Great in Mercy – A Portrait of God (4)

I have been working on a new book project for a while, God Is: Portraits of the King. It consists of short expositions of Scripture portraying the character of Yahweh, our God. This and related posts are chapters from this book.

The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the Lord. The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped. – Exodus 34:5-8 (ESV)

After Yahweh revealed himself to Moses, he followed through with his promises to save his people. Yahweh brought them out from the land of Egypt and led them to Sinai “the mountain of God.” There he would enter into a covenant with Israel, his people. However, no sooner had Moses descended from the mountain with the tablets containing Israel’s covenant obligations—the “ten words,” or ten commandments (Exod 34:28)—than he discovered Israel amid idolatry (Exod 32:15-20). They had requested that Aaron make them a mighty calf idol to represent the god(s) who had brought them out of Egypt (32:1-6). In a comedic moment, Aaron excuses his actions; he merely threw the gold in the fire and “out came this calf” (32:34). However, Israel’s idolatry was no laughing matter; Yahweh burned with anger and was ready to “put an end to them” (my translation) and fulfil his promises through Moses (Exod 32:11-14).

God’s anger was not out of control as you or I might be angry. His anger was and is real, and it had and has real consequences. However, this anger is not the frustration of the unexpected: God knew exactly what was in the hearts of his people, that they would disobey. No, this is the anger of righteous indignation; his people transgressed and deserved to face justice; they had done something truly and really wrong. This is the anger of a spouse who has been cheated on, the family of a murder victim, or the indignation of those who witness the judge declaring the man who murdered their mother and sister innocent; this is anger aroused by something genuinely evil. This is an anger that is perfectly measured but terribly swift in bringing forth justice and making right what is wrong.

Idolatry is the greatest of all transgressions; it is not diminishing the value of humans, like murder, theft, or sexual sin; it is diminishing the value of God himself. If sins against humans are wrong because humans are made in the image of God (Gen 9:6), how much more horrid are those sins that are directed at God himself?  God rightly burned with anger and Israel deserved to perish. However, we know from Genesis 15 that God has known all along that his people could not keep their side of the deal. Why else would God appoint Moses, followed by the priesthood, to intercede between himself and the people? He knew all along that they would transgress and deserve to die, but he also desired to show mercy. Appointing mediators to plead their case put on vivid display the seriousness of sin while simultaneously providing an avenue for mercy. It is fitting, therefore, that at the heart of this episode of human sin is an episode revealing God’s profoundly merciful heart.

God is Yahweh, the self-revealing one; Moses and Israel rely on his self-revelation to anticipate his actions and to act accordingly. After Israel’s terrible sin recounted in Exodus 32, we read of an episode similar to what we already saw in Genesis 15. There, Abraham trusted God, yet he knew his own sinfulness; he needed a deeper reassurance that God would truly fulfil his promises. What he received was God’s promise to uphold the entire covenant unilaterally. Similarly, Moses has interceded, and God’s anger has relented—they were spared this time!

But what about the next sin, and the one following that (this is a real fear, read the book of Numbers!). Moses seeks assurance that God will truly go with them and not abandon them, rightful as that abandonment would be. Indeed, God had told Moses that he would send an angel before Israel, but “I will not go up among you, lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked people” (Exod 33:1-3). Yet Moses intercedes, asking that God go forth among them. God grants that his “presence” would go with them (Exod 33:14). At the heart of Moses’ intercession is an odd but important request, “please show me now your ways” (Exod 33:13). Moses is concerned that God would withdraw his presence from his people and that they would become like all the other nations (33:16). Moses seeks assurance in God’s “ways,” his manner or habits of acting; in verse 18, the same request is rephrased as “Please show me your glory.” Both requests get at the same thing: Moses wants to see clearly who God is that he might find assurance concerning God’s promises. He needs assurance because of Israel’s terrible sin, as Abraham had sought assurance despite his own sinful proclivities. God responds with grace, he would make “all [his] goodness pass before” Moses; moreover, he would proclaim his name, Yahweh. God declares, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (33:19). Yet, despite this gracious condescension, God will not show Moses his “face”; Moses will see some of God’s glory, but not the whole picture (33:20-22; cf. 2 Cor 3:7-18). Here and in the following narrative of this revelation, the revelation of God’s glory is primarily verbal. Of this initial glimpse Moses sees, God’s statement in verse 19 is very important, though it is simultaneously terrifying.

