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Evil Mercy

Mercy: when teaching children, I like to tell them that mercy means 'not getting what you deserve'.  This is in contrast to justice, which means 'getting exactly what you deserve'. And the right to execute justice or show mercy belongs ultimately and totally to the One who sits as Judge over all the universe.  It is Yahweh, the Creator, who says, "I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy" (Exodus 33:19).  All of our own exercises of justice and mercy as human beings derive totally from His decisions in these areas. It is that last statement - that our exercise of mercy derives from His - that leads me to write on 'evil mercy' this morning.  A statement like that may sound nice and proper on the surface, but when carried out to its logical end, it can lead to some not-very-politically-correct conclusions.  For instance, what if God has not extended mercy to a people group or individual?  What then?  If the human exercise of mercy derives totally from God's extended mercy - since He is the Judge - then are we as humans to be unmerciful where He has not shown mercy?

In a word: yes.

Consider if you will a story from the book of 1 Kings.  In chapter 20 of that book, there is a story of King Ahab and the northern kingdom of Israel going to war against Syria, which was under the leadership of Ben-hadad.  Before the battle, an unnamed 'man of God' approached King Ahab and told him, "Thus says Yahweh, 'Because the Syrians have said, "Yahweh is a god of the hills but he is not a god of the valleys," therefore I will give all this great multitude into your hand, and you shall know that I am Yahweh.'"  God was going to prove that He created, owned, and sat as High Sovereign over every inch of the universe through His victory over the Syrians, using the much smaller army of Israel as His tool.  He had "devoted to destruction" (20:42) the entire Syrian force, deciding to execute justice and withhold mercy.

Toward the end of the battle, though, Ben-hadad, king of the Syrians, took council with some of his servants, and they decided to put sackcloth around their waists and ropes on their heads and beg Ahab for mercy.  "Behold now, we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are merciful kings," they said (v. 31).

Now it is certainly not a bad thing at all to have a reputation as a merciful person.  Our God has a reputation of being a God rich in mercy, and we are to be like Him.  But that's just it: we are to be like Him.  We are to show mercy where He shows mercy.  But when He declares that there is to be no mercy for a particular people, person, or crime, then we need to withhold our own exercise of mercy in that event.

King Ahab did indeed show mercy where God had not: sparing the life of Ben-hadad.  And immediately upon releasing the enemy king, a prophet of Yahweh came to Ahab and told him, "Thus says Yahweh, 'Because you have let go out of your hand the man whom I had devoted to destruction, therefore your life shall be for his life, and your people for his people'" (v. 42).  God judged Ahab for showing mercy where He had not extended mercy.

This is not the only case of this happening in the Bible.  King Saul did something very similar in sparing the life of Agag, king of the Amelekites, in 1 Samuel 15:8.  Because of this evil mercy where God had not shown mercy, God said that He regretted that He had ever made Saul king, and it was from that day that God began to remove the kingdom from Saul and give it to his servant David.

But what is the application of all of this for those of us living in the twenty-first century of the New Covenant?  Is there ever a situation in which we could be said to be guilty for showing mercy where God has not shown mercy?

Yes there is.  The application for us would be in the way that we execute justice for crimes committed.  We are not in a situation where we have prophets walking up to us and telling us to devote this or that people to utter destruction, but we have been told what God's just penalty for various sins should be.  We are told that sacrificing to and worshiping gods other than Yahweh carries the death penalty.  Other sins that carry the same judgment are adultery, homosexuality, witchcraft, bestiality, rebellion against one's parents, murder, kidnapping, being a false prophet, and even lying about your virginity.

The only one of these crimes that we in America still punish with the justice that God demanded is murder, and we don't even do that well.  Some states do not hand out death sentences for murder at all, and when those that do actually do so, it is rarely done in a timely enough manner to be considered 'justice'.

It is a very dangerous thing for a nation to consider itself 'more civilized' than God and extend mercy for crimes that the Judge declared were abominations against His very character.  We do not have that right, and we ought not to think of ourselves as merciful and loving when we do so.  It is simply and purely disobedience, and it shows that we care more about the creature than we do the Creator.  I am not advocating that individuals take God's Law into their own hands and carry out those death penalties that the state leaves unfulfilled.  That is never once commanded in Scripture.  I am merely declaring that for any nation to be obedient to the Lord and bear the sword of justice as it was intended - and thus receive the blessings of God - that nation needs to pattern its laws after God's perfect Law.  And we as Christians need to recognize this fact and help our leaders to make right decisions that bring our nation's laws more in line with His.

Ripe Justice, Ripe Blessing

King David is a fabulous character in the Bible.  He is the "man after God's own heart", the recipient of the Davidic covenant, a type of Christ, and certainly one of the most faithful and laudable persons in human history.  But there was a time in his life when all of that probably seemed very distant and unlikely. David starts well in the service of King Saul as a musician and armor-bearer, and even earns high praise as the one who saved Israel from the Philistines by single-handedly downing their champion, Goliath.  But that is where things start to go south for the brave, faithful youth.  One day, as the army is coming home, Saul overhears the women singing, "Saul has slain his thousands, and David his tens of thousands," and from that moment on there is great strife between David and the jealous king.

