Fire, Brimstone, and Mercy
“Fire and brimstone.” Those words come from our passage and are often used to describe a particular kind of preaching or message that is heavily focused on God’s judgement. And usually it’s a bad thing or even an insult. If someone says “that guy was fairly ‘fire and brimstone’ today,” that’s an automatic fail.
Which is strange. Because God was fairly “fire and brimstone” on this day that He judged Sodom and Gomorrah. Why should we be embarrassed of that? And as we’re going to see today, the fire and brimstone of that day are shot through with mercy, and ultimately point to the mercy of God in an even greater way than we might first think.
So let’s see how that all works out as we start at the top of the chapter and see what it has to say to us today.
1. Lot’s Protective Hospitality
Chapter 19 opens in a very similar way to chapter 18. There, Abraham was sitting by the door to his tent when the three men came by, and he rushed to show them hospitality. Here, Lot is sitting by the opening to the city Sodom when the two angels come by, and he likewise shows them hospitality.
It’s important to note that Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. Gates in ancient cities typically opened to a gathering space where the elders of a town would meet to share information and make decisions. Lot’s place here suggests that he’s worked his way right into the community of Sodom. He started off living outside but now he’s acting like he’s an elder in the community.
And so he sees the angels come in, who appear just as men to him, and he offers them hospitality.
The end of verse 2 shows them refusing, saying that they’ll spend the night in the town square. But Lot, verse 3, “pressed them strongly.” On the one hand, Lot is just doing what middle eastern people did and do, which is show hospitality to strangers. But on the other hand, did Lot know they wouldn’t be safe in the town square? Remember Genesis 13:13? “Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord” (Genesis 13:13). Is that Lot said in verse 2 that they should “rise up early and go on your way”? Does he know that this isn’t a safe city for strangers? Almost certainly the answer is yes.
Verse 3 goes on to say “So they turned aside to him and entered his house. And he made them a feast and baked unlearned bread, and they ate.” This doesn’t sound quite as elaborate as Abraham’s feast, but it is a meal nonetheless as Lot shows protective hospitality to these strangers.
2. Sodom’s Great Wickedness
But it didn’t work. The strangers were spotted. And in verses 4-5 we encounter Sodom’s great wickedness. “But before they lay down, the men of the city, the men of Sodom, both young and old, all the people to the last man, surrounded the house” (Genesis 19:4).
Notice the repetition. In light of Abraham’s prayer in the last chapter, these words show us that the wickedness of Sodom was total.
“And they called to Lot, ‘Where are the men who came to you tonight? Bring them out to us, that we may know them’” (Genesis 19:5).
They saw the strangers, and they want the strangers. And they don’t just want to have a cup of tea with these men. It’s very clear from what Lot says about his daughters that the men of Sodom want to know these strangers intimately. Like Genesis 4 says, “Now Adam knew his wife Eve, and she conceived and bore Cain.”
Put very simply, the men of Sodom want to gang rape these two strangers. And it goes without saying that Genesis 19 portrays this as extremely wicked. You remember that the whole point of the angels’ visit was to see if Sodom was as wicked as reported. And here’s the evidence.
What made the act of the men of Sodom so wicked? There’s two reasons we can reflect on. First, Sodom was showing the total opposite of the hospitality they were supposed to show to strangers. Strangers should have been welcomed and safe and protected. That’s just universal, but especially in that culture where hospitality to strangers was such a high value.
And instead of being hospitable to these strangers, the men of Sodom are predators who want to abuse and prey on these vulnerable men. There’s no question that this inversion of hospitality was a part of the great wickedness of the men of Sodom.
It’s also unavoidable that the Biblical authors see the homosexuality of Sodom as a part of their great wickedness. We see this come out in Lot’s words in the next verses, where he offers his two daughters to the crowd. Lot thinks that it would be less wicked for the crowd to gang rape his two virgin daughters than it would be for them to gang rape these two grown men. And it’s hard to argue that this is only because they are his guests. It’s fairly plain that Lot thinks this would be wicked at least in part because they are men.
And this is the perspective of the other biblical authors as well. Jude 7 speaks of “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding cities, which likewise indulged in sexual immorality and pursued unnatural desire.” The perspective of the Biblical authors is that God designed sexual intimacy for a man and a woman in marriage. And when that intimacy occurs between two men or two women, that’s outside of God’s design and is viewed by him as wicked.
