Issues Facing Missions Today 26: God the Most Holy, God the Most Merciful
On the one hand, a people’s understanding of God can lead them to uphold his justice, holiness, and glory over against those who would pursue injustice, profane his holy name, and insolently defy his majesty. On the other hand, a people’s understanding of God can lead them to tell of his mercy, live by his love, and rejoice in his own humble sacrifice for a people’s sins. Yet the first path can lead to (so-called) holy war, and the second path to libertine indulgence. Only a complete understanding of God’s character as just and merciful, holy and loving, glorious and suffering is Biblical. Moses and Solomon understood this, and the first Christians witnessed and testified to it as the fullness of God’s glory was revealed on the cross of Jesus Christ. In the cross, we see God the most holy and God the most merciful.
God the Most Holy: the Essenes
Getting this answer wrong is the stuff of much theological error across religions. The Jewish historian, Josephus, describes the Jewish Essene community of the 1st century as a people devoted to holiness. ‘What they most of all honour, after God himself, is the name of their legislator [Moses]; whom, if anyone blaspheme, he is punished capitally’ (Jewish War 2.145). The Essenes understood God to be holy, and their response was to pursue a life of holiness that had little room for forgiveness. No wonder they are never mentioned in the Gospels! Jesus, a friend of sinners, might have made it onto the invitation list of the ultra-pious Pharisees (and they were ever offended by him even so), but he was not even on the radar of the Essenes. Their rules for keeping the Sabbath were stricter than any other Jewish group (Jewish Wars 2.147). Any initiates entering the community after a period of testing had to take tremendous oaths (2.139), and any of their number who committed a heinous sin was cast out of the community, not permitted to eat normal food but only grass, and often died from hunger—unless the community, at the last moment, allowed him to return (2.143-144).
Such is a community that understands the holiness of God, but knows little to nothing of his mercy. King David was once frustrated when he witnessed the holiness of God without mercy. David was having the ark of the covenant transferred to Jerusalem when the ark began to slide off the cart. A man named Uzzah reached out to steady the ark with his hand, and he was immediately killed. He had profaned the holy ark, and there was no mercy.
God the Most Holy and the Most Merciful: King Solomon’s Prayer and Moses’ Revelation on Mt. Sinai
King Solomon, David’s son, also had the ark transferred (1 Kings 8). He fully understood its holiness as he had it moved to the holy place and situated between the cherubim (v. 6) within the temple that he had constructed. The ark was transported with long poles—there would be no slipping off of a cart and no possibility of touching it (v. 8). Innumerable sacrifices of sheep and oxen were offered (v. 5)—some twenty-two thousand oxen and one hundred twenty thousand sheep (v. 63). Once the ark was in place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, indicating the presence of God’s glory. Yet, when Solomon offers a prayer on the occasion, we learn more than that God is holy. We also learn that God is merciful. In Solomon’s prayer, we hear the truth that God is both holy and just as well as loving and merciful.
In his prayer, Solomon first acknowledges that God is ever so much greater than the temple itself, for ‘even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!’ (1 Kings 8.27). Yet God’s name is present in the temple. Thus Solomon prays that God, who dwells in heaven, would hear people who pray toward the temple (v. 30). While the temple is holy, and the ark is holy, and God’s glory and name dwell in the temple, God himself is not contained in the temple. God’s holiness overflows the holy temple itself. So far, Solomon addresses the holiness of God, awesome in its splendour.
Yet, while acknowledging the holiness and glory of God—indeed, because of God’s glory!—Solomon prays that God would heed the prayers of the people and forgive! (v. 30). Herein lies the Biblical understanding of the character of God. The glory of God is manifest not only in his holiness but also in his mercy. This is a truth that was already revealed to Moses, when he learned God’s essential character on Mt. Sinai not just as the God of the Law but also as the God who is ‘merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Exodus 34.6). The glorious wonder of God is manifest not only in the greatness of his majesty but also and most fully in his grace, his compassion, and his love.
