As I read from the George MacDonald article Justice, I was struck by two things: a misunderstanding of who is offended by sin and a misunderstanding of the point of punishment.
First, MacDonald gives a word picture to make a case that punishment does not satisfy the offended and is therefore not actually just. His illustration involves the theft of a watch. The sinner is the thief, and the offended is the one who owned the watch.
In reality, though, sin’s offense is not first and foremost against another person but against God. David understood this, and in his Psalm of repentance after committing adultery and murder, he acknowledged this.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
and justified when you judge.
– Psalm 51:4
Consequently, justice is not about repayment, because our sin takes nothing from God. He doesn’t lose anything He needs nor is His character altered, His person diminished, His being belittled. When we sin, God doesn’t lose. We do. We, the perpetrators.
Which brings up the next point. Punishment here on earth serves two purposes. First, it is a means to bring people to God.
For some, the purpose was to bring that person or nation under punishment, back to God. Think of Miriam when she wanted to usurp Moses’s authority. God punished her by giving her leprosy. Further, from time to time God allowed another nation to have military success against Judah that they would learn to trust Him instead of the false gods of the nations around them.
In addition, God punishes as a warning to others. The man who cursed the name of God, for example, was stoned. Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu, were killed because they didn’t obey God in the performance of their priestly duties.
Again, David understood this. Here’s what he said to Goliath:
“This day the LORD will deliver you up into my hands, and I will strike you down and remove your head from you. And I will give the dead bodies of the army of the Philistines this day to the birds of the sky and the wild beasts of the earth, that all the earth may know that there is a God in Israel …”
Verses like this are troublesome to anyone divorced from an understanding of God’s omniscience. From the outside, this bloody action seems anti-God—opposed to His love and mercy—rather than the means by which all the earth will come to know Him.
Yet consider God’s omniscience, and the account takes on a different dimension. First, God knew the heart of Goliath and every other Philistine standing against Israel that day. He knew what they thought of Him and what they planned to do to His people.
In addition, God knew how a military victory would be perceived by the people in the surrounding nations, and by those of us centuries later who read about how He acted on behalf of His people. Here’s the rest of David’s speech to Goliath:
“… and that all this assembly may know that the LORD does not deliver by sword or by spear; for the battle is the LORD’S and He will give you into our hands.”
God knew what message the people needed at that moment, and He knew what it would take to deliver that message.
That He is omniscient means He didn’t make a mistake—in His assessment about the people who died that day on the battlefield, or about the accomplishment of His purpose through His action on behalf of Israel.
He also knew—though Scripture doesn’t spell it out for us so that we are left to guess—what would have happened to His people if Goliath and the Philistines had gone unchecked.
To summarize, God’s omniscience informs His justice. Consequently, if I trust God to be God, I don’t have to second guess His acts of justice. I know they come from perfect and complete knowledge and understanding.