God is merciful. As David Powlison has recently written, mercy is who God is, mercy is what He does, and mercy is what we need. In His mercy, God "does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10).
God is just. "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he" (Deuteronomy 32:4).
How can this be? Aren't these two qualities contradictory? How can God be both just and merciful?
Take a look at Hosea 2, which paints a bleak picture of the ways God intends to punish unfaithful, adulterous Israel:
"I will make her like a desert,
turn her into a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.
...I will block her path with thornbushes;
I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.
She will chase after her lovers but not catch them;
she will look for them but not find them.
...I will take away my grain when it ripens
...I will take back my wool and my linen
...I will expose her lewdness
...I will stop all her celebrations
...I will ruin her vines and her fig trees,
which she said were her pay from her lovers"
(excerpts from Hosea 2:3-12).
As harsh as it sounds, God is certainly being just here by punishing Israel for her spiritual adultery, for betraying Him and turning to other gods. He is right to do this--it is what His unfaithful people deserve; it is the fair wages for her sin.
That's not the whole picture. In His mercy, God does not abandon Israel. She has been unfaithful, but He refuses to forsake her. All this harshness, all this discipline, demonstrates God's unwillingness to give up on His relationship with His people. He's committed to be active in their lives, rather than just turn His back and walk away.
As God in His justice thwarts Israel (block her path, wall her in, destroy her harvest), God in His mercy is speeding the disillusionment that is inevitable. False gods cannot save her; they cannot give her the hope and the blessings and the protection she needs. She will find this out sooner or later...God, mercifully, makes it happen sooner.
Israel gets prideful when things are going well and thinks she can handle life herself. We do the same thing, thinking we can do it ourselves...thinking we can be "good enough" to save ourselves, to earn acceptance from the Holy One of Israel. Full of justice and mercy, He shows Israel (and shows us) that's not possible:"Because you have depended on your own strength and on your many warriors, the roar of battle will rise against your people, so that all of your fortresses will be devastated" (Hosea 10:13-14).
He leads us into the desert so that He can speak tenderly to us--so that we will seek Him. In the end of the book, we see the merciful conclusion to His just punishment of Israel:
"I will heal their waywardness and love them freely" (Hosea 14:4).
Justice and mercy, coexisting in the beautiful, matchless character of our Holy God.