The years that follow on the heels of the split between David and Saul are frustrating.  David is pursued as a fugitive all through the wild places of Canaan: up hills and mountains, through the wilderness, and into caves.  On a couple of occasions, David even hides in the service of Israel's enemies - once going so far as to feign madness!

During this time, it is easy to imagine that a person so pursued would experience a large measure of depression, discouragement, and anger over his plight.  And yet, we consistently find David content to wait on his God to settle things in His own time.

On two occasions while Saul is chasing David down through the wilderness in order to kill him, David is given open access to his enemy to score a quick kill that would end the entire pursuit.  Both times, however, the faithful youth spares the life of his lord, citing as the reason both times, "Who can put out his hand against Yahweh's anointed and be guiltless?" (1 Samuel 24:6 & 26:9)

We see a more full description of what is going on in David's mind during times like these in the episode with Nabal and Abigail in chapter 25 of 1 Samuel.  There David and his men are slighted and dishonored by the foolish Nabal, but before David can descend of the man and his family to kill them all, the fool's wife comes to meet David with a large gift of food and with a humble apology and entreaty for David to stay his hand.  To this David responds, "Blessed be your discretion, and blessed be you, who have kept me this day from bloodguilt and from avenging myself with my own hand" (1 Samuel 25:33).  And later on, when Nabal's heart dies within him and he becomes as stone for ten days before finally dying completely, David rejoices by saying, "Blessed be Yahweh who has avenged the insult I received from the hand of Nabal, and has kept back his servant from wrongdoing" (25:39).

And we know that David had to feel this exact same way in all of his dealings with Saul.  Everything that Saul did to him was unjust (even giving away his wife at one point!), but David refused to put out his hand against God's anointed, knowing that, "As Yahweh lives, Yahweh will strike him, or his day will come to die, or he will go down into battle and perish" (26:10).  And so, he was content to wait, but we must never imagine that the waiting was easy.  He probably thought, on more than one occasion, that the best years of his life were passing him by while he was hiding in caves or pretending to be insane in the court of the enemy.  But God knew the plans that He had for David, and ultimately David knew that God knew!

David was faithful to His God, knowing that "Yahweh rewards every man for his righteousness and his faithfulness" (26:23).  He would later write songs that would declare the rich blessings of waiting on Yahweh to avenge and to bless in His own time: "Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!" (Psalm 27:14), "Wait for the LORD and keep His way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; you will look on when the wicked are cut off" (37:34), "For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from Him" (62:5).

We all need a good reminder of these truths from time to time.  When we are treated unjustly - and the Bible promises that all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Timothy 3:12) - we should not allow our enemies to rile us up to the point where we become guilty for taking vengeance into our own hands.  Let God take care of that.  He says, "vengeance is mine, I will repay" (Romans 12:19).  A true faith in the awesome supremacy of God will tell you that He can do it far better than you ever could anyway, so don't let your enemy get off easily by repaying him yourself.

In a similar vein, we can often serve God in faithfulness for a long time before we see bountiful blessing.  Oh, there are surely a myriad of smaller blessings all along the way, but I mean the big "fruit-bearing" kind of blessings that are unmistakable - even to the blinded eyes of unbelievers.  Once again, though, it is a true faith that has to see the "treasure in heaven" as being greater than immediate rewards here on earth.  Think on David's life and how long and how often he did the faithful things that he did before God established his kingdom.  Think on these things and take heart.  "Wait for the LORD and keep His way, and He will exalt you to inherit the land; and you will look on when the wicked are cut off."

The Poor Thirty-Six

When we do something wrong, can others end up getting hurt because of our bad decisions?  You bet!  The number of fatalities each year caused by drunk drivers is testament to this.  But what about when we sin against God?  If you break His Law in such a way that it does not immediately spell injury to someone else (like murder), would God cause other people to suffer and die until you repented?  Be careful how quickly you answer that question. In the book of Joshua there is the well-known story of Israel's victory at Jericho, immediately followed by their defeat at Ai.  And most of us remember the reason for the defeat: a man named Achan had taken some of the forbidden spoils of Jericho that were to be totally devoted to destruction.  What we don't usually immediately consider, however, are those thirty-six men who died in the initial attack on the city of Ai (Joshua 7:5).  It is made clear to us that these men died because of the unrepentant sin of Achan (verses 11-12).  The sticky part of all of this is that those thirty-six men had no idea about what Achan had done.  One man sins against the Lord and thirty-six others who are unrelated to the sin pay with their lives.  Is this fair?

Some might be quick to point out passages like Ezekiel 18:1-4

The word of the LORD came to me: "What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, 'The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge'?  As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

Isn't what God is saying in Ezekiel 18 a direct contradiction to what He did in Joshua 7?  Not when we rightly understand the sentiment that God is countering by telling Ezekiel that Israel shall no longer repeat their proverb.  The Israelites of Ezekiel's day were not taking responsibility for their own sin.  They were wailing and complaining that they were being punished for their fathers' sins while they themselves were innocent.  That was not the case.  God does not pour out wrath on innocent people (except for when Christ became sin for us).  If a person dies, it is because he was a sinner.

The thirty-six men who died in Joshua chapter 7 were not innocent men.  They had not personally committed Achan's sin, but they were guilty of sin all on their own.  God was not unjust in deferring His righteous judgment on them until the moment when it best suited His purposes.  In that case, it served as a clear indicator to the people of Israel that there was sin in the camp.

God is certainly within His rights to work things out in this way.  Since "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and since "the wages of sin is death" (Romans 6:23), that means every single human being is on death row, so to speak.  And the Righteous Judge can enact the sentence whenever He wants.  The condemned may cry, "Unfair!", but they would be wrong.

The scariest part of all of this to me, however, comes when I think about the church.  How many like Achan do we have secreting away their sins in our congregations?  Worse, how many in our churches are guilty of sins that we know ought to be disciplined by the church according to Matthew 18:15-20 and yet we do not because we are weak and cowardly, caring more about what men think of us than God?  How many of our churches experience stunted growth - a jarring halt to the conquest of the world with the Gospel - because of all of the forbidden spoil in our midst?

Exalted in Justice

Crime dramas are all the rage these days.  We love the mystery.  We love the suspense.  But most of all, we love it when the good guys catch the bad guys.  Most of us don't really like those episodes where the crime is left unsolved or the murderer gets away.  We feel cheated. Similarly, as Americans we all cheer when our military brings down another terrorist leader or is victorious in a campaign against the enemy.  We want the enemies of freedom stopped and brought to justice, and it just won't do for us to allow terrorists to assault us on our soil and get away scott-free.

The point is that justice is a good, honorable, and praiseworthy idea.  A crooked cop or judge is one of the most reprehensible creatures imaginable, but those who uphold justice are to be respected, honored, and trusted.

But while practically everyone would agree with what has already been said about the praiseworthiness of justice, that is arguably the most unpopular attribute of God.  When God executes justice on the guilty, the majority of people in the world (including some Christians) question His goodness, His power, His sovereignty, and even His existence.  "How can a good God allow such horrible things to happen?" is the way the complaint normally goes.

The problem seems to be that we have a hard time identifying who the enemies of God are.  As long as we cling to the idea of "good and innocent" people, we will not be able to understand how a loving God can allow them to be wiped out by an earthquake, or a flood, or a tsunami, or an invading army, or whatever.

Why is the murderer in the crime drama a "bad guy"?  It is because he has 1) broken a law, and 2) committed a great offense against another human being.  Is there anything beyond these two things that makes him so evil and deserving of the wrath of a just government?  No, not really.

So let's consider what makes someone an enemy of God.  An enemy of God would 1) break God's Law, and 2) commit a great offense against God.  What we ought to notice right away is that this enemy of God should be considered a more heinous "bad guy" than the murderer on the TV.  Breaking the law of a state like Illinois is certainly less of an offense than breaking the law of the Creator of the universe!  Also, committing an offense against another human being just doesn't measure up to the seriousness of committing an offense against the Almighty Ruler of everything!  So why don't we get all up-in-arms about the wickedness of these enemies of God and their need for being brought to justice.  Well, that's easy: it's because "I are one!"

Yeah, it's true: we've all broken the Law of God, and in the process we have committed a great offense against Him (Romans 3:23).  And yet, we don't like to consider ourselves as worthy of instant and eternal death and torment (that would be the just penalty for offending an infinitely holy God).  No, we like to think of ourselves as deserving to live and breathe and be happy today.  And if we think that way about ourselves, we have to think that way about other people.  It's hard to imagine that someone else deserves death and eternal punishment when you are guilty of the same things and you feel entitled to life and liberty.

The testimony of the Word of God is that you are not entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.  You and I and everyone else have been working a lifetime at a job paying the maximum wage of death (Romans 6:23).  This is why the gospel is so precious.  If we are in Christ through faith, then He took the wrath that we deserved.  He became the enemy of God on our behalf and suffered our just penalty so that we could inherit His just reward: eternal life (Romans 3:21-26).  No one goes to heaven because they deserve it, but because He does!

So that's what we have to understand if we are to give God the proper honor and praise for defeating His enemies.  As Isaiah 5:16 says, "The LORD of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows Himself holy in righteousness."  It is a good, honorable, and praiseworthy thing for God to squash His enemies.  He is exalted in His justice.  He's like your favorite character in your favorite crime drama that always catches the bad guy.  The fact is that it would have been good and holy for Him to crush you and me.  But just because He is gracious toward us does not meant that His justice and wrath toward unrighteousness is less praiseworthy.  If we get a proper understanding of the wickeness of fallen man, we'll have far less trouble finding God's goodness the next time a tsunami wipes out a hundred-thousand of God's enemies.