The Psalmist writes, “Also unto thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy: for thou renderest to every man according to his work” (Ps 62:12). On their face, the two halves of this verse are paradoxical: doesn’t it belong to mercy not to render to another according to his works? Isn’t mercy not getting what you deserve? How can this be a part of the LORD’s mercy?
The story of Israel in the Book of Judges suggests an answer. On its face, this is a story of judgment and decline: The people of Israel “forsook the LORD, and served Baal and Ashtaroth. And the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel, and he delivered them into the hands of spoilers that spoiled them, and he sold them into the hands of their enemies round about” (Jdg 2:13-14). Israel sins, and the LORD punishes; he renders to them according to their works. But where is the mercy in this? Read on: “The LORD raised them up judges, [and] then the LORD was with the judge, and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge: for it repented the LORD because of their groanings by reason of them that oppressed them and vexed them” (Jdg 2:18). The LORD gives his people over to their hardened hearts for a time, but again and again, he calls them back. Israel suffers the LORD’s absence through her sin, but then the LORD brings Israel through that sin to repentance and return.
According to Paul, this is the deep structure of salvation history: “Have [Israel] stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy…blindness in part is happened to Israel, until the fulness of the Gentiles be come in…And so all Israel shall be saved” (Rom 11:11, 25-26). Augustine, commenting on this difficult verse in the Psalms, puts his finger on this insight: “Hoc est magnum Dei, quia et bonum quod facis ipse tibi dedit, et de malo tuo ipse bene facit” (Ennar. in Psalmos 61 ).