God’s Mercy: Case Studies in Divine Clemency

God’s mercy can never be exhausted. Jeremiah, in a terrible time in life, said God’s mercies “are new every morning” (Lam. 3:23). Paul praised the Lord because He is “rich in mercy” (Eph. 2:4). Perhaps the most extensive thanksgiving for God’s leniency is found in Psalm 136:

“O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever. 2 O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth for ever. 3 O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth for ever. 4 To him who alone doeth great wonders: for his mercy endureth for ever. 5 To him that by wisdom made the heavens: for his mercy endureth for ever. 6 To him that stretched out the earth above the waters: for his mercy endureth for ever. 7 To him that made great lights: for his mercy endureth for ever: 8 The sun to rule by day: for his mercy endureth for ever: 9 The moon and stars to rule by night: for his mercy endureth for ever” (Psalm 136:1-9).

If we were to continue reading the rest of that chapter, all 26 verses in that Psalm refer to God’s unending supply of clemency. God’s mercy has been defined as “the eternal principle of God’s nature that leads him to seek the temporal good and eternal salvation of those who have opposed themselves to his will, even at the cost of infinite self-sacrifice.” (Strong’s Systematic Theology).

God’s mercy and God’s grace have been distinguished by pointing out that His grace is His giving us something that we do not deserve, while His mercy is His withholding something from us that we do in fact deserve, such as a penalty for our sins.

An effective way to study God’s mercy is to examine cases of His withholding punishment when it was due in favor of being kind and forgiving:

1. David – Psalm 51 is David’s confession of sin after he committed adultery and aided in the murder of his paramour’s husband. “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy lovingkindness: according unto the multitude of thy tender mercies blot out my transgressions…. For thou desirest not sacrifice; else would I give it: thou delightest not in burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise” (Psalm 51:1, 16-17). The natural consequences of David’s sin took their course, but God forgave him.

2. The ancient Israelites – Though they repeatedly turned to idolatry, God continued to extend mercy to them. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide; neither will he keep his anger forever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is high above the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:8-12). God’s mercy was ultimately expressed to them through the sacrifice of Jesus. “For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:8, 12).

3. Jonah – He ran from God and resented His plan, but God was patient with him. “And he prayed unto the Lord, and said, I pray thee, O Lord, was not this my saying, when I was yet in my country? Therefore I fled before unto Tarshish: for I knew that thou art a gracious God, and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness, and repentest thee of the evil” (Jonah. 4:2).

4. Paul – He said of himself: “Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious; but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief…. Howbeit for this cause I obtained mercy, that in me first Jesus Christ might shew forth all longsuffering, for a pattern to them which should hereafter believe on him to life everlasting” (I Tim. 1:13, 16).

The Lord offers His mercy today to you and me. “Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost Which he shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6).

People of the Bible: Samson

Samson was the strongest man in Scripture – in terms of sheer physical power. He had many weaknesses, however, most of which he did not initially recognize. He was able to provide ancient Israel some relief from Philistine oppression, but his weakness for wanting Philistine friends, including girlfriends, eventually led to his demise. He revealed the secret of the Nazarite vow, including unshorn hair, to Delilah, who betrayed him to some jealous Philistines. They cut his hair, and turned him into something like a carnival act.

At the lowest point in his life, Samson asked for God to give him strength so that he could complete his mission. The Bible says, “And Samson called unto the LORD, and said, O Lord GOD, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes” (Judges 16:28).

Like Samson, God is best able to empower us when we recognize our need for Him. A paradox of Scripture is that when we have recognized our deprivation without God’s strength, He will strengthen us, using His word, the fellowship of His people, our worship of Him, and His providence. Here are some of the passages which refer to that concept:

  • “O our God, wilt thou not judge them? for we have no might against this great company that cometh against us; neither know we what to do: but our eyes are upon thee” (II Chron. 20:12).
  • “For the Lord will not cast off for ever: 32 But though he cause grief, yet will he have compassion according to the multitude of his mercies” (Lam. 3:31-32).
  • “And lest I should be exalted above measure through the abundance of the revelations, there was given to me a thorn in the flesh, the messenger of Satan to buffet me, lest I should be exalted above measure. 8 For this thing I besought the Lord thrice, that it might depart from me. 9 And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ’s sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong” (II Cor. 12:7-10).
  • “For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you” (II Cor. 13:4).

The real source of Samson’s strength was his faith in God. The Heavenly Father can strengthen us once we recognize our weaknesses. God takes our faith and “out of weakness” makes us strong (Heb. 11:34).

Having a hard time in life right now? Perhaps the moment is arriving when you can experience God’s strength more fully.

People of the Bible: Stephen

Stephen was one of the first prominent members of the church of Christ in Jerusalem, and was also one of the first to die for being Jesus’ follower.

The primary text about Stephen is Acts 6 through 8. Consider three stages of his life as revealed in Scripture:

Stephen the Minister

We first read about Stephen as a servant in the church (Acts 6:1-7). From the beginning, Christianity has been about community and helping others.  However, it is challenging to meet every need in the context of a variety of different demands and an array of personalities.  It is no surprise that a problem arose, in which some Christian widows expressed criticism that they weren’t receiving fair attention from the church.

The apostles announced a solution:  Select seven men who would be specially assigned to this task.  Stephen is the first name mentioned on the list, and he is described as “full of faith and the Holy Spirit” (Acts 6:5). His name is Greek, which lets us know that he had a Grecian background, which would be helpful in addressing the situation.

Based on the other descriptions provided, we also know that Stephen had a good reputation in the community (6:3), was “full of the Holy Spirit” (6:3), and was capable of tending to the job at hand.

Like Jesus, Christians should be servants.  Jesus said He came “to minister” (Mark 10:45), and He left us an example of humble service when He washed the disciples’ feet (John 13).

Stephen the Messenger

Next, we see Stephen as a spokesperson for the gospel (Acts 6:8-7:53). Stephen’s natural and supernatural abilities led him to a more public role in the church, particularly in leading Jews to Christ.   Those who wanted to protect Judaism were disturbed that they were unable to rebut Stephen’s teachings (6:10).

The contention between Stephen and the Jews became so intense that some of the Jews paid witnesses to make false statements about him, and he was placed on trial for blasphemy (6:11-15).

Christianity is an aggressive religion.  Jude said that we should be prepared to “contend earnestly for the faith” (Jude 3).

Despite the likely adverse consequences, Stephen delivered a powerful summary of God’s people under the Old Testament, and continued with a pointed application to his hearers (7:1-53).  They were turning from God’s plan in the same way God’s people had in the past (7:51-53).

Stephen the Martyr

The crowd was furious with Stephen (Acts 7:54). In the face of death, Stephen remained committed to Christ and entrusted the keeping of his soul to Him (7:55-60).

Jesus promised us that if we were “faithful unto death,” He will give us a crown of life (Rev. 2:10). “Stephanos” in Greek means “crown.” Stephen was stoned to death, and was buried by some of the devout men in the church (8:2).

The event sparked intense persecution of the church by the Jews, including Saul. Paul never forgot the day Stephen died, later reminding the Lord that he guarded the robes of those who threw the stones at Stephen and didn’t do anything to help him (22:20). Stephen’s death became a catalyst for others to look to Jesus.