Calvary Road Baptist Church

“THE CHARACTER OF GOD”

Exodus 34.6-7

 

I would like to lead you to a consideration of the character of God and its impact on the nature of human beings. In order to do that I need to begin with Genesis chapter one and God’s creation of the universe and everything that is in it, Genesis chapter two and the more specific account of Adam and Eve’s creation and placement in the Garden of Eden, and then Genesis chapter three and the Fall of mankind into the deep abyss of sin and spiritual death. After those foundational events took place, the book of Genesis proceeds to record mankind’s ever-worsening sinfulness, God’s subsequent judgment of mankind with a worldwide Flood while sparing pairs of land animals and righteous Noah and his family, followed by God’s confusion of languages at Babel to facilitate the dispersal of the human race, and the introduction to us of one man and his family. I speak of course of Abraham, his wife Sarah, their son Isaac, and their grandson Jacob, closing out the book of Genesis with Abraham’s great-grandson Joseph.

If you liken the book of Genesis to a literary lens with a zoom function, then you will observe when reading that three cycles of historical ‘lens zoom’ take place. Genesis chapter one takes in everything in the universe and then zooms in on Adam and Eve in chapters two and three. As Genesis proceeds from chapter four to chapter nine, the zoom lens opens up to the entire human race and then zooms back in on one man, Noah. Genesis 10, 11, and 12 opens quickly to the entire human race and the table of nations, followed by the confusion of languages at Babel, before zooming back to one man, Abraham, and remaining on individuals throughout the lives of Abraham’s son Isaac, Isaac’s son Jacob, and Jacob’s son Joseph. Thus, in one book God relates to us not only the creation of the universe and the creation of mankind, but also the Fall of man into sin, the judgment of God in the form of a worldwide Flood, the selection from the human race of one man and His physical descendants from his wife, Sarah, and how after his and his son Isaac’s death, those known to us as Hebrews ended up in the land of Egypt.

Thus, Genesis comes to a close before the account of the book of Exodus begins more than three centuries later. The children of Israel were blessed in Egypt when Joseph was alive. However, their situation deteriorated when they became slaves to the Egyptians, and the time for their willing departure from Egypt to the Promised Land was at hand. The historical narrative of Exodus takes up with the Israelite named Moses and proceeds through his experiences over his first eighty years. For forty years he lived as an adopted child in the household of Pharaoh. For forty years he then lived as a shepherd in the Midian desert. Then God spoke to Moses from a burning bush and directed him to return to Egypt to deliver his people from their slavery and lead them back to the land promised to their patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Passover has occurred, Exodus chapter twelve. God has parted the waters of the Red Sea, Exodus chapter fourteen. The nation is now camped at the foot of Mount Sinai, Exodus chapter nineteen. Moses came down from the mountain with two tables of stone on which God had written the Ten Commandments, witnessed the wicked idolatry of the people in his absence, and angrily threw the two tables down and broke them. In judgment for making the golden calf, God then plagued the people.[1] In Exodus chapter thirty-three we are told that Moses pleaded on behalf of his countrymen and then urged God to show him His glory.[2] Beginning in verse 19, we see God’s answer to Moses’ request:

 

19    And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.

20    And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.

21    And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:

22    And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:

23    And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.

 

We come now to Exodus chapter thirty-four. The two tables on which was written the Law, the Ten Commandments, were angrily broken by Moses when he discovered the people’s sin. Yet, this man who is known of God by name, who has found grace in God’s sight, and who has been blessed with a glimpse of God’s great glory, is given a new assignment. I read Exodus 34.1-5:

 

1      And the LORD said unto Moses, Hew thee two tables of stone like unto the first: and I will write upon these tables the words that were in the first tables, which thou brakest.

2      And be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning unto mount Sinai, and present thyself there to me in the top of the mount.

3      And no man shall come up with thee, neither let any man be seen throughout all the mount; neither let the flocks nor herds feed before that mount.

4      And he hewed two tables of stone like unto the first; and Moses rose up early in the morning, and went up unto mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tables of stone.

5      And the LORD descended in the cloud, and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD.

 

Let us pause at this point. Imagine yourself an Israelite at the foot of Mount Sinai, only recently delivered from a slave’s existence in Egypt by astonishing miracles and demonstrations of frightening power. You have seen God’s plagues against the Egyptians, God’s miraculous deliverance by parting the waters of the Red Sea after the death angel slew the firstborn of Egypt, and the Shekinah glory of God (a pillar of smoke by day and becoming a pillar of fire by night) has accompanied you along the way and is even now visible to you. Despite these divine interventions, you have inexplicably succumbed to the temptation to worship a golden calf. This while Moses was absent and on Mount Sinai communing with God. You go so far as to credit the golden calf with delivering you from Egypt rather than giving glory to God. Astonishing. All the while the God of Israel is clothed in clouds atop Mount Sinai, with rumblings of thunder and flashes of lightning. Moses, the servant of God, returned and was angry at the sight of what you had done. He broke the two tables of stone he carried down the mountain. God then sent a plague of some kind into your midst. You are shaken to the core of your being.

