Grace That Taught My Heart to Fear

CHAPTER 3- OF COURSE HE ISN’T SAFE

I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after Yahweh; he will roar like a lion; when he roars, his children will come trembling from the west. ~Hosea 11:9-10

As I have reflected on the paradox of God, the blazing center of reality, I have been struck by two truths that stand at the heart of what it means to fear God: God is the only source of true safety, and God is the ultimate source of danger. He is a forgiving and merciful Judge who will by no means clear the guilty. Our only hope of ultimate, everlasting safety is that he would be merciful and forgiving towards sinners like us. But as sinners, facing the just, well-earned wrath of God is the ultimate danger, the only real peril of our existence. Gospel fear exists in the paradox where these two realities collide, at the foot of the cross where we see our sin punished in the body of our Substitute, the Innocent exchanged for the guilty so that those guilty ones can go free.

Contemplating this paradox of dangerous security, I’m reminded of the scene in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe when the children have just learned about Aslan, who represents Jesus in the Chronicles of Narnia:

“Aslan is a lion—the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh,” said Susan. “I thought he was a man. Is he—quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? Of course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

What C.S. Lewis so keenly understood is the truth about God that we often forget: he isn’t safe. We’ve got to right-size our view of our King; he is the Lion of Judah, the King of all creation, the hurricane God who holds our life and breath. He is not a man; he is not like us. He is infinite in power, unparalleled in wisdom, ferocious in holiness, passionate in love, furious in wrath. Of course he isn’t safe.

If you’ve ever heard a lion roar, you know what I’m talking about. It’s unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. Once I was at a zoo when it happened. We weren’t anywhere near the lion exhibit—it was over on the other side of the zoo. But we could hear the roar from where we stood, half a mile away, over all the bustle and hubbub around us. So I can imagine standing face to face with a lion on the African savannah somewhere, with no fence between us. In that situation, a roaring lion would be the most deafening, terrifying experience I could imagine. Lions are not safe.

But here’s the beauty of it all: God isn’t safe, but he is good. He is both the rock of stumbling and the rock of refuge . He is holy and loving, just and merciful, terrible and tender, lion and lamb, unsafe and all-consumingly good. In Ethiopia—a country where they have actual experience with real, wild lions—their word for “lion” carries special meaning. The word “anbesa” (“lion”) is actually used colloquially to refer to something awesome or cool. If your friend does a backflip, you’d say, “Anbesa!” If you see a beautiful sunset, you might exclaim, “Anbesa!” In Ethiopia, a lion symbolizes everything good: majesty, power, beauty, and strength. Is it any wonder, then, that throughout the Bible, God is referred to as a lion? He in’t safe, but he is the sum of everything that is good.

THE BROKEN HEART OF GOD

Once of my favorite descriptions of God as a lion comes in the book of Hosea. Hosea describes this scene of God summoning his wayward people back to himself:

They shall go after Yahweh; he will roar like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. ~Hosea 11:10

To capture the full weight of that scene, and to really grasp what it means that God is a roaring lion, we actually need to back up a little bit, because the context is key to grasping all that this text means. The first ten chapters of Hosea vividly describe the faithless idolatry of Israel as a bride who has cheated on her husband. In this picture, we are the faithless bride, and God is the wronged husband. Throughout the prophecy, God’s people are called “whores”—strong language for the heinous act of betraying their heavenly Lover. Here are some of the highlights of the indictment:

“She went after her lovers and forgot me, declares Yahweh.” ~2:13

“They have left their God to play the whore.” ~4:12

“Their deeds do not permit them to return to their God. For the spirit of whoredom is within them, and they do not know Yahweh.” ~5:4

“Woe to them, for they have strayed from me! Destruction to them, for they have rebelled against me!” ~7:13

“You have played the whore, forsaking your God.” ~9:1

Stop for a moment and realize that the graphic language used to describe Israel’s idolatry is what God thinks of your sin, too. This isn’t just hyperbole; what sin is, at its core, is spiritual adultery, a betrayal of the Lover of our souls. It’s us saying to God, “You’re not enough for me; I don’t love you enough to be interested in respecting you, and so I will go find satisfaction elsewhere.” Imagine saying that to your spouse. And yet we blithely say this hundreds of times a day by the way we treat God.

This, by the way, is why God’s wrath is just and deserved. We have spurned his kindness, ignored his love, cheated on his covenant, abused his faithfulness, and used his blessings to fuel our lustful passions. As a heavenly Husband who has been cuckolded and taken advantage of, divorce would be a fair option.

And yet, throughout Hosea, intermingled with the indictment of spiritual adultery, are promises that our heavenly Husband will not abandon us to the consequences of our whoredom:

“But I will have mercy on the house of Judah, and I will save them by Yahweh their God.” ~1:7

“I will betroth you to me forever. I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love and mercy.” ~2:19

“I will heal their apostasy; I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them.” ~14:4 

God’s response to our spiritual adultery is not merely anger; he also overflows with brokenhearted love. Chapter 11 is the high point of this interwoven justice and mercy. Listen to the grieving heart of our God, who loves us and longs for us:

When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. The more they were called, the more they went away… Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk; I took them up by their arms, but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of kindness, with the bands of love, and I became to them as one who eases their yoke; I bent down to them and fed them. ~11:1-4

Do you hear the sadness in God’s voice? Sadness! God is not an impersonal force; he is a passionate lover who delights in his people. He is angered and grieved by our betrayal. Can’t you hear it in his voice? “The more I called them, the more they went away… I took them up by their arms, but they didn’t know that I was the one who healed them.”

How often have I been like this, ignoring the alluring voice of my Lover and Friend, and choosing the destruction of sin over the sweetness of his fellowship? How often have I taken blessings and healing from his hand and loved the gifts while ignoring the Giver? Every day of my life, I have been led with cords of kindness… and more often than not, I have chafed and fought against the restraints. I deserve to be abandoned for my ingratitude, and yet he still bends down to me day by day with sustaining grace.

I linger here because I’m afraid of my own tendency to analyze God, put him in a box, and describe his glory and beauty with clever, alliterative adjectives like “terrible and tender,” and conclude that I know God. And if you’re the kind of person who reads books like this, you’re probably like that too. And yet Hosea 11 confronts us with a picture of a God who won’t submit to clinical inspections or critical analysis, because he’s a real, living Person with emotions like grief and love and anger. True, he’s God and not a man… but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t think and feel; it only means that his heart and mind and emotions are so much bigger, so much brighter than ours. It doesn’t make insulting and abandoning him less hurtful or treacherous, but more so. Hosea frames our sin not primarily in terms of rebellion but of relationship so that we will feel the emotional weight of our spiritual adultery and just how much our sin wounds the God who loves us.

Seeing the broken heart of God on full display here puts sin and mercy into a whole different light. Listen in as God’s broken heart bursts out in redemptive resolve:

My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my burning anger; I will not again destroy Ephraim; for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath. They shall go after Yahweh; he will roar like a lion; when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west. ~11:8-10

How can we not fear and love a God like this? His compassion stays his hand of judgment and overflows in undeserved mercy on those who have scorned him. He withholds his wrath, not because he is weak but rather because he is strong. He will rescue his people and deliver them from the effects of their sin. That’s why I think that the imagery of a lion here is so striking; the picture of a lion here is not a picture of judgment but of mercy—mighty mercy. The rescue is pictured as God roaring like a lion, summoning his people out of exile.

And yet, remember: a roaring lion is a terrifying thing, able to be heard from miles around. This speaks to the reality that the rescue that God is about to undertake is not a small, weak thing. This rescue is a vast in its reach and frightening in its power.  And the response that this rescue calls for is that of gospel fear: “When he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west;” those whom he calls will come trembling out of exile and punishment.

