‘Mercy Over All His Works’ Deuteronomy 2:1-23 January 19,1992
v. 7. God had provided well for his people; they lacked nothing. Contentment with God’s provision should prevent them from coveting what they do not need. Would that more nations operated upon the same principle.
Hidden in this narrative of Israel’s travels through the wilderness from Kadesh Barnea to the Arnon Gorge is a lovely and profoundly important truth that Christians do not make nearly as much of as they ought. I am speaking of the Lord’s benevolence to that large part of mankind which lies beyond the boundaries of the church and Kingdom of God. There is a vast gulf fixed between the people of God and the rest of the world, that is true. God’s saving love is not set on all men and women, but only upon his people, that is true. The great love which is the Bible’s true theme is that love which God has only for the church, and Christ, as the Bible always says, gave himself for the church. Jesus saved only his people from their sins. All that is true, absolutely.
But, that does not mean that God does not look with mercy and kindness upon the rest of the world which he has made, upon the rest of mankind who are his own creatures, his workmanship. He is exceedingly good and generous to the unbelieving world in defiance of their rejection of him and rebellion against him. In this particular instance, on three separate occasions, the Lord shows genuine concern for three peoples, wicked, idolatrous, and viciously immoral as they were. In each case the Lord gave careful instructions to Israel that she was not to interfere with these peoples or to engage them in battle or do them any harm. If they did so, the Lord would not bless them, for he had given these three nations their lands and he had no intention of letting even Israel take those lands from them. What is more, all the food and water that they consumed while passing through had to be paid for in cash.
In other words, the Lord God had given these peoples lands in which to live and was taking care to protect their inheritance from being taken by a nation stronger than they. That may seem, at first glance, somewhat surprising, considering that Israel was about to enter the land of Canaan and, at the Lord’s instructions, take possession of the land and property of other nations.
But, you must remember that the reason why Israel had had to wait to occupy Canaan, all those centuries since God first promised it to Abraham, was precisely because, as the Lord put it in Genesis 15:13-16, ‘the sin of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.’ That is, Israel couldn’t have the land of the Amorites until God’s patience with that consummately wicked group of nations, had finally been drained to its dregs. Indeed the Lord says that Israel’s long and sorrowful sojourn in Egypt was made necessary, at least in part, because he would not take the Amorites’ lands from them until justice absolutely demanded that he do so. His own children had to wait and suffer because of God’s care for the wicked people already living in Canaan.
This is the doctrine which often goes by the name of ‘common grace,’ to distinguish it from particular and saving grace. Whether that is the best term has long been a matter of debate among theologians, but the idea conveyed by it is surely taught often enough in the Bible.
The promise God made to Noah to preserve the earth and its life was a promise to all of mankind, not merely to his children. Today the whole of mankind benefits continuously from God’s upholding and protecting the pattern of seedtime and harvest. As the Lord Jesus himself reminds us, God causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust alike, a point which is also made just over the page in Deuteronomy 4:19. In many ways which fall short of salvation itself, God shows kindness to people and nations by calling them away from the deepest and most destructive forms of wickedness to which otherwise they are prone. Remember how he sent the prophet Jonah to the Assyrian capital of Nineveh to bring them to repentance and so to forestall his judgment. Remember how he told Jonah that it was precisely because he had compassion on Nineveh, that great city — though desperately wicked — that he sent the prophet to warn them and call them to repentance.
Very often in the Old Testament the prosperity and good fortune and even military conquests of a particular king or kingdom are said to be God’s doing and God’s gift and God’s generosity. He made Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus the men and the kings they were and he gave their kingdoms the splendor and prosperity which they enjoyed. What is more, the skill of the artisan and the craftsmen, so magnificently displayed in those ancient cultures — in architecture, in work in metals and wood, in sculpture, in cloth, and so on–that too, the Scripture says was from the Lord. He teaches the farmer his trade and the grants the artist his skill, whether that artist is Egyptian, Babylonian, or Israelite.
And, of course, there is always the patience of God with people, even with those guilty of the most aggravated sins against him and mankind, guilty, as these peoples unquestionably were, of the most degraded forms of idolatry and of cruelty against others. How long he endures their evil before he visits them with his judgment, how kind and generous and forbearing he shows himself to be in withholding his wrath from peoples and nations which have long-ago filled their cup of wickedness to the brim. We today live in such a nation and endure as a people even now simply because of the wideness of God’s heart, his benevolence and long-suffering.
