Why should the wicked fear God’s mercy?

Psalm 52:3 blew my mind yesterday as I was reading it in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament: “Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man? God’s mercy lasts for all time.” Since this is my own translation, here’s the Hebrew:
מה-תתהלל ברעה הגבור חסד אל כל-היום. Why in the world is God’s mercy (חסד) presented as a reason to rebuke the mighty man’s boasting? I’ve shared before that hesed, the Hebrew word for mercy, has a different semantic range and connotation than our word in English. It means most essentially the unconditional love that you have for the closest members of your family. So why should the mighty man be worried? Because God’s mercy for His people means wrath against their oppressors.

The psalmist prophesies the fate of the “mighty man” oppressor, whose attitude the psalmist contrasts with his own: “Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin: He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent; he will uproot you from the land of the living.The righteous will see and fear; they will laugh at you, saying, ‘Here now is the man who did not make God his stronghold but trusted in his great wealth and grew strong by destroying others!’ But I am like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God; I trust in God’s unfailing mercy for ever and ever.” (vv. 5-7).

According to this psalm, God defends those who trust in His unfailing mercy by “uprooting” those who “trust in their great wealth and grow strong by destroying others.” So God’s mercy is the basis for His wrath, and His wrath is enacted against the oppressors of those who have put themselves under His mercy. In other words, God’s wrath is rooted in solidarity.

This has been a point of contention in my theological conversations, whether God gets mad because He’s a perfectionist or because people He loves are getting hurt. It seems like every day I stumble over more and more scriptural evidence for the latter. Perhaps it’s because I read a lot of psalms, which talk about God’s deliverance of His people. But whenever I ask God to show me what He wants me to see, He gives me scripture like this one. I can only explain my experience of the last several months as a conversation with a living God through the words of His scripture. For a long time, I have believed it was proper to call the Bible a “living book,” but this September was when that experience became personal testimony rather than just a proposition.

So then on my way home from the basilica this Monday, I tuned into the podcast of one of my favorite preachers Brian Zahnd, which seemed to give further confirmation of this theological discernment. Brian was preaching on Malachi 4:1-3: “‘Surely the day is coming; it will burn like a furnace. All the arrogant and every evildoer will be stubble, and the day that is coming will set them on fire,’ says the Lord Almighty. ‘Not a root or a branch will be left to them. But for you who revere my name, the sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its rays. And you will go out and frolic like well-fed calves. Then you will trample on the wicked; they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day when I act,’ says the Lord Almighty.”

Look at the way this metaphor works. The same sun of righteousness that has “healing in its rays” for the righteous is what “sets the wicked on fire.” When this happens, the righteous will “go out and frolic like well-fed calves,” which suggests that they had previously been under some kind of repression or imprisonment. They will “trample on the wicked,” which suggests that this is a reversal of fortunes between oppressor and oppressed. In other words, the wicked are not just people who offend God without hurting other people; they are those who have oppressed the righteous. The wicked are those who make the martyrs in Revelation 6:10 say, ““How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” I think the martyrs’ question is the key to understanding the whole vision of Revelation, which wasn’t written so that 21st century WASP’s could be comforted in their loss of cultural hegemony in America, but rather to encourage the earliest Christians who were being thrown to the lions that God’s hesed would not allow their oppressors to triumph.

I think there are two errors that need be corrected with regard to God’s mercy: a liberal error and a conservative one. Both errors do not recognize the integral connection between God’s mercy and His wrath. The liberal error is to think of God’s mercy as a sort of unconditional universal forgiveness that makes the possibility of divine wrath unimaginable. God will simply ooze out enough love that even the hardest hearts will eventually stop being party-poopers. The reason I can’t go along with this perspective is because heaven should not be held hostage by people who are determined to “trust in their great wealth and grow strong by destroying others.” This was essentially C.S. Lewis’s argument in the Great Divorce. Mercy is not merely a blanket amnesty; it involves a sovereignty established by its provider over its recipient. It is our submission to God’s mercy that makes a safe and authentic community between us possible. If God’s mercy is just a unilateral omnidirectional glow of Rogerian unconditional positive regard without any submission on the part of the recipient, then hard-hearted recipients of that mercy can ignore it or exploit it and continue to trample on the victims of their sin. For God to truly show mercy to those who put their trust in Him, He must also protect them from their oppressors through the solidarity of His wrath.

On the other side, the conservative error is to see God’s wrath in complete abstraction from God’s love for His creation. I think this is probably motivated by a reaction against those who try to make God into their own personal Santa Claus. If God’s wrath against some people is an expression of His mercy towards those whom they have hurt, does that bind God’s sovereignty in an impious way? This line of thinking about God’s sovereignty (in which the opaqueness of His wrath is the expression of His freedom) leads to a God whose love is merely an exception to the rule of His wrath, which then becomes His predominant nature (as has become the case in much of grassroots evangelical theology).

Here’s where I need to name something uncomfortable. One of the basic tactics by which the wicked from Psalm 52 and Malachi 4 justify their actions is through claiming the mandate of a God whose moral concerns are completely abstracted from the welfare off His creation (making His faithful disciples’ actions immune to critique, all of which can be dismissed as “worldliness”). A God who views sin in the exclusively vertical terms of the integrity of His honor is a God who doesn’t have a problem with His followers hurting other people as long as they do so in ways that avoid explicit Biblical prohibition, or for which they can find Biblical justification, such as slavery. Ethical nihilism becomes the fruit of this kind of theology, and this fruit is well attested in the world around us. That’s why I just don’t see the theological benefit of insisting that God must have a wrath that is unrelated to His love for the sake of His “freedom,” rather than understanding His wrath as a dimension of His covenantal solidarity with those who have put themselves under His mercy.

