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Behold, My Covenant Keeper! - Isaiah 42:1-9

How Can God Be Both Just AND Merciful, Simultaneously?

Isaiah 42:1-9, Exodus 34, Isaiah 53:7

Aug 22, 2010 04:00 AM

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Let's begin today by reading our text, Isaiah 42:1-9.

    [42:1] Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
        my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
    I have put my Spirit upon him;
        he will bring forth justice to the nations.
     [2] He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
        or make it heard in the street;
     [3] a bruised reed he will not break,
        and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
        he will faithfully bring forth justice.
     [4] He will not grow faint or be discouraged
        till he has established justice in the earth;
        and the coastlands wait for his law.
    [5] Thus says God, the LORD,
        who created the heavens and stretched them out,
        who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
    who gives breath to the people on it
        and spirit to those who walk in it:
     [6] “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
        I will take you by the hand and keep you;
    I will give you as a covenant for the people,
        a light for the nations,
         [7] to open the eyes that are blind,
    to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
        from the prison those who sit in darkness.
     [8] I am the LORD; that is my name;
        my glory I give to no other,
        nor my praise to carved idols.
     [9] Behold, the former things have come to pass,
        and new things I now declare;
    before they spring forth
        I tell you of them.”  (Isaiah 42:1-9 ESV)

I am always mystified by the strength and the pervasiveness of the temptation for fallen, sinful, moral pygmies to be proud.  When we take a look at ourselves from a heavenly perspective, we see nothing for which we should be proud, and an almost infinite supply of sin which should make the best of us blush and fall on our faces in shame before a holy God.  If we had that perspective before us constantly, you would think it would be an exercise in futility for Satan to try to tempt us with pride. 

That was Isaiah’s perception of Himself when he stood in the presence of God.  He was not inclined to say, “Lord, look at me and the great things I’ve done!”  On the contrary, he instantly understood his own loathsomeness as a guilty sinner before the righteous judge of all the earth.  It would be wise of us to remember that without Christ, that is our condition as well.

But pride is a constant, strong temptation.  Many, many pastors, yours truly not excluded, are tempted by the respect and honor that comes from speaking in front of large crowds.  I strongly suspect that the majority of the motivation behind a pastor’s desire to have a mega-church is not so that the gospel message might go forth to multitudes.  Rather, what secretly deceives and motivates many men and women to relentlessly pursue leadership positions in large ministries is the temptation of pride and power.

The pride of worms makes the humility of Christ all the more mind-boggling.  While we have nothing in which we can be legitimately proud before God, the Lord Jesus possessed everything deserving of our honor and worship and praise.  He is the One in whom the soul of God delights.  But One who was and is in every sense equal to God, laid aside His right to sit upon the throne of the universe, left the perpetual worship of angels, in order to become a human being and die at the hands of murderous men, many of whom He would save from their sin through His sacrifice for them. 

It is intensely humbling to think of the humility of Christ.  Or at least it should be.

In verse 2, we read  He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.  The Lord Jesus humbled Himself among men.  To become a man was humbling to the Son of God, but Deity exemplified humility among sinners who owed Him their worship.  That is unfathomable humility.  In Isaiah 53 we read:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.  (Isaiah 53:7 ESV)

Christ, who spoke planets and microbes and galaxies and insects into being from nothing, remained silent as His creatures crucified Him.  And it is this great Savior who is described in the most kind terms as one who will not break the bruised reed or extinguish the smoldering wick.  Those of His own who intensely suffer as He did from the awful effects of this world of woe, He deals with them in gentleness and kindness and patience and love.  He knows our feeble frame.  He knows we are but dust.  And yet that dust, those bruised reeds and smoldering wicks are actually tempted to be proud.  How absurd..  And how glorious is Jesus in His humility and kindness toward us.  His humility and his love towards His people are astounding.

There are many things which bruise us in this world.  We are bruised and beaten as God’s people by others who hate Christ and us, and persecute us for following Him.  Those bruises are real, literal injuries which we are called upon to endure as a part of our fellowship in Christ’s own sufferings.  Physical harm from tribulation and persecution certainly qualifies as one of the means by which God’s people are broken and bruised and even killed. 

Other times, we are bruised spiritually rather than physically.  While we may be literally bruised and beaten for the sake of the Lord Jesus, that is not the worst harm that can come to us.  The most hurtful of all injuries is when we injure ourselves through sin.  We beat ourselves up when we sin against the Lord. 

There is also a bruising that comes to us inwardly from God’s word.  When the Scriptures are taught and the Holy Spirit brings truth to bear upon us, we are stricken in our consciences.  But that is a kind of bruising which is for our good because it brings us to repentance.

We also read of how God disciplines and chastens and scourges His children in order to bring about correction and sanctification.

On other occasions, the Devil seeks to bring us harm, both physically and spiritually.  If not for the Lord’s faithfulness to us, we would have no means by which to fend off the lethal attacks of our ancient foe, Satan.

But in all of these beatings and breakings and bruisings, a merciful and sovereign God directs every stroke and every affliction in such a way that none of it overwhelms us in our inherent weakness.  On the contrary, when we are weak, which is all the time, then we are made strong in His strength.  God enables us by grace to endure the sufferings of this life.  That is a great encouragement to us, to know that the one who holds the rod of correction is also the one who fully understands our brokenness and our weakness and our dust-i-ness, and He deals with us accordingly in mercy.

But there is another side to God’s Servant in these verses.  We make much of His humility and tenderness and mercy in dealing with broken reeds and smoldering wicks.  But we also see in these same verses what may seem at first glance to be contradictory to mercy.  Look at verses 1 through 4 again:

    [42:1] Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
    I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.
     [2] He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street;
     [3] a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
        he will faithfully bring forth justice.
    [4] He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth;
        and the coastlands wait for his law.

We see humility - He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street.
We see mercy - a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench.
And we see justice.  In fact, that seems to be the major topic in this passage.  The word “justice” is used three times in these four verses.  This merciful, humble Servant of God, the Lord Jesus, is also the one who establishes justice in all the nations of the earth. 

So the question is, “How does Jesus Christ, as the Servant of God, practice mercy and justice simultaneously?”  Aren’t these two things mutually exclusive?  In a day when God is commonly understood to be “all loving,” doesn’t this concept of the justice of God contradict that?

In the simplest sense of the word, justice is the execution of law.  Just suppose I’m driving up I-81 through Virginia from South Carolina and my speed is 80 mph in a 65 mph zone.  A Highway Patrolman clocks me with his radar gun.  He pulls me over and gives me a ticket for speeding.  That is justice.  Justice is being served.  I broke the law, and the law enforcement officer is just in writing me a ticket for the prescribed fine for people traveling 15 miles an hour over the speed limit.  (This is all hypothetical, of course.)

Justice is always administered in the context of law.  If there is no law, there can be no justice.  God is a God of justice because He is also a God of law.  To be more specific, God’s Law is prescribed for us in the Ten Commandments.  When His creatures, who owe their Creator both their love and their obedience, do neither, they are in violation of the Law of God.  That being the case, God’s justice demands punishment suitable to the crime.  So God has given us all a ticket (because all of us have sinned) that says, “The just punishment for your sin against a holy God and His holy Law is eternal death.”  Not only that, but if God did not punish those who break His law, He would be an unjust God.

Justice is antithetical to mercy.  The one opposes the other.  There is no such thing as merciful justice, or just mercy.  So how it that God is both just and merciful?  Is He schizophrenic?  Does it depend upon His mood?  Is God merciful sometimes, like on Thursdays, but He’s just on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays?  Or is He of such a nature that He can somehow be persuaded to be temporarily unjust for the sake of sparing death-deserving sinners?  How does this work?

