If you look at the Ten Plagues on Egypt, there is a distinction between the first five plagues and the last five plagues for Pharaoh. The Bible states for the first five that Pharaoh hardened his heart. He refused to listen. God had been so merciful to him - yes, the five plagues had been an act of mercy. The first five plagues were:
- The river Nile turned to blood
- Frogs coverin the land
- Lice covering the land
- Flies covering the land - except for where the Israelites lived
- The cattle and livestock struck down with a deadly disease - except for the Israeli cattle
Notice the mercy behind these plagues. They were an inconvenience, caused disgusting stenches everywhere, and were highly annoying - and in the case of the cattle, threatened the Egyptians livelihood - but they did not threaten the lives of the people. God was showing His might and power to Pharaoh without taking the lives of his people. But Pharaoh hardened his heart.
Finally, after the fifth plague, there came a point when God would not tolerate Pharaoh's sinfulness anymore. Even the royal magicians know that God was at work, and they entreated with Pharaoh to give in, but Pharaoh would not. So God sent boils on the people. Once again, not what one would call life-treatening, but this time it was an infliction on the people themselves. A very painful infliction. When Pharaoh calls Moses to take away the boils Exodus says that God hardened Pharaohs heart. What a sad state to be in. Pharaoh had chance after chance after chance, but God finally said, "That's enough. No more. I will not tolerate your stubborn sinfulness any longer, for I am holy."
If you look now at Revelations, you will see many parallels to the Exodus plagues. The plagues that procede from the trumpets and the bowls of the angels are things like locusts, water turning into blood, giant hailstones, etc. Sound familiar? It should. We are in the days of mercy. God is allowing humanity this time to turn back to Him, but there will come a day at the end of time when the chances will have all been used up and everyone will reap the rewards of what they lived.
Some of this can be a bit hard to swallow, I know. We wonder how God can possibly show mery one moment and justice the next. Whatever happened to grace? I'll wrap this up with a little story I read once that illustrates the three beautifully.
Once, young James did something wrong and was found out by his father. His father was sad and loved James very much, but the disobedience could not be excused. "You did the wrong thing, James," his father told him. "You must be punished for it. That is justice." James know he could expect three spanks for what he had done, so he was surprised when his father stopped after two. At his son's puzzled look, Father said, "You have been punished, but I am letting you off the third spank. That is mercy. Now go to your room." James had been there for barely three minutes when Father called him back. "Lets go for an icecream," he said.
"Why?" asked James. "I did the wrong thing."
"Yes, but you got justice when you got what you deserved, then I showed you mercy by not giving you what you deserved, and now I am showing you grace by giving you what you don't deserve."