Is life unfair? Is God unjust? These are questions that sometimes trouble any human being. This is a look at Scripture’s answers to these questions–and, perhaps, an embarrassing and revealing look at our own hearts.
This all started when I was reading a Bible passage that describes good king Josiah and all the good he did for God and country, and the seemingly terrible end that came to him after all that (he was killed). I was so struck by the seemingly unjust end to which he came and God’s puzzling reward for all his heartfelt service to him that I just had to investigate the matter further. Even though on the surface I had a revulsion to how it all ended (though it was not really the end, as will be seen), I knew deep in my heart that there was more to the story than first appeared, and also knew that God was the same, just and loving God that I knew and that the Bible reveals to us.
So I talked with the Lord about it and asked him to show me more of what this true story is all about, and to clear up my initial misconceptions about how God deals with those who faithfully serve him. And this is what he showed me.
The story is found in 2 Kings, chapter 23, and the background in the chapters preceding. In short, Josiah’s grandfather, Manasseh, was an extremely evil king–so evil that God determined to send the entire nation into exile for what he did to his people and kingdom (vs. 26,27). Even after Josiah came to the throne and reversed all Manasseh’s horrible deeds, God was still so angry that his sentence upon the land was not reversed. Not only that but Josiah’s reward for being so faithful to God was for God to let him die in battle (v. 29).
This is the reward for serving God with all one’s heart and all one’s soul (v. 25)? YES!–and it is a great reward and blessing! How so? That is what this article is all about.
How can death be a reward? Isaiah 57:1 answers this disturbing question for us: “The righteous perish, and no one ponders it in his heart; devout men are taken away, and no one understands that the righteous are taken away to be spared from evil.”
Josiah died before seeing God’s punishment come upon the land. This is a blessing to be desired, as can be seen from a similar situation that arose in the life of his great-grandfather, king Hezekiah.
Hezekiah, was also a good king, also following God’s ways, and, interestingly, also had an incident in his life in which he received a reward from God for his good relationship with him. In his case, his life was prolonged for 15 more years.
So these two opposite results arise from two men who were similar in their faithfulness in serving God. One is rewarded with longer life, the other shorter. Some might think to themselves, “What? Am I missing something here? Two men serve God faithfully and one dies before his time and the other actually receives extra years to his life? Where is the justice in that?”
It reminds me of something Jesus said in a parable, the one about a landowner paying his hired help the same amount, whether they worked one hour or the whole day (Mt. 20:1-16).
Supposed unfairness by God only arises if one stops with the initial, surface look at things. Once we dig deeper, the supposed unfairness disappears. If we are ever to grow beyond responding to life’s puzzling events solely through the faulty lens of the human soul, we must learn to look at those events through the eyes of God. We need to pay heed to the warning of Scripture: “You are looking only on the surface of things” (2 Cor. 10:7 NIV).
So looking at these two similar situations, between two good kings, Hezekiah and his great-grandson, Josiah, through God’s eyes, as revealed in his Word, what do we see?
First off, we see that even though Hezekiah was rewarded with a favorable answer to his prayer for healing of his sickness (2 Kgs. 20:5,6), and, in addition, given 15 more years of life, as announced by the prophet Isaiah–even though all of this is true, it is also true that what Hezekiah said on the surface did not totally agree with what he thought in his heart. When he said that the word of the Lord was good, on the surface it might be thought that he was referring to the announcement by Isaiah that the Lord would deliver the city from its enemies. This is obviously good.
But after that good news, the prophet also told the king that the nation would later be conquered and taken away into exile. So, on the surface, the king is reacting properly to God’s Word, saying that it is good because it does good to the people, saving their city. But inwardly, in his thoughts, there is a less proper attitude:
“‘The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,’ Hezekiah replied. For he thought, ‘Will there not be peace and security in my lifetime?'” (2 Kgs. 20:19 NIV).
Ah, there we have it! Though he was a good king, faithfully serving God, Hezekiah was also human. And being human, his attitude was, “As long as I’m alright, that’s what matters–no matter what happens to others.”
Our preoccupation with what happens to us is the quintessential human trait. It is probably the real reason that many people become Christians: to escape going to hell, so that all will be right with their soul for eternity. There is nothing wrong with that. We should value our soul and seek to be saved. But if we never get past that initial and proper response to the invitation of the gospel, we will have failed to grow as we are supposed to. For as we grow in the Lord, we see that existence is not just about us and what happens to us, important and valid as that may be, but it is about God and his kingdom. As we grow spiritually, we should see that we should come to Christ and be saved, not just for our salvation and our own sake, but because doing so gives glory to God.
“Well do I know how treacherous you are; you were called a rebel from birth. For my own name’s sake I delay my wrath; for the sake of my praise I hold it back from you, so as not to cut you off. . . . For my own sake, for my own sake, I do this. How can I let myself be defamed? I will not yield my glory to another” (Is. 48:8,9,11 NIV).
“I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more” (Is. 43:25 NIV).
” He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy” (Titus 3:5 NIV).
Everything we do is meant to bring glory to God, even our coming to saving faith in Jesus. This gives God glory and fufills the yearning of his heart to have children who know him. It is, as all things ultimately are, about him and not about us, except secondarily.
