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, 7 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.”
— Exodus 34:6–7 —
Exodus 34:6–7 is one of the most important passages in the Bible. It’s also one of the more problematic. For how can God be gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and quick to forgive but also unwilling to forgive the guilty (“who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children . . .”)? Doesn’t God’s self-revelation contain, at its heart, a significant contradiction?
Some have thought so, even solving the dilemma by debating the compositional history of Exodus 34, or denying its literary unity (see Ross Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known, 155). But for those who read Exodus as God’s inspired Word, such critical workarounds don’t work. Thus, we must consider how God’s mercy and justice are not two opposing attributes that bring conflict into God’s character. Instead, they are two aspects of God’s undivided holy nature, which reveal themselves perfectly in God’s relationship with his creation.
On this subject Ross Blackburn has been helpful as he reads Exodus 34 in light of the whole canon, with special attention to Exodus 20:5–6. Following Blackburn’s canonical exegesis, we can press deeper into the nature of God’s holy character and then work forward in redemptive history to see how Exodus 34:6–7 informs God’s mercy and justice in places like Jonah 3–4 and Nahum 1, where Exodus 34 is in both books but in different ways towards the people of Nineveh.
Exodus 34 in Context
After surveying various approaches to Exodus 34:6–7, Blackburn concludes, “Those who have sought to understand 34:6–7 in the context of Exodus (at least 32–34) show greater ability to wrestle with the theological issues the confession raises” (162).
Agreed. A literary and canonical reading of any text is always optimal, and as Blackburn argues, quoting Moberly, “the less the context is taken into account, the wider the range of interpretations of any given unit that becomes available” (162). Therefore, Blackburn is right to estimate the canonical readings as more insightful than the non-canonical readings. Accordingly, as he wrestles with the inbuilt tension of God’s grace and justice, he rightly seeks an answer in the Decalogue.
Observing that Exodus 34:7 repeats almost verbatim Exodus 20:5, Blackburn begins by comparing these verses. In so doing, he reinforces the argument of his book—that the self-revelation of God’s name is the main theme in Exodus. Not surprisingly, when God reveals himself to Moses in the wake of Israel’s sin with the Golden Calf, his twin commitments to his grace and justice (34:7) demonstrate the divine jealousy he expressed earlier in the second commandment (20:5–6).
Thus in reading Exodus 20 and 34 together, we learn that the unifying principle that explains the tension in Exodus 34:6–7 begins to be resolved by observing God’s passion for his own glory. God’s expression of grace and justice, therefore, are not two distinct aspects of God’s character; they are two expressions of his unified nature—a holy commitment to his glory, honor, and praise. In Exodus 20 this is described as God’s “jealousy”, which Blackburn defines as a (1) personal (2) intolerance of rivals (165). And this jealousy must be expressed both positively and negatively.
Citing S. D. Goitein’s definition of qannā, Blackburn writes, “‘[Jealousy] denotes complete devotion either to one’s own aims or to another person. Therefore, the word can stand parallel either to Love, as in the Song of Songs 8:6, or to Hatred and Anger, as in Deuteronomy 29:19” [“YHWH the Passionate: The Monotheistic Meaning and Origin of the Name YHWH,’ VT 6 (1956):1–9]. Blackburn continues,
Both outworkings of jealousy articulated by Goitein, love and anger, are apparent in 20:5–6. The manner in which 20:5–6 is phrased has the effect of dividing the people into two categories: those who love the Lord and those who hate him. Those who love the Lord are treated with hesed, while those who hate him are visited with anger. Important to observe is that both the Lord’s responses, of love and judgment, are rooted in his jealousy. The implication is that all the Lord’s dealings with Israel, whether in love or judgment, are rooted in his jealous commitment to being known as God. (Blackburn, The God Who Makes Himself Known, 166)
By rooting Exodus 34 in God’s divine jealousy, we learn how God’s economic actions in salvation and judgment reveal not two aspects of his character, but one. To cite John Piper, “The most fundamental characteristic of God’s righteousness is his allegiance to his own name, that is, his honor and glory” (The Justification of God, 90; cited by Blackburn, 189). Underlying God’s self-revelation in Exodus 34:6–7 is his unswerving commitment to his name. But this leads to a second question and one that will require further consideration in Exodus 32–34 and the rest of the Bible: Why is God gracious to some and not others?
