Monday, February 24, 2014

Character of God: Mercy

Covenant: The agreement between God and man.  Like a contract, there are requirements and penalties set out on both sides.  Unlike a contract, it is based not on law but on the personal integrity of the two often unequal parties. 

So what happens when one party breaks the covenant?

In the first recorded covenant God offers a peaceful and abundant garden.  Adam can tend it and eat from the Tree of Life.   When Adam and Eve violate their only prohibition, we might expect that the full penalty of their rebellious and ungrateful act, instant death, would be rained down on their heads.  Instead God comes to meet them in the garden. The covenant is broken, a curse is entailed, but God shows mercy. He replaces the pitiful clothes that they had tried to create from fig leaves (just imagine) with animal skin clothes.

In the Mosaic law the very place where sin is mitigated instead of punished is known as the "mercy seat." When the line of David had reached an all time low, God did remove Judah's king and sent them into Babylonian slavery.  But it was only 70 years of exile and Zechariah envisions the return of Zerubbabel to Jerusalem as the fulfillment of the promise that God would sustain and uphold David's kin  (Zechariah 4).  Mercy.

The ideas of mercy and covenant are tied together not only in story but also in praise. 

"Therefore know that the Lord your God, He is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and mercy for a thousand generations with those who love Him and keep His commandments; (Deuteronomy 7:9)

"Lord God of Israel, there is no God in heaven above or on earth below like You, who keep Your covenant and mercy with Your servants who walk before You with all their hearts. (1 Kings 8:23)

"Now therefore, our God,
The great, the mighty, and awesome God,
Who keeps covenant and mercy: (Nehemiah 9:32a)

Foster Bible Pictures 0069-1 Moses Throws the Tablet of StoneWhy this connection?  Why do all these different authors mention that God not only keeps covenant but keeps mercy as well?  Because without his mercy his covenant would be irrevocably shattered the instant that we broke it.  Do you remember when Moses was on his way down the mountain to the sound of the wild, idolatrous, orgy that had broken out?  When he threw the tablets of the ten commandments down it was not a fit of temper; he was only doing in metaphor what they had done in truth - smashing the covenant to bits.  If not for the mercy of God, the Old Testament would be much shorter.  He kept his end of a covenant that they had destroyed - an amazing act in itself.  Then he let the provisions for their punishment from that same covenant pass - mercy upon mercy.

Mercy is a feature of our covenant-making God.  However, we do not live in a covenant-making world.  Christians have foolishly envisioned God as an overindulgent grandfather. The vision of us, like the Israelites, destroying the covenant we just made with our God-King is entirely missing from that worldview. Instead God skips sin and goes straight to smiling forgiveness.  When we don't acknowledge that our sins (even the "little" ones) are an affront to the covenant we made with God, we have no idea that we desperately need his mercy to save us from our deserved punishment.

Secular society has forsaken the idea of covenant in an entirely different way.  Unlike Christians who neglect it in favor of God's love, unbelievers often have no acknowledged "law."  They make mistakes, explain their dysfunction, or excuse themselves based on personality. With no law giving, covenant making God to sin against, there is no need for mercy at all.

What happens when we neither experience nor acknowledge mercy?

We become merciless.  Most human virtues are reflections of virtue received. In the same way that children become kind by experiencing their parents' kindness, or we develop loyalty to people who show loyalty to us, when we meet our sin face to face and still receive the mercy of God, we begin to learn to be merciful.  As long as I am "innocent" in an evil world, I am happy to apportion judgment to everyone else.  As soon as I see myself as a covenant breaker, I rejoice when my fellow covenant breaker is redeemed!

Jonah is a perfect example.  The lesson he lived out was not that disobeying God leads to a stormy life but that we should exhibit the same mercy as God.  Or take the example of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery.  When he called on the crowd to stone her IF they were sinless, he was declaring that they should exhibit mercy because they need mercy.

I'm not interested in becoming "permissive" or "tolerant."  Neither of them acknowledge the fact that there is a standard, a law, a covenant. Instead I want to be a person of mercy because God has poured mercy into my life.  Every time, in all my life, that I have broken covenant with him, he has found new mercy for me. It would be shameful for me to deny that mercy to others. 


Scripture taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE(R), Copyright(c) 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.

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