So in Sodom that evening, the wickedness of the Sodomites was two-fold. The natural impulse to protect strangers was replaced with an aggressive predatory attack on those strangers. And the natural desire of a man for a woman was replaced with an unnatural craving of men for men.
Now I want to say something important here. By referring to these actions as unnatural, I’m not suggesting that they felt unnatural to those men that night. In fact, the sense we get from the story is that the men of Sodom were doing exactly what they wanted to do.
But the perspective of the Bible is that what feels normal and natural and good to us may not be truly natural and normal and good in God’s eyes. The perspective of the Bible is that God is the only reliable guide to reality. And because He made us, He defines what’s good or bad, what’s natural or unnatural.
We see a similar train of thought in Romans 1. The Apostle Paul says that because people refused to worship and honour God, God gave them up to “dishonourable passions.” In verse 27 he writes how “the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another.” That word for “passion” can mean “desire” or “longing.” In other words, these men desired and longed for each other. Verse 27 says that their acts with one another were “shameless.”
They wanted each other, and what they did felt natural. But according to Genesis and Romans and the rest of the bible, that doesn’t make it right.
It goes without saying that the Bible’s perspective on this issue is very different from the perspective we see around us in our culture today. Our culture seems to believe that someones’s sexual desires or preferences are super important, and must not be denied, because those desires define our identity. That’s right there in the phrase “sexual identity.” But according to the Bible, our identity does not come from our desires or our sexuality, but rather from our relationship to God. Genesis 1 says that we were created in His image, and according to the Bible it’s that image-bearing relationship with God that defines our identity.
So all we’re doing here is unpacking what the Bible says. And what it says, particularly here in Genesis 18 and 19, is that our behaviour will not be judged by whether or not it feels natural to us or not, but whether or not it is acceptable to God, the creator and judge of all the earth.
3. Lot’s Cowardly Intervention
So, put yourself in Lot’s shoes. You live in this wicked town, and you’ve tried to protect these two strangers, and now your house is surrounded by this angry and lusty mob. And what we find in verse 6 is the next stage in the story, which is Lot’s cowardly intervention.
“Lot went out to the men at the entrance, shut the door after him, and said, ‘I beg you, my brothers, do not act so wickedly” (Genesis 19:6–7).
Let’s acknowledge his initial courage here. He starts off well, going outside and putting himself in between the crowd and the strangers. And, he’s not afraid to call a spade a spade. “Do not act so wickedly.” 2 Peter 2:8 says that as Lot lived there in Sodom say after day, “he was tormenting his righteous soul over their lawless deeds that he saw and heard.” And it comes out here. He calls them out and says that what they’re doing is not okay.
So far, so good. But things really fall apart in verse 8: “Behold, I have two daughters who have not known any man. Let me bring them out to you, and do to them as you please. Only do nothing to these men, for they have come under the shelter of my roof” (Genesis 19:8).
Anyone feel like throwing up? It’s hard to know what to say here, because Lot’s words are so disgusting. Lot apparently thinks that gang-raping two of his daughters would be less wicked than doing the same to the two men, and he tries to appease the lustful crowd with the lesser of two evils.
On the one hand, this is important, because it helps us understand Lot’s perspective on the behaviour and desires of these men. But on the other hand, I wonder if this really is the lesser of the evils. Lots daughters are significantly more vulnerable and defenceless than the two men, and Lot—as a father—had a responsibility to protect them.
Even if this was the lesser of two evils, it was still evil, through and through. Lot’s words here are cowardly and shameful and they come back to bite him in a horrifying turn of irony at the end of the chapter.
4. Sodom’s Stubborn Lust
And what’s more, it simply didn’t work. Appeasing sin never works. Negotiating with wickedness never works. And this unfolds for us in verses 9-11:
“But they said, ‘Stand back!” And they said, ‘This fellow came to sojourn, and he has become the judge! Now we will deal worse with you than with them.’ Then they pressed hard against the man Lot, and drew near to break the door down” (Genesis 19:9).
The men of Sodom don’t like being told what to do. Even thought Lot was the reason they all got spared from Chedolaomer about 15 years or so before, they get offended when he tries to hold them accountable, and they now want to punish him for it. Does that sound familiar at all?
And now Lot, who tried to appease them, is in their crosshairs and is in grave danger himself. And in verse 10, Lot needs to be rescued by the two angels, who pull lot into the house and blind the men at the door, probably with a dazzling light as the Hebrew word suggests.
