The Context of Exodus 32-34
Exodus 32-34 are at the center of the tabernacle section (Exodus 25-40). They function as a break between the instructions (25-31) and the construction (35-40). But the break is not just literary, it’s relational.
After all that God has done for Israel—remembering them in Egypt, redeeming them from slavery, making his covenant with them—Israel returns the favor by committing spiritual adultery. In Exodus 32, God’s people make a graven image, and bow before it. This invokes God’s wrath, but it also sets the stage to display YHWH’s mercy and grace.
Exodus 34:6-7 is the capstone of this passage, and in these two electric verses, we find the center of Old Testament Theology in God’s revelation to Moses (see Jim Hamilton, God’s Glory in Salvation Through Judgment for a full development of this idea). These verses are programmatic for the rest of the Bible and they read,
The LORD passed before [Moses] 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.”
To know our God, it is vital to understand these passages in context and content. To better acquaint ourselves with this passage, notice three ways that God’s revelation on Sinai functions much like the cross in the New Testament.
1. Like the cross of Christ, these chapters show God’s mercy and his justice. Like a perfect kaleidoscope, they radiate the colors of God’s severity and kindness (cf. Rom 11:22). In the New Testament, wrath and mercy meet at the cross; in the Old Testament they meet here.
2. Like the cross of Christ, the role of Moses is that of God-given Mediator. In other words, he stands between God’s holy wrath and Israel’s rebellious sin. In this way, as he pleads for mercy, he foreshadows Christ. But lets not make the mistake that Moses or Christ change God’s mind; in both cases, the God who metes out perfect justice, also sends his a mediator to plead for pardon. In this, there is the beautiful mystery that God who seeks to destroy Israel, is first the God works to save them. He listens to Moses’ prayer, because he sent Moses to pray.
3. Like the cross of Christ, this episode shapes the rest of the OT (and NT). Exodus 34:6-7 is quoted throughout the rest of the Bible, and gives shape to all that follows.
This verse is picked up in places like Num 14:18. When Israel rebels against Moses, Moses quotes Exodus 34:6-7 in full as he pleads for Israel’s pardon. In the Psalms, it is often cited to remind Israel of God’s gracious character (cf. 86:15; 103:7). But in the prophets, Nahum stresses God’s wrath: “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies. The LORD is slow to anger and great in power, and the LORD will by no means clear the guilty. His way is in whirlwind and storm, and the clouds are the dust of his feet” (1:2-3). Even Jonah quotes the verse, saying it was this reason that he did not go to Nineveh, because the reluctant prophet knew God would forgive them if they repented.
Exodus 34:6-7 is so programmatic because of the way it expresses God’s relationship with the world. YHWH is unchanging (Mal 3:6), yet people are not. Thus, God has made a world in covenant with him. Which means: Those who keep covenant will receive grace, mercy, and forgiveness (thru atonement). However, for those who reject or ignore him, he loathes. His anger burns red-hot. His patience is slow, but not infinite.
Finally, Exodus 34:6-7 is fulfilled in Christ himself. In John 1:14, the beloved disciple introduces Christ saying, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The connection with Exodus 34:6-7 is in the last phrase. The God who is abounding in steadfast love (hesed) and faithfulness (emeth) is fully revealed in Christ who is full of grace (charis) and truth (aletheia).
This is our God. Though, Scripture reveals him progressively over time, he is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The Old Testament God and the New Testament God are not juxtaposed, rather, as I recently heard D. A. Carson say, the New Testament vision of God is simply more clear and precise–this is true with God’s love and his justice.
May we this week, worship the God of Sinai and Calvary, and learn to know him in his faithfulness to forgiveness and judge.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss