If I had a dollar for every time somebody told me about the “merciless God of the Old Testament,” I would be rich. It’s been my experience that those who are evangelistic with the message of how merciless God is in the Old Testament are not very familiar with the Bible, or with the One True God who inspired it. It’s almost an excuse at times: If I believe (by taking verses out of context, and ignoring the theology of the Bible as a whole) that God isn’t worth serving because he doesn’t match up to my high moral standards (where did those come from?), then I don’t have to adjust my life to live according to the tenets that the Bible proposes.
I have even experienced some Christians expressing their opinion of the lack of mercy displayed by God in the Old Testament. While I am glad I live under the new covenant which was established with Jesus’ blood (Hebrews 9:15-22), I cannot, with the totality of scripture in mind, claim that God lacked mercy in the Old Testament. With this said, let’s examine some examples of God’s mercy from the Old Testament.
If you have yet to read the book of Jonah, I would highly suggest doing so. It won’t take long, actually, it’s only about 300 words longer than this article. For those who are unfamiliar, in the book of Jonah God calls on Jonah to preach a message of repentance to the then great and evil city of Nineveh. God plans on overthrowing the city because it is full of evil, and the citizens will not acknowledge goodness or righteousness. Jonah didn’t want to preach to Nineveh, to the point that he tried to escape the deed and head in the opposite way of Nineveh to Tarshish. God causes a great fish to scoop Jonah out of the water on his way to Tarshish and carry him to Nineveh.
Why did God seek so badly for Jonah to preach to Nineveh? So that Nineveh could repent, be forgiven, and therefore not be overthrown by God! God has no pleasure in destroying anyone as stated in the Old Testament in Ezekiel 18:32: “For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.” In fact, God’s abundant mercy towards a group of people whom Jonah disliked (cf. Jonah 4:10-11) caused Jonah to be depressed:
When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil way, God relented of the disaster that he had said he would do to them, and he did not do it. But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. And he prayed to the Lord and said, ‘O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live’ (Jonah 3:10-4:3).
Sodom and Gomorrah
Some see God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah as an example of His merciless nature in the Old Testament. The opposite is true. In the context of Sodom and Gomorrah being destroyed by God (Genesis 19:23-19), God tells Abraham that He will not destroy the city if there are fifty, forty-five, forty, thirty, twenty, even ten righteous people in the city (Genesis 18:22-33). Additionally, those who were guiltless of the atrocities of Sodom and Gomorrah were delivered from the destruction (Genesis 19:29). And why was Sodom and Gomorrah overthrown in the first place? Because God, on a whim of destruction, felt like it? No, in fact, the overthrow of these two cities was a form of justice for the atrocities done within them (Genesis 18:20-21).
Few biblical accounts are better well-known than that of Job. The “blameless and upright” man from Uz (Job 1:1) is renowned world-wide for his recorded account of suffering. In the onset of Job we can read that God allowed Satan to destroy Job’s wealth and health. Stop right here. God did what? How dare He? What kind of God is this? Allowing this man to lose all that he has, including his own health, and to be forsaken by all of his friends and remaining family is absolutely unacceptable.
Unless of course this God is omniscient, thus knowing that despite the trials to come to Job he will survive them, coming out on the other end a better person and having all of his possessions multiplied (Job 42:10-17), while in the same instance teaching the adversary of mankind a serious lesson that goodness always prevails. Some will take this account as a testimony of how merciless and malevolent the God of the Bible is, but it in fact proves the opposite of God! James wrote concerning this, “Behold, we consider those blessed who remained steadfast. You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11). James used the example of Job to demonstrate how merciful and compassionate God is!
God is not merciless. Not in the Old Testament, and not now. Those who say He is are ignoring the overall theology of the Bible, and even explicit passages. Let’s keep this in mind, and when approached with this claim take the advice of Peter in 1 Peter 3:15: “but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.”
Unfortunately some will confuse justice with a lack of mercy. When a judge sentences a murderer to prison, nobody complains about the judge being merciless. Neither justice nor mercy exists apart from God, He is the essence of both. God’s mercy is abundant, and through Jesus Christ we can access this mercy unto the salvation of our own souls and complete forgiveness (2 Corinthians 5:18-21; John 3:16-17; 2 Corinthians 7:10; Matthew 10:32; Acts 2:38). God is just, God is merciful, God is compassionate, and God is good!