But even that didn’t stop anything. The men at the door, “both small and great,” “wore themselves out groping for the door” as verse 11 finishes up. Even in the face of an obvious display of supernatural power, these men are so given over to the power of lust that they wearied themselves trying to get at the men in the house.
Lust is stubborn. Lust, at it’s root, is a craving for more than it already has, and so lust, by definition, can never be satisfied. And the men of Sodom demonstrate here the self-inflicted harm that comes to people who are given over to lust and follow its stubborn path.
5. The Angel’s Urgent Rescue
So, we move into our fifth stop in the passage, which is the angel’s urgent rescue. Remember what the angel’s mission in Sodom was: they were there to see if the place was as wicked as reported. Do you think that’s been confirmed by now?
And now destruction is imminent. Verse 12: “Then the men said to Lot, ‘Have you anyone else here? Sons-in-law, sons, daughters, or anyone you have in the city, bring them out of the place. For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it’” (Genesis 19:12–13).
This might have been a surprise to Lot—after all, these were just two normal-looking people—but the blinding light at his doorstep probably tipped him off that there was something supernatural about them. So when they say that they’ve been sent by the Lord to destroy that place, he believes them, and goes to find his sons-in-law.
These may have been men pledged to be married to his daughters already mentioned, or they may have been already married to other daughters not mentioned. The original language is a little ambiguous. But in verse 14 Lot goes to them and says “Up! Get out of this place, for the Lord is about to destroy the city.’ But he seemed to his sons-in-law to be jesting” (Genesis 19:14).
These men had gotten so used to Sodom the the idea of it’s destruction seemed like a joke to them. Lot warns them of coming judgement, and they think it’s a joke. Does that sound familiar at all?
The scene continues to unfold in verse 15: “As morning dawned, the angels urged Lot, saying, ‘Up! Take your wife and your two daughters who are here, lest you be swept away in the punishment of the city.’ But he lingered. So the men seized him and his wife and his two daughters by the hand, the Lord being merciful to him, and they brought him out and set him outside the city” (Genesis 19:15–16).
Lot himself doesn’t seem to get the urgency of the situation. Or, he doesn’t want to leave this place. He lingers, and needs to be seized by the angels for the second time and led by the hand out of the city.
They didn’t need to do this. They warned him, and if he wanted to linger and be destroyed, that was on him. But verse 16 tells us that this was “The Lord being merciful to him.” This was an answer to Abraham’s prayer! For all of Lot’s failures, he was not wicked like the men of sodom, and the Lord was going to make sure he didn’t get swept away in this judgement.
“And as they brought them out, one said, ‘Escape for your life. Do not look back or stop anywhere in the valley. Escape to the hills, lest you be swept away’” (Genesis 19:17).
6. Lot’s Lazy Escape
And I wish we read, “So Lot heeded their advice and ran for his life.” But no, Lot continues to disappoint us. The thought of running for the hills sounds like too big of a challenge to him. He doesn’t think he’ll make it. So he begs the angels to let him flee to a small city nearby. Verse 20: “Behold, this city is near enough to flee to, and it is a little one. Let me escape there—is it not a little one?—and my life will be saved!” (Genesis 19:20).
“Is it not a little one?” He seems to be asking them to spare that city, because it’s so small—so, you know, it’s not that big of a deal to let the wicked people in that city survive because there’s so few of them.
Oh, Lot. You just keep outdoing yourself in your weakness and passivity. Asking people for things that they never offered. Testing the limits of kindness.
Let’s just pause and give you a pro tip here: if two angels ever tell you that the place where you live is going to be destroyed, and you need to run to the hills, you run. You don’t try and negotiate.
But here’s the amazing thing: the angels show him mercy and grant his request. “He said to him, ‘Behold, I grant you this favor also, that I will not overthrow the city of which you have spoken. Escape there quickly, for I can do nothing till you arrive there.’ Therefore the name of the city was called Zoar” (Genesis 19:21–22), which means “little.”
And so, verse 23 tells us, Lot made it to Zoar. God was so, so kind to him.
7. God’s Righteous Judgement
And now we come to the moment of judgement. Lot has made it safely to Zoar, the sun had risen on the earth, and, verse 24, “Then the Lord rained on Sodom and Gomorrah sulfur and fire from the Lord out of heaven. And he overthrew those cities, and all the valley, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and what grew on the ground” (Genesis 19:24–25).
There’s some strong parallels here with the flood story, where judgement was also rained down from on high. Here, what rains down is sulphur and fire. “Sulphur” was translated as “brimstone” in the King James, and so this is where the phrase “fire and brimstone” comes from.
Some people have tried to explain what may have happened here from a natural standpoint. There are sulphur and tar deposits around that area, which also lies near a rift valley and so is pride to earthquakes. And earthquake could have released these substances and gasses into the air which could have been ignited by lightning, resulting in these fiery materials falling from the sky in burning lumps. And an earthquake would fit with the repeated use of the word “overthrow” in these verses.
Even if God chose to use a natural means like that, the perspective of Scripture is that the whole world is in His power and the timing and extent of these disasters is entirely His work. It was God who overthrew those cities because of their wickedness.
Verse 26 strikes an ominous note of warning: “But Lot’s wife, behind him, looked back, and she became a pillar of salt.” This is the third mention of Lot’s wife, but the first time we see her doing anything. They were warned by the angels, back in verse 17, not to look back. She disobeyed and was herself destroyed—perhaps by the material falling from the sky.
Verse 27, in a very cinematic move, shifts our perspective back to Abraham, who had interceded for Sodom the day before. “And Abraham went early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord. And he looked down toward Sodom and Gomorrah and toward all the land of the valley, and he looked and, behold, the smoke of the land went up like the smoke of a furnace” (27–28).
See what I mean by cinematic? The language here takes our mind’s eye out of the chaos of the valley and up to the calm heights of Hebron, where Abraham looks down and just sees smoke, like a furnace burning. This shift back to Abraham isn’t just for stylistic reasons, though. Seeing him here at the place where he had prayed the day before is very important, because this is why Lot was spared. As verse 29 tells us, “So it was that, when God destroyed the cities of the valley, God remembered Abraham and sent Lot out of the midst of the overthrow when he overthrew the cities in which Lot had lived” (Genesis 19:29).
Lot was spared, despite his best attempts, in response to Abraham’s prayer. Though he may not have known it, this was the second time he was rescued by his uncle.
8. Epilogue: Lot’s Sad Legacy
But Lot’s story isn’t quite over. Our eighth step in the passage takes us to verses 30-38, where we find it’s sad legacy. For whatever reason, verse 30 tells us he was afraid to stay in Zoar, and so he ends up in a cave in the hills that the angels had sent him to in the first place. And many of you know what happens next.
His daughters give up hope that they’ll ever find husbands, and so to preserve offspring from Lot, they get him drunk on two successive nights and engage in intimacy with him. This is sadly ironic given Lot’s offer of his daughters to the mob at his door, isn’t it?
Lot doesn’t do this knowingly. He is so drunk that, as verse 33 and 23 both say, “He did not know when she lay down or when she arose.” This is another important reminder of the safety of sobriety. We can’t say what happened was Lot’s fault. We can’t say “he had it coming.”
His daughters are clearly at fault here as the scheming manipulators. But we can learn from this that if Lot had been sober, he would not have been so vulnerable to their schemes. And so there’s important lessons for us, like we’ve seen, about the safety of sobriety.
There’s also parallels here to the story of Noah, where after escaping judgement, drunkenness leads to sexual vulnerability which leads to being preyed upon by his own children. And like Noah, but in an even more direct way, one of the long-lasting effects of this was nations who were enemies to God’s people.
“The firstborn bore a son and called his name Moab. He is the father of the Moabites to this day. The younger also bore a son and called his name Ben-ammi. He is the father of the Ammonites to this day” (Genesis 19:37–38).
The Moabites and the Ammonites had a troubled relationship with the offspring of Abraham for centuries. In particular, it was Moabite women who, acting not unlike their mother here, seduced the Israelites into Baal worship centuries later (Numbers 25). And this was Lot’s sad legacy.
9. Lessons for Sojourners
So what can you and I learn from a tough passage like this? As we emerge from the fire and brimstone and mercy, what are the enduring lessons this part of God’s word is wanting us to take home with us today?
A. Knowing the Certainty of Coming Judgement
I’m going to suggest three. The first is that we would know the certainty of coming judgement.
Sodom and Gomorrah is a little picture, in time and space, of what God’s judgement on all the wicked will be one day. Sodom is mentioned 27 times in the rest of the Bible; Gomorrah, 14, and each time as either an example of wickedness or as an example of divine judgement.
