Work, work your thoughts and therein see a king at war who holds those guilty that defy him. Behold him facing a besieged town, shouting out all the terrors that await those who persist in defiance, yet offering mercy if only they will yield to his authority. Note his relief when one chooses mercy, his gentleness with those who trust him and his swift vengeance on those who persist in rebellion.
I borrow this scene from my favorite Shakespeare play, Henry V (Act 3, prologue, Scene 2). But it’s also a Biblical image. We sometimes lose sight in the modern world that the KJV phrase “Lord of hosts” literally means “Yahweh of Armies.” One of the most often used titles of God is about Him personally going forth with a host of armies organized for war.
This is a comforting image when God is fighting against our enemies. But sometimes, “Yahweh’s anger burns against his people,” particularly when “they have rejected the law of Yahweh of Armies and despised the Holy One of Israel” (Is. 5:24-25). Even when that happens, though, God deeply desires to show mercy. His justice demands punishment for sin (Heb. 10:30-31), but His mercy offers a path to forgiveness and salvation (1 Pet. 2:24-25).
It’s common in modern churches to say that God was vengeful and frightening in the Old Testament but is gentle and loving in the New. Such a disconnect is not supported by scripture. Both the Father and the Word (who we now know as Jesus) have been active throughout history. They’re unchanging. In order to have a fuller, more accurate vision of who God is and what He is doing, we need to acknowledge that He is both wrathful justice and gentle mercies.
God’s Desire to Forgive
After the death of righteous Josiah, king of Judah, his son Jehohaz reigned for just 3 months before an Egyptian king dethroned him and set up his brother Jehoiakim in his place. This new king “did that which was evil in Yahweh his God’s sight” (2 Chr. 35:25-36:8). At this time, God was actively working through the prophet Jeremiah, and He sent him with a message.
In the fourth year of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah, this word came to Jeremiah from Yahweh, saying, “Take a scroll of a book, and write in it all the words that I have spoken to you against Israel, and against Judah, and against all the nations, from the day I spoke to you, from the days of Josiah, even to this day. It may be that the house of Judah will hear all the evil which I intend to do to them; that they may each return from his evil way; that I may forgive their iniquity and their sin.” (Jer. 36:1-3, all verses quoted from WEB translation unless otherwise noted)
Jeremiah’s prophecies contain warnings, corrections, lessons, and promises. From God’s words here in the passage I just quoted, it seems one of His main goals in sharing all those warnings was to save people from the consequences of their own disobedience.
God is just and holy. He shared His law with human beings and promised that those who violated it would face the consequences. But God also wants to forgive, and He had that goal even back in the Old testament times. He’s always taking the first steps to reconcile with human beings, hoping we’ll respond in a way that lets Him show mercy and grace.
Making Mercy Possible
The ultimate expression of God’s deep desire to forgive is, of course, found in Jesus Christ. We couldn’t do anything to bring about our own salvation or to reconcile ourselves to God. He had to take the first step.
For while we were yet weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will hardly die for a righteous man. Yet perhaps for a good person someone would even dare to die. But God commends his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we will be saved from God’s wrath through him. (Rom. 5:6-9)
In both the Old and New Testaments God (the Father and the Word) are just as well as merciful. There is wrath for disobedience and great mercy for those who repent and follow God. The New Testament talks about how people who persist in sin without repentance will not enter God’s kingdom; the Old Testament talks about God gathering people who turn to Him with great tenderness and love. He’s consistent. He’s faithful. We can count on God not changing the rules on us.
Accepting that God punishes evil doesn’t mean we don’t believe the equally true fact that He deeply desires to show us mercy. Really, the fact that sin has negative consequences is a key reason God offers forgiveness — He doesn’t want to see us suffer and die. He wants us to choose life and have the opportunity at a full, abundant life. And He wants it so much that Jesus died in order to make real reconciliation and forgiveness possible.
Take The King’s Mercy
You can’t really accept Jesus as your savior unless you know you need saving. “All have sinned” and “the compensation due sin is death” (Rom. 3:23; 6:23, LEB). God’s word tells us what sin is and how much it offends God, especially coming from people who should know better (Rom. 2). This isn’t about Him showing partiality and holding people to different standards. It’s about expecting more from those with whom you are in close relationship.
In the case of ancient Israel and Judah, where we started this post, God chose them to receive His laws and enter a covenant with Him. Their disobedience and rebellion hurt Him deeply. We understand on a human level that the closer the relationship, the more it hurts when someone turns against you. We’re hurt more deeply by the betrayal of a romantic partner than when we’re ignored by a stranger. The fact that God responds to sin with wrath is actually far less surprising than the abundant love and forgiveness He offers.
“The righteousness of the righteous shall be on him, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be on him. But if the wicked turns from all his sins that he has committed, and keeps all my statutes, and does that which is lawful and right, he shall surely live. He shall not die. None of his transgressions that he has committed will be remembered against him. In his righteousness that he has done, he shall live. Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked?” says the Lord Yahweh; “and not rather that he should return from his way, and live? ” (Ezk. 18:20-23)
Tell them, “‘As I live,’ says the Lord Yahweh, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! For why will you die, house of Israel?'” (Ezk. 33:11)
Ezekiel 18 and 33 are key sections of scripture for understanding how God handles sin and what He wants from us. Sin leads to death; that’s just how the world works and there’s no getting around it. At least, not on our own. God does offer one way to life. You can let Him pay the price for your sin, accepting Christ’s sacrifice and taking the King’s offer of mercy.
For the compensation due sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 6:23, LEB)
“Return to Me”
God always wants to show mercy. He has no desire to see anyone perish, but wants all to come to repentance (1 Tim. 2:3-4; 2 Pet. 3:9). Repentance does require something of us, though. We need to turn away from sin and turn toward God. It has to do with reorienting the direction of our lives to align with God’s way.
Therefore tell them: “‘Yahweh of Armies says: ‘Return to me,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘and I will return to you.'” …
Therefore Yahweh says: “’I have returned to Jerusalem with mercy. My house shall be built in it,’ says Yahweh of Armies, ‘and a line shall be stretched out over Jerusalem.'” Proclaim further, saying, “Yahweh of Armies says: ‘My cities will again overflow with prosperity, and Yahweh will again comfort Zion, and will again choose Jerusalem.'” (Zech. 1:3, 16-17)
This passage is from the Old Testament, but the New Testament asks for the same thing: repentance from dead works, faith toward God, and commitment to a covenant. Those are foundations of Christianity (Heb. 6:1-2). Yahweh of Armies — the Lord of hosts — wants to fight on behalf of all people, not against them. He is ever ready, even eager, to show mercy. We just need to let Him.
Featured image credit: Dakota via Lightstock