A Biblical Theology of Judgment and Mercy: The Cycle of the Judges

salvationIf the Bible was a musical composition, then the book of Judges would be a transition to a minor key. The story unfolded in this narrative is one of increasing national deterioration. The cycle of the judges follows a familiar pattern: rebellion, judgment, repentance, salvation, and rebellion. Yet, the book also captures clearly the interplay between judgment and mercy. God’s judgment of Israel’s sin makes the display of His mercy all the more beautiful.

“Israel did evil in the sight of the Lord,” that’s the regular refrain across the book of Judges (2:11; 3:7; 3:12; 4:1; 6:1; 10:6; 13:1). Because of His justice God cannot ignore the evil and wickedness of His people. In fact, one of the more interesting features of Israel’s history is that despite their relationship with God, He never turns a blind eye to their sin. They are just as accountable to the Lord as the pagan nations, and often He uses the pagan nations to bring judgment on His people. Their rebellion earns His anger. But the book of Judges is not just full of judgment.

Back in Deuteronomy God had assured the people that if they turned to God in repentance He would show them mercy (Deut. 4:29; 30:2; 32:36). So, whenever the people cry out to God He raises up a “deliverer” to come to their aid. The judges themselves are not spectacular people. Shamgar appears to be a Gentile (3:31); Jael is a woman (not respected in ancient cultures); and Gideon hides from the enemy (6:11), doubts the angel (6:13), objects to being called (6:15), and even asks for signs to bolster his confidence (6:17-21). Even when he does finally obey God, he does so under the cover of darkness (6:27) for fear. Jepthah is the son of a prostitute (11:1), and Samson is a hot mess. God’s mercy abounds throughout the book, using the most unlikely heroes to preserve the most undeserving people.

God’s justice is evident in the book, but in His mercy he regularly cares for His people. He preserves them and keeps His promises. In judging Israel God not only demonstrates His holiness, but He makes the beauty of His mercy all the more compelling too. It is evident throughout the book how progressively wicked Israel is becoming. At the end of each deliverance cycle we read that the land found “rest.” Under Jepthah and Samson, however, the land does not find rest. Furthermore, under Samson the people do not cry out to God, evidencing their progressive decline. With this ever-increasing rebellion we find God’s commitment to His promises, and the displays of His mercy all the more remarkable. As Jim Hamilton writes:

The author [of Judges] seems to be tracing the nation’s decline in order to demonstrate the justice of God’s punishment of Israel’s sin, and the horror of the flagrant sinfulness of Israel makes Yahweh’s patient mercy shine all the more brightly. In short, the author of Judges is showing the glory of Yahweh in salvation through judgment. (God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment, 158)

Israel’s sin, and God’s judgment of it, makes His mercy all the more surprising.

We see this same idea communicated by the apostle Paul in Romans. In Romans 9 we read:

22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,23 in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory— 24 even us whom he has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles?  (v. 22-24)

Paul’s point seems to parallel this theme of Judges. God’s judgment is intended to make the beauty of His mercy shine all the brighter. We see this most clearly visualized at the cross, where God poured out the wrath that He had reserved for our rebellion on Jesus in order to give us mercy. The cycle of the Judges has been broken in Jesus, such that God no longer condemns those who are in Christ (Rom. 8:1). The judgment poured out on Jesus has made the mercy of God all the more spectacular to those who believe.

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