Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Wrath and mercy

by John D Ramsey

The other night at the dinner table Claire asked, “Why did Noah curse, Canaan?” This is a heavy question for an eleven-year old – not exactly dinner conversation at most tables, either. In fact, this question carries with it much weight of the world’s history. Why would the Canaanites be subjugated to other peoples because of the sin of one man? On the surface, the curse upon Canaan seems disproportionate with the crime. Yet because of the sin of Adam, all men are born under the curse of death. Each of us is a sinner for two reasons: we inherit Adam’s sin and we sin. Because of Adam’s sin, we all die. Yet God judges each according to his deeds. Likewise, Canaan and his descendants inherited the sin of his father Ham. Yet God withheld judgment on at least one occasion because their sin was incomplete (read Genesis 15:16). While Canaan was cursed, wrath befell those who merited wrath.

In Noah’s day, rampant sin and rebellion characterized the human race. God preserved Noah, his wife, Noah’s sons, Ham, Shem, and Japheth and their wives. The rest of the world perished in a great flood. Sometime after the flood, Noah planted a vineyard and became drunk form his wine. Noah’s son Ham entered Noah’s tent and discovered his father naked in a drunken stupor.

In response to seeing his father’s condition, Ham told his brothers about it. Shem and Japheth refused to look upon their father in his debilitated state and entered backwards into his tent and covered Noah. When Noah awakened and remembered what had happened, he prophesied, saying,

Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers.

Blessed be the LORD, the God of Shem!
May Canaan be the slave of Shem.

May God extend the territory of Japheth;
may Japheth live in the tents of Shem,
and may Canaan be his slave.

Genesis 9:25-27 (NIV)

What was Ham’s crime that caused Noah to curse and entire race of people? Solomon wrote, “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all transgressions.” Proverbs 10:12 (NIV) Ham had witnessed the destruction of the earth’s population wherein “every inclination of the thoughts of [men’s hearts] was only evil all the time.” Genesis 6:5 (NIV) God had spared Ham along with his wife, yet Ham had harbored in his heart the evil that the flood had nearly destroyed. Noah must have grieved to see that the cleansing the earth had endured at such a high cost was yet incomplete. Evil had acquired safe passage on the ark in the person of Ham, Noah’s youngest son. The evil that Ham preserved would render consequences, and Noah prophesied regarding the impact of Ham’s sin.

Notice that Noah curses Canaan, not Ham. Cursing Canaan instead of his father, Ham, may appear to be capricious, yet if Noah had cursed Ham, the result for Canaan would be the same. If Noah had said, “May Ham be [Shem and Japheth’s] slave,” Canaan would have incurred the same penalty. Yet we might ask, among Ham’s sons, why was Canaan cursed?

Ham was Noah’s youngest son; likewise, if the order of names indicates chronology, Canaan was also Ham’s youngest son. Perhaps Ham would learn the pain of seeing his youngest son continue in the selfish and destructive habits of his father.

Nevertheless, by cursing the son and not the father, Noah demonstrated mercy alongside his wrath. Ham’s other sons, Cush, Mizraim, and Put were spared from the legacy of their father’s sin. Ham would see the consequences of his actions played out by the comparative outcomes of his own sons. Canaan would become an object of wrath, while his brothers obtained mercy.

From the very beginning, Scripture contrasts wrath and mercy. Adam and Eve endured judgment, yet not without mercy. Likewise, Cain, after murdering his brother Abel, cried out to God saying,
My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.

Genesis 4:13 (NIV)
God had mercy on Cain and promising him protection from revenge.

Several hundred years later, Noah and his family received mercy while the rest of the world perished by the wrath of God. Scripture includes other examples of wrath paired with mercy:

  • Lot obtained mercy while Sodom and Gomorrah burned.
  • Though Abraham pleaded with God, saying, “If only Ishmael might live under your blessing!” nevertheless, God replied that he would establish the covenant with Sarah’s son, Isaac.
  • Later Abraham drove Hagar and her son away from the presence of Isaac. (By the way, nowhere in Scripture, Old Testament or New Testament, does it say that Hagar’s son in this context was Ishmael. I will write more on this in a subsequent post.)
  • Jacob obtained Isaac’s blessing and inheritance while Isaac cursed Esau to live in desert places, live by the sword, and serve his younger brother.
  • At the time of Israel’s Exodus from Egypt, the firstborn of every household died, yet God granted mercy to those whose doorways displayed the blood of the Passover lamb.
  • While Jericho perished, Joshua spared Rahab and her family. Rahab, the Canaanite, by mercy became an ancestor of King David and Jesus Christ. Even as Israel was exterminating and subjugating the Canaanites, God extended mercy to a few.
  • Likewise, Ruth, from the cursed nation of Moab obtained mercy; Ruth also joined the bloodline of Jesus Christ.
  • Bathsheba, who committed adultery with King David, yet became the mother of Solomon. Solomon’s reign in Israel was the pinnacle of Israel’s history.
In Scripture, men do not merit mercy. For instance, God chose Isaac before Isaac was born; consequently, Isaac could not have earned God’s favor. Likewise, though Jacob as a young man was a scoundrel, God chose him before he was born. Before Israel’s departure from Egypt, the Israelites had not been faithful to God. Yet God had chosen to show mercy to Israel. Others receiving mercy earned it not because of their exemplary lifestyles, but rather they earned mercy through faith.

Scripture frequently contrasts wrath and mercy, yet we are incapable of rationalizing God’s purpose in showing mercy to some and resigning others to wrath. In Romans 9, Paul makes it clear that decisions regarding wrath and mercy are God’s alone. Paul argues,
What if God, choosing to show his wrath and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath—prepared for destruction?

What if he did this to make the riches of his glory known to the objects of his mercy, whom he prepared in advance for glory— even us, whom he also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?

Romans 9:22-24 (NIV)

When we see the contrast of wrath and mercy in Scripture, we should reject any notion that correlates wrath with injustice. Rather we should stand in awe of God’s mercy. When Noah cursed Canaan rather than his father, Ham, he demonstrated the balance between God’s wrath and mercy. God’s wrath is sure, but God’s mercy still saves. Yet there is no explaining why Canaan deserved wrath more than his brothers did. Nor can we explain why Canaan’s brothers obtained mercy. We can only observe that one received wrath while others obtained mercy.

In Romans 3, Paul explains that no one is better than another according to God’s standard. He writes, “There is no difference . . . all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Romans 3:22-23 (NIV) While we all merit God’s wrath, God’s mercy is his alone to grant. The severity of God's wrath also demonstrates the depth of God's mercy. Paul writes to the Ephesians, saying,

All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath. But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.

Ephesians 2:3-4 (NIV)

John the Baptist, in his final recorded testimony declared, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him.” John 3:36 (NIV) Consequently, the Gospel of Jesus Christ is a message of both wrath and mercy. The Apostle Paul explained to the Corinthians that the Gospel he preached was an “aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing. To the one we are the smell of death; to the other, the fragrance of life.” 2 Corinthians 2:15-16 (NIV)

We merit God’s wrath; nevertheless, our hearing the Gospel is God’s calling us to his mercy. The record of Scripture informs us that mercy comes to man by God’s sovereign choice and by man’s response of faith. Having received a call to obtain mercy, how will you now respond?

No comments:

Post a Comment