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The Option of Mercy - Jeremiah 15

Mercy is optional. Justice is not.

Jeremiah 15, Romans 9:21-22; James 1:13b; Psalm 2:12; Matthew 5:10-12; Isaiah 55:6-7

Dec 02, 2012 12:00 AM

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I don’t recall ever visiting an art gallery before so I can’t speak from personal experience.  But I’ve seen people in the movies and on TV shows in art galleries gazing at something on the wall, probably something by Salvador Dali, that doesn’t look like it belongs in an art gallery.  Their head tilts to one side and then the other.  They linger for awhile, attempting to determine the significance of what they’re looking at, mumbling to themselves, “What was he thinking?  Why is that art?  Looks like something I drew in kindergarten that Mom hung on the fridge.  And how much did they pay for this??”

To have an appreciation for modern art, it seems one has to attend a university and pay good money to study art.  One has to be educated in the development of art and the philosophies behind art in order to grasp the supposed meaning of what otherwise looks like nonsense “to the untrained eye”.  There is a certain artistic sensitivity, a certain artistic perspective, in order to appreciate that stuff.  I don’t have it.  I’m not that sensitive.  It all looks like nonsense to me.  One man’s art is another man’s kindergarten drawing.  It all depends on one’s perspective.

Perspective influences how we think about everything, including God.  From a human perspective, we should be able to easily see that the mercy of God toward us is an absolute necessity.  Because of who God is, and because of who and what we are, we desperately need His pity.  

We need mercy more than food or water or shelter.  Above all other things, the mercy of God is an absolute necessity for us.  Without mercy, we perish.  Without mercy, we would not even experience God’s so-called common grace.  He would not extend grace to men if He was merciless.  It could easily be argued that mercy is not our only need, but it is our greatest need.  All of our needs begin there.  If there is no mercy, then all other needs go unmet as well.  

The reason we need it so desperately is because of sin.  Adam plunged us into a state of uselessness before God.  Our own individual pursuit of sin has also transformed us into the rotten loincloth Jeremiah speaks of which God told Jeremiah was good for nothing.  Isaiah concurs: Even the good things which we do for the sake of gaining the approval of God are likened to filthy rags.  And as Jesus said to the Jews, “If the salt loses its saltiness, what is it good for?  It is good for nothing.  You throw it out to be trampled underfoot like all the other dirt.”  This has been the effect of sin upon us all.  

If not for His mercy, what would keep the LORD from disposing of us permanently?  Who needs unsalty salt?  What good are filthy rags?  What use is a rotten loincloth?  If God does not have pity upon the useless dirt of sinful humanity, what hope do we have?  We NEED God to show us mercy and pity and compassion in our state of uselessness and worthlessness as rebellious sin-loving, rotten-loincloth, filthy-rag, law-breaking sinners.  From our perspective, the mercy of God is an absolute necessity.  That is how we should interpret our situation.

But what about God’s perspective?  Does God see our condition and determine that mercy is an absolute necessity for us?  Yes.  He understands everything I have just said to be true.  God knows we must have mercy or suffer His wrath.  But from God’s perspective, mercy is optional.  It is the prerogative of God to show mercy to sinners, or withhold it.  Paul states it very plainly in Romans 9:

21 Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use? 22 What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,

I intentionally stop in the middle of that passage in order to make the point that God
1) does indeed have the right to do with His clay, with His dirt, whatever He chooses, and
2) He does indeed desire to show His wrath against sin and and make His power known.  

He shows His wrath and makes His power known how?  God shows His wrath and power through His destruction of evil men, evil angels, and the annihilation of sin.  He puts His glory and His holiness and His righteousness and His justice on display by giving sinners the very thing they deserve, the very death they have earned because of their sin.  Lest we forget, the wages of sin is death, and God is not averse to paying men their deserved wages.

Even more, He must do so.  He must be just.  Beloved, from where God is standing, mercy is optional.  Justice is not.  God may or may not show mercy to sinners, and thankfully He does show us all great mercies every day.  But the justice of God is an absolute necessity, even from our perspective.  It is non-negotiable.  It is uncompromisable.  The justice of God is not subject to debate.  If God is to be righteous and holy, He must practice absolute justice.  And even fallen men understand the truth of this.

If God refuses to show mercy, that is His choice and none can find fault with Him for doing so.  If God denies mercy to His enemies who hate Him, who could blame Him?  If we understand who He is, and if we grasp the incredibly evil nature of sin against Him, we cannot argue with God over the rightness of His anger towards us.

But if God refused to act with justice, if He failed to uphold His own righteous law, if God was ever in any way unjust, He would be guilty of sin Himself.  If God did not destroy the evil people of Judah that we read of in Jeremiah 15, vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, His own beloved people, He Himself would be evil.  The destruction of evil and of evil people is a terrible expression of God’s righteous justice and He must be just.  

