Get the Message—Theme: judgment and mercy

A brief summary of the section. One paragraph should do it.

What is God like? Not what is He physically like, but what is He essentially like? What is His character?

The Experience of Moses

Well, fortunately we’re not left to our own speculations on this matter, for in a crucially important text in the book of Exodus, He tells us. Moses was about as close to God as anyone in the Bible aside from the Lord Jesus, and in a very special incident on Mount Sinai, Moses asks God to reveal more of Himself. In beautifully eloquent yet simple words, Moses asks:

“Now therefore, I pray thee, if I have found grace in thy sight, shew me now thy way, that I may know thee, that I may find grace in thy sight:…And he said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.” (Exodus 33:13,18) (AV)

God explains that He is too holy to be seen by human eyes, but He nevertheless allows Moses to see some of His glory, following which He makes an announcement about Himself:

“The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6) (ESV)

Notice what God emphasizes first: He is gracious, longsuffering, merciful. This is wonderful news for us, because we certainly need to call on all those attributes if we are to have any kind of relationship with Him.

Mercy and Judgment

But He does not stop with what we might term ‘the positives’. It is a huge misrepresentation of God to say only that He is merciful – as though He will just turn a blind eye to whatever we do and our behaviour has no consequence. On the contrary He cares hugely about it. Sin and rebellion are an affront to Him. They are offensive, utterly indefensible and completely inappropriate:

“Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity…..” (Habakkuk 1:13) (AV)

“You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness. Therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions;” (Psalm 45:7) (ESV)

And so it is that the Exodus passage does not stop with the mercy of God, but goes on also to stress His judgment. He will not tolerate persistent rebellion, and will not save such people; they will perish at death, and will have no hope. Some of them will even be raised to face the implications of what they have done (as shown in other scriptures).

And we probably wouldn’t want it any other way, really. Would we expect him to say to unrepentant rapists or to Hitler, ‘Well that’s OK. Don’t worry about it. I never cared too much about your victims anyway’? God’s moral character of righteousness and justice must express itself in the world, and we have seen this by actions of justice in the past in the Bible record (like the Flood). For the most part, though, God stands back, allowing mankind to exercise his freewill and face the implications. But in the end there must be a judgment, a reckoning – a removal of sin and those who oppose God so that His kingdom can be established. That’s the only way the problems of the world can ultimately be dealt with.


The purpose of this piece, though, is to note how these two crucial aspects of God’s character – His mercy and longsuffering on the one hand, and His purity, righteousness and justice on the other – interplay right through the Bible narrative. So much so that they serve as another of these lenses or filters through which the entire Bible can be viewed.

For instance, in the first 11 chapters of Genesis (a very important and somewhat self-contained section of the book), we have a multitude of instances of man’s rebellion against God. In most cases God responds with some kind of judgment statement or punishment, but in each case also there is a concession, an offer of a way back, or a glimmer of hope for the future about how the issue can ultimately be resolved. This is God’s character in action.

In the prophets, too – the part of the Scriptures where the most extended speeches of God are recorded – the same twin aspects are continually in view. There are oracles of judgment (because God’s people the Jews continually forget Him or rebel against Him) and there are oracles of salvation (which explain how God ultimately will show His great grace and love to His people, saving them and blessing them). Sometimes these two are juxtaposed in a way that can strike readers as abrupt. But both aspects are true to God’s character and must be present in the way He acts. If His people are wicked and unrepentant He cannot just stand by and say ‘Well I never really meant it when I said all that about how you should live’. But at the same time when His people forsake Him, His heart still yearns for them, and His resolve to save as many of them as possible is great. 

The rituals of the Old Testament Law also emphasise the two aspects. The whole sacrificial and penal system is necessary because of the holiness and righteousness of God – He cannot live in the middle of an unclean and sinful people, as the Bible points out, unless something is done about their sin and there is a principled way of forgiveness. But at the same time the very provision of the Law – sacrifices like the Peace Offering which celebrated the fellowship between man and God, and the Feast of Tabernacles which celebrated God’s redemption of His people – are all made possible because God has been so merciful.

New Testament Teaching

The theme continues into the New Testament too. Here is one classic passage:

“Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.” (Romans 11:22) (ESV)

The whole notion of the future judgment when Christ returns revolves around the two notions of judgment and mercy. Here are a couple of passages

“And they shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.” (John 5:29) (AV)

“Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” Matthew 25:32,33) (ESV)

There are many things we do not know precisely about the judgment (just exactly who will be raised, how it will be conducted, and so forth), but we have to trust that God will do the right thing. The principles, at least, are clear, even if the precise mechanisms may not be.


Anyone who has been a parent will recognize the importance of the twin themes of mercy and judgment. Though we love our children so much, we know that this cannot mean that we let them do whatever they want without any correction or discipline. If we do we shall create monsters. There have to be standards and judgment, and they have to be applied so that they mean something. On the other hand, we can go overboard, constantly criticizing or wading in with over-reactive punishment, and mercy and understanding can be left at the door. It may be a tricky balance to strike, and most parents will be conscious of having to make a judgment-call about whether to make an issue of some attitude or behaviour, or whether to let it go. Whereas we may struggle with this, we can be confident that a God Who is all-wise will get it right in His own parenting of us.

God cares and disciplines His children through the things that happen in life. This discipline is a reflection of His character and its twin aspects of judgment and mercy:

“For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives. It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?...For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.” (Hebrews 12:6,7,11) (ESV)

Aim and Direction

We may wonder exactly where the line falls between judgment and mercy. What is acceptable, and when have we gone too far? But this is really not the approach the Bible encourages. If there is a line (and actually there are very few places where God’s grace cannot reach), then it is better not to get too close to it! The aim ought to be to get as close to God as possible, not to play brinkmanship with His grace.

God is a God of righteousness, truth and judgment and therefore our behaviour matters. Because of our sin, we need to be forgiven and be in good standing with Him, and He has provided a way for this through His son. The gift of Jesus is the supreme manifestation of God’s grace (and also, paradoxically, of His judgment upon sin – but that’s another story). Though God is a God of judgment, He is also a God of grace Who wants to save sinners. It all depends on our direction and whether we are prepared to accept the salvation He offers. In relation to the following verses which explain what God is looking for we each need to ask ourselves what is the true direction of our life.

“All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.” (Isaiah 66:2) (ESV)

“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8) (ESV)

Home | About |

© 2009 all rights reserved. Bible Toolshed is a free resource for anyone interested in studying the Bible. Content is presented in a clear, engaging manner in an effort to appeal to Bible students of all levels.

Another website.