At Mt. Sinai, Moses understood this deeper revelation of God’s character, and so he boldly prayed, ‘Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance’ (Exodus 34.9). Likewise, as the holiness of God settled upon the ark and the covenant, Solomon prays first for justice for the righteous when people come to pray before God’s altar in the temple (1 Kings 8.31-32) and then for forgiveness when people plead before God despite their sins (vv. 33-34). While God might visit affliction on a sinful people because he is just and holy and righteous, Solomon also knows God is merciful, loving, and forgiving. So he prays,
‘If there is famine in the land, if there is plague, blight, mildew, locust, or caterpillar; if [Israel’s] enemy besieges them in any of their cities; whatever plague, whatever sickness there is; 38 whatever prayer, whatever plea there is from any individual or from all your people Israel, all knowing the afflictions of their own hearts so that they stretch out their hands toward this house; 39 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, forgive, act, and render to all whose hearts you know-- according to all their ways, for only you know what is in every human heart-- 40 so that they may fear you all the days that they live in the land that you gave to our ancestors’ (1 Kings 8.37-40).
Remarkably, Solomon also prays that foreigners—those outside of God’s chosen people—who come to pray before the house of the LORD might also be heard by God (vv. 41-43). Again remembering God’s chosen people, Solomon prays that God would stand with them in battle in their just cause as well as forgive them when they sin and repent. Solomon’s prayer dwells on God’s forgiveness and mercy. He prays,
‘If they sin against you-- for there is no one who does not sin-- and you are angry with them and give them to an enemy, so that they are carried away captive to the land of the enemy, far off or near; 47 yet if they come to their senses in the land to which they have been taken captive, and repent, and plead with you in the land of their captors, saying, 'We have sinned, and have done wrong; we have acted wickedly'; 48 if they repent with all their heart and soul in the land of their enemies, who took them captive, and pray to you toward their land, which you gave to their ancestors, the city that you have chosen, and the house that I have built for your name; 49 then hear in heaven your dwelling place their prayer and their plea, maintain their cause 50 and forgive your people who have sinned against you, and all their transgressions that they have committed against you; and grant them compassion in the sight of their captors, so that they may have compassion on them 51 (for they are your people and heritage, which you brought out of Egypt, from the midst of the iron-smelter) (1 Kings 8.46-51).
There are those who see God as loving and forget his requirements of obedience to his commandments, his call for justice, and his warning that he will judge unrighteousness. Such people are the opposite of the Essenes, and they fail to understand God’s identity and what it requires of us just as much as the Essenes did. That said, only a balanced understanding of God’s character as holy and merciful is what can guide his people in a sinful world.
Conclusion: The Cross of Jesus Christ, Western Freedom, and Jihad
Jesus never said, ‘Never mind about those dusty Old Testament laws; God is really all love and forgiveness. Do what you like: our highest value is human freedom, and God will not judge.’ On the other hand, he constantly challenged those who failed to understand that God desired mercy, not sacrifice (cf. Mt. 9.13; 12.7, quoting Hos. 6.6). But he was himself the perfect sacrifice that showed the glory of God in his death (Jn. 12.23-28) in both God’s justice—for Jesus died for our sins (1 Cor. 15.3)—and God’s love—for Jesus died for ungodly sinners who we all are (Rom. 5.5-8).
Getting this wrong has terrible consequences. On the one hand, there are those whose understanding of God correctly appreciates his holiness but misses the fact that he is merciful and wants ‘everyone to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Tim. 2.4). Such people take on themselves the cause of justice, but in so doing they kill and persecute and, thinking themselves to uphold God’s name, in fact blaspheme him. They are miserable creatures, filled with hate and doing evil in the name of religion. There are also, on the other hand, those who are aware of God’s love and mercy but who find God’s justice and holiness offensive. They offer salvation without Jesus and his death on the cross. They promise freedom from God’s commandments and deny the need for God’s mercy and forgiveness precisely because they deny sin itself.
Just here is where the post-Christian West meets a militant form of Islam every day in the news, where a libertine society that champions human rights over against God’s law meets a society that pursues its (often confused) understanding of God’s law without his forgiveness and mercy. For orthodox Christians—those holding to historic Christian faith—we lift up the cross of Jesus for the whole world to see. We proclaim Jesus crucified to a world that needs to know the cost of sin before a holy God, and we proclaim Jesus’ suffering death for a sinful world that needs to know the forgiveness and love of a merciful God. Moses heard this same God speak to him when Israel broke his commandments and deserved death. Solomon prayed to him for forgiveness and justice when his holiness filled the temple. And we tell of the revelation of his glorious holiness and merciful love in Jesus Christ, crucified for our transgressions and raised from the dead by God’s glory.