The so-called “God of the Old Testament” gets a bad rap in contemporary society. According to some, this “God of the Old Testament,” was mean and judgmental, hurling thunderbolts left and right, withholding mercy and delighting in destruction. Now of course our culture doesn’t have much use for what the “God of the New Testament” actually has to say—but that doesn’t keep many from contrasting the “judgmental God of the Old” and the “merciful God of the New.”
I think it would be accurate to say that the most frequent objection to God in our society is this idea of judgment. Many can’t seem to wrap their minds around a God who calls Himself love and yet judges the wicked. With that in mind, I would like to consider Jesus’ parable of the vineyard, found in Mark 12:1–12 and its parallels. This is a rich and significant passage. I will not even attempt to discuss it fully in such a brief article, but there is one point in particular that I want to bring out.
This parable is a pointed retelling of God’s dealings with Israel in the Old Testament, referring back in particular to the use by Isaiah of the same vivid metaphor. God did everything that was necessary for His people to be the fruitful vineyard that He had always intended them to be. The care with which the owner of the vineyard prepared it for fruit-bearing pales in comparison to what God did in reality to provide for His people. Just as did the owner of the vineyard, He had every right to expect a solid return on His “investment.”
As anyone who has read the parable, or the Old Testament for that matter, knows, that’s not what happened. As soon as His people got into their land, they began a rebellion from which they never fully repented. They consistently ignored the messengers that God sent them—and their treatment of those messengers went from bad to worse. What got my attention the last time I read this parable was just how many emissaries the owner of the vineyard sent to the same wicked group of farmers. He didn’t just give them a second chance. He sent many others.
As you read the parable, the question that comes to mind is not, “How could this vineyard owner ever bring himself to judge his tenant farmers?” but rather, “How in the world has he not done it already?” By the time we get to the end, when the owner sends his son, his mercy has become, by human standards, altogether unreasonable. If there really was a vineyard owner like that, he would be accused, not of being harsh, but rather of being merciful to the point of injustice. How could he allow so many of his servants to suffer just so a group of wretched farmers could have one more chance? No one would give that many chances to people who had done so little to earn them.
Yet that is exactly what God did in the Old Testament—and it is what He is still doing today. Though the God we serve is a God of judgment, it is not His judgment that is difficult to explain. It is His mercy. We struggle with the judgment of God, not because it is unreasonably severe but because we have utterly failed to comprehend just how much mercy we have already needed and received.
The next time someone slanders the “God of the Old Testament,” remind them God did not change at the coming of Christ—He only revealed more of who He already was and still is. He has always been both merciful and just and He always will be. When we look at the Old Testment as Jesus looked at it, the sending of the Son was the final chapter in a story, not of unreasonable judgment, but of unexplainable mercy.