God’s judgment and mercy, both important themes in the Minor Prophets, seem incompatible. Yet they are both characteristics of God’s dealings with sinful humanity. The God of the Bible hates sin, and He executes judgment. He is also a God who is patient with sinners and shows mercy. Divine judgment is never executed without cause and is always preceded by mercy. This was Nineveh’s experience.
The prophet Jonah was sent to “preach against” Nineveh because of its wickedness (Jonah 1:1). When the people of Nineveh repented and God showed mercy, Jonah was offended. In his complaint, the prophet alludes to Jehovah’s description of Himself as a “compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness” (Jonah 4:1–3; see Ex. 34:6).
Over 100 years after Jonah, the prophet Nahum used similar words to show that the people of Nineveh deserved the punishment that God was about to mete out on them: “The LORD is slow to anger and great in power; the LORD will not leave the guilty unpunished. His way is in the whirlwind and the storm, and clouds are the dust of his feet” (Nah. 1:3). Nahum describes Jehovah as “jealous,” a self–description God used when He warned Israel about the sin of idolatry (Ex. 20:5; 34:14). Nahum also describes God as one who “takes vengeance on his foes” (Nah. 1:2). This vengeance is the outworking of God’s “wrath.”
In Romans 1, the apostle Paul also links God’s wrath with the sin of idolatry. God’s wrath has been revealed against those who suppress the truth about Him. This wrath is justified because “what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (Rom. 1:19). Ever since creation, God has revealed Himself through what He has made. As a result, those who suppress the truth about God and distort His image are “without excuse” (Rom. 1:20). Divine judgment is not the exercise of indiscriminate rage directed against the unsuspecting and undeserving. It comes to those who have rejected God’s long–standing goodness toward them.
Yet how is it possible for God’s judgment and mercy to coexist? The answer is found in Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the ultimate manifestation of God’s judgment, just as He is the ultimate manifestation of God’s mercy. The fact that Christ suffered vividly reminds us that sin must be punished. God’s justice will not allow the guilty to go free. The fact that Christ suffered for us demonstrates His mercy. God’s heart is still to redeem people to Himself.
For Further Reading
To learn more about God’s mercy and judgment, read Sinners in the Hands of a Good God: Reconciling Divine Judgment and Provision of the Bible by David Clotfelter (Moody Publishers).