Monday, January 12, 2015

Mercy in Judgment

Many times over the centuries, the God of Scripture has been considered a capricious, vindictive, despotic monster for His actions against sinful actions.  Those stating these descriptors weigh actions of judgment against Jesus’ instruction that God is love and wants to reconcile the world to Himself and us to each other.  The disconnect appears to be insurmountable.  What naysayers (and many Christians) overlook is that God never executes judgment beyond what is necessary: the effects are direct, never extending beyond the intended object—unless we choose to ignore the warning and remain in harm’s way.

The Lord had begun a series of plagues against the nation of Egypt for the way they had treated His people Israel.  The first four that came upon the Egyptians caused great annoyance and discomfort, but otherwise did not harm any living creature save for the frogs, gnats, and flies that were God’s instruments.  The fifth plague, however, was severe and killed all the livestock, and the sixth was personally painful as boils came on man and beast.

It is the seventh plague to which we might turn our attention.  In preparation, God sent Moses and Aaron to Pharaoh to tell him:
For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth.  For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth.  But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth.  (Ex 9:14-16)
Pharaoh was exalting himself above the people of Israel, and God was going to make an example out of him and his people.  Notice that the plagues had been measured in order to teach all of Egypt a lesson they would never forget, because Pharaoh was too proud to admit his rightful place before the Almighty God.  Even now, though, the coming plague had with it a measure of mercy, so that the hail would not do more damage than was intended.
Behold, about this time tomorrow I will cause very heavy hail to fall, such as never has been in Egypt from the day it was founded until now.  Now therefore send, get your livestock and all that you have in the field into safe shelter, for every man and beast that is in the field and is not brought home will die when the hail falls on them.  (Ex 9:18-19)
Remember that the Egyptians’ livestock had all died in plague five.  Evidently, enough time had gone by to allow the replenishment of livestock through purchase or trade.  So as not to inflict damage to the new livestock or any person, the people were given clear warning to bring them to shelter.  This plague was designed to affect only the crops and trees—two food sources—yet even in this the Lord showed mercy because only a portion of the crop was damaged because the rest had not come up yet.
The flax and the barley were struck down, for the barley was in the ear and the flax was in bud.  But the wheat and the emmer were not struck down, for they are late in coming up.  (Ex 9:31-32)
Some Egyptians listened to Moses’ warning and brought their slaves and livestock into shelter, while the rest stubbornly ignored it and suffered loss of life, bringing trouble on themselves.  The plagues were having their desired effect: the former recognized and believed in the God of the Hebrews, trusting in the word of the prophet; the latter were hardened and chose to cling to their own gods to their loss.

In each plague the Lord was merciful in judgment in order to show the people their sinful ways and show Himself as Lord of all.  He desired that they all (not just the children of Israel) might exalt the Lord.  Indeed, a mixed multitude of non-Hebrews left with Moses for the Promised Land (Ex 12:38), choosing to identify with the God of Israel who had won a great victory.*

Scripture mentions varying responses that God has toward sinful acts.  Some he deals with harshly and suddenly, while others appear to receive of a reprieve for the initial act but detailing the damaging consequences.  Do the varying punishments mean that God is capricious?  No, it means He knows more than we do both of the immediate situation and His grand work of providence.  What we do know is that the Creator of all is patient beyond measure
The Lᴏʀᴅ is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.  (Ps 103:8-10)
with the end that all might repent
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.  (2 Pe 3:9)
It may be difficult to understand why a righteous God would be so patient with wicked mankind and not destroy them immediately, but then we each only need to look at ourselves and be thankful that He was, else would also be my fate.  Not all will believe that Jesus is the Passover lamb slain for their sin, but for us who do, ponder with grateful adoration and awe that we are now in Him.

*  This group was admittedly problematic.  At one point in the wandering, they led the grumbling against Moses (Nu 11:4), however some, like Caleb the son of Jephunneh the Kennizite, were wholly faithful to the Lord (Nu 14:6, 24, 30; 32:12).

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