At God’s instructions Moses has hewn two more tables of stone and once more ascended alone to the summit of Mount Sinai. While the man of God is gone, reflect on what your understanding of the character of God would be at that point. If asked to describe God’s character, while Moses is alone with God atop the mountain, what would you say? I will venture the response of an Israelite camped at the foot of Mount Sinai would be quite different from a twenty-first century non-church attender. Your average, run of the mill, modern kind of guy usually thinks nothing of God. However, if and when he does think of God it is likely he does not think of God as being terrible in majesty, but more like the benign old man or laughable figure portrayed as God in Hollywood movies. Down through history descriptions of God’s character have ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other, with almost none of those descriptions being anything close to accurate.

Therefore, I propose that we consider God’s description of Himself. Mothers and fathers, our text for today is one of those passages in God’s Word that you will want to rehearse to your children during their growing up years. The last thing you want is to raise your children to adulthood with them harboring unscriptural notions about the character of God. Therefore, our text for today will be Exodus 34.6-7, God’s description to Moses of His character:

 

6      And the LORD passed by before him, and proclaimed, The LORD, The LORD God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth,

7      Keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.

 

This is a very rich passage of scripture. God here reveals Himself to Moses in two ways, by means of His names (“The LORD” and “The LORD God”) and by means of His self-description. Notice, if you will, that beside God’s names He describes His character in this passage in two ways:

 

First, GOD REVEALS THE SAVING ASPECTS OF HIS CHARACTER TOWARD SINNERS

 

Having just suffered a plague for their idolatry and Moses’ angry reaction of throwing the two tables of the Law and breaking them, perhaps the people would think of God at this point only as a God of wrath and anger. That is not at all how He describes Himself to Moses. Passing over some of the nuances of the text, let me point out some of the most obvious aspects of God’s character toward His people:

First, He is merciful. God hereby describes Himself using a word that refers to Him being compassionate, with this word elsewhere in the Old Testament also translated as compassion and pity.[3] If your understanding of God does not include His tendency toward compassion with His people, then your understanding of God is simply wrong, misguided, erroneous, and ill-oriented.

Next, He is gracious. This is an adjective that is used to describe no one in the Old Testament other than God.[4] Only He is gracious, with graciousness always being God’s free gift.[5] No one is deserving of what God graciously provides. We who read the Bible are aware of the significance of grace as God’s unmerited favor and how important a concept it is in the New Testament. However, we sometimes understate the importance of grace as an aspect of God’s character in all His dealings with His people down through the ages.

Third, He is longsuffering. This word is also and more frequently translated slow to anger and slow to wrath. The actual Hebrew word means long but is usually used in such a context as to refer to being slow to change one’s attitude when wronged.[6] This is the opposite trait than of one who has an explosive temper and quickly flies off the handle in response to a perceived wrong. Moms and dads who erupt in fits of rage toward their kids implicitly teach that God is the opposite of what He declares Himself to be, which in reality is longsuffering, or one who is slow to anger.

Fourth, He is abundant in goodness. This phrase is described in the Hebrew lexicons as abounding in steadfast love and also as abounding in lovingkindness.[7] With such a character as this, it is no surprise that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, or that God is love.[8]

Fifth, God, is abundant in truth. Although the phrase is translated “abundant in truth” in this verse, we observe that it is far more frequently translated as faithful and believed elsewhere in the Old Testament.[9] Of course, since God is abundant in truth He would, therefore, be both faithful and believable. Is it not therefore expected that God’s children would reflect this aspect of His character by being faithful and believable ourselves, and abundant in truth?

Sixth, keeping mercy for thousands. This phrase seems to be a doubling down of the first portion of the phrase ending verse 6, “and abundant in goodness and truth.” The difference in this phrase is “keeping mercy” rather than being “abundant in goodness.” The purpose seems to be that God is strongly emphasizing this aspect of His divine character. He is driving this point home.

Finally, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. The topic of sin in the Bible is not a simple matter. The issues related to sin range from the rebellious deeds of an individual to an antagonist nature that is ever-inclined against God, to matters of guilt, and also taking in one’s worthiness of punishment not only for deeds but also for attitudes and nature. With this phrase, however, God addresses iniquity, transgression, and sin by means of His forgiveness, the word here meaning to take away or to carry off.[10] I would have expected to find the Hebrew word for atonement here, referring to the covering of sin and concealing it from God’s sight. However, this revelation of God’s character looks beyond the atoning sacrifices called for in the Law of Moses to the remission of sins that comes from the shed blood of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Are you surprised that such a description of God uttered by God Himself would be found in the Bible, particularly in the Old Testament? Especially, God so expressing Himself almost immediately after He had worked so many miracles to deliver His people from Egypt only to find them giving credit for their deliverance to an idol they watched Aaron fashion with gold they had given him? If you are surprised, you are not alone. It is in the nature of sinful men to misunderstand God. Precisely because of our race’s tendency to ascribe false attributes to God, as well as our race’s broken capacity to understand the virtues of God’s character, there is added to what God has said another, sobering, phrase.

 

Which Brings Us To GOD’S RETRIBUTIVE CHARACTER TOWARD THOSE WHO REFUSE TO REPENT

 

As willing to forgive as God declares Himself to be, with a character that is so wonderfully inclined by grace, mercy, slowness to anger, so abounding in steadfast love and lovingkindness, and being so abounding in truth as to be utterly believable and faithful, the sinful mind and heart can easily misread God’s character as being easy to take advantage of, as if God could be duped because of His sentimentality. However, the second half of Exodus 34.7 puts such wrong notions about God to rest:

 

“and that will by no means clear the guilty; visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”

 

There are two very sobering statements of truth to be found here:

First, “and that will by no means clear the guilty.” What does this phrase mean? It means that whatever was said leading up to this phrase; those wonderful descriptions of God’s character do not suggest or allow anyone to wrongly conclude that God will let the guilty go without punishment. As gracious and loving and merciful and slow to anger as God is, those attributes do not in any way rob God of His righteous demand that the guilty be punished. And if you are wondering how it is then possible for a sinner to be forgiven if guilt must be punished, then you have not taken into account the Lord Jesus Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice on the cross of Calvary, the Just for the unjust that He might bring us to God. Therefore, we must accept what we do not always understand, that God’s glorious attributes are complimentary and are never in conflict. Thus, grace and righteousness always harmonize in the perfect character of God. Because the guilty will not be cleared, it must be that to escape condemnation for iniquity and transgression and sin one must find forgiveness the only place forgiveness can be found, in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God.

Which brings me to the second sobering statement:

 

“visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s children, unto the third and to the fourth generation.”

 

This statement is very much like that found in the Ten Commandments recorded in Exodus 20.5, where God said,

 

“Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them: for I the LORD thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.”

 

These two statements are wrongly understood by some to mean that God will punish children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren for what their fathers and mothers do. However, these are not declarations of God’s intentions, but declarations of known consequences. In both places, God is declaring what will happen to the descendants of those who commit sins that remain unforgiven. I wish I could persuade fathers and mothers who do not honor God to consider the consequences of their actions in the lives of their children, their grandchildren, and their great-grandchildren. Send them to church on Sundays while you sleep in if you want, but what does God’s Word say will happen for generations following? As merciful, as gracious, and as loving and willing to forgive as God declares Himself to be, do not be so ignorant or naive of His nature so as to wrongly conclude that He will either clear the guilty or that He will so alter the tendencies of children to follow the real leadership of their parents that for generations to come their sinful impact will be felt. “Well, my approach, you see, is to let each one of my kids decide for himself.” Sounds good, unless you engage your brain and reflect on the fact that children are not only sinful by nature but also inclined to embrace the lifestyles of their parents. Therefore, they are born inclined to do wrong, and with a bad example from their parents, the problem is so intensified that the myth of spiritual neutrality and children deciding for themselves will prove to be spiritually deadly.

 

Every one of us will bear our own burden. Each of us is accountable to God for our own life. However, such is the role of mothers and fathers in the lives of their children that their offspring embraces the values and attitudes of their parents, for the most part, rather than refusing them. All the more when the example of their parents aligns with sinful tendencies they already possess. Thus, the mother and the father who wants nothing to do with God is by their actions denying that God is merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, and keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin. As well, since children generally ascribe to their parents good motives, they cannot imagine what consequences for generations will be felt as a result of decisions made by their mother and father. Reflect well on this declaration of God’s character to Moses atop Mount Sinai. God is so very good. His blessings in the lives of those who respond to His goodness and truth are beyond calculation. However, on the other side of the equation, there are those whose rebellion is unchecked, whose sins remain unforgiven. They not only answer to God for their sins, iniquities, and transgressions, but they establish a misguided pattern their own children and following generations will pursue.

Therefore, beloved, take God at His Word. Pay attention to how He describes Himself. And show others the consequences of rejecting God in their own lives. After all, they affect others to come after them in ways they likely give no thought to. It will be a sad Judgment Day for fathers and mothers standing before the Great White Throne to observe that standing behind them in line and awaiting judgment are their own children, who dutifully and without much thought followed the examples of their loving parents.

__________

[1] Exodus 24.12; 31.18; 32.15-19, 35

[2] Exodus 33.18

[3] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver & Charles A. Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew And English Lexicon, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), page 933.

[4] Ibid., page 337.

[5] Gerhard Kittel, Editor, Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, Vol IX, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1974), page 378.

[6] Brown, page 74.

[7] Brown, page 339 and John Joseph Owens, Analytical Key to the Old Testament, Volume 1, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1990), page 392.

[8] John 3.16; 1 John 4.8, 16

[9] Brown, page 54.

[10] Brown, page 671.

Would you like to contact Dr. Waldrip about this sermon? Please contact him by clicking on the link below. Please do not change the subject within your email message. Thank you.

pastor@calvaryroadbaptist.org