The Death Penalty and God’s Mercy

ThanksLiving: 365 Days of Gratitude

God loves peace and harmony among his children, and necessary to this is punishment for crime. But more than that, God desires peace and harmony between his children and himself, and necessary to this is punishment for the sin that prevents it. In that sense, we all deserve the death penalty for sin. But praise the Lord, God himself stepped in and offered his Son to suffer our capital punishment. He took the punishment that fit our crime.

Going Deep // Focus: Exodus 24:17-22

Anyone who takes another person’s life must be put to death. Anyone who kills another person’s animal must pay for it in full—a live animal for the animal that was killed. Anyone who injures another person must be dealt with according to the injury inflicted—a fracture for a fracture, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. Whatever anyone does to injure another person must be paid back in kind. Whoever kills an animal must pay for it in full, but whoever kills another person must be put to death. This same standard applies both to native-born Israelites and to the foreigners living among you. I am the Lord your God.

Perhaps Leviticus 24 would be an appropriate time for me to do a devotional on the death penalty—although you might consider the juxtaposition of “death penalty” and “devotional” a bit of an oxymoron—but that is not what I think this section of scripture is primarily about. More on that in a moment.

But let me just say that any believer who holds a high view of Scripture (which every believer should, by the way) who offers a glib argument either for or against capital punishment probably needs to carefully and empathetically read, re-read and prayerfully reflect on the seriousness of this account. Mostly, Leviticus is didactic—God is instructing his people on how to live in holiness. This chapter, however, includes one of the few narratives in Leviticus—it tells a real story of a real human situation. And while I won’t get into it here, grasping the context of this drama is necessary to reaching any conclusions about the death penalty from Leviticus 24.

The death penalty, whether you are for it or against it—involves real human tragedy and is connected to human suffering at its most painful. Someone did something so heinous to another human being that it required death at the hands of the state. And someone was victimized so terribly that it will forever mark his or her life. And two families were forced into a trauma they didn’t ask for and for which they cannot simply “take an aspirin and call the doctor in the morning.” This will be with them forever. And in this case, the witnesses to the crime actually had to lay hands on the guilty party’s head—there was no anonymous tip line here—and representatives of the witnessing community had to actually throw the stones that crushed the man’s skull. This was tragic as well as gruesome.

The death penalty might be easy to debate academically, but the reality of taking another person’s life as punishment, rightly or wrongly, will turn the stomach of any person with normal human empathy. Not that I am recommending this, but if you don’t believe me, watch one of the many videos that are now a part of our online living that shows a Middle Eastern stoning for adultery or some other crime. But I want to give you fair warning: it is not pretty and it will turn your stomach in a way that will affect you for a long time.

And one more thing about this chapter as it relates to any death penalty argument: God commanded it! This was not just a human construct; it originated with the Almighty. There is no getting around that. Something so egregious to a holy God took place that the Lord himself issued the death warrant.

Now, does that amount to God’s tacit approval for capital punishment in today’s society? Maybe—he did order it, after all. But maybe not, because we don’t execute every punishment that God ordered against sin in Old Testament in our current culture. We don’t stone adulterers today, nor do we execute those who blaspheme their parents, do we? My point is, using this chapter to argue a pro death penalty position will be fraught with inconsistencies. So take care.

Let me offer this broader insight into what is going on here by quoting from the Expositor’s Bible Commentary:

The stoning of the blasphemer is taken as the occasion for the summation of the principles of justice. Here again the principle of lex talionis or retaliation is stated as a form of justice. The principle similarly appears in Exodus 21:23-25 and Deuteronomy 19:21. Christ quoted the law in Matthew 5:38-42 and seems to have opposed it, though he was actually not contradicting the OT but was denouncing the Pharisaic use of these verses to justify personal revenge. It is another question whether this law was taken literally or is an emphatic statement of the principle that the punishment must fit the crime. If a man killed a beast, his own beast was not killed (Leviticus 24:21). There is no example in the OT of a judge exacting literally an eye for an eye. The usual penalties of Hebrew law were capital punishment for a limited number of serious offenses and fines and restitution for the remainder. There were no prisons in the early days, and none is mentioned in the Pentateuchal legislation. Apparently we have here an emphatic legal idiom meaning that the punishment must be commensurate with the offense.

The larger point to this tragic human story is that God cares deeply about justice—both in his spiritual family and in the family of mankind. This law established here, referred to as lex talionis, is foundational to the principle of justice that govern our civilized world, and that is simply this: the penalty must fit the crime. If there is too much or if there is too little by way of punishment, the state, which is God’s instrument of justice (see Romans 6:3-5) is guilty of a grave miscarriage of justice.

So here is where the devotional gets wrung out of a death penalty discussion: God loves peace and harmony among his children, and necessary to this is punishment for crime. But more than that, God desires peace and harmony between his children and himself, and necessary to this is punishment for the sin that prevents it. In that sense, we all deserve the death penalty for sin, don’t we? But praise the Lord, in the greatest act of loving kindness and mercy ever seen, God himself stepped in and offered his Son to suffer the capital punishment you and I justly deserved.

That truly is the mercy and grace and the indescribable love of a just God at its most stunning! Jesus paid a debt he did not owe for a debt we could not pay. And I don’t say this lightly, but for that, we owe an eternal debt of gratitude.

Going Deeper With God: Offer up a heartfelt prayer of gratitude to God that he commuted your death sentences.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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