Consider this question, why would God show the Israelites mercy? They are identified repeatedly as “stiff-necked”—stubborn and unwilling or unable to change. They sin over and over again. Why would God show mercy to such a people? Do they deserve it? Certainly not! This is the problem facing Moses: why would God show mercy again and again, what assurance could he have that the next sin would not tip God over the edge? Israel surely does not deserve mercy, so should not this be the end? Wouldn’t only a fool believe that a holy God could dwell with such sinful people? Yet Moses is convinced that something more is at work; God has endured them thus far! Indeed, he chose them out of all peoples and brought them forth from Egypt; he did so knowing all along what was in their hearts. So Moses requests a deeper look, “God, what is it about you that could give us, sinful people, hope?”

The beginning of God’s answer is simultaneously dismaying and greatly assuring, “I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy” (33:19). God tells Moses something important about his character: he is absolutely sovereign. He does not give grace and mercy out of obligation but only as he chooses. This is a terrifying thought: God did not owe Israel mercy; he does not owe me mercy! Yet God is not merciless; he does show mercy, but he does so to those whom he chooses. How great reassurance is this for those who do not deserve mercy yet receive it anyway? If God’s mercy is only ever gratuitous and unmerited, then it was never earned in the first place, so how could bad behaviour lose it? God chose to show mercy to the undeserving. When they continue to be undeserving, what has changed? God is the self-defining God, Yahweh, and he defines himself as the sovereign mercy giver. Importantly, this revelation was not given in a void; Yahweh has already proven himself to be faithful, a God who makes covenants and keeps them. This combination is utterly hopeful: if God is true to his commitments and never breaks a promise, and if his mercy was given to those who did not deserve it, then his commitment to show mercy will not cease when they continue to be undeserving. This picture of God who is free in mercy is continued when God finally reveals his glory to Moses.

Hear the revelation that God gives to Moses, “the Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exod 34:6-7, ESV). God reveals his glory in a profoundly dense yet beautiful description of his character, a revelation perfectly suited for sinful people. God is certainly just, unrelenting in his prosecution of sin and dispensing of punishment for iniquity (Exod 34:7). That God would visit iniquity on the children of a sinner is troubling at first, yet Scripture is clear that God does not punish those who are not guilty (Deut 24:16; 2 Kings 14:6; Ezek 18:20). As is specified in Exodus 20:5 and Deuteronomy 5:9, it is “to the third and fourth generation” of those who “who hate me.” So, what do we do with this claim here, amidst this revelation of God’s glory? One of the consequences of sin is that is transmitted across generations: sinful parents usually beget sinful children. If the parents hate God, their children often follow suit. So, to each generation who walks in the ways of their fathers, God will visit iniquity. This will continue, justice will be severed to all who hate God and engage in rebellion against him, unless something intervenes. God will deal with sin, yet he offers forgiveness to all who come to him. Justice is not the paramount feature of God’s character; it is not most prominent: he ensures sin is paid for unto the 4th generation; he shows “steadfast love for thousands”! It is clear in this way that mercy is not something God comes to reluctantly but which he gladly dispenses with abundance! The narrative through Chapters 32-34 has highlighted the tension revealed in this revelation of God: God must and certainly does seek justice, yet he desires to show mercy. This is the same tension seen in the life of Abraham: God desires to give Abraham abundant blessings, but Abraham cannot keep the requirements necessary to receive them. In both cases, mercy stands out as God steps forth to do what humanity cannot.

In Genesis, God promises to take the curse upon himself. In Exodus, God sets up an elaborate system of sacrifice to cover over sin until the day comes when he would step into history and take the curse. Later, in Deuteronomy, we read that God would act one day to rectify the sin problem infecting his people; he would give them the obedient hearts they need to enjoy him. In Habakkuk and more clearly in Romans and Galatians, we will see how this all ties together: God can show mercy and uphold justice because, through Jesus, he not only bears the curse for his people but also earns the covenant blessings on their behalf. Because of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, God is able to freely forgive his people and to lavish his covenant blessings (namely, eternal life knowing him) upon his people: he is free to be completely merciful and completely just.

