MERCIFUL | 40 Days of Focus, Day 22

 

Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
(Matthew 5:7 | NIV) 

You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full,’ you find yourselves cared for.
(Matthew 5:7 | The Message)

A word about mercy. The word is closely related to the concepts of justice and grace. Here’s an easy way to keep them all straight.

  • Justice: I get what I deserve (positive or negative)
  • Grace: I get what I don’t deserve (positive)
  • Mercy: I don’t get what I deserve (negative)
We want the world to be fair and just. We want everything to be boiled down to a simple ration where the guilty are punished and the “good guys” get rewarded. But that all breaks down the moment we understand that bad things happen to good people, and the “bad guy”sometimes gets away with it. We begin to believe that the world is chaotic, that it’s dog-eat-dog, and that only the strong survive. We can’t take anything for granted – even our personal safety and survival.
Some of us learn this lesson earlier in life than others. These people often become dominant Enneagram Type Eights, or Challengers. Eights value strength, action, power, and justice. Eights make good superheroes. Eights tend to be the most aggressive/assertive type on the Enneagram. They can come across as intense and intimidating, “larger than life.” They wear their anger on their sleeve, but keep their more tender/vulnerable emotions buried deep.
So why would we talk about Eights in relation to this Beatitude?
Eights are heavy on the side of justice. If someone wrongs them, they want to make sure that person is held accountable and pays for the transgression. They want life to be fair and right, like Ones, but Eights aren’t as perfectionistic in how they go about fighting for justice. Ones might fight in the courts. Eights will march in the streets.
When it comes to justice issues, Eights are almost always on the side of the underdog. They see a lot of themselves in those who are mistreated, bullied, or oppressed.
Eights have the justice thing down. It’s mercy they need to work on. Eights are good when it comes to “people get what they deserve.” Not so great with “people don’t get what they deserve.” Mercy can be viewed as weakness, which is what an Eight wants to avoid at all costs. Mercy is vulnerable, making it a double whammy.
But mercy is strength because it requires us to absorb the full cost of the transgression, to let it go, to defer “justice” in order to preserve relationships.
Someone cuts you off in traffic? You let it go.
Someone gives you a dirty look? Smile and shake it off.
Someone utters a passive-aggressive insult? Just roll with it and move on.
Someone says they’re sorry? You forgive and move forward.
Deep down Eights know they are the ones most in need of mercy and forgiveness. They are painfully aware of their own weaknesses, their own shortcomings, their own failures. Sometimes the hardest person to forgive is ourselves.

Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, 13 because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment.
(James 2:12-13)

When Eights move to a place of health and security, they can offer not just justice but also mercy and grace. In opening themselves up to the vulnerability of mercy, they will find themselves on the receiving end of all they ever wanted.

__________________________________

Why is mercy often thought of as a sign of weakness?

What does society tend to value more: justice, grace, or mercy?

What do you think about James’ statement that “mercy triumphs over judgment?” How can that make sense in the real world?

Jonah: Head Above Water

When we left off, our rebellious prophet was recruiting the pagan Gentile sailors to assist him in committing suicide.

“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:12)

But the sailors didn’t buy into this crazy scheme and tried for Plan A.2 – row to shore. But they couldn’t. God/the storm wouldn’t let them. Jonah tried to force God’s hand in overthrowing the Assyrians by running from the mission. Now God is forcing the sailors’ hands to throw Jonah overboard – Jonah’s idea, not God’s, just so we’re clear. God never asked this of Jonah.

Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm…Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah, and Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights. (Jonah 1:15, 17)

FINALLY! Here’s the fish! Now we get to pull out the flannel graph board and sick a kneeling/fetal-position Jonah onto a cutaway felt image of a whale fish. We get to sing the songs and put in the Veggie Tales movie!

