A judge that passes down a less than desirable and lenient sentence to a criminal, causes strife and anger among those who witness it. One expects a judge to impose the full extent of the law because justice is punishment and has no room for mercy. However, outside the rules of the law, friendships between families, colleagues, and acquaintances all call for mercy and compassion.
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Justice and mercy can seemingly oppose each other and can be qualities that one struggles to exhibit simultaneously. Where humans fall short, God is both just and merciful. In the bible, God delivers the Israelites from Egypt and provides them with the ten commandments. Events prior to and after the deliverance of the Israelites, all illustrate God’s ability to embody both characteristics of mercy and justice.
Exodus 1-15 paints God as an all powerful God who upholds his promise to Moses by bringing down justice on the Egyptians and Pharaoh, all who enslaved his people. Moses first encounters God at the burning bush and receives the task to return to Egypt to speak with Pharaoh regarding the deliverance of the Israelites. (Exod. 3) After Pharaoh becomes angry with Moses and Aaron’s request, he punishes the Israelites, causing Moses to question God. God said:
“”…I have heard the groaning of the Israelites, whom the Egyptians are enslaving, and I have remembered my covenant.”” (Exod. 6:5)
“”Now you will see what I will do to Pharaoh: Because of my mighty hand he will let them go; because of my mighty hand he will drive them out of his country.”” (Exod. 6:1)
God responds with action by being just and fulfilling his end of his promise to Moses. He sends ten plagues that conclude with the Passover, bringing pain, suffering, and death to the Egyptians. (Exod. 7-12) God is just again when he leads his people by a pillar of clouds by day and a pillar of fire by night. (Exod. 13:21-22) Time and time again God provides for the Israelites. He drowns the Egyptians in the Red Sea while they flee, manna and quail in times of hunger, and water during times of thirst. (Exod. 14:28, Exod.16, Exod. 17:5-7) Enemies who attempt to overcome the Israelites are defeated because of Moses’s faith in God’s ability to handle them justly. (Exod. 17:8-13) God is not soft on crimes against his people, he is a just and righteous God providing proof of this during the liberation of the Israelites.
God desires for his freed people to be obedient and treasured throughout all nations. He then set forth his instructions, The Ten Commandments, to guide and give law to them. If one looks at Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5 there are several differences in the versions printed. Exodus 20:8-11 tells followers to remember the Sabbath, whereas Deuteronomy 5:12-15 commands it to be observed. The fourth commandment in Deuteronomy also says, “”Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the Lord your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore, the Lord your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day.”” (Deut. 5:15) This suggests that the second version (of the fourth commandment) in Deuteronomy, was spoken directly to the people from Moses as they had requested, and that the first version in Exodus was God speaking directly to the people. Further backing this claim, the fifth commandment in Deuteronomy again uses the verbiage, “”…as the Lord your God has commanded you…”” (Deut. 5:16) The list of those who are to participate in the Sabbath increases as well and the detailed shift of, “”You shall not covet your neighbors wife”” becomes charged in the first sentence of the verse in contrast to Exodus. (Deut. 5:14, 5:21) Though both books description and number of commandments are nearly similar, the manner and language which are presented within each, indicate that they were written by different authors and perspectives.
Though the Lord is a God of Justice and provided ample laws for his people, they disobeyed him, causing them to wander for forty years in the desert. Yet, despite the Israelites rebellion, God is merciful and does not let all his people perish in the desert. Instead he spares Joshua, Caleb, and the children. (Deut. 1:38-40) God’s response to the golden calf manufactured while Moses was the top of Mount Sinai with him, is even more merciful. Angry with his people’s quick fall to corruption and idol worshipping, God said:
“”…and they are stiff necked people. Now Leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”” (Exod. 32:9-10)
Moses pleaded with the God to turn away from his anger and reminded God of his promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Israel. God relented and did not bring the disaster he had threatened. (Exod. 32:12-14) Though not directly related, chapter 4 of Deuteronomy says, “”For the Lord your God is a merciful God; he will not abandon or destroy you or forget the covenant with your forefathers, which he confirmed to them by oath.”” (Deut. 4:31) Although God did not need to spare all the Israelites, he spared most, only slaughtering those who worshipped the calf. God again displays mercy on Moses when he instructs him to bring new tablets to the top of the mountain to replace the ones he broke in his fury. (Exod. 34:1) Again God speaks in the book of Isaiah that even after the judgement of Jerusalem and Judah, he will make holy all who survive his judgement, showing mercy. (Isa. 4:2-6)
After all that God did for the Israelites, providing them with a sound law and protecting them from enemies, they chose to disobey and deserved condemnation, but God withheld and displayed mercy. It is in our favor that, “”mercy triumphs over judgement.”” (Jas. 2:13) Although there are many examples of God’s mercy and justice throughout the bible, it can be seen even in one of the most trying of times that God truly was able to patiently display these characteristics of a great leader and father, further solidifying that he deserves the faithfulness and obedience commanded.
The Holy Bible. Zondervan Publishing House, 1983.
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