The Day of Judgment in the Old Testament
In the Old Testament, there is no explicit mentioning of the Day of Judgment, but on the other hand of the Day of the Lord and of the Judgment of the Lord.
Both expressions maintain that the day to come and the judgments to be pronounced shall be subject to the will of God, not to the will of man.
That God is able to "pronounce judgment" presupposes that God is able to distinguish. In ancient Israel, there was no doubt that God was able to distinguish between friend and foe, between good and evil. Therefore, when the Psalms of David speak of the Judgment of the Lord, it should be interpreted to the effect that it is God's punishment of the enemies who threaten the nation or the individual. The Israelites could sing with joy about "God's judgment on the peoples" in the confidence that He is the righteous judge who shall interfere and procure the innocent their rights whereas the guilty shall receive their well-deserved punishment.
The Lord reigns for ever;
He has established his throne for judgment.
He will judge the world in righteousness;
He will govern the peoples with justice.
Sing praises to the Lord, enthroned in Zion;
Proclaim among the nations what he has done.
For he who avenges blood remembers;
He does not ignore the cry of the afflicted.
In this way, the praise is conveyed in Psalms 9:7-8 and 11-12. Similar expressions are given in other of David's Psalms, e.g. Psalms 7:7-12; 96:11-13; 98:4-9.
In these Psalms, God is depicted as a powerful king who seats himself on the throne and procures right and justice. Who would not cheer and be joyful, then, when the "rivers clap their hands" and the "mountains sing together for joy" (Psalm 98:8).
In that God's judgment is righteous, and in that it necessarily has to affect the wicked, it naturally follows that judgment may fall upon Israel herself. Psalm 50 explains how God summons his own people to be judged to remind them not to forget his laws. Why? Because Israel has made a covenant with God and promised to fulfill the vows to God. Yet Israel joins with thieves, throws in her lot with adulterers, the people uses its mouth for evil, and slanders its own mother's son.
The Psalm ends in v.21-22 with these words:
These things you have done and I kept silent;
You thought I was altogether like you.
But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face.
Consider this, you who forget God,
Or I will tear you to pieces, with none to rescue.
To God, then, it is not inconsequential if His people plays fast and loose with the lives and honour of other people. Therefore, the judgments of God may also fall upon the Israelites who thought themselves in the clear, and God's judgment may free the ones who (according to the way of thinking of that time) were unable to anticipate anything good. Since also at that time, the conviction was that if a person suffered in this world it was probably because he or she deserved it and was most likely damned at the highest place.
However, such reasoning is not allowed to remain uncontradicted, as e.g. in Psalm 76:9-10:
From heaven you pronounced judgment,
And the land feared and was quiet -.
When you, O God, rose up to judge,
To save all the afflicted of the land.
The word afflicted might leave us with the impression that the text refers to those who have an afflicted mind. Rather, this word means powerless referring to the victims, who are being tread on by those in power and those comfortably off, and who has no one to speak for them. It was natural to assume that they only got what they deserved but Psalm 76 maintains that precisely they are the reason why God sets himself up as judge. Because judgment is a prerequisite of salvation.
As to the powerless, the Psalm says nothing except that they suffer from other people' s power. The point is that those in power abuse their power. Therefore, God has to rebuke them for it: If you do not stop your wickedness, you shall fall into the palm of my hand, and from there no one can escape. The very same God who promised to protect them if they kept the Covenant, shall be their opponent if they should disobey His word.
The fact that the wording in this context is so explicit shows us that God seriously distinguishes between good and evil. He shall not forget the sufferings of man: "For he who avenges blood remembers, he does not ignore the cry of the afflicted." (Psalm 9:13).
This means that when the Old Testament speaks of the judgment of God, the judgment may both be pronounced upon the enemies of the people and upon the individuals of the people itself. In both instances, it is the intention of God to free those who are afflicted because other people abuse their power.
At the time of Amos in the 8th century B.C., however, it seems to have been generally accepted that "the Day of the Lord", i.e. the day when God pronounces His judgment, is a day of liberation for Israel. The Israelites, therefore, were pleased to hear the vivid descriptions about how God uses fire as his tool to extinguish the people's enemies. They also found pleasure in the thought that such a divine fire would be able to terminate all evil.
Psalm 97:3-5 and 8 reads:
Fire goes before him
And consumes his foes on every side.
His lightning lights up the world;
The earth sees and trembles.
The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
Before the Lord of all the earth.
Zion hears and rejoices
And the villages of Judah are glad
Because of your judgments, O Lord.
Many other descriptions of this kind have been offered which therefore have generated strong anticipations of the corning of the Lord as judge (cf. Psa1ms 75:3; 76:910; 96:10-13; 98:4-9).
In the midst of all this rejoicing, however, Amos warned his contemporaries (see Amos 5:18-20):
Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord!
Why do you long for the day of the Lord?
That day will be darkness, not light.
