I have argued that a “day of the Lord” in biblical terms happens not at the end of history but in history. It is a day when the God of Israel steps in to “judge” or “put right” a bad situation—to punish impiety and injustice, to deliver his people from their enemies, to re-establish his reputation among the nations, and so on. There is not one final day of the Lord, there are only days of the Lord—and we may be long overdue for one.
From Jesus’ perspective the foreseen “day of judgment”—he doesn’t call it a day of the Lord—was the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by the invading armies of Rome. This is the first thing we need to get clear in our heads if we want to understand the Synoptic Gospels.
On this day, the current wicked generation of Jews would suffer the “judgment of Gehenna” and Jesus would be seen—in the terms of Daniel’s vision—coming with the clouds of heaven to receive, or having received, the authority to rule over his people, thoroughly vindicated by events.
But what are Sodom and Gomorrah doing there: “Truly, I say to you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah than for that town” (Matt 10:15)? Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed long before. If they are present on this day of judgment, do we not have to understand the event in transcendent and final terms, involving a resurrection of all mankind for judgment? No, we don’t.
The saying about Sodom (and Gomorrah) occurs twice in Matthew.
When Jesus sends out the twelve, he says that “it will be more bearable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah in a day of judgment” than it will be for the towns that reject their message about the coming kingdom of God (Matt. 10:15). He also says, with reference to the same mission, that they “will not have gone through all the towns of Israel before the Son of Man comes” (Matt. 10:23).
In a later passage, he denounces “the cities where most of his mighty works had been done, because they did not repent” (Matt 11:20). It will be more bearable, he says, for Tyre and Sidon and for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment than for these cities. So in what sense did Jesus think that they would suffer less than the cities and towns of Israel on the coming day of judgment?
Luke has combined the sayings about the cities and appended them to the sending out of the seventy-two (Lk. 10:12-15). He also says that the Queen of Sheba and the men of Nineveh will “rise up at the judgment with the men of this generation and condemn them”—because the Queen of Sheba sought wisdom from Solomon and the men of Nineveh repented at the preaching of Jonah (Lk. 11:29-32).
This perhaps suggests a more widespread mission—the proclamation of the coming of the kingdom of God to Jews among the Gentiles. But these symbolic witnesses still come to testify against and condemn this wicked generation of Israel. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple remains the focal point of the day of judgment.
Paul makes a similar point in Romans when he says that the Gentile (not the Christian Gentile) who “keeps the law will condemn you who have the written code and circumcision but break the law,” on that day when “God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 2:16, 27).
The day of judgment in view, therefore, is a judgment on the unrepentant towns and cities of Israel before the coming of the Son of Man, within a generation (Matt. 16:28; 24:34), to execute YHWH’s kingly rule over his people and vindicate his faithful disciples. Jesus can only have meant by this the disastrous impact of the Jewish revolt and Roman retaliation as a consequence of Israel’s refusal to heed the call to repentance.
The presence of Tyre, Sidon, the land of Sodom, the Queen of Sheba, and the men of Nineveh at the judgment of this wicked generation of Jews would appear to be rhetorical.
Jesus’ point, on the one hand, is that “something greater” than Solomon and Jonah is here (Lk. 11:31-32). The significance of the comparative “more bearable” (anektoteron), in real terms, is arguably only that these neighbouring regions, despite their ancient sins, would not suffer during the course of the war—at least, not nearly as badly as Israel would suffer.
In any case, the trope belongs to a long-standing prophetic critique of Israel:
As I live, declares the Lord GOD, your sister Sodom and her daughters have not done as you and your daughters have done. Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy. They were haughty and did an abomination before me. So I removed them, when I saw it. Samaria has not committed half your sins. You have committed more abominations than they, and have made your sisters appear righteous by all the abominations that you have committed. Bear your disgrace, you also, for you have intervened on behalf of your sisters. Because of your sins in which you acted more abominably than they, they are more in the right than you. So be ashamed, you also, and bear your disgrace, for you have made your sisters appear righteous. (Ezek. 16:48–52)
Ezekiel’s comment that Sodom and Gomorrah “are more in the right than you” is equivalent to Jesus’ statement about it being more bearable for the land of Sodom on the day of judgment. Jesus may well have had this passage in mind. He speaks in the same poetic-prophetic idiom.
The relevance is even clearer in the Septuagint, where the “rendering right” of Sodom and Gomorrah is judgment language.
And you shall bear your trial, for you ruined your sisters with your sins by which you acted lawlessly beyond them and rendered them right (edikaiōsas) beyond yourselves, and be ashamed, you, and receive your dishonor for rendering your sisters right (dikaiōsai).
Ironically, Sodom and Gomorrah will be justified by the more heinous sins of Israel.
We read in Acts 12:20, finally, that the people of Tyre and Sidon sought to make peace with Herod “because their country depended on the king’s country for food” (Acts 12:20). There we have a concrete historical explanation for the implication of Tyre and Sidon in a day of judgment against Jerusalem. They will suffer on account of the disruption and destruction of war, but this will be nothing compared to what Israel will have to endure.