When I applied for my visa to work in the UK, I happened to speak with one lively consular officer working in Philadelphia. When he heard that I was moving to teach Old Testament at a theological college, he became audibly ecstatic (or agitated, I couldn’t tell which) and exclaimed: ‘The Old Testament! God of Wrath! Judgment! Bloodshed! Violence!’ I tried to acknowledge and gently challenge his view, but he wasn’t really looking for conversation on that point. His rapid-fire better-you-than-me take on the Old Testament’s portrayal of God is common, and not without some justification. For instance, all fifteen prophetic books devote substantial attention to God’s present or impending judgment. For Christians, Jews, and non-believers alike, the scope and severity of divine judgment is a problem.
But there is another ‘problem’ that’s often overlooked, though it troubled many a biblical writer and character. It’s the problem of divine mercy. How can a just God keep extending mercy? At first blush, this may seem like an ideal problem to have. We all want more of God’s mercy, right?
Yes, for us. According to many biblical prophets and poets, it depends on who benefits from that mercy. Here’s one way that they frame the problem: How can God delay judgment and show mercy to the wicked, among whom are those who oppress the weak and poor? What if mercy actually enabled the wicked to carry on in their violent ways? To put it in modern terms, why would we want God to be patient and slow to anger with ISIS?
This is the sort of problem facing the prophet Habakkuk, who wondered as he cried out to God:
How long, O LORD, must I call for help, but you do not listen? Or cry out to you, “Violence!” but you do not save? Why do you make me look at injustice? Why do you tolerate wrong? (Hab 1:2-3a)
At the heart of God’s identity, stated summarily in Exod 34:6-7 and throughout the Old Testament, is his mercy (e.g., Ps 86:15; Joel 2:13). God is ‘slow to anger.’ This is good news for the evildoer, but can be bad news for victims who continue to be victimized, or for those looking for justice. This is why the cry for justice and judgment ascends so frequently in the Old Testament.
The prophet Jonah was also vexed by God’s mercy. When he saw how the Ninevites—known for their brutality against Israel and others—had received divine mercy, he flew into a rage: ‘I knew that you were a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger …!’ (Jon 4:2). This is a criticism, not a compliment. To Jonah, God had just let the perpetrators off the hook!
So what do we do with this problem? It’s worth going back to Exod 34:6-7, the foundational statement on God’s merciful identity. These verses state that God is merciful and compassionate, but does not let the guilty go unpunished. How do these work together? Here are two ways. First, we see that God announces judgment but then opens himself up to the possibility of averting that judgment by letting his anger build slowly. In that merciful space, God invites the wicked to turn from evil. This is what happens in the 40-day period between Jonah’s pronouncement and the day when Nineveh was supposed to experience God’s judgment. Jonah 3:8 states that the Ninevites ‘turned from their evil ways and from the violence that was in their hands.’ In response, God extended mercy.
Second, God’s mercy is revealed in judgment. In Exod 22:26-27, the Israelites were warned not to hold a poor man’s cloak overnight as security for a loan. If it was his only covering, and he ‘cries out to me, I will listen, for I am merciful.’ But God doesn’t just listen with the dispassionate ‘hmmm…tell me more’ of a therapist. No, he says that ‘my anger will be roused!’ This text evokes the story of the exodus from Egypt, where God hears the cry of the Hebrew slaves and enacts judgment upon the Egyptians (Exod 2:23-25). God’s mercy toward the poor finds expression in judgment upon the oppressor.
The interlaced ‘problem’ of divine wrath and mercy leaves us, I think, with two responses, or cries:
How long? Recognizing the interconnection of divine wrath and mercy should at least give us pause before we rush to clear God of all acts of judgment, as those of us in positions of privilege are often wont to do. Judgment is not God’s ‘merciless’ side. It is always worth considering who benefits from his mercy, and who benefits from God’s judgment. The biblical prophets call us to join our voices with the weak as they cry, ‘How long?’ How long will the wicked oppress the weak, crush the widow and foreigner, thinking, ‘The Lord does not see it, the God of Jacob does not pay heed’? (Ps 94:7) Voicing this question and cry is a vital part of the divine-human relationship depicted in the Bible. It not only provides a way of putting the justice question back in God’s hands; it also paves the way for surprising acts of mercy toward the weak and, yes, even purposeful delays of anger and demonstrations of mercy toward those who are powerful.
How marvelous! The problem of divine wrath and mercy prompts us to consider our inability to fathom God’s ‘indiscriminate’ mercy (as one student recently wrote in a paper). As Jesus states, God causes the sun to rise on the evil and good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’ (Matt 5:45). In the divine economy, mercy is one of the ways that God resolves the problem of injustice, but the logic of this economy lies beyond our injustice and judgment leger. So with the psalmist and his unresolved paradox, we also might marvel at the wonder of divine mercy: ‘He has caused his wonders to be remembered: the LORD is gracious and merciful’ (Ps 111:4).