“Now while the children of Israel were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day. And those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses and Aaron, and to all the congregation. They put him under guard, because it had not been explained what should be done to him. Then the LORD said to Moses, “The man must surely be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him with stones outside the camp.” So, as the LORD commanded Moses, all the congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him with stones, and he died.” (Numbers 15:32-36)
Why was God so strict in the Old Testament? The immediate context in Numbers deals with two different kinds of sins – the unintentional and the defiant (with lifted hand). The unintentional sin could be atoned for by sacrifice. The defiant sinner was to be destroyed. Since the man that picked sticks on the Sabbath was stoned, we must draw the conclusion that he sinned deliberately, in defiance. This man was part of making the solemn vow before God: “All that the LORD has said we will do, and be obedient.” (Exodus 24:7), thereby entering into the Theocracy. The wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23), and this truth was illustrated in the ancient Israel Theocracy by a death penalty for every defiant violation of the Ten Commandments. One thing that many people forget about the death penalties in the Hebrew Scriptures is that there was always mercy for the repentant. Ezekiel says it this way: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself. “But if a wicked man turns from all his sins which he has committed, keeps all My statutes, and does what is lawful and right, he shall surely live; he shall not die. None of the transgressions which he has committed shall be remembered against him; because of the righteousness which he has done, he shall live. Do I have any pleasure at all that the wicked should die?” says the Lord GOD, “and not that he should turn from his ways and live?”” (Ezekiel 18:20-23). We see this mercy in action in several places in the Old Testament, for example in 2 Samuel 12:13, when David has committed both adultery and murder, and thereby merited death twice according to the Torah. But as he repents he is forgiven and would “not die.” The death penalties of the Torah show that sin is very serious. We cannot dally with it or trespass in rebellion without consequences. However, if we realize our guilt and cast ourselves in repentance at Jesus’ feet (as the adulterer did in John 8), He is ever ready to say: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.” (John 8:11).