Yahweh descended in the cloud and stood with [Moses] there and proclaimed the name of Yahweh. Yahweh passed before him and proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, 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 fourth generation.”Exodus 34:5-7
This takes place directly after God had told Moses He would put him in the cleft of a rock while He passes him, covering him with His hand, while Moses would view God’s backside rather than see His face and perish. This is what happens when God proclaims His name: Yahweh. Every person has characteristics indicative of their personality. When you think of a person’s name, you usually think of who they are. When I think of my wife, Emilia, I think: beautiful Finnish culture, her adorable accent, her extreme thoughtfulness of others, her love for children, her patience, humility, artistic talent, and many other redeeming qualities. When I think of my father, Dan Jr., I think: disciplined, intelligent, stubborn (both good and bad), loving, joyful, lover of Bourbon, and other things. When you think of someone you know, what characteristics do you see in them that tell you who they are? What characteristics should we think when we think of God?
People usually tell us who they are with words and actions. God does the same. He gives us five characteristics uniquely belonging to Him: He is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving, and holy (“visiting the iniquity of the fathers,” etc.). Let’s go through each of these.
First, God is merciful and gracious. We’ve seen this most recently in Exodus—indeed, what the entire book is about. Exodus is about God redeeming—that is, buying back—His people from slavery in Egypt, making them His people, and promising to be their God. The Israelites did nothing to deserve this. They simply cried out, God heard their cries, and He promised to deliver them, and He did. In a word, He was merciful. He was also gracious. To have mercy on someone is to have pity and compassion on them and thus show them favour.
Grace is closely related, and it is often defined as “receiving what you do not deserve.” While this is true in a sense, this definition is too similar to mercy, and I think it puts too much of an emphasis on the negative. This definition forces you to remember what you do deserve more than it makes you think of God’s grace. As a result, it becomes difficult to take joy in God’s grace, which brings me to my preferred definition.
Although Exodus is written in Hebrew, as Christians, our concept of grace mostly comes from the New Testament in terms of God’s grace coming through Jesus Christ (e.g., 2 Corinthians 13:14). The New Testament is written in Greek, and the Greek word for “grace” is χάρις (charis), which derives from the verb χαίρω (chairo) that means “to rejoice.” Therefore, that God has grace on someone means He has joy in them. Furthermore, that God is “merciful and gracious” is to say that He is merciful of our pitiable situation, and He does this mercy with joy (graciousness). In other words, He shows mercy because it brings Him joy. His mercy and grace are, of course, culminated in Jesus Christ on the cross. In Christ, God mercifully died in our place (He didn’t have to do this, but He did out of pity and compassion), and it gave Him joy (He was gracious) to do this for us.
The second characteristic God describes of Himself is that He is “slow to anger.” To put it another way, His patience is longsuffering. When God called Moses, for example, it took Him a while to finally get impatient and angry with Moses for the excuses he kept giving. God was especially slow to anger and longsuffering with His people when they constantly rebelled against Him and failed to keep His Commandments. God suffered patience for them for a couple thousand years before He finally sent His judgement upon them and exiled them in Babylon for 70 years (Jeremiah 29:1-14). Yet in that same judgement, He also promised He would return them to their land after that time, and He did, which is what the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are about.
As we think Christologically about this, God is slow to anger in Christ, for He suffered the wrath and abscondence of God in our place. Just as with the Israelites, the time for God’s judgement will come. Yet when it comes, His dear Christians will not suffer since Christ suffered God’s judgement in our place. Furthermore, besides “God only knows,” the proper answer to the question, “Why does God permit suffering,” is: Because He is slow to anger. For God to prevent all evil, this means He must destroy it, and He will. He simply hasn’t yet. Twice God says He does not desire that the wicked perish but that they should turn from their ways and live in Him, i.e., repent (Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; cf. 2 Peter 3:9). Thus, He is longsuffering, which is quite a fitting term as a double entendre. (1) He is longsuffering in that He is slow to anger, that is, unfathomably patient. (2) He is longsuffering in that while He is patient for as many people to repent and live, their wickedness and evil deeds pain Him—He suffers the indefatigability of evil for a long time for the purpose of redeeming as many as He wills. And in Christ, He suffered evil in His body on the cross.
Third, God is “abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” This is God’s default. To be “steadfast “is to be firmly fixed in direction or purpose (cf. Psalm 18). This is why St. John says, “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Loving is who God is and it is what He does. His faithfulness is also closely related to this. God is faithful to who He is—He never falters from His character; He is perfect. As Paul writes to Timothy, “If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). God is faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to Him.
Again, Israel is a prime example, as shown both here at Mt. Sinai and their Babylonian exile. As Moses had pleaded, God was faithful to the promise He made to their fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Israel; He relented from His destruction and preserved them. In Babylon, too, despite their faithlessness and just punishment for their apostasy, God is faithful and returns them to their land just as He promised. Even more, God is faithful in Christ. The people of Israel looked toward the coming Messiah (Christ), especially as prophesied by the Prophets, and the Christ indeed came and was faithful to God in our place. Today, we are in a similar waiting period as exiles from the Garden.
Fourth, God is forgiving of iniquity, transgression, and sin, which we can arguably say is what flows from His love. Again, recently in Exodus we saw this with the golden calf situation, which is what led to this whole theophany on Mt. Sinai in the first place. Rather than destroying Israel, God relented from His disaster and forgave Israel, although He still sent a plague upon them for their idolatry (a merciful thing in comparison to being annihilated). Also, here at the mountain, God would institute the sacrificial system in Leviticus and Numbers as the means for them to receive the forgiveness of their sins. Naturally, we see Christ here as well, “who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Romans 4:25). “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9).
Lastly, God is holy. He does not let the guilty run rampant forever and He “visits iniquity” with His wrath. This, too, flows from God’s love. Many people, even Christians, make the mistake that love means unconditional acceptance of a person, even their sins. This false dichotomy is what leads people to accept the sins of homosexuality, transgenderism, premarital sex, adultery, hatred, and even murder. Love is not unconditional acceptance. Accepting someone with the approval of the sins that harm them is the most unloving thing a person can do. When taken to its inevitable logical conclusion, loving someone in this way would mean to accept them and approve them even where self-harm is involved. If I see someone cutting themselves or standing in the middle of the road waiting for a car to hit them, and I just accept this out of “respect” for what they want and do nothing, I am not loving them. Rather, and worse, I am apathetic to their brokenness. Afraid of “offending” them, I leave them in their eventual damnation because of the inane, postmodern notion of subjective truth (that everyone has their own “truth”).
It is precisely that God is loving that He condemns sin and leaves evildoers in their condemnation. (God does not damn sinners to Hell. Rather, as Jesus says, they are damned already [John 3:18], i.e., nothing changes when they don’t believe in Jesus; they simply remain as they were: damned.) What would we say of God if He did not punish evil and promise to destroy it forever? We certainly wouldn’t say He’s loving. Rather, we would say He’s apathetic or indifferent, as the deists do. Yet because God loves His people, He punishes sin and evil. A holy God cannot stand the existence of sin and evil.
This describes Jesus, for He is Yahweh incarnate. We often only think of Jesus in terms of a gentle, kind shepherd. He is certainly these things, but Jesus is also King. A king brings justice and wrath against his enemies, particularly the enemies of his people. This is precisely the wrath that Jesus is going to bring upon the enemies of His church—His enemies. When Saul persecuted the church, Jesus took it personally, as if He were the one being directly persecuted (Acts 9:4). The Book of Revelation describes Jesus as the one who brings this wrath, and it is quite bloody (Revelation 14:14-20)! If our sin weren’t so vile to Jesus, He would not have died for us and taken God’s wrath upon Himself so that we don’t have to suffer His judgement on Judgement Day.
Thus, when we think God, let us remember these attributes belonging to who He is: merciful and gracious, slow to anger (longsuffering), abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, forgiving, and holy. God cannot deny Himself. He always was, is, and will be these holy virtues for us.
Theology Terms Used
- Apostasy: completely abandonment of one’s faith or religion.
- Deism: the belief that God exists but who is impersonal and disinterested in interfering with creation and human affairs. Examples of deists include Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Voltaire, and others.
- Theophany: a physical manifestation of God’s presence.