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Chapter 15—His “Natural” Work and His “Strange” Work

Key passage

Because of the Lord’s faithful love
we do not perish,
for his mercies never end.
They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness!
I say, “The Lord is my portion,
therefore I will put my hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the person who seeks him.
It is good to wait quietly
for salvation from the Lord.
It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is still young.

Let him sit alone and be silent,
for God has disciplined him.
Let him put his mouth in the dust—
perhaps there is still hope.
Let him offer his cheek
to the one who would strike him;
let him be filled with disgrace.

For the Lord
will not reject us forever.
Even if he causes suffering,
he will show compassion
according to the abundance of his faithful love.
For he does not enjoy bringing affliction
or suffering on mankind.

Lamentation 3:22–33

For consider him who endured such hostility from sinners against himself, so that you won’t grow weary and give up. In struggling against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons:
My son, do not take the Lord’s discipline lightly
or lose heart when you are reproved by him,
for the Lord disciplines the one he loves
and punishes every son he receives.
Endure suffering as discipline: God is dealing with you as sons. For what son is there that a father does not discipline? But if you are without discipline—which all receive—then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Furthermore, we had human fathers discipline us, and we respected them. Shouldn’t we submit even more to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time based on what seemed good to them, but he does it for our benefit, so that we can share his holiness.

Hebrews 12:3–10

Quotes from Chapter 15

He does not afflict from his heart.

Lamentation 3:33

When we see Christ unveil his deepest heart as gentle and lowly, he is continuing on the natural trajectory of what God had already been revealing about himself throughout the Old Testament. Jesus provides new sharpness to who God is, but not fundamentally new content. The Gospels themselves show that they understood the Old Testament to be preparing us for a “humble” Saviour.

Tell Daughter Zion,
“See, your King is coming to you,
gentle, and mounted on a donkey,
and on a colt,
the foal of a donkey.”

Matthew 21:5

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion!
Shout in triumph, Daughter Jerusalem!
Look, your King is coming to you;
he is righteous and victorious,
humble and riding on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

Zechariah 9:9

As Calvin put it, the Old Testament is the shadowy revelation of God—true but dim. The New Testament is the substance.1

Remember the beauty of utter divine sovereignty over all things, good and bad.

This doctrine gives us unspeakable comfort since it teaches us that nothing can happen to us by chance but only by the arrangement of our gracious heavenly Father, who watches over us with fatherly care, sustaining all creatures under his lordship, so that not one of the hairs on our heads (for they are all numbered) nor even a little bird can fall to the ground without the will of our Father.

The Belgic Confession, Art. 13

The one who rules and ordains all things brings affliction into our lives with a certain divine reluctance. He is not reluctant about the ultimate good that is going to be brought about through that pain; that indeed is why he is doing it. But something recoils within him in sending that affliction. The pain itself does not reflect his heart.

God indeed punished Israel for their waywardness as the Babylonians swept through the city. He was sending what they deserved. But his deepest heart was their merciful restoration.

When he exercises acts of justice, it is for a higher end, it is not simply for the thing itself. There is always something in his heart against it.

But when he comes to show mercy, to manifest that it is his nature and disposition, it is said that he does it with his whole heart. There is nothing at all in him that is against it. The act itself pleases him for itself. There is no reluctance in him.

Therefore in Lamentations 3:33, when he speaks of punishing, he says, “He does not from his heart afflict nor grieve the children of men.” But when he comes to speak of showing mercy, he says he does it “with his whole heart and with his whole soul,” as the expression is in Jeremiah 32:41. And therefore acts of justice are called his “strange work” and his “strange act” in Isaiah 28:21. But when he comes to show mercy, he rejoices over them, to do them good, with his whole heart and with his whole soul.2

Thomas Goodwin

I will take delight in them to do what is good for them, and with all my heart and mind I will faithfully plant them in this land.

Jeremiah 32:41

For the Lord will rise up as he did at Mount Perazim.
He will rise in wrath, as at the Valley of Gibeon,
to do his work, his unexpected work,
and to perform his task, his unfamiliar task.

