Today we will be looking at the topic of forgiveness, and how forgiveness is revealed in the Bible as being the strength of Yahweh that historically distinguished him from the pantheon of ancient gods and continues to do so today.
Psalm 130:3-4 – “If You, O Yahweh, kept track of iniquities, then who, O Lord, could stand? But with You there is forgiveness, so that You may be feared.”
The Psalmist here writes, “But with You there is forgiveness, so that You may be feared.” The quality of God that most causes people to revere him is the fact that he is willing to forgive those who sincerely admit their failings. By contrast, the deities of the ancient nations exhibited their power through their strength, ruthlessness, and promises of fulfillment of selfish ambition.
For example, out of the hundreds of ancient Egyptian gods listed by the World History Encyclopedia, there are numerous gods with unique attributes of power, healing, war, death, and success. However, not one of them is mentioned as a god or goddess representing or offering forgiveness. Forgiveness was not a concept known to the ancient Egyptians.
Likewise, the Greek deities were depicted with weaknesses and foibles rivalling those of the most degenerate of human behavior. While the Greeks had very mature philosophies surrounding justice and equity, the concept of personal forgiveness was not widely known or accepted.
David Leigh, writing on forgiveness in the ancient Greek culture for Seattle University comments:
“A study of the earliest Greek literature and philosophy indicates that the Greeks developed a strong sense of justice and law as related to both gods and humans, but did not develop a concept of forgiveness or mercy. The closest they came to the latter concept was the practice of legal leniency and the notion of ‘pity’. But pity was a later development, especially in Greek epics and drama, as a human response to the strict notions of justice and law that dominated their mythology and early philosophy…it is clear that forgiveness was not a primary virtue for these early Greeks. Neither the gods nor human beings in early Greece were seen as ‘forgiving’ people their injustices or offenses.”
Forgiveness, Pity, and Ultimacy in Ancient Greek Culture, David J. Leigh, S.J., Seattle University, Seattle, WA 98122 USA.
Additionally, out of the hundred or so Roman deities who were responsible for everything from childbirth, fertility, money, harvest, future, etc., there was only one goddess noted within the bounds of what could be considered forgiveness: Clementia. Yet, even this is not necessarily evidence of forgiveness as we know it today, but an ideal of legal clemency (which is where the word comes from) in matters of justice.
Quoting from William Mann, commenting on the book “Ancient Forgiveness” from the Cambridge press, he writes the following:
“In “The Anger of Tyrants and the Forgiveness of Kings,” Susanna Morton Braund concentrates on the role that Seneca may have played in commending clementia to rulers as a virtue of self-restraint, manifested in mildness of behavior. Conceived in this way clemency is an exclusive prerogative of the powerful. As Seneca defines it clementia is “the leniency of the more powerful party toward the weaker in the matter of setting penalties”, not to be confused with forgiveness. While forgiveness seeks reconciliation, clemency achieves subordination, frequently producing public humiliation in its recipients.”
Charles L. Griswold and David Konstan (eds.), Ancient Forgiveness: Classical, Judaic, and Christian, Cambridge University Press, Reviewed by William E. Mann, University of Vermont.
In our modern society and culture steeped in several millennia of forgiveness as a cultural ideal, we take for granted that forgiveness has always been a philosophical concept that was honored among all people, but history states otherwise. From our modern perspective, we have only a fleeting glimpse of the tyranny and injustice that was displayed throughout the ancient world. For millennia, with the rise and fall of many empires, that environment was a harsh place with cruel justice, both physically and spiritually.
If we are to place a biblical faith within the context of its origins, it was a shining beacon of light in the midst of a sea of darkness. The ideals of forgiveness offered through the God of the Bible were unheard of in the ancient world until they were exemplified by the ancient Israelites in their torah practices, which culminated in the gospel of the kingdom brought forth by their Messiah and his early believers.
In this light, Yahweh stands out among the ancient gods for his characteristic forgiveness.
Psalm 86:2-5 – “You are my God; save Your servant who trusts in You. Be merciful to me, O Lord, for I call to You all day long. Bring joy to Your servant, for to You, O Lord, I lift up my soul. For You, O Lord, are kind and forgiving, rich in loving devotion to all who call on You.”