This is where so many of us stop with the story of Jonah. It’s always David and Goliath, Daniel and the Lion’s Den, Jonah and the Whale Fish. But the story of Jonah is not about a big fish. The story of Jonah is about a God who is big with a big plan. The fish is mentioned in a whopping 3 verses – 1:17; 2:1; and 2:10. That’s it. And the whole fish scene isn’t even the most impressive miracle of the story. But we’ll get to that later.

JONAH’S PRAYER

Can you imagine drowning in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea? Drowning is one of the top fears among humans. A lot of people are hesitant to swim or get in a large body of water for fear of drowning. What a terrible way to die! I get panicky just thinking about it.

Jonah wanted to die. It wasn’t a heroic self-sacrifice to save the lives of the sailors. It was a selfish get-out-of-mission-work-free card. It was a last ditch effort to run from God. It wasn’t martyrdom, it was suicide.

So God gave him a taste of what Jonah said he wanted. Sometimes the worst thing God can do is to give us what we want. Look at this prayer of Jonah’s that we have recorded in chapter 2.

“In my distress I called to the Lord,
and he answered me.
From deep in the realm of the dead I called for help,
and you listened to my cry.
You hurled me into the depths,
into the very heart of the seas,
and the currents swirled about me;
all your waves and breakers
swept over me.
I said, ‘I have been banished
from your sight;
yet I will look again
toward your holy temple.’
The engulfing waters threatened me,
the deep surrounded me;
seaweed was wrapped around my head.
To the roots of the mountains I sank down;
the earth beneath barred me in forever.”
(Jonah 2:2-6a)

Maybe we have a hard time feeling sorry for Jonah, but I think we’ve all been there. Maybe you haven’t had the physical experience of drowning, but most of us have felt like we’re drowning figuratively – from stress, depression, broken relationships, pressure from school or work, the demands of everyday life that keep adding up. Maybe you’ve felt like you were drowning under the weight of some sin that has pulled you down – addictions, anger, lies, etc.

Every sin has a consequence. Sometimes we bring them on ourselves, and we have to face the natural consequences of our own dumb choices. Other times we have to pay for our actions through punishment or retribution. Or maybe we’re suffering under the consequences of generational/societal sin that we really didn’t have anything to do with, but we’re still negatively affected by it.

Every sin has a consequence.

I’ll say this. I don’t think God causes bad things to happen. But I believe God allows bad things to happen as a wakeup call. God didn’t cause Jonah to be thrown overboard. But God used this experience of drowning as a wakeup call to this rebellious prophet. God definitely got Jonah’s attention. It only took a trip to literal rock bottom. But for some people, like Jonah and like the younger brother in the Story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15), that’s what it takes for them to come to their senses.

UNEXPECTED SALVATION

FINALLY the prophet of God actually prays to God – the first time in the whole book so far. Even when the sailors were crying out to their own gods and urged Jonah to do the same, Jonah kept silent. Jonah refused to even utter a word in prayer to God until his life was on the line. And when he finally decides to pray, what does he talk about?

He thanks God for saving him. He recounts his terrifying experience of drowning, sinking down to the “roots of the mountains.” The imagery Jonah uses to describe his underwater experience is quite similar to how other writers and poets describe Sheol, aka the grave or realm of the dead. Jonah is coming to terms with the reality of his watery grave.

But not so fast. What’s that? A giant mouth opening in my direction and sucking me in like a spaghetti noodle!

“But you, Lord my God,
brought my life up from the pit.
When my life was ebbing away,
I remembered you, Lord,
and my prayer rose to you,
to your holy temple.
Those who cling to worthless idols
turn away from God’s love for them.
But I, with shouts of grateful praise,
will sacrifice to you.
What I have vowed I will make good.
I will say, ‘Salvation comes from the Lord.’”
(Jonah 2:6b-9)

The punishment was the near death experience as he was sinking into the salt water. The salvation came in the form of fish guts. The “great fish” was God’s chosen means of salvation for his runaway prophet.

What a weird story.