Turn with me to Jeremiah 15 please.

5 "Who will have pity on you, O Jerusalem, or who will grieve for you?  Who will turn aside to ask about your welfare? 6 You have rejected me, declares the LORD; you keep going backward, so I have stretched out my hand against you and destroyed you--. 7 I have winnowed them with a winnowing fork in the gates of the land; I have bereaved them; I have destroyed my people; they did not turn from their ways. 8 I have made their widows more in number than the sand of the seas; I have brought against the mothers of young men a destroyer at noonday; I have made anguish and terror fall upon them suddenly. 9 She who bore seven has grown feeble; she has fainted away; her sun went down while it was yet day; she has been shamed and disgraced.  And the rest of them I will give to the sword before their enemies, declares the LORD." (Jeremiah 15:5-9 ESV)

Americans have great difficulty differentiating between the great evil of particular events and the good ends which result from those evils.  They have come to believe that good ends never justify evil means.  If that were the case, the Civil War should never have been fought, even though it was largely responsible for the emancipation of the slaves.  We never should have dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even though those two events brought the World War II to an immediate halt.  We never should have fought against Hitler, even though we brought an end to the concentration camps and the annihilation of the Jews in Germany.  

If we follow this logic, then Joseph never should have been sold into slavery by his brothers, he never should have ascended to the position of viceroy in Egypt, and therefore he never should have delivered Israel from the famine in Canaan and preserved his family so that they might become the nation of Israel.  God, if He were truly good (as this logic goes), should have never allowed Joseph to be sold into slavery.  That would be evil.

If evil, terrible, awful means should never be used to accomplish good, then we should all turn in our guns, we should never fight against bad guys, we should never argue about anything, and we should all be passive and just get along.  We should never throw anyone into prison, we should never give Johnny a time out in the corner.  Surely if we stopped all these negative, evil actions against others that would lead us to world peace.  

It is a good God who says to Judah: “I will lay hands on you and destroy you.” (NIV)  A good God said that.  It seems contradictory from our perspective.  How could a good God not show pity?  How could a good God destroy His own people?  How could the destruction of the entire nation of Judah be a good act by a God who is inherently good?

First of all, notice verse 8 - I am weary of relenting. That is quite the statement!  God is weary?  What is it that has made Him weary?  His own rebellious people!  HE is tired of putting up with their wickedness.  He has restrained Himself from destroying them.  HE has already suffered LONG with them, and now He is finally going to put a stop to it, and that is a good thing.

Secondly, God’s destruction of Judah is good, not because the sword, pestilence, famine and captivity are good are inherently good.  They are not.  But justice is inherently good.  We all know that.  When God says to Israel, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth”, that is God’s definition of just punishment: righteous and equitable judgment.  When a person sins, punishment must be administered.  The law has been broken and justice must prevail.  But the punishment must not be excessive nor lenient.  It must be measured in accordance with the crime committed.  

Judah had engaged in reprehensible sinfulness against God for centuries!  It is testimony to the patience and mercy of God that He did not destroy them long before this point.  But the time has come, the final grain of sand has fallen through the hourglass of God’s patience, and the day of the Lord’s righteous and holy indignation has arrived.

The just punishment for sin against a holy God is eternal death.  That is just, that is fair, that is right, it is suitable to the crime.  And because it is just, fair, and right, it is also inherently good.  If God did not punish sin in this manner, He would not be good.  If God tolerated sin indefinitely, He would be become a passive participant in that sin.  And that, beloved, is definitely NOT an option.  A holy God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. (James 1:13b ESV)

So when God says to Jeremiah, “I, Jehovah God, will, with my own hand, destroy My own people, the people I have loved, and there is no changing My mind,” God is indeed doing an awful thing, an indescribably awful thing, but an inherently good thing.  Evil is being punished, justice is being meted out, and sin is being eradicated.  That is good.  That is the very thing we look forward to in Heaven, a place where ONLY RIGHTEOUSNESS dwells!  Where sin will be no more.  And it will be no more because God is good and He will remove all of it once and for all.

Jeremiah should take some comfort in this coming destruction because the evil, prosperous people who sought his life, those whom he was complaining about in chapter 12, will be dealt with in this manner.  And that is why sinners should fear such a God.  That is exactly why Isaiah responds to his vision of God the same way Jeremiah does: “Woe is me!”

10 Woe is me, my mother, that you bore me, a man of strife and contention to the whole land!  I have not lent, nor have I borrowed, yet all of them curse me. 11 The LORD said, "Have I not set you free for their good?  Have I not pleaded for you before the enemy in the time of trouble and in the time of distress? 12 Can one break iron, iron from the north, and bronze?

