This isn’t the first time a Bible study has brought tears to my eyes. Usually that happens when I’m studying God’s love, but there’s also something inspiring, humbling and wonderful about His righteousness and mercy. They’re aspects of God’s essential character, and the more I learn about who the Father and Yeshua are, the more inclined I feel to just sit here in awe.
In Matthew 5:48 Jesus said, “you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” We have a responsibility to grow toward perfection, developing God’s character inside us. If we’re going to mimic His character, we have to study and learn about who and what He is, so we can display those traits as well.
I’ve already written many posts on this blog about “God is love” (there’s even a whole ebook free if you click here), so that’s not what we’re going to focus on today. Instead, I want to spend our time together this Sabbath focusing on two key character traits that are aspects of God’s love.
The Lord is Righteous
If you search for the phrases “the Lord is …” and “God is …” trying to find descriptions of His character, the first you come to is in Exodus.
And Pharaoh sent and called for Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “I have sinned this time. The Lord is righteous, and my people and I are wicked. (Ex. 9:27)
Even a pagan ruler on the receiving end of God’s judgement recognized that “the Lord is righteous.” In Hebrew, the word is tsaddiyq (H6662). For human beings, righteousness involves fulfilling the commands of God. It “consisted in obedience to God’s law and conformity to God’s nature” (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, entry 1879). Like love, righteousness isn’t just something God shows toward us — it is one of His essential character traits. We define righteousness by pointing to God’s standard.
“Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord, “That I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness; a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely; now this is His name by which He will be called: THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. (Jer. 23:5-6)
Not only is God Himself righteous, but all our righteousness is found in Him. This prophecy points to Christ’s role as the one who makes us righteous. Only by following in Yahweh Tsidkenu’s footsteps can we continue in righteousness.
As we’ve seen, God’s righteousness is closely connected to His law. It follows that as a Being of righteousness He must institute penalties for disobedience as well as rewards for obedience. Daniel recognized this in his prayer for the exiles.
As it is written in the Law of Moses, all this disaster has come upon us; yet we have not made our prayer before the Lord our God, that we might turn from our iniquities and understand Your truth. Therefore the Lord has kept the disaster in mind, and brought it upon us; for the Lord our God is righteous in all the works which He does, though we have not obeyed His voice. (Dan. 9:13-14)
It is righteous for God to let evil befall a nation that broke their covenant with Him. Covenants aren’t just about the good things both parties get out of the agreement — they also include consequences for breaking the covenant, which is what we do when we sin (Dan. 9:4-5). Because God is righteous, He keeps the entire covenant — including the part that stipulates consequences for sin.
The Lord is Mercy
Daniel also calls on another of God’s essential character traits; one that goes hand-in-hand with righteousness.
And I prayed to the Lord my God, and made confession, and said, “O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments, we have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments. …
O Lord, righteousness belongs to You, but to us shame of face … because we have sinned against You. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against Him. (Dan. 9:4-5, 7, 9)
If God was not mercy as well as righteousness, we would be in grave straits indeed. We have all sinned, and if God righteously rewarded us for that we would all be dead (Rom. 3:23; 6:23). Yet Jesus Christ took on Himself the death penalty required by covenant. Instead of rewarding us as we deserve He offers mercy, as He did to “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and an insolent man” who became the Apostle Paul (1 Tim. 1:13).
But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved) (Eph. 2:4-5)
Mercy is as much a part of God’s being as love and righteousness, and it has always been this way. Back in the Torah, Moses makes a prayer for Israel very similar to Daniel’s plea. The people have rebelled, and Moses is asking for God’s mercy to mingle with His righteousness.
And now, I pray, let the power of my Lord be great, just as You have spoken, saying, ‘The Lord is longsuffering and abundant in mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression; but He by no means clears the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and fourth generation.’ Pardon the iniquity of this people, I pray, according to the greatness of Your mercy, just as You have forgiven this people, from Egypt even until now.” (Num. 14:17-19)
Moses is directly referencing God’s own description of Himself in Exodus 34:6-7. These are the character traits of “God is love” which back-up the covenant God makes with His people
In the Old Testament verses we’ve been quoting, “mercy” is translated from the Hebrew chesed (H2617). The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament points out that this word is often connected with covenant — most likely in that God’s covenant is a result of His chesed and includes the promise of His loving kindness. As those in covenant with God, we’re expected to show mercy as well.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy. (Matt. 5:7)
In Greek, “mercy” is elos (G1656). It’s different from grace, which is a free gift from God that consists of removing the penalty for sin. Mercy goes along with that and takes a step farther by alleviating the miserable consequences of sin (Zodhiates Key-Word Study Bible).
Jesus has compassion and mercy on us because He sympathizes with our weakness, having experienced what it’s like to be human even though He never sinned (Heb. 4:15-16). We, too, should exercise mercy towards others. As sinners ourselves, we’re in a unique position to respond to the suffering we see in others with loving kindness rather than condemnation. We must learn to follow God’s example of mingling righteousness and mercy. We never forget or ignore the covenant laws and our commitment to righteousness, but we also remember to always act out of mercy and love.