And what a testament to the fact that God’s modus operandi for saving people is constantly changing. I’m glad this story never caught on in religious rituals. “In order to experience God’s salvation you must be swallowed and vomited up by a fish.”

PRAYING FROM ROCK BOTTOM

Anyway, God saves Jonah. Jonah at least has the decency to acknowledge his need for God and his utter helplessness apart from God.

When you feel like you’re drowning – by sin, by stress, by life – this is a great prayer to go to. Read it. Reflect on it. Make it your own. We all have been at rock bottom before. We all know what it’s like to desperately cry out to God. This prayer in Jonah 2 is a great way to find the words if you don’t have them.

In fact, a song came out recently by Avril Lavigne. I hadn’t heard anything from her in years. Turns out she was battling Lyme Disease, an absolutely debilitating illness. In an interview she recalled a time in the hospital when the disease affected her lungs in such a way that it literally felt like she was drowning in that hospital bed. She fought through the disease, and is in a much better place now. But her first single released is called “Head Above Water.” The first time I heard it, I thought this is straight from Jonah’s prayer. If you haven’t heard it, check it out. It’s amazing.

More posts in the Jonah series:

Jonah: Unnecessary Sacrifice

Last time we saw that Jonah spilled the beans about who he was, what God he served, and what he was doing on the boat. Jonah was a Hebrew. He was a worshiper of YHWH, the creator of the sea and dry land. And he was on the boat because he was running from YHWH, the creator of the sea, ON THE SEA.

The rest of the sailors are rightfully panicked.

This terrified them and they asked, “What have you done?” (They knew he was running away from the Lord, because he had already told them so.)
The sea was getting rougher and rougher. So they asked him, “What should we do to you to make the sea calm down for us?”
“Pick me up and throw me into the sea,” he replied, “and it will become calm. I know that it is my fault that this great storm has come upon you.” (Jonah 1:10-12)

Wait, what? This raises so many questions for me. Let’s look at the a bit more closely.

WHAT GOD WANTS VS. WHAT JONAH WANTS

What does God want? God wants Jonah to go to Nineveh and preach against it in order that they might have a chance to repent from their evil ways. God wants to grant mercy to Israel’s enemy. God wants to make a great name for himself among the nations and draw all peoples to him. God wants all people everywhere to come to repentance.

What does Jonah want? Basically…not that. Jonah wants the Assyrians to get what’s coming to them. Jonah wants his enemies to perish and for Israel to thrive. In fact, Jonah would rather die than to offer mercy to the Assyrians.

And that’s the problem. Jonah isn’t heroically and selflessly offering his own life in order to save others. We’ve already seen that Jonah cares nothing about the Gentile sailors he hired. We already know that Jonah would do literally anything to avoid going to Nineveh to preach to the Assyrians. Jonah isn’t taking a bullet for anyone. Jonah isn’t sacrificing himself in exchange for someone else’s life.

Jonah is sacrificing himself as a last ditch effort to escape God’s call. This isn’t martyrdom. It’s assisted suicide.

IT DIDN’T HAVE TO BE THIS WAY


The entire story of Jonah is based on the premise that God relents from sending calamity when people repent of their evil ways and turn to him. We see that with the sailors, and we will see it later with the people of Nineveh. But Jonah doesn’t get it.

Or maybe he does.

You see, Jonah doesn’t ever repent. Jonah skips straight to the sacrifice part of it. He cries “throw me overboard!” but he never cries out, “I’m sorry!” Jonah is willing to offer himself as a sacrifice, but isn’t willing to repent and turn from his own evil ways and attitudes.

I truly believe that God could have stopped the storm without Jonah’s sacrifice. If Jonah had repented and had a genuine change of heart on the deck of that ship, God could have stopped the storm. They could have made for a safe harbor. Jonah could have disembarked in safety to make his way to Nineveh. But that’s not what happened.

Instead, the men did their best to row back to land. But they could not, for the sea grew even wilder than before. Then they cried out to the Lord, “Please, Lord, do not let us die for taking this man’s life. Do not hold us accountable for killing an innocent man, for you, Lord, have done as you pleased.” Then they took Jonah and threw him overboard, and the raging sea grew calm. (Jonah 1:13-15)

Amazingly, the sailors tried everything they could to save Jonah’s life and the lives of all the crew. That’s way more than could be said for Jonah himself. But when they tried to row toward land, the storm grew more violent. Why?

I think God was giving Jonah what he wanted – at least a taste of it. Ok Jonah, you say you’d rather die than go to Nineveh. Let’s see.

So they threw Jonah overboard just as they had done with the cargo earlier. And what do you know? The sea grew completely calm. It worked! Kind of.

WHAT GOD REALLY WANTS

Was Jonah’s self-sacrifice really necessary? I don’t think so.

Why do I think not? Because Bible.

Jonah lived in a religious era that was intimately familiar with animal sacrifice. It was common practice among not just the people of Israel, but also among most ancient cultures. An animal would be killed and burned on some kind of altar in order to get the attention of the gods or to remind the people that they deserve what the animal is getting.

Sacrifices did not remove or forgive sins.

It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)

The scapegoat (Leviticus 16) was the representation of Israel’s sins being forgiven. But even then, it wasn’t the goat – it was God who forgave sins.

“Why does this fellow talk like that? He’s blaspheming! Who can forgive sins but God alone?” (Mark 2:7)

God doesn’t demand a sacrifice. God doesn’t want them because God knew that humans would easily substitute the sacrifice for true repentance. Seriously, I know I’ve sinned before and thought It’s ok, God will forgive me. We have a tendency to believe that we can do whatever we want, say whatever we want, live however we want, and it’s ok. We’ll just go to church, pray, take the Lord’s Supper, and it will all be good.

To quote The Good Place, “That’s bull shirt.”

This is the exact mindset that Jeremiah railed against:

“‘Will you steal and murder, commit adultery and perjury, burn incense to Baal and follow other gods you have not known, and then come and stand before me in this house, which bears my Name, and say, “We are safe”—safe to do all these detestable things? Has this house, which bears my Name, become a den of robbers to you? But I have been watching! declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 7:9-11)

This was the exact mindset that Micah railed against:

With what shall I come before the Lord
    and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
    with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
    with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
    the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:6-8)

This was the exact mindset that Amos railed against:

“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
    your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
    I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
    I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
    I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
    righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:21-24)

Finally, Jesus railed against this mindset by quoting Hosea:

I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. (Matthew 12:6-7, quoting Hosea 6:6)

I believe God knew there would come a time when sacrifices could no longer be used as a crutch or an excuse. God knew there would come a time when his people could no longer offer sacrifices and burnt offerings. Through his own sacrifice, Jesus put an end to the sacrificial system and reconciled everyone to God.

SACRIFICES WERE NEVER THE POINT. MERCY WAS THE POINT.

But Jonah completely missed that. He sacrificed his own life to avoid showing mercy to others. Jonah got it all completely backwards.

That’s why I think God let him go through with it. Jonah had more lessons to learn.

So as Jonah sank down into the depths, the sailors went about their way – forever changed.

At this the men greatly feared the Lord, and they offered a sacrifice to the Lord and made vows to him. (Jonah 1:16)

Yes, they offered sacrifices. But their sacrifices were in response to what YHWH had done. Their sacrifice was a form of worship, the kind of sacrifice Paul would encourage us to make with our lives in worship to God as a response for all God has done for us (Romans 12:1).

