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Mercy and Judgment

Mercy, like its divine companions love, justice, and righteousness, is frequently subject to creaturely appropriation. Easily mistaken for mere kindness (or worse, niceness), acts of mercy tend to be measured by the feelings they produce. Feelings are not irrelevant, but the object of mercy is something much more objective: need.

The story of the Rich Young Man in Mark 10 illustrates vividly the relationship between mercy and feelings. It becomes abundantly clear in the Gospels that Jesus is mercy incarnate – whenever he sees need, he is moved to compassion, and he acts to help. But our sensibilities about how that should look are disturbed when we observe that Jesus sees the young man’s need, is moved to compassion (“Jesus, looking at him, loved him”, v. 21), and then acts in such a way that the man departs sorrowfully. With no apparent regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a task that he finds to be impossible. Or perhaps you could say it this way: with every regard for the young man’s feelings, Jesus gives him a singular opportunity to experience godly grief.

As much as the story cautions us against identifying mercy with niceness, it evokes an additional caution. You and I are not in the business of feelings, good or bad. The point is not that Jesus was wise to discern which kind of feelings would best suit the fellow. The point is that Jesus was wise to discern his need and acted to help. Jesus certainly possesses the key of knowledge. He knows what feelings to evoke and when, but that is not given to us. Instead, we ought to pray that we have eyes that see need and hearts that are moved to compassion and wills that choose to act accordingly.

It’s here that we can observe another, perhaps more subtle case of mistaken identity. Just as mercy is easily mistaken for niceness, judgment is easily mistaken for unkindness.  It’s the same problem of feelings – something that evokes negative feelings must be some measure of judgment and, therefore, cannot be mercy. But the relationship between mercy and judgment is not so inversely linear as you would assume.

Consider this remarkable pattern in Amos, in which acts of judgments are dealt to Israel time and again in an effort to stave off the graver, impending, final judgment. “I gave you cleanness of teeth … yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6). God withholds the rain, sends blight and mildew, inflicts pestilence, and overthrows the people, yet they did not return to him. “Therefore thus I will do to you, O Israel; because I will do this to you, prepare to meet your God, O Israel” (v. 12)! All along, every momentary affliction, every momentary judgment is, in fact, also an act of mercy in view of Israel’s most desperate need. It’s a desperate need of which they seem to be completely unaware: “Woe to you who desire the day of the LORD! . . . Is not the day of the LORD darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it” (5:18, 20)? They hit the accelerator, not blindly, but aiming towards this fatal collision with God’s justice. Whether they fail to take his judgment seriously or they consider themselves to be righteous, the mercy of God intervenes. Paradoxically and scandalously his intervention is in the form of a temporal judgment.

Again, caution is warranted at this point. Although we do well to understand that mercy may come in the form of judgment, it’s not given to us to execute God’s judgment. It is given to us to announce his judgment, but always and only ever in the service of mercy. This commitment to mercy is exemplified by Amos. Even as he announces God’s final judgment and as God himself declares his intention to execute, Amos intercedes on behalf of the people: “O Lord GOD, please forgive! How can Jacob stand? He is so small! The LORD relented concerning this; ‘It shall not be,’ said the LORD” (Amos 7:2-3). Following that saintly example, every Christian has enough merciful work to do in prayer for the rest of his life.

Amos and the Justice of God


Amos, a shepherd called to speak against Israel even in the height of her power, speaks very vividly about the justice of God. What did injustice in Israel look like in Amos’ day? How does that compare to modern concerns about “social justice”? What does Amos teach us about the church’s and the individual Christian’s role in pursuing God’s justice? What do these prophecies of judgment teach us about the cross and the Last Day? Join us as we discuss Amos and how his message calls for us to prepare for the Day of the Lord.

Hosts: Rev. Willie Grills and Rev. Zelwyn Heide
Regular Guest: Rev. David Appold
Episode: 26

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Who Can But Prophesy?

