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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.

More Capital Punishment

True justice is so terribly perverted in the United States.  Thieves are punished by fines and imprisonment as if their crime was against the state, while the victims of the crime have their property replaced by insurance companies.  This is utter foolishness.  In addition, a person can get into all kinds of trouble for driving too fast or too erratically, while those who have sex with animals or with other humans of the same gender receive no rebuke.   What we Americans have apparently decided is that we know better than God about which things to label as crimes and that we know better than He does about the ways that those crimes ought to be punished.  And the saddest part of all of this is that most Christians are more likely to support man's definition of crime and punishment than God's own wise revelation of justice in His Word. In our land, if a man commits adultery there is absolutely no penalty.  No one is fined.  No one goes to jail.  There's not even a public flogging of such a person.  A person can commit such an atrocity with no fear of a just punishment from the state.  Jaywalking carries a stiffer penalty.  Not so in the perfect Law of God.  We find in Leviticus 20:10 that "if a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death."  In the Law of God, the punishment fits the crime.  Breaking the sacred marriage vows that image forth the fidelity of Christ and the church to one another needs to be punished as severely as possible by the state.  To let something like adultery happen day by day in this country with no just penalty is a downright abomination.

The same thing could be said for any of the other crimes that call for the death penalty in God's Law.  Homosexual acts are an abominable crime, and the state ought to hand out the just penalty (Leviticus 20:13).  Intercourse between humans and animals ought to penalized with death (Leviticus 20:16).  Even things like witchcraft and pagan worship should be punishable by death by the state because trafficking with demons will always lead to the downfall of any society (Exodus 22:18, Leviticus 20:2).  Instead, however, our military creates chaplaincies for those who practice witchcraft and even sets up pagan worship areas in complete rebellion against the Law of God (see the story here).

Some Christians are quick to defend the man-centered and sin-centered laws of the United States by claiming that God's Laws were only for the Old Covenant Israelites - as if what God decided was good for society is no longer important now that Christ has come.  These folks will often and even loudly lament the state of our nation, and will decry the sinful presence of homosexuality and adultery, but at the end of the day will still claim that not wearing a seat belt should be a greater crime in the eyes of the state than cheating on one's spouse.  Not only is this the height of foolishness, it is also patently unbiblical.

God has always held all nations accountable for the ways that they either keep or dismiss His laws.  In fact, Israel was able to conquer the land of Canaan, slaughtering all the inhabitants, precisely because the Canaanites had lived contrary to the laws of God (Leviticus 20:23).  And Jesus was very clear to state that His coming did absolutely nothing to negate the previously given Law of God, but that - to the contrary - "until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:18-19).

We need to wake up and understand that there has been a great relaxing of the commandments of God (and not just the least of them, but the greatest of them as well) in our nation and even among those in our churches.  We are in dire straights at the moment and the 'Christians' have contributed to this downfall of our society as much as or more than anyone else because it was our duty to educate our people in the importance of God's commands (Matthew 28:20).  May God have mercy on us for failing so miserably at what He called us to do, and may He give us the boldness and the wisdom to begin to make it right.

An Eye for an Eye

The following quote is from Greg Bahnsen's book, Theonomy in Christian Ethics.

The main underlying principle of scriptural penology (whether civic or eternal) is not reformation or deterrence, but justice. The outstanding characteristic of theonomic punishment is the principle of equity; no crime receives a penalty which it does not warrant. The punishment for a violation of God’s law is always appropriate for the nature of the offense; “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Here is the most blessed standard of social retribution that man’s civilization has ever seen. That the Older Testament law sets forth humane and just punishments for crime is immediately apparent when one compares it with the legal codes of the nations around Israel. God’s penal sanctions are not overweighted, cruel, unusual, or excessive; a criminal receives what he deserves: no more, no less. It is especially important for Christians to recognize this fact, for it is the underlying principle at work in the atoning death of Jesus Christ upon the cross; He is the sinner’s substitute in order to effect atonement. Sin must meet divine judgment (e.g., Nah. 1:2, Hab. 1:13), and God can only forgive sin in a manner consistent with His holiness (Ps. 85:9 f.). Hence a sacrifice had to be offered to placate divine wrath occasioned by sin.

Within this framework Christ came as our sacrificial substitute; He is the Lamb of God who brings redemption by His sacrifice upon the cross (John 1:29; 1 Cor. 5:7; Heb. 9:11-15; 10:3-18; 13:10-12; 1 Pet. 1:18 f.) and thus substitutes Himself for the sinner by taking God’s wrath upon Himself (Col. 2:14; 2 Cor. 5:21; Gal. 3:10, 13; cf. Deut. 21:23; 27: 26; Jer. 11:3). The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall upon Him (Isa. 53:6). Christ laid down His life to atone for the sinner’s life; Christ took the punishment warranted by the sinner’s violation of God’s law upon Himself. Therefore, the sinner need not fear God’s eternal punishment, for his sin has been atoned. The principle of retribution is prominent in man’s salvation. This illustrates the importance of the scriptural penal system: “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.”

This principle of equity applies to civic punishments imposed by the civil magistrate; there must be equity in punishment, even at the social level. God operates on the basis of retribution (Job 34:11; Ps. 18:25 f.; Ezek. 18:4, 20; Gal. 6:7—and even restitution, Job 42:10), and the penalties which He prescribes for social sins are based on the same principle of retribution, restitution and compensation (Ex. 21:18-22:7; Lev. 6:4 f.; 24:17-21; Deut. 19:21). None of God’s penalties are excessive or lenient; hence the Older Testament does not detail arbitrary punishments for crimes (as with the varying fines for traffic violations from state to state in our modern day), but the punishment was made to correspond to the social heinousness of the offense so that the culprit receives what his public disobedience merits (e.g., Deut. 19:19). The penalties imposed upon social crime are just as appropriate, equitable, and just with respect to their sphere of reference (civil society) as the eternal punishment for that crime (considered now as sin) is just with respect to its sphere of reference (the God-man relation with respect to eternity).

To Steal a Man

The Law of God in the Bible condones slavery.  Oh don't try to deny it, it's absolutely true!  It has rules for how to sell yourself into slavery (Exodus 21:1-6), how to sell your daughter into slavery (Exodus 21:7-11), and some crimes are even punished by selling the perpetrator into slavery (Exodus 22:1-3).  It also has many different rules on how to treat your slaves (Exodus 21:20-21, cf. Colossians 4:1).  And I believe that all of these laws ought to be adopted by our own nation. Well, those are fighting words in many parts of the country, I understand, but I believe that all nations are held accountable for how well they implement God's Law (compare Romans 13:1-7 with Revelation 13).  Our nation has had a long and ugly history with slavery, though, and so to even suggest that such a thing be made legal makes the one doing the suggesting look like a racist and a bigot.

The truth of the matter, however, is that if this nation would have structured its laws to reflect the Law of God from the beginning, we never would have had the trouble with the institution of slavery like we did prior to the Civil War.  The Law of God allows a man to sell himself to another man as a slave (apparently for the purpose of overcoming financial difficulty).  The Law allows a father to sell his daughters (the feminists won't like that one, but then again, they're going to hate most of the Bible anyway), but it also protects those women from any mistreatment.  The Law uses slavery as a punishment for crime - especially theft - and even allows wartime captives to be taken as slaves in some circumstances.  But what we find absolutely forbidden in the Biblical Law is the taking of a man against his will (outside of a formal war) in order to make him a slave.  In fact, the Bible states that if this is done, the one who 'stole' the man and any other person found in the possession of the 'stolen' man should be put to death (Exodus 21:16).

Imagine if that law were applied to the situation in the South prior to the Civil War.  How many of those slaves that were being brought over here by the boatload do you think were 'stolen'?  Many Southerners tried to defend the practice of slavery by saying that the Africans' own people had sold them to us, but we know that virtually none of those slaves came into the system according to the ways that the Bible prescribes.  Practically all of them were stolen men (and women).  If the Biblical Law were the basis of the system, though, those distinguished Southern gentlemen would be put to death as soon as it was determined that they were in possession of man who had been taken against his will.  In fact, the whole African slave trade would never have been started in this country because of the fear of violating this command.

In addition, if our nation's laws were built around God's Law, we wouldn't have the kinds of problems that we have today with unemployment, an abused welfare system, and overcrowded prisons (actually, the Biblical Law has no place at all for incarceration).  Someone who has fallen to the lowest rungs of society could easily sell themselves for a time to a wealthy family and be well taken care of while providing a valuable service.  Those who have been reduced to theft in order to survive would be sold into the same system to make restitution for their crime, but also to be taken care of so that they would no longer have to steal.

The Old Testament's laws are not antiquated and naive.  They have not been proven less civilized than modern American thinking in these areas.  They reflect the perfectly just, good, and wise character of the benevolent God who gave them.  Fallible and fallen man will never improve on them.  This is as good of a blueprint for a Utopian society as you can get.  Whenever someone complains that God's Law just doesn't work - like in the story of the Salem witch trials - the problem can always be traced back to those in the wrong not following the Law of God close enough.  May those of us who are believers in Christ ever strive to show the holy character of God in the Law.

Crime and Punishment

Let's say you wake up tomorrow morning and discover that some time in the night all of your valuables have been stolen.  You call the police and fill out a report.  Two days later, the cops catch the thief and are able to return some but not all of your things.  At this point, what do you expect should happen to the thief?  In most states, he will go to jail or prison, and the sentence length is based on what the value of the property stolen happened to be and whether his theft can be counted as a misdemeanor or a felony. But is this what should happen?  In America, we witness so many cases where the punishment does not fit the crime that the grand majority of us don't even know that there might be a problem.  We see it on the news when drug lords are put away for life.  We see it in television shows like 24 when Jack Bauer does inhumane things in pursuit of the next lead - we even applaud it!  We especially see it in the way that our laws have no punishments for evil acts like aborting unborn children, participating in homosexual acts, practicing witchcraft, or bowing down to false gods.

God's Law, as revealed in His Word, contains appropriate and fitting punishments for transgressions of that Law.  The thief is not incarcerated; he is merely forced to either return what was stolen and/or pay back two to five times the value of what he took, depending on the circumstance (Exodus 22:1-4).  That's a punishment that fits the crime.  The victim actually ends up in a better place than he was before his property was stolen - something that never happens in our criminal justice system - and the thief has to do some hard work to make right his wrong, but he does not have years stolen from his life in incarceration.  Both sides are "happy" with this outcome.

On the other end of the spectrum, if someone has committed murder or adultery or practiced witchcraft, that person's life is forfeit immediately on the testimony of two or more witnesses (Exodus 21:12, Deuteronomy 22:22, and Exodus 22:18 respectively).  There are no life sentences or paroles.  The punishment fits the crime.  In our society, some crimes are punished far too harshly, and some abominable crimes are not punished at all, or else they receive such measly consequences that it becomes a joke.

I found myself recently swept up in the cultural delusion concerning just punishment when I read Genesis 34.  In the story, Jacob's daughter, Dinah, is raped by Shechem the son of Hamor the Hittite.  Dinah's brothers are, of course, furious over this, and so two of them, Simeon and Levi, concoct a very Jack Bauer-like plan to have every male in the town circumcised.  Then, on the third day, when all of the men are so sore that they can't even get up, these two brothers come through and put the whole city to the sword.  I've seen enough TV that I actually applaud this kind of commando behavior.

Jacob was not very impressed with his sons' vengeance, however.  At first, he rebukes Simeon and Levi for causing him to "stink to the inhabitants of the land" (Genesis 34:30).  He is concerned that the rest of the people of the surrounding area might attack him.  But at the end of Jacob's life, he hands out an even sterner criticism of the boys' actions during the "blessing" of his twelve sons.  He says in Genesis 49:5-7:

Simeon and Levi are brothers; weapons of violence are their swords.  Let my soul come not into their council; O my glory, be not joined to their company.  For in their anger they killed men, and in their willfulness they hamstrung oxen.  Cursed be their anger, for it is fierce, and their wrath, for it is cruel!  I will divide them in Jacob and scatter them in Israel.

This is how we ought to think about what the boys did.  Killing an entire town was not a just punishment for the actions of one man - it was mass murder!  In fact, not even the rapist should have been put to the sword; even that punishment would not have fit the crime.  Later, the Law would say, "If a man seduces a virgin who is not engaged to be married and lies with her, he shall give the bride-price for her and make her his wife.  If her father utterly refuses to give her to him, he shall pay money equal to the bride-price for virgins" (Exodus 22:16-17).  This is exactly what Shechem tried to do (Genesis 34:12).

Our understanding of what punishment a crime ought to deserve needs to come from a reading of God's Law, not our own feelings.  This is just one more place in our culture where we have replaced the Word of God with the whim of man.

Civil Government and God's Law

The following quote is from Greg L. Bahnsen's, Theonomy in Christian Ethics:

The fact that Christians are commanded to obey the civil magistrate is another indication that human government is obligated to follow God’s holy law. Scripture clearly teaches that God’s people must obey and respect civil magistrates. And yet in the book of Revelation men are indicted and held culpable for following the dictates of the “beast,” that is, sinful Rome and its emperor. Moreover, those who followed the beast are contrasted with those who, instead, kept the law of God (Rev. 14:9-12). Rulers are consequently expected to follow the law of God so that Christians can obey them—or else those who are punished for obeying sinful Rome according to Revelation 14 would be exonerated by Romans 13! The way to reconcile Romans 13:4, where the state is spoken of as in the service of God, and Revelation 13:2, where the state is said to be in the service of Satan, is by viewing the former as the norm for government and the latter as indictment for deviation from that norm. Outside of that one must either forfeit the unity of Scripture or appeal to principles (e.g., Rom. 8:28) to explain Romans 13 which that passage itself gives no hint of utilizing as necessary for understanding its message. Thus the civil magistrate ought to promote obedience to God’s law (the good) and to punish with God’s wrath (i.e., according to the just penal sanctions for society) those who publicly perform evil deeds (violations of God’s laws). Toward this end believers are exhorted to pray for all kings and authorities: in order that they might lead peaceful lives in all godliness and holiness (1 Tim. 2:1-3).  The tranquility which the magistrate should establish and protect in society must be characterized by justice and civic righteousness, for his reign should enable Christians to live in peace (which does not mean, in this passage, that believers have “personal” peace while nevertheless under public persecution) and should provide for, and promote, an environment characterized by justice and righteousness (which, as in the case of tranquility, does not simply mean that believers have personal or private godliness in the midst of complete social unrighteousness and public injustice). The peace which the believer wants to have, and also the godliness which the believer wants to express, should be made possible by the civil magistrate’s proper administration of government; toward that end Christians are told to pray.