What kind of lion is this—mighty in mercy, whose roar saves and doesn’t devour? We’re not told in Hosea, but one of the Old Testament’s first messianic prophecies points the way. In Genesis 49 comes the promise of a reigning, rescuing Lion, when Jacob is pronouncing prophetic blessings over each of his twelve sons, from whom would come the twelve tribes of Israel. To his son Judah, he said:

Judah is a lion’s cub; from the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him? The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until tribute comes to him, and to him shall belong the obedience of the peoples. ~Genesis 49:10 

Judah is pictured as a dangerous lion—“who dares rouse him?” And yet this lion isn’t wild or out of control; rather, this lion reigns as a king, and the prophecy states that “the obedience of the peoples”—that is, of all different nations, tribes, languages, and people groups—would belong to him.

True to those prophetic words, the kingship of Israel did indeed come through Judah’s line when his descendent David took the throne. But the words of the prophecy push past David, saying that the kingly scepter would remain in Judah and David’s line until Judah’s Lion finally arrives and claims the obedience of the nations. Who, then, is this reigning, roaring Lion that Genesis and Hosea speak of?

LION AND LAMB

The answer, we know, is Jesus. And yet, when the rightful heir of David’s throne, the King of all kings, broke into human history on a silent night in Bethlehem, he didn’t look like Judah’s Lion. He didn’t arrive in majesty or power; he carried no scepter and seemed to not wield any authority at all. In fact, he didn’t look anything like a king, or seem to be anything like a lion. Where was the roar that would summon God’s people into salvation? Where was the fierce kingly power that Jacob foresaw? For a people eagerly expecting the Lion of Judah, the long-awaited Messiah did not look like what they anticipated.

The rest of his life and ministry was a further surprise. This King hadn’t come to demand tribute, but to heal and bless and forgive. This Lion hadn’t come to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). As John the Baptist said, the Lion looked a lot more like a lamb, a sacrificial lamb that had come to quietly give its life in the place of guilty sinners (John 1:29).

And yet he really was the Lion of Judah who was promised. He really was David’s King who would rule the world and own the obedience of every people group on the planet. His saving roar really would summon sinners from every corner of the globe. It just didn’t look the way we expected.

The paradox of this lamb-like Lion is highlighted in Revelation 5, when the apostle John is given a glimpse into the high drama unfolding behind the scenes in heaven. He sees a scroll containing all of God’s purposes for history and humanity, and yet no one in heaven or earth is worthy to take up and fulfill all of those purposes. John begins to weep in frustration, until an angel interrupts him:

And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” ~Revelation 5:5

At last, here is heaven’s Hero, the one person in the universe qualified to undertake all of God’s saving plans—the Lion of Judah, David’s King. Maybe now, in heaven’s light, we’ll be able to see the Lion for who he really is:

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain. ~Revelation 5:6

The angels says to John, “Look, the Lion of Judah!” And yet when John looks, he “saw a Lamb, standing as though it had been slain.” The Lion is the Lamb; the Lamb is the Lion. And not just any Lamb; no, this is a slaughtered Lamb who, though he had been slain, is now standing and reigning and carrying out God’s purposes.

Here is the greatest wonder of the Bible, and perhaps the universe: Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah, heaven’s Hero, the King of kings, is also the Lamb of God, the suffering Servant, the meek and lowly One who gives his life for sinners. He is unlike any other person in history; he is simultaneously majestic and meek, holy and humble, terrifying and tender, forgiving and just, lion and lamb. This is the contradictory, compelling glory of Jesus Christ: he holds children on his knees and makes demons tremble; he tenderly woos sinners and violently drives out hypocrites with a whip; he gently restores the broken and calms storms and raises the dead with a word; he has all authority in heaven and earth and yet submits to the will of his Father; he is the Author of life and yet humbles himself to the point of death on a cross. That’s why when John looks at him, he sees both Lion of Judah and Lamb of God. Jesus Christ is both.

And that’s why, when the Lion-Lamb steps forward to fulfill all of the Father’s purposes, all of heaven erupts in wondrous worship:

And they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” ~Revelation 5:9-10

Think back to those Old Testament prophecies of the Lion, who would summon God’s scattered people with a terrifying roar and bend the obedience of every people group to his rule… and then wonder to see the fulfillment here in Revelation 5. The obedience of the peoples that Genesis 49 prophesied was accomplished by the ransom-paying blood of the Lamb, who “ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The lion’s roar that summons God’s trembling children—“when he roars, his children shall come trembling from the west”— is the death of Jesus. “By your blood you ransomed people for God.” The saving roar of Judah’s Lion is the triumphant, anguished cry of God’s Lamb: “It is finished!”

In heaven’s light, we can see the cross for what it really was: not the Lamb’s defeat, but rather the Lion’s victory. With one sacrifice, Jesus accomplished perfect forgiveness for all God’s people (Hebrews 10:10), fully absorbed the wrath of God (1 John 4:10), destroyed the power of the devil (Hebrews 2:14), and purchased the worship of a worldwide body of redeemed saints (Revelation 5:9). The bloody slaughter of God’s Lamb was the moment of highest triumph for Judah’s Lion.

TREMBLING AT THE LION’S ROAR

That leaves one huge application question for us as we consider these realities in relation to fearing God: do you tremble at the Lion’s roar? Hosea says that the response of God’s children to the Lion’s saving roar is they will come trembling to him. In light of what Revelation says the Lion’s roar is—the ransoming death of Jesus—this means that a crucial component of saving faith and repentance is fear. This great Lion has stepped off of heaven’s throne and set aside all his glory and power to be the Lamb that we need: a substitute for sinners, a sacrifice to pay for guilt, a price to pay the ransom.

So what is there to tremble at? First, tremble at the cost. The infinitely precious blood of heaven’s Hero was the price required for your lust, your anger, your deceit. You stand today, freed from the eternally crushing weight of sin’s debt, because Another stepped into your place and paid your debt at the cost of his own life. The cost of mercy should cause us to tremble.

Second, tremble at the glory of this lamb-like Lion, who set aside his power and privilege to humble himself to the lowest possible point: death on a cross. Jesus Christ is majestic and powerful, a King who casts out demons and calms storms and upholds the universe by his word of power and possesses all authority in heaven and on earth; Judah’s Lion. But he is also—at the same time—the meek and lowly Savior, the suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, the one who held children on his knee and embraced prostitutes and prodigals, who wept with Mary and went like a lamb to the slaughter; the Lamb of God. And even today, as he reigns in power, he is still both of these things: he stands victorious as the Lamb who was slain, receiving all of heaven’s worship; he fills the universe with his presence and yet stoops to dwell in the hearts of his people; he inhabits eternity and dwells with the lowly and contrite; he rejoices with omnipotent joy when one sinner repents. The fact that Jesus is not merely meek nor merely majestic, but is simultaneously both, makes him unlike any other person who has ever lived. The meekness and majesty of Jesus is the shining center of his glory. Look into his life and death—gaze long enough to see it—and you’ll see this glory shining from everything he says and does. And this beauty, this power, this glory, this love, should cause us to tremble.

Third, tremble at the reason that this Glorious One laid down his life: he did it for you. Weak, sinful, wandering, broken you. You, who daily spurn his glory and live for your own fragile kingdom. You, who ignore his great worth and inflate your own. You, the wandering sheep who has left his kind ways a thousand times and have been carried back on his shoulder, time and time again. You, whose mocking voice and sinful hands drove the nails that cost him his life. You, his beloved, his treasure and inheritance, the apple of his eye. What kind of lion, what kind of king would do this? Only the greatest possible King, only the most wonderful kind of Lion. In light of how we have broken the King’s heart with our spiritual adultery, we deserve nothing but judgment from his hand. And yet as you see all your sin forgiven at such a great cost and all your guilt swallowed up in his goodness, what possible response could there be other than to stand in wonder, return to him with trembling, and join heaven’s anthem,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” ~Revelation 5:12

He isn’t safe, but he is good, and what good news that is indeed!

NAVIGATE CHAPTERS: