One mistake a Christian can make is to emphasize one of God’s attributes while ignoring others. God is a Personal Being, and sometimes His actions can seem complicated or paradoxical. As we consider God’s righteousness and justice, we cannot forget His love and mercy. As James 2:13 says, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (all Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible). God’s judgment is present alongside His mercy.
The Israelites learned that lesson after crossing the Red Sea. They rebelled several times after their deliverance from slavery in Egypt. They worshiped a golden calf while Moses was receiving the Ten Commandments. They frequently complained about how God fed them.
On one occasion, they seemed almost ready to enter the Promised Land. Moses sent 12 spies to survey the land. When they returned, 10 gave a bad report, saying the Israelites would be wiped out by the people of Canaan if they tried to enter. As a result, the Israelites threatened to kill Moses and return to Egypt.
God’s glory appeared, and He had another idea: He could slaughter all the Israelites, spare Moses, and start over with a new nation descended from Moses.
“But Moses said to the LORD, ‘Then the Egyptians will hear of it, for by Your strength You brought up this people from their midst, and they will tell it to the inhabitants of this land. They have heard that You, O LORD, are in the midst of this people, for You, O LORD, are seen eye to eye, while Your cloud stands over them; and You go before them in a pillar of cloud by day and in a pillar of fire by night. Now if You slay this people as one man, then the nations who have heard of Your fame will say, “Because the LORD could not bring this people into the land which He promised them by oath, therefore He slaughtered them in the wilderness.” But now, I pray, let the power of the Lord be great, just as You have declared, “The LORD is slow to anger and abundant in lovingkindness, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generations.” Pardon, I pray, the iniquity of this people according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness, just as You also have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now’” (Numbers 14:13–19).
Moses intervened and asked God to preserve the people who had just threatened to kill him. They did not deserve mercy. God had already forgiven them several times. This was not the first time Moses had to stand in the gap for them. It would not be the last time, either. The people of God have always been flawed humans—from the time God first revealed Himself to Abraham, through the Exodus and ministry of Moses, throughout the rest of the Old Testament, into the New Testament, and throughout church history until today. We have always needed God’s forgiveness, and we always will. We do not deserve it, but He forgives us anyway.
God most clearly reveals His glory and power through mercy and forgiveness. Moses reminded God of an earlier occasion when He appeared to him. At that time:
“Then the LORD passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The LORD, the LORD God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations’” (Exodus 34:6–7).
As God pronounced judgment upon the nation, Moses recalled these words. He did not have to coerce God. He simply recalled how God had revealed Himself. God promised that He would be merciful and forgive. Moses took God at His Word and prayed that He would remain faithful to it. God responded by forgiving the people: not because they deserved it but because forgiveness is one of His specialties.
Yet, God made it clear that His mercy was not an excuse to sin. God forgives, but there can be consequences. Sometimes, the effects of that sin last for generations as he “visits the iniquity…to the third and fourth generations.” A few hundred years after Moses’ time, Israel’s ruler, King David, committed adultery with a married woman named Bathsheba and murdered her husband. God forgave David, but the child died. Despite that, his next child with Bathsheba, Solomon, became Israel’s wisest king and an ancestor of Jesus. Despite David’s sin, he was forgiven and mankind was blessed with salvation. There were painful consequences, but God’s mercy triumphed even amid judgment.
When Moses prayed for the Israelites, God spared them. However, there were consequences. The people thought that even God could not get them safely into the Promised Land. Therefore, God held them to their word. Only two of the adults who left Egypt eventually entered the Promised Land—Caleb and Joshua, the only two spies who believed God could give them victory. God forgave, but there were consequences for the people.
Today, we cannot separate God’s mercy from His righteousness and justice. God still forgives. However, sometimes He will leave us to face the consequences of our sin. God may forgive us, but we suffer just the same. Perhaps we may bring pain and suffering to our families. He may forgive us if we commit sexual sin, but we may have to accept the consequences of unwanted pregnancy, disease, or wounded reputation. God can forgive us for sins committed in anger, but we may have to endure broken relationships. He can forgive us if we steal or otherwise break a law while sinning, but we may have to suffer the legal consequences.
God’s mercy triumphs over judgment, but His great desire is to write His law in our hearts so that we can reveal His righteousness, justice, and goodness through our lives. Let us thank God and trust Him to remain merciful, allowing His love to propel us to be more like Him.
Has God ever shown you His mercy while correcting you with His justice and righteousness? How have you seen God’s mercy in your life? Share your thoughts by clicking the “Leave a comment” link below.
Copyright © 2020 Michael E. Lynch. All rights reserved.