While serving in the military I used to travel quite a bit–just brief 2-3 days trips. I would usually travel with the rest of my team, arriving at our location some time in the late afternoon. Our usual routine was to check in to the hotel and then grab a drink, hopefully in time for happy hour. I really enjoyed those conversations.
During one of them, the Old Testament somehow came up. One person, a scientist with a PhD in chemistry, made the frequent observation that “the God of the Old Testament” was a “wrathful, angry God”–who would ever want to worship a god like that?
But another person, an expert in thermodynamics, commented that he had grown up in the Catholic Church but didn’t actually start reading the bible until high school. He started with the Old Testament, and as he made his way through, became steadily disillusioned by how disappointing the main characters were. With no little irritation, he reflected:
“No one had ever told me that most of these people, the protagonists especially, were complete jerks. Why would I want to be a part of a religion like that? I had grown up a Christian, and no one had ever told me this stuff–I remember being quite infuriated.”
I was tempted to say, “Wait a minute. One of you doesn’t like the Old Testament, because its god is too wrathful, while the other doesn’t like it, because its god is too lax. Haven’t you put God in something of a Catch-22?” Thankfully I didn’t.
Instead I pursued the far better question that had already been asked: indeed, who would want to be a part of a religion whose god was so willing to embrace–and continue to tolerate–“complete jerks”?
My wife Sarah has been reading through the Old Testament book of 1 Kings. Probably the most infamous royal couple in the Old Testament is King Ahab and Queen Jezebel. Together they embodied ruthless power and raw greed, epitomized in their heartless and slanderous murder of Naboth in order to obtain his vineyard, conveniently located next to their palace (Ahab had wanted it for a vegetable garden).
In response, God sends Elijah, who matter-of-factly declares God’s verdict upon Ahab: “I am going to bring disaster on you”–and he announces that Ahab and his line will be utterly wiped off the face of the earth. In classic prophetic language, Elijah announces of Ahab’s murderous shrew of a wife, “Dogs will devour Jezebel by the wall of Jezreel.”
Immediately after Elijah’s prophecy, the narrator offers the following parenthetical evaluation of Ahab, just in case (after five chapters chronicling the royal couple’s abominable acts) any readers hadn’t yet drawn their own conclusion:
“(There was never anyone like Ahab, who sold himself to do evil in the eyes of the LORD, urged on by Jezebel his wife. He behaved in the vilest manner by going after idols, like the Amorites the LORD drove out before Israel.)”
So at this point in the story almost any reader is saying, “FINALLY!” (I mean where is divine wrath when you need it, right?)
In this way the reader is totally unprepared for what follows. Immediately after the above parenthetical remark, we read:
“When Ahab heard these words [from Elijah], he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and fasted. He lay in sackcloth and went around meekly. Then the word of the LORD came to Elijah the Tishbite: ‘Have you noticed how Ahab has humbled himself before me? Because he has humbled himself, I will not bring this disaster in his day, but I will bring it on his house in the days of his son.'”
Wait a minute–WHAT?! Are you kidding me?!!
There is so much that is unfair here. (Imagine if Naboth’s wife or children had been listening in on this conversation. How would they have responded?)
Here is just one example of God’s infuriating mercy. It is a mercy extending even to men like Ahab (and “complete jerk” doesn’t even begin to do justice in describing him).
If it can be extended to Ahab, could it also be extended to me and to you?
Such mercy infuriates, because it leaves so much unaddressed. Listen to this “Good Friday” text from the pen of the Apostle Paul that speaks of God’s astonishing forbearance–i.e., his willingness to leave so much unaddressed for so very long:
“God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood–to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness [or justice], because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did this to demonstrate his justice at the present time so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3.24-25)
We see this same forbearance playing itself out in the Old Testament priestly cult. Consider the following excerpts from this beautiful passage in Hebrews:
“The Law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming–not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship…. For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins…. Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool. For by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:1, 4, 11-14).
We cannot welcome His infuriating mercy (for ourselves or for others) without wondering at His astonishing forbearance.
As the one Innocent Victim, who has waited for justice longer than He has? As victims (who have all victimized others), can we not also wait?
As the one Innocent Victim, who else has of His own choosing given His own Son so that by one sacrifice He has made perfect forever anyone–even the Ahabs–who would humble themselves and draw near to worship? As victims, can we not also of our own choosing sacrifice to draw others near to worship this God of Infuriating Mercy?
Thy mercy is more than a match for my heart,
Which wonders to feel its own hardness depart;
Dissolved by Thy goodness, I fall to the ground,
And weep to the praise of the mercy I’ve found.
Great Father of mercies, Thy goodness I own,
And the covenant love of Thy crucified Son;
All praise to the Spirit, Whose whisper divine
Seals mercy, and pardon, and righteousness mine.