2 Peter 2:6 and 9-10 says that “if by turning the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes he condemned them to extinction, making them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly… then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority” (2 Peter 2:9–10; cf. Luke 17:28-30).
Peter would have us look at Sodom and Gomorrah, turned to ash, and see there a picture of the final judgement that awaits all of the unrighteous.
Now some people hear this and probably think about about the way that our culture celebrates every form of sexual expression, and its determination to punish anybody who disagrees with it. And like we’ve seen, the Biblical authors are certainly against many of the things our culture celebrates, particularly in this regard.
In Romans 1:26-27, for example, Paul writes that “God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error.”
But you might be surprised that the Bible’s definition of “wickedness” might be a bit broader than we think. Verse 28 and following go on to say, “And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless” (Romans 1:28–31).
Have you ever done any of those things? Have any of those behaviours ever felt natural to you? Do you feel the weight of verse 32: “Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them”?
The certainly of coming judgement is bad news for every son of Adam and daughter of Eve. The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah has put us all on notice—all of us—that God sees our wickedness and will not let it go unpunished, either now or in eternity.
B. Receiving the Safety of Salvation in Christ
And that’s why we need to turn and receive the safety of salvation in Christ. Our hope is not that God will act like a kind grandpa and forget to punish wickedness. Our only hope is that Jesus took the punishment for our wickedness in our place. The fiery skies above Sodom and Gomorrah takes us to the black skies above Golgotha where an innocent man was pierced for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities (Isaiah 53:5) as He bore the wrath of God instead of us.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13a). The death of Jesus was messy and bloody and violent. Think of what we remember every month in the Lord’s supper. Blood. And a body broken and crushed. And a soul that felt the heat of a thousand Sodom and Gomorrahs raining upon it.
It was gruesome. And it is glorious. Because He let that happen. No-one took His life from Him, but He laid down His life for the sheep that He loved (John 10:18). And that’s why Christians can’t get away from the cross, because in it we see the worthiness and the beauty of a saviour who shows us His glory by willingly dying for us.
And in His mercy, there’s hope. Hope for all of us. Hope for the offspring of Lot. Think of Ruth the Moabite finding shelter under Yahweh’s wings those centuries later. Think of the grace so many of you have tasted. And think of the grace that we get to offer to a world who deserves God’s wrath but who can find safety in the wounds of Jesus.
Listen to what the Apostle Paul had to say about this: “Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9–11).
The grace of Jesus is enough for everybody. I wonder if some of us need to be reminded of that this morning. Many Christians are feeling defensive these days as culture and government breathe down our neck and try to force us to adopt their standard of morality.
And as this happens, I wonder if some Christians have started to forget the power of the gospel and the power of Jesus to transform anybody.
Romans 1:16 says “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” Do you believe that?
If you have a hard time believing that, or want some encouragement as you figure out what that looks like, I’d like to point you to the handout in your bulletin this morning which highlights a number of resources in our library that shed light on the power of the gospel as it relates to these issues. A number of those books are written by people who experience same-sex attraction, and yet who are committed to the the teaching of God’s word on the matter, and who have found that the gospel is good news for them.
The example of Jesus in His self-sacrificing life, the love of Jesus to take away their punishment, the glory of Jesus displayed on the cross, the identity of Jesus they’ve found in baptism and union with Christ and discipleship, the power of Jesus at work in their life to help them walk in obedience, the kindness of Jesus reflected in a loving church family, and the hope of Jesus’ return to make all things new—they’ve found Jesus to be better than the story our culture has tried to tell them.
In particular I’d like to point you to the first book there by Sam Alberry, which we have in our library but also a few copies out in the foyer to borrow or keep or give away. Whether you’re questioning these things for yourself, or for people you know and love, or just to understand things better, that book is so helpful, and may be a good tool to begin to have conversations with others about these matters.
Sodom and Gomorrah, set within the bigger story of the Bible, is about fire and brimstone—and mercy. If you know Jesus this morning, this is a mercy you’ve tasted, a mercy that you need fresh each morning, and a mercy that you get to share with your brothers and your sisters and a needy world. Let’s ask God to keep us from being intimidated by our hostile culture, and instead to make us confident in the truth and power of the gospel.
And if you don’t know Christ this morning, that mercy is here for you. You can come to Jesus in whatever state you’re in and find safety at His cross. Nothing is stronger than His love.