Copyright (c)1999, 2000. Gospel Truth Ministries




Chapter 5

Object of Judgments and Mercies

 When sin is perpetrated, it seems due to God's moral creatures that he should make manifest his views on the subject, demonstrate his abhorrence of the sinner, and counteract as far as possible his evil influence. Words are not enough for this end. Punishment seems the natural and necessary resort of him who is the moral Guardian of the universe. It plainly must be pushed to such an extent as to be an emphatic expression of the mind of God, to show that to him sin is an evil and bitter thing indeed. Hence the awful severity of God's punishments, often fitted to make the ears of all that heard of them tingle, and their hearts fail them for fear.

Prophetic records, whether in form denunciatory or historical, are adapted to produce that quailing of the soul that the prophets themselves mention as the natural effect of the judgments of God on evil-doers. And yet we are not to think of them as a full execution of retributive justice. They might have been, with no exceeding of the ill-desert of the sinner, pushed much farther. But they were pushed as far as infinite wisdom saw good for the best effect. What is the full ill-desert of sin is known only to God; and we know not that sin is ever punished in any world as much as it deserves to be. Objective penal justice is not an end; and God will urge its infliction no farther than benevolence requires.

If towards sinners. God had appeared in no other light than that of a punisher, though not in any instance putting forth all his wrath, there might have been a sadly false impression made respecting his character; it might have seemed unamiably stern. It was wise, then, for God to manifest himself as a God of mercy--as forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. That grand revelation of his mercy to Moses appears in all his ways in the history of the world.

Towards Israel and towards the Gentiles there was mercy, all along down the ages, ready for the penitent, sometimes unmingled with severities, at other times accompanied by such severities as served to keep alive a sense of God's hatred of sin, of his remembering wrath in mercy as truly as mercy in wrath.

How wonderful the discipline and training through which mankind were carried by the various dispensations, the antediluvian, the patriarchal, the legal,--all tending to show how weak man is, and how much in need of the mightiest divine working in wisdom and love to rescue him from sin, to reconcile him to God, and to fit him to stand in the filial relation to his. Heavenly Father. There doubtless was, as has been said, a moral necessity, that God should give an emphatic expression, in act as well as word, to his sense of the evil of sin. Many hold that the law, both of nature and of revelation, contains a commination that must be executed, either on the sinner or a substitute. But no law ever did or could contemplate substitution in such a way that vicarious obedience and punishment should be regarded as a proper fulfillment of the precept and penalty of law.

Substitution is said to be resorted to sometimes in China; but this cannot be according to the provision of any law, but must be a contrivance of corrupt officials, substituting defenseless plebeians for rich criminals of rank. This view is supported by the fact that a son, recently substituted for a father at his own request, had to persuade the magistrates that he was the real criminal.

The precept of law is laid on every individual, and it is absurd to imagine that one can obey for another. The obligation of obedience extends to every, moral being in the universe. Nor is it possible that one moral being should be punished for another, and that thus the sinner himself should be legally exempted from just liability. No legislative authority ever could have enacted such a law. Each subject, on the other hand, is held to his personal, untransferable responsibility.

But does not such an interpretation of law as this preclude pardon? No: it never was the case except in the instance of the laws of the Medes and Persians, that pardon was made impossible by the published penalty of any law, unless it was expressly said that there would be no pardon. The promise of a law must be fulfilled, because the promises has an indefeasible interest in its fulfillment; but in every case when pardon may be exercised without detriment to the public good, pardon may be legitimately granted, and sometimes it may be in the power of the government to remove obstacles standing in the way of pardon. On these principles governments have almost universally acted; and the scripture history shows that God has acted on the same principles, pardoning when he could wisely and benevolently do so. The same principles sometimes authorize a commutation of punishment, or punishments of less severity than the laws seem to prescribe. Indeed, every exercise of mercy rests on the same fundamental reason, including the forbearance or long-suffering so often spoken of in the Bible. But obviously the public good must in every case be paramount to private interest, and be guarded with the most scrupulous care. The idea that penal justice must, always be done, in the sense that the penalty of the law must always be inflicted, would exclude the possibility of pardon and of atonement. For the infliction of the penalty on a substitute would not be justice, but, if the substitute were innocent, manifest injustice, and his consent would not materially alter the case. If by justice be meant justice to the public good, this indeed must he always done, and no pardon or mercy inconsistent with this can be legitimate. I shall by-and-by speak of the governmental expedient for the legitimation of pardon, called atonement.

Not all who suffer when punishment is inflicted are punished. Near friends are smitten when a criminal is struck down, as when a criminal father or son or brother is executed. Infant children perished in the flood, and with the Sodomites. These were slain in mercy, not in wrath, as was also the case when the doomed Canaanites were destroyed. it may be difficult to explain all the cues; but we have no reason to doubt that the Abrahamic doctrine, that the Judge of all the earth must do right, is true. At present, when possible, the tares, for the sake of saving the wheat, are spared till the harvest; but the pious Elijah suffers with the people whom his own prayer has smitten with famine.

