Lady Macbeth Got It Wrong

By Edward Thal /

The great hope of every God-acknowledging man, woman and child, no matter their religious background, is that their sins are forgiven and they have a home in heaven.

King David wrote in Psalm 32 that they are blessed whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered; to whose account the Lord does not put sin. But how can a just God be justified in justifying the ungodly? Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, in a scene eerily reminiscent of Pontius Pilate, tried the wrong remedy as she obsessively wiped her hands to remove the guilt of murder. At last she wept in despair: “Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh; Oh; Oh.” (Macbeth: Act 5, Scene 1)

Sin has a haunting, indelible quality. We cannot wish it away. We cannot work it away. It clings. It repays the sinner with death of inner peace, death of self-respect, death of honesty and death of hope. The ultimate death is eternal separation from a holy God who cannot co-exist with sin. We who have sinned are unable even to approach God, just as a moth cannot approach the flame that draws it, without being consumed. We instinctively respond to the light of God’s love and mercy but are quickly repelled by the terrifying heat of His justice and righteousness. We are forced to recognize that divine righteousness sets impossibly high standards of perfection, and divine justice cannot overlook our failure to meet those standards.

Our dilemma is maddening and leads to the invention of complex systems of self-delusion in the guise of the world’s many religions, or the ultimate delusion that tries to let us off the hook by pretending there is no God. Yet God does have an answer that perfectly reconciles His love and mercy, righteousness and justice, in the face of sin. It is a solution at once profound and simple; devastatingly severe yet heartbreakingly compassionate: offering Himself as the perfect sacrifice on behalf of those who are incapable of saving themselves. In so doing God expresses with diamond-hard clarity the measureless expanse of His love for both His fallen Creation and His sacred Law. His unique act also underlines the utter futility of man’s efforts.

All that it is possible for sinners to do is to yield themselves completely to God, abject in the face of such stupendous Truth. Amazingly, most will resist God’s provision. They will reject the notion that He lifted the barrier between eternity and time, boldly making a way for their deliverance even as they haltingly sought His favor. Like the fabled Lady Macbeth sinners will wring their hands in futile acts of penance and cleansing, not because their religion offers any true relief but precisely because it is their religion.

Here, then, is the measure of mankind’s depravity: having broken God’s law they are unwilling to accept God’s forgiveness on His terms. They persist in the way of Lady Macbeth. Sadly, she got it terribly wrong.