Biblical Ethics: To Be Like God

God is often portrayed as a tyrant, mercilessly enacting vengeance on those He claims to love.  The truth is that there are many instances throughout the Old Testament that contradict this widely-accepted view.  These moments show not only God’s desire for justice but also His loving mercy and humility as well.  Furthermore, these moments show that God asks nothing from His people that He himself has not demonstrated.  Nor does He ask anything that He has not given them the ability to do.  Micah 6:8b summaries God’s expectations: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly.” (NIV)

In God’s economy justice and mercy are often intertwined.  From the very beginning we see both justice and mercy in God’s dealings with Adam and Eve.  They eat the fruit of the forbidden tree, disobeying God and bringing sin and death into the world God created.  A holy and just God, He has no choice but to punish them.  They are banished from the garden forever.  Yet even in their banishment, He does not abandon them.  While their relationship with God has changed due to their sin, they are still in communication with Him.  Additionally, before sending them out of the garden, God clothed them.  This is the first indication that sin causes death, as God had to sacrifice an animal.  However, God’s words to the serpent indicate that He has already set in motion the plan to defeat sin once and for all.

Perhaps the most significant indication of God’s demonstration of justice is simply the fact that He gave His people a code of law at Sinai.  This should be perceived as a blessing.  Israel now knew exactly what God required of them and what He was really like as the law is a wonderful depiction of God’s character.  Micah reminds Israel and all people that God has revealed what is good.  His law shows what is right and just as well as how to treat others with loving kindness and compassion.  God gave the law not to set impossible standards but to show that He is both just and loving.  Despite having clear guidelines, the Israelites routinely fail to live up to the law.  Throughout the period of judges, a pattern develops.  The Israelites fall away from God and His commandments, disobeying and allowing sin to permeate their culture.  As punishment and in order to get their attention, God would allow a foreign nation to oppress Israel.  The people would repent and cry out to God and in His mercy, God would raise up a military leader to free His people.  Unfortunately, the cycle would then begin again.  However, while He continued to allow their oppression as punishment, He continued to respond with love and mercy each time they repented.

The story of Jonah and Nineveh is yet another example of both God’s justice and His mercy.  God gave Jonah a task: go to Nineveh and deliver a message.  Jonah, full of hatred for the people of Nineveh, chose instead to run away.  However, no one can run away from God.  Acting justly, God punished Jonah through a terrible storm at sea and a giant fish.  One would not expect to be swallowed by a giant fish and still live.  Yet, God’s mercy extended to Jonah even in his disobedience and punishment by allowing the fish to swallow him yet not kill him.  Jonah was given the opportunity to repent.  He did so and completed his mission by delivering God’s message.  The entire nation of Nineveh, from the King on down, repented, fasted, and prayed for God’s forgiveness.  God again showed mercy as well as justice by accepting their change of heart and withholding His planned destruction.  We see God honoring repentance, extending His mercy to both prophet and sinner, delivering both from punishment.

More compelling evidence of God’s justice and mercy can be seen in Genesis 18.  Acting justly, God tells Abraham that He intends to decimate Sodom and Gomorrah for their rampant wickedness.  His “negotiations” with Abraham show that He does not desire to harm anyone and is willing to withhold punishment if even ten righteous people can be found.  Ultimately, He does destroy the cities, but rescues Lot and his daughters.  Lot’s wife unfortunately disobeyed the command from the Angel and was turned into a pillar of salt for her disobedience. Through these examples, we can see that God demonstrates mercy and justice throughout the Old Testament.  His love endures forever (Psalm 100:5) and He is long-suffering, patient with His people and always willing to forgive when they repent and return to Him.

Although it may be hard to imagine, this mighty and just God is also humble, a trait often overlooked.  God has shown his humility in numerous ways.  Most significantly, despite the fact that He is God – mighty, holy, powerful – He chose to create us – fallen, sinful, humans.  He not only created us, He created a beautiful world just for us.  This earth was not created for Him to live in, it was created especially for us to live in and enjoy, as a gift from a loving Father.  Additionally, he gave us free will.  In other words, He created us and then gave us the choice to be in relationship with our creator or to walk away from Him.  Just as parents bring their children into this world and raise them knowing that when they grow up they may choose to live a life completely contrary to the parents hopes and desires for them, so God brought us, His children, into this world and gave us the option to follow Him or not.  He could have created humans without the ability to choose their own way, but in His humility, He wants us to love and obey Him because we want to do so.

His humility can also be seen in His interactions with Noah.  Justly angered that the world had become such a wicked place, God decides to destroy everything He created.  Afterwards, when the waters had receded, Noah builds an altar and makes a sacrifice to God.  God’s response is to make a covenant that He will never again destroy all living things no matter how evil man may become.  God is humbly admitting that He should not take vengeance on all living creatures for man’s sinfulness.  Furthermore, He set the rainbow in the sky as a reminder to both us and Himself of His promise.  We can look at the rainbow each time it appears and be reminded that God is faithful and humble.

Despite all of this, the nation of Israel was filled with stubborn, prideful people who continually insisted on going their own way.  Micah 6:3 depicts God bringing a suit against Judah with the opening salvo, “What have I done to you?”  God wants to know why His people have once again turned their backs on Him, believing that somehow, He has not been faithful to His promises.[1]  It is worth noting that God calls upon the mountains and hills to hear to bear witness to what is taking place.  Similarly, in Deuteronomy 30:19, God calls upon the heavens and the earth to witness the covenant He is making with His people, directly after reminding them to keep His commandments by walking in His way in Deuteronomy 30:16.  This is meant to emphasize the seriousness of the occasion.[2]  God’s question is meant to be rhetorical.  As demonstrated previously, God has never been unfaithful to His word and His people, as God points out in Micah 6:4-5.  The people’s response to God’s clear display of His constancy shows just how far they have fallen as they ask what they must now do to appease God, even going so far as to suggest sacrificing their firstborn children.  It is obvious that they, like many people today, still do not understand the nature of God and what He is truly asking of His people.[3]

In response, Micah first reminds both the Israelites, and us today, that they already knew what God required.  He had declared this message to Abraham (Gen 15:6, 17:1,9), to Moses at Sinai (Exodus 20-23), through his prophets (Deut 6:1-8, Deut 10:12-13, Hosea 6:6) and through Israel’s wise men (Proverbs 1:7).  McComiskey argues that the Hebrew word for “man” (adam) implies all humanity so none can claim ignorance.[4]  The prophet then continues with what Nogalski calls biblical ethics in a nutshell: “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly.  In other words, God is not seeking mechanical, ritualistic worship and sacrifices.  He wants living sacrifices: followers with changed hearts who love God and others, do what is right, are merciful, and walk humbly in an on-going intimate relationship with Him.[5]  He wants His people to be like Him.


[1] Spence, Henry Donald Maurice, and Joseph Samuel Exell. The Pulpit commentary. Vol. 14. McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company, 87.

[2] James Nogalski, The book of the twelve: Hosea--Jonah (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Pub., 2011), 572.

[3] Spence, 87.

[4] McComiskey, Thomas E., The Minor Prophets: An Exegtical and Expository Commentary, Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 1993, 733.

[5] NLT Study Bible. New Living translation. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2008, 1491.

Bibliography

Spence, Henry Donald Maurice, and Joseph Samuel Exell. The Pulpit Commentary. Vol. 14. McLean, VA: MacDonald Publishing Company.

McComiskey, Thomas E., The Minor Prophets: An Exegtical and Expository Commentary, Vol. 2. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing, 1993.

Nogalski, James. The Book of the Twelve: Hosea--Jonah. Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys Pub., 2011.

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