Shortly before the Israelites' entrance into the promised land, Moses gathered the Israelites to give some final counsel. Among other things, this occasion gave Moses the opportunity to review the law to the people. We now refer to this second retelling of the law as Deuteronomy, or literally "Second Law." After an introductory discourse recounting many of the Israelites' experiences in the wilderness, Deuteronomy includes two sections on the law: first on the Ten Commandments (chapters 5–11), then on a code of laws focused on a centralized place of worship (chapters 12–26).1 A further discourse in Deuteronomy treats the renewal of the covenant, followed by a summary of Moses' last acts. With all the discussion on law and covenant, one readily assumes that Deuteronomy would be full of examples of justice (punishments and consequences), but what about mercy? In actuality, mercy also plays a significant role in Deuteronomy's discussion of gospel principles. The analysis of mercy in Deuteronomy certainly exemplifies its presence in the Old Testament, which many have looked to as justice-driven and mercy-lacking. Thus, contrary to common perception, both justice and mercy are significant principles brought out in the second-repetition of the law and in the rest of the Old Testament.
One of the truths taught in Deuteronomy and elsewhere is that God is just (Deuteronomy 32:4; Psalm 89:14).2 God's justice oversees the unchanging and fair application of the law of justice.3 The law of justice has two aspects: an appropriate penalty or punishment for every broken law, or a blessing or reward for a law that is kept. A passage of scripture in the Doctrine and Covenants illustrates the positive aspect of the law of justice: "There is a law, irrevocably decreed in heaven before the foundations of this world, upon which all blessings are predicated—and when we obtain any blessing from God, it is by obedience to that law upon which it is predicated" (D&C 130:21, see also D&C 82:10). A simple chart helps illustrate this relationship (see figure 1).
The possible positive and negative sides of the law of justice are clearly laid out in chapter 28 of Deuteronomy. The first part of the chapter discusses the blessings someone who was faithful to the covenant would receive (28:1–14), while the second part discusses the punishments and curses that someone who was unfaithful to the covenant would receive (28:15–68).4 As is often the case in the Old Testament, Deuteronomy 28 gives a lengthier description of the penalty aspect of the law of justice. As Kent Jackson has pointed out,
The Law of Moses was extremely strict in requiring punishment or appropriate action for every violation of the laws of the society or the religion. Probably no religious system in world history has emphasized Justice so strongly. The strictness of the demands of Justice is emphasized in the animal sacrifices. Even sins committed unknowingly or accidentally had to be reconciled through animal sacrifices. There had to be an accounting made for all violations, and punishments were severe.5
Why did the law of Moses emphasize the demands of justice so strongly? The Nephite prophet Abinadi taught:
And now I say unto you that it was expedient that there should be a law given to the children of Israel, yea, even a very strict law; for they were a stiffnecked people, quick to do iniquity, and slow to remember the Lord their God; Therefore there was a law given them, yea, a law of performances and of ordinances, a law which they were to observe strictly from day to day, to keep them in remembrance of God and their duty towards him. (Mosiah 13:29–30, emphasis added)
In one sense, as Victor Ludlow has written, "the children of Israel truly were like children during this time, in need of strict commandments with immediate rewards for obedience and punishments for wickedness. Israel often failed to acknowledge Jehovah's authority or to recognize the immediate link between actions and their consequences."6 He goes on to explain that it is from these harsh, immediate punishments that "Jehovah gained the reputation of being an overly harsh God, and this opinion remains today among people with only a superficial knowledge of the scriptures."7
According to the Lectures on Faith, we should be grateful that God is a god of justice, for this characteristic in deity is necessary for the development of our faith in him: "Without the idea of the existence of the attribute justice in the Deity, men could not have confidence sufficient to place themselves under his guidance and direction; for they would be filled with fear and doubt lest the judge of all the earth would not do right, and thus fear or doubt, existing in the mind, would preclude the possibility of the exercise of faith in him for life and salvation."8 Therefore, God's justice not only promises blessings for faithfulness, but also inspires confidence in an unchanging straight and narrow path.
