God’s mercies are immeasurable
Reflections on Psalm 102
Prayer: O Lord our God, your might is beyond compare, your glory is beyond comprehension, your mercy is immeasurable and your love for humankind is inexpressible. According to your compassion, O Master, look down on us and bestow on us your rich mercies and compassions. For to you are due all glory, honor and worship—to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever, and to ages of ages. Amen.
It’s true: the mercies of God are immeasurable; the love of God is inexpressible.
In Ephesians 3, the apostle Paul would say that the love of God is so expansive and inclusive, beyond what we ask or imagine, so that it cannot be grasped without the empowerment of God’s indwelling Spirit.
It can be known, and then only in part, through revelation. And that revelation, according to Paul, will always be higher, wider, deeper, and longer than we dare conceive. It’s as if the apostle of grace dares us to try—and then assures us that Father’s love will always exceed our comprehension.
The implication of Paul’s challenge is that we can never possibly over-estimate God’s love. Sometimes we are charged with over-emphasizing grace, as if this were possible. Some even imagine that talk of God’s infinite love ‘waters down’ the gospel!
Impossible. In fact, any limitations and caveats we impose on divine love compromise the gospel, diminish the magnitude of Christ’s great gift, and make our message anemic.
When pejorative labels are used as weapons against the gospel of grace, we hear how too much love is the faith of ‘hippies’ and ‘snowflakes.’ As if dialing down the complete self-giving of Christ’s whole infinite being will make the gospel more rigorous. As if smuggling some retribution and vengeance into the good news will beef up that which was lacking in the universal height, depth, and breadth of the Cross.
No. If anything, we double down on God’s love, declaring that every attribute of God is a facet of that one divine nature, which is Love. Period. Whether it’s mercy and compassion, holiness and righteousness, even chastisement or wrath—if these are not expressions and experiences of divine love, then they are not divine at all.
Nor is this purely a New Covenant revelation. The prophet David (for he was more than a shepherd, king or hymnist) had already seen what Paul saw 1000 years before the apostle.
I offer Psalm 102 (perhaps 103 in your Bible) as an exquisite illustration. Read the Psalm (this may be an unfamiliar translation) and I will make some comments after reflecting on it.
Bless the Lord, O my soul; blessed are you, O Lord.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all that he has done for you.
Who is gracious to all your iniquities, who heals all your infirmities,
who redeems your life from corruption, who crowns you with mercy and compassion,
who fulfills your desire with good things, your youth shall be renewed as the eagle’s.
The Lord performs deeds of mercy, and executes judgment for those who are wronged.
He has made his ways known to Moses, to the children of Israel the things he has willed.
Compassionate and merciful is the Lord, long-suffering and plenteous in mercy;
not to the end will he be angered, neither to eternity will he be wroth.
Not according to our iniquities has he dealt with us,
neither according to our sins has he rewarded us.
For according to the height of heaven from the earth,
the Lord has made his mercy to prevail over those in awe of him.
As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our iniquities from us.
As a father has compassion on his children,
so the Lord has compassion on those in awe of him;
For he knows whereof we are made, he has remember that we are dust.
As for humankind, their days are as the grass;
as a flower of the field, so they blossom forth;
and when the wind has passed over it, then it shall be gone,
and no longer will its place be known.
But the mercy of the Lord is from eternity, even to eternity, on those in awe of him.
And his righteousness is upon children of children, on those who keep his testament and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord of heaven has prepared his throne, and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, all you his angels, mighty in strength,
who perform his word, to hear the voice of his words.
Bless the Lord, all you his hosts, his ministers who do his will.
Bless the Lord, all you his works, in every place of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
Glory to Father, Son and Holy Spirit, now and ever and to ages of ages. Amen.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name;
Blessed are you, O Lord.
He has known his ways to Moses
David here refers to the revelation God gave Moses when he revealed the afterglow of his glory in Exodus 33-34. At the climax of this encounter, God declares:
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)
I am disturbed by how many readers revel in pointing out their key takeaway as “he does not leave the guilty unpunished,” as if this were somehow the point—when God is emphasizing the very opposite.
Yes, under the law, sin’s consequences were sure to be felt—and the tragic blowback of disobedience might be experienced for up to four generations. By contrast, the compassion, the grace, the patience, the love, faithfulness, and forgiveness of God were promised to endure to thousands of generations. Whatever sin could do, God could do better. Whatever the law imposed as penalty, grace would far, far exceed by God’s unfailing love and ever-enduring mercy.
He has made known his ways to David
But it’s not just that David is repeating Moses’ revelation to us. He is also reflecting on it critically. Specifically, first David affirms Moses’ revelation of God’s grace and compassion, God’s slowness to anger and generosity.
But he also notices that God has not treated his children with eye-for-an-eye payback. God has often let sin go unpunished and instead, truly forgiven it. God has not dealt out discipline in proportion to their iniquities. God has not rewarded their sins with retributive payback.
In fact, this is often one of David’s complaints. Why do the wicked prosper? Why do they get away with sin? Why does injustice continue in the land? David is no hippy snowflake. He’s a warrior with enough blood on his sword to disqualify him from building a temple. Too violent for a holy God, in fact!
No, if anything, he accuses God of being too patient (though he wants it for himself). What he accepts as God’s patience for himself, he imagines as God’s negligence for his enemies. But in this Psalm, he has begun to see clearly the expanse of God’s grace.
The all-expansive love of God
In David’s revelation, like Paul, he sees that God’s mercies are wider than the horizons and higher than the heavens. Literally speaking, they don’t end. They can’t end. Because God is Love and God’s Love is infinite and eternal.
Did you notice the temporal descriptions? God is not angry to the end and God’s wrath is not unto eternity. However, we imagine God’s anger or wrath, David declares by revelation that they have prescribed limits. But on the other hand, the mercy of God extends from generation to generation into eternity, without limit. This is surely what James 2:13 describes when it says, “Mercy triumphs over judgement.” Mercy is higher, wider, deeper, longer and most of all, eternal. Judgment comes to an end. Love does not.
“But what about where it says…?”
Yes, yes, I know about biblical passages that present a different perspective. But tell me, why are the law/judgment texts privileged over the grace/mercy texts? Especially when mercy is consistently privileged over judgment by God himself (even to the point of death on the Cross)?
No, I think it’s time we firmly insist: what about these texts? The judgment texts don’t trump the mercy texts, nor are they easily harmonized. But final weight is given to the love of God, not only in the prophecies of David or epistles of Paul, but on the Cross of Christ. There, we see judgment in its purest form: the radically forgiving love of Christ.
Are there judgments? O yes, Christ himself delivered dire warnings, exhorting us to avoid the judgments intrinsic to sin and from which he came to save us. There are also the judgments or chastisements of divine love (Hebrews 12:3-8) to be endured, which prove we are God’s beloved children.
And then there is judgement in the sense of verdict. Christ alone is entrusted to render the final verdict. What David and Paul and James saw—and Christ finally demonstrated—is that the final word will be neither ‘guilty’ nor ‘not guilty’ but rather ‘eternal mercy.’
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