God is merciful – almost to a fault. And anyone who knows anything knows that God’s mercy never fails. Psalm 136 says it 26 times. But you see… that’s misunderstood, and those people are wrong. God’s mercy DOES fail.To understand that, you need to have a quick primer in the concept of Mercy. See, mercy is a single word. It describes a single concept. Similarly, grace, kindness, and peace are all words, and each of which describe a single concept. They aren’t all the same, and while some might be similar, when God means mercy, He says mercy. When He means kindness, He says kindness. Many times He uses them together in the same verse, so we KNOW they mean different things.
I talk about this in other articles in more detail, but the short story on mercy is that mercy is the forgiveness of a sin. A sin that has been repented-of, and is no longer being committed. Mercy cannot take place until a judgment has been made, because James tells us that “mercy rejoices against judgment” (James 2:13, see also Zechariah 7:9, Matthew 23:23). So mercy can’t very well rejoice against judgment unless a judgment came first.
Mercy rejoices against judgment because mercy is the forgiveness of that judgment. Mercy wipes away the penalty required by that judgment and cancels it forever. But that can only happen after repentance, for Christ commands us to rebuke our brother (make a judgment against him, and tell him that He is wrong), and then – IF HE REPENT – to forgive Him. So we have a clear definition of mercy. Mercy is the forgiveness of a repented-of sin.
Mercy is not the same as kindness however, for mercy refers to that specific act and that alone – whereas kindness refers to something someone does just because they’re nice. It may be forgiveness, it may be help, or it may be a meal – but those are all acts of kindness, not mercy. Now that we understand that, let’s look at some concrete examples of where God’s mercy – His forgiveness of repented-of sin – DID fail.
Judges 2:11,13-14 [after entering the promised land and the death of Joshua and the elders…] … the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD … And they forsook the LORD, and served Baal and Ashtaroth. And the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel, … and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about…
So Israel sinned and God judged them, and sentenced them to the penalty of being enslaved by a neighbor country, whose gods Israel had decided to serve instead of God. But God was merciful, so God raised them up a judge (vs 16-17) because He felt sorry for them (vs 18). And the judge delivered them from their enemies, but then the people wouldn’t listen to the judge and as soon as the judge was dead they went back to worshiping other gods (vs 19), so God again sentenced them to punishment (vs 20-21).
All in all, this cycle – sin, slavery, crying to God, forgiveness, a judge, then ignoring the judge and sinning again – happened five times. Each time God was a bit more testy, and finally after the fifth time they repented and asked for His forgiveness (mercy) He said
Judges 10:14 Go and cry unto the gods which ye have chosen; let them deliver you in the time of your tribulation.
Basically saying “you got yourself into this mess, get yourself out”. Doesn’t that sound like God was TIRED of being merciful to this people? But their repentance was even more abject this time after God refused to forgive them, and they seemed truly penitent…
Verse 16 And they put away the strange gods from among them, and served the LORD: and his soul was grieved for the misery of Israel.
So God forgave them ONE MORE TIME. But this time, it wasn’t like before; yes, they were delivered; but no longer was Israel left alone, as it says, to do what each thought was best…
Judges 17:6 In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes.
And no longer did God raise up a judge only when needed to deliver Israel, but now judges were there constantly (Judges 12:7-15), until even that system wasn’t enough to keep Israel righteous, and they sinned again and had to be delivered into the Philistines. This time, God was getting tired of endlessly forgiving people who obviously hadn’t repented, so unlike the 7-20 years of captivity of the previous times, this one lasted 40 years (Judges 13:1) after Eli’s sons angered God so much that He took the ark and gave it to the Philistines (1 Samuel 3-4).
This captivity was eased a bit by Samson and later Samuel, but it wasn’t ended until Saul (1 Samuel 13). The people chose a king, and so God accommodated them. And the king kept people in line somewhat better, for the king was required to write out the entire law in longhand (Deuteronomy 17:18), and therefore was expected to know what it said and enforce what it said. But even the king system didn’t work over the long term, although it had worked better than the anarchy period and the judges period.
But gradually after the kingdom split and a process of kings that were bad, good, bad, bad, good, bad, worse, marginal and terrible came along, God grew tired of forgiving, then punishing, then forgiving, and punishing, a people who never learned.
Jeremiah 15:6 Thou hast forsaken me, saith the LORD, thou art gone backward: therefore will I stretch out my hand against thee, and destroy thee; I AM WEARY WITH REPENTING.
God was TIRED of repenting, and changing His mind and being talked out of the evil He was planning to do to His people for their evil. He sent men like Jeremiah to them…
2 Chronicles 36:16 But they mocked the messengers of God, and despised his words, and misused his prophets, until the wrath of the LORD arose against his people, till there was NO REMEDY.
After bad king Manasseh had caused so much evil in Judah, and God saw how the people followed Him, God’s mind was made up. Judah had to be destroyed. Even though God’s judgment against Manasseh personally was rescinded because of his extreme contrition (2 Chronicles 33:12-13), yet because the people had followed him into such evil acts, there was no talking God out of destroying the nation. Even when a really GOOD king came along later and tried to set Judah back on track.
