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In Deuteronomy 19:11-13 Moses speaks of premeditated murder in contrast to accidental homicide.
11 But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities [of refuge], 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. 13 You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.
This law had been given earlier, not only in the Sixth Commandment, but also more specifically in Exodus 21:14,
14 If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die.
So the murderer cannot go to God for refuge, either to a city of refuge or the tabernacle, and expect clemency. We are given an example of this in 1 Kings 2:28-33, for when Joab backed Adonijah in the conspiracy to overthrow Solomon, he fled to the tabernacle of David “and took hold of the horns of the altar” (2:28). Solomon ordered the new general to execute him, not specifically for backing Adonijah, but for the innocent blood that he had shed while still under David’s command.
Years earlier, Joab had violated David’s orders by killing Amasa and Abner. David did not order his death immediately, but let it be known to all that these murders were done without his approval. Toward the end of David’s life, he gave instructions to Solomon to dispense justice in that case (1 Kings 2:5, 6). Solomon did nothing about it until Joab backed Adonijah in an attempted coup. Then he told his general to execute Joab…
31 … that you may remove from me and from my father’s house the blood which Joab shed without cause. 32 And the Lord will return his blood on his own head, because he fell upon two men more righteous and better than he and killed them with the sword, while my father David did not know it.
This case is of interest, because it is an example of deferred justice. Joab had committed murder, and although David was very displeased with this, he did not dispense justice but many years later gave instruction to Solomon to do so. This was providential, because David himself was soon to be guilty of murder in the case of Uriah (2 Samuel 11:15). If David had judged Joab, God would have been obliged to judge David by the same standard of measure (Matthew 7:2).
David deferred judgment to his son, who was able to dispense justice without incurring liability upon his own house.
A related point of law is that, as the general of the army, Joab was under the direct authority of David himself. From a legal standpoint, this made David his redeemer of blood, the one responsible to do justice in Joab’s case. This gave David the right to forgive, though in this case we discover at the end of the story that justice had only been deferred. I believe that if Joab had been truly repentant, David would have forgiven him fully, but to do this twice proved that Joab was in rebellion against David.
Even so, Solomon did nothing to Joab until he once again proved his heart of rebellion by backing Adonijah’s claim to the throne. This third witness of rebellion brought about the final verdict that brought about Joab’s execution.
Most cases of premeditated murder, of course, resulted in the immediate execution of the murderer—once guilt had been determined by a court of law. No one should assume that anyone could be executed by the redeemer of blood without first being tried in court. In fact, Moses established this a few verses later in Deuteronomy 19:15, which we will cover later.
One must keep in mind that each speech that Moses gave was only a summary of the law and did not cover every circumstance that may arise. Neither did he stress the right of the victim (or guardian) to forgive sin. Moses focused upon the law itself and the duty of judges to render verdicts in accordance with true justice. It was left to the later prophets and the New Testament to discuss the victim’s right to forgive.
We see this to some extent in the story of David in Samuel’s account. Most striking is how the prophet Nathan gave David opportunity to show mercy and thereby receive mercy when he had Uriah killed. Nathan gave him a hypothetical story about a poor man who had but one lamb, and a rich man who took the poor man’s lamb to feed his guest (2 Samuel 12:1-4). David angrily judged the rich man without realizing that the rich man was himself.
Hence, we see how the mercy principle was rooted in the law and the mind of God from the beginning, though it was more fully developed in the New Testament. One of the beatitudes is found in Matthew 5:7,
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Mercy, then, is part of the law, for those who are merciful will obtain mercy when God judges their own sins. We may call this the law of mercy. When this principle is paired with the law of equal weights and measures (as applied in Matthew 7:2), it is clear that any judgment of the law can be modified by the victim. If there is no victim other than God or the community itself, then the judge may act also as the redeemer of blood with the right to forgive or modify the verdict of the law.
And so as we read the prophets, we see the principle of mercy and forgiveness in many places. Most of the prophetic discussion centers around the lawlessness of Israel and Judah as nations. On that national level, God is both the Victim and the Judge. He judges by the law, but also as the Victim. As the Judge, He must render the verdict as written in the law. But as the Victim, He also has the right to extend mercy and forgiveness.
In Isaiah 1:18-20 God asks Israel to repent. If they repent as a nation, they will be blessed. If not, they will be “devoured by the sword.” Of Jerusalem, Isaiah 1:21 says,
21 How the faithful city has become a harlot, she who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, but now murderers.
God appealed to Jerusalem through Isaiah and many other prophets to repent, so that God might show mercy and forgiveness. It is plain from this that God had the option of dispensing justice as the law specified, or forgiving sin. The law was not put away, but God had the lawful right to forgive. It is plain also that His mercy was based upon their own level of mercy, and His forgiveness hinged upon their repentance. All victims of injustice have such a right, but if they are wise, they will learn from God’s example. In other words, they will not forgive indiscriminately, but measure mercy according to their repentance and how the sinners have treated others in similar situations.
Perhaps also the parable in Matthew 18:22-35 may enlighten us. In that parable, the king forecloses on a debtor who owes 10,000 talents. (A talent is over 100 lbs. of gold or silver.) The debtor appeals for mercy and receives total forgiveness. But because he is unable to forgive a small debt that his neighbor owes him, the king takes back his forgiveness and demands that that his full debt be paid.
In this case, the debt is a legal obligation owed to the king. Because sin is reckoned as a debt, the enormous “debt” is really a metaphor for liability for sin, as we discover in verse 35. But our point here is to show that the king had the right to forgive the debt or to hold it against the debtor. The choice was his, but his decision was based upon the law of equal weights and measures and the law of mercy in Jesus’ beatitude.
The mercy principle applies to virtually all sin, except for the sin of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, which will not be pardoned. Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is when men deliberately—and with full knowledge—attribute the things of God to the devil. (See Matthew 12:24-32.) When Jesus cast out demons, the scribes and Pharisees attributed His actions to the power of “Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.” They knew better, and they knew that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 21:38), but they did not want Him to be accepted as the Messiah, for they were afraid of losing their positions of power. Rather than repent and follow His peaceful ways, they preferred to fight against Him and to justify their hatred of the Romans.
Those who blaspheme the Holy Spirit with full knowledge of their actions prove that they are incorrigible and deserve no mercy. These will be judged according to their works at the Great White Throne and receive the full penalty of the law without mercy.
Having said that, of course, one must know that the law of Jubilee cancels all debts at the appointed time. No debt can survive the trumpet of the Jubilee, regardless of how great it is. And so, while many will be judged according to their works at the Great White Throne, and many will experience the just judgments of the “fiery law” (Deut. 33:2), also known as the “lake of fire” (Rev. 20:15), that judgment will not last forever. The law itself mandates the Jubilee, thus limiting judgment.
In the context of the community of Israel, all prisoners were to be set free after years on their Jubilee calendar (Leviticus 25:8). But on a greater level of application, where a day is as a year (Ezekiel 4:6), and also as a thousand years (Psalm 90:4), I believe that the final Jubilee trumpet will be blown after 49,000 years. I believe that the Great White Throne judgment is scheduled for the beginning of the eighth millennium (or after seven have run their course), and that the “lake of fire” will last another 42,000 years.
This will not be a time of torture, for the law does not allow such verdicts, except when sinners have tortured other people. Yet even in such cases, sinners cannot torture people forever on earth, and so the law will judge them in strict accordance with their sin, as we read in Exodus 21:24 and 25,
24 eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, 25 burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.
Whatever verdict God dispenses in that day will be modified only by how much mercy the sinners showed others. They will be judged not only according to their works, but also according to the “measure” by which they dispensed justice to others.
Finally, it should be noted that the overcomers will not be judged at all in that day, for they will be given life (immortality) in the first resurrection a thousand years earlier (Revelation 20:4-6). The rest of the believers will be given life at the general resurrection when the rest of the dead are raised (Revelation 20:12; John 5:28, 29). It appears that certain of them will receive some temporary form of judgment, for Luke 12:45-49 speaks of God’s servants (believers) being flogged as per Deuteronomy 25:1-3. Luke 12:49 refers to such flogging as a “fire,” because it is the judgment of the law.
Paul concurs with this in 1 Corinthians 3:15, telling the church that if believers build upon the foundation of Christ with combustible items such as wood, hay, or stubble, they will suffer loss, but they will be “saved yet so as through fire.” We understand that these judgments will be temporary upon believers. In fact, the law of flogging specifically instructs the judge to limit it to forty stripes. Deuteronomy 25:3 says,
3 He may beat him forty times but no more, lest he beat him with many more stripes than these, and your brother be degraded in your eyes.
Thus, the law limits judgment for misdemeanors, and Jesus uses this particular law to illustrate the judgment upon His servants who abuse those under their authority. This appears to be specifically applicable to church leaders who abuse their authority by mistreating those under their care.
The unbelievers, however, will not only receive immediate judgments according to their works, but will also then be placed under the authority of the believers for the duration of the time of judgment as they await the final Creation Jubilee. For further study, see: