Great Losses, Severe Mercies, Tearful Joy
Do you have a view of God, and his severe mercy, that is robust and biblical enough to flourish with tearful joy, under heartbreaking losses, which he ordains as discipline?
What if you thought God took your child? Or what if you thought he cancelled a dream you had had for forty years?
Not until recently did I notice the difference between God’s response to the sin of Aaron’s sons in desecrating God before Israel, and his response to the sin of Moses in a similar desecration. God killed Aaron’s sons, but spared Moses. But he denied Moses entrance into the promised land. That is, he showed him mercy.
Two Different Results
I noticed this because the same word is used to describe what Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, did and what Moses did. They both failed to show God as holy before the people. Nadab and Abihu were careless about God’s word in making offerings on God’s altar. Therefore, “fire came out from before the Lᴏʀᴅ and consumed them, and they died before the Lᴏʀᴅ.”
Moses explained to their father why this happened: “This is what the Lᴏʀᴅ has said: ‘Among those who approach me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified’” (Leviticus 10:2–3). They failed to “sanctify God” before the people — treat him as holy, or show him as holy — of infinite, transcendent worth.
Moses was guilty of the same sin. At the waters of Meribah, Israel murmured against God because they had no water. So God told Moses, “Assemble the congregation, you and Aaron your brother, and tell the rock before their eyes to yield its water” (Numbers 20:8).
But instead, Moses was careless with the word of God like Nadab and Abihu. Instead of speaking to the rock, “Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock” (Numbers 20:11).
The Lord indicted Moses and Aaron with essentially the same sin as Nadab and Abihu. He said, “Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me [show me to be holy] in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them” (Numbers 20:12).
When God repeatedly confirmed to Moses the consequence of his sin, what he focused on was what made it the same as the sin of Nadab and Abihu. “You failed to sanctify me [show me as holy] at the waters before their eyes” (Numbers 27:14). “You did not treat me as holy in the midst of the people of Israel” (Deuteronomy 32:51).
The Great Mercy
This means that God’s decision to prevent Moses from entering the promised land was a great mercy. He should have died like Nadab and Abihu. But God gave him a reprieve.
I once heard R.C. Sproul answer the criticism that God is cruel because there are 22 sins in the Mosaic Law which may be punished by death. Sproul observed: On the contrary, this is a drastic and lavish mercy, because in the beginning all sins were capital crimes (Genesis 2:17; Romans 6:23).
God never does anyone wrong by taking anyone’s life. Life is a gift from God, not a right before God. And we have all forfeited the gift. We have added demerit to lack of merit. Not only can I not claim the gift of life as a right, now I deserve to have it taken away at any time. Nadab and Abihu were treated fairly.
Moses was treated better than fairly. Death was just retribution; denial of the promised land was merciful reprieve.
When we turn to the New Testament, God’s severe mercy appears even more startling. He takes the life of some of his children precisely to spare them a worse fate. Paul teaches this in relationship to the Lord’s Supper:
Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you . . . have died. . . . But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. (1 Corinthians 11:29–32)
Some of us die as “discipline from the Lord,” so that “we may not be condemned with the world.”
So I ask again: Do you have a view of God, and his severe mercy, that is robust and biblical enough to flourish with tearful joy, under heartbreaking losses, which he ordains as discipline?
My prayer for the church in our day is that she would have undaunted strength in the face of the worst personal and social calamities. One means God uses to make us strong is to show us from the Bible how he works in the world. He does not want us to undone by calamity — the loss of a loved one, the loss of lifelong dreams, or the loss of life itself.
In all these things he is only merciful, to his children — to be sure, severely merciful. Is it not remarkable that when James steps back and sums up the meaning of all Job’s miseries he says: “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful” (James 5:11).
May God grant us the miracle of tearful joy that passes all human understanding.
Recent posts from John Piper: