I read through the book of Judges this past week and was freshly astonished by God's faithfulness to his ever-erring people.
Soon after Joshua's generation passed away, "there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord . . . and the people of Israel did what was evil in the sight of the Lord and served the Baals . . . they abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers . . . and they provoked the Lord to anger . . . and he sold them into the hands of their surrounding enemies . . . and they were in terrible distress" (Judges 2:10-15).
But things didn't end here. Though Israel betrayed their Redeemer and rightfully incurred his judgment, "the Lord raised up judges, who saved them out of the hand of those who plundered them" (Judges 2:16).
Why did God rescue these undeserving people?
The text tells us: "For the Lord was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who afflicted and oppressed them" (Judges 2:18).
He pitied them.
Though these thickheaded, treasonous rebels flat-out rejected his love and goodness, God was moved to compassion as he watched his covenant people suffer the afflictions that he had brought upon them. Yes, God was provoked to anger by their idolatry. But his anger did not endure forever (Psalm 103:9). As he looked upon these people and saw their miseries and sorrows, he, in his incomprehensible mercy, raised up judges to save them. And not just once or twice! This cycle of faithlessness, judgment, and salvation continues throughout the entire narrative of Judges. There even comes a point in chapter 10 at which it seems God's recurring mercies would finally come to a screeching halt.
"And the people of Israel cried out to the Lord, saying, 'We have sinned against you, because we have forsaken our God and have served the Baals.' And the Lord said to the people of Israel, 'Did I not save you from the Egyptians and from the Amorites, from the Ammonites and from the Philistines? The Sidonians also, and the Amalekites and the Maonites oppressed you, and you cried out to me, and I saved you out of their hand. Yet you have forsaken me and served other gods; therefore I will save you no more. Go and cry out to the gods whom you have chosen; let them save you in the time of your distress.'" – Judges 10:10-14
But merely two verses later, the tenderheartedness of God prevails:
"And the people of Israel said to the Lord, 'We have sinned; do to us whatever seems good to you. Only please deliver us this day.' So they put away the foreign gods from among them and served the Lord, and he became impatient over the misery of Israel." – Judges 10:15-16.
God repeatedly came to the rescue of these rebels. Sometimes he did so in response to their repentance. Sometimes he did so despite there being no evidence of repentance.
But he always did so with the knowledge that they would surely turn away from him again — "whenever the judge died, they turned back and were more corrupt than their fathers, going after other gods, serving them and bowing down to them. They did not drop any of their practices or their stubborn ways" (Judges 2:19).
Though his people were perpetually faithless, God was perpetually merciful.
What strong encouragement this should be for us today!
Things are a bit different now. God's chosen people are not unregenerate slaves to sin like most of the Israelites were at that time. Those of us who are under the New Covenant in Christ's blood have received the promised Holy Spirit (Galatians 3:14), who writes God's laws on our hearts and leads us in paths of righteousness. Our lives are characterized by faith and growing obedience—not unbelief and rebellion. But even though we walk in an enabling power that God's Old Covenant people lacked, we still sin. We may not ultimately turn away from him and worship other gods as the Israelites did, but we struggle and stumble and fall in our redeemed-but-not-yet-perfect condition. And our struggling, stumbling, and falling can sometimes seem much bigger to us than God's patience and faithfulness, can't they?
I have often considered the presence of sin in my life to be a weightier reality than God's love, mercy, and grace over my life. I have at times convinced myself that I am too wicked, stubborn, and riddled with evil desires for God to continue bearing with me. What absurdity!
If God could stomach the ongoing treachery of Israel, how much more is he able to endure the remaining sin of those for whom his Son died? If God could find it in himself to be merciful toward unregenerate idolaters, how much more is he able to be gracious to those who are indwelled by his Spirit and truly desire (but seriously struggle) to love, trust, and obey him?
I'm not saying that God's patience and mercy give us a license to sin. Those who think in such terms probably do not know Christ. Nor am I saying that God does not ever chastise his children when they go astray, "for God disciplines the one he loves" (Hebrews 12:6). What I am saying is that struggling saints have great reason to believe that God will bear with them until the very end. He is not overwhelmed by our failures. He is not impatient with our frailties. He loves us. And because he loves us, his mercies toward us will never, ever cease.
"The Lord is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always chide,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far does he remove our transgressions from us.
As a father shows compassion to his children,
so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.
For he knows our frame;
he remembers that we are dust." – Psalm 103:8-14