The sailors were converted to become true worshipers of YHWH (as Jonah had claimed to be), while the prophet of YHWH sank down to the bottom of the sea. It saddens me to think that Jonah never knew what happened with those sailors. But it also reminds me that I have no control over who gets to experience the mercy, forgiveness, and salvation of God. As God says to Moses:

I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. (Exodus 33:19)

GOD’S NOT DONE

That could have easily been the end of Jonah. If I were God, I probably would have just let Jonah drown (that’s what he wanted, after all) and found someone else to go to Nineveh. But that’s not the God of the Bible. Our God is one who pursues us, who leaves the ninety-nine and goes after the one. Even if that one is an unrepentant, racist, nationalistic prophet who cares about no one but himself. God still pursues Jonah to the ends of the earth and to the depths of the sea. God has mercy on the one who deserves it the least.

But sometimes God’s mercy can come in unexpected ways:

Now the Lord provided a huge fish to swallow Jonah… (Jonah 1:17a)

More posts in the Jonah series:
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Jonah: World’s Worst Prophet

I may be one of the few people in the world who considers Jonah among my favorite books of the Bible. Don’t @ me. The book of Jonah has a lot of things going for it:

  1. Emphasis on God’s grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness
  2. High seas adventure
  3. Near death experiences
  4. A man swallowed by a gigantic sea creature
  5. An entire city on the verge of destruction
  6. Angry outbursts and melodrama by the overly emotional main character
  7. A protagonist that you just can’t really like, but is also super relatable
  8. Twists, reversals, and ironic situations
  9. A cliff hanger ending
There has been a lot of debate in scholarship about whether Jonah is based on a true story or if it’s merely a fictional parable. I’m not going to get into it much except to say that it has a lot of similarities to the stories of Elijah and Elisha. If it’s based on a true story, then it’s quite a remarkable tale! But if it’s not grounded in fact, it is still an amazing story that illustrates God’s love to its fullest extent and reveals our own failure to live up to God’s expectations.
If the story of Jonah is a parable, it is, in a way, THE parable of the Bible.
It begins with a pretty standard format:

Now the word of the Lord came to Jonah the son of Amittai… (Jonah 1:1)

Right from the start there are some things worth diving into. (Pun intended)
THE WORD OF YHWH
The author wants us to know that God is the main character, the main driver of the plot in this story. Nothing else would have occurred had it not been set in motion by “The Word of YHWH.” God is the main character. Jonah is just playing a supporting role in God’s story.
I can think of a couple other instances when God’s word set great things in motion. Immediately this should bring us back to Genesis 1 – the beautiful song of creation that begins our whole Bible. It is by the power of God’s word that he sets time and space into motion. “And God said…” is the driving force of creation. God’s word has power. God’s word must be obeyed – at least by nonhuman creation. That is an important distinction to keep in mind.
For Christians, this should also bring us to John 1, “In the beginning was the Word…” John wants us to know that “the Word of YHWH” took on flesh and moved into the neighborhood. His name is Jesus. Immediately, there is a solid connection between Jesus and Jonah – a connection that will be made more and more clear as the story unfolds.
JONAH, SON OF AMITTAI
What do we know about Jonah? First off, names almost always have significant meaning in the Bible. This is no exception. Jonah’s name is the Hebrew word for “dove.” He is the son of Amittai, whose name means “God is Faithful.” Jonah is a flighty prophet, here one moment and gone the next. When things get uncomfortable, he flees. But he is the son of God’s faithfulness. Where Jonah runs away, God is faithful in pursuing Jonah. God is faithful to Jonah even if Jonah is not faithful to God.
“Jonah, son of Amittai” is a good synopsis of what the story is about.
This is not the first time we encounter Jonah, either. We find him first mentioned in 2 Kings 14.

In the fifteenth year of Amaziah the son of Joash, king of Judah, Jeroboam the son of Joash, king of Israel, began to reign in Samaria, and he reigned forty-one years. And he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He did not depart from all the sins of Jeroboam the son of Nebat, which he made Israel to sin. He restored the border of Israel from Lebo-hamath as far as the Sea of the Arabah, according to the word of the Lord, the God of Israel, which he spoke by his servant Jonah the son of Amittai, the prophet, who was from Gath-hepher. For the Lord saw that the affliction of Israel was very bitter, for there was none left, bond or free, and there was none to help Israel. But the Lord had not said that he would blot out the name of Israel from under heaven, so he saved them by the hand of Jeroboam the son of Joash. (2 Kings 14:23-27)

Jonah was a prophet in the Norther Kingdom of Israel during the reign of Jeroboam II (ca. 750 BC).

