church bell from below

No Other Foundation

Reflections from Fr. Lawrence Farley

Recently I heard a very dark and serious song about the judgment of God and His wrath against sinners.  It was the folk song “Great God Almighty’s Gonna Cut You Down” (accessed here).  I was not aware of the song before; apparently it is an American folk song.  The oracular Wikipedia informs me that it was first recorded by the Golden Gate Quartet in 1946 and issued in 1947 by the Jubalairies, and since then has been covered by a variety of singers in country, folk, electronic, and black metal genres, including such singers as Johnny Cash, Tom Jones, and Elvis Presley.  It takes some imagination to contemplate someone singing both about blue suede shoes and the wrath of God, but that’s America for you.

The song includes these lines:  “You may run on for a long time; great God almighty’s gonna cut you down.  Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand, workin’ in the dark against your fellow man, but as sure as God made the day and the night what’s done in the dark will be brought to the light.  Go tell that long-tongue liar, go tell that midnight rider, tell the gambler, the rambler, the backbiter, tell ’em great God almighty’s gonna cut ‘em down”.

No one is spared, not even religious people.  One verse includes a reference to those who “go to church just to signify, try to make a date with the neighbour’s wife”.

In this song we hear the voice of the psalmist.  The psalms calling upon God for vindication and promising His judgment on the wicked are too many to detail in a blog post.  But we mention a few as representative of the many.

“If a man does not repent, God will sharpen His sword; He has bent His bow and made it ready.  He has prepared for Himself deadly weapons; He makes His arrows fiery shafts” (Psalm 7:12-13).

“Because the wicked do not regard the works of Yahweh, nor the deeds of His hands, He will tear them down and not build them up” (Psalm 28:5).

“The eyes of Yahweh are toward the righteous, and His ears are open to their cry.  The face of Yahweh is against evildoers, to cut off their memory from the earth” (Psalm 34:15-16).

As the folk song says, there will be no escaping this fiery judgment.  Regarding the certainty and inevitability of divine judgment on sin (in this case, the sin of idolatry flourishing in the northern kingdom of Israel), God promises that flight is useless:  “Though they dig into Sheol, from there My hand will take them; and though they ascend to heaven, from there I will bring them down.  Though they hide themselves on the top of Carmel, there I will hunt them down and seize them.  Though they hide from My eyes at the bottom of the sea, there I will command the serpent to bite them” (Amos 9:2-3).  The folk song was right—you can run on for a long time; sooner or later great God almighty’s gonna cut you down.

This is not simply the message of an anguished psalmist, an angry prophet, or a cranky song writer.  It is the consistent message of all the Bible.  Whether the judgment consists of death by banishment from the garden containing the tree of life, or a flood drowning the world, or the swords of invading Assyrians, or the final fires of Gehenna, judgment is certain to come upon the impenitent wicked—or, in the words of St. Paul, “the wrath of God will come upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6).  Attempts to deny or mitigate this, either by absurdly pretending that God has no wrath or by imagining that what comes is not final wrath but only temporary correction, will not avail.  This is as certain as anything in Scripture:  if you cling to your wickedness and refuse to repent, sooner or later God’ll cut you down.

What does this mean for us Christians?  Two things.

Firstly, it means that we can (and must) forgive.  Forgiving someone is hard, especially when the person in question has hurt us deeply and refuses to repent.  How can, for example, a father forgive a man who has raped his daughter?  How can a prisoner in a concentration camp forgive the guard who tormented and tortured him?  If there is no justice anywhere in the universe, if the impenitent rapist and impenitent Nazi get away with it, forgiveness is very hard.  Perhaps too hard.

In fact, they will not get away with it.  Moreover, no one will get away with anything, but everyone will stand before God and give an account and be requited for their deeds, whether the deeds were good or bad (2 Corinthians 5:10).  Righteousness and justice are the foundation of God’s throne (Psalm 89:14).

In other words, the exercise of God’s power will be according to justice—good deeds will be rewarded, and crimes requited in full.  The Lord is a God of vengeance, for He has declared, “Vengeance is Mine.  I will repay.”  It is a terrifying thing for the wicked to fall into the hands of the living God (Psalm 94:1, Hebrews 10:30-31).  The wicked may flee to the Carmel’s mountaintop or the sea’s floor bottom; it matters not.  Wherever he runs to, from there God will seize him and cut him down.

We can therefore forgive in this age, knowing that God will exact whatever vengeance justice requires (Romans 12:19).  We can let go of our anger, and open our hearts in forgiveness, expelling from our hearts the fury, bile, and unforgiveness which will eat us alive from the inside unless we get rid of it.  We can trust that God will do whatever needs be done.  We can rest assured that no one will get away with anything.

And that includes us.  We will not get away with anything either, which leads to the second significant thing—namely that we must live lives of repentance, for God will show no partiality to us either.

Count on it:  neither baptism nor church-going will save us if we cling to our sins.  Our confidence in our immunity from judgment will prove illusory, and on the Last Day the hypocrites will hear from the Lord the terrible words, “I never knew.  Depart from Me, you who practise lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).

What will save us is our constant repentance, combined with repentance’s twin, striving after righteousness.  Such repentance is not something we do once and once only.  After baptism it becomes our lifestyle.  And that repentance includes forgiving all those who have sinned against us, for if we refuse and withhold forgiveness to others, we will not receive it ourselves from God.

Judgment is coming.  It will come to the long-tongue liar, to the midnight rider who skips town under cover of darkness before he can be arrested for his crime, to the gambler, to the rambler, and to the backbiter.  And it will come to us as well.  What we do in the dark will be brought to the light.  Now therefore is the day of salvation.  Now is the time to repent.  The beginning of each Great Lent is an annual reminder of this timeless duty.

Fr. Lawrence Farley

About Fr. Lawrence Farley

Fr. Lawrence serves as pastor of St. Herman's Orthodox Church in Langley, BC. He is also author of the Orthodox Bible Companion Series along with a number of other publications.