Psalm 37:9 “For evil men will be cut off, but those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land.”
Since God’s ways are higher than man’s ways, I may be presumptuous in writing a few finite thoughts here about how God can be both just and merciful at the same time. On the other hand, God’s Word has much to say about this “justice-mercy” symmetry in His character. So, I’d like to briefly process the balance here because I believe God wants me to earnestly seek Him and understand His character as much as I can.
The “punishing-blessing” image of God that we sometimes hear about in churches turns out to one of many false narratives. The lie: God punishes bad people and blesses good people. Incomplete. Unbalanced. False. Yet, punishment and blessing are actions of God that must be understood in the larger context of the whole counsel of God’s Word.
In James Bryan Smith’s book THE GOOD AND BEAUTIFUL GOD, the author recommends moving our sights to the larger tapestry of God’s grace and generosity when we, at the same time, consider that He is also not indecisive when it comes to evil. When I read the 32nd and 34th chapters of Exodus, I am convinced that God was only seconds away from exercising His holy character and objective/rational response to human rebellion and idolatry in the early verses of 32, BUT that He relented because of the prayers of Moses and exercised patience by giving sinful people another opportunity for repentance. Justice and mercy is “both/and.”
Reading on in Exodus and beyond. The sin cycle repeats over and over in scripture. So does the forgiveness cycle. Smith says that “wrath” is not a word that describes who God is, but rather, “wrath” describes what God does because of His essential nature. He makes it clear in his book that “wrath is the act of a holy God toward sin.” The lightbulb for me is in discovering that God does not ever shame me into good behavior. He doesn’t use fear or guilt tactics to make me do right. He doesn’t force my choices, but He loves me enough to truthfully describe the consequences of sin, both short term and long term. He does promise judgment while He does permit my choices. His Word is true.
God acts out of determined, decisive “pathos” rather than irrational or explosive “passion.” “Pathos” is not a household word, but Smith explains that it means “an act formed with care and intention” which is the result of firmness and resolution. In the Exodus story, the rebels got tired of waiting for God and decided to make their own god out of gold. One corruption then led to another. The next thing you know, God calls out these people as “stiff-necked.” I can relate.
It sounds all too familiar to me. In my lack of trust and patience, I turn away to all kinds of things as replacements for God, mainly “me” – my own form of a golden idol. I take matters into my own hands. Then I begin to believe God will never show up, like they did. Just as God asks Moses to leave Him alone so that He can destroy the rebels, Moses prays for a favor. God made His response known. Now here comes mercy. Exodus 32:14 says, “Then the Lord relented and did not bring on His people the disaster He had threatened (planned).”
But, the seemingly endless circle of rebellion and idolatry starts again…just a few verses later.
Here is my hope. God declares Himself resolutely in Exodus 34:6-9. “And He passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, ‘The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet He does not leave the guilty unpunished; He punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.’ Moses bowed down to the ground at once and worshipped. ‘O Lord, if I have found favor in your eyes,’ he said, ‘ then let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, forgive our wickedness and our sin, and take us as Your inheritance.’ ”
Churches may or may not soft peddle the part about the “sins of the fathers.” It is a hardcore truth, the kind we don’t like to think about. However, I have lived long enough to recognize that the consequences of the “sins of the fathers” follow clearly on to the next generations… (I will refrain from giving examples). God’s Word shows itself to be true in this. God is resolute. He is determined. His justice is hard to understand, but is nevertheless a reality.
From one stiff-necked person trying to encourage another stiff-necked person (whoever reads this), my joy is that God lovingly gave us the gift of His Son Jesus to provide forgiveness for sins. This is mercy. And God wholeheartedly opposes all things that destroy His precious people – namely sin. This is justice. Wrath is an action of God contingent upon human sin and the absolutely necessary determination/decision of a loving and holy God. This is the balance.
Evil men will be cut off. God promised. Fret not. Those who hope in the Lord will inherit the land. God promised. Fret not.
Lord, take me as Your inheritance and forgive my sin.