It will be as though a man fled from a lion
Only to meet a bear,
As though he entered his house
And rested his hand on the wall
Only to have a snake bite him.
Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light-
pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?
Here, the bright optimism and anticipation have been replaced by a gloomy prediction of the day of the Lord when judgment shall fall on the people itself - a day, no one can escape. Fulfillment of the judgment will mean extermination of Israel. This is also apparent from the three "visions of judgment" as given in Amos ch. 7.
Let us concentrate on one of these visions, namely the one described in v .4-6:
This is what the Sovereign Lord showed me: The Sovereign Lord was calling for judgment by fire; it dried up the great deep and devoured the land. Then I cried out, "Sovereign Lord, I beg you, stop! How can Jacob survive? He is so small!" So the Lord relented. "This will not happen either", the Sovereign Lord said.
The fact that the punishment of God can be described as an intense fire only emphasizes the radicalism of the punishment. It appears from the context that the fire would mean the total extermination of Israel. Therefore Amos had to intercede for his people and the intercession makes God change his mind!
This means that in the vision of Amos, God did not use fire against Jacob. However, the idea that God can "call for judgment by fire" did not vanish from the texts of the Old Testament.
In the next text, however, a change of the idea has taken place. The prophet Malachi in ch. 3:2-4 describes the coming of the Lord as judge as follows:
But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears ? For he will be like a refiner's fire or a launderer's soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
The image of the fire is the same but the material it bums is something else. Because although the text rhetorically reads: "Who can endure the day of his coming?", the day of the Lord is not meant to be a day of extermination but as a day of purification. The fire is there to remove the slag so that the metal can be purified as well. (See also the Danish poet Ingemann's hymn about "the great master" who "sits by the melting pot industriously purifying the silver" (The Danish Hymn Hook (Den Danske Salmebog), hymn 544)).
In the biblical metaphors of the judgment as fire, two aspects are of importance: The fire exterminates or purifies according to whether it throws itself upon the withered straw or the precious metals. To put it another way: the function of the fire depends on the material on which it is employed.
This brings us back to the essence of the conceptions of the judgment given in the Old Testament: God can distinguish between good and evil. Therefore, He must treat the good and the evil differently between those who are like the smelted, purified metal and those who are like the withered straw.
This may sound quite simple and fair. Because although we cannot be entirely sure that what we at first sight consider to be good is identical to what God considers to be good - then at least close studies of God's word should enable us to realize what God demands?
Indeed, one might think so. In fact, such thoughts are the foundation of many of the admonitions to do the good things and stay away from the evil things, as given in the Old Testament.
By way of example, we quote Micah 6:8:
He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
And to walk humbly with your God.
Yet, when one reads the next paragraph in Micah it turns out that it is a bitter, cruel judgment pronounced on the social injustice which nevertheless takes place: the shopkeepers use false weights, the rich men are violent, the people are liars with deceitful tongues. Therefore, God must punish them.
Apparently then, the revelation of God's commandments was not sufficient for the purpose of ensuring that God's people were to act righteously. Confronted with the recognition that violation of the law is part of everyday life even with God's chosen people, one had to ask: Is the history of Israel to end by God abandoning His disobedient people?
One of the metaphors used about the coming of God is, as we have seen, the metaphor of the consuming fire.
In the most recent text of the Old Testament, the Book of Daniel, fire, too, is connected with being judged. Chapter 7 explains how thrones were set in place and an Ancient of Days took his seat. Verse 9-10 reads:
His throne was flaming with fire,
And its wheels were all ablaze.
A river of fire was flowing,
Coming out from before him.
Now the books are opened. Daniel watches how the beast is slain and its body thrown into the blazing fire. The beast is the symbol of everything evil, of all life's destructive powers. Now this power is terminated, and authority is given to one like a son of man.
Seen in connection with the Psalms of the Old Testament, this should cause great joy and pleasure. The enemies are defeated, the mighty kings crushed, and the sovereignty of the son of man shall be an eternal sovereignty. Now, everything people sung about in Jerusalem's temple will come true.
Yet, Daniels ends his narrative with the words given in ch. 7:28:
This is the end of the matter. I, Daniel, was deeply troubled by my thoughts, and my face turned pale, but I kept the matter to myself.
The narrative about "the Ancient of Days" on the throne of fire ends differently to what might be expected. The coming of God to judgment ought to bring joy with the prophet. Still, Daniel is not pleased and will not rejoice. Re is not devoured by the termination, and be is not pleased to be a member of the chosen people. On the contrary: be is deeply troubled by his thoughts and keeps the matter to himself.
If the book of Daniel were to end here, it would have meant that Daniel was another Amos whose intention it was to warn his contemporaries against expecting great things from the day of the Lord. The book of Daniel, however, is continued and the last chapter explains that following the judgment there shall come a time in which "Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).The day of the Lord is not only a day of termination. To the chosen ones, it is the beginning of a new, eternal life.