Mercy vs. Justice

We often see, in claims about the Christian God that He is “Just” as if this word imparts some significance in the particular action being discussed and that God is bound (whether He likes it or not) to the action. Or that He is “Merciful” as if that term has a deep meaning, in which we should be especially appreciative as to His action, or non-action, in this regard.

But without any ability to confirm whether God is acting inside the parameter of a law, or outside a parameter, these two terms eventually lose real sustenance when applied to God.

Why is it influential, or even credible, to assign these terms, when further reflection reveals the person making the claim has no ability to substantiate it?

We should first define our terms, so as to consider what is being said.

“Justice” is not that complicated of a word. It means conforming to or consonant with what is legal or lawful; legally right; lawful. It is equally easy to apply—read the law, review the situation, and determine a yes/no answer—does it conform to the law?

A city may enact an ordinance that states all business signs must be 1.5 meters by 1 meter or smaller, and any person that sets up a sign larger than that is guilty of a misdemeanor. In this simple example, justice is easy to determine. The owner that erects a 1.5 x 1 Meter sign is not guilty. The owner that erects a 1.51 x 1 Meter sign is. Even if it is only 1 millimeter more, the sign is no longer in conformance with the law, the owner has violated the ordinance.

Justice is harsh. It does not forgive mistakes or ignorance or consider “extenuating circumstances.” It is always a yes/no proposition.

If Peoria requires $5 for a dog license, and East Peoria, one block over, requires $50 for a dog license, “justice” does not address the issue of disparity. Justice requires that your neighbor, across the street, pay 10 times more for owning a dog. While enacting the laws, we hope the legislatures consider all circumstances, but once enacted, Justice has nothing to do with being fair. It doesn’t care. All it states is, “Here is my law. Conform or pay the consequences.”

If there is no law, there is no need to discuss justice. If our city had never enacted an ordinance regarding signs, the owner could install a 1.51 x 1 Meter sign, or a 12 x 12 Meter sign. There is no such thing as a sign “in conformance” or “not in conformance” with the law as there is no law. We would not even use the word “Justice” in that situation because it has no meaning.

To call God “just” in our vernacular means that He is in conformance with a law. One could certainly argue about what that “law” is, and whether this is a hyper-technical modern application of the Bible, and whether its definition is the intention of the authors of the Bible. But to even give the word value, it must mean God is in conformance with something.

I have seen arguments that God is not in conformance with a “law” but rather with His “covenant.” That is perfectly fine, we can review the covenant provided, and confirm whether he conforms with it or not. He does, it is “just,” He does not, he is not. Or one could argue that God is in conformance with his Nature. Again, a simple application of the principle. Determine what His “nature” requires, and determine whether he is conformance with it.

The problem starts to appear. How do we confirm what God’s covenant is? Or His nature? Or His law? The only way provided is that God is telling us what it is. But what if His covenant allows lying? Or His nature? And what is so “just” about conforming to one’s Nature? Even toadstools and turtles do that! Do we call them “just”? Not hardly

A very basic rule of cross-examination, is to never ask a question that two opposites produce the same answer. You do not learn anything. Either God can lie, or He cannot. If he cannot lie, then asked, “Are you lying?” He is bound to say, “No.” If he can lie, he is no longer bound, and will say, “No.”

Me: God—are you lying?
Truthful God: No.
Lying God: No.

Two very different Gods, the same question produces the same answer. We do not learn anything, because we have no outside vectors by which to determine if God is lying or not. Since we were created with the ability to lie, it is at least conceivable that the creator can lie. God calling Himself by the term “just” does not provide even a clue as to how to confirm it. A human, providing a defense of God as being “just” is even less persuasive.

“Just” means that God is conforming to a rule, a law, a covenant, something by which we can say, “This action is in conformance, and that action is not.” It necessarily implies that God could do something different that would be unjust.

“Mercy” is the opposite of Justice. It is the reviewing the action, and deliberately not applying the law. Deliberately not being just. Deliberately not conforming to the requirements of the law.

The judge understands the law, understands the consequences, and even recognizes the appropriate remedy the law required. The judge, by conscious will, refuses to abide by the law, and disregards it. The person accused also recognizes the necessary consequences, and, hoping the judge will not impose the remedy, “throws themselves on the mercy of the court.”

It should be noted that many laws provide exceptions. For example, a governor, with the legal ability to pardon a crime, is not acting mercifully by pardoning a criminal. The law provides the governor with that legal right. The prisoner may feel that it was an act of mercy, and we may even view it as such, since the prisoner did not have the legal right to a pardon, but the act on the part of the governor was still within the confines of the law. It was “just.”

For God to act mercifully would mean He is aware of the law. He must recognize a certain action (or non-action) is in accordance with that law, and make the conscience effort to not do so. If God is always in accordance with the law, or is always “just,” then he would never violate the requirements of that law, and would never perform a merciful act.

When people say, “God is always just” taken to the literal extreme, it would mean that God is never merciful. When stated that “God is always merciful” taken to the literal extreme, it would mean that God is never just. Clearly both positions are wrong. The Bible implies that there are occasions on which God is just and occasions in which God is not, by being merciful.

(Note: this is a problem with the theory that God’s justice means in conformance with a covenant or His nature. That would necessarily mean when God is being merciful, he can act contrary to his covenant or his nature. Therefore God would no longer be bound by the confines of His nature or the terms of the covenant. He could do what he wanted, when he wanted, with no limitation.)

But how can we tell which is which? Without any way in which we can determine what that thing (whether law, nature or otherwise) is, which God is either abiding by or failing to abide by, we are left completely guessing as to what is just and what is merciful.

Let’s look at two examples, to ferret out the problem:

King David’s Baby

A little history. God covenants with Abraham, to give him the land of the Hittites (among others.) Gen. 15:20. God remembers this covenant, and covenants again with Moses to bring the Hebrew nation out of Egypt to the land of the Hittites. Ex. 3:17. The problem is—what to do with the Hittites living there. Do they move them out? Not at all.

God is explicit in His command—the Hittites are to be driven from the land. Ex. 33:2. Ex. 34:11. Those that stay are to be killed. In case it is not clear, God’s command is “you shall let nothing [Hittite] that breathes remain alive.” Deut. 20:16-17.

Seems obvious enough—to follow God’s command is to kill all the Hittites. That would be Justice. For God to follow his own covenant, and his own promise, He, too, must kill all the Hittites. Granted, God could let some live, but then that would not be just, it would be mercy.

In the meantime, God orders King Saul to kill the Amalekites. 1 Sam. 15:3-26. Saul fails to do so. Because of King Saul’s failure to obey God in this genocide, God’s justice (apparently) demands that the kingdom is taken away from Saul. His children will never be king. We can only hope that the next king, David, will do better obeying God’s commands!

But what have we here? We know there is a standing order from God to kill the Hittites. None should be left breathing. Yet our King David, has a Hittite among his 30 most mighty warriors! A fellow by the name of “Uriah the Hittite.” 1 Chron. 11:41 Assumably, then (in light of Saul) God is being merciful to King David by allowing him to be King, because David is not following God’s commands.

Of course, we know what happens next. David has Uriah the Hittite killed. 2 Sam. 12:9. Arguably, God would be pleased that King David finally obeyed God’s command—right? Well, it turns out no. Apparently following Mosaic Law and killing a Hittite is against God’s commands! 1 Kings. 15:5.

So when God ordered Saul to kill the Amalekites, God’s justice demands that the Amalekites be killed. But when God orders David to kill the Hittites, God’s justice demands that the Hittites NOT be killed. Confused? It turns out God was not being merciful with David by not killing him for not killing the Hittites, but being just!

So now God is going to do Justice, by punishing David for killing a Hittite. Justice demands death. Numbers 35:30. We expect, then, that God will impose the death penalty. But no. Mercy rears its head. Instead of killing David, God determines that, for punishment, his wives shall be kidnapped and raped. 2 Sam. 12:11. (I’ll leave it to the reader as to whether this is “just” or “merciful” to the wives. It completely baffles me.)

At this point in our story, we would have thought that mercy is allowing David to retain his kingship for letting a Hittite live. Turns out to be Justice. We would think it is justice for David to not be punished, following God’s command, but it is mercy.

David confesses that he messed up. Now, God (through his prophet) has immediately preceding this point, laid out what the punishment will be (the kidnapping and raping). But since David admitted his failure--Now what does God do? Provides even more mercy. He takes away David’s sin. It is an absolution, an expungment , a justification. There will be no punishment because it is as if there was no sin. Mercy. 2 Sam. 12:13

(Another side note. One could argue that there is the additional sin of adultery. Another command punishable by death. Lev. 20:10. Odd that Bathsheba gets completely ignored, although she is equally guilty in this regard. Perhaps one could argue, she obtained mercy, too, by only being kidnapped and raped, rather than murdered. But would the rapist be guilty of adultery, and thus receive God’s justice of being killed, or since God ordered it as punishment, would the rapist be unjust if he refused to rape David’s wives? And then God would kill him for not raping them? It becomes difficult to keep up with who God wants killed and who God wants raped and when it is just, and when it is not.

No matter, at this point the sin has been taken away, regardless of whether it was murder or adultery.)

And our story should end. There is no sin; God has taken it away, right? Nope. Now is when it turns ugly!

God says, a little unclearly, that this sin (which is no longer considered in existence) has given occasion for the enemies of God to blaspheme, there must be further punishment. This is unclear, as God had just said this was done in secret (2 Sam. 12:12) so how the enemies of God would even know of it is not certain. Secondly, God seems to invoke mercy by taking away the sin, and then immediately invoking justice, by imposing it back on.

Since David committed this atrocity, we listen in on what his punishment will be. “The child born to you shall die.” (2 Sam. 12:14) For David’s punishment, God will kill a baby.

Is this an act of justice or mercy? From the standpoint of David, it is an act of mercy, as the law requires His death. From the standpoint of the child, it is certainly not an act of mercy! That would mean, (mercy being in conflict with the law) there is a law that says God has to let children live, and God is violating that law every time he kills a child. From God’s standpoint, is it justice to kill a baby for its father’s sin? Is there some law that allows a non-voluntary substitution of a human for another’s sin?

One can’t help but correlate it to the Son of God’s death, but if that death paid for all sins, past, present and future, it must have missed this one of David’s. Because God said a baby has to die, in addition to Jesus!

Is it mercy on God’s part? Was there some law preventing God from killing this child, that God forsook, and imposed a death sentence?

The Christian is left in a quandary. For God to be just, means killing children for their father’s sin is acceptable practice. What else is acceptable? Is throwing a child in Hell, in the stead of its father also allowed by God’s law? How can one verify this? If this act was merciful, then there is a law that prohibits God from killing babies that he deliberately violated. Again, if God can violate this law, can He violate a law that says believers get entrance in heaven? Who knows!

Realizing God has now imposed a death penalty on a baby, (for something it did not do) we can only hope that the death is quick and painless…….right? Ulp. Not to be.

God gives the child an illness. 2 Sam. 12:15. No crib death. No instantaneous, painless ending of his life. No immediate entrance into heaven. All of these options were available to God. He imposes none of them. God decides to let the child be sick for seven days! The verses do not say whether the child was in pain, whether it was in a coma, or what happened to the baby in those seven days. Did he eat during those seven days? What was the illness? Did it cause vomiting, misery, pain? An illness which causes mortality and takes seven days is not pain-free. It is very likely that this baby suffered pain during this time period.

What possible law would God follow, in the role of justice, to allow this baby to suffer for any time at all, let alone a period as long as seven days! God had imposed a death sentence. God was going to carry it out. This is causing pain and anguish for no reason.

It is a troubling situation, when contemplating God’s justice and mercy. What law could God be limited in, by killing a baby for a sin that was absolved? Why, if the law required it, would God have the baby be ill for seven days? How many other laws allow God to kill a baby to provide mercy for the guilty party?