This is why Moses could stand before the Israelites as they were preparing to enter the land of Canaan and say:
Deuteronomy 4:5-8 – “Look, I have taught you statutes and ordinances as Yahweh my God has commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to possess. “Carefully follow them, for this will show your wisdom and understanding in the eyes of the peoples. When they hear about all these statutes, they will say, ‘This great nation is indeed a wise and understanding people.’ “For what great nation is there that has a god near to it as Yahweh our God is to us whenever we call to him? “And what great nation has righteous statutes and ordinances like this entire law I set before you today?
These righteous statutes and ordinances resulted in the ability of the Hebrew prophets to extol the mercies and forgiveness available to the people when they would return to Yahweh from serving the harsh gods of the surrounding nations.
Isaiah 55:7 – “Let the wicked man forsake his own way and the unrighteous man his own thoughts; let him return to Yahweh, that he may have compassion, and to our God, for he will freely pardon.”
This is one of the main reasons idolatry has been forbidden by the true God; he wanted to protect his own from experiencing the unnecessary and cruel harshness of those cultural and societal demands. His way provided a nearness of relationship that those other religions could not provide.
At the dawning of the spiritual Kingdom of God being realized on the earth, a baby was born to Zechariah and Elizabeth, two righteous parents who were faithful to Yahweh, the God of Israel. After the child’s birth, Zechariah, filled with the Spirit of God, uttered a prophecy about John:
Luke 1:76-79 – “And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”
This was the continuation of a path of forgiveness for God’s people that would rise above the forgiveness offered through the substitutionary sacrifices of the torah of Moses. Those physical sacrifices pointed a way toward ultimate fulfillment, and a way of peace that would be laid out through the ministry of Yeshua.
Beyond exhibiting the forgiveness that God had been offering to the Israelites through their sacrificial offerings, Yeshua emphasized the responsibility and duty of people within this kingdom to forgive one another.
Matthew 6:14 – “For if you forgive others their offenses, your heavenly Father will forgive you as well.
Mark 11:25 – “And whenever you stand praying, if you have anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven will also forgive you your wrongdoing.”
Luke 11:4 – “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves also forgive everyone in debt to us…”
This forgiveness was to extend not only to those with whom individuals were familiar, but to provide kindnesses to enemies and workers of harm, and to be generous to those in need, as well.
Luke 6:27-31 – “But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. If anyone hits you on the cheek, offer the other also. And if anyone takes away your coat, don’t hold back your shirt either. Give to everyone who asks you, and from someone who takes your things, don’t ask for them back. Just as you want others to do for you, do the same for them.”
This is where the gospel light shines the brightest. This is the root of how the world is changed through believers in each generation. Considered in view of this principle of mutual forgiveness and kindness to even adversaries, this explains how God’s kingdom can expand to the entirety of earth. This is not a kingdom that is to be established by force or by might, but by love and forgiveness. Force and might may hold sway for temporary times and in limited areas, but it always gives way to the next sweep of power and might.
Forgiveness, though, operates from a different base than forced subjection; it is a subtler but stronger might that captures the heart, and in so doing causes willing obedience and respect. It is not as visible and decisive as forced compliance, yet it spreads farther, reaches deeper, and lasts longer than any armed campaign could accomplish.
The God of the Bible is indeed all powerful. He represents himself as having created all that exists, and he has the ability to destroy kingdoms and lift up others for his own honor and glory. And yet, surveyed against the backdrop of historical beliefs and cruel demands of pagan gods, his greatest strength lies not in his unchallenged power to create or destroy, but in his demonstration of and willingness to provide forgiveness to those who turn to him.
If our God is a God of forgiveness, and if we consider ourselves to be his children through faith, then should we not mimic the characteristic that would most demonstrate his greatest strength? In this way, our likeness with our Father is displayed, and honor is brought to his name. This is the path of forgiveness and peace that we are tasked with walking.
Luke 6:36 – “Be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.
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