If we talk about “balancing” the attributes of God, we can easily fall victim to our own metaphor. These are not discrete elements that can be placed on a balancing scale, with justice making the left side go down, and mercy making the right side go down. Rather, God intervenes in our story, and He does so as the one triune God, and His interventions all make sense in the story. And in the same action, the same intervention, we can see all His attributes in harmony. Once Spurgeon was asked to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility — he refused for, as he put it, he “never reconciles friends.” It is the same kind of thing here. God’s justice is not leaning one way with His mercy leaning another, with Him trying to keep His balance on the high wire of the highest heaven.
“Justice and judgment are the habitation of thy throne: mercy and truth shall go before thy face” (Ps. 89:14). This is a package; it is not an “on the one hand” and then “on the other” kind of thing. God is not merciful to His people in spite of being a warrior. He is merciful to His people because He is a warrior.
The divine warrior theme is found throughout Scripture, and His lovingkindness is inextricably linked with His prowess in battle. In the psalm just cited, this truth stands out in high relief. The psalm begins by rejoicing in God’s mercies. “I will sing of the mercies of the LORD for ever: with my mouth will I make known thy faithfulness to all generations. For I have said, Mercy shall be built up for ever: thy faithfulness shalt thou establish in the very heavens” (Ps. 89:1-2). But then the psalm goes on to celebrate the greatness of God as a warrior, and links this in unambiguous ways to His mercy. “For who in the heaven can be compared unto the LORD? who among the sons of the mighty can be likened unto the LORD?” (v. 6). In other words, look through all the ranks of the heavenly warriors, and you will not find one like our God. His ability to show mercy is clearly linked to His strength. “O LORD God of hosts, who is a strong LORD like unto thee? or to thy faithfulness round about thee?” (v. 8). And His strength is not just potential strength either, but rather actual strength in conflict. “Thou hast broken Rahab in pieces, as one that is slain; thou hast scattered thine enemies with thy strong arm” (v. 10). The Lord is mighty. “Thou hast a mighty arm: strong is thy hand, and high is thy right hand” (v. 13). “For the LORD is our defence; and the Holy One of Israel is our king”(v. 18). And look where all this power culminates — in mercy.
“And I will beat down his foes before his face, and plague them that hate him. But my faithfulness and my mercy shall be with him: and in my name shall his horn be exalted . . . My mercy will I keep for him for evermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him” (vv. 23-24, 28).
The same gift is given to us in another psalm as well.
“And made Israel to pass through the midst of it: for his mercy endureth for ever: But overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red sea: for his mercy endureth for ever. To him which led his people through the wilderness: for his mercy endureth for ever. To him which smote great kings: for his mercy endureth for ever: And slew famous kings: for his mercy endureth for ever: Sihon king of the Amorites: for his mercy endureth for ever: And Og the king of Bashan: for his mercy endureth for ever” (Ps. 136:14-20).
We don’t understand biblical mercy because we don’t understand the antithesis, which is another way of saying that we do not know that the kingdom of God is in a state of perpetual war with the ungodly. We read a passage like this, and our sympathies are immediately extended to Pharaoh and his host, famous kings, not to mention Sihon and Og. What about mercy for them? But this is not a question that Scripture teaches us to ask. The fact that we have learned to ask it means that we are letting somebody else teach us when we shouldn’t.
Now of course it would be easy to multiply other passages about militaristic pagans, whose prowess in war is not linked to mercy at all. And so since Scripture doesn’t make that connection, we must not. There is no necessary connection between military might and mercy. But Scripture does make a necessary connection between the righteous military power and mercy.
As C.S. Lewis argues in some essay somewhere, the Christian Church has produced two suggested solutions to the horrific nature of war, those proposed solutions being pacifism and chivalry. The pacifist option, with its overrealized eschatology and perfectionism, has unfortunately been the seedbed of many disasters. As Martin Luther once put it, when the lion lies down with the lamb prematurely, the lamb must be replaced frequently. The chivalric option has been, given the condition of this world, by far the more effective option, and has the advantage of imitating the Lord. The warrior who fights powerfully and who shows mercy effectively is one who imitates the Lord in a comprehensive way.