Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show you mercy. For the LORD is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him! Isaiah 30:18
Growing up, I used to really enjoy learning about the gladiators of ancient Rome. Looking back, it was a pretty gruesome fascination but I guess, since Rome has a part to play in the Bible, I got away with it.
Gladiators were sometimes professional fighters, other times, conquered prisoners of war. They would fight for their lives; sometimes one on one, sometimes against animals like lions and bears, other times in large staged mock battles. Crowds would flock to coliseums and amphitheatres to watch the fights. When a gladiator lost, he would often appeal to the crowd or the nobleman who were present by raising his index finger on his left hand. This was a cry for mercy.
Then came a choice. The crowd would either signal their preference by either waving cloths or giving a thumbs up whilst shouting “Mitte!” meaning “Let him go!” or instead, waving with thumbs down calling “Iugula!” which meant “Execute!”. The nobleman would then stand and according to the wishes of the crowd (gotta keep the people happy), signal death or mercy.
When I read Isaiah 30:18, I cannot help but see the arena from my childhood books (and scenes from ‘Gladiator’ also spring to mind). The story of the Gospel is that we were that beaten gladiator, bested by the sword of sin, condemned to die, a crowd of our failures and failings baying for blood, demanding the penalty! “Iugula!”, my pride calls out. “Execute!” screams my lust. The wages of sin are death and I’m owed.
Yet instead, God “rises up to show me mercy”. He stands and gives the signal – I am spared. Where there should be punishment, there’s only grace and compassion. We were beaten and yet we live. Hebrews says that we are those “who have fled to him for refuge”. Not only are we allowed to live however, but as we walk out of the arena, if we were to turn back, we would see instead the Son of God walking towards the sword that was meant for us, taking our place, silencing the crowd as he lays down his life, in the colosseum of mercy.