2 Kings 23:25-26 And like unto him was there no king before him, that turned to the LORD with all his heart, and with all his soul, and with all his might, according to all the law of Moses; neither after him arose there any like him. Notwithstanding the LORD turned not from the fierceness of his great wrath, wherewith his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations that Manasseh had provoked him withal.
Three generations later – EVEN THOUGH Manasseh had repented – and in the face of an OUTSTANDING king – God STILL could not bring Himself to forgive Judah. So what can we conclude but that God’s mercy… failed.
As another example of repentance not cutting it, and God refusing mercy, Samuel promised:
1 Samuel 8:18 And ye shall cry out in that day because of your king which ye shall have chosen you; and the LORD will not hear you in that day.
Promising in advance that God’s mercy would not be there. Saul also repented, and God denied mercy.
1 Samuel 15:24 And Saul said unto Samuel, I have sinned: for I have transgressed the commandment of the LORD, and thy words: because I feared the people, and obeyed their voice. Now therefore, I PRAY THEE, PARDON MY SIN, and turn again with me, that I may worship the LORD. And Samuel said unto Saul, I will not return with thee: for thou hast rejected the word of the LORD, and the LORD hath rejected thee from being king over Israel.
The Lord REJECTED Saul, and despite that rather handsome repentance, God’s mercy … failed. Of course, we all know that when it came to Esau, God’s mercy failed, too.
Hebrews 12:17 For ye know how that afterward, when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected: for he found no place of repentance, though he sought it carefully with tears.
Esau is there presented as a type of backsliding Christian, and an example for us – a warning not to fall away from what we know (vs 15,16).
So now that we’ve established that God’s mercy does in fact come to a point where it has been abused so much that He simply won’t give it… where does that leave us? Why do many psalms (in particular, Psalm 136) say “His mercy endures forever” – when it obviously does not? The answer lies in a simple mistranslation. Because the King James translators were not inspired, they made occasional mistakes. Also, being men who were under the Church of England – which was little different from Catholicism – many things about the Bible that we understand were closed to them.
And they simply did not know the difference between mercy and kindness that I explained at the beginning of this article. They are different words, meaning different things. But the same Hebrew word, chesed, is translated as “mercy” 149, and as “kindness” 40 times, 30 times as “lovingkindness”, and as 9 other words a few times each. The problem being, every single time it should have been translated as “kindness”. Just kindness. Not lovingkindness, or mercy or favor or pity, as it’s also translated – just kindness.
The root word of Chesed is Chasad, which according to Strong’s concordance means “to be good, be kind“. Not to be merciful, and not to forgive sins, repented-of or otherwise. Now all of those Psalms that say “His mercy endures forever” should be understood to mean “His KINDNESS endures forever”. It makes much more sense in the context. Furthermore, you should be on your guard in the old testament, for there are 149 “mercy”s there that should read “kindness”.
But having dealt with the nuts and bolts, let’s back to the concept.
WHY does His mercy fail? And can it fail on YOU?
Well let’s start with this principle:
Jonah 2:8 They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy.
The word mercy there would properly be translated as kindness; people who forsake God, forsake God’s kindness. And with His kindness goes His mercy.
Jeremiah 16:5 For thus saith the LORD, … for I have taken away my peace from this people, saith the LORD, even lovingkindness and mercies.
Here “Mercy” is from the word “racham” which actually does mean mercy. God took away His mercy from Judah because they left Him. And even though they repented as Esau did, bitterly with tears, sometimes repentance isn’t enough. Like when the Pharisees came to be baptized by John…
Matthew 3:7-8 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bring forth therefore fruits meet for repentance:
John KNEW that these Pharisees were the same sort of people who had been sinning, repenting, being forgiven, and then sinning again for 1,500 years. And He KNEW that their repentance, even though they SAID they repented, and might have even meant it on some level, would not be genuine! So he demanded FRUITS – WORKS to prove that they really HAD repented!
But many will say “But God told Peter that even if his brother sinned against him 490 times (70×7), and repent, that he MUST forgive him!” (Matthew 18:22). And that is true! But what is repentance? Seeing your works and hating them, and stopping them. So if someone comes to God and says “I repent of stealing” – while their hand is AT THAT VERY MINUTE in the cookie jar – then IT ISN’T REPENTANCE! And if God KNOWS, by a persons acts, that the repentance is a LIE, it doesn’t count as repentance at all!
God IS patient, and will forgive people over and over again; but the more chances they have, the less willing He is to forgive you. The more He tries to teach you – and the more you rebel – the more He will have to see actual PROOF that you’ve changed before He forgives you. Take Paul:
1 Timothy 1:13 Who was before a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious: but I obtained mercy, because I did it ignorantly in unbelief.
Paul was all sorts of a sinner; but because he did it IGNORANTLY – not knowing any better – he obtained mercy. But had he obtained that mercy, and THEN rebelled, and repented – God would have forgiven him. But less readily, and perhaps with reservations pending proof of Paul’s obedience. If he sins again, God can again forgive him, Just as He did Israel under the judges – but each time He’s a little less happy about it, for each time Paul would prove again that he wasn’t REALLY repenting – he just wanted God not to punish him.
It comes down to this; some sins you understood were wrong before you did them; you couldn’t FULLY know of course, since you don’t have the experience of someone like, say, God – but you knew partly, or at least knew that God had said this was wrong. And the more you knew and the more you rebelled against, the less God will forgive.
Hebrews 10:26 For if we sin wilfully after that we have received the knowledge of the truth, there remaineth no more sacrifice for sins,
Forgiveness is simply God applying Christ’s sacrifice to your debt to sin; sin demands a penalty from you, and Jesus just cancels the penalty for your sins, paying for them in your place. God takes the beating out of His hide instead of yours, to put it bluntly. And if you are completely ignorant of what is right and wrong, God is HAPPY to pay the penalty for your sins in your place. On the opposite end of the spectrum however, if you FULLY know the truth, and FULLY know that something is wrong, God cannot pay for any portion of your sin in your stead, for there can be no sacrifice for a willful sin.
Fortunately however, none of us fall into the latter category since we all, at best, “see through a glass darkly” (1 Corinthians 13:12). On the other hand, since we all know a LITTLE bit about God, none of us fall into the former category either. So we all fall somewhere in the middle.
The wages of sin is death. And we will all die one day and pay for that sin. But each sin also comes with it’s own penalty which we experience in this life; dropping a rock on your toe sins against your toe and your toe hurts. The point of this is to teach you not to sin against your toe. And if you didn’t know that dropping a rock on your toe would hurt, God is happy to pay the penalty for that sin and heal your toe. However, if you KNEW that it would hurt your toe, and dropped it just to get God to heal it (compare to Matthew 4:6-7), God will not forgive that sin against your toe because YOU KNEW BETTER! That one you can pay for on your own, by waiting, in pain, until it heals in a few days or weeks (depending on the size of the rock).
And in exactly the same way, Jesus is willing to apply his own death to your sins. The ones that you did ignorantly, not knowing any better. But the ones that you DID know better, you’ll have to pay for on your own. Take this as an example:
Matthew 5:25 Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing.
If you turn the other cheek God says many times that you’ll be protected, and that even your enemies will be at peace with you (Proverbs 16:7). If however, you rage and yell and cuss at the officer who is arresting you, and try to fight it out yourself, God says that you can rot in prison until you’ve served your sentence or paid the fine. In other words, God’ll pay the ticket if you trust Him; but if you want to fight it out yourself, God will be glad to step back and let you pay for it out of your own hide.
With any sin, it’s the same; if you know God says something is wrong, and reject His advice and do it anyway, God is more than happy to step back and let it play out for you, so you can experience firsthand the reason WHY you shouldn’t sin; and then when you get arrested for stealing, and then ask God to forgive you… He probably will. But considering you knew going INTO the act that it was wrong, there can be no sacrifice for that portion of the sin that you understood was wrong.
And so God will pay the other part, but YOU’LL have to suffer until the part that you KNEW better about is paid off. And some of us, for some sins, we knew too well that they were wrong, and did them anyway; and for them, God is not going to blindly forgive them and cancel all of the penalty for them;
Joshua 24:19 And Joshua said unto the people, Ye cannot serve the LORD: for he is an holy God; he is a jealous God; he will not forgive your transgressions nor your sins.
God will NOT forgive open rebellion against Him, if you fully understood what that open rebellion meant at the time. And so if you know something is wrong, and do it anyway, God’s mercy WILL fail on you – that’s a promise from Him. Fortunately, since at best we see through a glass darkly, and don’t REALLY know how evil, evil is… God will always find it in His heart to forgive us. Eventually. To some extent.
But if you want to try life for yourself, live it up and party hardy against the commandments, God will let you pay for exactly the amount of sin you understand is sin at the time – even if you later apologize to Him, as Saul did, you’ll have to pay for your willful sins by yourself. Fortunately, most sins have a relatively small penalty that can be worked off in this life. For instance, if you steal and get sent to 5 years in state lockdown, the price has been paid to society. Even if you repent somewhere in the middle, if you knew going in that it was wrong and just didn’t care, God may let you rot there “until you pay the very last penny” of your debt to society. Just to make sure you got the message.
And even if you never get the message, down the road, God will eventually come around and open your mind – if not in this life, in the next – and you’ll see then how much of a dufus you were. If you wait until the next life it’ll be too late to get in on the ground floor – you can’t repent your way into the first resurrection then, nor receive the reward you are offered today – but you’ll still have a chance at eternal life and happiness in the kingdom of God.
Of course… if you rebel even then, when your mind is opened and the deception of Satan is put away…. if you metaphorically stand on the sea of glass and spit in God’s face even then… well, God’s mercy will fail.