Attention has already been called to the great offence which the history of the conquest of Canaan has given to the opponents of Christianity. As was said, the Manichaeans classified it among “the cruel things which Moses did and commanded,” and which went to prove, according to their view, that the God of the Old Testament could not be the God of the New. This is the usual criticism brought against the Jehovah of the people of Israel. He is a cruel and unjust deity. Thus to identify Him with the God of the Christians is to inflict the followers of Christ with god whom it is impossible to obey and adore.
These opinions every true believer denounces as blasphemy. The Canaanites, as was said, were wicked, and sinners before the Lord exceedingly. Instead of forsaking their abominations, they chose to continue defiant to the end and thus chose death. And what they chose they received from the hand of God.
Being just, the extirpation of the Canaanites was not cruel. But who can read of the military campaigns of Joshua—of the slaying of countless numbers of humans including women and children—without exclaiming, How terrible! And to say that God had commanded it, is not saying enough. It was Jehovah’s work, in which Joshua and his army were busy merely as His agents. We will then say of God not that He is cruel but that He is terrible in His holiness. This is the truth about God that receives statement in Holy Writ over and over. “For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great king over all the earth” (). By terrible things in righteousness will He answer His people, . Terrible are the things which He did by the Red sea, . He is the great and the terrible God, . With him is terrible majesty, . He drives away His enemies as smoke: as wax melteth before the fire, so the wicked perish at His presence, . He shall break them with a rod of iron; and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel, . The earth shook and trembled; the foundations also of the hills were moved and were shaken, because he was wroth, .
The God of the New Testament is just as terrible as the Jehovah of the people of Israel, for he is Jehovah. He reveals from heaven His wrath over all unrighteousness of men. He gives them up to uncleanness through the lusts of their own heart, and to vile affection and to a reprobate mind,. The plagues of the book of Revelations, all the torments of the human family of this hour—the torments of war, famine, and death, and every torment that is named—proceed from His counsel. And when the day of His wrath is come, He will do terrible things in righteousness. The stars in heaven will fall to the earth; the heaven will depart as a scroll, and every mountain and island will be moved out of their places.
Some would tone down the severity of God by saying that He would be a kind father to all men but cannot because He stands helpless in the presence of man’s unbelief. But God doeth terrible things in righteousness because He wills and not because men, through their unwillingness to repent, compel Him. At the end of time, it will again be said of the wicked, who perish in their sins. There was not one of them that willed to lie reconciled to God, because it was of God to harden their hearts, that they should remain impenitent, that He might destroy them utterly and that they might have no favor.
It is sheer hypocrisy in the natural man that he stands aghast at the severity of the God of the Scriptures. Within the limits of his creatural capacities, man, too, does terrible things, not in righteousness but in unrighteousness. For example, in his mad and unholy scramble for this earth, he goes to war and employs all the fruits of science in the destruction of the life and property of the competitor nation. It has been estimated that in the present conflict 22 million humans—men, women, and children—have already died. Still the war must go on, however the cost in human lives is daily mounting. Yet man will find fault with God because, in His righteous severity, He metes out punishment to the wicked.
Man does not object to the severity of God, if God will only exercise His severity in man’s interest to the exclusion of the interest of his fellowmen, in helping man win his wars which he wages with his fellow men. Each party to the conflict implores the divine aid. Each will conquer with God’s help. Each decries in God’s ears the sins and atrocities of the other but of which all are equally guilty and in which all glory—glory in their shame. Each thanks God that he is not like (those) other men. Each prays, “Let God arise, let our enemies be scattered.” So do men contempt God. And the example is set by the clergy.
It is plain, then, that the reason of the natural man’s hatred of the God of the Scriptures is not that He is terrible but that He declines to be terrible in the interests of man, of his carnal aims. The reason is that God does terrible things in righteousness, is thus terrible in the interest of His own cause only, which alone is righteous, and which at once is the cause of all righteous men, His people, chosen in Christ, reconciled to God through the cross, a people constrained by His love to war His warfare and sustained by the gladdening prospect that, through all His terrible doings, God perfects their salvation, and thus promotes the ends of His kingdom—the kingdom of heaven—so that it comes and will appear in glory on the new earth where God, who doeth terrible things in righteousness, will tabernacle with its righteous citizens—righteous in Him, Christ Jesus—who is the righteousness of His people.
