Was God Less Merciful in the Old Testament?

ArmorToday’s tough question:

“In the Old Testament we read many times the killing of so many without seeing mercy offered first, and sometimes the killing is too swift, it seems. So why is there such a distinct difference from the Old Testament for showing mercy opposed to in the New Testament where that seems to be so prevalent?”

Violence in the Old Testament is a difficult theological dilemma. We see violence on the news or in movies, and it’s more than enough for our eyes. It doesn’t seem to belong in the Holy Bible. But there it is – ordered in Leviticus, described in Joshua, detailed in the books of Kings and Chronicles.

Was God less merciful in Old Testament times? The Old Testament may record more instances of killings – and swift killings – but the character of God remains unchanged. He “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” (Hebrews 13:8)

One reason we find more killing in the Old Testament is its time frame and cultural setting. In the Old Testament, you have conquests, wars, and a more tribal culture. In the New Testament, the Jewish people had been established in their homeland for centuries and were under the civilized rule of Rome.

I imagine that rulers and military leaders in New Testament times were just as likely to authorize killings as were kings in Old Testament times. Jesus, the 12 Disciples, and Paul occupied very different social positions than King David, for instance. David was protecting his throne, enlarging his kingdom, and playing by the rules of his day. By complete contrast, Jesus came to establish God’s Kingdom by His own death, not by killing others. Because of Jesus’ unique mission and message, the New Testament has a different feel to it in many ways.

What about mercy in the Old Testament? The words “mercy” or “merciful” appear 184 times in the Bible. About two-thirds (122) of those appearances are in the Old Testament. Psalm 25:6 celebrates the ancient roots of God’s mercy: “Remember your mercy, O Lord, and your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.”

The Old Testament contains many stories of God being merciful. Perhaps the best example is the story of Jonah. God sent Jonah to warn the wicked city of Nineveh that His wrath soon would be poured out on it. After running away, being tossed into the sea, and spending three nights in a giant fish, Jonah finally got his act together and preached to the citizens of Nineveh. The people heeded his message and repented.

And Jonah was upset about it! Jonah wanted to see God pour down fire and brimstone. Jonah wanted to see the bad guys get what their evil deeds deserved. God was much kinder to Nineveh than Jonah desired.

Afterward, Jonah complained, “That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that You are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Jonah 4:2)

What a complaint! God – the God of the Old and New Testaments – is too merciful! Jonah is saying: Lord, I can’t stand how merciful You are!

In all times, God is gracious and merciful. Often He’s more merciful than we would ever be. Thank the Lord that He doesn’t repay us as our deeds deserve but shows us mercy – eternal mercy through the cross of Jesus!

Author: Christopher Kennedy

Senior Pastor at Shepherd of the Hills Lutheran Church, School, and Child Care in San Antonio, Texas. Husband to my beloved Ashley. Dad to the four most wonderful children in the world.

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