Whilst our sins may be graciously forgiven, there are many consequences which flow from our actions. There are often obvious repercussions when we say something hurtful or deliberately choose a path that leads to evil. If we offend someone, for example, we must understand that “a brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city: and their contentions are like the bars of a castle” (Prov 18:19).

But there is another, more significant, part of facing the consequences of our sin. Though Yahweh forgives, He “will by no means clear the guilty”. Unfortunately the av suggests an inability of God to forgive the guilty, but when we examine the Hebrew we find that the translators have failed to catch the sense of the original. It is better translated by Rotherham, who puts it this way: “though He leave not utterly unpunished”.

The Question of Punishment for Sins

In other words forgiveness is often accompanied by punishment. We need to be careful how we approach this concept. We cannot fall into the trap of Job’s friends and assume that if a brother or sister is suf­fering it must be related to some sort of punishment for a heinous crime. But on the other hand we must understand that God’s providence may be fully active to bring us into difficult circumstances that we may learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Divine punishment through providence is some­thing we do not readily find palatable because we tend to associate it with God’s judgments solely on the rebellious and wicked. But this is only part of the picture. We learn from Proverbs 16:5 that pride will not escape unpunished. We read in Proverbs 17:5 that “he that is glad at calamities shall not be unpunished”. Then there is Proverbs 19:5, 9 which point out that a false witness shall not be unpunished. All of these secret sins are not left unpunished.

So how does Yahweh bring into effect this punishment? The answer is, by “visiting the iniq­uity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation [of them that hate me—Ex 20:5]” (Ex 34:7).

Visiting Iniquity

The Hebrew word, “visiting”, is paqad and it means “to number or visit”. Its basic sense is “to exercise the oversight over a subordinate” and is translated “number” (ie muster and inspect) 110 times , “visit” fifty seven times and “punish” thirty times. The attempt by the av to make it mean “punish” is unsupported by the original. The main idea is that of a visitation and inspection which will result in great changes, often detrimental. Hence God visits people to inspect and change them. He is like a general inspecting his troops and making the neces­sary changes so that they are fit for the campaign.

What this means is that whilst God forgives in­iquity, if we are contrite and repentant, He does not totally ignore it. He will deal with it and prevent it from going unchecked. You may think that because there is no sudden fiery judgment your sin has gone unobserved. But God does visit us for our sins; the question is: how does He visit us? The answer can only be given by illustrating the way God passes sentence upon sin. There are a number of clear examples which tell us how He visits iniquity.

Take the case of the wilderness generation. The spies wandered through the land of Canaan for forty days and ten of these princes returned with an evil report. As a direct result of this the people refused to go into the land. In Numbers 14:17–19 Moses appealed for the nation’s forgiveness based on his understanding of God’s character in Exodus 34:6,7 and that forgiveness was mercifully extended (v20). Next came the consequences as God visited the people. The generation that didn’t want the land wouldn’t receive it. Caleb and Joshua who wanted above all else to see the land would inherit it (v22–24). Since the people wanted to die in the wilderness, God would give them their desire (v28–32). The children on the other hand would wander for forty years, each day for a year that the spies had spent in faithless exploration of the promised land (v33,34).

This illustrates the way in which they would “bear their iniquities”, that is, receive the conse­quences of disobedience. This is how God visits sin. He rewards us in the same way we reward Him and others. There is perfect justice in this.

The Scriptural definition of punishment then is more akin to the visiting and dispensing of re­wards. God rewards good or evil behaviour in the most appropriate and just way. Whilst the ultimate rewards are dispensed at the judgment seat, God can and does reward us in our current life of probation now. Take, for example, the following quotations :

  • Job 34:11,12—“For the work of a man shall he render unto him, and cause every man to find ac­cording to his ways” (Hebrew : according to a man’s walk He causeth it to be with him or overtake him).
  • Jeremiah 17:10—“I Yahweh search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” The next verse shows the way in which God dispenses those rewards in Jeremiah’s life time
  • Jeremiah 50:29—“recompense her [Babylon] ac­cording to her work; according to all that she hath done , do unto her”
  • Psalm 28:4—“Give them according to their deeds and according to the wickedness of their endeav­ours: give them after the work of their hands; render to them their desert.” This was a plea by David to intervene in his life and reward the wicked.
  • Revelation 2:2, 5—“I know thy works… do the first works or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy candlestick out of his place, except thou repent”.

These references teach that God’s response to people’s lives can be immediate and amounts to a just reward in recognition of their behaviour. Hence we find in the opening pages of Genesis the method by which God responds to human behaviour. The serpent had the highest form of intelligence amongst the animals and its tongue gave expression to that intelligence. Because it caused great evil God de­graded the status of the serpent so that it became the lowest of animals and its tongue would eat dust. Similarly Eve, because she usurped authority over her husband and seduced him, would be punished with submission to her husband and experience pain in conception and childbirth. Adam on the other hand took the fruit without labour and without permission. He would now eat food that came from a cursed ground by hard labour until he died.

In each one of these cases there is a type of “po­etic justice” and this is the way God rewards evil. It is further demonstrated by the way God rewarded Cain’s defiance. There was first an appeal to repent, which was duly disregarded (Gen 4:6,7). When Cain eventually murdered Abel, God’s response was clear. Cain had refused reconciliation and therefore there would be no forgiveness. Because he was a tiller of the ground and had stained the earth with hatred and bloodshed, the earth was defiled, and would not yield her full strength. Since he had rejected God’s appeal, Abel’s brotherly love and at­tempted reconciliation, he would experience rejection from God’s face, loneliness and wandering.

Perhaps the clearest example is the way in which God responded to David’s sin with Bathsheba and Uriah in 2 Samuel 12:9–14. David’s sin was classi­fied as despising the commandment of Yahweh and doing evil. Because he had sinned secretly, slain Uriah, destroyed a household and taken Uriah’s wife, he would experience the same in full repay­ment—evil in his house, the defiling of his wives and open condemnation.

Hence God’s response to our lives is perfectly just. What we do to Him and to others, God repays in kind. Even the New Testament message was the same. In 1 Corinthians 11:30, Paul spoke about those who had neglected the importance of the spir­itual feast at the memorial table. “For this cause,” wrote Paul, “many are weak and sickly amongst you and many sleep”. Literal malnutrition could be traced back to spiritual malnutrition.

Receiving a Reward

We must not forget that good is rewarded along similar principles. Genesis records the life of people like Abraham who were steadily given greater and greater promises in accordance with their growing faith, until finally, Abraham demonstrated his un­swerving obedience by giving his seed to God and God responded by swearing with an oath that his seed would possess the gate of his enemies.

Yet in all of this one of the most wonderful thoughts in relation to the response of God towards the faithful is contained in Psalm 103:8–18. Here the psalmist states that God “hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities”. When God contemplates the shortcom­ings of the faithful in all their struggles, He is fully aware of all their circumstances and takes into account their frailty. He remembers that we are dust. Hence He never fully rewards the righteous according to the full measure their sins deserve. His mercy is from everlasting to everlasting upon those who fear Him. This is not so with the wicked.

Blending all these principles into a balanced whole is not always easy. What makes it more dif­ficult is that, like the worthies of old, we too strug­gle with adversity in our feeble attempts to discern purpose and providence behind it all. Even David himself struggled to understand exactly what God was attempting to teach him. Alluding to the inci­dent of Exodus 33,34 he cried out, “Shew me thy ways, O Yahweh, teach me thy paths” (Psa 25:4).

Summary

It is wonderful to contemplate the various facets of “this glorious and fearful name” (Deut 28:58), but what does it mean to us in our day to day life? All of these qualities were exhibited in the life of our Lord. He is the embodiment of the Word, the perfect exhibition of everything the Father stood for, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). In his own words, he said, “I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it”. And what was the purpose of this manifestation?—“that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them and I in them” (John 17:26).

The declaration of the name was undertaken to evoke love in the people of God. When we know God by appreciating the wonder of His very being we are inexorably touched by a feeling of absolute worthless­ness in the face of such an abundance of mercy and truth. But that sense of failure should only serve to deepen our love for His character. Who are we that we have been drawn from the nations to be part of that name? We are nothing, yet He has not only redeemed us but also taken us to become His special treasure. His name therefore has to become ours.

In the words of the prophet, “let him that glori­eth, glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth me, that I am Yahweh which exercise lovingkind­ness, judgment and righteousness in the earth: for in these things I delight, saith Yahweh” (Jer 9:24).