CHAPTER 33

Reputation

Telling what happened when O'Grady landed his parachute in Bosnia, Time magazine reports: "Meanwhile, as the Pentagon started reacting, planners were not holding out much hope. 'We thought he was dead,' admits one Air Force officer" (Time, June 19, 1995, p. 22).

How could the Pentagon react? The Pentagon is a sprawling five-sided building in the vicinity of Washington D.C. How can a building react? Obviously, "the Pentagon" here refers to the organization that it houses and represents: the Unites States defense department. The reaction was by the officers at military headquarters.

We refer to the White House in the same way. "The White house confirms..." "The White House denies..." "The White House is cleared from any wrong-doing..." The White House is the headquarters location that represents the President and his organization. The actions and reputation of the White House are those of the President. He takes responsibility.

God's headquarters are located at His sanctuary in heaven, where He has His throne (Ps 11:4; Jer 17:12). So we can see how God's throne or sanctuary could represent His character, authority, and reputation.

Strengthening the connection between God's sanctuary and His reputation is the fact that God's "name" was at the place of the sanctuary (Deut 12:5, 11) and His "name" involves His reputation: "But I acted for the sake of my name, that it should not be profaned in the sight of the nations among whom they lived, in whose sight I made myself known to them in bringing them out of the land of Egypt" (Ezek 20:9).

The idea that a name involves a reputation is well understood today, particularly in business and politics. Not long ago I heard a radio advertisement for "The Good Guys," a chain of stores selling electronics equipment. The ad concluded: "We're the Good Guys. We've gotta be good!" Any business that wants to make and keep a good "name" for itself needs to live up to its reputation.

For hundreds of years God had additional headquarters on earth at the Israelite sanctuary/temple. So when Leviticus 16 speaks of God's sanctuary being cleansed or cleared on the Day of Atonement, we get the idea that this cleansing affects God. Just as clearing the White House means freeing the President from something that has affected or could affect his reputation, cleansing the sanctuary would seem to involve clearing God in some way.

The "part for all" principle operates here. Just as our relationship with God is affected by any sin against Him (Jas 2:10), so God's relationship with His universe is affected by anything He does.

Recently a student asked me why God does not solve the problem of sin on Planet Earth by simply banishing it eternally from the rest of the universe. Why does God go to so much trouble to save us when it would be so much easier to let us rot and self-destruct? The answer is that God loves us and therefore wants to save us. The way He treats us tells the rest of His created beings what He is like.

What God does for us is not motivated merely by the need for "spin control" to keep His image intact in spite of the truth. What He does is the truth because God's outgoing love prevents Him from ignoring our plight. God is not a hypocrite, ignoring ugly secrets and hiding skeletons in His closet.

What kind of evil can affect God's reputation so that His sanctuary would need to be cleansed on the Day of Atonement? Leviticus 16:16 identifies what the Israelite high priest cleansed out of the sanctuary so that it could no longer affect God:

Thus he shall make atonement for the (most) holy place from the impurities of the Israelites, and from their transgressions, as well as all their sins; and so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which remains with them in the midst of their impurities (my translation).

The evils that affected God in His sanctuary were caused by His people. Ritual impurities affected Him even though they were not sins. Sins that had been forgiven through sacrifice affected Him even though they had already been forgiven.

It is easy to see how ritual impurities would affect God. He resided among His people "in the mist of their impurities" (Lev 16:16; NASB; compare 15:31). He is holy, the Source of all life. They were impure and subject to death. By living with them in such close proximity, He would be associated with their weakness and mortality. This would be particularly true when they brought sin offerings to His sanctuary in order to be purified from severe ritual impurities. They shed their impurities at His sanctuary, where these impurities would accumulate until the Day of Atonement.

Why would forgiven sins affect God in His sanctuary? Once a person is forgiven, what need for atonement could possibly remain? Why would such sins be handled twice at the sanctuary, once when an individual was forgiven earlier in the year and again on the Day of Atonement? We can begin to find an answer by considering a story about King David and the cost of mercy:

"Help, O king!" cried a woman from Tekoa. David responded by asking: "What is your trouble?" And then, her voice shaky with emotion, she poured out her bitter story:

"Alas, I am a widow; my husband is dead. Your servant had two sons, and they fought with one another in the field; there was no one to part them, and one struck the other and killed him. Now the whole family has risen against your servant. They say, ‘Give up the man who struck his brother, so that we may kill him for the life of his brother whom he murdered, even if we destroy the heir as well.’ Thus they would quench my one remaining ember, and leave to my husband neither name nor remnant on the face of the earth" (2 Sam 14:5-7).

No wonder the woman had come to the king. Unlike the woman caught in adultery who was dragged before Jesus, the woman of Tekoa came to David voluntarily. She was in a hopeless situation. Justice demanded that the murderer should die. But if he died, his mother would have nobody to take care of her in her old age and the name of her family would be blotted out. The sentence of death against her son was like a sentence of death against her as well.

As the highest judge in the land, King David could have mercy on the woman by pardoning her son. But if he did that, what would happen to his reputation for justice? That reputation was not simply part of his ego; it was one of the main reasons why he could effectively govern his people as their king. This was a difficult and risky case. He needed time to think about it. So he told the woman to go to her house and he would give orders concerning her (verse 8).

The woman needed an answer right away, not a diplomatic brush-off. She was desperate. But she was also wise and recognized the reason for the king's hesitation. So she offered: "The blame is on me, my lord the king, and on my father’s house, but the king and his throne are clean" (verse 9; translation by R. Gane). The woman knew that a judge, including a king acting as chief judge, was morally responsible for his judgment. If a judge lets a guilty person go unpunished, he should have a very good reason for doing so or he violates his responsibility and damages his society.

Suppose I go speeding down the highway at 120 m.p.h., without the excuse that I'm being chased by paparazzi. Imagine that when I go to court, the judge pays my ticket for me. That takes a lot of imagination! When the judge is up for re-election, what can his opponent do? Look up the records, find my case, and then advertise that the incumbent judge is "soft on crime"! A judge who pardons must be able to justify his justice. This is especially true in a case of murder. When bloodguilt hangs over a person and a judge lets him go free, turning him loose on society, there is a sense in which the judge takes the bloodguilt upon himself.

But the woman of Tekoa said: "The blame is on me, my lord the king, and on my father’s house, but the king and his throne are clean" (verse 9; translation by R. Gane). She knew that mercy had a cost and she was willing to take that cost upon herself and her family. The king and his throne, the place where he judged, which represented his authority and justice, would be free of moral responsibility. The blame, the bloodguilt, would be on the woman and her family. So David granted her request and promised to protect her and her son.

This story from 2 Samuel 14 reveals the profound tension between mercy and justice. It is true that the wise woman from Tekoa was an actress set up by General Joab and the sad story she told king David was made up. Joab was using the woman to rearrange David's thinking toward Absalom, David's own son, who was living in exile in Geshur because he had murdered his brother, Amnon. Joab wanted David to pardon Absalom even though he was guilty of murder. But although the story that the woman told was fictitious, it was successful with David because it reflected truth about mercy and justice that applied to real-life situations, such as David's problem with Absalom.

If you think the life of the woman as portrayed in her story sounds complicated, wait till you hear about David's dilemma. The problems of his royal household make the modern shenanigans of the British royal family look like an English tea party.

David's son, Amnon, had fallen in love, or rather lust, with his beautiful half sister, Tamar. When Amnon seized her and shamed her, David was angry with him, but he did not punish him. The Septuagint Greek version of the Old Testament tells why not: "because he loved him, for he was his firstborn" (2 Sam 13:21).

David was merciful to Amnon. But mercy had a cost. Absalom, another son of David, who was the full brother of Tamar, viewed the king's mercy on the violator of his sister as injustice, which he decided to correct by taking the law into his own hands. Absalom had his servants kill Amnon, and then Absalom fled to the land of the king of Geshur. So mercy on Amnon cost David not only the loss of Amnon's life, it also cost him his relationship with Absalom. Rather than losing one son, he lost two.

Mercy arises from love. Love is the reason why David had mercy on Amnon. To be unmerciful is to be unloving. But there is a paradox, a contradiction, illustrated in the story of David. Sometimes being merciful to one person hurts another person. Mercy to one can be injustice to another, and injustice is not loving. How can you be loving to both people in a situation like this?

Have you ever found yourself stuck in such a dilemma? Are there any parents, teachers, employers, or administrators out there? I've been stuck as a teacher. Some time ago, when I was less experienced, a number of students made the same mistake on a quiz and wanted mercy. Since several of them had done the same thing, I thought mercy was justified. But those who didn't benefit from this particular mercy thought that I was being unfair.

David's dilemma didn't have to do with mere grades; he was dealing with the lives of his children and the well-being of his nation. The cost of David's mercy was high. He did let Absalom return to Jerusalem. But he had no woman of Tekoa to take the blame when he pardoned his own son. He took the cost upon himself. And he paid it to the full. Ironically, it was Absalom himself, the one to whom mercy was granted, who turned on David and made him pay by taking his throne and even his concubines and forcing David into humiliating exile. The main reason why Absalom was so successful in gaining the support of the people was that he portrayed himself as a reformer of justice who would correct the injustices of his father (2 Sam 15:2-6). The issue in the great controversy between David and Absalom was the character of the king. Who could rule with fairness–David or Absalom?

Are you concerned about justice today? What do you think about our judicial system when a person who has committed a brutal crime gets off with a light sentence, a mere "slap on the wrist"? Do you call for mercy on the criminal, or do you think about justice for the grieving family of the victim? Yes, justice is as important today as it ever was.

As great and wise a king as David was, he was faced with serious tensions between the two sides of love, justice and mercy, tensions that he was unable to resolve. Because Absalom had no lasting acceptance of the pardon that his father granted him, as shown by his rebellious actions, this pardon did not help the young prince in the long run. Pardon without genuine reformation is a waste. Although Absalom was pardoned, he remained a murderer and died a murderer's death.

To save his son, David was willing to pay with even more than his kingdom. When Absalom died, David cried: "Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!" (2 Sam 18:33).

In the story of 2 Samuel, the dynamics of mercy and justice mirror the interactions involved in God's salvation of human beings. As David was to Absalom, God is to us: our parent, king, and judge. Like Absalom, we have sinned. Like David, God forgives us because He loves us (Ps 103:3-4). Unlike David, God is not limited by moral weakness due to His own sin or inadequate wisdom to apply justice and mercy, the two sides of love, without compromising either. But as judge, God is like David in that He is morally responsible for His judgments, including His forgiveness of guilty people.

God must deal with the cost of mercy and there is nobody to bear it but Himself. He has borne it in His sanctuary and through the sacrifice of Christ, who endured far greater suffering and humiliation than David did when he fled from Absalom.

Having paid the ransom for our condemned lives (Matt 20:28) that we could never pay (compare Ps 49:7-8), God is just when He justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26). By paying the terrible full cost of mercy, the sacrifice of Christ provides a lasting solution to human sin by maintaining full justice at the same time as providing for full mercy. Righteousness and salvation are intertwined, reflecting harmonious balance between mercy and justice in the character of God. Through Christ, "Lovingkindness and truth have met together; Righteousness and peace have kissed each other" (Ps 85:10; NASB).

 

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