Mercy is another of God's attributes, as Deuteronomy clearly points out: "(For the Lord thy God is a merciful God); he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them" (4:31). Elder Bruce C. Hafen has written that mercy seems to have two aspects: "Broadly, [it] is the ultimate source of all of the blessings of the human race and, specifically, [it] is the principle that allows mankind's redemption."9 In this broad sense, God's bounteous mercy, his unconditional love, blesses his children here on earth. The earth's creation and our "spirit [bodies] and the opportunity of progress through mortal experience [came] only because of God's loving mercy. . . . Moreover, that same divine mercy gave us the Atonement, without which there could be no salvation or exaltation–neither hope nor meaning after this life."10
The more specific sense of mercy—a principle that allows mankind's redemption—forms the major part of the law of mercy. Within the law of mercy, there are conditional and unconditional aspects, a significant difference from justice. Justice will only be enforced after a law is broken or kept, whereas mercy can be given after meeting certain conditions or as a free gift from God without any preconditions. In other words, justice is fixed (although it can be delayed), but mercy is multidimensional: God has provided ways that mortals can qualify for mercy (e.g., faith in Christ's atonement), and God has chosen to unconditionally bestow his mercy on mortals. The primary conditional aspect of mercy is that our faith and repentance are necessary before mercy can claim us and overcome the effects of justice. "And thus mercy can satisfy the demands of justice, and encircles them in the arms of safety, while he that exercises no faith unto repentance is exposed to the whole law of the demands of justice; therefore only unto him that has faith unto repentance is brought about the great and eternal plan of redemption" (Alma 34:16, emphasis added).11 Mercy must work with and within the demands of justice, to bring about its beneficent blessings. It provides a different way for penalties and punishments to be paid so that an individual can meet justice's demands when it would be impossible without outside help.
The unconditional aspects of the law of mercy are tied closely with grace. Christ's atonement unconditionally redeemed mankind from the effects of the fall of Adam (physical death and spiritual death). Elder Bruce R. McConkie stated:
In his goodness and grace—and this above all—he [God] gave his Only Begotten Son to ransom man and all life from the temporal and spiritual death brought into the world by the Fall of Adam.
He sent his Son to redeem mankind, to atone for the sins of the world, "to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man" (Moses 1:39). And again all this comes to us as a free gift and without works. . . .
There neither has been, nor is, nor ever can be any way nor means by which man alone can, by any power he possesses, redeem himself. . . .
All these things are ordained and established by that God who is the Father of us all. And they all came into being and are made available to us, as free gifts, without works, because of the infinite goodness and grace of Him whose children we are.12
In addition, in our own striving for perfection, grace is "an enabling power" and the "divine means of help or strength, given through the bounteous mercy and love of Jesus Christ."13 In other words, we receive the divine help and strength we need to even arrive at the condition of repentance and humility. And, as Elder Hafen has taught, "no matter how complete our repentance from our own sins, it would all be to no avail without a Mediator willing to pay our debt to justice in exchange for our repentance. Thus are we utterly dependent on Jesus Christ."14 It is within the law of mercy, then, that grace "is the means by which mercy enacts many of its miraculous effects, particularly the blessings of the Atonement."15 If we were to draw a simple diagram, perhaps mercy would look something like figure 2.
Based on what has been discussed thus far, how do justice and mercy relate to each other? To understand their correlation it is helpful to see the two diagrams side by side and then discuss possible relationships, even if the diagrams are somewhat over generalized and it is not always possible to draw clear-cut distinctions (see figure 3).
When talking about the relationship between justice and mercy, the discussion usually centers on the two ends of this diagram. Alma 42 and Elder Boyd K. Packer's analogy, The Mediator, both excellently detail this relationship and how mercy can help us achieve forgiveness through Christ's atonement, rather than suffer the full effects of justice ourselves (see figure 4).16
Another aspect of the relationship between justice and mercy is that even though mortals may disobey and become wicked, God still may give them blessings out of his benevolent mercy. Matthew 5:45 succinctly captures this relationship: "For he [Father in Heaven] maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust." Therefore, even those who may not "deserve" his blessings can be blessed (see figure 5).
One of the more difficult aspects of the relationship between justice and mercy to determine is between the two middle "strands" in the diagram. God's boundless mercy is sometimes hard to distinguish from the positive rewards flowing from the law of justice: which blessings come from God's unconditional love, and which blessings come as a result of faithfulness? (See figure 6.)
