Princeton Presbyterian Church (EPC) Sermon # 1363
August 26, 2018 Exodus 34:1-10
Rev. Dr. Ed Pettus
(This is an extended outline, not a verbatim transcript.)
“The Character of God”
A New Set of Tablets
The relationship was broken. The covenant that God had established between Himself and Israel was shattered and the result was Moses shattering the first two tablets of Ten Commandments. God really wanted to destroy them, but Moses stands between God and the people. Moses stands in prayer. The exchange between Moses and God extends from chapter 32 through chapter 33. Moses continues to seek God’s presence with him and with Israel. As we move into Exodus 34 we see this drama moving from the crisis of idolatry, the crisis of God’s presence to a renewed commitment from God and a restored covenant between God and the people. God carves a new set of tablets and the relationship will be restored. God makes a covenant relationship, Israel breaks it, Moses intercedes and the relationship is restored. This will be a repeating pattern concluding with the new covenant when Jesus restores us through His death and resurrection.
Proclaiming the Name
Moses had been seeking to know God, to see God, to find assurance that God will go with them. After the people had made the golden calf and Moses broke the original tablets, God commands new tablets and in this scene in Exodus 34 we find this great revelation of God, God’s self-disclosure. The proclamation is made: Yahweh, Yahweh – the Lord, the Lord. The name is spoken. Yahweh is still something of a mystery to those who study Hebrew. I am who I am. I will be who I will be. What we do know is the name is unlike any other. It is not even spoken by orthodox Jews, too sacred. Most English translations place the name in small caps (Lord) to distinguish it from any other use of the word “Lord”. I do think we should have a certain reverence for the name of God, for every name but perhaps a touch more for Yahweh. What follows the name is the revelation of the character of the One named.
God Merciful...Gracious...Slow to Anger…
Merciful – gracious – slow to anger – abounding in steadfast love – faithfulness – keeping steadfast love – forgiving iniquity. Seven marks of God’s character that will sustain Israel’s life. These terms are all about how God relates to His people. They are not stagnant nouns about power or presence or capacities of self, but adjectives about relatedness. These are words that describe a God of covenant relationship. This is how God interacts with us. Let’s just look briefly at these seven terms.
Merciful: The Hebrew word for merciful is related to the Hebrew term for womb, a mother’s womb. God’s mercy is related to what one commentator calls “womb-like mother-love.” It is the kind of intimacy and connection that so ties mother to child that nothing can separate them – as Paul says in 1 Corinthians – nothing can separate us from God’s love. This is the most intimate relationship we can share and it is with God Himself.
Gracious: This reveals God’s complete unmerited favor. Moses used this same term in his prayer with God on behalf of the people. Grace is one of the most revered terms in the New Testament. God has been gracious from the beginning.
Slow to anger: This phrase in Hebrew is related to the term for “long-nosed”. The meaning could be that when God’s anger is kindled, it takes so long for God’s wrath to breath out through the nostrils it has time to cool off.
Abounding in steadfast love: Steadfast love relates to the great commitment God has toward keeping covenant with Israel even when Israel breaks that covenant. If you would like a good discipline for Bible study, trace all the places where the words “steadfast love” are used. You will be spending a long time in your Bible.
Faithfulness: God is loyal to Israel. God is reliable. God sticks to God’s promises.
Keeping steadfast love: In this context this reiterates that God’s love will continue generation to generation to generation.
Forgiving: The Hebrew literally means to “lift”. God lifts the burden of covenant sinners. The three main violations are listed – iniquity, transgressions, and sin. God will lift the sin, relieve the cost of iniquity, and erase transgressions.
This is a God deeply committed to keeping covenant with Israel. God desires to have a relationship with His own. – showing mercy, grace, steadfast love…but…but…
But Will Not Clear the Guilty
…but who will by no means clearly the guilty! And that is not all, but visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, and the children’s children, to the third and fourth generation.
Seven positive terms stand over against two negative terms. On the positive side words like grace, forgiveness, and faithfulness. On the negative side: by no means clearing the guilty and visiting the iniquity through the generations. God has two options: Option A – forgiveness and grace. Option B – God will not acquit and God will visit the judgment for generations to come. God will forgive, but will not neglect just judgment. God will not be mocked. There must be a choice because grace is not cheap. It is only in the face of the destruction deserved that grace given has meaning – only then does the incredible gift have power. And it is only in the freedom of God that the options remain open and the future unknown.