During Jeroboam’s reign (who was an evil king, BTW) the borders of Israel were restored to the greatest extent they had ever been. Israel gain in power like it hadn’t seen in a long, long time. Israel improved its military, its economy, and everything was going well. Israel had been made great again, all thanks to the prophetic word of Jonah, son of Amittai.

So we know that Jonah worked closely with the king. We know that Jonah oversaw one of the greatest surges in nationalistic power they had ever seen. We know that Israel’s enemies were losing strength during this time. Jonah was surely swelled up with nationalistic pride and probably equated patriotism with religious fervor.

That’s why the next words in the story are so shocking:

“Arise, go to Nineveh, that great city, and call out against it, for their evil has come up before me.” (Jonah 1:2)

This was the first time God had called one of his prophets to go specifically to a gentile nation for the purpose of prophesying to/against them. Why is this important? Why Nineveh?

NINEVEH
The earliest mention of Nineveh is way back in Genesis 10. It was one of the major cities established in the Fertile Crescent along the Tigris River. Genesis claims that it was established by Nimrod as part of his kingdom. This automatically puts Nineveh in a bad light, because Nimrod was viewed as an enemy of God.

Nineveh is a very ancient city. It was an ancient city by the time the Assyrian Empire rose to power. The Assyrians were brutal. When they overthrew a city or nation, they would completely decimate its people and culture. Assyria had its eyes set on Israel for a while because Israel was a very strategic location. But during Jonah’s time the Assyrian Empire had a string of incompetent rulers and was in a period of decline and upheaval.

Nineveh was not the capital city of Assyria at that time. But it was easily representative of the Assyrian Empire in much the same way New York City, Chicago, or Los Angeles would be representative of the USA. If God wanted to send a message to the Assyrian Empire, Nineveh was as good of a place as any.

But why even bother?

God tells Jonah that their “evil has come up before me.” The phrase is similar to saying, “I’ve had it up to HERE with their evil!” YHWH had not turned a blind eye to the evils of the empire and the surrounding nations. YHWH would seize this moment of opportunity, while the empire was up against the ropes in decline, to try and reach them with his message of mercy.

And God chose Jonah to be the mouthpiece, the arbiter of grace to Israel’s enemy.

What could possibly go wrong?

God told Jonah to get up and go to Nineveh…

But Jonah rose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa and found a ship going to Tarshish. So he paid the fare and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish, away from the presence of the Lord. (Jonah 1:3)

Jonah, what are you doing? Running away from God? Are you crazy?

Notice a few things about this verse. Tarshish is mentioned three times. This was a purposeful, deliberate plan on Jonah’s part. He didn’t just show up and board the first boat he came across. He wanted to pick the farthest point on the map – a three year round trip by some estimates.

“From the presence of the Lord” is said twice. Jonah knew he was directly disobeying God. He was doing everything he could to get out of this trip. By why would he think God wouldn’t be in Tarshish? Because Isaiah had said as much:

I will set a sign among them. And from them I will send survivors to the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, who draw the bow, to Tubal and Javan, to the coastlands far away, that have not heard my fame or seen my glory. (Isaiah 66:19)

God’s word and presence hadn’t been proclaimed in Tarshish. Perfect. Let’s go there!

Jonah went down to Joppa and down into the boat. This begins a downward spiral, descending into further rebellion and distance from God and closer to chaos and the grave.

And that phrase “paid the fare” is better understood as commissioning the whole ship and crew for the voyage. He wasn’t just buying a ticket for a bunk on the boat. He was financing the entire mission.