13 "Your wealth and your treasures I will give as spoil, without price, for all your sins, throughout all your territory. 14 I will make you serve your enemies in a land that you do not know, for in my anger a fire is kindled that shall burn forever."

Is this not a description of the lake of fire?  Does this not describe the eternal future of all who will be condemned on that final day of judgment when God brings His justice to bear upon all who have rejected Him?  Is this not why the Psalmist says, Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and you perish in the way, for his wrath is quickly kindled.  Blessed are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:12 ESV)

15 O LORD, you know; remember me and visit me, and take vengeance for me on my persecutors.  In your forbearance take me not away; know that for your sake I bear reproach. 16 Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart, for I am called by your name, O LORD, God of hosts. 17 I did not sit in the company of revelers, nor did I rejoice; I sat alone, because your hand was upon me, for you had filled me with indignation. 18 Why is my pain unceasing, my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?  Will you be to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail?

19 Therefore thus says the LORD: "If you return, I will restore you, and you shall stand before me.  If you utter what is precious, and not what is worthless, you shall be as my mouth.  They shall turn to you, but you shall not turn to them. 20 And I will make you to this people a fortified wall of bronze; they will fight against you, but they shall not prevail over you, for I am with you to save you and deliver you, declares the LORD. 21 I will deliver you out of the hand of the wicked, and redeem you from the grasp of the ruthless."

Jeremiah is quite the man.  What an example to us of our own frailties and weaknesses.  He is distraught over the coming destruction of his people.  But he is also indignant because of their perverse rebellion against God.  He also fears for his own life, afraid that the people will kill him because he has made himself a target for their hatred.  It seems he thinks he himself may be included in their destruction.  But he also asks that God would take vengeance on them.  He questions God, asking Him if He will remain faithful to protect Jeremiah from God’s own enemies.  But God kindly reassures Jeremiah that he will be delivered from all his enemies.

Jeremiah’s emotions seem to be all over the place, not exactly sure what to think.  Kinda like us on many occasions.  He is alone.  He is in danger.  He does have real enemies who want to kill him.  He is suffering for the sake of God’s word.  Again, we remember Jesus’ words:

10 "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 "Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-12 ESV)

How did Jeremiah get into this situation?  How did he become a man of strife and contention to the whole land!  “All of them curse me?”  How did he become the object of men’s persecution?  Notice what God says to him:
11 The LORD said, "Have I not set you free for their good?  Have I not pleaded for you before the enemy in the time of trouble and in the time of distress? 12 Can one break iron, iron from the north, and bronze?

Jeremiah belonged to God.  God set him free.  Free from what?  From the condemnation and destruction of Judah.  The truth set him free.  The word of God that came to Jeremiah liberated him from the lies and the deceit of the false prophets throughout all of Judah.  God saved Jeremiah for the purpose of being a messenger of truth to a stiff-necked and obstinate people whom the Lord had determined to destroy.  This is the mercy of God that precedes the saving grace of God.  Otherwise, Jeremiah would have been condemned along with everyone else.  God says to him, “I set you free.  I am for you.  I have made you as indestructible as iron before your enemies.  You belong to Me, Jeremiah.”

It was God’s prerogative to have mercy on Jeremiah, to choose him and not some other man as His spokesman to Judah.  Or, God simply could have chosen no one.  He could have chosen not to have a true prophet in Jerusalem.  He could have simply destroyed the nation with no one to warn them or call them to repentance.  His mercy which He extended to Jeremiah was not mandatory.  Neither Jeremiah nor anyone else is ever in a position to demand God’s mercy.  God was under no obligation to save anyone in Judah, including Jeremiah.  But He did.  God voluntarily chose, by His own truly free will, to set Jeremiah free and grant him salvation, both from his earthly enemies, and from the judgment of God.

Then, in a display of even greater mercy, God declares these precious words to His prophet: I am with you.  Jeremiah is given the same words which God spoke to Moses and Joshua: I am with you.  And if God is with him, if God is for him, he has nothing to fear.  That is the same promise Jesus gave His disciples: I will be with you!  I will never leave you nor forsake you!

One of the names of Jesus which we hear at this time of year is the name Immanuel, meaning God with us (Matthew 1:23).  It is one thing for God to be with us, among us, in our midst.  Jesus was with the people of Judah and they received Him not.  Have you received Him?  Have you trusted Him?  Has God been merciful to you and brought you to a realization of your own sinfulness before Him?  Do you belong to Him?  If not, cry to Him for mercy today.  Now.  There is a terrible day of woe coming.  Then it will be too late.  

6 "Seek the LORD while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; 7 let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the LORD, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. (Isaiah 55:6-7 ESV)



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