The only hope for life is God’s presence in the midst of Israel’s transgression. God still has options A & B, and God is not obligated as if God were a just waiting to give forgiveness vouchers. God’s grace is not cheap grace. Israel now knows that God forgives iniquity, and yet this is the God who also punishes iniquity. What is not known in advance is what God will do the next time Israel sins. And Israel does sin – again and again – and Israel appeals to God to remember this revelation in Exodus 34 throughout the Old Testament. In Exodus 34 Moses on God to go with them, 9 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.” That is, choose option A! And God does! I wish we had the time to explore all the references back to Exodus 34, but let me just note a few.
The Character of God
In Numbers 14 Moses is once more interceding on Israel’s behalf:
17 And now, please let the power of the Lord be great as you have promised, saying, 18 ‘The Lord is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, forgiving iniquity and transgression, but he will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, to the third and the fourth generation.’ 19 Please pardon the iniquity of this people, according to the greatness of your steadfast love, just as you have forgiven this people, from Egypt until now.” 20 Then the Lord said, “I have pardoned, according to your word. 21 But truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord, 22 none of the men who have seen my glory and my signs that I did in Egypt and in the wilderness, and yet have put me to the test these ten times and have not obeyed my voice, 23 shall see the land that I swore to give to their fathers. And none of those who despised me shall see it. 24 But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it. (Num. 14:17-24)
The intercession Moses makes here is a recital of God’s self-revelation given back in Exodus 34. Moses calls on God to choose option A – forgiveness. And God chooses option A, “I do forgive…” but, nevertheless, there will be punishment. None of the people shall see the land promised. They have tested God ten times in the wilderness and stretched God’s mercy, grace, forgiveness, love, too far. Forgiveness means they will live, but they will also pay by having no part of the promised land. God does forgive, yet God also punishes.
The apostle Paul would later, in his letter to the Romans, speak of the grace of God that abounded to overcome sin. But God’s propensity to forgive is no license for sin – there are limits. The community of faith cannot choose to live on the limits of sin and God’s patience – “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2). Can Israel continue to live it up on the edge of God’s patience and forgiveness? Buy no means! For God will judge – for grace does not come cheap.
The Psalms appeal to God’s grace:
The Lord works righteousness and justice for all who are oppressed. 7 He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. 8 The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. 9 He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. 10 He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. 11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; (Psalm 103:6-11).
Now I do not want to just quote scripture after scripture, but when we look we see this quote again and again as the people of God appeal to the way God has revealed – the way of forgiveness. Nehemiah, Hosea, Micah, Nahum, Lamentations, Joel, all make an appeal to God to show steadfast love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. The pattern is clear: broken relationship, intercession through prayer, restored relationship.
But I do want to share one more appeal that is interesting in the book of Jonah. Jonah is in favor of option B – punish the wicked lot, do not clear the guilty! Jonah does not appeal to the option for God to show forgiveness, in fact, that is why Jonah fled. He wanted Nineveh punished!
But it displeased Jonah exceedingly, and he was angry. 2 And he prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord, is not this what I said when I was yet in my country? That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. (Jonah 3:10-4:2).
Jonah knew Exodus 34. He knew that God was gracious, merciful, and abounding in steadfast love. He knew that God would restore covenant and bring life. He knew that God would restore broken lives, broken promises, broken community.
This stuff is all over the New Testament as well, not necessarily in the same form, but certainly in the same result of restored relationship with God. And Jesus said:
21 For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. ...24 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (John 5:21, 24).
Giving life is what God did for Israel every time He acted with option A, mercy, grace, love, faith… It’s the same thing with Jesus. Life in His mercy, grace, love, faith…
But judgment will come to those who do not believe. Option B.
What I want us to see today is that God’s character has been evident throughout the whole of Scripture. God has always been in the business of forgiveness and grace and God has also stood firm in judgment when necessary. Imagine your prayers centered in Exodus 34. Lord, give us option A! Now, we might be like Jonah from time to time and pray for some horrible person to get option B, but we also will need to remember, as Jonah did, that God may choose option A for that person. It is God who shows mercy to whom He will show mercy. This is the 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. Thank God today that He has chosen option A for all in Christ Jesus. Thanks be to God.