Isaiah 28:21

Goodwin is drawing out the Bible’s revelation of what God’s deepest heart is—that is, what he delights to do, what is most natural to him. Mercy is natural to him. Punishment is unnatural.

All of God’s attributes are nonnegotiable. For God to cease to be, say, just would un-God him just as much as if he were to cease to be good. Theologians speak of God’s simplicity, by which we mean that God is not the sum total of a number of attributes, like pieces of a pie making a whole pie; rather, God is every attribute perfectly. God does not have parts. He is just. He is wrathful. He is good. And so on, each in endless perfection.

All his attributes seem but to set out his love.3


God has no pleasure in the destruction or calamity of persons or people. He had rather they should turn and continue in peace. He is well-pleased if they forsake their evil ways, that he may not have occasion to execute his wrath upon them. He is a God that delights in mercy, and judgment is his strange work.4

Jonathan Edwards

Following the lead of Scripture, both Edwards and Goodwin call mercy what God most deeply delights in and judgment his “strange work.”

As we read and reflect on this teaching from great theologians of the past such as Jonathan Edwards or Thomas Goodwin, we need to understand that they are not calling judgment God’s “strange” work out of a diluted sense of the wrath and justice of God.

The wicked how know not God, and obey not the gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord.

Westminster Confession of Faith (33.2)

They affirmed and preached and taught divine wrath and an eternal hell. They saw these doctrines in the Bible.

It is clear evidence of God’s righteous judgment that you will be counted worthy of God’s kingdom, for which you also are suffering, since it is just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you and to give relief to you who are afflicted, along with us. This will take place at the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with his powerful angels, when he takes vengeance with flaming fire on those who don’t know God and on those who don’t obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will pay the penalty of eternal destruction from the Lord’s presence and from his glorious strength on that day when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marveled at by all those who have believed, because our testimony among you was believed. In view of this, we always pray for you that our God will make you worthy of his calling, and by his power fulfill your every desire to do good and your work produced by faith, so that the name of our Lord Jesus will be glorified by you, and you by him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Thessalonians 1:5–12

When God designs to lavish goodness on his people, he does it with a certain naturalness reflective of the depths of who he is. For God to be merciful is for God to be God.

  1. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford L. Battles, 2 vols. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1960), 2.11.1-12.
  2. Thomas Goodwin, The Works of Thomas Goodwin, 12 vols. (repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage, 2006), 2:179-80.
  3. Goodwin, Of Gospel Holiness in the Heart and Life, in Works, 7:211.
  4. Jonathan Edwards, “Impending Judgments Averted Only by Reformation,” in The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol 14, Sermons and Discourses, 1723-1729, ed. Kenneth P. Minkema (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1997), 221.


  1. As we turn now to the Old Testament, do you expect the vision of heaven’s heart to dampen somewhat? Do you think of the Old Testament as giving us a cooler or more calculating deity? Do the opening paragraphs of chapter 15 surprise you in any way?
  2. How does Calvin describe the Old and New Testaments?
  3. How does the Belgic Confession define the beauty of divine sovereignty?
  4. In what ways does Lamentations 3:32–33 affirm divine sovereignty (God’s supreme control of everything that washes into our lives)?
  5. What does it mean that God does not afflict his people “from his heart” (Lam. 3:33)?
  6. Why is God’s sovereignty important?
  7. What are some key principles of God’s sovereignty?
  8. What is God’s “natural” work and what is God’s “strange” work?
  9. What caution does the chapter give us when talking about God’s “strange” work?
  10. What does it mean for your own heart and life that judgment is God’s “strange” work and mercy his “natural” work? Have you thought of God like this before?
  11. What do theologians mean when they refer to God’s simplicity?
  12. How are God’s attributes perfectly balanced?
  13. How is God perfectly just? What confidence does this give you?

This article is adapted from: Gentle and Lowly by Dane Ortlund and Gentle and Lowly Study Guide by Robert Zink.


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