First of all, all of us believe justice is a good thing.  If my big brother picks on me and calls me names and pushes me around and tells me I’m stupid and ugly, that I smell bad and I’m a pain in the neck, and he eventually succeeds in making me cry, again, and my mom grabs my dad’s belt from the hook on the bathroom door and gives him a spanking until he wails like a little girl and she tells him to knock it off or else it’ll be even worse next time, . . . that is good.  I like justice.  He got what he deserved.

But, if I pick on my little sister and call her names and tell her she’s ugly and smelly and she throws like a girl, and I hurt her feelings and make her cry, again, and my mom gets the belt from the bathroom and tells me she’s sick and tired of all this whining and bickering and picking and crying and nonsense, and she beats my little behind until it looks like a rose-colored railroad track, . . . that is bad.  I don’t like justice.  Because I got what I deserved.

We tend to think justice is a good idea as long as it happens to someone else, especially if it is someone else who hurt me or offended me in some way.  There is a great deal of satisfaction in seeing the cops pull over the guy who flew by me on the highway like I was driving in Park.  Good job, Officer!  Justice is a wonderful thing!

But it’s not so great when the officer hands the ticket to you.

In other words, we want all the other lawbreakers to receive justice.  But when we break the law, not only do we desire mercy, but we have actually come to expect mercy from God.  And that is a fatal attitude. 

The prophet Habbakuk lamented the fact that God intended to bring the evil Babylonians against Judah.  He understood that Judah had sinned greatly and deserved the justice of God.  But Habbakuk says to the Lord, “How is it that you are going to use people more ungodly than we are to punish us?  That isn’t just!  They deserve to be punished worse than we do!” 

God responds by telling Habakkuk He is fully aware of who Babylon is, the things they have done, and the evils they have committed.  The day is coming when He will deal with them just as He is going to deal with Judah and her sin.  So Habbakuk says to the Lord, “When you send Babylon to punish your people for their sin, in wrath remember mercy.”  (Habbakuk 3:2 ESV)

How can God do that?  How can God do both: uphold His own standard of law and justice by punishing sin, while at the same time showing mercy to the guilty? 

Turn with me to Exodus 34.  Moses has made one trip up Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments.  But when he comes down, he sees the children of Israel dancing around a golden calf.  So in his anger, he throws the stone tablets down and breaks them.  God is pretty upset about all this too, and tells Moses, “I’m gonna destroy all of them and just start over with you.”  But Moses intercedes for the people, and God spares them.  Then we read here:

[34:1] The LORD said to Moses, “Cut for yourself two tablets of stone like the first, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the first tablets, which you broke. [2] Be ready by the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai, and present yourself there to me on the top of the mountain. [3] No one shall come up with you, and let no one be seen throughout all the mountain. Let no flocks or herds graze opposite that mountain.” [4] So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the first. And he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand two tablets of stone. [5] The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. [6] The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.”   (Exodus 34:1-7 ESV)

Well which is it?  Is God a God who is merciful and who forgives iniquity?  Or is He a God who will by no means clear the guilty?  I’m not sure Moses understands exactly what God is saying because immediately in the next verses we read this:

[8] And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. [9] And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance.”  (Exodus 34:8-9 ESV)

You notice Moses does not say, “Wow!  I sure am glad You’re so merciful and gracious and forgiving, ‘cause we sure have a lot we need You to forgive!“  On the contrary, Moses understood that if God is a God of justice who doesn’t clear the guilty, but who is also merciful and gracious, then the only thing to do, and to do quickly, is to admit guilt and beg for mercy, even if you don’t understand how both can be true!  If there is any mercy to be had, we want it!!

Then God immediately answers Moses with these words:

[10] And he said, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation. And all the people among whom you are shall see the work of the LORD, for it is an awesome thing that I will do with you.  (Exodus 34:10 ESV)

God continues to tell Moses what role the people of Israel will play in this covenant.  They can’t make any covenants with the people God is going to drive out of the Promised Land.  They are to avoid idols and idolatry and idolators.  They must keep the feast of unleavened bread.  They must remember the Sabbath and keep it holy, etc. etc.  Then, finally, skip down to verses 27-28.

[27] And the LORD said to Moses, “Write these words, for in accordance with these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.” [28] So he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights. He neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the Ten Commandments.  (Exodus 34:27-28 ESV)

So that’s the deal.  God will drive out their enemies and give them the promised land of Canaan.  And the people of Israel will keep the ten commandments.  That’s the covenant.  There’s just one problem: Israel is a stiff-necked people.  They can’t keep the law.  And God doesn’t clear the guilty.  What to do?  Who can keep this covenant?  This really isn’t such a great covenant.  So is it completely pointless for the remarkably guilty to ask a totally just God to remember mercy?

No, it isn’t.  And Isaiah tells us why.  Look once again at Isaiah 42:

[5] Thus says God, the LORD,
        who created the heavens and stretched them out,
        who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
    who gives breath to the people on it
        and spirit to those who walk in it:
     [6] “I am the LORD; I have called you in righteousness;
        I will take you by the hand and keep you;
    I will give you as a covenant for the people,
        a light for the nations,
         [7] to open the eyes that are blind,
    to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
        from the prison those who sit in darkness.  (Isaiah 42:5-7 ESV)

The God who made heaven and earth, in His righteousness, calls His Servant in whom His soul delights, promises to take Him by the hand and keep Him, and give his Servant as a covenant for the people.  What does this mean?  How does Jesus become “a covenant for the people”?

I believe what Isaiah is saying here is that Jesus stands in the place of Israel in the covenant God made with them through Moses.  This is the nature of Christ’s work for His people, for THE people.  What Israel could not possibly do (keep their part of the covenant), God gives the Lord Jesus as their substitute, as their stand-in, as their representative.  One song we sing says that it pleased God to look on Christ and pardon us.

That is exactly what Christ has done to enable God to be just AND merciful.  If the Lord Jesus is our perfect substitute who has kept the entire law for us, for His people, then if God is satisfied with the substitute whom He supplies, we who are in fact guilty are shown mercy and forgiveness. 
The Lord Jesus is a covenant for His people, a light for the nations, an opener of the eyes of the blind, a deliverer of the prisoners from the dungeon and from the darkness of prison.  In other words, God sends His beloved Servant, His own Son, to keep the law for lawbreakers and deliver them from the justice they deserve by suffering for them the justice they deserve.  God is satisfied and we become the recipients of great mercy and grace and love and forgiveness and life.  Jesus is the covenant FOR His people.  He keeps our end of the deal for us.  God looks at Him and finds no fault in Him, but His faultlessness is applied to us and we are declared “Not Guilty!”

God will by no means clear the guilty.  So He places our guilt upon our great Substitute, punishes Him, and pardons us by His mercy.

Brethren, this is the gospel!  This is the gospel!  Jesus Christ is the One given as a covenant from God for our sakes.  He keeps the impossible covenant for us.  FOR us.  That is God’s glorious solution to the problem of justice and mercy.  God is just, and He justifies the guilty when they do what Moses did.  “I’m guilty, I’m a stubborn sinner.  But I beg you, Father, to have mercy and pardon my iniquity and my sin, and take me for your inheritance.  God never turns away the humble, repenting, sinner that calls out for mercy and forgiveness.

If you have never done that, what in the world are you waiting for?  Knowing God is just and that He only pardons the sin of those who cry out to Him in repentance and faith, why do you wait?  Why would you put off the removal of the guilt that would send you to Hell?  Why do you wait when you know the danger you’re in? 

Do you presume upon the longsuffering of God and take His mercy for granted, assuming He will forgive without repentance?  Do not be deceived.  God will not be mocked.  Do not think you wil be the exception to this unchanging rule.  What must you do to be saved from the wrath that will inevitably come upon you?  Repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus as the One who has kept the covenant for you.  He has taken the just punishment from God that you deserve.  Do you believe these things? 



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