An Old Testament beatitude and the grace of God

God is goodWe think of the Beatitudes as part of the Sermon on the Mount, but they get their name from the opening words, “blessed are,” or in some translations, “happy are.” Lots of other verses begin that way, and many more with the singular, “is.” Here is the last of several from the psalms:

Blessed are those whose help is the God of Jacob,
 whose hope is in the Lord their God.

He is the Maker of heaven and earth,
 the sea, and everything in them—
 he remains faithful forever.

He upholds the cause of the oppressed 
and gives food to the hungry. 
The Lord sets prisoners free;

the Lord gives sight to the blind; 
 the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down; 
the Lord loves the righteous.

The Lord watches over the foreigner 
and sustains the fatherless and the widow, 
but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.

The Lord reigns forever,
 your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord. — Psalm 146:5-10 (NIV)

In the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus explains each blessing in a single sentence. The psalmist takes five verses, fully half the psalm, to explain how those who hope in God are blessed. The explanation has three parts.

God is the creator

grace and judgment

NASA photo

God made everything. He’s the creator. He designed the whole universe. Therefore, he has wisdom and knowledge about the way the universe operates that no other being, human or angelic, can match.

You are part of the universe. God made you. He knows how you are supposed to operate as a whole person, as spirit, soul, and body. He knows how you are supposed to operate in your relationships with other people and the rest of your corner of creation. If something goes wrong, he knows what it is, what caused it, and how to set it right.

We know all kinds of people who have the wisdom and knowledge to help us with something. But that doesn’t mean they’re willing to help. That doesn’t mean they care anything about us. God’s wisdom and knowledge by itself would not bless us.

God is good

Fortunately, God is good. He cares. He wants to help. In describing God’s goodness, the psalmist makes several statements about his grace, but he bookends them with two statements about God’s judgment.

Somehow the modern church has trouble keeping God’s grace and judgment in mind at the same time. Most of us tend to specialize in one or the other.

Faulty notions of grace

Many Christians today place tremendous emphasis on God’s grace. They say that nothing in the universe is powerful enough to overcome God’s grace. Ultimately, even the vilest sinner will return to God because of the power of that grace.

That sounds pretty impressive, but in the process lots of them deny the reality of hell. There can’t be a hell, they say, because no loving God would ever subject anyone to eternal punishment. If there is any sin that requires God’s righteous judgment, I don’t recall seeing or hearing what these people think it would be.

The idea of universal salvation and that there is no hell for people who choose to reject God’s grace is unscriptural. Jesus himself warned of judgment more severely and described hell more vividly than anyone else in Scripture.

Faulty notions of holiness

Others put great emphasis on God’s holiness. He sets his face against sin. He does not tolerate the least sin. No sin or sinner can get into heaven. Repentance is the only way to heaven.

The Bible says that if we confess our sin, God will forgive us and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. But what if we don’t confess it? Someone who doesn’t confess can hardly repent. Hell is reserved for such.

If that’s holiness, where’s the love and grace? Also, the emphasis on personal holiness can easily degenerate into the kind of rule keeping that Jesus condemned in the Pharisees.

Fear of God becomes not reverential awe, but fear of eternal punishment. It’s difficult to see how anyone can love such a God. The Christian life becomes a desire to placate him. That, too, is unscriptural.

These extremes have been part of the church almost from the beginning, and most teaching of the church has managed to avoid going too far in either direction. But keeping them in proper balance has remained difficult.

Proper balance of grace and judgment

grace and judgment

The Fifth Plague on Egypt / Joseph Mallord William Turner (1800)

Look how the psalmist does it. At the beginning of verse 7, he says God upholds the cause of the oppressed. Or in the various translations in the King James tradition, God executes judgment. At the end of verse 9 the psalmist promises that God will ruin the wicked.

Sin has consequences. The psalmist doesn’t specify what kind of punishment awaits the wicked or unjust, but the promise of ruin means that God takes sin and injustice very seriously and will not tolerate it.

Between these two statements of judgment, the psalmist promises that God rights wrongs and fixes harm for the oppressed, the hungry, the prisoners, the blind, the burdened, aliens, orphans, and widows. In this life, bad things happen. As the mention of prisoners makes clear, some of these bad things are a consequence of bad deeds and bad choices that people make.

God allows punishment. God inflicts punishment. God’s judgment is severe. But God always stands ready to extend grace

So in terms of the beatitude, people who trust in God are blessed not only by God’s unlimited wisdom and knowledge, but also by his goodness. It is the goodness that guarantees that the blessing of God’s wisdom and knowledge will not be withheld.

God is eternal

Earlier in the psalm, it says not to put trust in princes. Why? Not because there is necessarily anything wicked about them, but simply because they die. All of the various people we trust will make promises and plans that, after they die, they can’t possibly keep.

But the psalmist assures us that God will reign forever. He will not simply exist forever. He will not simply live forever. He will reign forever. As the Christmas hymn expresses it, God rules the world with truth and grace. No power can ever successfully challenge his rule.

Blessed are people who trust in God, and in nothing less than God. Because God is all knowing, all wise, all powerful to be able to bless. He is all gracious and all loving to desire to bless. He is everlasting so that he can and will bless eternally.

Photo credits:
God is good. Some rights reserved by David Woo
The others are public domain

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