Yesterday I pre-empted today's question with the objection that God Himself appears to act contrary to His alleged characteristic of love by commanding, on various occasions in the Bible, that certain people be put to death. Probably the most well known example is that of God's commandment to the nation of Israel, as they were heading towards the promised land, to make war with the inhabitants of that land which were already there.
We've spoken before about hell as being the ultimate judgement of God. Whenever God puts a person to death, we should see it as a matter of God's timing as to when they begin their eternity in heaven or hell. There are many occasions in the Bible where God puts believers to death as well as unbelievers. When Job, whose children all died in a single day, heard the news of their death he said “Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21) Job understood that he came into this world with nothing, and that everything he has, therefore, the Lord has given him; including his children. It's one thing for God to take a life which He Himself has given; it's a sin for man to do so unless he is the agent through which God is taking that life. Of course, many have presumed to be doing the work of God in taking someone's life, and the claim that one is supposedly doing the work of God will always serve to justify wicked men for all kinds of evil. But in the Bible, there are cases where God has commanded the killing of certain people as judgement for their wickedness. And this is true in the case of the Canaanites.
In Genesis 15, God tells Abraham that at some point in the future, his descendants (the Israelites) would conquer the promised land...
And they shall come back here in the fourth generation, for the iniquity of the Amorites [inhabitants of the land of Canaan] is not yet complete. (Genesis 15:16)
We make the mistake of thinking that the Canaanites were innocent and undeserving of this judgement. We also make the mistake of thinking that we are innocent and undeserving of this same judgement! As Moses gave his last words of instruction to the people of Israel before they began their conquest, he said:
Do not say in your heart, after the LORD your God has thrust them out before you, “It is because of my righteousness that the LORD has brought me in to possess this land”, whereas it is because of the wickedness of these nations that the LORD is driving them out before you. (Deuteronomy 9:4)
But when God told Abraham what would happen in Genesis 15, it wasn't for another 400+ years that God sent that Israeli army to destroy the Canaanites. God gave them ample time to hear the warning of what was coming and to repent of their wickedness. When the Israelites did finally come into the promised land to destroy the Canaanites, the first person they met was a woman named Rahab. She told them “I know that the LORD has given you the land, and that the fear of you has fallen upon us, and that all the inhabitants of the land melt away before you.” (Joshua 2:9) The people had heard the warning, but rather than repent of their wickedness they had simply prepared for war. But Rahab, on the other hand, is spared from death because she did believe and have faith in God; (Hebrews 11:31 affirms). But for those Canaanites who stood firm in their rebellion against God, God commanded Israel to wipe them out. It was important for God to involve Israel in this way so that Israel would understand that sinners will be judged by God, and that they would too if they would be like the Canaanites.
There are many examples in the Bible of where God will use an army to bring judgement upon the enemies of His people. And Habakkuk struggles with the fact that God is going to use an army to bring judgement upon Israel. But God is full of grace also, giving warning and time to repent. If the inhabitants of Canaan had turned from their wickedness, they would have been spared. How do I know this? In the story of Jonah, God sent Jonah to the city of Nineveh. He told them to repent or they would be destroyed. But all of Nineveh did repent and God did not destroy them. When God spares Nineveh, Jonah is upset! He complains, “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (John 4:2). But he had no right to be upset. God will have mercy on whom he will have mercy. (Exodus 33:19) Likewise with us, God does not execute immediate judgement upon us either, giving us time to turn from our sinful ways and seek a relationship with Him. But the time will come for all people when death catches up with us, and that will be God's appointed time for us too; to face either the judgement of hell, or salvation through Christ.
The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance. (2 Peter 3:9)