But there is often real responsibility when a superficial view does not recognize it. Had Israel been as zealous for the honor of God as was incumbent, Achan might not have committed his sin, and it is therefore charged on all Israel, and chastisement accordingly inflicted. But when the chief criminal was discovered, the weight of punishment fell on him. If Israel bad been entirely innocent the anger of the Lord could not have been kindled against them. In some degree the crime was practically laid to the charge of the whole.

In case murder is committed it is said to defile the land. Somehow it is an evidence that a brother's life is not so precious there that a murderer is wholly an unnatural product of the land. Till his crime has brought the community to such a hatred of the atrocity as is expressed in the solemn shedding of his blood, the land is unclean. His execution makes atonement, not for him, but for the land, and is an expression of the repentance of the people. Or if the previous guilt is not considered so great, the land is plainly held in duress, and, as it were, suspected, till they have shown by punishing the murderer that they have no voluntary part in his crime. So when any crime had been committed and the perpetrator was unknown, or when any one had ignorantly done anything forbidden by the law, there was supposed to be some possible lack of vigilance and care, and a solemn atonement was made on the part of those who might be suspected of this deficiency, though conceived to be guilty of no wilful violation of the divine law. God walked among the people as a holy, jealous God, not allowing his creatures to stand in any doubtful relation to his law and its violation.

Another instance of awful but most wise severity, is found in the visitation of the sins of the fathers on the children, recognized by our Lord in his declaration that all the righteous blood shed from the foundation of the world would be visited on that generation.

These passages, and others like them, have often been sadly misinterpreted. Onkelos long ago in his Targum gave the key to their meaning in the few words: "When the children imitate the iniquity of their fathers." They thus indorse it, and really make it their own, instead of considering, and refusing to do such like. Men are thus held responsible to profit morally by the history of the past, not to follow recklessly in the way of ancestors. The great French poet Racine, in his Athalie, has put into the mouth of Joad [Jehoiada] an indignant denial of the doctrine maintained by some.

Il ne reeherche point, aveugle en sa colére,

Sur ce fils qui le craint l'impidété du père.

"God does not visit, in his anger wild,

The father's sin upon the pious child."


There are cases, not to be confounded with this, in which children are placed in less desirable circumstances, and even subjected to painful diseases in consequence of the sin of parents; as when leprosy was inflicted on Gehazi and descended to his children, or the priesthood was taken from the family of Eli. These evils were not punishments to the innocent children, but to the parents, yet disadvantages assigned by the All-wise Sovereign to the children as motives to parents for parental fidelity. The law of the descent both of advantages and disadvantages is one of great influence to the human soul, and is therefore maintained by God with great constancy. But punishment can descend only when the immoral character descends also. Punishment must, in the nature of things, be a purely personal matter, that cannot come, like leprosy or scrofula, by mere natural causation.

Extensive infliction of punishment is often avoided by human authorities by the punishment of the ringleaders in the case of an outbreak of iniquity--multitudes being spared the roughest brunt of suffering, though bearing the shame of crime. A course similar to this was pursued in the case of those who perished in the flood. They were the indorsers of the wickedness of all past generations of sinners, and were most justly made examples, after God's long-suffering gave them ample opportunity for repentance and mercy.

The Sodomites were the vilest sinners of the period and the region. They had long been the recipients of kindness, till the ill-fame of their vileness went up to heaven; and when God sent down to them an angel committee of inquiry they gave the angels abundant proof that the report did not exceed their enormous guilt; and the rain of fire and brimstone came down. Had ten righteous men been found there the city would have been spared. The solitary one was rescued. There were guilty cities that deserved to perish with Sodom and the other four; but they were spared.

We find mercy mingled with the chastisement of the guilty sons of Jacob. Though their sin found them out, and they suffered severely for it, they were not destroyed, but even blessed, while most of them deserved to die as murderers.

When Israel sinned in the wilderness--almost all guilty--God did not destroy the whole of the guilty ones, but smote down the ringleaders, and made their doom a warning to the rest. When sentenced to die in the wilderness they had a space for repentance and for the admonition of the children.

The same course of merciful limitation of punishment characterized the way of God in the whole recorded history of Israel, and characterizes it still; so that we can easily accept Paul's declaration that "they, are beloved for the fathers' sakes." Nor are these co-minglings of mercies with judgments confined to Israel, or to sinners of the antediluvian period. They appear in the whole history of the world.

It is remarkable that when Daniel is telling us of the destruction of the great empires of antiquity he tells us that there was mercy for all but the last and most tyrannous. The wild beast representing this was slain, and his body destroyed and given to the burning flame. "As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away, yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time.

But God, while he thus revealed his mercy, and showed that he forgives transgression and sin, was careful to provide that he should not be trifled with. So when Moses sinned he sentenced his beloved servant never to tread the land of promise, and would not bear his supplications for full forgiveness. He might behold the land, but might not enter it. How affecting the rebuke to Moses, and how solemn the lesson to Israel and to all the nations and all their generations! And when David sinned, though God did not reject him as he did Saul, how awful was the punishment inflicted--not in secret, but in the light of the sun. And the instrument of his punishment was his beautiful and beloved son Absalom, over whose deserved ruin and slaughter he wailed out that most pathetic outcry of a stricken father's heart, probably pierced through with the thought that his own sin had contributed to make Absalom the contemptible fool that he was.