The character of God is revealed to Moses in his mountain top experience.
When we come to chapter 34 of Exodus, we find Moses still on top of Mount Sinai. He has successfully negotiated with God, extracting from God the promise that God will go fully with the people of Israel on their journey to the promised land. The covenant has been preserved. Israel will continue to be God’s people, and God their God. One can almost imagine Moses crying out the liturgical response: Thanks be to God!
Then follows another remarkable scene. God is said to have descended onto the mountain in a cloud and to have stood with Moses there. God pronounces his sacred name–YHWH–the name he revealed to Moses at the burning bush (Exodus 3). This is a sign of the intimate personal relationship that has been established between God and Moses.
God then goes on to say:
“The LORD, the LORD,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.” [Exodus 34:6-7]
These words are momentous words in Scripture, for they are a declaration of the character of God. If Israel wants to know what kind of God is this God who has called them out of Egypt—what is his character—then they are to turn to these words given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai.
Truly and abundantly compassionate, yet also truly just. A vision of wholeness in perfect balance…This is the God Israel has come to know from its exodus experience.
Israel’s God is a God who is merciful, gracious, abounding in steadfast love, a love so expansive that it extends to thousands of generations. Israel lives, and moves, and has its being within an ocean of God’s love and mercy. That love and mercy is like a spring of overflowing water that never stops.
Yet this God is also a just God who does not shrink from a confrontation with evil. Evil and sin will have their consequences, consequences that can reverberate down through multiple generations.
Truly and abundantly compassionate, yet also truly just. A vision of wholeness in perfect balance. One therefore who is holy. This is the God Israel has come to know from its exodus experience.
Resonance through the Old Testament
These verses become so revealing of God that they come to serve as something close to a creed in the life of Israel. We shall find them quoted or alluded to in other parts of the Old Testament.
One citation, for example, comes in a prayer by the prophet Jeremiah (Jeremiah 32:16-25). The prophet Jeremiah has just purchased a plot of land from his cousin even though the city of Jerusalem is soon to fall to the Babylonians. Through the purchase, Jeremiah expresses a word of hope for the future.
Immediately after the purchase Jeremiah launches into a prayer, whose opening words are:
Ah Lord GOD! It is you who made the heavens and the earth by your great power and by your outstretched arm! Nothing is too hard for you. You show steadfast love to the thousandth generation, but repay the guilt of parents into the laps of their children after them, O great and mighty God whose name is the LORD of hosts, great in counsel and mighty in deed; whose eyes are open to all the ways of mortals, rewarding all according to their ways and according to the fruit of their doings. (Jeremiah 32:17-19)
As sanction for his prayer, Jeremiah quotes the language of Exodus 34.
An example in the Psalms comes in Psalm 103. This psalm praises God for all his blessings in sustaining his people. As part of that song of praise, the psalmist quotes Exodus 34:
He made known his ways to Moses,
his acts to the people of Israel.
The LORD is merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse,
nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins,
nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him…(Psalm 103:7-11)
In quoting Exodus, however, we notice a definite shift in the psalmist’s emphasis. In Exodus God’s compassion is balanced by God’s justice. In the psalm, the emphasis has decidedly shifted in focus on God’s compassion and merciful love. The possibility of God’s anger is still there, but the overwhelming reality for the psalmist is God’s mercy.
That shift of emphasis to the side of mercy and compassion is also noticeable in another passage quoting Exodus 34. This appears in the Book of Jonah. Jonah has reluctantly preached God’s judgment on the wicked city of Nineveh. The unexpected result is not the city’s destruction, but its profound repentance. God changes his mind.
Jonah is not pleased. He is in fact incensed at God, spitting back at God these words
“O LORD! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. And now, O LORD, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:2-3)
Why had Jonah fled from God in the first place? He knew from Exodus 34 that the character of God was to be compassionate and merciful. Jonah did not want to extend this mercy to the wicked Ninevites.
We see in all three of these examples how the revelation of God’s character given to Moses on Mount Sinai has sunk deep into the Israelite soul.
This revelation of the character of God describes too the character of the God of us Christians, because of our roots in the Israelite revelation. It underlies the preaching and ministry of Jesus and the apostles. For me, this statement on the character of God is the climax of the Book of Exodus.