Having said that, we can more fully sense a distinguishing difference between these two men and their two situations, which, though not identical, are similar. Now, we don’t know for certain that Josiah did not also succumb to the self-centered, self-preserving attitude that prevailed with Hezekiah. Scripture doesn’t say. All it says is that he was killed in battle. He fought for the Lord, to the very end, losing his life in battle for the Lord. To suffer or die for the Lord is a badge of honor to be worn proudly (in the right sense):
“The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name” (Acts 5:41 NIV).
“They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (Rev. 12:11 NIV).
Love our lives? Jesus said that “the man who loves his life will lose it, while the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn. 12:25 NIV).
Not to be too harsh on Hezekiah, since Scripture declares him to have been a good and faithful king, but is it possible that he loved his life in this world too much, so that what mattered to him was whether or not he could live longer and yet still escape the coming evil in his own lifetime? Possibly. To be kinder to him, another possibility is that he was indeed willing to serve God even further and to face the coming evil, but that he was just relieved that he did not have to–and there’s nothing wrong with that, either. In other words, he was willing to fight and die, just as Josiah was, but he was also glad that he would not have to, relieved to find that that responsibility would not be his. We don’t know which attitude was his; perhaps it was even a mixture of both.
Paul had the right attitude. Like Hezekiah, he too was given a prophecy about what was ahead for him. But Paul said:
“I am ready not only to be bound, but also to die in Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus'” (Acts 21:10-13 NIV).
Only those who know and love the Lord Jesus can say such things in all sincerity. They have come to know that life in this world is not the ultimate fullness of life: Jesus is that fullness (Jn. 10:10). But Jesus is gone now; he is in heaven. Therefore, for those for whom he is very life itself, they will never be satisfied until they are where he is. Therefore, death is certainly a reward and great gain, for then they are where he is.
“For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body” (Ph. 1:21-24 NIV).
The above passage may contain a hint as to why God rewarded one king with 15 more years of life and rewarded the other with death in battle. Perhaps Hezekiah had yet more work to do for the Lord in cleaning up the nation and its people; perhaps Josiah’s work was finished and therefore God let him die a glorious death in battle. Or perhaps there was more of Hezekiah’s heart in this world, while Josiah’s heart yearned to be with his Lord. Again, we do not know.
There is further the hidden and unknown-to-us time table of God’s plan for all creation and each individual in that creation. Whatever the case, we cannot, and should not, say that one was rewarded and the other not. Was not Josiah’s reward, in fact, far superior in that he sooner saw the glorious Savior, while Hezekiah had to wait years more before being allowed that great privilege?
One reason this story holds such interest for me is that I truly believe that we now find ourselves in a similar situation–or at least will very shortly. The Bible tells us that in the last days of this world, there will be tremendous evil and wars so violent that the very earth will shake. We now have, in nuclear weapons, the capability to destroy much of this world in a few short moments. Many Christians have seen visions of this fast-approaching catastrophe–and that believers will suffer at least some of it. How much, and the timing of the rapture, is a question that will not be discussed here. The immediate point is that just because we are believers does not mean that we will escape all the evil of men. Hebrews chapter 11 and many other Scriptures make this clear.
In Hebrews chapter 11, we are given two lists of people who were faithful to God, just as Hezekiah and Josiah were. But, just as in the case of those two men, in one list the faithful people were delivered and in the other they were killed; yet both are commended as being faithful and pleasing to God.
When (notice that I did not say if) nuclear war comes and if (now I say if) we believers find that we are not raptured out of it, or at least some of it, what will be our attitude then? Will we give up on God because we were not saved from having to go through this war? Josiah was killed in battle, even though he was faithful. Was that an evil or a blessing? Which will it be for us, should we suffer the same end? It all depends on where the heart is. If our heart is where it should be, in the Lord Jesus, then whether we live or die really makes no difference; we will be with him either way. All that matters is that his plan for our lives be fulfilled, whether that plan be extended years on this earth or to die. Again, either way, we are with the Lord.
All of this is meant to convey two points here. First, that one’s attitude and perspective is what determines whether one perceives what happens to one’s soul as a blessing from God or as a slight. After all, if what happens to you is your foremost concern in life, then when things that are normally considered bad happen, you will naturally view them as proof that God is not protecting you and not looking out for your interests.
That’s the key, isn’t it? Your interests. Whatever you consider to be of the highest importance in life is what will determine how you view what happens to you in life. That is the second point, that, as Jesus himself said, that “where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21 NIV).
Jesus also compared the kingdom of God, and people’s varying attitude towards it, as a field on which is sown good seed, the Word of God. Many desire to be in this kingdom of God, but they also like their lives in this world and the things of this world. They have a divided heart. When times are good, a person may get by for a while with such divided loyalties, but the tough times of the end will force a person with shallow devotion to God and his kingdom to choose one or the other, God or the world, God or self, or God . . . it makes no difference what other choice one could put forth: It always comes down to God as the supreme goal of all that exists, or something lesser. What that lesser is makes no difference, for in the end, all else is lesser and not worthy of comparison and will be done away with.
As mentioned above, I believe that the terrible times of the end which the Bible mentions (2 Tim. 3:1, 2 Ptr. 3:10-12) are very soon to be upon us. How we respond to our existence in those difficult times depends on where our heart is. If our main concern is our own safety and comfort, then we are in danger of falling away from Jesus, who alone is our ark of salvation, whatever flood of evil engulfs this world. But if our sole goal in life is to yield it to God in Christ for whatever purpose he should choose, then whether we live longer like Hezekiah or die in battle with the world, the devil and our own flesh, makes no difference.
“If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8 NIV).
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!