At another church, we tried a Wednesday night visitation program for a few years. We never got a lot of participation, and we found that most people didn’t like being visited in their homes. One night, there were about four of us there, and we were dividing up visiting assignments. I read out the name and address of a man who had visited our church and filled out a visitor’s card. Immediately, one of the guys there, named John, said, “Oh, I can’t go see him.” The other three men in the room looked at him for a few awkward seconds, then John sheepishly said, “I beat him up once. It was a long time ago, before I got saved, but yeah, I beat him up.” Right then, Dale spoke up, “What was the guy’s name again?” Dale was the human resource guy for one of the refineries in town. When I told him the name, he smiled and shook his head. “You fired him, didn’t you?” I asked. “Yes,” he answered. “Well, actually, he sorta fired himself.” John piped in at that point, “Well, he sorta beat himself up, too.”
That story was funny precisely because it was so unexpected. We were in church, after all, where people usually pretend to be nicer than they really are. It’s a little bit shocking when some of the raw truth comes out. One thing about the Bible: It’s not afraid of the raw truth. Today, we’ll talk about a very raw story, from 2 Kings 2:23-25. This one shows us a side of God we would rather not even acknowledge. In fact, we rarely mention stories like this in church these days. But hiding from this doesn’t make it true.
23 From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. “Go on up, you baldhead!” they said. “Go on up, you baldhead!” 24 He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths.
So does this story mean that it’s a sin to make fun of bald-headed men? Or that people who don’t respect preachers will meet a bad end? (Actually, I sort of like that second one). No, I think both of these stories say something fundamental about who our God is…and it’s something that doesn’t get talked about in our sermons or sung about in our songs. It doesn’t fit with our common conception of God as a doting, approving Grandpa in the sky. He is a God of holy, righteous wrath.
This event took place during a time of spiritual crisis in Israel. The King was a man named Ahab. 1 Kings 16:30 says, Ahab…did evil in the sight of the Lord, more than all who were before him. What did he do that was so bad? Well, first he married a woman named Jezebel. Jezebel was one of the true villains of the Bible, as we shall see. Jezebel came to Israel with the express goal of converting the Jews to the worship of false god named Baal. It makes sense: She was the daughter of Ethbaal, the king of Sidon in the land of Phonecia. Ethbaal’s name meant “Baal exists.” One of her first actions was to round up all the prophets of the Lord and have them killed. If not for the courageous action of a man named Obadiah, who risked his life to hide 100 prophets, they all would have been massacred. Then she persuaded her husband to build a massive temple for Baal worship in Samaria, the capitol of the Northern Kingdom, and also a statue of Asherah, mother of Baal (apparently Baal needed his mommy nearby). So Israel, which had been for centuries a nation that was unfaithful to God, now became a people who were outright opposed to Him. Their idolatry led them into terrible injustice. 1 Kings 21 tells the story of Ahab and Jezebel conspiring to have a man named Naboth executed under false charges just so that they could take possession of his land.
Into this terrible time, God sent Elijah, a hard-nosed prophet with the kind of power that hadn’t been seen since the days of Moses. Elijah did things like stopping the rainfall, and calling down fire from Heaven, to show the Israelites that God’s judgment was coming on His people if they didn’t repent. He boldly stood up to Ahab and Jezebel, even at the risk of his life. Then one day, God took Elijah away in a whirlwind. Along with Enoch in Genesis 5, he is one of only two humans we know of who never died. That left Elisha, a man who had left great wealth to follow Elijah. For years, he had been doing that; now it was up to him to stand up for God in a land that had still not been spiritually revived. This story takes place right after Elisha begins this new ministry. As Elisha travels back to Bethel, 42 young men come out to mock him. It’s not clear exactly how old these boys are. The King James Version calls them “little children,” while some other versions call them “youths,” which is more indicative of teenagers. The Hebrew term is used in both ways in other parts of the Bible.
Some scholars believe when they called him “baldhead,” it was because Elisha had shaved all or some of his hair as a sign of his new role as a prophet, like a monk’s tonsure. Some also believe that in saying “Go on up,” they were making fun of the idea of Elijah going up to Heaven. In essence, they were saying, “Why don’t you go on up there too?” We don’t know for sure if either of those interpretations are true or not. But scholars agree that the punishment from God came because they attacked Elisha’s authority as a prophet. Elijah had been around for years, and pagans in Israel had learned to fear him. Now he was gone, and these young men felt free to mock his assistant. They didn’t realize the power came from God, not Elijah, and God hadn’t gone anywhere.
There are other stories in Scripture where the wrath of God comes down in sudden and shocking fashion. In Numbers 16, Korah, Dathan and Abiram tried to convince the Israelites to stop following Moses, and instead go back to Egypt with them. The earth opened up beneath them and swallowed them whole. In 2 Samuel 6, Uzzah was one of two brothers who were transporting the Ark of the Covenant on an oxcart. The Ark was the object that symbolized God’s presence, and it had been in the possession of the Philistines for years. Now it was finally going home to Jerusalem. What should have been a joyful day turned to tragedy when an ox stumbled, and Uzzah instinctively reached out his hand to steady the Ark. He was struck dead on the spot. And then in Acts 5, a Christian couple named Ananias and Sapphira, sold a piece of land, kept part of the money for themselves, but told their church they were giving all of it. When Peter confronted them separately with their lie, they each dropped dead. When we study these stories, we see some common threads. What do they tell us about God?
He is a God of absolute righteousness. God’s wrath is a function of His righteousness. In other words, God becomes angry when His righteousness is offended. In short, God hates sin. God’s wrath is not like human anger. It is not self-centered, cruel or vindictive. It is always righteous and just. Our anger changes us; we make stupid decisions when we are mad. God’s wrath does not change His character in the slightest. God can be angry with us, and still love us just as much as He always does. My own behavior as a parent illustrates the difference between God’s righteous wrath and my petty anger. If I get angry with my son because he wants to watch a movie and I want to watch football, and in the course of my anger I throw his movie away, that is selfish, cruel and vindictive. That does not make me a good father, and it doesn’t help Will become a better child. On the other hand, if I don’t allow him to watch the movie because it has content that would be harmful to him, or because that is the best discipline I can think of to teach him an important lesson, then that is wrath that is motivated by love and a concern for righteousness. That is the wrath of God. It is always motivated by righteousness. It is always redemptive.
When we look at these stories through the lens of God’s righteousness, it helps us see them in a different light. So for instance, when Korah, Dathan and Abiram went against Moses, they were trying to persuade the people to go against God. Remember, Moses had proof that God was leading Him. When Uzzah touched the Ark and died, he was explicitly disobeying the instructions God had given the Israelites for how the Ark should be transported. It was supposed to be handled in a religiously appropriate way, not treated like a common load. In the same way, these boys weren’t just mocking a baldheaded man. They were mocking God’s authority in their lives.
You might say, “But God should have been more merciful. These stories make Him sound like a short-tempered monster.” I have three things to say to that. First, we’ve mentioned four stories out of 66 bibilical books and several thousand years of history. Examples of God’s sudden, deadly wrath are extremely rare. Second, if God is who the Bible says He is, a God whose thoughts and ways are higher than our own, isn’t it possible He could have a morally defensible reason for doing something that we can’t possibly understand? Third, we act as though dying is the worst possible thing that could happen to a person. What if God’s taking of these people’s lives was an act of mercy? What if He was stopping them from heading down an even darker path, and leading others in that direction as well? You may say, “Well, that’s giving God an awful big benefit of the doubt.” Yes it is, but I think that’s appropriate. I’ll tell you why in just a minute.
His wrath comes when we don’t take His righteousness seriously. In the stories I told earlier about the people who caught the bad end of the wrath of God, those people had one thing in common: They all claimed to be people of God. Even though the young boys who mocked Elisha were probably idol-worshippers (like most of Israel in those days), they surely considered themselves part of the chosen people. We should see these stories as warnings; God will bring our hidden sins into the light. Hypocrisy never wins in the end. The Bible scholar and preacher D A Carson once befriended a man from French West Africa. Carson grew up in Canada speaking French fluently, so they hit it off, and would often eat together. Eventually, Carson found out that his friend often visited prostitutes. Carson knew the man was married, and that his wife was studying at a medical school in London. He asked, “How would you feel if you found out your wife was doing the same thing you’re doing?” The man said, “I’d kill her.” Carson said, “Don’t you think that’s a bit of a double standard?” The man responded, “In my country, it’s expected that a husband will have many women, but wives are expected to be faithful.” Carson said, “You were raised in a missionary school. You know how God feels about adultery. How can you do this?” The man smiled and said, “Ah, God is good. He is bound to forgive me. That’s His job.”
Probably no one here would be so blithe about adultery, but what about the sins we struggle with? Don’t we rationalize them, minimize them, and take for granted the mercy of God? Isn’t all sin reprehensible in His sight? I am not trying to be dramatic, and I certainly hope no one here goes home today and drops dead. I just want us to be aware that God’s wrath is real and if we call ourselves God’s people while unrepentantly sinning, we could find out personally how real it is.
We are supposed to fear Him. Now that term has always bothered me a little. The Bible often says we should fear the Lord. And that term means more than just respect, no matter what people tell you. It bothers me because I was raised with the belief that God loved me with an everlasting love, that I was the apple of His eye, and that He longed to have a personal relationship with me just like a daddy with his child. And all of that is absolutely true. But think about that relationship I just mentioned. A father and his child may love each other, but that love does not make them equals. If the father is a good one, and the son is obedient, there will always be an element of fear. It won’t be a trembling, cringing sort of fear, because that would mean the father was an abuser. But even with the most loving dad, the son will be afraid to cross certain boundaries. Otherwise, the son is making himself equal to his dad, and that is not the way God created family relationships. In the same way, we should love the Lord. We should pray to Him personally. We should consider Him our most intimate and warmest friend. But we are not His equal. We should continue to acknowledge that there is mystery and holiness about God that we cannot understand this side of heaven. Otherwise, the relationship is not what it should be.
This is not a comfortable topic to talk about, or to hear about. How can we possibly approach a God of such awesome righteousness, when we are all so full of sin? Believe it or not, God faced the same dilemma with us. He looked down on these people He had created, His children, the apples of His eye. He saw that we were full of sin and unable to come to Him, when coming to Him was life to us. In His righteousness, He couldn’t write off our sin…couldn’t simply say, “It doesn’t matter.” But in His love for us, He couldn’t let us die. And so He came. He became a man named Jesus who lived for the express purpose of dying. Here is how Romans 3:25-26 puts it: 25God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood… 26he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. At the cross, both aspects of God’s holy character were perfectly represented. At the cross we see His incredible wrath against sin; so awesome and fierce, Jesus cried out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus at that moment wasn’t just suffering the physical pain of crucifixion. He was bearing the accumulated wrath of God against the sins of billions of people. We cannot comprehend that kind of suffering. At the same time, we see in the cross God’s amazing love for us. Jesus became our atoning sacrifice. The literal Greek term means, “propitiation.” That’s an old word that means, “that which turns away wrath.” It’s the picture of a man who pushes us out of the way of an oncoming truck and takes the hit Himself. That is what God did for us at the cross in the form of Jesus. God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.
So earlier when I acknowledged that I am giving God a huge benefit of the doubt in all these stories, that’s why. If you were a young woman, and your new boyfriend stood you up on a date, you might assume he didn’t really care about you. Perhaps he was even with some other woman. But if instead of a new boyfriend, it was a husband who had spent years proving his love to you, your assumptions would be different. You would say, “Something must have happened. Maybe there was an emergency at work, and his phone’s battery was dead. I know him too well to think that he’s done this on purpose.” We can give God the benefit of the doubt because the cross proves His love is true. We can read stories like the ones we talked about today and say, “I don’t know exactly what happened and why, but I am choosing to believe that God’s love is real, because of what He did for me at the cross. Therefore there’s an explanation for this story that I will understand in the right time.” The cross changes everything.