Verse three emphasizes the lengths to which Jonah was willing to go in order NOT to do what God told him to do. Nineveh was about a 550 mile, relatively easy trip across land via trade routes. Tarshish was on the Southern coast of Spain at the farthest edge of the Mediterranean Sea, risking storms, shipwrecks, pirates, disease, and more.

Jonah truly was the world’s worst prophet. I don’t like Jonah.

But then I realize that I see so much of Jonah inside me. To what lengths have I gone to avoid doing what God has called me to do? Who am I staying away from? What am I running from? What responsibilities am I shrugging off?

There’s a little bit of Jonah in all of us.

Merciful Punishment: Reflections on the Good Judge

It’s sad but true. To the average person, even the average Christian, YHWH of the Old Testament and Theos of the New seem to be two completely different persons. Most associate the God of the OT with rules and regulations who dished out wrath and punishment if disobeyed. Meanwhile, they view the God of the NT as a God of love and forgiveness who tosses grace and mercy like candy flung from a float in the Independence Day Parade.

I will grant that God’s dealings with humans seems to be a bit more direct and immediate in the days of Moses and Elijah. But is His character really that different? Some of His punishments do seem a bit harsh, but is there more to them than just the surface level understanding?

The teacher of the adult class on Sunday morning briefly mentioned the infamous Bathsheba incident. David rapes and impregnates the wife of his friend and officer. To cover it up, he has him sent to the front lines and killed, thus freeing himself to take Bathsheba as his own wife. Adultery, murder, lies–doesn’t he know the Big 10?

Anyway, God calls David out through Nathan the prophet. Caught red handed. Nowhere to run; nowhere to hide. David said it himself that he deserves to die. So God strikes him dead then and there.

Wait…no he doesn’t. The punishment is carried out on the child. This is enough to get most people stirring in their seats. Is God really a baby killer? Egyptians, sure. King Herod, of course. But God?

This bothered me. It still bothers me. But God is God and I am not. His ways are higher than my ways.

Let’s take a deeper look into this punishment. Is there any mercy in it?

Yes.

If God had killed David instead of the baby:

  • Israel would be without a leader. Division would run rampant and would certainly tear the country to pieces. That happens later, but Israel wouldn’t come close to the golden era of Solomon.
  • Bathsheba would be a widowed single mother. She would have nothing. Begging or prostitution would likely be her only options to support herself and her child.
  • The child would have grown up with the label of the king’s bastard child and the son of a whore. Any hope of having a normal childhood and making any sort of living for himself would be a long shot to say the least.
But God, in His infinite wisdom, chose to spare David’s life and take the child. So the baby got to go directly to heaven (I believe baby’s are innocent, so when they die, their souls are automatically taken to be with God). Bathsheba became a queen instead of a widow. The nation of Israel continued thrive under their greatest king to date. Bathsheba gave David even more sons, one of whom became heir to the throne and ushered in Israel’s golden age.
Okay, so this is one example in which God’s punishment is also infused with mercy. But there are many, many more.
  • God could have struck Adam and Eve dead on the spot and started all over. But He killed animals in their place to make proper clothing to cover their shame and nakedness. They still lived a long life outside of the garden, started a family, and still remained close to God.
  • Cain killed his brother in cold blood. Rather than taking a life for a life, God put a mark on Cain and sent him away. But further reading reveals that Cain eventually got married, started a family, and established his own city.
  • When Israel began its conquest into the promised land, God was essentially using them as a tool for carrying out His punishment against the Canaanites. Yet if the land’s inhabitants would simply believe in the power of YHWH and repent, God was more than willing to spare their lives. Hence, Rahab and her family were the only Jericho survivors.
God is called the righteous judge because His sentences, His punishments, are naturally infused with mercy. Next time you read through the Law and the Prophets, look for the mercy within the narratives of wrath and punishment. You’ll be surprised by what you find.