The history of God’s longsuffering with the Israelites is lengthy. It is beyond human comprehension why He was so patient with them, but such is the difference between the Lord and man. So far is His mercy above our understanding that after He takes the time to tell us He will pardon the repentant (Isa. 55:6-7), He then goes on to explain His actions: “‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways,’ says the Lord. ‘For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways, and My thoughts than your thoughts.’” (vv. 55:8-9) Though man might be anxious to punish any and all who are guilty, the Lord was, and is, longsuffering toward us, if only because He is not willing that any should perish (2Pet. 3:9).

And in the history of the Israelites, His patience was tried and tried and tried again. Not long after they had escaped the captivity in Egypt [by the power of the true and living God], when Moses was up on Mount Sinai receiving the law, the Israelites came to Aaron and made a golden calf and declared it to be the god who brought them out of Egypt (Ex. 32:1-6). God’s response was that He wanted to wipe them out and make a great nation of the descendants of Moses instead (vv. 7-10). By the pleading of Moses, God turned from destroying the Israelites, but not because they were deserving of a break. God would have had the right, but He did not exercise that right because He was merciful and longsuffering.

When the Israelite spies returned from the land, they gave a bad report and, because of this, the people were ready to appoint new leaders and head back to Egypt (Num. 14:1-5). At this, the Lord was again ready to destroy the people and make through Moses a nation “greater and mightier than they” (vv. 11, 12). Again, because of the pleading of Moses, their complete destruction was avoided (v. 20), but all who were 20 years old and above were promised that they would die in the wilderness, while their children would be the ones entering into the land (vv. 28-31). Only Joshua and Caleb and their families would be the exception.

As the Israelites traveled through Edom, they again complained about their situation and the Lord sent fiery serpents among them (Num. 21:4-6). Only because the people repented did the Lord provide a means of healing, and only then did He take away the serpents (vv. 7-9). At the edge of the Promised Land, in Moab, the Israelites committed harlotry with the Moabite women and God brought a plague against them (Num. 25:1-3). Only when Phineas acted with haste in carrying out the punishment was the plague stopped and the people again spared (vv. 7-11). Phineas and his descendants would be blessed for his zeal in making atonement for the people (vv. 12-13), but we would all agree that they were undeserving.

And once the Israelites were actually in the land of promise, their unfaithfulness did not cease. When Joshua and his generation passed away, we are told “another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). The result of this was that the people then began doing what was right in their own eyes and followed after the gods of the Canaanites (vv. 11-15). When they repented, the Lord would relent, but this became the pattern of faithfulness-sin repentance-forgiveness that would persist throughout their history in the land (vv. 16-23). Eventually, their “persistent unfaithfulness” (Ez. 14:13, NKJV) was what returned them to captivity.

“But,” some may argue, “Why would God allow them to go into captivity? I thought His mercy was without measure!”

Certainly, God’s mercy is described as “great” (2Sam. 24:14), “abundant” (Psa. 51:1), as that which “reaches unto the heavens” (57:10), and even “everlasting” (100:5). If this is so, why did He cease demonstrating mercy towards them? Why did God come to say, as He did to the Israelites, “I stretched out my hand against thee, and destroyed thee”? (Jer. 15:6, ASV) The answer lies in His next words: “I am weary with repenting.” The sad fact was, God was tired of seeing His people declare their faithfulness, only to go back into sin, and then repent of the sin when they suffered as a result. God was tired of giving them a “second chance” [or third or fourth] to prove their faithfulness to Him. God was tired of having His name blasphemed because of their sinful behavior (Ez. 16:27; Rom. 2:24). Yes, it is a fact that the mercy of God is great, but there came a time when even God refused to show mercy because His people no longer respected Him.

And there, friends and brethren, is the answer to why God ceased showing mercy to His people and allowed them to go into captivity. Remember the words of the psalmist as he described the abundant mercy of the Lord he served? Let us go back to some of those words and see to whom God showed that abundant mercy. Consider: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is His mercy toward those who fear Him” (103:11). And: “But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear Him” (v. 17). Did you catch that? His abundant mercy is to those who fear Him!

The simple answer for why God’s mercy was halted lies in the behavior of His people. Simply put: They stopped respecting Him; they stopped fearing Him. They came to the point when they no longer saw God as the only God, but one of many. They did not see Him any longer as the One who had brought them out of Egypt and into the Promised Land by His might and power. They no longer saw Him as the One who provided for them, protected them, and who would punish disobedience. They had become complacent in their service to Him and had come to believe, “The Lord will not do good, nor will He do evil” (Zeph. 1:13).

This fact should cause us all to stand up and pay close attention! Those who have not yet obeyed the gospel should note the longsuffering of God, in that this world still exists today only because God is longsuffering and is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Pet. 3:9). But that longsuffering will end someday. We cannot expect that the Lord will put off the destruction of the world indefinitely. We cannot expect that He will not call us into account forever. Someday “that day” will come and we will no longer have the time to repent. Then, we will have to stand before the Lord and give account for the deeds done in the body here on earth, whether good or evil (2Cor. 5:10).

But even for those who have already obeyed, let us not become as God’s people of old, who got complacent in their service and came to believe that nothing could ever happen to take away God’s care, blessings, and protection. Let us never start to believe we’ve got eternity all sewn up and there is no way we could ever lose it. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the unfaithfulness of those same Israelites, and then pleads, “Let us therefore be diligent to enter that rest, lest anyone fall according to the same example of disobedience” (Heb. 4:11).

Our God, truly, is a merciful God who “has not dealt with us according to our sins, nor punished us according to our iniquities” (Psa. 103:10). But let us not take God’s mercy for granted! Let us respond, first, with obedience, and then let us so live that it could never be said that God was wearied with us. Let us instead be a cause for God — and the angels — rejoicing.


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