It is this God that the world hates. For with this God in heaven in the throne of the universe men must either eschew evil, do righteousness, know Him the only true God and Jesus Christ whom He has sent, desire nothing in heaven and on earth beside Him, thus cease hating and killing one another in their mad lust for the things below and set their affections on the things above, or be, destroyed, be chased by the curse of God, who doeth terrible things in righteousness, into everlasting desolation. But men—the reprobated, world—do not want to be destroyed. What man does! But neither do they want to forsake their abominations, and turn to the living, the great and terrible God, to be saved. What they desire of God is that He bless them in their sins. But this God cannot do. Disappointed they turn to their idol, prostrate themselves before the shrine of a god of their own making, who will go along with them in their sin and bless them in their iniquity.
But we must consider that, as with God there is no respect of persons, He doeth terrible things in righteousness even to His people, in the first instance to Christ, the Savior, whom He bruised for their iniquities and wounded for their transgressions. And in bruising Him, God was again doing a terrible thing in righteousness. We have but a faint notion of what Christ suffered under the mighty hand of God from His agony in the garden, from the words that He uttered upon the cross, and from complaints such as these, “I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint: my heart is like wax; it is melted in the midst of my bowels. My strength is dried up like a potsherd; my tongue cleaveth to my jaws; and thou hast brought me into the dust of death” ().
God doeth a terrible thing in righteousness to His people. In His love He chasteneth them for their correction. Under His mighty hand, they have many tribulations and are in heaviness through manifold temptations. At times His hand may be resting upon them with such weight that with Job they cry that their grief, if laid in the balance together, would be heavier than the sands of the sea.
Yet it is this very God whom believers desire—the God that doeth terrible things in righteousness. With the love of this God shed abroad in their hearts, it is the only God whom they can will to desire. And He is righteous to remember their work and labor, which they shew toward His name. In tribulations they become partakers of His holiness. All things advance their salvation. His mercy is upon them and His goodness followeth them all the days of their life. He prepares for them a table in the presence of their enemies and gives them peace. As executing terrible vengeance upon the wicked who persecute them—He doeth terrible things in righteousness—He delivers them out of all their troubles and crowns them with glory. Therefore do they glory only in Him, the God of their salvation, who answereth them by terrible things in righteousness. This verily is their song:
O clap your hands, all ye people: shout unto God with the voice of the trumpet.
For the Lord most high is terrible; he is a great king over all the earth.
He shall subdue the people under us, and the nations under our feet.
He shall choose our inheritance for us, the excellency of Jacob whom he loved ().
Being God’s sons and partaking of His nature, believers, too, do terrible things in righteousness. Joshua and the true Israel that with him warred God’s warfare did. And not only they but the believers of the gospel age as well. All God’s people do, especially the saints in heaven, they who have passed to their reward. The souls under the altar—the souls of them that were slain for the word of God and for the testimony which they held—cry with a loud voice, saying, How long, O Lord, holy and true, dost thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?” (). When the prayers of all saints ( ) ascend up before God and are cast on the earth, there are voices, and thunderings, and lightnings, and an earthquake. Judgments we are to think of here—judgments with which the saints inflict the habitants of the earth—their faith conquers the world—yet not they but God who answereth them by terrible things in righteousness. And many of the saints are among these habitants and thus participate in the very grief for which they pray. And they do so willingly; for unto them it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on Him, but also to suffer for His sake ( ). “Thy kingdom come,” is a petition for the coming of Christ in judgment over the world, and this of necessity, as it is only through judgments that His kingdom can come.
We cannot, therefore, approve the appraisal of Joshua, according to which he and the religion under him did not appear in very close relation to many things that are lovely and of good report; the appraisal that ascribes the zeal and vigor with which Joshua fought God’s wars to the spirit of his age which was cruel (the spirit of every age is cruel); and that praises the man for his ruggedness as a soldier but criticizes him for his lack of sweetness and light, charity and gentleness. The cruel, hard, and brutish man is the man who doeth terrible things in unrighteousness. But God’s believing people do terrible things in righteousness, and therefore they are at once the meek of the earth, who love their enemies, bless them that curse them, pray for them which despitefully use them, and thus bring themselves forward as children of Him—their Father in heaven—who maketh His sun to rise on the evil and on the good. True zeal of God’s house, certainly, is not demoralizing. If it were, Christ would have been the greatest of sinners. It is sin, and sin only, that injures a man’s soul. It does so, because the wages of sin is death and because God, who doeth terrible things in righteousness, pays the sinning soul its wage.