We know, where Christ has set his hand
Only the real remains:
I am impatient for that loss
By which the spirit gains.
– An Art of Poetry, James McAuley
Something I love about poetry is its ability to create generative juxtapositions. Maybe there’s something that I’ve seen in a certain way my whole life, and suddenly, in a work of art like a poem, it gets a new setting that changes the way I see it entirely. Judgement is one of those things; it’s a word whose connotations have changed for me over the last few years. Surprisingly, it’s the poetry of the Scripture’s own Psalms that provided the new setting I needed in order to change the way I saw it. In a way, the Psalms judged my ideas about judgement, and offered a more beautiful and hopeful way of thinking about it.
In what follows, I don’t expect to manage covering all of the connections this word carries. Judgement is a heavy word (especially when, like anything, it is abused by humans), because it does imply real loss. While one thing remains, another rightly goes. I don’t mean to make light of that. But here, I hope to open the word up in hope. Ultimately, judgement is a word that carries us into loss, yes, but it is a loss only of the unreal. The tarnish on the silver rightly goes; the vessel newly gleams.
However, for most of my life, when I heard the word judgement, my imagination conjured dark images of cruel black clouds, terrified people, and an encroaching God whose face was like the “slow smile that the bully gives the runt”. It was every horror movie trope of torture and damnation concentrated in a moment of naked misery for me and sick pleasure for God. Then I ran across a strange piece of poetry in the Bible.
Let’s have a look at Psalm 98:
Sing to the Lord a new song,
for he has done marvelous things;
his right hand and his holy arm
have worked salvation for him.
The Lord has made his salvation known
and revealed his righteousness to the nations.
He has remembered his love
and his faithfulness to Israel;
all the ends of the earth have seen
the salvation of our God.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
let them sing before the Lord,
for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
Wait… Did I read that right?
Those last four lines of the psalm have got to be a big misprint, right? The momentum of the poetry is gaining and gaining from the opening line; the whole thing is mounting in jubilation and joyful expectation and then everything is wrenched to a halt over one jarring word: judge. Wait a second… we’re pulling out the trumpets, shouting, dancing, writing new anthems of celebration, creation itself is ecstatic in applause, the whole cosmos is in a joyful uproar because it’s… Judgement Day?
There’s got to be something wrong here; this doesn’t align with any of the feelings I’ve come to associate with judgement. What about you? The psalmist contradicts everything I’ve never thought I knew about the nature of judgement. It’s confusing. Shouldn’t the poem mount up in joyful song as the cymbals crash upon the release of a word like “love”, “acceptance”, “peace” or the like? Wouldn’t it make more sense to have everything and everyone in the world be excited about “freedom” or “tolerance”?
Foiled again! (Thank God!)
What is going on here? George Macdonald said that if the Scriptures seem to exhibit an apparent contradiction, you can bet that it is an intentional foil to our expectations; and ultimately it’s meant to make us curious, to invite us to investigate, to take a closer look.
All the best stories do this; they judge our way of seeing, and in so doing, offer us new and expanded visions of reality. Here are a few examples of what I mean. Little Hobbits don’t have anything to offer a great, big world. Or do they? A homeless ranger from the North can’t possibly have any claim on the crown of Gondor. Can he? But David is the youngest of the brothers, why even bother calling him in from the sheep pasture to see Samuel? Isn’t Saul the most handsome, surely he’ll be a great ruler! Are you seriously telling me the most beautiful princess at the ball is a poverty-stricken housemaid? Great stories challenge us, contradict us, frustrate our expectations. They judge our vision; that’s exactly how they lift our eyes to something we couldn’t have seen otherwise.
Life is like that, isn’t it? Personally, there have been several times in my experience where life has washed the sand out from under my feet; some foundation I had laid to give me a sense of safety and identity in the world was undermined and removed by the eroding flow of reality. I know a man for whom the public failure of his marriage came like a flood that washed away an identity built on appearing good to others. I know another whose career in ministry collapsed, and he’s wondering whether ministry itself had become a false god obstructing God’s vision for his life. I know another man, always physically strong and capable, who is being forced to understand himself in new ways as old age weakens him.
Now things can get interesting…
Judgement is rarely pleasant. It’s discomfiting. Have you ever seen, in the movies, the skinny kung-fu master knock out the bulging muscle-man by lightly touching some tiny pressure point? Judgement can do that by putting a finger on the tenderest spot we thought we had well protected by big muscles. Suddenly, we are made aware that we are not as strong as we think we are. If I’ve spent all this time and energy constructing a way of understanding myself that can be that easily destroyed, what now?
Well, now is when things can get really interesting. When our false constructions are judged, we finally have an opportunity to participate in reality. Actual life becomes available, maybe for the first time. When the things that have been killing us begin to die, there’s room for more life.
