A 94 year-old Orthodox sage has poured more fuel on the flames of religious controversy in Israel by contending in a sermon that the Holocaust was God’s punishment (on the Jewish people)…” So reported the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in the January 4th edition of the Forward in 1991. They were talking about Rabbi Eliezer Schach, spiritual leader of Shas, the most influential religious party in the land of Israel. “God is longsuffering,” contended Rabbi Schach, “but eventually, when a point of saturation is reached, he wreaks his punishment.”

It is no surprise that Schach’s correlation of the Holocaust with God’s judgment stirred up fierce anger and resentment. What is surprising is that some Christians share the rabbi’s opinion, though they add a variation. They see the Holocaust as divine punishment upon Jewish people for rejecting their Messiah, quoting Deuteronomy 28 to support this position.

This gross misunderstanding of God’s judgment does not distinguish between God’s temporal judgments upon His chosen people and His retribution upon the lost. Even worse, it attributes Satan’s unholy, malicious and vengeful actions to a holy and righteous God. When God judges His own people, His ultimate purpose is not retribution but restoration. His intention is not to destroy but to heal, not merely to punish but ultimately to purify from sin. Satan, on the other hand, is the destroyer. He enjoys inflicting horror and suffering on God’s people with the ultimate intention of annihilation. God has staked His reputation on the preservation and the ultimate restoration of the Jewish people. Satan therefore aspires to destroy the Jews, in order to nullify God’s promises and make Him out to be a liar.

This month my Jewish people are celebrating the festival of Purim. Purim commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people from the wicked villain Haman, as recorded in the book of Esther. This biblical story provides an excellent historical and theological framework for understanding how God judges His people. The very context of the book of Esther depicts judgment. As the scene opens, the Jewish people are not living in Israel under a Jewish king, but in Persia under Ahasueras, a pagan king. This Diaspora, (the uprooting from their homeland with all the accompanying humiliation and suffering) was a direct result of sin and disobedience. God had warned of this judgment, first in Deuteronomy 28 and again through the prophet Jeremiah: “And I will make you cross over with your enemies into a land which you do not know; for a fire is kindled in My anger, which shall burn upon you” (Jeremiah 15:14).

God purposed to judge the Jewish people as part of His plan to restore them to proper worship and eventually bring them back to the land. The Book of Esther points out that God did not wholly abandon His people in judgment. While God was seeking to chasten His people, Satan wanted to destroy them. Diaspora was God’s correction; destruction was Satan’s intention. Haman was inspired by a satanic loathing of God’s chosen people to plot their utter destruction (Esther 3:8-9a).

The Jewish people had already suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, the Assyrians and the Babylonians, but none of these nations had attempted genocide—the complete destruction of all the Jewish people. Haman was not an instrument of God’s judgment; he was Satan’s stooge to defy God. God rescued His people from Haman’s satanic plot and soon after, God brought the Jewish people back into the land of Israel, just as He had promised. Chastised and restored, they rebuilt the Temple and offered sacrifice to God. Never again did the Jewish people commit the idolatry for which they had been exiled. God’s judgment had accomplished its purpose.

My Jewish people lived in the land for some 500 years after that. Unfortunately, their fealty to God was short-lived. This time the problem was not idolatry, but the priesthood, indeed the entire religious leadership became corrupt. Once again, judgment was coming. The Romans were already occupying the land. As in Jeremiah’s day, another Diaspora was imminent. Into that context God sent the Messiah Jesus to offer Himself as the true High Priest and Shepherd of Israel. Just as the leadership had rejected Jeremiah’s ministry, so Yeshua was rejected. Just as Jeremiah predicted Diaspora, so did Yeshua: “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation is near.…And they will fall by the edge of the sword, and be led away captive into all nations” (Luke 21:20, 24a). Not a generation after Jesus uttered those words, His prophecy came to pass. Diaspora once more was the lot of the Jewish nation.

For 1900 years this judgment of God has been upon my people; for 1900 years we have been wanderers in foreign lands. Yet God has preserved us in the midst of our exile. All along, His desire was to restore us to Himself and to restore us to the land He promised to Abraham. But once again, Satan had his own plans. Enter Adolph Hitler. Like Haman before him, this madman from Austria was satanically inspired with a hatred of Jews that boiled over into a hideous “final solution.” But contrary to the events of Purim, the Jewish people had no queen to entreat on their behalf, and unlike Haman, Hitler had no king who could enable the people to defend themselves. Like Haman, Hitler went further than any previous persecutor. While the Jewish people had suffered before at the hands of the Romans, the Spaniards and the Russian Czars, none of these nations attempted genocide, the complete and utter destruction of all the Jewish people. But as in the days of Haman, God delivered the Jewish people from the plot of Hitler and thus foiled Satan’s strategy.

Hitler was no more an instrument of God’s judgment than Haman was. He, too, was Satan’s stooge to defy God and so it was that God ultimately rescued His people from Hitler’s plan. For while six million died a horrible death, Hitler was unable to exterminate the entire Jewish people. The horrors of the Holocaust even prepared the way, to some extent, for God’s people to return to the land of Israel, just as God had promised. But the people of Israel came back to the land in unbelief. Therefore, evidence of God’s judgment remains on the land and the people. Violence and strife are constant reminders that all is not well in God’s holy land. Many thousands of Jewish people have been restored to God through faith in Messiah Jesus, yet the majority remain apart from Him. But not for long.

The Apostle Paul tells us, “I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.…For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead?” (Romans 11:11,15). God’s purpose in judging His people is ultimately to restore them to Himself. I believe that we are seeing the firstfruits of that acceptance, that life from the dead, as more Jewish hearts turn to Jesus. God’s purposes will no more be thwarted by human unbelief than they were by Haman or Hitler.

That is true, not only in God’s grand plans for the “big picture,” but it is true for you and for me as His children, regardless of whether we are Jews or Gentiles. All believers in Jesus have periods of spiritual difficulty when we know all is not as it should be in our walk with the Lord. And those of us who belong to Him know what it is like to endure God’s discipline through such times. That is not to say that every difficult or painful circumstance is God’s response to our shortcomings. We know that His ultimate response was the punishment that Jesus suffered at Calvary. Still, the Bible speaks clearly of God’s chastening those whom He loves (Hebrews 12:5-11). It is good for us to remember that His ultimate purpose in chastening us is to restore us to a place where we can enjoy “the peaceable fruit of righteousness.”

Only when we understand the nature of God’s judgment will we be able to appreciate fully His mercy and grace. Then we will see His hand at work in history as well as in our own lives. We will rejoice that we serve a God who judges that He might restore and who chastens that He might bring life from the dead. With a sense of wonder and great joy we will declare along with the Apostle Paul: “Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33).