In Deut. 19:11-13 Moses speaks of premeditated murder in contrast to accidental homicide.
11 But if there is a man who hates his neighbor and lies in wait for him and rises up against him and strikes him so that he dies, and he flees to one of these cities [of refuge], 12 then the elders of his city shall send and take him from there and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die. 13 You shall not pity him, but you shall purge the blood of the innocent from Israel, that it may go well with you.
This law had been given earlier in the Sixth Commandment, and also more specifically in Exodus 21:14,
14 If, however, a man acts presumptuously toward his neighbor, so as to kill him craftily, you are to take him even from My altar, that he may die.
So the murderer cannot expect clemency, either in a city of refuge or to the tabernacle.
The Execution of Joab
We are given an example of this in 1 Kings 2:28-33, for when Joab backed Adonijah in the conspiracy to overthrow Solomon, he fled to the tabernacle of David “and took hold of the horns of the altar” (2:28). Solomon ordered his new general to execute him, though not specifically for backing Adonijah, but for the innocent blood that he had shed while still under David’s command.
Years earlier, Joab had violated David’s orders by killing Amasa and Abner. David did not order his death immediately, but let it be known to all that these murders were done without his approval. Toward the end of David’s life, he gave instructions to Solomon to dispense justice. 1 Kings 2:5, 6 says,
5 Now you also know what Joab the son of Zeruiah did to me, what he did to the two commanders of the armies of Israel, to Abner the son of Ner, and to Amasa the son of Jether, whom he killed; he also shed the blood of war in peace. And he put the blood of war on his belt about his waist, and on his sandals on his feet. 6 So act according to your wisdom, and do not let his gray hair go down to Sheol in peace.
Solomon did nothing about it until Joab backed Adonijah in an attempted coup. Then he told his general to execute Joab…
31 … that you may remove from me and from my father’s house the blood which Joab shed without cause. 32 And the Lord will return his blood on his own head, because he fell upon two men more righteous and better than he and killed them with the sword, while my father David did not know it.
This case is of interest, because it is an example of deferred justice. Joab had committed murder, and although David was very displeased with this, he did not dispense justice himself. But many years later he instructed Solomon to do so after his death.
We might ask why David could not execute Joab himself. Some say it was on account of political expediency. But I believe it was because God restrained him. Joab treacherously killed Abner in 2 Samuel 3:27. David himself was later guilty of murder in the case of Uriah (2 Sam. 11:15). Still later, Joab again unjustly murdered Amasa in 2 Samuel 20:10.
Hence, David’s offense came between Joab’s two murders. if David had judged Joab earlier for murdering Abner, God would have been obliged to judge David by the same standard of measure (Matt. 7:2). But God restrained David’s hand of judgment in order to save David’s own life.
David deferred judgment to his son, who was able to dispense justice without incurring liability upon his own house.
A related point of law is that, as the general of the army, Joab was under the direct authority of David himself. From a legal standpoint, this made David his redeemer of blood, the one responsible to do justice in Joab’s case. This gave David the right to forgive, though in this case we discover at the end of the story that justice had only been deferred. I believe that if Joab had been truly repentant, David would have forgiven him fully, but when Joab murdered again, it proved that he was in rebellion against David. His lack of repentance ensured that he would finally be brought to justice after David’s death.
Even so, Solomon did not execute Joab until he once again proved his heart of rebellion by backing Adonijah’s claim to the throne. This third witness of rebellion brought about the final verdict that brought about Joab’s execution.
Most cases of premeditated murder, of course, resulted in the immediate execution of the murderer—once guilt had been determined by a court of law. No one should assume that anyone could be executed by the redeemer of blood without first being tried in court. In fact, Moses established this a few verses later in Deut. 19:15, which we will cover later.
The Mercy Factor in a Murder Case
Each speech that Moses gave was only a summary of the law and did not cover every circumstance that may arise. Neither did he stress the right of the victim (or guardian) to forgive sin. Moses focused upon the law itself and the duty of judges to render verdicts in accordance with true justice. It was left to the later prophets and the New Testament to discuss more fully the victim’s right to forgive.
We see this to some extent in the story of David in Samuel’s account. Most striking is how the prophet Nathan gave David opportunity to show mercy and thereby receive mercy when he had Uriah killed. Nathan gave him a hypothetical story about a poor man who had but one lamb, and a rich man who took the poor man’s lamb to feed his guest (2 Sam. 12:1-4). David angrily judged the rich man without realizing that the rich man was himself.
Hence, we see how the mercy principle was rooted in the law and the mind of God from the beginning, though it was more fully developed in the New Testament. One of the beatitudes is found in Matthew 5:7,
7 Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Mercy, then, is part of the law, for those who are merciful will obtain mercy when God judges their own sins. We may call this the law of mercy. When this principle is paired with the law of equal weights and measures (as applied in Matt. 7:2), it is clear that any judgment of the law can be modified by the victim. If there is no victim other than God or the community itself, then the judge may act also as the redeemer of blood with the right to forgive or modify the verdict of the law.
And so as we read the prophets, we see the principle of mercy and forgiveness in many places. Most of the prophetic discussion centers on the lawlessness of Israel and Judah as nations. On that national level, God is both the Victim and the Judge. He judges by the law, but also as the Victim. As the Judge, He must render the verdict as written in the law. But as the Victim, He also has the right to extend mercy and forgiveness.
In Isaiah 1:18-20 God asks Israel to repent. If they repent as a nation, they will be blessed. If not, they will be “devoured by the sword.” Of Jerusalem, Isaiah 1:21 says,
21 How the faithful city has become a harlot, she who was full of justice! Righteousness once lodged in her, but now murderers.
God appealed to Jerusalem through Isaiah and many other prophets to repent, so that God might show mercy and forgiveness. Jerusalem was guilty of murdering the prophets (Luke 11:47-51), thus making it a city of “murderers.” Yet it is plain from this that God had the option of dispensing justice as the law specified, or forgiving sin. The law was not put away, but God had the lawful right to forgive. It is plain also that His mercy was based upon their own level of mercy, and His forgiveness hinged upon their repentance. The problem was that the people of Jerusalem did not repent. In the end, that city will be destroyed, as the prophets affirm in Isaiah 29:1-6 and Jer. 19:11.
All victims of injustice are given the right to forgive, and if they are wise, they will learn from God’s example. In other words, they will not forgive indiscriminately, but measure mercy according to their repentance and how the sinners have treated others in similar situations.
The unique combination of justice and mercy characterizes the laws governing Kingdom government. Learning those laws by the mind of Christ brings wisdom and understanding by which believers may eventually judge the world (1 Cor. 6:2).