Unbelievers are not the only ones prone to sinful security.  Sin certainly hardens the heart of the unbeliever into believing that there is always more time (Luke 2:16-21).  But abused mercy has a way of hardening the heart in a way that unbelief cannot.  The one who sins believing that he has God’s favor is in a more dangerous position than the one who does not believe (Luke 12:47-48).

“Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O sons of Israel, against all the clans that I brought up out of the land of Egypt, saying:  ‘You only have I known out of all the clans of the earth’” (Amos 3:1-2).  The Lord directed this prophecy, which came through the shepherd Amos, against the idolatrous northern kingdom of Israel in the days of the second Jeroboam.  For hundreds of years Israel had walked in the footsteps of the first Jeroboam, who had led Israel into sin (1 Kings 12:25-33).  But they did not imagine themselves to be apostate or idolatrous.  After all, they still offered burnt offerings to the Lord and peace offerings, didn’t they (Amos 5:21-22)?  Didn’t they at least observe the Sabbath, even if they had things to do after the requirement was over (Amos 8:4-6)?  Idolatry is always papered over, serving the Lord in one’s own mind in ways that he has not commanded, or claiming to fear God and yet going after other gods (Zechariah 1:4-6; 1 Kings 18:21; 2 Kings 17:39-41).

This is why it is so easy for sin to blind the one who has received mercy and turn again toward sin as a result.  “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’” (Matthew 3:9).  “A Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Romans 2:29).  “Rend your hearts and not your garments” (Joel 2:13).  The prophets fought against this hardness, for the people had convinced themselves that the Lord would not bring disaster upon His people.  He has made all of these wonderful promises to our fathers!  Why would He now bring judgment?

But the judgment of God rests heavier upon those who have known His mercy and yet rejected it.  This is why He reminds them of His former mercy in bringing them up out of Egypt.  They have known His grace and His love for them and for their fathers.  The Lord did not choose them because they were unique in any way, but because He loved them (Deuteronomy 7:7-8).  Yet they should not lull themselves to sleep because God is long-suffering.  The patience of God does not mean He is unaware or does not care.

“Do two walk together unless they have agreed to meet?”  No.  “Does a lion roar in the forest when he has no prey?”  No.  “Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid?”  No.  “Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?”  No!  These things do not just happen, as if the forces of nature were mindless and independent, the way we so often view them.  Disasters are a call to repentance.  Amos makes this abundantly clear later:  the Lord sends famine, drought, blight, locusts, pestilence, and war as a call to forsake evil and turn toward him, “yet you did not return to me” (Amos 4:6-11).

It is true that in Jesus Christ, Christians know the mercy of the Father.  Jesus is our forgiveness and our life.  In Him, the work of our salvation is finished.  But will we look to our Baptism and say that I may do as I please, because I have been baptized into Christ?  Will we receive the Lord’s Supper while holding a grudge in our hearts?  “Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1)?  Will we imagine that only the Jews were prone to carnal security?  “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion” (Amos 6:1)!

But disasters are not a blind call to repentance.  It is all too easy to see “acts of God” and attribute them to natural forces.  The Lord has not, however, left us with only a mute witness in the world.  “For the Lord does nothing without revealing His secret to his servants the prophets.  The lion has roared; who will not fear?  The Lord God has spoken; who can but prophesy” (Amos 3:7-8)?  In His holy Word, the Lord calls us to repentance.  In the Scriptures, we have more than ample warning.

And through His servants, the prophets and also the apostles, the Lord has declared this Word to us.  Through the living voice of those whom He has called to proclaim His message, the Lord declares this Word.  Who can but prophesy?  The living Word proclaimed by the Holy Spirit is a fire in the bones, incapable of being restrained (Jeremiah 20:9).  We cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard (Acts 4:20).  “For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Corinthians 9:16)!  The watchman of the house of Israel cannot but speak what he has heard, lest he endanger his own soul also (Ezekiel 3:17-18).