Grace and Justice
If the Lord’s glory is his all-consuming passion and this results sometimes in forgiveness and other times judgment, what makes the difference? To answer this question, we can turn immediately to systematic theology and compare various passages; or, we can consult the context of Exodus 34. In my estimation, the best answer always come with sound exegesis, and therefore an approach that pays attention to the concentric circles of context around 34:6–7
In the immediate context, we discover that in Exodus 32, Israel provoked the ire of Yahweh when they made a golden calf, broke the second commandment, and worshiped an image in place of God. Observing this, Blackburn makes two points:
- “The sin in 32–34 is a direct repudiation of the command forbidding idols, and therefore the command warrants another look in order to understand the nature of the sin.” (162)
- “[Exodus] 34:6–7 contains an almost verbatim quotation of 20:5, suggesting that an understanding of Exodus 20:2–6 is essential for making sense of the Lord’s character revealed therein.” (163)
Following this paired reading, Blackburn shows how explicitly Israel broke the second commandment. Compare Exodus 20:2 and 32:8.
2 “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.
8 They have turned aside quickly out of the way that I commanded them. They have made for themselves a golden calf and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!’ ”
He adds, “‘Not only does Israel’s idolatry repudiate the Lord as her redeemer in the past, but she also looks to the calf as the redeemer in the future: ‘Up, make us gods who shall go before us’ (32:1)” (164). At the heart of this idolatrous exchange (cf. Psalm 106:19–23), is the fact that God’s jealousy has been provoked, and worse, his covenant with Israel has been broken. This is displayed in the breaking of the two tablets, when Moses descended from Sinai (32:19).
In this setting, with God’s people corrupted by their idolatry (32:7) and broken loose against God (32:25), Moses intercedes for Israel. More specifically, he makes four intercessions—(1) 32:11–13; (2) 32:31–32; (3) 33:12–18; (4) 34:9. Surveying these priestly mediations, Blackburn shows how Moses pleads for mercy. He doesn’t just ask God for another chance or plead Israel’s merits—for they had none! Rather, he pleads for God to honor his own name. And when he prays this way the Lord grants his request (179).
Where Grace and Justice Meet: The Need for Mediation and Repentance
From Exodus 32–34, we learn two things. First, we learn that mediation is needed for people to receive God’s mercy. Indeed, for those whose idolatry has invited the righteous wrath of God, it would be unrighteous for God to express kindness with no regard to his people’s legal transgression. God is just, which is why he cannot overlook sin.
Still, in this context, we discover a way for the righteousness of God to express mercy. It comes through the means of mediation, established by God but enacted by Moses. As we discover in Exodus 33:19, God grants mercy on those whom he will grant mercy. But this free gift of forgiveness is not without means. Rather, it comes in response to the priestly mediation of Moses, foreshadowing the role of the high priest in Israel (and through that office the greater priesthood of Christ). Moses stands between God and man, eliciting God’s mercy for people who deserve his wrath. As Ross Blackburn concludes,
Secondly, here Moses is showing his solidarity with both the Lord and the people. As we have seen, Moses will not allow himself to be separated from Israel, but rather insists that any favour the Lord grants him also be granted to Israel (33:13, 15—16). Yet Moses also demonstrates solidarity with the Lord in that he will not allow the Lord’s honour or purposes to be compromised in the sight of the nations. Here Moses shows himself truly to be a high priest. He represents God to the people, shattering the tablets before Israel in hot anger, carrying out the Lord’s command to kill the unfaithful in the camp, speaking the word of the Lord to the people. He represents the people before God, petitioning fervently and repeatedly that they not only be spared, but also be forgiven and restored fully to the covenant and promise of the land. Yet Moses presses even further, representing God before God in the manner in which he seeks to persuade the Lord to act for the sake of his own name. (195)
This is the first way in which the Lord’s wrath turns to mercy. And importantly, it is a change that does not come from outside of the Lord. Rather, it rises from the wise and indivisible will of God. In calling Moses to shepherd Israel, he positioned him to stand in the gap when Israel’s sin would provoke Yahweh to anger. In other words, as Blackburn observes, it is God who placated God, through the instrumentation of Moses. Typologically, this form of mediation foreshadows the later, greater intercession of Christ, another point Blackburn highlights (195–96). For now, its enough to observe that the “mechanism of change” is not exterior to God; it is a part of God’s wise plan of salvation, one that will ultimately lead to Christ himself.
Second, the events of Sinai also show the role repentance plays in soliciting God’s mercy. As we read Exodus 32–34, we discover that mercy is not granted without means. And while priestly meditation is central to God’s mercy (as seen in Moses), so is repentance. That is to say, after Moses’ first intercession, we see how the people respond to the news that God would not go with them into the Promised Land (vv. 1–3). Verses 4–6 read,
When the people heard this disastrous word, they mourned, and no one put on his ornaments. 5 For the Lord had said to Moses, “Say to the people of Israel, ‘You are a stiff-necked people; if for a single moment I should go up among you, I would consume you. So now take off your ornaments, that I may know what to do with you.’” 6 Therefore the people of Israel stripped themselves of their ornaments, from Mount Horeb onward.
Though meager, this mournful response rejected the very ornaments that led Israel into idolatry. Following this change of heart, Moses again petitioned God to dwell with his people (33:12–18), a prayer that God answered by revealing his name in Exodus 34:6–7. Thus, it becomes clear in context that God had mercy on Israel (not judgment) because of Moses priestly meditation and Israel’s repentance.
Therefore, Exodus 34:6–7 stresses the grace of God, without ignoring or denying his justice. Compare again this passage to Exodus 20:5–6. In 20:5–6 the stress was on God’s judgment (“visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments”). Now, after Israel’s sin, the stress is on God’s mercy. In Exodus 34:6–7, we hear the fourfold description of God’s name: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Moreover, we see that God “keeps steadfast love for thousands,” not just three or four generations. Then, he concludes with a promise of pardon: “forgiving iniquity, transgression, and sin.” Only after stressing God’s grace does Yahweh return to what came first in Exodus 20, the promise to punish sinners, “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.”
In this way, we learn something about God’s grace and wrath. When his people sin, he is slow to anger and quick to forgive. His glory is first and foremost displayed in his forgiveness, hence the reason why we can read later in Scripture that God desires the salvation of all men (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9) and does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezekiel 18:23, 31). Still, after his anger has burned long enough and sin has overflowed its banks, he will respond with anger and wrath.
For the generations born to Israel after Sinai, the point is clear: “If my people who are called by my name humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land” (2 Chronicles 7:14). This is what the events at Sinai taught the people of God, and why Solomon would later dedicate the Temple as a place where God’s sinful people could find mercy in their hour of need (1 Kings 8), and why prophets like Joel, quoting Exodus 34:6–7, would say,
Return to the Lord your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster. Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him, a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord your God? (2:13–14).
Throughout the Old Testament, we learn how quickly God answers the prayers of his repentant people. Its not too much to say that the spirituality of Israel found in places like the Psalms developed in large part from Exodus 34:6–7. In fact, Exodus 34:6–7 runs throughout the Psalter (e.g., 86:5, 15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 145:8). Throughout the Old Testament, the prophets recalled the words of God at Sinai, as they called the people to turn from idols and trust the Lord. And it is in these Prophets where we learn how God’s mercy and wrath were meted out with perfect wisdom.
Jonah and Nahum: A Case Study in Covenantal Theology
It is striking to read the two Prophets to Nineveh, Jonah and Nahum, together. The former quotes Exodus 34 in his protest to God in Jonah 4:2. The latter cites Exodus 34 as he introduces God’s wrath to the people of Nineveh in Nahum 1:2. Amazingly, these two books written about God’s grace and judgment upon Nineveh refract both aspects of Exodus 34:6–7.
In Jonah we see the grace of God saving pagan sailors (ch. 1), the city of Nineveh (ch. 3), and even offering repentance to a wicked prophet (ch. 4). And importantly, the foundation of this grace is laid out in its application of Exodus 34:6–7.
One hundred years later (approx.), Nineveh’s evil has again risen to the point of judgment. And this time, when God sends a prophet to speak to them, he does not offer grace and peace, as he did before. He brings a war taunt that promises destruction on Nineveh and her wicked inhabitants—a reality that will happen in 612 B.C.
Importantly, as we read these two books together, we see in one nation how God’s mercy and justice work. For generations, God has had mercy on Nineveh. He has heard their prayers and watched their attempts to flee evil (see Jonah 3). But he has also observed the increase of their wickedness. Therefore, Nahum’s message is very different from Jonah. Jonah reflects the great grace of God, while Nahum reflects his wrath. To the unobserving witness, such a change may appear arbitrary or capricious. However, a canonical reading of Exodus 34:6–7 proves the opposite.
Digging Deeper into the Covenants
At this point, some may wonder how God could bring such judgment on a people who stood outside the covenant at Sinai? For a short answer, we can simply say that all people stand in covenantal relation to the God of Israel, through the fact that as Covenant Lord he has created all people to be in covenant with him (see Romans 5:12–21) and continued a covenant with all nations through the covenant enacted with Noah (see Genesis 6–9). While the covenant at Sinai did not include all nations, it did display the covenantal nature of the God who made covenant all peoples in Noah and would one day bring a universal covenant through his Son. Accordingly, it is appropriate that as the prophets of Israel went to Assyria, that they would teach Yahweh’s perfect mercy and justice (cf. Psalm 145:8).
These two prophets, therefore, stand as a testimony to God’s righteousness rule over all creation. They also stand as a warning to all nations who rage against God. Furthermore, it encourages all nations, as Psalm 2 states, to seek refuge in the God of Israel and to the kiss the Son, whom that Lord is sending to earth. Interestingly, the language of Psalm 2 shows up in Nahum 1 (see Nahum 1:7 = Psalm 2:12; Nahum 1:13 = Psalm 2:3).
Altogether, this reading of Exodus, the Prophets, and redemptive history is eminently covenantal. But that is who God is. He is the Lord who keeps covenant with his creation. And in Exodus 34:6–7, we learn how our unchanging Lord relates to sinners who repent and fail to repent. He both grants mercy and enacts judgment according to his perfect wisdom and power. And thus, while at first it appears as though Exodus 34:6–7 is built on a faulty premise—that God is both just and merciful, we learn that these two characteristics manifest his immutable character, which is refracted through various covenants over the course of history.
The Final Word of Exodus 34:6–7 is Yahweh Incarnate
In the end, it is by reading Exodus 34 in the context of the whole Bible that we learn who this God is. In the words from Exodus, we learn how to worship him and marvel at him. In the ongoing revelation of the Prophets, we see how the beauty of his grace and the terror of his wrath unfold. But indeed, Prophets like Jonah and Nahum are not even the final word on God’s grace and justice. For that we must come to Jesus Christ, in whome we find another instance where Exodus 34 is applied. In John 1, in a section of Scripture replete with Sinai imagery, we hear the apostle say of Jesus, that he is full of grace and truth (1:14). This the very description of God in Exodus 34:6–7.
Appropriately, Jesus, the Incarnate God, is now the full revelation of God’s grace and justice. John makes this explicit, but we see it throughout the rest of the New Testament. In Christ’s humiliation and exaltation, we see in him the perfections of grace and vengeance (think Revelation) reflected in human form. Truly, what was spoken at Sinai has now been embodied in glorified flesh.
Jesus is the fullness of God dwelling bodily (Colossians 1:19; 2:9), and hence in him, as Hebrews 1 says, we come to the pinnacle of God’s revelation. By beholding him, we learn again that grace and justice are not diverse attributes found in God. They are twin aspects of God’s glorious divine nature. And in Christ, we see them in full display as he dies for his people (grace), in order to defeat his enemies (justice). And in his return, we will see again his grace in the redemption of his people and his justice in the destruction of the wicked.
From this canonical tour, we can see why Exodus 34:6–7 is such an important verse. But we can also see why the Law the Prophets, and even the Gospels are books written in tension. In them, the full resolution of grace and justice awaits the final eschaton, when the Lord makes all things new and his grace and justice are perfectly and completely revealed. Until then we will face the challenge of understanding and applying God’s grace and justice. But with the Spirit, we can begin to know and adore God and his glory. And as we see his jealousy for his name, we too become passionate for his glory—both his grace and his justice.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds