“The Unreasonableness of His Mercy”

This past week, I was reading a very fine book by Andrew Shead, entitled, A Mouth Full of Fire: The Word of God in the Words of Jeremiah.  At one point in the book, Shead provides a bit of extended commentary on Jeremiah 30:15-16.  In this passage, as is so typical in many passages in the prophetic books, God is telling Israel that he is going to punish her for many sins.  But something very interesting happens in vv. 15-16:

15 Why do you cry out over your wound, your pain that has no cure? Because of your great guilt and many sins I have done these things to you.

16 ” ‘But all who devour you will be devoured; all your enemies will go into exile. Those who plunder you will be plundered; all who make spoil of you I will despoil. (Jeremiah 30:15-16, NIV)

Something the English reader can’t see here is that there is an interesting translation problem with the first word in v. 16.  In the Hebrew, the first word in this verse is laken, which does not mean “but.”  Rather, it means “therefore.”  So the passage really should read this way:

15 Why do you cry out over your wound, your pain that has no cure? Because of your great guilt and many sins I have done these things to you.

16 ” ‘Therefore all who devour you will be devoured; all your enemies will go into exile. Those who plunder you will be plundered; all who make spoil of you I will despoil.

The NIV has obscured the relationship between these two verses by translating laken as “but” at the beginning of this verse.  The NIV, however, is not alone in this; many contemporary translations do the same thing.  They do so because they cannot comprehend the logic employed in the passage—or perhaps I should say, the “illogic.”  Shead, commenting on the illogicality of the passage, says this:

Verse 16 starts so paradoxically that many translations omit the first word, ‘Therefore all who devour you will be devoured.’  The word ‘therefore’ (laken) usually heads the announcement of judgment following an indictment, but although nothing about Judah has changed, God is now suddenly a saviour, for no good reason.  And by using what amounts to a non sequitur (cf. 16:14; 32:36), the illogicality of God’s plan of salvation is underlined: the unreasonableness of his mercy.

Shead goes on to remark:

The LORD has determined to act in complete and inscrutable freedom, because he loves his people in defiance of all that is just and reasonable.

When I read Shead’s remarks on this passage, it reminded me of another similar passage in the book of Hosea, and I turned there to find out if the same word, laken, was used in that passage as well.  And, sure enough, it was:

13 I will punish her for the days she burned incense to the Baals; she decked herself with rings and jewelry, and went after her lovers, but me she forgot,” declares the LORD.

14Therefore (laken) I am now going to allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak tenderly to her.  (Hosea 2:13-14 NIV)

The “therefore” doesn’t really introduce a logical statement.  What follows the “therefore” doesn’t really follow.  It is illogical. A non sequitur.  It doesn’t make sense.  How many times have I heard a preacher cleverly say, “When you come across a ‘therefore’ in Scripture, you should always find out what it’s ‘there for'”?  Not bad advice, except, in this instance, when you find out why the “therefore” is there, it can only make you scratch your head in puzzlement.

This also reminded me of several other passages, where the temporal flow of the passage doesn’t quite correspond to what we might expect.  The following passage in Ezekiel is one example:

24 “‘For I will take you out of the nations; I will gather you from all the countries and bring you back into your own land.

25 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols.

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

28 You will live in the land I gave your forefathers; you will be my people, and I will be your God.

29 I will save you from all your uncleanness. I will call for the grain and make it plentiful and will not bring famine upon you.

30 I will increase the fruit of the trees and the crops of the field, so that you will no longer suffer disgrace among the nations because of famine.

31 Then you will remember your evil ways and wicked deeds, and you will loathe yourselves for your sins and detestable practices.

(Ezekiel 36:24-31)

First, the Lord rescues his people from exile.  Then, he gives them a new heart and a new spirit, and saves them from their uncleanness.  Then, in v. 31, the people repent.  This seems to invert what we might think should be the right temporal order.  Shouldn’t the people repent first, and then God save them?  I wonder if, perhaps, Paul was thinking of passages like these when he said that it is God’s kindness that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4).

There’s this great scene in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, after Scrooge has had his “conversion” experience.  It takes place on the morning after Christmas, when, again, Bob Cratchit is late for work.  Here’s the dialogue that takes place:

“Hallo,” growled Scrooge, in his accustomed voice, as near as he could feign it.  “What do you mean by coming here at this time of day?”

“I’m very sorry, sir,” said Bob.  “I am behind my time.”

“You are?” repeated Scrooge.  “Yes.  I think you are.  Step this way, if you please.”

“It’s only once a year, sir,” pleaded Bob, appearing from the Tank.  “It shall not be repeated.  I was making rather merry yesterday, sir.

“Now, I’ll tell you what, my friend,” said Scrooge, “I am not going to stand this sort of thing any longer.  And therefore,” he continued, leaping from his stool, and giving Bob such a dig in the waistcoat that he staggered back into the Tank again; “and therefore I am about to raise your salary.

The “therefore” in Scrooge’s speech isn’t “there for” logical value.  It’s there for shock value.  Perhaps that’s why the laken, the “therefore,” is in Jeremiah 30:16 and Hosea 2:14.  God put it this way for shock value.  And perhaps it was to prepare the way for the most shocking, illogical act that ever occurred:

6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8)

So there you have it, my brothers and sisters.

The illogicality of God’s love.

The non sequitur of God’s grace.

The foolishness of God’s gospel

The unreasonableness of God’s mercy.

33 Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!  34 “Who has known the mind of the Lord?  Or who has been his counselor?”  35 “Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?”  36 For from him and through him and to him are all things.  To him be the glory forever!  Amen. (Romans 11:33-36)

Jerry Shepherd
July 11, 2014

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