This last relationship between justice and mercy is complicated in Deuteronomy because in many situations where faithfulness to a covenant is being discussed, a term for mercy is used. "Wherefore it shall come to pass, if ye hearken to these judgments, and keep, and do them, that the Lord thy God shall keep unto thee the covenant and the mercy which he sware unto thy fathers" (7:12). "Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations" (7:9). "And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments" (5:10). In all these cases where there is a close correlation between covenant and mercy, the same Hebrew noun is used: hesed (dsj). This term, however, is not always translated as "mercy" in the Old Testament since no one English term adequately describes all its nuances. (For example, Genesis 24:12 translates it as "kindness.") The Revised Standard Version uses four different categories for translating hesed, including "steadfast love" for when the text refers to God's consistent behavior toward individuals or Israel, the most applicable category for our discussion.17 The Oxford Bible notes that it "is a covenant term, referring to the faithful assistance and loyal love of the Lord towards those bound to him by covenant."18 Thus the Hebrew term hesed, particularly in Deuteronomy, may lean towards the blessings and favorable relationship one establishes with God when one is properly keeping the covenant and law of justice, rather than an aspect of God's unconditional mercy.19
The other Hebrew terms used in Deuteronomy for facets of mercy seem to fall more on the mercy side of figure 6. The root rhm (mjr) appears a few times in Deuteronomy, sometimes translated as "mercy" and sometimes as "compassion" even within the same verse: "And there shall cleave nought of the cursed thing to thine hand: that the Lord may turn from the fierceness of his anger, and shew thee mercy, and have compassion upon thee, and multiply thee, as he hath sworn unto thy fathers" (13:17,20 emphasis added). In this and other usages of this root in Deuteronomy (4:30–31; 30:2–3),21 the context always includes the Israelites turning away from wicked behavior and the Lord suspending his anger, or justice, and allowing mercy to be shown, specifically because of the promises to the fathers. Thus in these cases, because of the promises made to Israel's forefathers, repentance leads to mercy, rather than the immediate, just consequences of disobedience.
Another Hebrew root, kpr (rpk), is defined literally as "to cover," but carries the connotation of making atonement or making expiation. (It is the same root for the name of the Hebrew festival Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement). This term appears twice in Deuteronomy, once in a human setting in relation to expiation for murderers (21:8), and once looking to a future day when the Lord "will render vengeance to his adversaries, and will be merciful unto his land, and to his people" (32:43).22 In the latter instance, mercy was demonstrated as the Lord cleansed the land and its people of guilt.
A final root23 related to God's mercy to the Israelites, pdh (hdp), is usually translated as "redeem" (see 7:8; 9:26; 15:15; 24:18; and others). This term describes God's powerful, historical act of mercy: the deliverance of the Israelites out of Egypt. This root carries the connotation of ransom or purchase; thus, through this redemption, Israel literally belongs to the Lord. The Song of Moses brings out this point in Exodus 15:16 as it talks about the chosen people being led by the Lord: "Till the people pass over, which thou hast purchased." In later scripture, the Psalmist pled with the Lord to not forget his people: "Remember thy congregation, which thou hast purchased of old; the rod of thine inheritance, which thou hast redeemed" (Psalm 74:2). The Apostle Paul used this same idea in relation to the atonement, repeatedly telling his listeners that they were "bought with a price" (see 1 Corinthians 6:20; 7:23). Thus the Lord's mercy was directly manifest in his redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, an act that truly made them his people.
Therefore, Deuteronomy's use of various terms related to merciful blessings may help illuminate some distinctions on whether blessings come from obedience or unconditional mercy. The first term, hesed, is primarily related to the the conditional aspect of blessings (law of justice), while the other terms are more directly related to mercy: rhm is tied to repentance and the promise to the fathers, kpr exemplifies expiation, and pdh highlights the Lord's ransoming or purchasing of the Israelites (see figure 7).
The connection between the two sources of blessings—obedience to the law of justice and God's mercy—is also an issue in the covenant relationship between God and his chosen people Israel. God's covenant with the Israelites is one of the primary themes of the book of Deuteronomy and the entire Old Testament. The recounting of the law in this setting, with the accompanying promised blessings and punishments, is geared towards strengthening the covenant relationship between God and the Israelites before Moses departs and the Israelites enter the promised land. In one sense, just the mere fact that God is willing to enter into a covenant relationship with mortals is a profound demonstration of his mercy and love. God is willing to work with us in a more direct manner to help us progress and grow. In another sense, the covenant mirrors the law of justice: if one obeys the stipulations of the covenant, one receives the blessings; however, if one disobeys, one suffers the consequences. Luckily for the Israelites, and for us in our day, mercy also usually entered into the covenant relationship after the making of the covenant. Except for some cases when justice was immediately carried out and the covenant-breakers killed, if the Israelites strayed from the covenant, God would extend the invitation to return to him and thereby return to the blessings of the covenant. Deuteronomy 4:30–31 beautifully illustrates this principle: "When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; (For the Lord thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them." Thus, mercy was part of the covenant relationship in the broad sense at its inception and in the more specific sense as part of the repentance process, of the Israelites returning to God.
A significant feature of the covenant relationship between God and Israel in Deuteronomy is that many of the blessings the Israelites were receiving at that time, such as the promised land, came from earlier promises made to their forefathers, specifically Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Israelites were the beneficiaries of this covenant that God would not forget even when the Israelites were unfaithful.
Not for thy righteousness, or for the uprightness of thine heart, dost thou go to possess their land: but for the wickedness of these nations the Lord thy God doth drive them out from before thee, and that he may perform the word which the Lord sware unto thy fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Understand therefore, that the Lord thy God giveth thee not this good land to possess it for thy righteousness, for thou art a stiff-necked people. (9:5–6)
This scripture points out an important dynamic between justice and mercy: often in God's dealing with mortals, justice for one group of people may bring mercy to another. For example, for the Israelites to be given the promised land as a token or blessing of God's mercy, justice had to be exacted on the inhabitants of the land. Thus, in the same event, mercy was shown to the Israelites while justice was exacted on the inhabi-tants of the land.24 This scripture also reminds us that God is just and cannot lie or alter his promises. Therefore, since God had promised the land to Abraham's descendants, he was bound to fulfill his word, thereby complying with the law of justice. Yet, perhaps out of his mercy, God chose to nurture this stiff-necked people who on their own merits did not "deserve" the blessings. Thus God's justice and mercy are manifest in his master plan for the Israelites: because of the covenant made with the fathers, God would redeem the Israelites from Egypt, make them his chosen people, and give them the promised land. Whether they remained in the land and prospered, however, depended on the law of justice, as Moses exhorted: "Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for ever" (4:40).
The manner in which justice and mercy were often presented in Deuteronomy was a pendulum-like rhetoric interweaving the two principles. Chapter 4 exemplifies this close connection, frequently switching between justice and mercy, all building the discourse around the covenant of the promised land. As Moses began discussing aspects of the law of justice, both positive and negative, he exhorted the Israelites to keep the commandments, for their obedience would lead to the blessing of the promised land: "Hearken, O Israel, unto the statutes and unto the judgments, which I teach you, for to do them, that ye may live, and go in and possess the land which the Lord God of your fathers giveth you" (4:1). Moses then reminded the Israelites of God's swift justice at Baal-peor, when twenty-four thousand Israelites were killed for worshipping false gods (4:3; see Numbers 25:1–5, 9). Yet, only a few verses later, God's mercy is extolled in the words of other nations who are impressed by the Israelites: "Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people. For what nation is there so great, who hath God so nigh unto them, as the Lord our God is in all things that we call upon him for?" (4:6–7).
God's redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, the strongest symbol of his mercy in Deuteronomy, is also recounted: "The Lord hath taken you, and brought you forth out of the iron furnace, even out of Egypt, to be unto him a people of inheritance, as ye are this day" (4:20). Yet the next verses reiterate aspects of God's justice, specifically his prohibition against Moses entering the promised land: "Furthermore the Lord was angry with me for your sakes, and sware that I should not go over Jordan, and that I should not go in unto that good land, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for an inheritance: But I must die in this land, I must not go over Jordan: but ye shall go over, and possess that good land" (4:21–22). Then Moses exhorted the Israelites again not to forget the covenant of the Lord and worship false gods, "for the Lord thy God is a consuming fire, even a jealous God" (4:24).25
God's anger26 continues in chapter 4 as a warning if the Israelites corrupt themselves: "[If ye] shall do evil in the sight of the Lord thy God, to provoke him to anger: I call heaven and earth to witness against you this day, that ye shall soon utterly perish from off the land whereunto ye go over Jordan to possess it; ye shall not prolong your days upon it, but shall utterly be destroyed. And the Lord shall scatter you among the nations" (4:25–27). But immediately the pendulum swings back to God's invitation for mercy if the Israelites return to him:
But if from thence thou shalt seek the Lord thy God, thou shalt find him, if thou seek him with all thy heart and with all thy soul. When thou art in tribulation, and all these things are come upon thee, even in the latter days, if thou turn to the Lord thy God, and shalt be obedient unto his voice; (For the Lord thy God is a merciful God;) he will not forsake thee, neither destroy thee, nor forget the covenant of thy fathers which he sware unto them. (4:29–31, emphasis added)
Moses then recounted some of the great things God had done for the Israelites such that people had never before experienced:
Did ever people hear the voice of God speaking out of the midst of the fire, as thou hast heard, and live? Or hath God assayed to go and take him a nation from the midst of another nation, by temptations, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by a stretched out arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the Lord your God did for you in Egypt before your eyes? Unto thee it was shewed, that thou mightest know that the Lord he is God; there is none else beside him. (4:33–35)
The pendulum-like exposition on justice and mercy in chapter 4 continues yet further in God's discussion of his faithfulness to the covenant he had made earlier to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Moses reminds the Israelites that ?because [God] loved thy fathers, therefore he chose their seed after them, and brought thee out in his sight with his mighty power out of Egypt. To drive out nations from before thee greater and mightier than thou art, to bring thee in, to give thee their land for an inheritance, as it is this day" (4:37–38). But whether they remained in the land and prospered, as mentioned above, depends on the law of justice, as Moses points out in the next verse: "Thou shalt keep therefore his statutes, and his commandments, which I command thee this day, that it may go well with thee, and with thy children after thee, and that thou mayest prolong thy days upon the earth, which the Lord thy God giveth thee for ever" (4:40).