That’s the gift and joy of judgement. Judgement weeds the garden so the roses can grow. Judgement extracts the tumor so the brain can heal. Judgement attacks the virus that’s eating away at your good cells. Judgement says, “take off the mask, I’m more interested in your real face.” Judgement says, “The names they called you, and especially the names you made for yourself, aren’t you. Let them go.” Judgement debrides the wound. Judgement removes the pollutants, purifies the water, stops the bleeding, cuts the supply lines to injustice. Judgement holds the blueprints to the burned-down house, remembers where the treasure is buried, can tell the difference between beauty and its simulation: glamour, truth and its simulation: flattery, goodness and its simulation: illicit pleasure. Judgement loves you too much to let you lie to yourself. Judgement cares too deeply to let a thirsty woman with five wedding rings in some drawer back at the house dip a sixth time into that poisoned well without at least attempting to offer her Living Water.
It’s entirely possible that the Judge cares more for you and believes in what you can become far more than you dare to care or believe yourself.
Bible knows best
It turns out Psalm 98 knew something about judgement that I never would have guessed. I’d always thought of judgement as something to escape. Now I pray not to escape it; I pray for more judgement. I pray that I won’t waste my time and energy avoiding it. Get this tumor out of me! I’m so tired of coming here day after blazing day to get water that leaves me thirsty. Come, Sweet Judge, and show me where to get Living Water!
It begins to make sense why this psalm’s jubilant crescendo climaxes upon that jarring word, judgement. Judgement is a lover’s gift and opens up a way to peace and shows us the light of a Face. When Jesus comes as the final Judge, we’ll sing together a new and jubilant song, maybe Sam Gamgee will lend us a lyric: “Is everything sad going to come untrue?” Yes, it is.
When He steps into the room
As we are celebrating this Easter season, I’m reminded of Chesterton saying that in Jesus’ tomb,
“the whole of that great and glorious humanity which we call antiquity was gathered up and covered over; and in that place it was buried. It was the end of a very great thing called human history; the history that was merely human.”
The tomb of Jesus judges merely human history. God has assumed humanity, judging it to be of inexpressible value! It’s true that judgement, then, is ultimately an affirmation of the good. In fact, judgement’s purpose is to affirm. The gardener pulls up the weeds, because tomatoes are good.
By entering his own creation and uniting himself to humanity at the Incarnation, Jesus affirms the world. And he contradicts it by holding up Reality to contrast any counterfeit or deviation. The reality he holds up is himself – he is the Truth; truth is personed. Esther Meek, a Christian epistemologist says,
“What is at the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ is not truth as a mere proposition so much as Truth as a personed event: God ‘walks in the room’. Think…how the conversation radically shifts when the person you have been talking about enters the room.”
Along those same lines, the poet Harvey Shapiro writes in his poem The Heart,
In the midst of words your wordless image
Marches through the precincts of my night
And all the structures of my language lie undone:
The bright cathedrals clatter, and the moon-
Topped spires break their stalks.
Sprawled before that raid, I watch the towns
Go under. And in the waiting dark, I loose
Like marbles spinning from a child
The crazed and hooded creatures of the heart.
I love how the poet here describes having constructed cathedrals and spires of words about a person, and then it all comes crashing down when “in the midst of words your wordless image” enters the room. By the end of the poem, the grand architect of words is reduced to a child shooting marbles. When face to face with the reality, his words fail; his confident constructions crumble, foiled.
This is Orual in Lewis’s Till We Have Faces, isn’t it? She too is foiled. She comes to judge the gods, and when she finally stands face to face with them, her case dissipates.
And that is our ultimate hope when That Day comes and Jesus returns to judge. He will step into the room, and the room will be changed: apocalypse. All oppression shall cease. No perversion will endure the arrival of The Version. No pollutant can survive his purity. No evil will outlast goodness. Lies won’t stand anymore in the light of The Truth. No thorn will choke, no tear will blind, no death delimit. All confusion will be fissioned, until only the splendor of holiness is left behind.
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
the bar across their shoulders,
the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this.
~ Isaiah 9.2-7
The image above is from the Glory Skies series by Lancia E. Smith
and is used here with glad permission for The Cultivating Project.
Matthew Clark is a singer, songwriter, and storyteller from Mississippi where he lives with his brother Sam, a ceramic artist. Each Fall he sets out in his homemade tiny-house-on-wheels named Vandalf the White to play concerts in churches and homes all over the country. Matthew is a lover of words, music, coffee, and conversations. Currently (and slowly) he is studying the interlacing of Theology and the Imagination at Fuller Seminary, while writing new songs for his next recording project. Matthew has several albums available at his website (www.matthewclark.net), including a Bible walk-through sequence called “Bright Came the World from His Mouth”, and a collection of songs celebrating God’s presence in the ordinary called “Beautiful Secret Life”.