Still more, there are all the benefits which accrue to people everywhere because of the general order which God imposes on mankind by the implanting of his law in the hearts of all men and women, by the establishing of governments, by the elevating of every culture by the influence of the Holy Spirit whether through the Christian church or through God’s general revelation to mankind in nature, by the Lord’s direct punishment of wickedness, and by his providential enforcement of the rule that ‘the way of the wicked will be hard,’ and so on. This world is not heaven, but it is not hell either. There is considerable goodness of a certain measure, in most places people are able to live with a tolerable amount of trust in others, and the like. All of this, the Scripture says, is the result of God’s faithfulness to his own creation, his goodness, and his benevolence to the whole of mankind.
Call it common grace or say simply, as the Bible does, that the mercy of the Lord is over all his works, that the Lord is good to all and has compassion on all he has made. It is the fact not the name for it which is all-important. Now this fact is fraught with many and great implications for you and me as Christian people and I want, this morning, to consider two of them. For this mercy of God towards all people is not only a truth to know, but a truth to live and to obey!
First, with eyes wide open, we are to see and to appreciate the Lord God in all the good that we find in this world. Has it ever bothered you that unbelievers, that those who have no regard for God or for his Word or for his Son nevertheless can do what seem to be such good things and can create what are indisputably beautiful things? Has it never troubled you that those who live in complete indifference to Christian truth can often rise so high in many ways, even higher, it would seem at first glance, than most Christians you know?
I’m not at all saying that, upon closer inspection, those lives would not betray the ugly fruit of their rebellion against God and that one wouldn’t at the last have to characterize their great achievements, as Augustine did, as peccata splendida — ‘splendid sins.’ Nevertheless, the world is full of unbelievers who have much wisdom and great abilities and who accomplish much that, in itself, would have to be called ‘good.’
I hope you have been troubled by that, at one time or another; I hope, it has caused you some sleeplessness some night or another. Such a concern is the evidence that you care about and are concerned about the honor and the reputation of your great God and Savior. It should bother you, at least once, that people who despise him should deserve such admiration from men and women.
But, you see, there is an explanation for this. All of that good which unbelievers do, all of that beauty they create, all that is fine that they make, is from the Lord God himself. Their wisdom is his gift. Their artistry he gave them. Everything good and worthy and lovely and admirable in any culture, however far from God that culture may be, is the Lord’s doing, and it is his kindness and his goodness toward his sinful, willful, and rebellious creatures.
Take away the mercy of God which is over all his works; take away God’s benevolence toward mankind; take away all the influences of the Holy Spirit by which the natural progression of human sin and evil is checked and its full fury suppressed; take away his gifts by which sinful lives are yet enabled to do that which is worthy in all but the motive; I say, take away all that God, in his mercy, gives even to those in the most open and violent rebellion against him, and there would be nothing, nothing whatsoever to admire or love about humanity or human society. It would be ugliness through and through. That it is not yet so in any culture is the goodness and kindness of God who has compassion on all that he has made.
In our own culture, as our rebellion against the Lord and his will deepens, and, consequently as his gifts are being withdrawn as the first fruits of his coming judgment, are we not seeing precisely what we would expect: less beauty, less nobility, less that is good and true and worthwhile in the lives and work of unbelievers and more and more that is pure ugliness, cheap, dirty, stinking of death. Our public discourse, our art, our thinking as a culture, our public policies, and so on more and more have clinging to them the stench of death, precisely because they are more and more the pure achievements of men and less and less what God has gifted and enabled men and women to do.
Beethoven and Mozart were no Christians, but no Christian should fail to hear the voice of God in their music. Einstein and Stephen Hawking are no Christians, but no Christian should fail to detect God’s genius in their scientific researches. Charles Dickens and Earnest Hemingway were by no means Christians, but no Christian should fail to detect the literary genius of the Holy Spirit in their writings. Shinto and Islam are by no means the truth and far removed from the gospel of God: but it is the Lord, who is denied in those religions, that nevertheless gifted those cultures to produce temples and mosques, art and literature of such exquisite beauty, and patterns of human relationship, hospitality, manners, certain forms of human kindness, and the like which are good and worthy in many ways. It is God that has made so much that is attractive in human cultures, so much that is good and worthy among peoples who live in open rebellion against him. It is his compassion alone that prevents them from plunging headlong into the pit where their sin would take them were it not for his good gifts. Even in the world of modem athletics, which have been corrupted in our day, it would seem almost beyond salvage, men and women accomplish such extraordinary feats because, as the Bible says, God gave them this physical gift or that. What a revolution in sport would be brought to pass if that fact were given its due!
Christians should appreciate this, should discern the Lord’s goodness behind all that is lovely and good and admirable in human society. They should be the first to understand that these good things are God’s doing, not man’s; that left to himself or herself, without God’s kindness, the unbeliever’s life would not be admirable in any respect. Christians should rejoice in God’s goodness everywhere they see it; should be proud of their God for his wonderful compassion and his extraordinary patience toward people who have never acknowledged him or given thanks for his gifts.
