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God’s mercy & justice – A meditation by Horatius Bonar

“And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart.” Genesis 6:6

“Mercy had long prevailed against judgment; now judgment prevails against mercy. Grace had done wonders for the sinner. To do more would be to subvert righteousness, and to tamper with the awfulness of law. As the gracious Father, he had hitherto delayed the vengeance; but now, as the righteous Judge, he must interpose. He has long lingered in his love, yearning over his rebellious children; he can linger no more. His strange work must be done, at whatever sacrifice, either to himself or to man. He must not only withhold the good, he must visit with the evil, and he must do it himself. He, the Maker, must be the destroyer too. Man must be given up! He has gone beyond the limit within which grace can be righteously exercised. He has made it impossible for God to bless him. He has put it out of God’s power to do anything more in his behalf. He has made it a matter of righteous necessity that God should execute vengeance upon him. God wanted to bless, man has compelled him to curse. God wanted to save, man has compelled him to destroy. Condemnation, wrath, ruin, wretchedness for ever, must now be man’s portion! The vessel which God had made, and meant for honour and for gladness, must become a vessel of shame, eternal shame, filled with gall and wormwood! No wonder that it grieved him at his heart! . . . [These words] affirm that God’s grief is both sincere and deep. It is a Creator’s grief. It is a Father’s grief. It is grief such as afterwards uttered itself, over Israel, in such words as, ‘How shall I give thee up, O Ephraim? how shall I deliver thee up, O Israel? how shall I make thee as Admah, how shall I set thee as Zeboim? mine heart is turned within me; my repentings are kindled together.’ It is grief such as, at a still later day, gave vent to itself in Christ’s tears over Jerusalem. And is not all that reality? Was there ever reality like it? Yet all this does not make hell less true, nor the everlasting burnings less terrible.

Many seem to suppose that, because God has not passions such as we have; that because he is not liable to emotions like ours; that because there are no such swellings and subsidings of feverish excitement, interfering with the infinite serenity and blessedness of his divine being, that therefore God does not feel; that it would be degrading him to suppose that he can be affected, in the remotest degree, by the alternations of joy or sorrow,—especially in so far as the condition of his creatures can be conceived as being the source of either.

It is not so. This would be indifference, not serenity. It would make Jehovah not the God who is revealed to us in the man Christ Jesus. It would make him inferior to his creatures in all those tender affections which constitute so noble a part of our being. It would invest him with the insensibility of Stoicism. But with him whom we call our God, there is no such insensibility, no such Stoicism. He is love. He is the God of all grace. He is merciful and gracious, long-suffering, slow to anger, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin. He so loved the world as to give his only-begotten Son. It is written of him, that ‘his soul was grieved for the miseries of Israel;’ that ‘in all their affliction he was afflicted.’ He stoops over us in the fondness of parental love. He yearns over us. He longs to see us happy. He delights to bless. His strange work is to curse. Nay, he is the very fountainhead of love. All the affections of man’s soul are but the copy of his; faint indeed and dim, yet truly the copy, the counterpart, the earthly likeness of the heavenly reality. Man’s heart is, in all the affections that are holy, the very transcript of God’s. In God is the birthplace of all feeling, and shall he not feel? With him is the well-spring of all affection, and shall he be cold, and divested of all loving sympathies? Shall he give to man such powers of emotion, constituting the divinest part of our nature, and shall he himself be unmoved and immoveable? He is the Father of spirits, and shall he so entirely differ from the spirits that he has made? He made them in his own image; and is that image nothing but unsympathising callousness? Is it but the ice, or the rock, or the iron? He sent his Son to be the revelation of his mind and heart; and do we not see, from that Son, how deeply the Father feels? Do we not see in him, who is his perfect image, what is the Creator’s sympathy for his creatures in their joys and sorrows? Do we not see in him, with what strength he can hate the sin, and yet love, nay, weep over, the sinner? Ay, and does not the Holy Spirit also unfold his feelings? And do we not read of that Spirit being resisted, vexed, grieved, as if sorrowing over our coldness, our neglect, our unbelief, our ungodliness?

What, then, can these things mean, but that our God truly and deeply feels? There can, indeed, be nothing carnal, nothing allied to imperfection or weakness, in such sensibility; but to suppose him to be devoid of feeling, as we too often do, is to deny him to be perfectly and truly God! Ah! it is only when we learn how profoundly he feels, that we know aright the character of that God with whom we have to do. It is only when we realise how sincerely he yearns, and pities, and joys, and grieves, and loves, that we understand that revelation which he has made of himself in the gospel of his grace, and in the person of his Incarnate Son. Nor till then do we feel the unutterable malignity of sin, as being a grieving of God, a vexing of his loving Spirit, and become rightly alive to the depravity of our own rebellious natures. It is only then that we can cordially enter into God’s condemnation of the evil, and sympathise with him in that which makes him grieve. Never, till we give him credit for feeling as he says he does, can we really long for deliverance from that which is not only the abominable thing which he hates, bat that thing of evil and sorrow over which he so sincerely mourns.

It is this which gives such power to God’s expostulations with the sinner, and his appeals to the sinner’s conscience and heart. We are apt to treat these utterances of God as mere words of course, or, at least, as words which, however gracious in themselves, could not be supposed to embody the feelings of him from whom they come. It is far otherwise. God not only means what he says, but he feels what he says. He is not unconcerned about our condition, or indifferent to the reception or rejection of his messages. When he says, ‘I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ he utters the deep feeling of his heart. When he says, ‘How shall I give thee up?’ he shews us how he feels. When he says, ‘O that thou hadst hearkened to my commandments,’ he tells us how he feels. And when his only-begotten Son, in the days of his flesh, said to the unbelieving Jews, ‘Ye will not come unto me, that ye might have life,’ he shewed us how truly, in this respect, the Father and the Son are one, and that to each poor child of earth, however erring, however dark, however unbelieving, however rebellious, he is stretching out his hands in love, and, not the less sincerely, because, to tens of thousands, he is stretching out these hands in vain.” Horatius Bonar, Family Sermons. (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1863), 305-310. [Italics original.]