A question for the Christians that believe in an eternal Lake of Fire. If there is a law out there, in which God is throwing a baby into the lake, for every believer that enters Heaven, would you still be able to enjoy Heaven? Would you still accept God’s sovereignty that He knew what he was doing, and He has the right to deal with his creation as he wills?

If you hesitate on this question, why do you accept God killing a baby, in the stead of his father?

Next Story….

Joab and Abner

Joab was King David’s commander-in-chief. His right-hand man. He obtained this position by being the first to attack the Jebusites (another clan that David was to wipe out) and providing David with the city of Bethlehem. 1 Chron. 11:6) Without Joab that whole prophecy of Jesus being born in Bethlehem could have been blown!

Abner was Joab’s counterpart in Saul’s army. The enemy. When Saul’s son, Ishbosheth became king, Abner was his commander-in-chief. After meeting in battle, Abner’s army was defeated by Joab’s army. But Abner killed Joab’s brother, Asahel. 2 Sam. 2:12-23.

Abner then decides to align with David. 2 Sam. 3:21 David accepts, because it would only strengthen his position, as well as reduce the fighting. Joab is upset that David agrees to take in the person who killed his brother. So Joab kills Abner. 2 Sam. 3:27. Interesting question of whether it was murder or not, but for our sake, we shall assume it was.

Being murder, the punishment is death. But David needs Joab. This is the leader of his army, one of the 30 mighty men. It is Joab that tends to keep David on an even keel, through his emotional outbursts. Joab to be trusted to kill Uriah. Joab to take the census. Joab to kill Absalom. Time and again, we see that David relies upon Joab to do David’s dirty work.

So David cannot impose the death penalty. What does he request instead? “Let there never fail to be in the house of Joab one who has a discharge or is a leper, who leans on a staff or falls by the sword, or who lacks bread.” 2 Sam. 3:29. David learned this trick from God.

What an interesting justice system we have. Imagine being Joab’s cousin. All of a sudden, you have leprosy. Why? Because of something Joab did. Your child is born. Has a crippled foot. Why? Because of something Joab did. The obvious person to punish is Joab. But just like God needed David, so He couldn’t kill him, David needed Joab, so he didn’t kill him.

Look, if God wants to impose mercy, and not apply the required punishment on the actor, that is God’s business. Why would God add this extra step of mandating punishment on people that did not commit the crime? What law is God following that requires this? Or is God acting outside the law, and punishing others is merciful?

Defense attorney: Your Honor, my client pleads guilty.
The Court: According to the law, I must sentence your client to one year in jail.
Defense attorney: My client throws himself on the mercy of the court.
The Court: Very well. I expunge the crime. He is free to go.

Defense attorney: Thank you, your Honor!
The Court: Is that the defendant’s son over there?
Defense attorney: Er…..yes. Why?
The Court: Officer, take this child out and beat him with a stick until he bleeds.

The ironic part? The sentence of Joab was not commuted, it was only delayed. On his deathbed, when he no longer had need of Joab, King David informed his son, Solomon, to execute the death sentence. 1 Kings 2:6. All these years, there was sickness, and death, and calamity in Joab’s household, and for naught. Joab was to die as punishment anyway. 1 Kings 2:32-34. Luckily Solomon makes sure to get the last jab in, by saying the blood of Abner will be on Joab’s descendants forever. So it is possible the punishment of David continued after Joab’s death.

What we see from these two stories, is a complete inability to confirm or determine what law God is or is not following at any given time. To claim God is “just” or “merciful” is pretty words with no backing, no meat to the bones themselves.

Why say it? Because it provides an escape clause, a word with apparent validity to excuse the actions of their God. Torturing people forever? “God’s justice demands it.” God killing himself to fulfill his own justice? “God was merciful.”

Every time I hear “God is just” or “God is merciful” I think of David’s baby and Joab’s cousin, and realize that the person making this statement hasn’t a clue as to what God is or is not, and is actually saying, “I don’t understand it either, but I sure hope I get the mercy end, if it gets me out of hell, or the justice end if it guarantees me a heaven.”