Near the end of his doctrinal exposition to the Christians in Rome, the apostle Paul writes about God's mercy in calling Gentiles into His church while at the same time rejecting His own people Israel—for a while:
For if God did not spare the natural branches, He may not spare you either. Therefore consider the goodness and severity of God: on those who fell, severity; but toward you, goodness, if you continue in His goodness. Otherwise you also will be cut off. (Romans 11:21-22)
Paul makes use of a merism in verse 22, "the goodness and the severity of God." A merism is a rhetorical device made up of two opposite elements, with the inference of totality. "I looked high and low" means "I looked everywhere." Or, "I put up with that barking dog day and night," means "I put up with that barking dog all the time." The first merism in the Bible, "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1), means that God created everything.
In Romans 11:22, Paul uses opposites: goodness and severity. In doing so, the apostle is saying that God's character runs the gamut from overt compassion to utter harshness. This merism provides us a shorthand guide to God's character: He "put away" the brutal sin of David (II Samuel 12:13), while he slew Uzzah on the spot for touching the Ark of the Covenant (II Samuel 6:7). Before the twins were even born to Rebekah, before they had done good or evil, God elected to love Jacob and to hate Esau (Romans 9:11-13).
It is fair to say that this merism, the opposites expressed in God's goodness and His severity, articulate a central, if not the pivotal, theme of God's Word—from its beginning to its end. We see these opposites in narrative after narrative in God's Word. We see examples of them historically and prophetically. Here are just six illustrations:
The goodness of God as He delivered "righteous Lot" from the cities of the plain, which He promptly burned to ashes. See II Peter 2:6-7.
The severity He displayed to Job in order to teach him an important lesson, and the goodness He showed as He ultimately "blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning" (Job 42:12).
The severity He exhibited toward Joseph, a bit of a cocky 17-year-old lad, who basked in his father's favor. He soon found himself a slave in Egypt and after that, a prisoner. Psalm 105:18 tells us that his "feet hurt in his shackles; his neck was in an iron collar" (Common English Bible). Relatively soon, however, Joseph had risen as high as he could go in Egyptian society, becoming Pharaoh's vizier.
The harshness God has promised to display to His modern-day Israelites for their sins, and the compassion He will quickly show them as He returns them to their land. Isaiah 54:7 reads: "I abandoned you for one brief moment, but I will bring you back with unlimited compassion" (God's Word Translation).
The kindness God demonstrated by healing multitudes of sick with the mere shadow of Peter passing over them (Acts 5:15-16) opposed to the harshness He showed Ananias and Sapphira, as they fell dead at Peter's feet (Acts 5:1-10).
Paul takes the occasion of God's magnanimity to the Gentiles to issue a stern warning to us in Romans 11:22: If we do not continue in God's kindness, we, too, will feel the sting of His severity. We dare not take His kindness for granted.
Paul's language in verse 22 echoes that of Colossians 1:22-23, where he tells the Colossian church that Christ has reconciled them "in the body of His flesh through death." His gracious gift of reconciliation is wonderful! However, there is an important "if" in verse 23: "if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard." This is sobering.
Hebrews 10:38-39 illustrates the kindness and severity of God as it pertains to us:
"But my righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrink back, my soul hath no pleasure in him." Surely we are not going to be men who cower back and are lost, but men who maintain their faith for the salvation of their souls! (J.B. Phillips' paraphrase)
We need to be aware at all times that we are under judgment (I Peter 4:17). God desires us to continue moving forward in faith to His Kingdom, where we will enjoy the ultimate expression of His goodness toward us. But if "we neglect so great a salvation" (Hebrews 2:3), we will not escape His severity, designed to shake us to our marrow and move us to repentance.
We would do well to remember the goodness and severity of God as we progress toward this year's Passover.
- Charles Whitaker