Jeremiah 31:3-6 (NIV): The Lord appeared to us in the past, saying: “I have loved you with an everlasting love; I have drawn you with loving-kindness. I will build you up again and you will be rebuilt, O Virgin Israel. Again you will take up your tambourines and go out to dance with the joyful. Again you will plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; the farmers will plant them and enjoy their fruit. There will be a day when watchmen cry out on the hills of Ephraim, ‘Come, let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God.'”
Several times in the past God has had to bring judgment on His people. But in all of these cases, His goal was not to destroy His people, but to tear down what they had become, to burn the accreted corruption and impurity away from them through trial and suffering, to break them sharply away from those things of the world that they had grown to rely on. And all of this was NOT to do away with them, but to help them to be restored to their proper relationship with Him.
Understand that there is a vast difference between the suffering that happens to God’s people when they have grown slack in their worship and devotion to God, or when they have become outright rebellious, and the suffering that they undergo through persecution at the hand of enemies of the light. The latter is not a sign of God’s displeasure, but is an opportunity to shine the brightest light into the darkest corners, and God has promised to be with His people throughout any persecution that they have to undergo. God’s judgment only comes on those who have ignored repeated warnings to repent, and for whom only God’s direct discipline will have any chance of causing them to turn around.
Of course, whether the judgment and discipline have the effect God desires depends entirely on those experiencing the discipline. When they ignored the words of His prophets, God punished the northern kingdom of Israel over several centuries, sometimes through famine and sickness, sometimes by bringing invaders to conquer and oppress them. Eventually He used Assyria to take them into captivity. But the people would never repent, even when they were taken away from their land. Instead, they merely assimilated into the Assyrian culture, and were ultimately lost as God’s people. Their choice, not His.
The story was different for Judah. Over the centuries when the people of the southern kingdom drifted away and would not heed the voice of the prophets, God brought the same suffering, the same kinds of armies to them. On a few occasions, the leaders and many of the people repented, and God’s judgment was deferred. But ultimately He had to bring in Babylon to overwhelm them and carry them away. But for the people of Judah, the captivity served as a crucible to burn away the corruption and impurity from their hearts, and to reform them into a people whom God could bring back into the land, through whom He could ultimately bring forth the Messiah.
God’s first choice is for His people to continue to follow Him whole-heartedly, and to respond to any necessary corrections immediately. But when He has to, He will bring His judgment onto His people in a last-ditch effort to draw us away from the world and back into whole-hearted devotion to Him. His goal is ALWAYS restoration. But the decision whether to repent or to perish; whether to turn from the world to God, or to keep our hearts enmeshed in worldly loves; whether to be God’s people doing the work he has assigned for us, or to become assimilated into our society so that we are no longer His people; that decision must always be made by us.
Father, it is so easy to see when we look back at Israel and Judah, but much harder to see when we look at ourselves. I know that far too many of us who go by the name of Christian have grown lukewarm, and even absolutely cold. We have forgotten our first love, and all too often pay You lip service that is not reflected in who we really are and what we really do. Open our eyes and our ears, Lord, so that we can see and hear you calling us back into whole-hearted fellowship with You before it’s too late; before we have to experience Your discipline and judgment. Amen.