Our church’s Bible reading plan has led us through pages where we find God commanding the Israelites to destroy everyone in Canaan as they entered the land (Deuteronomy 20:16-18). Many people are skeptical to believe in a God who would command such things. Many Christians struggle to align this brutality to a God who so loved that He gave His only Son. I admit that my own heart cringes when I think of the human pain involved in these stories. Since I’ve been asked how God could command this brutality by first-time and veteran Bible readers alike, it seems fitting to write.
When I come upon parts of the Bible that lead me to bristle, I work through four steps that help me make sense of complicated issues. First, I tell myself to resist the temptation to move on to something else. R.C. Sproul once wrote, “Where the Bible makes us uncomfortable is precisely where we need to slow down.” Second, I prayerfully remind myself that God is right. I am not His judge, but He is mine. Third, I read insights from other Christians who have wrestled with the same difficulty. Finally, I try to stack up clear biblical truths like bricks on a wall, and then lean upon them. Let’s do that here.
1. God has absolute rights of ownership over all people, places, and things.
God created the heavens and the earth (Genesis 1:1). Therefore, everyone belongs to Him (Psalm 24:1). The breath of life is His to give and His to take away. Over 6000 people created and sustained by God will die every hour in the world today. In each case, God is sovereign (Acts 17:25-26). Life is in His hands.
2. God is righteous and just in all that He does.
God’s ways are entirely upright and just (Deuteronomy 32:4). In this broken world, God’s ways don’t often feel just. Yet never has there been a breach in God’s righteousness. This was the anchor of saints of old who grappled to understand God’s ways. For example, when Abraham felt the tension in his heart over God’s promise to destroy the wicked people of Sodom, he said, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Genesis 18:25). The implied answer is, “Of course He will!”
Do you recall what Paul wrote on the heels of explaining the mysterious ways of God’s election? He gushed, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33). Tragically, our default when confused with God’s ways is to do just what Paul said we must not do. We scrutinize God and His ways. We must remember that God is not the defendant in our courtroom. God sees and knows things we cannot see or know. God is the ultimate standard of what is right and just.
3. All mankind has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
We have all sinned against God, and the wages of our sin is death (Romans 6:23). It is because God so often showers us with grace and patience that we so often lose sight of God’s justice. When we read about the death of the Canaanites we ought not first ask, “How could God do this?” but “Why does God not do this to us?” Every moment of every day that we are alive is a gracious momentary stay of execution. When we forget this truth we tend to scrutinize God’s justice.
4. God desired to protect His people from temptation.
God’s desire was for the people of Israel be set apart upon the earth in order to draw others to worship Him (Exodus 19:6). So as God brought Israel into the Promised Land, He wanted the land cleared of everything and everyone who would tempt them to turn from Him (Exodus 23:33). The Canaanites were a clear and present danger to the purity of God’s people. They were wicked and rebellious in ways that are difficult to imagine. Therefore, God chose to drive them from the land to protect His people (Deuteronomy 9:5; 32:43).
Joshua, for all his faithfulness, left this job unfinished. Once Israel established a dominant position in the land, they thought it wise to leave some of the Canaanites around to fetch water and chop wood. As expected, those few who were spared became a snare, just as God predicted they would. Soon, everyone in Israel was doing what was right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6). This occurred in spite of the fact that God promised the Israelites that they would face the same fate as the Canaanites if they did not wholeheartedly follow the Lord and His Word (Leviticus 18:28).
5. God has entrusted His authority in different ways through time to bring justice to the world.
In America today, there is a separation of church and state. So when a person is arrested, the authorities don’t bring the suspect to the church for justice. They bring the suspect before the judicial branch of our state or federal government who has been entrusted with authority to carry out justice upon the guilty and protect the innocent. This authority to wield the sword has been entrusted to the government by God Himself (Romans 13:1-4).
In the early days of the Old Testament, however, Israel was a theocracy. God was their king. The church and state were inseparably joined, such that members of God’s people had both religious and judicial obligations. The people were to worship God and be His instrument to bring justice on His behalf in the world. So even though the totality of destruction in the Old Testament is stunning, God commanded this of Israel to bring justice upon the wicked and order to His world.
6. God has always been quick to show mercy to those who turned on Him.
Even as justice was poured out upon many, we find that mercy was given for those who turned in faith to the living God (Joshua 2:1-14). This evidence of God’s mercy became the hope of a small, faithful remnant when Israel became as sinful as the Canaanites. As Israel later faced God’s judgment, they pled, “O God, in wrath remember mercy” (Habakkuk 3:2).
As we grapple with the hard justice of God, let’s remember that God later chose to satisfy His justice by sending His Son to earth to die in our place. God showed us mercy when He sent Jesus to be our Savior. On the cross, we see the mercy and wrath of God in action. God unleashed His wrath against our sin on Jesus Christ. God showed us mercy in punishing Jesus in our place.
There is no greater expression of love and mercy than what He has shown us. As our resurrected Lord, Jesus now calls us to love our enemy, to pray for those who persecute us, and to lay down our life for others. May we who are called by His name never lose the amazement of His mercy in the face of His justice!