  • http://pilgrimsinplace.wordpress.com Cynthia Astle

    Interesting post, Morgan. I have some questions for discussion:

    1) Is mercy the same thing as grace? One of my previous pastors wrote his doctoral dissertation on this topic, turning it into a book later. His thesis was that mercy is when you don’t get what you deserve, but that grace is getting what you don’t deserve. So I’m wondering about your definition of mercy vs. grace.

    2) In the Jewish mystical system known as Kabbalah (the authentic version, not the celebrity version practiced by Madonna), God’s love and God’s justice are inseparable for shalom, to balance the world (tikkun olam). Too much love without justice leads to chaos; too much justice without love leads to tyranny & oppression. How would you reconcile your theory with this older version?

    3) Can you say more about your “September experience”? What was there about the experience that convinced you of the living nature of Scripture?

    Thanks as always for your thoughtful and thought-provoking observations.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks for these questions.

      1) I resist the categorization of mercy and grace according to a juridical meritocracy. It seems like it’s a case of answering a question that we are supposed to be saved from asking. For mercy, I draw upon the Hebrew hesed which is basically the intimate nature of God’s love that makes him run to us when we’re prodigals because he’s our daddy and not just our emperor. With grace, I think about the Greek word charis, the basis for charismatic. Grace is God’s transformative power in our lives that engages us in different ways according to our level of openness to His spirit.

      2) Again I’m reluctant to make a binary between love and justice. The terms ought to contain enough nuance within themselves. Justice should be infinitely understanding not just picky and love should be demanding not enabling.

      3) Since my Pentecostal encounter in September, I’ve felt engaged by God on a different level in scripture. Perhaps it’s been this way all along but it seems like I ask a question and it gets answered in the next reading and there’s actually a journey to what I’m reading. I grew up with such a rationalist, cynical view of things that I didn’t think it really happened this way. It’s a conversation not just a book.

    • Junly

      “Is mercy the same thing as grace?”

      In the Old Testament, when you find the term “grace” used (as in Genesis 6 “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”) it does indeed mean mercy.

      The same definition applies in the gospels the few time that the word “grace” is used, and probably in Acts as well.

      In Paul, however, “grace” is used in a strange new sense, something more approaching “magic.” What I mean by “magic” is it has no clear definition. This is what makes Paul so hard to understand, or one thing that makes him hard to understand anyway. Paul’s “grace” has no clear definition, so you can basically make it mean whatever you want; it acts as a pure abstraction. “Grace” in the OT and earlier NT writings, however, has a solid definition: mercy, kindness, favor.

  • http://derekzrishmawy.wordpress.com Derek Rishmawy

    So, this reminds me of my D.A. Carson devotional today. One of the readings was out of Revelation 10 with the vision and the scroll that John eats, that is sweet to his mouth, but sour in his stomach. Carson said that the judgment was sweet to his mouth because it was righteous and John is in line with God’s truth, but he still takes no delight in the outcome–the judgment of the wicked. In a book so full of God’s wrath and jugdment it’s interesting the way a Christian’s view of that judgment is depicted. We should praise God for his justice and goodness, but lament the loss just as God does.

    • Morgan Guyton

      Eh… That sounds a little bit eisegetical don’t you think? I guess it was just a devotion. Do Carson and Sproul and those guys think about things other than God’s judgment of other people? Maybe that’s just my visceral moderate ex-Southern Baptist reaction.

      • http://derekzrishmawy.wordpress.com Derek Rishmawy

        Well, yes, they do. It was just a comment on the reading of the day. None of the other readings were much happier ones. In any case, I thought you’d appreciate it. It kind of goes back to our other conversation about not delighting in the fate of the unrepentant. Carson just said we shouldn’t.

        • Morgan Guyton

          Sorry about my attitude. You were trying to make a connection and it didn’t deserve my response.

          • http://derekzrishmawy.wordpress.com Derek Rishmawy

            No biggie. I could have framed it better.

  • http://gravatar.com/qmommad qmommad

    “Mercy is not merely a blanket amnesty; it involves a sovereignty established by its provider over its recipient. It is our submission to God’s mercy that makes a safe and authentic community between us possible.”

    I agree that God will not simply “ooze out” enough love for the recalcitrant to comply (although some oozage does certainly take place, Praise God)—they would not seek nor recognize His mercy through ignorance or rebellion, let alone be subservient to it. Exploitation of mercy is the justification nihilism you speak of, right? Arent both liberals AND conservatives (Palestinians/Jews, black/white, men/women, etc…) guilty in one form or another of perverting the scriptures for their own cause? How does covenantal solidarity explain God’s wrath in this context? Not being argumentative…sincerely requesting further clarification.

    “God’s mercy” and the annihilation of self to submit and receive that mercy is our reason to exist…at least in my limited, childlike understanding of scripture. Thankfully, God’s love is not an arbitrary “exception to the rule”. But does His omnipotence become less so because we debate, ignore or refuse to humble ourselves enough to understand and/or receive it?

    • Morgan Guyton

      What you said about submission to God’s mercy being the basic human vocation: exactly!

  • Craig L. Adams

    Thanks for the thinking you’ve been doing on these topics, Morgan. i quoted you here: http://www.craigladams.com/blog/files/quotes-on-gods-character.html

    • Morgan Guyton

      Thanks very much Craig!

  • Junly

    In the KJV its Psalm 52:1. How did you get that its 52:3?

    “Why boastest thou thyself in mischief, O mighty man? the goodness of God endureth continually.”

    • Morgan Guyton

      Because the KJV doesn’t count the preamble as the first two verses.

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