Post last updated on December 28, 2022
In Jeremiah’s prophecy we see frequent reference to both the justice and mercy of the LORD. These both—too often strangers to one in the realms of men—are not necessary antagonists. In fact, regardless of the ways the two often contend with one another among us, they nonetheless find a harmonious exercise in the works of God. This surprise—if it is, in fact, that—only confirms the meaning of holiness: God is essentially unlike any other.
In other words, justice and mercy are not merely principles to be balanced by government bureaucrats, but they find their source and definition in the very character of God. If man must struggle and claw to even comprehend justice and mercy, God need merely act and his works simultaneously achieve the character of both. He remains merciful and just, whatever the situation. He is both just and merciful in a perfection to which his creatures are incapable and too often insensible. We are, then, in need of an analogy.
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Accordingly, Psalm 89:14 recalls their unlikely association with one another in the rule of God: “Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face.” Here, justice (coupled with judgement) and mercy (coupled with truth) are found together, and that in the context of rule—a sure surprise to a modern generation which instead (and ironically) strives for an absolute equality of experience alongside independence. Indeed, men may find that mercy and justice exist in tension with one other, but the interesting fact remains that men still seek their simultaneous expressions.
In other words, men frequently hope for public justice when they are offended, but then hope for public mercy when they become the offender. Hence, morality keeps knocking on the doors of secular institutions. A tension, then, arises—not because these two qualities possess any inherent and necessary contradiction, but because sinful man does not comprehend their harmonious expression in a society of sinners; nor can he quite create the sphere of their harmonious existence. He cannot rule well, mainly because he will not be ruled.
In short, man frustrates his own best efforts at justice and mercy. Again, he cannot rule well, though he was made to do just that (Genesis 1:26-28, Psalms 8:5, etc.). King David, at least, knew that the king must first be ruled by God (2 Samuel 23:3-4). The problem, of course, is that necessity was upset and confused by Adam. When sin entered the world upon the occasion of Adam’s disobedience (Romans 5:12), it imposed contradictions upon life that the original creation did not entail; and yet, that situation only prevailed because Adam himself would not be ruled. When Adam ate of the tree that was forbidden to him, he offended the order of the world. The world, consequently, was reordered against him. Rebellion is eventually made to find a rebel. In this situation, then, proceed the ironic and unsettling calls for justice and mercy, for when we cry for mercy, we also confess that there is such thing as justice.
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God had made man in the image of God to reflect the various qualities of his own character. In this way, man communicated some several features of his creator (Genesis 1:26-27, 9:6; James 3:9, etc.). He was a part of God’s revelation, fashioned as a kind of analog of his maker, and should have been content to reflect the character that God granted him. This position reveals man’s privileges, but also his limitations, for he never shares the same identity as God. In the image of God, man appreciates and longs for the expressions of justice and mercy. Distinct from God, he cannot hold the two together.
This is where Jeremiah’s prophecy enters our discussion, for he confirms God’s justice and mercy in a single, short section in chapter 30 (cf. Jeremiah 30:10-17). On the one hand is the LORD’s severe but righteous judgement of Israel: “for I have wounded thee with the wound of an enemy, with the chastisement of a cruel one, for the multitude of thine iniquity; because thy sins were increased” (Jeremiah 30:14). That said, verse 17 announces the LORD’s eventual restoration of his covenant people: “For I will restore health unto thee, and I will heal thee of thy wounds, saith the LORD; because they called thee an Outcast, saying, this is Zion, whom no man seeketh after.”
Here, Zion is so despised that no man will seek her; and yet, it is when and while Israel is in that very condition, that God demonstrates his faithfulness and mercy to her. Indeed, God seeks Israel precisely when men refuse her. More to the point, we note that it is in his restorative work that God appears unlike a man. God will seek what men will not. This promise of rescue is then crowned with a better promise, still: “And ye shall be my people, and I will be your God” (Jeremiah 30:22). Rescue and restoration are hereby folded into a word best felt in a compound—lovingkindness.
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The point here is that men fail to express the whole character of God, especially in situations when it is most desperately needed. We are not referring here to something like the cant slogans that call for random acts of kindness; rather, there are desperate conditions and situations that arise where men refuse to show mercy to another man; and yet God will purpose to do what men despise. In those situations, where a man’s capacity to love is outstripped by his unwillingness to love another, we discover the mercy of God in the Son of God.
To put it another way still, man was made in the image of God, but sin means that the analogy now fails in Adam. It is only after God assumed human flesh and became a man that man was refitted to image his creator. In Christ, man is refit with the intended qualities of humanity. As the very image of God, Jesus Christ then serves God’s purpose of an otherwise impossible rescue:
Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: Who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son: In whom we have redemption through his blood, even the forgiveness of sins: Who is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature.Colossians 1:12-15
Accordingly, redeemed man again becomes the fitting analogy of God, but only because God assumed flesh in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. 1 Timothy 3:16).