As we see, chapter 4 is a good example of the common rhetorical pattern found in several places in Deuteronomy that talk about the principles of justice and mercy: the explanation usually swings pendulum-like, going back and forth between the two principles. Chapter 4 includes examples of the positive consequences of the law of justice: promised blessings from faithfulness. It also discusses the broad sense of mercy, God's merciful love for his chosen people, even when some have been unfaithful. God will still preserve and work with his people and bring them to a promised land. The more specific aspect of mercy, redemption from sin, is seen in the Israelites' repentance, or turning back to the Lord, to be restored to blessing.27 This aspect is also presented symbolically through God's redemption of the Israelites from Egypt. Just as those Israelites who were faithful in putting the blood of the lamb on their doorposts during the Passover were spared from destruction and brought out of slavery, so we who apply the blood of the Lamb of God in our lives through repentance and faithful sacrament observance can be spared from eternal destruction and brought out of the slavery of sin.
Beyond Deuteronomy 4, there are other examples of this pendulum rhetoric between justice and mercy.28 Chapter 5 shows the swing between the two: "For I the Lord thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me" (5:9). Yet the next verse highlights the opposite, God's mercy: "And shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me and keep my commandments" (5:10). Chapter 7 (verses 9 and 10) switches the order but again discusses both together: "Know therefore that the Lord thy God, he is God, the faithful God, which keepeth covenant and mercy with them that love him and keep his commandments to a thousand generations; And repayeth them that hate him to their face, to destroy them: he will not be slack to him that hateth him, he will repay him to his face."
One last aspect of Deuteronomy's discussion on mercy deserves mention: Moses' intercession on behalf of the Israelites. As Moses recounted the events that occurred on Mount Sinai, he reiterated God's anger and displeasure over the Israelites' disobedience (9:18–20, 22–23). At that time, Moses, as a type of Christ, interceded for the Israelites and through much prayer (forty days and nights according to the text–9:25), saved them from destruction (10:10). Likewise, the scriptures have assured us that we have an Intercessor who can plead on our behalf.
Listen to him who is the advocate with the Father, who is pleading your cause before him—Saying: Father, behold the sufferings and death of him who did no sin, in whom thou wast well pleased; behold the blood of thy Son which was shed, the blood of him whom thou gavest that thyself might be glorified; Wherefore, Father, spare these my brethren that believe on my name, that they may come unto me and have everlasting life. (D&C 45:3–5)
On the threshold of entering the promised land, Moses recounted the many "great and terrible things" the Lord had done for his people. Through his reminisces and exhortations, the Israelites were reminded that God is just and merciful. We, reading Deuteronomy millennia later, can benefit from seeing how God dealt with his covenant people at that time.29 Although the harsh consequences of the law of justice in some of their experiences were probably too immediate for our comfort30 (we always want to delay that aspect of the law of justice), we can see that God is also a god of mercy. Repeatedly the text pointed out aspects of God's mercy and showed some possible relationships of his mercy to his justice, particularly through its use of different Hebrew terms for merciful blessings. God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt, sustained them in the wilderness, brought them into a promised land, gave them strength in battle, and made them a great nation, a "special people" (7:6; see also 14:2; 26:18–19). God promised he would raise up a prophet, a Messiah, for them (18:18) and mercifully heeded Moses' intercession on their behalf, a type of our Savior's intercession on our behalf.
Deuteronomy's pendulum-like rhetoric between justice and mercy indicates that God's mercy is extended even when we are disobedient, especially if we turn back to him. Just as Alma taught, the Lord God "sendeth an invitation unto all men, for the arms of mercy are extended towards them, and he saith: Repent, and I will receive you" (Alma 5:33). It should be comforting to know that God is just, fair, and unchanging, but the comfort increases yet more knowing that God is merciful. As long as we turn to him, we can receive the help we need to overcome our weaknesses and sins, and his mercy can satisfy the demands of justice.