, Jeremiah urges his generation to renewed fidelity to the true God whom their ancestors had served, “Let us examine and probe our ways, And let us return to the LORD.”
Jeremiah and Japan
The people of Japan, today, are in a situation similar the Jews of Jeremiah’s day, vis-à-vis their Creator. At one time, a number of generations prior to Jacob’s birth, Japan’s ancestors, too, knew and worshiped the God of the Bible; then, “the whole earth used the same language and the same words” (Gen 11:1); they all knew the same God who had not only created them, but flooded the whole earth a few generations earlier (Noah’s generation) as a judgment against pre-flood unrestrained violence. Sometime after that flood, and following a near universal rebellion against the true God and his covenant with man, the LORD “‘confuse[d] their language, so that they [could] not understand one another’s speech.’ So the LORD scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth” (Genesis 11:7-8). Cut off from communication with each other and from the knowledge of the true God, against whom most of them had rebelled, they scattered to form nations which still knew a god existed, but lacked accurate knowledge about God. They then, “exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles” (Romans 1:23). This ancient apostasy of the nations of the world (including Japan) unto idolatry and the worship of false gods was very similar to that of Israel leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem.
Certainly by sending this great earthquake and tidal wave the LORD, the one true God, has displayed his great power and might in Tohoku. May it be that all would come to “know My power and My might; and … know that My name is the LORD” (Jeremiah 16:21).
Thus, Jeremiah’s words to his apostate generation, “Let us examine and probe our ways, And let us return to the LORD,” still speak to nations such as Japan today, which have, on the whole, continued to worship “images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles,” in lieu of “the glory of the immortal God” who warns all such idol worshipers, “You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God” (The Second Commandment).
In summary, the Bible’s two-part answer to those who suffered terrible losses on March 11, and in its aftermath and wonder, “why did this happen?” is, first, God who controls the heavens and the earth is just, good and merciful, for rather than immediately punishing us as our sins (universally) deserve, he has continued, often for years or centuries, to overlook many grievous offenses that deserved his righteous wrath. Second, Jeremiah urges us, “let us return to the LORD”; He created all men. It is the LORD whom our ancestors worshiped for many generations, before they slipped into the darkness of superstition and idolatry.
However, the God of the Bible has something even more important to say to Japan, today, in the aftermath of this calamity which occurred according to his righteous decree. For the Bible clearly shows that this LORD, the one, true and living God is not only just even when we suffer, but he has poured out his love upon us, such that we may be assured of his lovingkindness, even in the midst of such suffering.
God’s Second Reply – God’s Works are Gracious
While the Bible clearly teaches God’s justice in bringing so-called ‘natural disasters’ such as earthquakes and tsunamis upon men, it has an even more important message about God’s nature for those in Tohoku and elsewhere who are currently grieving over their injuries and losses.
Paul, one of the first Christian missionaries and an apostle of the Lord Jesus, described God’s purpose this way in his letter to the church at Rome (circa A.D. 57):
And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?
He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? (Romans 8:27, 31-32)
Paul’s first sentence assures us that God has a good purpose in everything that happens, good, at least, for “those who love God, … who are called according to His purpose.” God not only controls what happens, he does so for the benefit of those who love Him. This is true of “all things” that happen to us, earthquakes included. “Him,” of course, refers to “God,” the God of the Bible. Now this does not mean that we mere men can necessarily discern what that benefit is in the midst of our suffering. Sometimes we may have an idea of God’s purpose, but other times we are completely in the dark. However, this does mean that such a beneficial purpose always exists, and God himself knows it.
Jesus and Suffering
How can we be sure of God’s goodness? How can we know for certain that these calamities are not simply some kind of divine bullying? In verses 31-32, Paul provides that answer, too: God “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all.” The love of a man who would give the life of a beloved son on behalf other men who had done him grievous wrong could never be doubted. In precisely this way, God sent his one and only eternal Son into the world, causing Him to become a man, by birth from a woman, in order that that Son, Jesus, should one day give his life in place of sinners, sinners who have sinned grievously against God Himself.
When Jesus, the one and only Son of God, died on the cross, He did so out of love for sinners, dying in their place. About Himself, Jesus explained, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). His death paid the penalty for the sins of his people (John 10:14-16).
Furthermore, it is important to realize He did this willingly, of his own accord:
I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father. (John 10:17b-18)
God the Father sent his only Son to mankind to die as a substitute for sinners who deserved sin’s just penalty of death and hell. That Son willingly obeyed and fulfilled his mission to work salvation through his own crucifixion. “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
It is impossible that God – who has shown such love for sinners whom he has “called according to his purpose,” called out of the darkness of their idolatry and into the light of his Son – would work for harm against those for whom He delivered over his Son to death. So Paul asks, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things? ” God’s love for sinners, manifest in his putting Jesus to death on the cross, is more than adequate proof for Paul’s assertion, to wit, “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”
It is important to note, however, Paul does not say that for every individual man, woman or child, “all things” will “work together for good.” He writes rather that “God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God.” Some people love God, that is, the true and living God who made heaven and earth; others do not know Him and do not worship Him. To those others, Paul promises no such thing. Elsewhere, Paul warns them, “because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart you are storing up wrath for yourself in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who WILL RENDER TO EACH PERSON ACCORDING TO HIS DEEDS” (Romans 2:5-6). For such a person, clearly God is not “working all things together for good.”
Even though the one true God, our Creator, “causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45) and even though he is “good … giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness” (Acts 14:17), grace which constitutes “kindness of God which leads you to repentance” (Rom 2:4), and “in the generations gone by God permitted all the nations to go their own ways,” worshiping false gods and idols, yet now, “having [in the past] overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead” (Acts 17:30-31). That Man is Jesus, the Son of God. He is not only proof of God’s love for sinners, he has been appointed judge of the living and dead and will come again soon for that purpose.
Jesus and Japan
In view of this world’s impending judgment by Jesus, who gave his life for sinners, such mighty acts of God in this world as those phenomena in Tohoku on March 11, 2011, may be reasonably understood as a wake-up call from heaven to earth. That is, a call to those on earth who are still estranged from the one, true and living God, Creator of heaven and earth, the God and Father of the only “Savior of the World” (John 4:42; 1 John 4:14). To date, few in Japan have turned from the false gods of Shintoism, Buddhism, and secular materialism, to the living and true God whom their ancestors once knew and served. When that God brings massive earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, and the like upon this nation, we should understand them as a loving warning to turn to Jesus, before it is too late.
In Jesus’ own lifetime there was apparently a great tragedy when a tower fell, killing 18 persons. Jesus taught the residents of Jerusalem that they should learn from the incident and repent from their sins and turn to him:
do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” (Luke 13:4-5)
The Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11 were undoubtedly not because of particularly heinous sins of those who perished. Most of them were probably no worse than those who survived. Still, the Lord Jesus has this same message to us who survived that catastrophe: “unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”
Paul, an Apostle of the Lord Jesus, speaking on behalf of the Lord, explains the significance of Jesus death on the cross, and urges all those alive today to be “reconciled to God” through faith Jesus and repentance.
God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:19-20)
Jews of Jesus’ day who came to realize that Jesus was their promised Savior and that He had died for them and been raised from the dead, “were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” (Acts 2:37).
Peter replied, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself.” (Acts 2:38-39)
If you are interested in learning more about, or are ready to return to the worship of your Creator through his only Son Jesus, please contact a Reformed or Presbyterian Church near you. By the example of Christ and his Apostles, true churches everywhere gather for worship on the first day of the week each Lord’s Day (Sunday). Feel free to go to church this coming Lord’s Day.
In Japan, I recommend:
The Reformed Church in Japan 改革派教会 (nationwide presence), The Presbyterian Church in Japan 日本長老教会 (primarily Kanto and Nagoya area, but a few congregations in Osaka and Shikoku), and the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Japan 改革長老教会 (Kobe area).
In the North America I recommend:
Orthodox Presbyterian Church (my home church), Presbyterian Church in America, Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, United Reformed Churches, Reformed Church in the U.S., Canadian Reformed Churches, Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, and Korean American Presbyterian Church. See also the NAPARC website (http://www.naparc.org/) and that of the ICRC (http://www.icrconline.com/).
The Pope and The Question, “Why?”
Answering a seven year old Japanese girl’s question as to why Japanese children are suffering in the aftermath of the Tohoku earthquake. Japanese news reports: “法王は「私も同じように『なぜ』と自問しています。いつの日かその理由が分かり、神があなたを愛し、そばにいることを知るでしょう」などと回答するという。” (English translation: The Pope replied in this vain, ‘I, too, ask myself similarly, “why?” Perhaps some day we will understand the reason, and know that God loves you and that He is near [you].'” ( http://sankei.jp.msn.com/world/news/110422/erp11042208060000-n1.htm )