It’s easy to get a bad impression of God as you leaf through the Old Testament. God said that the natural consequence of sin — of falling short of what God wants from us — is death, just like overeating’s natural consequence is getting fat and not paying the rent’s natural consequence is eviction. It’s just that every time somebody fell out of line in those days, it seemed like God was right there to fry them to a cinder or give them a terminal illness. Even when the consequence of a particular sin didn’t bring quick death, God’s actions seemed really harsh. For example, after David’s affair with Bathsheba, God killed the son the union produced. Clearly, God wanted his people to trust and obey him, and he handed out heavy consequences when they did not. But what does not leap out at you from the Old Testament is how God could show mercy and even have something of a soft spot in his heart for his people when they sinned.
Consider that when the Israelites were afraid to trust God and cross into the Promised Land, God wanted to wipe them all out. But Moses asked God to pardon them, and so instead God sentenced them to wander in the desert for 40 years. And then God provided for them out there, making sure they had plenty of food and even keeping their clothes from wearing out.
Also, Abraham negotiated with God, who wanted to torch sinful Sodom and Gomorrah and all their people, asking him to spare those who did right in God’s eyes. In the end, God promised Abraham that He would not burn the place if at least ten people there were righteous. (There weren’t even ten there, it turned out, because God pretty quickly turned on the heavenly flamethrower.)
King David actually counted on God’s inherent merciful nature. 1 Chronicles 21 tells that David ordered a census of his kingdom, Israel. This was a sin because it let David take pride in the strength of his army rather than remember that God directly allowed Israel to win its battles. God was not happy. In verses 11-12, God gave David a choice of consequences: three years of famine, three months of being swept away by enemies, or three days of God bringing disease and destruction. David’s personal sin was going to have serious national consequences, and each choice seem to be more violent and severe than the last. You might think that David would choose the first or second consequence becaue they could not possibly be as awful as what God would do directly. Yet David chose God’s direct punishment. In verse 13, David said, “Please let me fall into the hand of the LORD, for His mercies are very great. But do not let me fall into the hand of man.”
David knew God. He certainly knew the stories of his people, where God’s mercy played out time and again. David also knew God personally. He often heard God’s voice encouraging and guiding him. He knew from experience that God couldn’t suffer sin and that sin had natural consequences in peoples’ lives. Finally, he knew from God’s laws for Israel that God loved his people and wanted them to do well and enjoy life. So David knew God’s mercy, and he chose wisely.
God began to wreak destruction on David’s kingdom just as He said He would, killing 70,000 men with disease. But just as God’s angel was poised to utterly wipe out the capital city of Jerusalem, He hesitated and said, “It is enough,” (verse 15). God pulled back. God’s consequences were plenty severe, but God didn’t do everything he could do — perhaps not even as much as famine or invasion would do.
All along, God has known that people are imperfect and sinful. Even when we do our best, we still fall short a lot. And while the consequences of our sins is still death, God has stopped burning us to a crisp and instead lets our natural life spans play out. Jesus took on that burden for us when he suffered and died. This was always the plan, and it is the most powerful display of God’s mercy. This mercy is already extended to Christians. If you’re not a Christian, it’s available to you today if you turn to Jesus, believe in Him, and are baptized so your sins are forgiven. And then you never need worry.