I’ve been reading about Sodom and Gomorrah lately.
Don’t worry; this isn’t a fire-and-brimstone post. It’s actually a post about mercy, which isn’t a topic I expected to write about when studying Sodom and Gomorrah. And yet, upon reading the chapters about those cities, mercy is what I found – a little disconcerting, since Sodom and Gomorrah is almost universally associated with God’s wrath and hatred of sin.
In Genesis 18:16, we have the rare privilege of glimpsing God essentially thinking aloud to Himself:
The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do? … The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin is so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me. If not, I will know.”
I find it interesting here that in spite of being aware of Sodom and Gomorrah’s sin, God is willing nonetheless to “go down and see” for Himself. Moreover, He already seems to anticipate to some degree that Abraham will argue on behalf of the city. And sure enough, Abraham remains standing before the Lord, and he haggles for the lives of the righteous in the city:
Then Abraham approached him and said, “Will you sweep away the righteous with the wicked? What if there are fifty righteous people in the city? Will you really sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous people in it? Far be it from you… Far be it from you! Will not the judge of the earth do right?” (18:23-25)
Mercy. God permits Abraham not only to haggle with Him over the lives of the righteous, but essentially permits Himself to be talked down. He agrees to spare the city for fifty righteous men, then forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten. Abraham approaches God with due humility, but it’s amazing to me – it boggles me – that God would be remotely agreeable to this process, would permit a human to initiate a bargaining process about something that both parties acknowledge is the domain of God alone.
When God eventually does decide to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, apparently not having been able to locate ten righteous people within it, He nevertheless “remembered Abraham, and he brought [Abraham’s kin] Lot out of the catastrophe” (Gen. 19:29). That, too, is merciful: God did not have to spare anyone, but in His desire to remember Abraham and in His acknowledgement that Abraham’s belief was credited to him as righteousness, God spares Abraham’s kin. It’s worth noting here too that in 2 Peter 2:7, Lot is referenced as “a righteous man,” which means that God did choose to spare the righteous in the city, even though the number didn’t amount to ten and He would have been well within the rights of his bargain with Abraham to destroy them all.
It is within that rescue, though, that we see mercy most strongly at play: an elastic, stubborn sort of mercy.
The two angels who spend the night at Lot’s house warn him of the coming wrath in 19:12: “Do you have anyone else here—sons-in-law, sons or daughters, or anyone else in the city who belongs to you? Get them out of here, because we are going to destroy this place. The outcry to the Lord against its people is so great that he has sent us to destroy it.”
Lot informs his sons-in law; they think he’s joking. The angels urge him again to leave with his wife and his daughters in 19:15. And Lot hesitates. I don’t know why he does, precisely – maybe he’s simply overwhelmed, or uncertain of the coming wrath, or maybe he’s still hoping his sons-in-law will come along – but the angels then “grasped his hand and the hands of his wife and two daughters and led them safely out of the city, for the Lord was merciful to them” (19:16).
As soon as they leave the city, the angels beg Lot to start running – “Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!” (19: 17) – and Lot actually hedges. Rather than run like a madman, as I suspect most of us would have done, he bargains with the angels!
But Lot said to them, “No, my lords,please! Your servant has found favor in your eyes, and you have shown great kindness to me in sparing my life. But I can’t flee to the mountains; this disaster will overtake me, and I’ll die. Look, here is a town near enough to run to, and it is small. Let me flee to it—it is very small, isn’t it? Then my life will be spared.” (19:18-20).
Are you not amazed at the sheer audacity? Lot is commanded to run to the mountains since God has graciously decided to spare his life, and his response is, huh, that’s pretty far, and I appreciate your efforts and everything, but I can’t go that far, so can we just settle on a nearby town or something?
Here’s the kicker: God consents. Notably, the assent to this request is phrased as, “Very well; I will grant this request too. …But flee there quickly, because I cannot do anything until you reach it” (19:12-22).
Friend, do you hear the “cannot” there? God’s judgment is bound by God’s mercy. He cannot overthrow the city until His promised act of mercy has been accomplished. And not only is this mercy promised, but God seems determined to grant it in spite of everything that demands the contrary!
The emphasis on Sodom and Gomorrah almost always seems to be God’s wrath and God’s anger and the resulting destruction, but it really misses how much God is willing to bend for the sake of those He favors. He allows Himself to be bargained down by Abraham; He decides to spare the righteous the destruction of the city; He puts up with Lot’s hesitations and demands and conditional bargaining about the nature of his divine rescue. Yes, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a sulfurous nightmare of wrath unleashed, but in the center of it is great, flexible, stubborn mercy.
If you are discouraged today because God’s promises seem to good to be true, or if you are wondering how it is that God could ever extend mercy to you, think of Lot, and be cheered. God’s mercy is relentless. It will find you no matter what if you belong to Him.
Maybe more importantly, if you’re lacking mercy in your life lately – if you have a case of the “you deserve its” and a hunger to bring down some wrath yourself, ask yourself if that wrath can be balanced by the same mercy that God shows. If He is the model we are to follow, then we must recognize that His mercy transcends what most of us would perceive to be good sense, and follows all those who call on His name.