This is the first in a series of studies in different books of the bible on the issues of the judgement of God and the mercy of God. We live in an age when the former threatens and when the latter is desperately needed. It is also an age in which we have little consciousness of the reality and devastating nature of judgement and consequently little grasp of the real depth and need of his mercy. We have a profound need to understand and come to terms with the judgements of God, and to recognise that his mercy is not simply or easily there for the taking, much as God longs to give it.
Genesis starts with a brief but majestic story of creation; everything was made by God and everything he made was good. Very quickly, however, the story moves on to man’s disobedience to God, a disobedience which was the result of man’s weakness and Satan’s temptation. Judgement follows quickly; man is expelled from the idyllic Eden, is doomed to die, and the very ground he walks on is “cursed”. Adam’s eldest son kills his own brother out of envy, and evil spreads everywhere as the peoples of the earth increase and abandon God. The world comes under the judgement of God in the form of a devastating flood. But Noah “found grace in the sight of God” and was saved by the mercy of God. Of Noah we also read, “Noah was a righteous man, a man of integrity among his own generation, and he walked with God” (Gen. 6:8-9). Here, in the first few chapters of Genesis we have the fundamental and constant message of the whole bible: to reject God is to invite judgement and severe punishment, but to walk righteously in an obedient relationship with God is to receive mercy and to know his love and blessing.
Genesis moves on next to Abraham. He has the same spiritual frame as Noah: like Noah, Abraham walked with God. God spoke personally to him and called him to leave his own land of Ur of the Chaldeans and to go to Canaan where God promised to make of him a great nation, a nation to be brought up in the fear of the Lord. Abraham “believed the LORD, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gen 15:6). Despite numerous human mistakes and difficulties God watched over him, protected him and prospered him in his journeys and affirmed his “faith” by further revelations of Himself.
Of particular significance, however, for our theme of judgement and mercy is the account of Abraham’s relationship with his nephew Lot, and the episode relating to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Chs.18 & 19), Very graphically and emphatically it underlines the lesson outlined above. It also adds a crucial dimension of the place of intercession in the release of God’s mercy.
Lot had journeyed with Abraham from Ur and had exhibited the same faith in God as Abraham. He, too, therefore was marked as righteous and he too prospered, so much so that there was not room enough for both Abraham and Lot to live together in the part of Canaan where they had settled. Abraham gave Lot first choice of more land in Canaan, but Lot’s eyes were fixed on the valley of Jordan, rich and fertile, and on the city of Sodom where “the people’s sin was grievous”. Tempted by wealth and luxury, he strayed off God’s path and settled in Sodom in the despite its evil. At some time later God revealed to Abraham that the time of reckoning for Sodom’s evil had come. Knowing the gross evil of Sodom, Abraham feared the worst, namely its destruction, and was immediately concerned that his nephew Lot might be caught up in it. Immediately he interceded for Lot’s safety, although obliquely and without mentioning Lot, on the basis that God, the Just Judge, ought not to destroy an evil city if there were righteous people (like Lot-unmentioned!) in it. God listened to Abraham’s intercession but the very next day–following a blatant and violent public attempt at rape at Lot’s own house – he did judge the city. It was completely engulfed in what appears to have been some sort of volcanic eruption and totally destroyed. But Abraham’s intercession was not ignored. Lot and his wife and two daughters were in fact spared the inferno by being forcibly removed by angels just before the destruction took place.
Thus Lot tasted the mercy of God in his deliverance, mercy due largely to his uncle’s righteousness and concern for him as part of his family. The reality is, however, that God wanted to exercise this mercy – that is why he spoke to Abraham in the first place of what he intended to do to Sodom so that Abraham could and would intercede. God wants to hear and answer intercession; it releases his mercy. He is full of mercy. The real tragedy in Lot’s story is that he resisted the full measure of mercy and would not divorce himself completely from the vicinity of Sodom and go back to the promised land of Canaan. His “righteousness” remained compromised and his subsequent family history was hugely blighted and was certainly not helpful to the Jewish nation which sprang from Abraham. There can be no compromise with evil, for God makes no compromise with it.
As an example of the reason for judgement along with the violent manner in which judgement can come and the relation of judgement and mercy, this episode is much to be pondered over. It is an utterly raw and basic story from the most primitive of times but incredibly clear and direct in the message it offers. We have pictured for us a God who is very ready to show mercy, but who will by no means condone what is evil but will judge it with great severity. We should not shun the primitive context or seek to adapt or “update” the message, for it will be repeated persistently throughout the Old and New Testaments. Indeed it speaks to our generation the truth it most needs to hear – we need to know once again the “fear of the Lord” as the real context for His mercy.