One of the most insurmountable arguments for Christian education is just this: that it is fundamental to a true, a right, and a fruitful understanding of life and the world, that young people learn to see the hand of their Father in heaven in everything that is good, wise, right, and beautiful. You cannot possibly glorify God aright if you credit his good gifts as if they were the actual accomplishments of sinful men — yet that is precisely what secular and humanistic education daily and emphatically and repeatedly and religiously teaches young people to do and then fixes as an instinct, a habit in their minds. The Moabites and Ammonites had no idea that the Living God had given them their land and was protecting it for them; and the public school is generally similarly unaware of the Lord’s will and goodness and power behind our lives. And so children are taught to miss the only thing that really matters.
There are two wonderful verses right near the end of the Bible which is in itself almost a Christian philosophy of education and a Christian philosophy of culture combined. They are Revelation 2 I :24 and 26, part of the description of heaven that John gives us at the end of his vision. Speaking of the glory of God being the light of the city, we read: ‘The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it.’ There is, you see, glory and honor and splendor in all the cultures of this world, however sinful. God has not left himself without a witness and his goodness has resulted in his creatures producing much that is to his credit. All of that, because it is from Him and to Him, will find its way at last into the city of God.
It is a Christian’s pleasure and a Christian’s privilege and a Christian’s duty to see and to point out to others what God’s kindness and compassion has brought to pass in the world of sinful men and to honor and praise the Lord for the mercy which is over all his works. That is the first thing.
Second, in view of God’s general goodness to all men, we should ourselves be similarly compassionate and caring toward all men, even those in open rebellion against our Father in heaven. This is the precise conclusion which our Savior drew from the fact that God is merciful to all, even to his enemies. You will remember his words from the sermon on the mount:
‘You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” [the rabbis may have said that, the OT never did] But I tell you: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.'”
The Lord’s point is a simple one. We are to imitate our Father in heaven; follow his example. He is kind to his enemies; we must be as well. He is good to those who despise him, generous and caring for those who have no thought for him; we must do likewise.
And a Christian will be helped to do that and to fulfil that highest part of Christian love and holiness, if he or she learns to notice how much of God’s goodness is always, constantly, and generously being poured out upon the wicked every day. Not only the rain and the sunshine, not only all the ways concerning which we have already spoken this morning, but in every way in which human life is good and rich and fruitful and worthy. He alone, his goodness in giving gifts to the ungrateful and the openly unbelieving, and his greater goodness in holding back the floodtide of human wickedness and keeping it in some bounds, he alone, I say, makes human life good in every way that it is good.
And when we see how much mercy, how much compassion God is lavishing on his enemies every day and in every way we cannot but be both heartened and inspired to show our enemies, both our individual enemies and our corporate enemies the same kindness and the same patience and the same generosity. Every Christian wants to be like his heavenly Father. What Christians often don’t appreciate and so need to learn is just how unspeakably generous and unfailingly kind and how genuinely merciful our heavenly Father always is to his enemies. Human life would collapse and disintegrate were it not so; there would be nothing about it to admire. So much do his enemies depend upon the mercy of God. And That is the example we are to follow in our own lives and with our own enemies!
In my final year of seminary I spent a month in India. My first impressions of that great country were of the overwhelming number of people, the poverty, the dirt, the lack of cleanliness as I was used to it, and the huge flocks of vultures one would see by the road. I am ashamed to say that my first impressions were very unfavorable and my opinion of the country very low. I am thankful to God, however, that he both gave me a long enough stay in the country and opened my blind eyes to see what I had missed at first.
The country is extraordinarily beautiful and the people are very handsome. Those I came to know at all, I liked very much. And then I began to see how high that culture is in many ways. Beautiful artistry in metal and wood, fascinating architecture, lovely work with silk and cloth. Wonderful food. Very different but haunting and, no doubt, beautiful music. Had I stayed longer and learned more, no doubt I would have been impressed in many other ways.
My heavenly Father made those people, and though most of them reject him and refuse him with the most willful ingratitude and practice a degraded and degrading idolatry, he continues to give them gifts without number and continues to hold their native wickedness in check so that life there can continue to be good in many ways and not utterly ruined as it would be if God left them to themselves.
And this is the lesson God taught me and is teaching you, even from this account of Israel’s journey through the wilderness: there is much more of God’s goodness to be noticed than you think; much more for which he deserves praise and thanksgiving than we usually take notice of. His kindness, compassion, and generosity are truly over all his works, over all that he has made, even his enemies.
Those of us who know his still far greater love and mercy should be the very first to say so and to do likewise!