I’m going to drop my pastoral guard and admit something to you: I love Clint Eastwood westerns. There, I said it. Now hang on and hear the rest of it. I don’t love every scene in them, and I’m fully aware what valid criticisms can be brought against them. But I’m not going to tell a spiritual sounding lie and say that I don’t love those movies. (In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve got Dish Network with the DVR feature, which allows me to fast-forward through scenes I’d rather skip.)
The reason I love Eastwood’s westerns can be summed up in one simple word: justice. In those movies, the bad guys get theirs. In those famous “spaghetti” westerns (“The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly”; “A Fistful of Dollars”; and “For A Few Dollars More”) Eastwood is the gunfighter/bounty hunter who takes care of the outlaws the law can’t handle. In “Hang ‘Em High” he’s the wrongly hung man who turns marshal and rounds up the culprits. In “Two Mules For Sister Sara” he prevents the dastardly French from making inroads into Mexico. In “Joe Kidd” he’s the rancher who has to put a stop to Robert Duvall and his group of vigilantes who oppose land reform. In “High Plains Drifter” he’s the marshal’s ghost who comes back to handle the hypocritical, cowardly citizens of Lago and the outlaws who killed him. In “The Outlaw Josey Wales” he’s the Missouri farmer who turns Confederate guerilla-fighter to avenge the senseless killing of his family. In “Pale Rider” he’s the mysterious preacher (actually another ghost, that of a gunfighter) who saves a little group of prospectors from a greedy, ruthless mining company. In “Unforgiven” he’s the ex-killer who gets back into the business to bring down not only the men who brutalized a prostitute but also the mean ole’ sheriff who pretty much let them get away with it. Do I sense a pattern here? Sure do. If you want some real justice dispensed, call Clint Eastwood and give him a horse and a six-shooter.
What makes Eastwood’s justice so particularly appealing is the fact that it gets carried out so swiftly. In many scenes, troublemakers are dealt their comeuppance in a matter of seconds. In no case does the justice take more than the span of a movie. This stands in such stark contrast to our own legal system, a system that typically gets bogged down in things like continuations, booked court calendars, recesses, appeals, appeals of appeals, and retrials.
One other thing, in the Eastwood westerns the perpetrator never goes free. Forget loopholes, circumstantial evidence, and the like. If the guy’s got it coming, he gets it! No questions. No apologies. No regrets. In the late 1980s, Eastwood served a couple of years as the mayor of his hometown of Carmel, California. He missed his calling; he should have been it’s sheriff.
Am I the only one who ever wishes that God would hurry up His justice? I have no doubts whatsoever that His justice is found in spades in the afterlife, but why can’t it be found more in this life? I mean, as far as we know, London’s Jack the Ripper got away with his murders. Germany’s Adolph Hitler ended up taking his own life (for the record, there are some who believe he faked it and lived a long life afterwards), but even if he did commit suicide he didn’t do it before overseeing the sadistic killing of six million Jews during World War II. Pol Pot attempted to form a Communist peasant farming society in Cambodia, and under his dictatorship some two million people (approximately 25% of that country’s entire population) died from starvation, overwork, and executions. Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was finally executed by hanging, but during his reign of terror he had hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shiite Muslims put to death. Cuba’s Fidel Castro kept his tight grip on that nation for decades by killing many thousands of his countrymen, basically anyone who didn’t toe his party line. And yet he lived in wealth and ease to the ripe old age of 90.
Where was God in all this? More to the point, where was His justice? I love Deuteronomy 32:4, which says of God:
He is the Rock, His work is perfect; For all His ways are justice, a God of truth and without injustice; righteous and upright is He. (N.K.J.V.)
I read that and think, “Yes, yes. That’s the God I serve!” But then I pick up the newspaper and read about yet another child-abuse case, serial killer on the loose, or white-collar criminal who stole millions and got off with a slap on the wrist. Such injustices simply don’t appear to line up with Deuteronomy 32:4.
We see this same kind of thing even in the Bible. Herod Agrippa I began a persecution of the early church by killing James, the brother of John, and having Peter arrested. Not too many days afterward he was struck by an angel, eaten by worms, and died (Acts 12:1-23). Now that’s justice! But wait. Another Herod, Antipas, had John the Baptist beheaded (Matthew 14:1-12) and played a role in the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:6-12). Despite these unjust acts, historians tell us that he lived for several years after these events. You see, God’s justice doesn’t always fall in ways that are swift and obvious.
Let’s admit it, seeing that justice gets done in this world just isn’t a high priority with God. If you think this is a blasphemous statement, let me point you to Job. He admitted to being thoroughly confused by God’s lack of justice when he said:
He destroys the blameless and the wicked. If the scourge slays suddenly, He laughs at the plight of the innocent. The earth is given into the hand of the wicked. He covers the faces of its judges. If it is not He, who else could it be? (Job 9:22-24) (N.K.J.V.)
Job also asked:
Why do the wicked live on, growing old and increasing in power? (Job 21:7) (N.K.J.V.)
Such talk puts Job in good company. Asaph said
Behold, these are the ungodly, who are always at ease. They increase in riches. Surely I have cleansed my heart in vain, and washed my hands in innocence. For all day long I have been plagued and chastened every morning (Psalm 73:12-14). (N.K.J.V.)
Jeremiah asked God:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why are those happy who deal so treacherously? (Jeremiah 12:1) (N.K.J.V.)
Habakkuk got very blunt about the matter when he said to God:
Therefore the law is powerless, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous. Therefore perverse judgment proceeds (Habakkuk 1:4). (N.K.J.V.)
So why does God so many times delay His justice until the afterlife? I would offer two reasons. Reason #1: God is merciful, patient, and longsuffering (to the point of being illogical) because He loves even the wicked and hates banishing them to hell. 2 Peter 3:9 says:
The Lord is not slack concerning His promise, as some count slackness, but is longsuffering toward us, not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance. (N.K.J.V.)
Likewise, 1 Timothy 2:4 says that God:
desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (N.K.J.V.)
Similarly, Ezekiel 33:11 says
Say to them: ‘As I live,’ says the Lord God, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why should you die, O house of Israel?’ (N.K.J.V.)
Reason #2 why God’s justice is delayed is: God wants to allow the iniquity of the wicked to reach its full measure so that His judgment upon them can reach its full measure. In Genesis 15:16, God explains to Abraham why His descendants can’t go ahead and possess Canaan. That reason was: The iniquity of the Amorites wasn’t yet complete (hadn’t yet reached its full measure).
The Amorites were one of the most powerful of the races who occupied Canaan. In this context they represent all those races. God knew that when He finally did give the order for the people of Israel to go in and claim Canaan, that order would be accompanied by the command to kill the land’s inhabitants, including the women and children (Exodus 23:23-33, 33:1-2; Deuteronomy 9:1-5, 19:1, 31:3-5; Joshua 6:21, 8:24-29, etc.).
Such a cold, calculated command would demand a worthy reason. Delaying Israel’s conquest of Canaan for over 400 years would give the land’s inhabitants more than four centuries to simmer in their sins and bring them to a boiling point that would befit such an ordered extermination. It was as if God said to Abraham, “The people of Canaan are wicked now, and I could judge them accordingly today. But I want the opportunity to watch them get worse and worse for a few more centuries so that I can work up my fiercest anger against them before I pour it out through your descendants.”
In closing, let me say that these two reasons for the delays in God’s justice are still at work today. Each of them is indelibly woven into the very fabric of His nature. One comes under the category of hope, while the other comes under the category of doom. But the immediate effect of both is the same: the delay of justice. You see, God has more than a quick scene or a two-hour movie in which to impart His justice. He paints on the canvas of eternity. That means that, in the short run, He can be more merciful, longsuffering, and patient than Clint Eastwood. It also means that, in the long run, His brand of justice is much more devastating than Clint’s.