A Biblical Theology of Judgment and Mercy: The Exodus Event

salvationThere is a strong relationship in the Bible between God’s judgment and His mercy. We don’t often think of the two together, in fact we hold them at quite a distance apart. Yet, the Bible recognizes these two great truths about God that we must all embrace: God is both just and merciful. The relationship between these attributes is powerfully seen in God’s redemption of Israel from Egyptian slavery.

In many ways the story of the exodus event is a story of God versus the gods. The gods of Egypt, whether of the Nile or of the cattle, or Pharaoh himself, are no match for Yahweh. He owns them all and can turn them to blood, kill them off, or bring them low. God rules supreme. His judgments on the nation of Egypt, however, are not merely justice, they are the means of salvation for the people of Israel. The point of all these activities is to cause all to see and believe that Yahweh is the Lord God Almighty.

God intends through Egypt and through the redemption of Israel to testify to Himself. The phrase “that you may know” repeats throughout the early chapters of Exodus. God delivers Israel from slavery so that they will know that He is Lord (6:7). His judgment of the Egyptians, likewise, is so that they will know He is Lord (7:4-5). He explains himself to Pharaoh this way, saying:

For this time I will send all my plagues on you yourself, and on your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is none like me in all the earth. 15 For by now I could have put out my hand and struck you and your people with pestilence, and you would have been cut off from the earth. 16 But for this purpose I have raised you up, to show you my power, so that my name may be proclaimed in all the earth. (9:14-16)

The point of all of God’s judgment is not merely justice, it is worship. It is to reveal His identity and so draw men to Himself. The judgment that falls on Egypt, however, raises two important questions.

In his book God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, Hamilton wonders whether God’s judgment is just and whether his mercy is just. These are important questions. After all, God goes to extreme measures in rebuking Pharaoh. What are we to make of this? The Biblical authors do not recognize any rights of human beings in their relationship to God. They have no ground to stand on upon which they can make demands of the Divine. Rather, all men owe their lives and total allegiance to their Creator, and the gravity of their rejection of Him warrants eternal damnation. God’s judgment is indeed just. Yet, what are we to make of His mercy?

Israel is no less guilty than Egypt. Paul clearly tells us that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). How can God, then, maintain His justice if He demonstrates mercy to sinful Israel? The answer is found in the substitute of the Passover lamb. Exodus 12 recounts God’s instructions to Israel on how to escape the destructive presence of the Spirit of God. For those who obey God here, who by faith find salvation, judgment falls on the lamb. There is judgment, and yet we find mercy in such judgment.

The exodus event is a beautiful, if also terrifying, demonstration of the mingling of judgment and mercy. As Hamilton writes:

The book of Exodus is very clear in its presentation of Yahweh’s intentions. He intends to save Israel through the judgment of Egypt, and he intends this judgment on Egypt to be severe. He intends to humble Pharaoh and his people. He intends to force them to recognize that he, not their gods, is Lord. He wants Egypt, Israel, and all the earth to know that he is Yahweh. And they will know that he is simultaneously just and merciful, so much so that the infinite minds can scarcely perceive the glory of the justice and the mercy as they intermingle and radiate with the blinding splendor of the one they reveal. Yahweh glorifies himself at the exodus by saving Israel through the judgment of Egypt. (107)

Judgment and mercy intermingle in the exodus event. God demonstrates His mercy in and sometimes through judgment.

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