In response to this revelation, “Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth and worshiped” (Exod 34:8, ESV). Moses then presses on, seeing exactly what he was looking for, the assurance of continued mercy: “And he said, “If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, please let the Lord go in the midst of us, for it is a stiff-necked people, and pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance” (Exod 34:9, ESV). Moses sees the sort of God that Yahweh is and presses forth in his request for God’s presence: he sees now that God will not run short of mercy anytime soon. God grants Moses’ request: he will go forth and covenant with Israel, to be their God. God is free to show mercy to whomever he wills; because he has chosen to grant mercy to Israel, they can be confident they will receive it, for God delights to show mercy. The Book of Judges is perhaps the clearest display of God’s boundless mercy. Time and time again, the people “did what was right in their own eyes” and were promptly disciplined. However, each time, they cried out to God and received deliverance. Though they returned to their idolatry again, God nevertheless showed mercy when they asked him. This is Yahweh, the God of the Scriptures, his glory seen in faintness,

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.

However, though Moses could not see the glory of God’s face in the heat of his anger on Mount Sinai, Scripture shows us that God would reveal the glory of his “face” as it were. God says to Moses, “man shall not see me and live” (Exod 33:20, ESV). This isn’t saying that God cannot be seen, but that for a human to see him would result in death. The issue is a moral one: God is too great to be seen by human eyes, it would be a transgression. However, we get an inkling in the Old Testament that God is willing to pardon this transgression: Jacob is shocked to survive his encounter with God (Gen 32:20), and Gideon, Manoah, and Manoah’s wife were similarly relieved when they survived their encounters with God (Jdgs. 6:22-23; Isa 13:22), Abraham ate with the Lord and lived (Gen 17:1-18:21), and God permitted Isaiah to see him enthroned in heaven (Isa 6:5). In each instance, God’s permits people to see him in a tangible form. However, though each of these moments is a powerful and significant revelation of God, they are still like Moses’ encounter with God, brief glimpses of parts of God’s character, but not the full picture. God may take up a tangible form but seeing him in a theophany isn’t the full revelation God suggests a human would not be permitted to survive. Yet, God frequently shows himself to his creatures and to their delight, permits them to live. This suggests that a day will come when he might just reveal his “face” and not end the life of those who witness it.

Indeed, this day has come. Listen carefully to the end of Paul’s reflection on Exodus 34 in 2 Corinthians 4. The New Covenant has come with an unending, greater glory than that which Moses and the Israelites encountered at Mount Sinai. The New Covenant comes with something greater than the glimpse of God’s back Moses was permitted (2 Cor 3:7-18). Under the New Covenant, we approach God without a veil hiding our faces from his glory (2 Cor 3:16-18): we perceive the light of the Gospel, a light radiating the glory of Jesus Christ, the “image of God” (4:4). What is it that we see? The same God who spoke light into the darkness has “shone in our hearts for the illumination of the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ” (4:6, ESV). In the Gospel, we find God shining in us something Moses could not see. We see the knowledge of God’s glory in the face of Jesus Christ. No human can see God face to face and live, yet here, men and women did: they saw God in the flesh. More than that, they saw the fullness of the revelation that God teased was possible but punishable by death. In the Gospel, we see the face of God, the fuller revelation that Moses’s vision on Sinai shadowed. We were told God was certain to deliver justice to the guilty—that he was perfectly just—and yet abounding in mercy—eager to forgive sin, to justify. In the Gospel, we discover that God is both just and the justifier of the ungodly, as Paul puts it (Rom 3:26), because in Jesus Christ he has made a way for justice to be served and mercy to be given. God is so merciful, so eager to offer forgiveness to the ungodly, that he is willing to be nailed to a cross to do so.

Portrait 1 – (God is) The Beginning

Portrait 2 – (God is) Unpredictably Gracious

Portrait 3 – (God is) The Self-Revealing One

Portrait 5 – (God is) The Sovereign Saviour

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