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.”
In one of the most spectacular examples of passing the buck in the history of humanity, Aaron explained Israel’s sinfulness in worshipping a golden calf just a month after making a covenant with God like this:
“You know the people, that they are set on evil. For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ So I said to them, ‘Let any who have gold take it off.’ So they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf.” (Exod 32:22-24)
Amazing! Out came this calf! Miraculous!
Or just plain old sinful. But the sin was not Aaron’s alone. The whole people had forsaken God so utterly, breaking (so soon!) the first two commandments—no gods apart from God, no images of God—that it provoked a crisis in their relationship so severe that God was ready to wipe them out and start over (Exod 32:9-10). What hope could there now be for Israel? What possible future could they expect?
Astonishingly, Moses prays (32:11), and God relents (32:14) and re-establishes the covenant with his people (34:10ff). This affirmation of the special relationship between God and his people, despite their frequent and flagrant rebellion, rests entirely on the character of God, which he shows to Moses in Exodus 34:6-7.
We’re told almost nothing about God’s appearance. He is visibly present with Moses, just as at the burning bush and in the tent of meeting, but the focus in the text is what one writer describes as God preaching a sermon on his divine attributes. God speaks about himself.
And what a speech! This passage is quoted or alluded to dozens of times throughout the Old Testament, by King David (Pss 86:15, 103:8, 145:8), the prophet Joel (Joel 2:13), and even Jonah (Jonah 4:2).1
Taking all this information about God together, this passage speaks of his unshakeable loyalty to his people. At this critical point in the relationship, after the marriage ceremony (establishing the covenant) and the divorce proceedings (Israel’s apostasy), God declares that he is faithful to Israel. His compassion and grace form the foundation of Israel being the people of God, but at the same time they are assured they can’t take God for granted.
Let’s briefly consider some of the details. God uses his personal covenant name, “the Lord” (Yahweh)—the name he revealed to Moses back in chapter 3 (“I AM WHO I AM”). God’s revelation of himself shows Moses—and us—his self-sufficiency, independence and consistency.
He’s compassionate and gracious, knowing the effects of his people’s sin and, as he desires their good, feeling its effects. He is merciful, showing favour to a people who clearly deserve no such thing.
God is slow to anger—a vivid description of patience. It’s not as if God slowly bottles up his rage and then lets loose; God desires good for his creation and does not rashly act against it, but waits for people to repent. In his patience he abounds in faithfulness and steadfast love—a steadfast love that is bound up with loyalty, grace, mercy, kindness and covenant faithfulness.
The remainder of this sermon by God about God sets up a contrast between forgiveness and “visiting iniquity”. On one hand, his love is for thousands of generations; but on the other hand, he does not simply call the guilty innocent, or declare that sin doesn’t matter. God is merciful but not indulgent. The third and fourth generation is likely a reference to the consequences of sin being felt by (but limited to) the family of the guilty, who would commonly have multiple generations under one roof. God forgives, but he reminds his people they can’t presume on just getting away with anything and everything. He will set a time to deal with sin and guilt.
Reflecting on God’s self-revelation in Exodus, it’s worth thinking about Jesus as God’s self-revelation (cf. Heb 1:1ff.). He had compassion on the crowds (Matt 9:36). He was full of grace and truth (John 1:14). He was patient, slow to anger (especially with his disciples), loving, faithful, and forgiving of all kinds of sin. And in him God demonstrated his justice as the one who is just (in punishing iniquity) and who justifies those who have faith in Jesus (Rom 3:26).
- I say ‘even’ Jonah because for my money he’s one of the nastiest pieces of work in the Bible. He doesn’t want to go to Nineveh because he knows that God will be compassionate and gracious towards the Ninevites and forgive them. ↩