GOD THREATENS TO CHASTISE IN ORDER TO SAVE US FROM CHASTISEMENT.
“Heu! Consolabor super hostibus meis!” “Alas! I will comfort myself over my adversaries: and I will be revenged of my enemies.”
Such is the language of God when He speaks of punishment and vengeance. He says He is constrained by His Justice to punish His enemies. But mark the word: Heu! Alas! — an exclamation by which God would give us to understand how grieved He is when He has to punish creatures whom He so dearly loved as to give His life for love of them. “Heu! Alas!” says Cornelius a Lapide, is uttered by one who is lamenting and not rejoicing; God signifies by this word that He grieves, and is unwilling to punish sinners. This God, Who is the Father of Mercies, and so much loves us, is not One to punish and afflict, but to pardon and console. For I know the thoughts that I think towards you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of affliction (Jer. xxix. 11). But since such is God’s merciful spirit, why does He punish us? or appear as if He meant to punish us? Because He wishes to show us mercy; for this anger which He now displays is all mercy and patience.
At present God appears to be angry with us, not with a view to our punishment, but in order that we may cleanse ourselves from our sins, and thus enable Him to pardon us. God threatens to chastise in order to deliver us from chastisement.
The threats of men ordinarily proceed from pride or impotence. If they have it in their power to take vengeance, they make no threats lest they should thereby give their enemies an opportunity of escape. It is only when they have not the power to wreak their vengeance that they betake themselves to threats, in order to gratify their passion, by at least causing alarm to their enemies. Not so the threats of which God makes use. His threats do not arise from inability to chastise, because He can be avenged when He wills; but He bears with us in order to see us penitent, and thus saved from punishment. Thou hast mercy upon all, because thou canst do all things, and overlookest the sins of men for the sake of repentance (Wis. xi. 24). Neither does God threaten from hatred, in order to torture us with fear; God threatens from love, in order that we may return to Him, and thereby escape chastisement: He threatens, because He does not wish to see us lost: He threatens, because He loves our souls. But thou sparest all because they are thine, O Lord, who lovest souls (Ibid. 27). He threatens; but notwithstanding, bears with us and delays inflicting the punishment, because He wishes to see us converted and not lost. He dealeth patiently for your sake, not willing that any should perish, but that all should return to penance (2 Pet. iii. 9). Thus the threats of God are all acts of tenderness, and the loving calls of His goodness, by which He means to save us from the punishment we deserve.
Yet forty days, exclaimed Jonas, and Nineve shall be destroyed (Jonas, iii. 4). Wretched Ninevites, he cries, the day of chastisement is come; I announce it to you on the part of God: Know that within forty days Nineve shall be destroyed! But how comes it that Nineve was not destroyed? God saw their works, that they were turned from their evil ways and God had mercy (Ibid. 10). Jonas was afflicted at this, and making lamentation before the Lord, said to Him: I beseech thee, O Lord, is not this what I said when I was in my own country? Therefore, I went before thee into Tharsis, for I knew that thou art a gracious and merciful God, patient and of much compassion, and easy to forgive evil (Jonas, iv. 2). He then left Nineve, and sitting down outside the city, was screened from the rays of the burning sun by an ivy which God caused to overshadow his head. But the Lord withered the ivy. Whereat Jonas was so much afflicted that he wished for death. God then said to him: Thou art grieved for the ivy for which thou hast not laboured, nor made it to grow; … and shall not I spare Nineve? (Ibid. 10, 11). Thou grievest for the ivy which thou hast not created, and shall not I pardon the men who are the creation of My hands?
The destruction which the Lord caused to be held out against Nineve was, according to the explanation of St. Basil, not an actual prophecy, but a simple threat, by which God wished to bring about the conversion of that city. The Saint says, that God often appears in anger because He wishes to deal mercifully with us; and threatens not with the intention of chastising but of delivering us from chastisement. St. Augustine adds, that when any one cries out to you: Look out! Take care! it is a sign he does not mean to injure you. And thus exactly does God act in our regard: He threatens us with chastisement, not that He means to inflict it, but to spare us if we profit by the warning. Thou, O Lord, says the Saint, art severe, but most so when Thou wishest to save us; Thou threatenest, but in threatening, Thou hast no other object than to bring us to repentance. The Lord could chastise sinners by a sudden death without warning, which would not leave them time for repentance; but no, He displays His wrath, He brandishes His scourge, in order that He may see them reformed, not punished.