I’ve been working on this short series that discusses the holiness of God and the existence of hell. I am looking at what happens when the holy God comes into contact with human sin. Yesterday I showed that God may react to sin with just wrath. Today I want to show that God may also respond with patient mercy. I went to the story of Uzzah to provide a display of God’s just wrath; God’s mercy is displayed in many places in the Bible, but let’s focus on Exodus 32, the familiar story of the golden calf.
God has delivered his people from slavery and Moses has now gone up Mount Sinai to meet with God and receive instruction on how this people must now serve their God. While Moses is there the people grow tired of waiting for him, and decide to make a new god. The whole nation comes together in this plan, bringing all the gold they plundered from Egypt, and with it Aaron makes a golden calf. He sets it up there before all the people and they begin to pay allegiance to it, saying, “This is the God that brought us out of Egypt. This is the one that did all these amazing deeds for us.” They worship this God, they bring their offerings before it and break out in a great celebration.
God sees this and he tells Moses about it, and says to him, “This is the last straw. I am going to wipe them all out and I will then make a nation out of you!” In a fascinating exchange, Moses pleads with God. He brings a case to God and says, “I’ll give you two reasons that you shouldn’t do this. First, the Egyptians will say, ‘Ha! Look at this God! He brought them out of our land and then destroyed them all in the wilderness.’ Think what that would do for your reputation.” And second, “Don’t forget the covenant promises you made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob that their descendants would come into their inheritance. Don’t forget your promises! Don’t forget who you are.”
And in verse 14 we read, “And the Lord relented from the disaster that he had spoken of bringing on his people.” God decided not to bring justice against this nation right now. God could have put every one of them to death and he would have been perfectly just to do that. Instead, he shows mercy.
What is mercy? Mercy is God acting patient. It is God extending patience to those who deserve to be punished. Mercy is not something God owes to us—by definition mercy cannot be owed—but is something God extends in kindness and grace to those who do not deserve it. God does not owe you or anyone else his mercy. In the aftermath of the golden calf God says to Moses, “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” Later in Romans we read, “God will have mercy on whomever he wills.” God does not owe anyone mercy, but will give it when it suits his great purposes. The mercy he shows in the face of our sin is holding off the judgment of justice to a later time.
Understand that mercy is not injustice; God could not be holy and unjust at the same time. No, mercy is non-justice, it is choosing not to bring justice immediately. God can be both holy and merciful because mercy is not justice denied, but justice delayed. We’ve said that there is no provision in God’s nature to overlook sin altogether. Mercy isn’t putting those sins aside or forgetting that they happened. Rather, it is holding off the sentence for a time. God wasn’t going to pretend that the people never sinned and he wasn’t going to make those sins just disappear into a cosmic void somewhere. That would be unjust. Instead, he would hold off the penalty of that sin for a time.
If you commit a sin today and God strikes you dead for it, he will not be unjust. And yet more than likely when you sin today, God will be merciful and will hold off justice for a time. You and I grow very accustomed to mercy. In fact, we get so accustomed to it that we get complacent and begin to think that God’s justice will never come. When this happens we quickly grow cold to mercy and grow outraged at justice. Yet when we see the holiness of God and we see the horror of sin, it is mercy that is shocking. It is the story of God’s mercy in sparing the Israelites that should shock us far more than the story of Uzzah being put to death.
There are many people who read the Old Testament and complain about the angry and unfair God they see there. They say that this God is capricious, that he has bad days and on those days acts out in anger. Until you have read the Old Testament and seen God’s mercy as the overwhelming theme, you haven’t understood it at all. Do you read the Old Testament and marvel at the mercy of God that he continually returns to his people even while they show such hatred and disregard to him? God’s history with his people is a history of his grace and patience and love.
So now we have seen two very different reactions when God’s holiness comes into contact with human sin—just wrath and patient mercy. There is an important difference between these two reactions to sin. There may be patient mercy, but there must be just wrath. God’s mercy, expressed in patience, does not last forever. It does not negate justice; it just holds it off for a time. What happens when that time has elapsed, when the clock runs out? This is the question Paul asks in the book of Romans: “Sinner, do you suppose that you will escape the judgment of God? Are you presuming on the riches of God’s kindness and forbearance, and patience?” What will happen when God’s patience comes to an end and all that is left is judgment and wrath?
There is a lot we can learn about God’s wrath and God’s mercy from these Old Testament narratives, but to answer this question we need to look ahead a little bit further to the cross of Christ. This is what we will do tomorrow as I wrap up this series.