“Who is a God like unto thee, that pardoneth iniquity, and passeth by the transgression of the remnant of his heritage? he retaineth not his anger for ever; because he delighteth in mercy.
He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; he will subdue our iniquities; and thou wilt cast all their sins into the depths of the sea.”
“I believe in the forgiveness of sins . . . .”
Such is the contents of the tenth article of faith as expressed in Apostle’s Creed, which is recited in most Christian churches each Sabbath Day.
Among the many benefits accruing to the church which is both holy and catholic, and showered upon that church by the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of the exalted Redeemer, is the grace of forgiveness, without which none of the other benefits could ever reach us.
And this wonderful grace of forgiveness finds its source and fountainhead in the eternal, matchless, and unfailing mercy of God. Such is the idea and main thought of our text, which speaks to us of this, namely, the unfailing mercy of God.
To be noticed, first of all, is the compassionate and incomparable nature of this divine mercy.
Mercy is a divine attribute. Commonly it is classed as one of the communicable attributes of God. You may or may not know that the attributes of God are generally distinguished as incommunicable and communicable attributes. By this distinction theologians mean to point out that there are some attributes of God of which you do not find a creatural likeness in man. These are called incommunicable, and include attributes of God such as His eternity, infinity, independency, oneness, simplicity, and immutability. On the other hand, so it is pointed out, there are other attributes of which you do find a creatural likeness in man, such as: His goodness, holiness, righteousness, truth, love, grace, mercy, longsuffering, etc. To be observed is the fact that mercy finds its place in this last distinction. This classification of God’s attributes will stand, provided we do not make the mistake of ascribing to man some of the attributes of God. The idea is not that some of the divine attributes man possesses in no sense of the word, namely, the incommunicable attributes; while some of the attributes man also possesses, namely, the communicable. Such an idea could not be farther from the truth. It should be abundantly clear that God possesses all of His attributes uniquely alone.
This is expressly emphasized in the text, where the prophet asks the question, and mind you, of God: “Who is a God like unto thee . . . ?” The implication of this question is: There is none like unto God!
God is great, and full of infinite virtues!
Mercy, though it stands out, and is stressed in the text, and is intended to magnify the incomparable nature of God, is nevertheless, not an isolated virtue of the divine.
We must not therefore conclude that God is only merciful. Rather, He is full of infinite perfections. And when we are privileged to behold God in the radiation of all His perfections, we see Him in what the Scriptures denote His glory. And this glory He gives not to another, for He is God, and God alone!
Moreover, when the child of God looks at His God as He objectively reveals Himself in His Word, then He must exclaim: all of God’s attributes are incomparable and one in Him. There is no one attribute he can single out as outstanding in distinction from others. Each one describes His God in the perfection of His Being, and all together they exalt his God as the Wholly Other.
On the other hand, when the child of God looks at his God from the subjective point of view, that is, from the viewpoint of his experience, then the outstanding virtue of God is His mercy. Undoubtedly this is also the viewpoint of the text.
Who is a God like unto thee. . .who delighteth in mercy?
When Isaiah raised the questions (Isaiah 40:18) “To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?” he no doubt had in mind the same thing. In the context the prophet is speaking of the gospel of comfort: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” And again: “O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid, say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!” And again: “All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.” In the light of this, he asks: “To whom then will ye liken God?”
Micah, in our text, asks the same question, only with this difference, that he directs the question not to the people but to God. Who is a God like unto thee? . . . because he delighteth in mercy. But the purpose of the question is that the children of God may look at their God and discern how great He is when they consider that the very first of all His virtues they experience is His compassionate mercy. When the prophet considered that mercy, and its compassionate nature, he is overwhelmed by the greatness of his God. No different is it when we also consider it.
It is in His mercy God delights to reveal Himself to His people.
Mercy is the manifestation of God’s perfect, eternal, unchangeable will. It is His eternal, unchangeable purpose to bless His people. From all eternity He delighted to deliver us from the deepest possible misery and corruption, and to make us partakers of the highest possible bliss. That is His mercy!
Mercy is therefore not a passing emotion in God, when in time He discovers their awful state and condition as miserable, lost sinners, whom He desires to save and deliver, if they will but turn to Him and accept His offer to deliver them and make them blessed. Such is not the God of the Holy Scriptures. Such is an idol-god.
No! His mercy is the will of His eternal counsel, in which He eternally delighted in mercy. His mercy is not an offer to save those who are willing to be delivered from misery, but the will to deliver all whom He in His mercy had given to Christ in that same counsel to be delivered by Him.
In this light, as we shall see presently, the cross of Christ is not a temporary expedient upon which God falls and of which He makes use to deliver His people, but the cross is as eternal as His mercy. In one word, God ordained all things with a view to the display of His eternal mercy.
You will have noticed that we have been speaking of God’s mercy to His people. This we have done in anticipation of our second thought as suggested in the text: the unworthy recipients of this mercy.
Unworthy, that is, in themselves.
This unworthiness the recipients of mercy also acknowledge. In the context we read: “Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be light unto me. I will bear the indignation of the Lord, because I have sinned against Him, until He plead my cause, and execute judgment for me. . .” (vss. 8, 9). This is the judgment which those who are the objects of God’s mercy made of themselves. They are those in the kingdom of Judah who bemoaned the sins of the nation, for which they confessed that they are also guilty. They had lately witnessed how the kingdom of Israel had been taken into captivity because Israel had refused to repent of their sins. They now also heard the word of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Micah that Israel’s sister Judah had also committed abominations and would also be carried away into captivity. And they constitute the remnant that bemoan their sins, but in hope look to Jehovah their God to deliver them from their sin and misery in His eternal mercy. Indeed, the objects of God’s mercy consider themselves unto all eternity unworthy of the mercy of God.
But let it become abundantly clear that in God’s sight they are considered worthy of His everlasting mercy.
The text speaks of the remnant of His heritage. Most probably we are to understand this as the remnant which is His heritage. God’s heritage is a remnant which He purposes to deliver from their sin and misery, and to make them partakers of the highest bliss.
Nor should we consider the “remnant” to be a left-over, something otherwise good for nothing. We sometimes use the term, of course, in this sense. Our housewives go to the dry-goods store to purchase remnants, that is, that portion of a bolt of cloth which is left after the major part of the bolt has been sold. The merchant, of course, considers the pieces left over of little value, and so the housewife may purchase them at little cost, while she may make good use of them. However, when the Bible speaks of God’s people as a remnant it must never be concluded that the remnant which is God’s heritage is some kind of a left-over which God gets after the Devil has succeeded in getting the best pick. Such a conception would be most God-dishonoring. The truth is, the remnant is God’s precious heritage, His special possession, His elect.
Chosen in Christ they are from all eternity to be redeemed by Him!
His delight in them is not a passing fancy, but they constitute the heart of His eternal counsel. Moses said it succinctly when he declared: “For the Lord’s portion is his people; Jacob is the lot of his inheritance.” (Deut. 32:9). That means literally that God’s people is that portion of all mankind about whom He stretches a cord, and declares, This is my precious possession. Isaiah expresses God’s delight in His people this way: “This people have I formed for myself, they shall shew forth my praise.” (Isaiah 43:21).
And so it is in our text: the remnant which is His heritage, is the object of His everlasting mercy.
To that people the prophet now comes with the gospel message: God retains not His anger for ever, because He delights in His mercy.
That mercy, while it is an eternal perfection of God, is likewise at the same time a redemptive power.
The power of God’s mercy becomes manifested in His dealings with our sins, first of all. Notice how the text expresses this. It says: He pardoneth iniquity!
He passeth by our transgressions!
Iniquity is sin from the point of view of its emptiness, its vanity. This magnifies the fruitlessness of sin; and makes the sinner exceedingly foolish, for he gets nothing for his sin but emptiness. While it may appear to him as a pretty bubble, when it is pricked it disappears into nothing. Transgression, on the other hand, is the deliberate cutting across the law of God to perform our own will,—the will of our flesh.
That God pardons iniquity means that in His mercy He takes it away, so that it no longer remains on us. That he passeth by our transgressions cannot mean that He looks at our sins as it were through His fingers, that He ignores them. Were He to do this, He would at that moment cease to be righteous and holy; and one could conclude that there is conflict between His mercy and His justice. We should not lose out of sight God’s simplicity, which signifies that all of God’s attributes are one in Him. And that means that His mercy is a just mercy, and can come to us only in the way of the satisfaction of His justice and righteousness.
This is precisely what God in Christ accomplished on the cross for us! God punished Christ for our sins, and He suffered in our stead. So in the judgment of God over our sins He passes us by to get at Christ. While He visited Christ on the cross in His wrath over our sins, he passes us by in His mercy. But that is not all.
We also see His unfailing mercy as He disposes of our sins! He will turn again, he will have compassion upon us; He will subdue our iniquities, and He will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. That He subdues our iniquities means literally that He tramples, on them so that none remains. That He casts all our sins into the depth of the sea can only mean that they are completely gone, never to appear again.
And if this is what happened to our sins before the mind of God, so it must also be in the mind of all those forgiven. As we said at the beginning, we believe in the forgiveness of sins. That means that God has dealt with all our sins and will never deal with them again. In His unfailing mercy they are gone for ever. Even in the last judgment at the end of the world, we shall not appear to be judged for our sins. That judgment took place on Calvary. It is final. We only appear in judgment to be declared righteous before all.
The positive truth of our text is this: Because our sins are gone, and God in His unfailing mercy in Christ has delivered us from them, we have the right of eternal life, that is, to taste for ever the blessedness of eternal bliss.
That is the end of God’s unfailing mercy!
Amen, and Amen!